Sunday, November 15, 2020
Saturday, November 14, 2020
Friday, November 13, 2020
Friday, November 6, 2020
Keene's choice of reviving Doyle during his paperback period is really interesting, as Keene's novels tended to focus on average joes who, through extraordinary circumstances, have to prove that they or their spouse is innocent of murder. Considering the popularity of private eyes in paperback fiction at the time, perhaps Keene was hoping a publisher would latch onto the character for a series. Doyle's description as a World War II vet with premature white hair and blue eyes, in fact, reminds of another popular series private eye of the time: Richard Prather's Shell Scott. Scott's white hair and blue eyes graced the cover of scores of Gold Medal paperbacks in the 1950s (and beyond). The similarities stop there, however, as Keene's prose is decidedly less animated than Prather's.
The plot of If the Coffin Fits is certainly more routine than Keene's typical work from this period, hitting all the expected beats and twists one would expect from a 50s detective novel; however, it still exhibits Keene's commitment to action-oriented puzzle plots and pedal-to-the-metal pacing.
In If the Coffin Fits, Chicago private eye Tom Doyle is visited by an old army buddy, Tiny Anderson, who now runs a successful casino in Central City, Nevada. Anderson offers Doyle $5000 to fly to Central City, wait in front of a public monument at midnight, and get into a car to hear a proposal. If he doesn't like what he hears, he can walk away. For that kind of money, and a trusted friend, Doyle takes the case. But from the moment he lands in Central City, he knows there is more to the case than he was told. Local goons are waiting at the airport to persuade him—with their fists—to turn around. Doyle seems to have found himself caught in a grab for political control of the town, between one party who wants to reform and clean it up and another that wants to keep it wide open and corrupt. And everything seems to be related to James Burton, a young aspiring lawyer, who has been accused of murdering his high-school aged babysitter, who was pregnant with his alleged child, and is set to be executed in a couple days. And it's up to Doyle to save Burton, avoid the cops, outrun the goons, and help a stray college student (Fay Adams) who is unknowingly caught up in all of this.
Bill Crider was right when he said, "The story is a lot more complicated than I can describe here, but it's a lot of fun. If you like the old-fashioned pulp-styled p.i. stories, you'd find a lot to like here. I know I did."
Even by Keene's standards, there's a lot of plot here—almost more than can fit in the book. Perhaps because the main character is outside of the conflict and not directly involved, the story feels more rote and detached than Keene's other books. There's something very pedestrian about the trail of evidence and the pile-up of obstacles in Doyle's way in If the Coffin Fits, as though Keene is amassing incident-after-incident in order to prolong the conclusion until a word-count is hit. The story does, however, display's Keene's classical sense of deduction, preferring to have his character use his intellect rather than his fists to piece the puzzle together. Not that there's any lack of action—If the Coffin Fits is slam-bang all the way—but Keene separates the violence from the logic of the story. Keene doesn't offer any easy outs for his protagonist: he makes Doyle work for the clues and think about what they mean.
One facet of Keene's writing that has become more apparent and fascinating the more I read him is the sense of restraint in his prose. He's hardboiled through-and-through, but he doesn't indulge in graphic depictions of violence or lurid passage of sex and lust. Often, as in If the Coffin Fits, his protagonists are too busy running around to sleep with anybody—they rarely get any sleep themselves, unless they are knocked unconscious. Violence is also exhibited only in self-defense, and even then Keene's writing is economical and to-the-point, using as few words as possible to paint a mental image before getting on with the plot. Which is really what Keene is about—the plot. His pacing is unmatched, and for all of the intricate plotting he keeps things crystal clear and manages to tie everything up in the end, often in a whirlwind final few paragraphs.
If the Coffin Fits isn't one of Keene's greatest books, but it's damned entertaining, nonetheless. And that's something for which he can always be counted on.
Wednesday, November 4, 2020
"The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4" (2013) - Short Story Wednesday
Monday, November 2, 2020
Friday, October 30, 2020
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
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 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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Thursday, October 1, 2020
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
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
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.
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
Friday, September 18, 2020
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"?
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Monday, August 31, 2020
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
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
Monday, August 24, 2020
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
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 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
Image source: Ashville Citizen-Times, August 30, 1988
Wednesday, August 19, 2020
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
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
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 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
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.