Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying" edited by Bill Crider (Busted Flush Press, 2010)

A strikingly unusual anthology is Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying, a collection of twenty-eight tales in the self-defined niche of "geezer noir." Edited by Bill Crider and published by the small-but-ambitious Houston-based Busted Flush Press, this follow-up to 2006's original Damn Near Dead, manages to avoid the trappings of "gimmick" anthologies. The contributors clearly have fun with the "geezer" theme, but they focus on the story rather than the shtick. Stories range from the satiric—Joe R. Lansdale's pithy "The Old Man in the Motorized Chair," about a grumpy, retired detective who solves crimes between commercial breaks —to the tragic—Ed Gorman's "Flying Solo," about two terminally-ill cancer patients whose turn to violent vigilantism reflects their deeply rooted social and personal discontent. Anthology-opener "Sleep, Creep, Leap" by Patricia Abbott, a clever slow-burner about neighborly good intentions gone wrong, evokes the patient plotting and redolent characterization of Margaret Millar. Gary Phillips' "The Investor" points to new directions in socially conscious crime fiction by fusing classic genre elements - mob corruption and hitmen—with timely economic and environmental concerns. And James Reasoner's "Warning Shot" mixes pathos and action, as a Depression-era night security guard copes with the emotional and tangible consequences of an accidental shooting. Happily, Damn Near Dead 2 does without nursing home pastiche and cranky cane wielders.

Monday, July 20, 2020

"Knives of the Avenger" (Mario Bava, 1966)

Kino Lorber's on-going commitment to presenting the films of Mario Bava on Blu-ray is revelatory, displaying the Italian director's work in all of their visual majesty. Even a film like Knives of the Avenger (I coltelli del vendicatore, 1966), not heralded as one of Bava's masterworks, is simply stunning to behold. It was made right in the middle of his career as a director, in between his early career-defining hits and late-period masterpieces: behind him were Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), The Whip and the Body (1964), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Planet of the Vampires (1965), and still to come were Danger: Diabolik (1968), Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), Bay of Blood (1971), Baron Blood (1872), and Rabid Dogs (1974). Though he is best known for his horror films, Knives of the Avenger is not the only Viking film that he made; five years earlier he made Erik the Conqueror (Gli invasori, 1961), which also shared the same star, Cameron Mitchell.

A cinematic Poe, Bava was a poet with the camera, and his dynamic yet sensitive compositions captured the essence of the fantastic and the uncanny—both the allure as well as the grisly aspects of horror—and in Knives of the Avenger, Bava shows he's equally adept at capturing the serene beauty and the brutality of a viking revenge story. A muted palette of dull tans, grays and blues—beaches at dusk, the insides of huts and caves shrouded in darkness—is punctuated by deep greens and bright reds—lush forests, vibrant hills of grass, and of course the hellish hues of first and blood, without which no Bava film would be complete.

Filmed in Techniscope (a budget anamorphic alternative to the most well-known Cinemascope), Knives of the Avenger is a cinematic contradiction: an epic expressed as a chamber drama mainly due to economic constraints. As Bava biographer Tim Lucas explains in his characteristically detailed and illuminating commentary, Bava took over production from another director and had only a handful days to re-write the film, choosing to scrap most of what had been completed and start fresh. The resulting film was, as Lucas called it, a Viking version of Shane, in which a man longs to escape his violent past by joining a family, however his need to protect the family means he cannot forget his roots.

In Knives of the Avenger, a wandering, knife-throwing warrior, Helmut (Cameron Mitchell), approaches a farm and meets a Karin and her young son, Moki, whose father, Aarald, is away on a journey. Hagen, a ruthless warrior whose recklessness sent the region into warfare years before with rival warlord Ruric, has returned to capture Karin. He sends a band of soldiers to kidnap Karin and Moki, but Helmut intervenes to save them. What unfolds is a like a Shakespearean tragedy: Ruric longs to atone for past sins by protecting Karin and Moki, Hagen longs to steal Karin from her husband, and Aarald has vowed to kill the warlord Ruric who raped Karin and murdered his father, the former King.

I watched the film twice—first in Italian with English subtitles, and then a couple days later with Tim Lucas's commentary. The first viewing was enjoyable—Bava's visual style is always a treat for the eyes, and I found myself immersed in the film's reserved tone, solemn and grim—but the second viewing was particularly eye-opening. From the first scene, Lucas reveals artistic touches that linked the film with others throughout Bava's career, as well as highlighting subtleties in the composition, lighting, acting, and script that deeply enriched my experience, in addition to providing contextual histories about the production and the people involved.

