Friday, October 30, 2020

"Mrs. Homicide" by Day Keene (1953) (FFB)

Day Keene's books for Gold Medal and Lion are some of his most ambitious offerings—larger in scope, atmosphere, setting, plot, as well as experiments and deviations from his style. His books for Ace and Graphic were more blunt, straightforward, a little more crude, less polished, sometimes more graphic in their depictions of sex and violence. They're more repetitive, formulaic, recycled. In this sense, the Ace and Graphic books are somewhat more representative of Keene. His 1953 Ace paperback original, Mrs. Homicide, is a classic example of the author's style.

Connie Stone, wife of New York City Cop Herman Stone, wakes up naked in bed next to a dead man she claims to have never seen before. Witnesses, however, say they have seen her with the man, a blackmailer named Lyle Cary, at his apartment, as well as in bars around the city. Some of Herman's co-workers even saw them together. They tell him that all women are alike, and that he should get drunk, have a weekend fling, and forget about his wife. He tries that—but he wants to believe her, so he starts asking questions around town, from Greenwich Village to 52nd Street's Swing Alley. Just when he thinks he has found the answer, someone saps him on the head, and he wakes up next to a corpse. Just like his wife did. Now the cops are after him, and he knows that Connie was framed, but in order to prove her innocence he'll first have to prove his own.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

"Death March of the Dancing Dolls and Other Stories, Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #3" (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

Ramble House's Death March of the Dancing Dolls and Other Stories, Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #3 (2010) starts off with an introduction by the late Bill Crider, a superb writer and generous soul whose enthusiasm for old pulps and paperback novels was as infectious as it was enlightening. For me, this introduction had extra special meaning because Crider's blog posts were some of the earliest writings that I encountered about Keene. Reading his words brought a smile to my face, and recalled memories of reading about Keene on his fabulous blog.

Among the selections here are two stories with Keene's series character Doc Egg, a former pugilist who has hung up his gloves in order to open a Times Square pharmacy. From his counter at the Crossroads of the World, Doc crosses paths with plenty of characters, and invariably plenty of mysteries cross his path that he is compelled to solve, either to save his own hide or to help the NYPD. Keene describes Doc Egg as "a bright-eyed, bald little man in his late thirties with the suspicion of a paunch . . . reputedly worth a million dollars." An amiable fellow to his friends, always willing to loan a buck when he can, "he never forgot a favor or forgave a slight. If he couldn't whip a bully with his fists, e used whatever was handy. He and Lieutenant Dan Carter of the Times Square Homicide Detail had been friends since they had been boys." Not everyone on the police force likes Doc, however, and he usually has to outwit an officer who is trying to pin the crime on him.

Friday, October 23, 2020

"Dead Man's Tide" by Day Keene (1953) - FFB

Day Keene's It's a Sin to Kill was one of the first books I reviewed here on Pulp Sereade, my fourth ever post. I still remember finding the 1958 Avon paperback in a cardboard box underneath the counter at Spoonbill and Sugartown bookstore in Brooklyn. 12 years later, I finally have a true first edition of the book under its original title, Dead Man's Tide, published by Graphic under the pseudonym "William Richards." Revisiting the book, I found it to be even better than I remembered.

Keene knew how to hook a reader fast by getting right to the story, and Dead Man's Tide is perhaps the fastest of them all. First sentence and he's already describing a nude corpse floating through the Gulf of Mexico, passing by schools of porpoises, then landing on a sand bar where crabs gather around it. It's macabre, grotesque, strangely erotic, and even more strangely serene. It's an elegantly written passage, among the most evocative and vivid that Keene ever penned. Keene then takes readers to a familiar set up: a man wakes up to murder and must go on the run in order to prove himself innocent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"We Are the Dead: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. 2" (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

We Are the Dead is Ramble House's second volume of Day Keene's pulp fiction. This volume is particularly special because of its introduction by the late Ed Gorman, one of my favorite novelists. Ed was also an incredible critic and historian, and he had the remarkable ability to discuss literature in a way that was profound and insightful without being overly complicated. I have re-read his intro three or four times, and it has that particular cadence that all of his writing has, an ineffable and invisible quality but which is always present. It's a voice that is unmistakably his own. I would have treasured this volume for his intro alone, but the stories are quite remarkable too, and the combination of them makes this an impressive volume all around.

Three of Keene's series characters appear here. The former pugilist-turned-pharmacist Doc Egg is represented by "We Are the Dead" and "If the Coffin Fits," which are great representations of the Dime Mystery-style of pulp story that Keene excelled in writing. What begin as a supernatural ghost stories are eventually revealed to be not supernatural at all. The design appealed to some of Keene's best qualities as a writer, a knack for strong, vivid opening scenes, as well as his gift for nightmarish logic and endurance tests for his characters. Private eye Matt Mercer appears in "Thirteen Must Die!" and police officer Herman "The Great" Stone appears in "The Corpse They Couldn't Kill."

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"Rattlesnake Rodeo" by Nick Kolakowski (2020)

Nick Kolakowski's Rattlesnake Rodeo (2020) kick-starts like the recoil of a shotgun, picking up immediately after the ending of Boise Longpig Hunting Club. Bounty hunter Jake Halligan, his ex- and future-wife Janine, and his dark-web arms-dealer sister Frankie, are on the run. When we last saw them in the previous book, they had been abducted by a group of rich hunters and managed to escape, leaving behind them an abandoned town in flames and a trail of dead bodies, many of whom were influential politicians and businessmen. It was only a matter of time before someone—either the police or an associate of the deceased—would find them, and neither way would end well for our protagonists.

"We were dead. Although I didn’t want to say it out loud, I knew that our life expectancy had almost certainly dropped to zero, no matter what we did or where we went. When you carbonize a group of millionaires, politicians, and millionaire-politicians, the law never stops hunting you, and they make sure you’ll never have the chance to say something embarrassing at trial."

Monday, October 19, 2020

Razorback by Peter Brennan (1981)

Chris Stachiw was kind enough to invite me to join him and screenwriter/producer Richard Hatem on The Kulturecast to discuss the 1984 Australian film Razorback. In preparation for the podcast, I decided to read the source material. The decision was totally mine, so I have no one to blame but myself. And while I can't say I enjoyed the book, I had a great time discussing the movie and book with Chris and Richard, so many thanks to them for a wonderful conversation. Hope to talk movie with them again soon!

Razorback (1981) is the second novel by Peter Brennan, who first novel was a tennis thriller called Sudden Death (1978). While the movie is a Jaws—esque story of a vicious animal terrorizing a community, the book is a beast of a different sort—a giant 378-page bloated mess.

The novel begins with a promising introduction about a kangaroo and her baby taking its first steps, a pregnant ewe, and a monstrous wild boar who has been driven to cannibalism by drought and lack of food. Unfortunately, after the promising introduction of the titular killer boar, the novel derails itself almost immediately. What begins as an eco thriller-horror novel dissolves into a missing persons-smuggling soap opera with too many competing story lines, too many uninteresting characters, and not enough wild boar action.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"Boise Longpig Hunting Club" by Nick Kolakowski (2018)

Some thrillers work by introducing the problem early and spend the rest of the book showing the characters to get out of a jam. Nick Kolakowski takes the opposite approach with Boise Longpig Hunting Club (2018): a slow burn to a fiery, explosive climax. Kolawkoski writers character-driven, high-action noir. He builds his story from the characters up, giving us a sense of who they are, the world they've built for themselves, and—most importantly—what they're capable of, before throwing them headfirst into a nightmare that none of them could have planned for. And these are characters that keep heavy firepower close at hand at all times, so if they couldn't see it coming, you know they're in store for something twisted and terrifying.

Jake Halligan is a bounty hunter and Iraq War vet living in Idaho with his ex- and future-wife Janine and their daughter. Jake's sister, Frankie, is a dark web illegal arms dealer who the police and FBI would love to throw behind bars, if they could find her, especially after she helped Jake dispense with some meth heads who robbed him by blowing them sky high with a rocket launcher. And lately the local cops have been giving Jake a hard time, since they know he's Frankie's brother.

Friday, October 16, 2020

"Strange Witness" by Day Keene (1953) FFB

Day Keene's Strange Witness was originally published by Graphic in 1953, the third of five novels he would write for the short-lived paperback house. The story is a variation on the archetypal Keene plot about a wrongly-accused man dodging cops and gangsters in order to prove his innocence, and told with the author's usual full-tilt pacing with a couple twists thrown in to surprise even his most devoted fans.

Hart Jackson used to have a successful career as an emcee and ventriloquist. Then he took the fall for his brother, who was set up for the murder of Helene, a singer at a nightclub. After serving 7 years of a 20-year sentence, he's out on parole—and he wants revenge against Flip Evans, the club owner who put the frame in place. After hocking his watch for a gun, Hart goes to a bar, where he is approached by blonde woman he's never seen before who says her name is Thelma Winston, she wants to marry him, and will give him $10,000 plus evidence to put Evans behind bars. But as soon as they are married, Thelma is gunned down. The cops want Jackson for murder, and the gangsters want to know what Thelma told him. Her dying words were something about Olga and a hotel room—but Jackson doesn't know what they mean, only that his life and proving his innocence depends on it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

"League of the Grateful Dead and Other Stories" by Day Keene (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

Editor John Pelan and publisher Ramble House have set out to restore the long obscured history of Day Keene in the pulps, embarking on a multi-volume series inspired by Dennis McMillan's amazing Fredric Brown pulp series. The first volume in their Day Keene in the Detective Pulps series is League of the Grateful Dead and Other Stories. Released in 2010, it gathers eight tales and an insightful introduction by Pelan.

The eight stories in League of the Grateful Dead show classic crime pulp at its finest. Tough-as-nails private eyes navigating twisty (and twisted) capers, engaging in blazing shootouts with ruthless gangsters, and trying to keep their necks out of jail—all while making it home for supper without compromising their wedding vows. They're paced so quickly that it's nearly impossible to keep up or follow all the clues—but it's sure fun trying. While the private eye cases are fabulous and most indicative of Keene's characteristic style, my favorite was actually "Nothing to Worry About," a vicious quickie tale about a husband's plot to murder his wife that features a wicked twist ending.

Monday, October 12, 2020

"The Ape" (1940)

A decade before Dick Carroll was an editor for Fawcett's Gold Medal line of paperback originals, he co-wrote The Ape (1940) with Curt Siodmak (here credited as Kurt), a classic of Poverty Row horror starring Boris Karloff. Based on a 1924 play by Adam Hull Shirk, the plot concerns concerns a mad doctor, a killer ape, a traveling circus, a paralyzed young woman, and an armed posse. Allegedly written over the course in a weekend (at least that is what Carroll told Peter Rabe), director William Nigh brings in the picture in 62 delightfully breezy, light-heartedly macabre minutes, and now available in a restored Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Dr. Bernard Adrian (Boris Karloff), disgraced and outcast because of his experiments with spinal fluid, now practices secretly in a small town. His current patient is a young paraplegic woman, Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon). When an ape breaks loose from a traveling circus, it severely injures its trainer who is sent to Dr. Adrian. Unable—or, perhaps, unwilling—to save the trainer, Dr. Adrian seizes the opportunity to extract his spinal fluid for use on Frances. Still hunting for its trainer, the ape breaks into the doctor's lab. Adrian defends himself and stabs the ape—but instead of telling the sheriff to call off the hunt for the killer beast, Adrian keeps it a secret in order to pursue his own deadly experiments.

Friday, October 9, 2020

"Sleep With the Devil" by Day Keene (1954) FFB

A dark fable about a duplicitous Bible salesman with nothing but sex, murder, and money on his mind, Sleep With the Devil finds Day Keene entering Jim Thompson and Flannery O'Connor territory.

Les Ferron leads a double-life as muscle for a bookie in New York City, and as a door-to-door Bible salesman named "Paul Parrish" engaged to Amy, a farmer's daughter in the small puritanical town of New Hope, north of New York on the Hudson. Les has a plan to knock off his bookie, marry Amy and get her old man's land, then sell the land and high-tail it out of the country as a rich man. Everything depends on Les keeping his identities separate, but the closer he gets to pulling off his scheme the more his two lives threaten to collide.

While Keene anticipates O'Connor's Bible-thumping con artist in "Good Country People" by a year (which was published in the June 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar), it is possible that he was inspired by Thompson. Two years earlier, in 1952, Thompson began a five-year run of twisted noir nightmares at Lion (the publisher of Sleep With the Devil) with The Killer Inside Me, followed by Cropper's Cabin (also 1952), and then The Alcoholics, Bad Boy, Savage Night, and The Criminal (all 1953), and continuing through 1957 with five more novels along the way.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

"Martian Manhunt" by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker (2019)

For fans of old time radio, the Thrilling Adventure Hour is a must-listen to podcast—(or must-see live show, if you were lucky enough to catch them when they were on tour, which I wasn't). There's Beyond Belief if you want a spooky, martini-fueled murder mystery—think Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man on a supernatural case. Or The Algonquin Four, set in the 1920s, re-imagines Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Harry Houdini, and Woodrow Wilson as superheroes. There's many others, but my favorite of them all is the space western Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars. Marc Evan Jackson starred as the titular Marshal who, along with his alien sidekick Croach the Tracker (Mark Gagliardi), roam the frontier of the red planet chasing bandits, robots, aliens, and having all sorts of wild west adventures.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

"Hell Bent" (1918)

Hell Bent (1918) is John Ford's second earliest silent feature that survives, and thankfully  it is now available in a beautiful 4K restoration from Universal on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The plot's trajectory is simple enough—card shark falls for good girl; outlaw kidnaps girl;  card shark tries to rescue girl—but it is more of a framework for Ford to create marvelous little scenes that display all the hallmarks of his style: humor, action, and a magnificent eye for landscape. All in all, Hell Bent is a rollicking whirlwind of a western, blending action, comedy, and romance, freely and fluidly shifting between modes.

Monday, October 5, 2020

"Straight Shooting" (1917)

John Ford's first feature film as a director, Straight Shooting (1917), is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics in an unbelievably beautiful 4k restoration from Universal. I never expected to see this movie looking this good. It's always a pleasure to see silent films presented restored so carefully—around 75% of all silents are lost, according to the Library of Congress, including most of the early work of John Ford. Which makes this Blu-ray of Straight Shooting all the more historic and significant. Finally we can see that from his first feature, all the artistic facets of John Ford are already on display. His majestic eye for compositions, a bold use of nature and architecture for framing, an intuitive sense of rhythm for both action sequences and quieter moments of contemplation, moments of near-slapstick revelry, and of course a loner, anti-hero protagonist.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

"Satan Takes the Helm" by Calvin Clements (1952) FFB

Stark House Press's Black Gat imprint has dived deep into the ocean of obscure vintage paperback originals and returned with a real treasure, one that was originally published in 1952 and has been out of print for decades.

Calvin Clements's Satan Takes the Helm is top tier Gold Medal thriller and exemplifies the hard-edged, tightly plotted, noir-laced thriller style that defined the imprint in its early days. It's a sea-faring murder mystery whose every paragraph is saturated with salt water, human sweat, and smoldering sex. Like a nautical James M. Cain, Clements writes characters desperate past the edge of reason, whose carnal thirst for survival drives them to lust and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity but with its characters trapped on the same ship and you'll have an inkling of the claustrophobic sexual tension and paranoid jealousies fueling Satan Takes the Helm. This book is as noir as they come.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"Edge of Dark Water" by Joe R. Lansdale (2012)

Imagine the literary love child of Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, but way more twisted, with a penchant for dismemberment, and a hell of a lot funnier. That's Joe R. Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water (2012) in a nutshell. Lansdale's teenage narrator, with her blend of youthful naivety and old-before-her-age-wisdom, recalls Frankie from The Member of the Wedding, while the overarching sense of history and Southern mythology recalls Faulkner's geographic and genealogical sensibility.

Set in the swampy backwaters of East Texas during the Great Depression, Edge of Dark Water tells the story of Sue Ellen, a teenage girl who uncovers the bloated, rotten corpse of her friend May Lynn while fishing with her father. The prettiest girl in town, May Lynn always dreamed of making it to Hollywood. Dead set on making that dream come true, Sue Ellen and her two best friends plan to exhume May Lynn's corpse (in multiple pieces, mind you), burn it, and take the ashes on a river-and-road trip to Hollywood. They plan to finance their journey with May Lynn's cache of stolen money, and that might just be their undoing. Soon they find themselves on the run from May Lynn's greedy family, as well as a mythic tracker named Skunk, who smells of death and wears his victims' body parts as jewelry.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

David Goodis Grinds His Axe in "Esquire"

In the December 1, 1965 issue of Esquire, David Goodis wrote a letter to the editor, grinding his axe and criticizing them for crediting Francois Truffaut as the creator of Shoot the Piano Player without acknowledging his source novel, Down There. Ironically, the editor's snotty response only gets the story partly correct this time around, indicating that the novel was published in 1962 but without mentioning that it was originally published 6 years earlier as Down There by Fawcett as a Gold Medal paperback original. Here's the letter and response in full.

"Shoot"
In the September issue, 28 People Who Count cites François Truffaut for
Shoot the Piano Player, and this is not exactly as it should be. But then, very little is these days, and there are two ways to handle it. One is to sort of drift away from all the manipulating, as the piano player did. The other is to get hold of an ax and start chopping.

After two years of doing the piano-player bit and seeing Truffaut get all the credit, I’m finally impelled for the sake of my blood pressure to screech that
Shoot the Piano Player was not created by Truffaut. It was created by the author of the novel, which the film follows as closely as a baby rhino following mamma. With all due respect for the talent of Truffaut, this writer wants it known that primarily it’s his work.

DAVID GOODIS Philadelphia, Pa.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Right.
Shoot the Piano Player, by David Goodis, was published in 1962 by Grove Press as A Black Cat Book; it is still very much in print.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

"The Duel at Silver Creek" (1952)

After a three-year absence from the big screen following The Big Steal (1949), Don Siegel returned with his first-ever western, The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), now available in a beautiful Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. It is undeniably a Siegel film, with its themes of systemic violence and the thin-lines between organized crime and law-and-order, and with every frame gleaming with his characteristic hardboiled edge and tough-talking sensibility. The script by Gerald Drayson Adams—whose credits include such crime flicks as Dead Reckoning (1947), The Big Steal, Armored Car Robbery (1950), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951)—and Joseph Hoffmana veteran screenwriter from the 1930s—has such a gritty, urban rhythm that, if you close your eyes, you'd think it was a contemporary crime story set in Chicago, New York, or some other big city. The Duel at Silver Creek borrows many story elements from noir, such as the ominous voice-over and the lawman who plays patsy to a ruthless femme fatale. Even Audie Murphy's costume is tinged with noir—even though he's the good guy, he dons a black stetson and back leather jacket, as though to remind of the potential for violene lurking just beneath the surface. As the marshal remarks, “He didn’t have the face of a killer, but he had the cold steel look of one.”

Friday, September 18, 2020

"Bring Him Back Dead" by Day Keene (1956) (FFB)

Bring Him Back Dead is one of Day Keene's grimiest books. Set in the Louisiana bayou, the book is saturated with sweat—not just from the Delta humidity, but from the seething rancor of its characters, the alcohol they've been drinking, and the nastiness they can't suppress any longer. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1956, Bring Him Back Dead fits into Keene's characteristic "wrong man accused of murder" scenario, but there's a bitterness and darkness that distinguishes it as one of his most noir novels. And like many of Keene's books, the story unfolds over a manic, sleepless couple of days, which contributes to its fever-dream, hazy atmosphere.

You know your main character is a Grade A heel when, on page 2, he steps out of his house and a bullet comes within an inch of his life, and his response is to withhold it from his wife so that he may deny "her the satisfaction of knowing how close she had come to being a widow," and then casually go about his day. He immediately suspects that the shooter was his wife's brother, Georgi, and that he wanted to free his sister from a marriage to "a $250-a-month oil boom-town deputy sheriff."

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"And She Was" by Alison Gaylin (2012)

In And She Was (2012), private investigator Brenna Spector tackles a double missing persons case. Eleven years ago, 6-year-old Iris Neff was also seen getting into a strange blue car before vanishing. Now Carol Wentz, a friend of the Neff family, has gone missing. Her wallet was found at the scene of Iris's disappearance, with Brenna's phone number inside. Suspecting a deeper connection between Carol and Iris—and perhaps with her own sister—Brenna reopens the case in hopes of finding all three.

The result is a moody, densely layered mystery whose emotional notes are as affecting as the plot points are enthralling. Gaylin excels at getting us into her protagonist's complex (and crowded) mind. "There's a reason why we see the past in softer and softer focus until it's forgotten down to snippets, sensations. Few people understood what a luxury that was, the ability to forget."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Edgar Wallace on Words and Writing

"[Edgar Wallace] would shut himself up in his study with a Dictaphone, an endless supply of cigarettes and fresh pots of tea brought in from the kitchen by a servant at regular intervals, and dictate the text using only a bare outline of 1,500 words, in addition to a hastily composed list of character names, places, and a few scraps of additional material to be inserted into the narrative as authentic talismans of the material world.
"Thus engrossed, Wallace would dictate an average of 3,000 words around the clock until the text was finished, and then retire to his bed to recuperate while Curtis finished the typing. Once he had completed his dictation, in fact, Wallace scrupulously avoided reviewing the typed transcript of his work; as soon as the typing was completed, off it went to Hodder and Stoughton, Ward Lock and Co. or one of Wallace’s other publishers, and the author was free to contemplate his next assignment."—Wheeler Winston Dixon, "The Colonial vision of Edgar Wallace," The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 32, Issue 1, 1998

Image source: Wikipedia

Monday, September 14, 2020

"Face of the Frog (Der Frosch Mit Der Maske)" (1959)

A woman is roused from her bed by a strange noise in the night. Her husband suggests it is just the frogs outside and goes back to sleep. Going downstairs to investigate, she is shocked to see a man in a frog mask wielding a blow torch to her safe. Before she can scream, a man sneaks up behind her, clamps his gloved hand over her face, and hauls her off-screen. Such is the bizarre pre-credit sequence of Der Frosch Mit Der Maske (1959), a film which inaugurated what would become a landmark series of movies that we now call "Krimi"—German films based around the works of British author Edgar Wallace. Born in 1875, Wallace was an incredibly prolific author, penning over 170 novels, 18 plays, and nearly 1000 stories before his death in 1932 at age 56 while he was writing the script to King Kong (figures according to Wikipedia).

Deliriously pulpy, the Krimi films dusted off old mysteries and modernized them, infusing archaic tales of arch villainy and old dark houses with heightened depictions of violence and an atmosphere of surreal, uncanny terror set to swinging, hot jazz scores. The adaptations were mainly produced by Rialto studios. Samm Deighan points out in her essay "Smooth Kriminal: An Introduction to the German Krimi Film," these films combined aspects of multiple genres, including "horror, crime, mystery, and police procedural, with moments of fantasy, science fiction, or surrealism." They reinvented notions of the cinematic crime thriller, paving the way for even more graphic murder mysteries the following decade in Italy known as "giallos."

Saturday, September 12, 2020

"Ride a Crooked Trail" (1958)

In the 1950s, arguably no studio produced as consistently high quality westerns as Universal. There is a brilliance in their modesty and workmanship—Universal's westerns may not have been super productions, but in the attention to details they achieved a mastery of the form. The writing and editing were as tight as could be achieved, with not a line or a frame wasted, while the direction and photography were elegant if understated. Universal's lineup of western directors included such legends as Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, Don Siegel, John Sturges, and William Castle, as well as lesser-celebrated filmmakers deserving of more attention like George Sherman, Lesley Selander, Hugo Fregonese, Jack Arnold, and Jesse Hibbs. It was Hibbs who directed Ride a Crooked Trail (1958), a superb Cinemascope western that is emblematic of the high level of craftsmanship that Universal put into their westerns in the 1950s, and the visual beauty of the film is on full display in Kino Lorber Studio Classics's Blu-ray.

Friday, September 11, 2020

"One is a Lonely Number" by Bruce Elliott (1952) (FFB)

Bruce Elliott’s One is a Lonely Number was published in 1952 by Lion Books (a paperback publisher of such classics as David Goodis’ Black Friday, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, and Day Keene’s My Flesh Is Sweet). The main character is Larry Camonille, an escaped convict with only one partial lung left, a bad cough that threatens to spew out what’s left of his lung, and five dollars in his pocket. He spends the dough on a prostitute, even though a doctor warned him that any exertion—smoking, drinking, sex, whatever—might be enough to kill him. So begins Camonille’s self-destructive binge on his way to Mexico, where he dreams of breathing the warm, dry air—if he can survive long enough to get there. Taking a job in a kitchen to make some money, Camonille shacks up with an epileptic juvenile girl dating one of his co-workers, then embarks on a foolhardy crime spree that even someone with two good lungs could hardly get away with.

This is our hero. Someone so despicable that even Jim Thompson’s characters seem civilized. Someone so sleazy and depraved he makes Harry Whittington’s protagonists seem wholesome. Comb any of the noir films or crime novels from that era and you won’t find anyone so unapologetically degenerate as Larry Camonille. This might very well be the bleakest noir of them all. Page two of the book, and he describes himself as, “Thirty-two years old and dead. A corpse looking for a place to lie down and pull up the earth around it.” This is about as uplifting and likable as Larry gets.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

"Cold in the Grave" by Stephen Mertz (2018)

In Cold in the Grave (2018), Stephen Mertz reaches back forty years to 1978 to revisit the detective from his first novel, Some Die Hard. The earlier novel's protagonist, Rock Dugan, has become Kilroy. He's still a Vietnam vet and ex-Hollywood stuntman currently making ends meet as a private eye in Denver, but Kilroy is less meta than Dugan, making fewer references to Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler than his predecessor. Rather than compare himself to his literary P.I. models, Kilroy follows in their footsteps. A rogue at times, a knight at others, honest with the goodhearted, willing to bend (and sometimes break) the law in the name of truth and justice (and his client's paycheck)—in short, he's everything a classic private eye should be, and he fulfills the role in spades.

Set in 1975, Cold in the Grave finds Kilroy on the trail of a missing woman. His client, Robert Pierpont, is concerned that the girl he likes, Cheryl Kaplin, may be in trouble.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

"Kiss Her Goodbye" by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (2011)

In Kiss Her Goodbye, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer—one of the preeminent archetypes of the private detective—is back on the streets of the Big Apple. Spillane started the novel in the 1970s, but eventually abandoned it, uncompleted. In 2006, half a decade after his death, Spillane’s close friend and collaborator, Max Allan Collins, completed the book.

As Kiss Her Goodbye begins, Hammer is in Florida. He’s been away for a year in semi-retirement after a deadly shootout with a mob boss. The supposed suicide of his former mentor calls Hammer back to New York, and he doesn’t like what he sees. The city has changed, so have the people he knew, and so has Hammer. Now it’s time to get things back to the way they were. Convinced his friend’s suicide was staged, Hammer opens the case and uncovers corrupt politicians, international drug schemes, mob wars, wayward young women, androgynous Brazilian singers, and a complex web of mysteries that only Hammer and his trusty .45 can solve.

Friday, September 4, 2020

"The Three-Way Split" by Gil Brewer (1960) (FFB)

Gil Brewer's The Three-Way Split is a dynamite novel that ignites on page one and burns until the very last page. Desperate characters hell-bent on self-destruction and with nothing to lose—this is Brewer raw and unfiltered, and I loved every page of it.

Originally published by Gold Medal in 1960, it marked the end of a crazily productive decade for Brewer, who banged out a blistering run of 25 novels in ten years. It also marked the beginning of Brewer's professional decline—two novels in 1961, only one in 1962, and then a four year gap, followed by intermittent books for small publishers mostly under pseudonyms. His eleventh and penultimate book for Gold Medal, The Three-Way Split is both a milestone and a gravestone for Gil Brewer.

All of which makes The Three-Way Split an even more fascinating and bewildering text. Like a true noir protagonist, Brewer momentarily seems to be at the top of his game—and yet the bottom is just around the corner. The book's plummeting darkness and frenetic downward spiral are pure Brewer. Every turn of the page seems like the character is on the precipice of oblivion and holding on for dear life—and so, too, was the book's author, it now seems. Maybe that's why Brewer seems to have such a deep bond to his main character, Jack Holland, a man on his last leg who risks it all on a long-shot that could take him down and his loved ones along with him.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Who Wore It Better: Woolrich or Prather?

While browsing Vrij Nederland's database of Dutch editions of crime fiction novels, I noticed that the cover to the 1960 UMC edition of De dodd danst rock 'n roll (originally titled Dance with the Dead) looked remarkably familiar. And comparing it to my shelves, it does indeed use the same Barye Phillips artwork that originally appeared on Gold Medal's 1957 third printing of Cornell Woolrich's Savage Bride. See for your self and ask the question, "Who wore it better—Woolrich or Prather"?


Dance with the Dead
(De dood danst rock 'n roll)
UMC70, 1960



Savage Bride

Gold Medal 719, 1957

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Gregory Mcdoanld on Words and Writing

"I work very hard at being simple. By the time a person is 18 years old today, he has seen 21,000 hours of film at 24 frames per second, and he has just incredible images already built into his consciousness or unconsciousness. Back when Sir Walter Scott was working, he was writing for people who hadn’t been 50 miles from their houses. So if he was describing a street in Edinburgh, let alone Paris, he’d have to describe what was going on and what everyone was doing. Now, unless you are writing about something really exotic, you have this incredible bank on which to draw. Where Sir Walter Scott used 7,000 words, I can get it down to seven by conjuring the images that are already there."—Gregory Mcdonald, in conversation with Bruce DeSilva

Monday, August 31, 2020

"Shills Can't Cash Chips" by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair) (1961)

While HBO has been busy reviving (and unnecessarily retooling) Perry Mason, Hard Case Crime has been busy reviving one of Gardner's other beloved series, the Cool & Lam mysteries, originally published under the pen-name A.A. Fair. A little hardboiled, a little screwball, the Cool & Lam books are a lot of fun, and Hard Case's most recent reissue, Shills Can't Cash Chips, is just utterly delightful. And, in true Hard Case tradition, this new edition also sports fabulous new cover art by Laurel Blechman.

If you're new to this classic private eye series, feel free to jump right in with this one. Bertha Cool tells you all you need to know at the beginning: "I handle the financial end of the business. He supervises the outdoor work." Bertha Cool is the boss and Donald Lam takes the punches—quite literally, as Lam isn't your typical hardboiled detective, and he often prefers to get hit and fall down. Sometimes it's just easier to get it over and done with. "I saw the blow coming but didn't try to dodge. The next one would have caught me anyway. I stood there and took it."

Friday, August 28, 2020

"Who Has Wilma Lathrop?" by Day Keene (1955) (FFB)

Originally published by Gold Medal in 1955, Who Has Wilma Lathrop? was Day Keene's fifth novel in three years for the imprint, and his 24th novel overall in five years—clearly, Keene was a busy guy. He wrote with the fury and economy of a true native pulpster, wasting nary a word. Who Has Wilma Lathrop? exemplifies the relentless, breakneck pacing that characterized Keene's best work.

Set in Keene's hometown of Chicago, the novel begins with Lathrop, a high school teacher, in the lobby of the Juvenile Court Building. He calls home but his wife, Wilma, doesn't pick up. Outside, two strange men approach Jim claiming to be acquaintances of his wife. They give him a package for her containing $5000 and a message saying they want their cut of the loot. Then they knock him unconscious. When he awakens, he goes home and finds Wilma preparing dinner. She claims to know nothing about the men, and Jim believes her. But when he awakens the next morning, she's gone. Was she kidnapped? Did she run away, either to escape those men or join them? When he goes to the police, things get worse. They ID his wife not as Wilma Stanis, the secretary he married, but as Gloria Fine, a gangster's moll wanted for murdering her boyfriend and possession of $200,000 in stolen jewels.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

"By Hook or By Crook" edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg (2010)

I initially reviewed Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg's By Hook or By Crook, and 30 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year (2010, Tyrus Books) when it was new, and when we could count on new anthologies from its editors every year to highlight a fine array of stories from writers new and old, our favorite writers of today and tomorrow. How I miss those times. Cancer robbed readers of both of them, Greenberg first, in 2011, and Gorman in 2016. There was something comforting and assuring about seeing their names on the spines or book covers—an assurance that you'd be reading truly fine stories. They had impeccable taste and a mind-boggling comprehension and knowledge of fiction. They knew the most obscure stories from decades ago as well as the best stories from emerging writers. Sometimes they'd source stories from the pages of established magazines like Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, but sometimes more recently they'd pull from website and e-zines. Needless to say, their selections were always interesting.

Monday, August 24, 2020

"Some Die Hard" by Stephen Mertz (writing as Stephen Brett) (1978)

Originally written with a nod to the classic private eye novels that inspired him, Stephen Mertz's Some Die Hard (1978) has since become a classic in its own right. It's got everything you want out of a P.I. novel—a tough guy detective, an impossible locked-door murder, a contested will, squabbling inheritors, and gangsters and dames aplenty. But while Some Die Hard may follow in the footsteps of its forebears, it doesn't walk in their shadow. Mertz honors tradition in the best way possible, by crafting an intelligent and innovative mystery and bringing new surprises to the table. 42 years after its first publication, Some Die Hard still feels fresh and exciting.

The story begins with Rock Dugan, private eye, Vietnam vet and ex-Hollywood stunt man, taking a bus back to Denver from a job. As he's getting off the bus, the man in front of him turns around and bumps into him, then takes off running as two hoods chase him. The man doesn't get too far before he's hit by a cab. That's when Rock notices the man had slipped something into his book back on the bus—a letter addressed to Susan Court. Hand-delivering it to Ms. Court, Rock finds himself drawn into a family conflict. Susan has been cut out of her father's will, and now he plans to reverse the decision and reinstate her and cut out her brother, a drunken louse with lots of gambling debts. Rock agrees to accompany her home to Langdon Springs to look into things. But Rock's not there for more than a few hours before he finds himself deep in a murder case, and dodging thugs and local police who would rather he go back to Denver.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

"Already Gone" by John Rector (2011)

John Rector's Already Gone (2011) begins with a hell of a punch—or rather, with its aftermath: "I put up a good fight." Stepping out of a bar, Jake Reese, a professor of writing, gets the crap kicked out of him by a pair of mysterious thugs. Jake, an ex-con who served jail time for assault, has put his past behind him, and now refuses to call on his underworld contacts to find out who was behind the attack—that is, until his wife goes missing. When the police prove ineffective, he resorts to the person who got him started in crime so many years back. But as he searches his own history for answers to his wife's disappearance, Jake begins to wonder if the answer might not be in her past, instead?

Rector writes hardboiled noir with poetic élan, compressed action, and reticent melancholy. The terse style exhibited in his first two works, The Grove and The Cold Kiss, is taken to an economical extreme in Already Gone. My favorite paragraph is only four words: "The road is dark." Were this just another sentence in a larger paragraph it would easily be lost and quickly forgotten, but Rector gives sentence its own paragraph. To me, these four words sing with Bruen-esque economy. In a way, the line is as simple and obvious as it seems. But part of the beauty is in its minimalism and unfussy phrasing. Rector communicates what he needs to in the most efficient, starkest words possible. And while the line may seem slight, Rector also imbues it with larger metaphoric significance. The road may literally be "dark," as in "unlit," but in the context, that darkness also communicates the narrator's profounder sense of loss and of being lost.

Friday, August 21, 2020

"Death Wears a Gardenia" by Zelda Popkin (1938)

Death Wears a White Gardenia was the first novel by Zelda Popkin, published in 1938, and introduces her series sleuth Mary Carner. Carner is an absolute gem of a character, a fast-talking, sharp-witted New York City department store detective. She's as tough and street smart as the Big Apple, and more crafty than the thieves she busts.

In this first outing, Carner and her boss, Chris Whittaker, have to solve the murder of Andrew McAndrew, the credit manager of Jeremiah Blankfort and Company department store, whose corpse found stuffed in a sample room near a suitcase of stolen merchandise belonging to Joseph Swayzey, a notorious thief and cocaine addict who Whittaker has dealt with before. Adding to the pandemonium, it is the store's fifty-first anniversary and they are hosting a big sale and ribbon cutting ceremony with the governor's wife, and Mr. Blankfort doesn't want murder—or the NYPD—to close down the store or disturb the customers. Carner and Whittaker have their hands full, and their biggest clue is the white gardenia in the dead man's hands.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Talmage Powell on Words and Writing (2)

"Pulp, it turns out, constitutes only a small part of my work, but it was perhaps the most important phase. It demanded writing discipline; it required the constant exercise of originality; it offered the opportunity to learn and employ techniques that are essential in any genre of creative writing. It was the exercise that provided the foundation from which I have remained in print for a half-century." —Talmage Powell, excerpted from "An Interview With Talmage Powell (December, 1997)" at the Vintage Library

Image source: Ashville Citizen-Times, August 30, 1988

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

"Eldorado Red" by Donald Goines (1974)

Donald Goines's Eldorado Red is a taut and vicious cat-and-mouse thriller about a numbers kingpin mercilessly tracking down a group of thieves who are systematically hitting his houses. Originally published in 1974 by Holloway House, this was Goines's fourth novel in two years, and it was based in part on his own experiences holding up a numbers house. "Goines knew of that which he wrote: he had served time for attempting to rob a numbers house in Detroit," writes Kinohi Nishikawa in "The Radical: Donald Goines in the Wake of Civil Rights" from Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre's superb literary history book Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980. "His representation of the robbery and its violent fallout show the lengths to which people are willing to go to claim their stake in the ghetto’s most lucrative underground venture."

Set in Detroit, novel begins with Shirley showing Dolores the collection route for Eldorado Red's network of numbers houses. While doing their pickup, they are surprised by the cops and arrested. Meanwhile, Red has reunited with his estranged son, Buddy, who grew up living with Red's ex-wife, and has trusted him with cleaning up the numbers houses at the end of the day. Behind his father's back, Buddy has used this information to plan a string of robberies of his father's businesses. As Red and crew narrow down the list of suspects who know the locations of the houses, it is only a matter of time before they nail Buddy for the crime. And with every second counting, Buddy and his crew decide to hit more houses while they still can.

Monday, August 17, 2020

"Frantic" by Noël Calef (1958)

Noël Calef's Frantic is certainly a well-deserved title, even if it is an inaccurate translation. How else can you describe a book about a man trapped in an elevator, who was trying to cover up a murder, while outside his whole world is falling apart and events are set in motion to blame him for another murder which he did not commit? It is a brutally bleak and misanthropic noir structured as Greek tragedy, enacted by a despicable cast of characters care only for themselves and whose selfishness leads to their own downfall. In true noir fashion, this is a book where no one gets away clean.

Frantic was originally published in France in 1958 as Ascenseur pour l'échafaud and filmed that same year by Louis Malle. Three years later, in 1961, both the book and the movie were released in the United States under the title Frantic, with the book being released by the king of paperback crime publishers, Fawcett's Gold Medal Books. While the movie, better known under the more accurate translation of Elevator to the Gallows, is a celebrated film noir masterpiece, the book's English translation has been out of print for nearly sixty years; however, it was raised from obscurity by Stark House Press in 2019 and released as a Black Gat Book.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

"Black Wings Has My Angel" by Elliott Chaze (1953)

Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel was originally published by Gold Medal in 1953. Bill Crider and Ed Gorman have long been touting this as one of Gold Medal's finest crime novels. Gorman calls it "one of THE classic noirs" while Crider admits "I'm probably to blame, at least in part, for the high price that the book commands these days because I praised it in a fanzine article 35 or so years ago." Now that I've read it, I’ll nod my head in agreement: they weren’t kidding. An unorthodox and peculiar heist novel, its protagonists are an oil rigger fresh off a 16-week stint in the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana and a volatile, bloodthirsty call girl. Beginning with their self-loathing meeting in a cheap motel room to their road trip across the Southwest and culminating in a camping expedition in the Colorado mountains, Black Wings Has My Angel often seems like a travelogue of American scenery and squalor. But that's precisely its magnetic appeal: Black Wings Has My Angel is a tantalizing novel that reveals its dark secrets slowly, never letting us in on the grand plan until we’re too far along to back out.

Friday, August 14, 2020

"Red Ball Express" (1952)

Red Ball Express (1952) is a stunning example of a rare breed of movies, transportation noir, alongside Thieves' Highway (1949), The Wages of Fear (1953), Blowing Wild (1953), The Long Haul (1957), and Sorcerer (1977). While its World War II setting might superficially set it apart from its more criminally-preoccupied brethren, Red Ball Express shares with them a similar existential crisis, an almost nihilistic drive towards suicide. Trucking becomes a vessel for bringing out darker impulses in its characters, and for that reason I think it deservedly should stand alongside those other films in the transportation noir subgenre.

Red Ball Express tells the story of a group of soldiers who must create a route through mined roads in order to deliver armaments to General Patton. In order to get all the supplies to him, Lt. Chick Campbell (Jeff Chandler) insists the soldiers drive all day and all night, and turn around on another run as soon as they return. The grueling work tests the limits of his men and pits them against each other, including Corporal Andrew Robinson (Sidney Poitier) who is fighting racism within the unit, and Sgt. Red Kallek (Alex Nicol), who carries a personal vendetta against the lieutenant.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

"Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem" by Gary Phillips (2020)

In Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem, Gary Phillips re-imagines the titular Black explorer as a crime fighter during the Harlem Renaissance. Phillips marvelously and gracefully performs the role of dual historiographer—vintage pulp stylist and Black historian—wrapping it all together in a thrilling, action-packed adventure. Phillips swings between fantasy and reality with the gusto and aplomb of Henson crashing through a window to save the day. Published by Agora, an imprint of Polis Books, Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem is as much a revisionist narrative as it is one that revives electric literary tropes of yesteryear and gives the 2020 bookshelf a much appreciated jolt of excitement.

Phillips renders Henson, who was instrumental on Robert Peary's arctic explorations but because of his race never received the credit he deserved in his lifetime, in the mold of Luke Cage except without the superhero powers. Henson is very much a regular human, and while he is aided by the occasional gadget and weapons from his travels, his strength, fortitude, and intelligence are born from his own experience and character. Phillips perfectly balances gritty, Black Mask-style action with comic book-inspired expressionism.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

"Six-Gun Planet" by John Jakes (1970)

Six-Gun Planet is a thrilling and comedic space western—equal parts western and science fiction—by John Jakes, an author who was successful in both genres, and is best known for the widely acclaimed historical series The Kent Family Chronicles and the North and South trilogy. With one hand in the dust and another reaching for the stars, Jakes satirizes the most iconic and beloved hallmarks of western and science-fiction. From robot steeds to barroom brawls, and holographic communications to high noon showdowns, it's a crackling and clever outer-space oater.

Published as a paperback original in 1970 by Paperback Library, the novel is set on the planet Missouri in the 23rd century. Society has decided to emulate the old west on planet Earth. Our main character is a bounty hunter named Zak Randolph whose job is to round up specimens—Living Antiques, they're called—to act out showdowns and other examples of frontier thrills for tourists. Unfortunately, one of his is contracts, Hansi Bonn, has gone AWOL, and it is up to Randolph to retrieve Bonn or else he will be held responsible. But since Randolph is a pacifist, he's going to have a hard time wrangling the hardcase Bonn to go back to being a Living Antique—and an even harder time dealing with Buffalo Yung, a mythical gunslinger who roams from town to town despite reports of being killed.

Monday, August 10, 2020

"Re-Enter Fu Manchu" by Sax Rohmer (1957)

After five successful Sumuru books published with Gold Medal, Sax Rohmer revived his most iconic character, the fiendish Fu Manchu. Forty-five years after the arch villain's first appearance in print, he made his paperback original debut in the fittingly titled Re-Enter Fu Manchu (1957). It had been almost a decade since the character's last appearance in 1948's Shadow of Fu Manchu. Rohmer returns to comfortable territory, revisiting old characters and old formulas, with a few modern twists thrown in to keep things contemporary.

The 12th novel in the series begins with the diabolical doctor's anti-aging serum has gone missing and he must find it in order to carry out his plans. Meanwhile, Brian Merrick, the son of an American senator, is temporarily staying in London before reporting back to the states. In the interim, his Lola Erskine, a fashion designer, suggests he respond to a job advertisement seeking an assistant for Sir Denis Nayland Smith, who happens to be an old family friend of the Merricks (and who readers of the series will remember as Fu Manchu's nemesis). The job sends young Merrick to Cairo where he quickly finds himself enmeshed in a plot that involves a scientist, Dr. Hessian, who was smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain and who has been working on a device that will protect countries from guided missile attacks. Merrick and Smith must get Hessian to the United States for an important meeting with the president before Fu Manchu can get the doctor and his plans for the Chinese government.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

"Nude in Mink" by Sax Rohmer (1950)

In 1950, Gold Medal was still a nascent publishing imprint looking to get a foothold on the paperback market; as the first outfit to specialize in originals, they were forging a new path and betting on success. Though their parent company, Fawcett, controlled newsstands, Gold Medal still needed big hits to establish their name and make their mark on the field. So, it's easy to see why they decided to work with Sax Rohmer, the British writer who had been a hit ever since his Fu Manchu series debuted in 1912. One can imagine, too, that Rohmer—whose work had been popular in novel form, as serialized in the pages of pulps and magazines like Collier's, on radio, and on the big screen—would want to conquer this new medium of paperback originals, as well. It seemed like a perfect match between author and publisher—and the bet paid off. Big.

Sax Rohmer's Nude in Mink (released as Sins of Sumuru in the UK) was published in May 1950. It was Gold Medal's seventh overall title, and their third fiction novel. Like the Fu Manchu series, it featured a series villain, Sumuru, that was molded to be a female version of her male predecessor. In the first two months, Nude in Mink went through three printings—at 200,000 copies per print run (assuming it followed Gold Medal's usual publishing pattern), that means 600,000 copies in just 60 days. According to The Page of Fu Manchu, it would go through another printing in October 1950, followed by a fifth printing in October 1951 and then a sixth in July 1953. Not bad for a novel that was salvaged from a BBC radio serial from 1945–1946. It would also spawn several sequels: Sumuru (1951), The Fire Goddess (1952), Return of Sumuru (1954), and Sinister Madonna (1956), as well as several movie adaptations. (Thanks to The Page of Fu Manchu for such a detailed publication history of the series.)

Saturday, August 8, 2020

"Rhode Island Red" by Charlotte Carter (1997)

If you ask me, Rhode Island Red is a modern noir classic, and I can't imagine leaving it off any list of my favorite crime novels, and it should certainly be high on any list of Best American noir of the 1990s. Originally published in 1997 in the UK by Serpent's Tail, it was the debut novel of Charlotte Carter, a Black poet-turned-noir scribe, and the introduction to her series character Nanette Hayes, a young Black woman living in New York City who plays saxophone on street corners to pay the rent and aspires to be a Baudelaire translator. After she lets a down-on-his-luck street musician crash at her place, Nan's whole life changes. She wakes up in the middle of the night to find him murdered in her apartment with an NYPD badge by his feet and $60,000 of cash stuffed into her saxophone. Not wanting to tell the cops about the money, she decides to find the deceased's girlfriend to give her some of the money (while keeping some for herself and her mom), a search that lands her dead center of a series of murders that all center around the elusive "Rhode Island Red." Nanette doesn't even know what "Rhode Island Red" is—except that every time she opens her mouth about it, somebody wants to shut her up permanently.

Friday, August 7, 2020

"Fun & Games" by Duane Swierczynski (2011)

Duane Swierczynski is the Wile E. Coyote of crime fiction. His novels are filled with chases, explosions, and, amidst all the mayhem, a dash of philosophy about the absurdity of existence. His first novel, Secret Dead Men, appeared in January 2005 from the small but solid indie publisher Point Blank Press, but it was his follow-up in October of that same year that announced his arrival with a big kaboom. The Wheelman is about a mute Irish getaway man, who blacks out after a heist goes sour and wakes up in a body bag that some musicians are trying to dump down a Jersey drain pipe. From there, things only get worse (for him) and better (for us). The book is violent, twisted, and frequently funny as hell, yet its characters are strangely endearing. They're capable of the most brutal acts, but are also incompetent, entirely human, and believable. That's the Swierczynski touch: he makes apeshit chaos seem par for the course.

Swierczynski's latest novel is Fun & Games, and it's 100% Acme approved. This first volume in a trilogy introduces us to Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop-turned-housesitter whose latest job embroils him in a Hollywood assassination attempt by "The Accident People." Their latest target: Lane Madden, a B-list action actress who knows something she shouldn't. From its opening high-speed chase along the Decker Canyon Road, to the tense cat-and-mouse pursuit through the Hollywood Hills, to the epic, bloody finale, this book shows Swierczynski at his pulpy and imaginative best.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

"Raid on Rommel" (Henry Hathaway, 1971)

Hollywood, for a couple decades, engaged in a continuous production cycle of WWII movies. At first it was a contemporary topic, then it was propaganda as part of the domestic homefront effort, and then, after the war was over, it was seemingly an endless well of stories for filmmakers to pull from. Well into the 1960s, WWII blockbusters continued to be massive successes, such as John Sturges's The Great Escape (1963), Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way (1965), and Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967). 1970 was a watershed year for American WWII movies, with Phil Karlson and Franco Cirino's Hornets' Nest, Mike Nichols's Catch-22, Brian G. Hutton's Kelly's Heroes, Franklin Schaffner's Patton, the international co-production with Japan Tora! Tora! Tora!, Paul Wendkos's Hell Boats, Robert Aldrich's Too Late the Hero, Jerry Lewis's Which Way to the Front, The Last Escape, and Underground.

Raid on Rommel (1971) was released at the tail end of Hollywood's WWII cycle. It was the only American WWII-themed movie produced that year, and none would be produced until Operation: Daybreak (1975). Hollywood was by no means done with WWII movies, and they continue to produce such movies to this day, but Raid on Rommel marked the end of an era in which WWII was a dominate topic for Hollywood cinema.

Despite being a late entry in Hollywood's WWII cycle, Raid on Rommel still feels fresh, exciting, and singular, and it manages to distinguish itself from its predecessors through its unique narrative construction. Unlike most mission-based movies that begin with a goal and then base their story around the attempt to achieve it, Raid on Rommel begins by disrupting the plan and plunging its characters into uncertainty.

Captain Alex Foster (Richard Burton) lays into the Libyan desert pretending to be injured so that he can be captured by German soldiers. He is expecting the Germans to be transporting a commando unit that he can partner up with and find a way to sabotage Rommel's forces at Tobruk; instead, he finds that his fellow prisoners are a medical unit that hasn't been trained in combat. Thus begins a series of struggles: can Foster and the medics overpower their captors; if so, are the medics capable of infiltrating Rommel's entire tank corps at Tobruk; and just how, exactly, can they sabotage Rommel so that the Allies have a chance of invading? The script is the only feature film written by Richard M. Bluel, a prolific television writer of the time, but Bluel succeeded in writing an unconventional yet still thrilling story.

Directing the picture is Hollywood heavyweight Henry Hathaway, who got his start directing B-Westerns forty years earlier. From his early Randolph Scott films like To the Last Man (1933) and Man of the Forest (1933) to mid-career films like Rawhide (1951) to late films like True Grit (1969), Hathaway always had an eye for the great outdoors, an affinity for rough, hard-lived characters, and an instinct for tense stories of physical struggle. Raid on Rommel displays all of Hathaway's hallmarks: an unsentimental, hardboiled sensibility; a highly pragmatic story acted out by rugged characters; and a pitch-perfect eye for capturing natural landscapes.

Kino Lorber's Studio Classics Blu-ray is, as usual, a spectacular presentation, with smart commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin, and an interview with Clinton Greyn, who played medical officer Major Tarkington.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

"She Should'a Said 'No'" (Sam Newfield, 1949)

She Should'a Said 'No'
(1949) is vintage exploitation cinema at its finest, starring a talented actress (Lila Leeds) that should have had a much bigger career, and directed and photographed by two of Poverty Row's most prolific and capable craftsmen (director Sam Newfield and cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh).

The story is about a model who is working to put her brother through college, and how smoking marijuana destroys her personal and professional life and lands her in jail. Not coincidentally, this story bears a great deal of similarity to the real life of its star, Lila Leeds, an aspiring actress who was arrested on marijuana charges when cops busted a party that she and Robert Mitchum were at. But while Mitchum was able to resume his career after he got out of jail, Leeds's career never recovered. This was the only role she could land, and it wound up being her last film. In true exploitation style, the film was even distributed briefly as The Story of Lila Leeds and Her Exposé of the Marijuana Racket in order to cash-in on Leeds's scandal (the film was also distributed as Wild Weed and The Devil's Weed).

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray presents an astonishingly clean print and reminds of the visual artistry of exploitation films that is often overlooked. I'm so used to seeing these sorts of films in such shoddy, scratchy prints that I forgot how cinematic they can actually be, and She Should'a Said 'No' is actually quite beautiful at moments, displaying expressionistic touches in its use of shadows and montage.

Behind the camera were the team of director Sam Newfield (using the name "Sherman Scott") and cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh (who photographed that other weed cult classic, Reefer Madness). Newfield and Greenhalgh each eventually racked up over 200 credits during their career, over half of which were done as collaborations. They were all B-pictures, mostly distributed by PRC, but they are some real gems in that bunch, including His Brother's Ghost (1945), a Buster Crabbe western where Fuzzy St. John takes the lead and pretends to be his twin brother's ghost. She Should'a Said 'No' presents Newfield and Greenhalgh at their best: more than capable craftsmen with a stellar command of economic film-making techniques.

Even in its day, She Should'a Said 'No' was appreciated more for camp than its message at midnight screenings, and over seventy years later it still provides an evening's worth of pulpy entertainment and a terrific cast that includes bit parts by Hollywood stalwarts Lyle Talbot as a cop and Jack Elam as a drug dealer's thug, as well as a lead performance by Leeds that hints at greater roles that she could have—and should have—had. Maybe it's just me, but even at the film's conclusion, when everything is wrapped up nicely, there seems to be something behind her smile that knows she wouldn't get such a happy ending in real life.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray includes a bonus feature, The Devil's Sleep (1949), that will be reviewed separately. More exploitation adventures to come soon!
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