Friday, January 27, 2012

"Hell and Gone" by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland Bokos, 2011)

 “This was a new low. Hardie’s new life was smaller and more pathetic than he ever thought possible.”

When we last saw Charlie Hardie, the ex-cop-turned-house-sitter from Fun & Games, he was having a really bad day. After arriving in the Hollywood hills to look after a house, he stumbled into an assassination attempt by “The Accident People” on has-been action actress Lane Madden and wound up on their hit list, as well. By the end of the book, Hardie was wanted by the cops for murder, and leaking blood all over the place. It didn’t seem that things could get any worse for him…but this is Duane Swierczynski we are talking about, and that dude thankfully has a limitless imagination for madness, mayhem, and dismemberment.

As soon as I opened Hell & Gone, I knew I was going to enjoy this. Who else but Swierczynski would preface a book with quotes from both Dante (in the original Italian) and Frank Stallone? It’s emblematic of the way he merges high and low culture in a dizzying, magical, and totally bonkers crime story.

(Side note: I’ve also been known to sporadically quote Frank Stallone. So, Duane, you are not alone.)

In Hell & Gone, Hardie wakes up in one of the worst places imaginable: a secret, underground detention center. Even worse: he’s the new warden. As he surveys his new surroundings, things just don’t add up. There are only four prisoners, all of whom are forced to wear masks; the guards seem more demented and violent than the prisoners; Hardie’s only communication with the outside world is to a nameless, faceless voice that comes through his headset; and the only possible exit supposedly sets off a death device that will blow-up the entire facility. Who can Hardie trust, how can he escape, why is he in charge, and—most importantly—what the hell is going on?

Once again, Swierczynski manages to top his pervious work, which isn’t an easy feat, considering the awesomeness of books like The Wheelman, Severance Package, Expiration Date, and Fun & Games. But with Hell & Gone, Swierczynski doesn’t just up the antics or the violence—actually, it’s less gory than some of his earlier work. Instead, he challenges himself to go in the opposite direction of his previous books. Whereas Fun & Games was his most epic canvas of action yet, in Hell & Gone Swierczynski takes a more minimalist approach, setting nearly the entire book in the underground prison. The location may be limited to only a few rooms, and the cast to only a few characters, but Swierczynski’s imagination is on hyperdrive, and he’s never at a loss for new ways to explore the space or to pit the characters against one another.

One of the things I like most about Swierczynski’s writing is that, even with all the action and joking going on, there’s still room for some good old fashioned philosophical inquires, like this:

“Was that something in his lizard brain, the lizard brains of all men, dating back to the dawn of time? Did prehistoric men wake up and realize how alone they were, how tenuously they clung to life, how everything they knew and loved could be snatched away from them by a smiling predator, teeth gleaming?”

Also, no matter how far-fetched and fantastic the plot becomes, the characters never lose their average-joe mentality. Even the arch villains seem like someone you’d run into at the slushie machine at 7-11.

“You do realize this is a prison, Warden? Maximum security and all that. Do you think the designers of this place would leave anything to chance, and let some prisoner shimmy up a vent or something? Do you think the designers of this place haven’t seen Star Wars?”

Hell & Gone is another homerun for Philadelphia’s mad hatter of crime fiction. And judging by his track record thus far, Point & Shoot—the third and final entry in the Charlie Hardie series—is going to be even better. I can’t friggin’ wait to see what the twisted imagination of Duane Swierczynski has in store for readers next.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

LARB on Paul Cain

"Somebody always takes it about as far as it’ll go, and no one took the hard-boiled farther than Paul Cain. Cain’s entire contribution to the genre — a slim novel and 14 stories, some of which haven’t seen print since the 1930s — is now available as The Complete Slayers from Centipede Press."

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Noir Editor Boris Dralyuk discusses the career of Paul Cain, one of my favorite hardboiled writers. Check it out!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Whisper His Sin" by Vin Packer (Gold Medal, 1954)

In Whisper His Sin, Vin Packer revisits the collegiate setting of her first novel, Spring Fire. Instead of following a young woman in an all-girls school, however, this time Packer writes about a young man in an all-boys school whose affair with his dormitory advisor leads to murder. But despite the similar setting and central relationship, Whisper His Sin is, in my opinion, even better than Spring Fire. Daring and innovatively structured, the novel is as beautiful as it is bleak. Each chapter begins with a snippet from a newspaper account of the crime, or an interview with someone who knew the boys, casting a mist of inevitable dread over every page. Even when things seem to be going so right for the boys, from the very first page we know just how badly things will end for them.

Whisper His Sin is loosely based on the real life Fredan-Wepman murder case, which was still a recent headline when the book came out. In this fictionalized version, the main character is Ferris Sullivan. When he was younger, Ferris was expelled from school for having relations with another boy. Since then, his mother has tried to make him “normal,” and to turn him away from poetry and fine clothes; his father, on the other hand, has just ignored him. Sent away to college, Ferris was hoping to find acceptance. Instead, he wound up sharing a dorm room with a bullying jazz-head and a muscle builder, neither of whom have any tolerance for their new roommate. Ferris’ only ally is the senior dorm advisor, Paul Lasher, whose attentions shelter Ferris as much as they single him out and bring him more shame.

On Christmas break, however, Paul introduces Ferris to a side of New York he had never seen before, and for the first time Ferris finds himself surrounded by other gay young men like himself. Happiness is short lived, however, as a bully from their past forces a confrontation that threatens to oust Ferris and Paul’s relationship, which would not only cause a school scandal, but bring both of their personal lives crashing down. And now that they’ve tasted just how sweet life can be, the lovers would give anything—or do anything—to keep their secret safe, and to stay together.

It is emblematic of Packer that her sympathy lies with the pariahs and the outsiders, those who live shadowy lives pretending to be someone else in order to survive. In this case, they are also murderers. Packer doesn’t pass judgment on her characters or their actions. She’s more interested in exploring how social oppression and sexual repression affect a person’s mental and emotional state.

Vin Packer’s books, when looked at as a whole, are like an alternate history of the 1950s. It was a decade that we now associate with conformity, but she was looking behind the curtains, exploring characters whom society wanted to forget about, those people who didn’t conform to the norm and strived to be individuals in a world that wouldn’t let them be who they wanted to be. As Ferris’ mother tells her son, “A man who can’t walk with other men, and walk like other men, is a misfit, and a misfit is never happy! Not ever!” A palpable fear of being different runs through many of Packer’s novels, and it is clearly pronounced in Whisper His Sin. Some six decades later, society has a come a long way, but we’re still facing a lot of the same issues, and it’s remarkable to look back and see someone writing so pointedly and honestly about these issues—and, most remarkably, getting them printed. Packer’s Gold Medal books are priceless gems of subversion and social commentary, and Whisper His Sin is a marvelous example of not only her politics and sympathy, but also her meticulous craft.

Gold Medal wanted to capitalize on the topicality of the story—the front cover even advertises, “How a strange and twilight love lighted the way to frenzied murder.” (Oddly enough, the front cover shows a man and woman—perhaps showing two men together might have been too racy?) Packer, however, is not interested in exploitation. She is, at heart, a humanist, concerned with getting into the hearts and minds of her characters, understanding them as real people, unlike the world that sees them only as miscreants and aberrations.

Though the plot might not seem like something out of Woolrich or Goodis, Packer’s characters share a similar mournfulness and despair, and they’d be at home in any of those more classic noir novels.

“Hope was dried up in him, leaving a vacancy he could fill with no other emotion. Not hate, not pity, certainly not love—not even fear. Only envy now, a thin thread of it, for the simplicity of the people around him, for what he was sure they had. Dull, uncomplicated lives, minds that did not have to think, and the ability to sleep.”

Packer also goes to lengths to show that her characters, while not justified in their actions, acted out of human fear and desperation.

“Should I live my life out in a state of abject misery and loneliness, just so strangers who don’t give a hoot about me won’t talk about me? Is that a life?”

And while much of the world considered their homosexuality a sign of mental illness, Packer made it clear that her characters were not insane, weird, or otherwise mentally disturbed.

“Lasher half fought the memory because of an insidious fear that there was something sick about him and Sullivan together like that. He had never been really innocent, he reflected. Sentimental, self-pitying, yes. Soft, and by nature more than a little depraved. But not ever diseased, or deranged to the point of despising innocence, to embrace despair.”

Another of Packer’s recurring themes is that her characters—pariahs, forsaken, and murderers alike—aren’t so abnormal and atypical as one would like to think. They’re in every big city, every small town, every school, and every home. In a way, Packer is able to sneak in an ounce of hope into her novel. Maybe one of her readers feels that he or she is different and that there’s no one out there like them, no one to understand them—as Packer’s novels show, they’re not alone, and that the problem isn’t with them so much as with a society that wouldn’t acknowledge or accept difference.

“I used to feel that way too. Then I shipped out a few times. My God, was I naïve! People all over the world are like me. No matter where I go, I’ll find my own kind. I’m not such a minority as I used to think!”

Vin Packer aired the dirty laundry of the 1950s, turned social norms inside out, and made private shames into public issues. There’s still something very refreshing about the honesty of her novels, and they hold up as not only insights into their time, but also well-crafted and entertaining crime novels.

Whisper His Sin is available from Stark House Press in a two-novel anthology that also includes The Evil Friendship.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Everybody's Somebody's Fool" by Ed Gorman (Carroll and Graf, 2002)

Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool, the fifth book in Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain series, is one of my favorites. It’s got one of the best mysteries—a young hotrod racer is accused of murdering the daughter of one of Black River Falls’ most elite families—as well as some of the most moving and tragic love stories. Even though he’s never fully gotten over being rejected by Pamela Forrest, or the pain he caused Mary Travers, Sam has tried to move on. In Save the Last Dance For Me, he started a relationship with a married journalist. Now, he’s seeing Linda Dennehy, a recently divorced nurse and cancer survivor. This is no easy lovey-dovey affair, and Linda’s scars are more than just skin-deep. Gorman gives real depth and pain to their love—Sam struggles to learn that there is more than just affection and commitment to love, while Linda has to wrap her young mind around a whole new vision of her life, her body, and her future.

As the McCain series progresses and Sam himself gets older, there’s an increasing sense of mortality to the books. Wounds from previous stories still linger, and not all things heal with time. It is interesting to compare the parallels between the mystery plot and the love story in Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool. Both are filled with bodily pain, torture, and death—on the one hand, you have the snake ritual, numerous fights, and even murders, and on the other you have Linda’s cancer, which eats away at her from the inside out, the surgery which mutates her body, and the knowledge that it will eventually take her life. Gorman is never one to take suffering lightly, and while the Muldaur-scenario is certainly thrilling, it is Linda’s story that is the most haunting, as well as frighteningly realistic. Gorman reminds us that the biggest mysteries in life aren’t about who killed who, but deeper questions about our own daily lives and loves, and that there are scarier things out there than people with guns.

Monday, January 23, 2012

"Hell, Hurt, Blood and Rapture" at Los Angeles Review of Books

My most recent post at the Los Angeles Review of Books is called, "Hell, Hurt, Blood and Rapture." Check it out for reviews of Jake Hinkson's Hell on Church Street (New Pulp Press), Reed Farrel Coleman's latest Moe Prager book, Hurt Machine (Tyrus Books), John Rector's Already Gone (Thomas & Mercer), Alan Glynn's Bloodland (Picador), and a Harry Whittington anthology from Stark House Press that includes Rapture Alley, Winter Girl, and Strictly For the Boys.

Read the full article here.

Excerpts below:

Hell on Church Street is one of the rare novels that actually deserves the over-used comparison to Jim Thompson, not just because Webb follows in the footsteps of such crazed protagonists as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey (Pop. 1280), but because Hinkson takes a risk and deviates from Thompson’s iconic moulds.

Rector writes hardboiled noir with a rare poetic élan, tight, almost violently compressed action, and reticent melancholy... He’s already proven himself among the freshest and most stylistically austere voices working in the thriller field. In fact, labeling his books “thrillers” feels too limiting. There’s a tonal ambience and doleful vibe that permeates his work, which comes as a surprise, considering how action-packed and tense his narratives tend to be. Acutely visual, Already Gone pulses with cinematic urgency and visceral punch.

Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager saga, about a Brooklyn ex-cop turned reluctant wine merchant and occasional PI, is that rare series that improves with each new entry. Coleman is now up to the seventh book, Hurt Machine, and it’s not only the best one yet but also the darkest... Coleman’s novels, like Ed Gorman’s, impress not with distractingly complex plots (though they’re both certainly capable of spinning real page-turners) but with their profound clarity and expert simplicity. Coleman’s characters don’t need grand schemes or million dollar payoffs as motivations: as Moe too frequently discovers, there’s enough potential for lifetimes of pain in our everyday lives.

Alan Glynn’s Bloodland, a loosely related follow-up to 2009’s Winterland, is a stunningly intricate and timely piece of globalization noir... In its depiction of immoral business practices and the increasingly blurred lines between criminals and politicians, Bloodland is like an amped-up 21st-century version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. From the exploitation of human labor through umpteen middlemen to who-knows-where, Bloodland captures the fragmentary and alienating mechanism of international affairs with prismatic clarity.

The real prize of the anthology, however, is Strictly For the Boys, originally published in 1959, and the only one of the three to bear Whittington’s own name. The story is about a battered wife attempting to flee an abusive husband who refuses to let her, her mother, and her new boyfriend alone. Downright disturbing in its realism and sobering depiction of domestic violence, Strictly For the Boys displays a social consciousness that was prescient for its time, and which continues to be relevant today... Editor and scholar David Laurence Wilson deserves special commendation for his tireless efforts to restore Whittington’s reputation (and, in the case of Winter Girl, to restore the text itself). Wilson and Stark House publisher Greg Shepard give their books scholarly attention on par with the Library of America. Meticulously researched and lovingly edited, Stark House presents these forgotten paperback novels not as pulp curios, but as real literature, and set the bar high for other reprint series.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Save the Last Dance for Me" by Ed Gorman (Carroll and Graf, 2002)

Black River Falls is the stage for a religious war in Ed Gorman’s fourth Sam McCain mystery, Save the Last Dance For Me. John Muldaur runs a radical church on the edge of town that is stirring up controversy because of their extreme views and use of rattlesnakes during ceremonies. Muldaur thinks someone is trying to kill him, so he hires lawyer and sometimes-PI Sam McCain to find out who. When McCain and reporter Kylie Burke take a trip to see the rattlesnake services in person, they get more than they bargained for when Muldaur collapses dead in the middle of his sermon. Finding the killer, however, proves difficult when McCain realizes that someone in town was secretly financing Muldaur’s church, and they’d do anything to prevent the truth from coming out. With Judge Whitney’s good friend Senator Richard Nixon paying a visit in just a few days, it is up to McCain to clean up this mess as soon as possible.

Save the Last Dance For Me is important in the McCain series for a couple of reasons. First, because it introduces one of my favorite characters: Kenny Thibodeau, the local paperback sleaze writer. Kenny dresses like a beatnik to look the part of a writer, and he does hackwork to pay the bills, but Sam recognizes that he’s got not only got real literary talent but also a great eye for humanity, both of which pop up now and then in his lesbian-themed novels.

Another reason it is important is Sam’s relationship with Kylie. After finding himself caught between Pamela Forrest (he would-be lover) and Mary Travers (his should-be lover), he’s decided to move on and try to start a new relationship. The problem this time, however, is that Kylie is married. Her husband is a wannabe writer compared to Kenny, someone who goes to grad school and talks fancy and walks the walk but can’t produce anything worth while. He also treats Kylie like dirt. And there is Sam, who once again is trapped in a relationship that is doomed from the start. But we feel for him, especially because he does really care for Kylie. The tragedy is that he understands all too well what it means to hold on to a fantasy, and to give up everything to try and make a relationship work even when you know it is futile. Gorman’s books are filled with damned sad truths that we’ve all suffered in our own lives. Touches like these make the books come to life.

It might not seem obvious to call Gorman a stylist, but when you look at some of his paragraphs and sentences, there’s remarkable a subtlety, clarity, and precision to his prose. It’s style without bombast or distraction. These are some of my favorite lines from the book. The first passage, in particular, hits home—Sam and I are about the same age, so it is easy for me to identify with a lot of his thoughts and problems.

“And then at the grocery store last Saturday, everybody crowded in there buying potato chips and beer and Canada Dry mixes for highballs. I saw a lot of the kids I’d graduated with from high school. And they all had wives and kids in tow. And looked happy. And grown up. And I thought of what a mess my life was and how in a lot of ways I was still a kid and sometimes that was all right but other times it made me ashamed of myself. Maybe I’d never be Robert Ryan but at least I could be an adult like my dad. He had to quit school when he was in tenth grade to help support his family. I guess that grows you up pretty fast.”

“Sometimes, it feels sorta good to be sad. You know what I mean? But most of the time it just feels like shit to be sad. Could you turn up that song? I love it.”

“Judging by the entertainment shows on the tube, everything was just okey-dokey here in the land of Lincoln. But we knew better, didn’t we?”

“But you know something, it was quite likely that both portraits were true. We’re heroes or villains depending on who’s talking.”

The McCain series keeps getting better and better. Up next: Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"The Gallows Land" by Bill Pronzini (1983)

“I could understand now why my father had always called this kind of country ‘the gallows land’; unless you met it with strength and on its own terms, the way settlers like the ones below had to have done, it would kill you just as sure as a hangman’s rope.”

From the title alone you get a good sense of what Bill Pronzini’s The Gallows Land is going to be like. This is Western Noir par excellence. More than just hazardous landscapes and ruthless denizens, The Gallows Lands captures a haunting sense of desperation and desolation that is central to the genre. These characters are all trying to escape a past that, like a persistent ghost, refuses to abate.

The Gallows Land was originally published by Walker & Co. in 1983, and the copy I read was the 2001 Berkley paperback reprint.

Roy Boone brought his wife to the West start their life anew, and wound up leading her to her death. Not at the hands of Indians or scheming villains, but at their own. She worked herself to death—a weak heart and a persistent spirit lead her to an early grave because—and Roy blames himself. Selling everything he owns, he takes to the road—in search, once again, of a new beginning. Along the way, he meets Jennifer Todd, a battered wife who longs for an escape from her abusive husband. When Roy tries to intervene, he and Jennifer soon find themselves on the run from a mysterious posse that will stop at nothing to stop them from leaving.

The Gallows Land strips the Western of romantic ideals and false advertising. Pronzini reminds what it means for the land to be harsh, for water to be scarce, for the soil to be stubborn—it means life or death, something overlooked in many Westerns. Pronzini also gives the Western landscape a psychological dimension that reminds me of Clifton Adams’ The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado—the sense that, despite the size of the West, you can’t escape anything. There’s a caged panic to Roy and Jennifer’s flight in The Gallows Land. They can’t outrun the posse, they can’t outrun each other—and they certainly can’t outrun their past.

Pronzini isn’t just concerned with mythology, however. The central issue in The Gallows Land is domestic abuse. There’s a social and moral dimension to Pronzini’s West that anticipates Ed Gorman’s Guild books, as well as Edward A. Grainer’s Gideon Miles and Cash Laramie series. The violence suffered by Jennifer Todd is frighteningly real. Pronzini wants readers to forget about the romance of showdowns at noon or gun fights on the range and to concentrate on the basics of violence, of one hand striking someone’s face, of what those bruises signify, and terror of what is means for someone to not be able to escape.

For Pronzini, the West isn’t a mythical source of regeneration, it’s a place where our darkest elements are unmasked, and where the human threat is as naked and merciless as the landscape. If you like hard-hitting Westerns that mix action with melancholy, then pick up The Gallows Land.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Sleep came hard. To keep form fretting about Jennifer Todd and my brush with death, I tried to think about the future, about finding a new life somewhere, in California or in the Northwest; settling down again, on land that grew tall, green grass and shade trees instead of hardscrabble vegetation and poor graze; maybe even writing again—dime novels, or something better. But there was no comfort now in any of that. Trying to mold an image of the future was nigh impossible when the present was unsettled and the past filled me with such pain and yearning. Most of my dreams had already been shattered, and the ones that were left seemed empty and insubstantial. They held no more real promise than that powdery soil Emma and I had tried so long to farm.”

“The heroes never seem to have real feelings, do they? Or lives like the rest of us—families, problems, dreams?”

“Killing came easy to some, but not to me; each time I had been forced to kill a man during the war, a small portion of me had died, too, and it was the same this time. It made no difference that it had been done in self-defense. Life was too precious to me, especially now, after losing Emma, to take it from someone—even an outlaw—without a feeling of sadness and remorse.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" by Ed Gorman (Carroll and Graf, 2000)

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is the third of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain mysteries. This one is set in 1959, and the Cold War has hit Black River Falls. Anti-Communist sympathies are high when a local professor, Richard Conners—already under fire for his leftist sympathies—turns up dead. McCain has his hands full as he tries to unravel this political conspiracy that has upended Black River Falls.

The titles of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain books all come from song titles that were popular when the books were set. But they do more than just set the time and mood – there are important thematic elements that are specific to each story. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? captures the fleeting and impermanent sense of love, and the fear of abandonment and betrayal, felt by the characters in the book. They're so worried about winding up alone that the steps they take for physical comfort leave them at emotionally and psychologically estranged. They all make compromises, and as the McCain series progresses we see the characters start to realize the consequences of their decisions--sometimes it is just depression, sometimes infidelity, sometimes worse. Gorman’s books always have page-turning mystery plots, but it is the interpersonal relationships that always draw me in the most—especially in this book. There’s nothing idealistic about relationships in Gorman’s books—they’re as flawed, imperfect, and screwed up as the people involved. They’re also relatable as hell, too.

One of the things I like about Sam is his growing sense of self-awareness, especially when it comes to his relationships with Pamela Forrest (his long-time crush who is in love with a married man) and Mary Travers (the “nice girl” who loves him but whom he doesn’t love back). It’s incredibly revealing about his character that he can see exactly what is going on—and what is (and is not) going to happen—and still not change his ways. He knows the pain he is causing himself and Mary, but he won’t do “the right thing”—perhaps, because as this paragraph shows, there is no easy “right thing” to do.

“Aw, hell, I do feel sorry for him. You marry somebody and you have the right to expect them to love you to the same degree, or at least not to have anybody else in their heart. But she loves me and I love Pamela, though I love Mary too in some inexplicable way. It’s sexual—she really is a quietly sexual girl—but there’s something so fundamentally good about her that sometimes I can just stand there and watch her and feel this horny sorrow and respect lash me to her. Then I can’t keep my hands off her. Which is why I stay away. I’ve hurt her too much already. I don’t owe it to her to love her—anymore than Pamela owes it to me to love me—but I have an obligation not to deceive her.”

Overall, another strong entry in the Sam McCain series. Up next: Save The Last Dance For Me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Wake Up Little Susie" by Ed Gorman (Carroll and Graf, 1999)

Wake Up Little Susie, the second of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain books, has just been released as an eBook for Kindle. It is set in 1957, one year before the first book in the series, The Day the Music Died.

The novel opens with the unveiling of Ford’s latest creation, the Edsel. Susan Squires, the wife of District Attorney David Squires, is found dead in the trunk of one of the cars. The local chief of police, Cliffie, suspects the murderer is Mike Chalmers, whom the DA sent to prison many years ago. Of course, Judge Whitney asks Sam McCain to do some investigating of his own. Assisting Sam this time is Mary Travers, a close friend of Susan’s, and Sam’s should-be lover. Mary’s been in love with Sam since they were kids, but Sam has always been more in love with Pamela Forrest who, of course, is not in love with Sam. Working close together, Sam starts to wonder if maybe was wrong about Mary all these years. When Mary suddenly goes missing, however, Sam realizes there might be more to the case—and his feelings—than he realized.

Readers of Pulp Serenade know that I’m a big fan of Gorman’s novels, and his Sam McCain books are some of my favorites. Wake Up Susie has all the hallmarks of his best writing – a compelling mystery, great period detail, a tender but tragic romance, nice laughs, and keen social observations. The book also has several remarkable paragraphs I wanted to share.

“The sky was darker now, stains of mauve and gold and amber, a few thunderheads brilliantly outlined with the last of the day’s sunlight. There’s a loneliness to Saturday night, at least for me, that no amount of noise and movement can ever assuage. There’re a lot of popular songs about Saturday night, about how you live all week for it to roll around so you can go out and have yourself a ball. But deep down you know it’ll never be quite as exciting as you want it to be, need it to be, and the lonesomeness will never quite go away. I think my mom used to feel this when my dad was in Europe during the war. She’d kind of fix herself up on Saturday night and then sit in the living room by herself with her one highball in her hand and a Chesterfield in her fingers. Even when she’d laugh at the radio jokes there’d be a lonesomeness in her eyes that made me sad for her and scared for my dad. But we were lucky. Dad came home.”

This first one is just downright beautiful writing. There’s a real sense of movement to the paragraph, and it could work as a stand-alone story, or even a prose poem. The image of the mother alone by the radio is a powerful one. Despite its simplicity, it evokes such deep feelings. And that last line – just three words, but man, they pack a punch. The words Gorman uses are just as important as the ones he does not, and there’s a lot being said in between the lines. Somehow, he seems to capture the experiences of a whole generation in just a few sentences.

This next paragraph starts out as an astute piece of criticism about John D. MacDonald, and ends up as a strong and insightful comment on the nature of literature and what it means to our own lives. And everything Gorman says about MacDonald’s writing I’d say goes for his own, as well. I’m not sure if that was Gorman’s intention or not, but he sums up exactly why I love reading his own books so much.

“There are no heroes in John D. novels, and that’s probably why I like them. Every once in a while his man will behave heroically, but that still doesn’t make him a hero. He has a lot of faults and he always realizes, at some point in every book, that he’s flawed and less than he wants to be. I think that’s why John D.’s books are so popular. Because we all know deep down we’re sort of jerks. Not all the time. But every once in a while we’re jerks and we have to face it and it’s never fun. You see how deeply you’ve hurt somebody, or how you were wrong about somebody, or how you let somebody down. But facing it makes you a better person. Because maybe next time you won’t be quite as petty or arrogant or cold. Good books are always moral, contrasting how we are with how we should be. And the good writer know how to do this without ever letting on.”

These last two passages capture Gorman’s uniquely sympathetic worldview that characterizes all of his novels. He’s a realist, seeing the best and worst in people, and like he said about John D. MacDonald, there are no easy heroes (or villains, for that matter).

“He was corrupt, violent, stupid, and yet he suffered. I’d seen him in the park holding her one day on his knee. I saw a tenderness and love I wish I hadn’t seen. Even bad guys have good sides. Sometimes that can get downright exasperating.”
 “Good men don’t go around murdering people. But sometimes bad people are good people too. Or good people can do bad things. Life is like that sometimes.”

Monday, January 16, 2012

"The Day the Music Died" by Ed Gorman (Carroll and Graf, 1999)

The Day the Music Died, the first book in Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain series, is now available as an eBook for Kindle. I’ve read seven of the nine books in the series, and they’re all really terrific. You can pick up the series at any point, but now that the first book is available again you might just want to start at the beginning, especially since it is so damn good and because it sets the tenor for the books to come.

The story is set in 1958 in small town Black River Falls, Iowa. Sam McCain is in his mid-20s, a recent law school graduate who pays the bills doing private eye work for Judge Esme Anne Whitney, who is charming and likable despite her class-centered elitism. Judge Whitney’s family comes from Eastern money, and they used to be the royal family of Black River Falls until Clifford Sykes struck it rich in manufacturing during World War II. Now the Sykes clan is in power, and the fat, dumb and ignorant “Cliffie” Sykes, Jr., is the police chief of Black River Falls. Whenever there is a crime, Judge Whitney asks Sam to investigate and prove that Cliffie arrested the wrong person.

The Day the Music Died also introduces Pamela Forrest—the girl Sam has loved since grade school and who doesn’t love him back—and Mary Travers—the girl who has loved Sam just as long, but whom he doesn’t love back.

I find it interesting how often the word “nostalgic” is used to describe this series. Gorman does a great job of evoking the time period, but the Sam McCain series doesn’t revel in daydreams of how good things used to be. This is no Happy Days or Dobie Gillis. These books reveal the dark underside of small town life—the latent hate, prejudice, and resentment that courses through our neighbors’ and family members’ veins. There’s nothing heavy handed about the way that Gorman approaches domestic violence, abortion, corruption, or police brutality—in fact, considering the serious nature of many of his topics, his subtlety is downright commendable. But there’s a greater sense of an innocence lost in these books, which is why it is so fitting that the first one is called The Day the Music Died. These aren’t coming of age stories, per se, but Sam is in his mid-20s, and he still has a lot to learn about himself and about life. Throughout the novels, he comes to realize the bitter, ugly truths about life. He also experiences some real beautiful things, too, tender moments between lovers, unexpected camaraderie and newfound understanding of his neighbors.

One of the things I like about Sam McCain is that he’s a Private Eye without all the romantic nonsense. There’s something very humorous and human about his personality, and he certainly defies the hardboiled clichés. This is one of my favorite passages from the book:
“I gripped my .45 harder, feeling self-conscious. You see so much gunplay on private eye TV shows that you think it feels natural to have a gun in your hand. But it doesn’t. You’re carrying such quick-and-easy death in your hand. There’s so much responsibility, and fear. At least for me.”

Sam, like many of Gorman’s protagonists, feels a devastating sympathy towards others. He recognizes their flaws, but also recognizes the unpleasant humanity in failing, in hurting others, in making life-shattering mistakes.
“A kind of sorrow came over me, one I hadn’t counted on driving out here. I’d always hated him and with good reason. But he’d been sad this morning, human-animal sad, a creature frenzied and forlorn and crazed, and he wouldn’t let me hate him anymore, the son of a bitch, no matter how much I might have wanted to.”
This two lines I love. They show the simplicity of Gorman’s style, and the richness and depth he is able to achieve with such clear prose.
“People do strange things when they’re hurt. I think we have to keep that in mind.”
“Maybe it’s just all the sadness I see in the people around me, just below the surface I mean, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do about it. Life is like that sometimes.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Stark's Justice" by James Reasoner (Pocket Books, 1994)

 Kilroy glanced around wide-eyed at the carnage. “You killed ‘em all!”

“Just most of them,” replied Stark.

Stark’s Justice, the first book in James Reasoner’s Judge Earl Stark series, is a superbly crafted revenge Western that would have made Harry Whittington proud. Reasoner alternates between moments of fiery hardboiled action and brooding noir introspection, striking a deft balance between the two sensibilities. Stark’s Justice a hard-hitting Western, for sure, one that is filled with shoot-em-up bar fights and a raucous finale that turns a small town into a raging battle site, but Reasoner never forgets the human toll and real suffering that lies behind the action.

The book begins with “Big Earl” Stark still riding shotgun for a stagecoach and studying law books at night. When the stage pulls into Buffalo Flats, however, Stark gets his chance to prove his legal knowledge at a public hearing, starting him on a new career as a lawyer. His mind may be on law, but his heart is set on Laura Delaney, a girl he had to leave behind. Now’s that he’s made good, he wants her to join him and get married. On her journey, however, her stagecoach is held up and she is killed. Grief stricken and burdened with the guilt that had he been riding shotgun this wouldn’t have happened, Stark puts aside his new career and takes to the trail for revenge. As he hunts for the outlaws, Stark struggles to reconcile his newfound respect for the law and his thirst for vengeance.

I’m a big fan of Reasoner’s books, both his Westerns and Noir/Mystery books, and here he combines the best of both worlds. Great sense of character, sweeping action, and a dark underside – I’d consider Stark’s Justice one of my favorite Reasoner books yet. This was followed by two more Judge Earl Stark books which I haven’t read yet, The Hawthorne Legacy and The Diablo Grant, and I’ve heard rumor there might be a fourth book coming sometime this year. I’m hoping that rumor is true!

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book. Between the flopping and the blood and the noises, this has a nice Spillane-tinge to it.
“From behind him came a hideous, strangled sound. He turned, gun still in hand, to see the outlaw called Lee Roy flopping around on the floor, trying with his fingers to stem the tide of blood from his bullet-torn throat.”
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