While it might be minor work, Knives of the Avenger is nonetheless a prime example of his artistry and economy, and it is a testament to his vision that he was able to imbue such a hasty project with such personal details and dramatic depth. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

"Du rififi à Paname" (1966)

Du rififi à Paname
(1966) was the fourth and final of Auguste Le Breton's Rififi books to reach the screen (as of now, that is, a remake of the original Rififi is rumored to be in the works). Running 86 minutes, it's a tight, economical crime thriller. Glittery on the outside—picturesque exteriors from Paris and Tokyo and glamorous interiors from nightclubs—but hardboiled and cold at its core, just as any color film noir should be. Jean Gabin—France's original heartthrob of hardboiled coolness, who was the titular gangster in Pépé le Moko (1937), as well as the doomed antiheroes of Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows (1938) and Daybreak (1939)—and Gert Fröbe (best known as Goldfinger) lead a terrific cast, with lots of colorful bit parts, including a supporting role from one of Hollywood's original gangsters, George Raft, and a cameo from Christa Lang (before her marriage to Samuel Fuller, with whom she later collaborated on many films) as a gangster's moll.

The first Rififi movie, directed in France by blacklisted American ex-pat Jules Dassin in 1955, was based on Le Breton's first novel (Du rififi chez les hommes) originally published in 1951, written in collaboration by Le Breton, Dassin, and René Wheeler. The result was—and remains to this day—the pinnacle of heist movies, a gritty, hardboiled crime thriller set in a ruthless and remorseless criminal underworld. The dialog was sharp, but the action was even sharper—not explosive and flashy, but economical and precise, as professional as the men carrying out the heist. Two more films in the series—linked only by their titles—followed, Riff Raff Girls in 1959 and Rififi in Tokyo in 1963. Many of the books featured the recurring character special agent Mike Coppolano, however he only appears in the final Rififi film, Du rififi à Paname.

Released eleven years after the original, Du rififi à Paname, distributed in English as The Upper Hand, exchanged the stark, chilly black-and-white photography of Dassin's film for a more dazzlingly and flashy display of colors. Otherwise, the film, written and directed by Denys de La Patellière with dialogue by Alphonse Boudard, sticks close to the cinematic style of the original. In the leading role is Jean Gabin, who plays Paulo les Diams (Paulo Diamonds), a nightclub owner with a lucrative international smuggling operation in consort with antique dealer, Walter (Gert Fröbe), who is selling arms to Cuba. The aging Paulo and Walter must contend with rival gangs trying to muscle in on their territory, as well as an undercover treasury agent trying to infiltrate their organization, and a mob boss, Charles Binnaggio (George Raft) who wants to diminish their operation.

Just what this has to do with Panama, I'm not sure. Paulo trades gold with Japan, Walter sells arms to Cuba, the U.S. sent a treasury agent undercover to Paris, and there are mentions of London and Munich, but never Panama. Maybe it is in the book and got left out of the movie? In the UK and other countries, the film was released as Rififi in Paris, a less confusing geographic title since most of the film takes place in Paris.

Much of the film deals with the transactional details of Paulo's business: using sex workers to ensnare businessmen to become mules, discussing how to deal with rival gangs, and other bureaucratic meetings. Scenes of violence are handled quickly and without emotion, as though it is just another part of the job. The criminal world of Du rififi à Paname is presented through a capitalistic lens: independents fighting to retain autonomy against a larger syndicate, and businesses competing with each other over the same territory. Every facet of this world, every relationship, and every moment, is an exchange of some sort. Sincerity is alien. Even on his deathbed, a character tries to sway an emotionless wife that he loves her—whether he is trying to convince her or himself is ambiguous, but clearly she understands that their marriage was a business conquest like everything else in the movie.

Rather than romanticizing this world, Du rififi à Paname neither glamorizes nor glorifies either the criminals or the police. The film sympathizes with Paulo's drive for independence, but even he isn't beyond reproach. In one scene, the film presents a slightly Marxist critique of his business, when Walter refers to their practice of using sex workers to manipulate businessmen into smuggling their goods across borders: "Someone like you and me should read statistics. We who exploit human stupidity." It's a seemingly amoral world, with no right or wrong, no justice or injustice, just exploitation, corruption, and annihilation. In this sense, there's a nihilistic worldview to the movie: all that matters is what one can control, and beyond that, there is nothing.

Among the bigger mysteries of the film is the author behind the series: Auguste Le Breton. "I am a wanderer," he said. "I grew up in the gutter and I don't think you can go lower. But I like the great outdoors, cleanliness, in all its forms." The author of 74 novels (according to http://www.auguste-le-breton.com/), only two have ever been translated into English: La lois des rues (1955), translated as The Law of the Streets, and Du rififi a New York (1962), translated as Rififi in New York. Of those 74 are 14 Rififi novels. Born in 1913, he spent his childhood in an orphanage, after escaping several times he was sent to a juvenile prison. Afterwards, he spent time in youth gangs before entering a brief military service. Later, he worked as a manual laborer and an elevator repairman. In the 1940s, he made money as an illegal gambler. During WWII, he was also a member of the Resistance. In the 1950s, he began writing novels, using the language he learned from the streets growing up and his own underworld experiences as inspiration. "I can't invent my heroes, it's flesh and blood. They exist. They take blows. They suffer. And to describe people, I have to get them," he said of his work.

For the moment, Breton will largely remain an enigma for English-language readers. Hopefully in the near-future someone will publish more translation of a prolific author whose work was a seminal part of France's film noir heritage, including not only creating Rififi, but also writing dialogue for Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur (1956), and providing the source novel for Henri Verneuil's The Sicilian Clan (1969).

Saturday, July 18, 2020

"Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe" (2012) by Charles Kelly

The profession of "paperback writer" is as romanticized, mythological, and distorted as any of the heroes and villains from those aged pulp pages. All too often they’re thought of as overpaid hacks, banging out novel after novel, yarn after yarn, raking in dough without concern for their words, without insight into their topics. Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe (2012), Charles Kelly’s groundbreaking biography of Dan J. Marlowe, a writer best known for his crime novels for Gold Medal—the first and most important of the paperback original publishers during its renaissance from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s—should act as a corrective to many of those rumors.

Marlowe’s life behind the typewriter was as dramatic and exciting as any of the criminal kinds that passed through his pages. Born in 1914, he studied accounting in school, mysteriously avoided service in World War II, spent most of his 20s floating from odd job to odd job, and squandered most of his money gambling. “He’d traveled the fringes of society and came naturally to the hardboiled style,” explains biographer Kelly. Marlowe married at age 31, but was a widower by age 42. Hitting the bottle hard, he drifted, and wound up in New York City where he decided to plunge headfirst into the booming paperback industry.

Just as ebooks and self-publishing today are challenging traditional modes of publishing and fighting off claims of illegitimacy and other pretentious prejudices, paperback originals were viewed with suspicion and disgust when they hit newsstands back when Gold Medal printed their first book in 1949. Circumventing the traditional hardcover-to-paperback reprint route, Gold Medal decided to buck the system and produce original paperback novels. Newspapers rarely reviewed them in great depth, if at all. The public, however, loved them. Other publishers followed suit, and a new industry was born (replacing the recently dilapidated pulp field). And it was this new publishing avenue that gave Marlowe a shot in 1959 with his debut novel, Doorway to Death (Avon).

Marlowe’s life took an unexpected turn with his seventh novel in just three years, The Name of the Game Is Death (Gold Medal, 1962). The most popular and critically acclaimed novel of his career up to that point, it won the author many new admirers, including an aspiring young novelist living in Philadelphia. Phone calls and letters were exchanged, nothing out of the ordinary. And then Marlowe, renting a room in a widow’s house in small town Harbor Beach, Michigan, received a visit from the FBI. That aspiring novelist, it turned out, was one of America’s Most Wanted: real life bank robber Al Nussbaum. Nussbaum was eventually caught and served jail time, but he and Marlowe continued to correspond, with Marlowe helping Nussbaum hone his prose, and eventually selling his stories to various magazines. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship: Marlowe shepherding Nussbaum’s career, Nussbaum feeding Marlowe information from his own criminal life.

Nussbaum would not be the dramatic peak to Marlowe’s career. What followed was a hard two-and-a-half decade fall from grace before winding up dead, forgotten, and out-of-print. Along the way there were creative rivalries with uncredited researchers, battles with editors, amnesia, more run-ins with the feds, and the crash of the paperback industry. Changing trends in publishing killed the careers of the writers who gave birth to that industry just a couple decades earlier. Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and many others—including Dan J. Marlowe—suddenly found they could barely make a sale. It was a tragic end to too many careers, an ironically bleak and unjust finale for writers who specialized in noir tales of people, like themselves, whose world crumbled beneath their feet, and who couldn’t stop from falling deeper and deeper into the abyss.

Along with Frank Gruber’s memoir, The Pulp Jungle, and Paul S. Powers’s Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street, Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room is one of the few nonfiction books that offer a privileged, intimate look into the professional lives of mid-century popular fiction writers. The toil behind the craft, the anxiety of the industry, and the personal stories of fingers that kept the typewriter clanging long into the night. For anyone interested in the history of crime fiction, or the evolution and devolution of the paperback original industry, Gunshots In Another Room is an indispensable volume.

(This review was originally published February 10, 2013 in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It appears here in a slightly revised form.)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

"Little Men, Big World" (1951) and "Vanity Row (1952)" by W.R. Burnett

The legacy that W.R. Burnett created has eclipsed is own name. His works were adapted into legendary films such as Little Caesar, Iron Man (three times, twice under its original title and once as Some Blondes are Dangerous), Dark Command, High Sierra (three times, first under its original title and then as Colorado Territory and I Died A Thousand Times), Nobody Lives Forever, Yellow Sky, and The Asphalt Jungle (three times, including a western version called The Badlanders, and Cool Breeze). As a screenwriter, his credits include Scarface, The Beast of the City, This Gun For Hire, