Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Miles to Little Ridge" by Heath Lowrance

David Cranmer’s series characters Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, two US Marshals doling out justice the old west, have taken on a life of their own. Socially conscious and historically revisionist, the Laramie/Miles stories merge a sensitivity to human rights issues with the time honored tradition of pulp western action. In addition to Cranmer, several writers have taken Laramie and/or Miles out for a spin, one of them being a long-time favorite here at Pulp Serenade, Heath Lowrance (who I interviewed here). Lowrance has a new Gideon Miles novella, The Axeman of Storyville, which I’m very excited to read. In honor of its release, I decided to revisit his first Gideon Miles story, Miles to Little Ridge.

Gideon Miles, a black US Marshal, finds himself in a sleepy Montana town on assignment to bring back a man for trial. The man, it turns out, is a respected widower looking after his daughter. The sheriff, who doesn’t try to hide his racist leanings, refuses to help Miles. Meanwhile, an outlaw Miles crossed paths with years before recognizes him and is bloodthirsty for revenge. With three parties against him, Miles has his hands full as he tries to complete his mission.

A nasty sheriff whose racism takes precedence over even the law, a fugitive with a pitchfork and a family protect, and an axe-wielding Swede whose partner-in-crime has his own secrets he’s afraid to let out—Lowrance populates his book with realistic characters of both thought and action. Their motivations propel the story forward, giving it both momentum, impact, and conviction. Even within the space of a short novelette, it is evident that Lowrance is a dynamic storyteller with great feelings for both people and action. He's a damn fine Western writer.

Overall, it’s a top-notch story from a writer who continues to impress. If you haven’t already, check out his debut novel, The Bastard Hand, a dark dose of psychotic crime fiction. 

Thanks to Beat to a Pulp press for keeping the Western alive!

Friday, April 25, 2014

"One for Hell" by Jada M. Davis

Whoever said stories must have a likable protagonist clearly never read One for Hell. Or maybe no one ever bothered to tell that piece of so-called wisdom to the book’s author, Jada M. Davis. Or, more likely, Davis just decided that the old rules weren’t for him, and he was going to break them all. And how he did.

Originally published in 1952 on Fawcett’s short-lived Red Seal imprint, and now available from Stark House Press, One for Hell is one of the most astonishing crime novels I’ve ever read. Simply put, it’s in a class all its own. It is like Hammett’s Red Harvest told from the inside out—you’re on the wrong side of the law every step of the way, and there’s no Continental Op to set things right.

Like a one-man plague, Willa Ree rides into a sleepy Texas town and quickly turns it into a hotbed of crime, vice, and corruption. Beginning with petty thievery, he maneuvers himself into the local police force and spends more time breaking laws than enforcing them. The local government originally sees Willa as a patsy, just another cog in their wheel of graft. Once he has the badge, however, Willa reveals that he has grand criminal ambitions of his own, and they threaten to blow the whole town sky high and expose everyone involved.

Like Peter Rabe’s Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep, there’s something almost clinical about the way that Davis details the mechanics of the crime syndicate inner-workings. There’s no romantic subplot, no false notes of redemption, no attempt to soften the characters and make them likable. It’s as close to anthropology as it is to noir. But whereas Rabe was deeply concerned about psychology, Davis is more concerned with the behavior of his characters and the mechanics of their operation. Davis, prior to writing One for Hell, worked as a journalist in a town similar to the one he was writing about, and he had first-hand experience with corrupt law officials and small city vice. He knew what he was writing about, and it shows in his work. Davis writes with cold-blooded, matter-of-fact precision, and every step of Willa Ree’s crime spree rings unsettlingly authentic.

From bitter beginning to bitter end, this is hard-lived hardboiled.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Borderline" by Lawrence Block

Hard Case Crime has done it again. Borderline, an obscure title from Lawrence Block's enormous and ever-growing body of work, is more than just a rare curio—it's a shocking novel from a then twenty-three year old writer. Shocking not only for its risqué content, but also for its maturity and excellence from such a young novelist.

Borderline is about five strangers whose fates explode in a headfirst collision one debauched—and deadly—weekend on the border between El Paso and Juarez. There's the cocksure gambler, looking for a sucker to fleece of his money and pride. There's the female hitchhiker, broke and willing to do anything—with anyone—to get to New York. There's the party girl who's always up to turn a trick, but is looking for a more lasting connection. There's the divorcee looking to rebound from a stale, vanilla marriage with one weekend of unrestrained desire. And there's the serial killer, on the run from the law, but who loves the rush so much he's willing to risk capture again and again in order to get a better high.

Borderline is a fiery example of the burning intensity that fuels Lawrence Block's early writing. Originally published by Nightstand in December 1961 under the title Border Lust, the hallmarks of Block's inimitable style are already present in this early work: an edgy story pulsing with sex and violence; his wry sense of humor; a sobering sense of devastation; and all-around expertly crafted prose. Like an orgiastic cousin to John D. MacDonald's multi-lane car crash novel, Cry Hard, Cry Fast, Block nimbly moves between his ensemble cast of characters. It's a tense pleasure to witness the way he maneuvers their disparate trajectories across the two cities, building suspense until the inevitable moment when all the stories come crashing together.

Fans of Robert Bloch's The Scarf and Fredric Brown's The Lenient Beast and Knock Three-One-Two will take great pleasure in reading the killer's chapters in Borderline. Channeling the spirit and style of his forerunners, blending both glee and dread as he details the psycho's hunt for victims, Block revels in excess to the point of revulsion. But this seems to be the point—the killer is a nasty, brutal, sick-minded person. It's something that Jim Thompson understood well. Block's strength is in his characters and their unflinching, and often unlikable, authenticity. The only character in Borderline that is remotely sympathetic is the divorcee, and that's because she has no pretentions about what she is doing, and because she is the only one not out to harm anyone else. All the other characters are taking advantage of someone somehow. The divorcee is the only one looking for pure pleasure, and not at anyone else's expense, and her frankness and honesty is something that Block clearly admires.

One of the remarkable elements about Borderline, one that raises it above the general level of sleazy fun that Nightstand was publishing, is its subversive intelligence. Readers looking for sex and violence will find plenty in this book—but what starts out as vulgarity soon takes a more serious turn. When one of the characters reads a newspaper article detailing a grisly rape and murder, she is offended by the article's refusal to use the word "rape," and how lightly it takes the crime.

"[The newspaper] said, in a masterpiece of understatement, that the murder victim had been criminally attacked.

"Now wasn't that something? A bizarre euphemism, she thought. Burn a girl's breasts, slash her to ribbons, shear off her fingers and toes, and you have to give her a medical examination to tell that she's been criminally attacked. Say rape, for Christ's sake and to hell with euphemisms. The poor girl had been criminally attacked, all right, whether she was raped or not. How criminal could you get?"

This sort of sensitivity to rape culture is certainly unusual in a sleaze novel (of all places), and it speaks to a distinguishing characteristic of Block's prose throughout his career, which is the real wreckage and human toll of violence. Block's always had a sense of humor (sometimes a wicked one), and he's never been one to preach morality, but his lightness of touch is frequently matched by a sobering depth and maturity that makes his work all the more stirring and affecting to read.

This new Hard Case Crime edition includes three early Block short stories, written around the time of Borderline. The first of them, "The Burning Fury" (Off Beat Detective Stories, February 1959), is the closest in town to Borderline--it's also the most disturbing and, for my money, the best. It's 9 pages of unrestrained nastiness as a man gets drunk and rapes a woman. The destruction and barbarity caused by alcohol has been a running theme through Block's work to this day (see his excellent novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff). It's a shocking story that confronts you with the viciousness of its crime—no punches are pulled in this one, and it might not be for everyone. The next story, "A Fire at Night" (Manhunt, June 1958), is a clever quickie about a pyromaniac watching as firefighters struggle against his latest fiery creation. The final story, "Stag Party Girl" (Man's Magazine, February 1963), is a private eye novelette in which a man is accused of murdering the stripper at his bachelor party, who just happened to be an ex-girlfriend threatening to blackmail him. Here we see a side of Block that will be more familiar to Scudder fans—more intricate plotting and a detection-based narrative. At this point, what else can I say except it's an excellent story, up to Block's high standard.

Hard Case is approaching their 10th anniversary and, coincidentally (or not), their very first book in September 2004 was also by Lawrence Block, the excellent con artist novel Grifter's Game. Here's to another 10 years of great crime fiction with Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block!

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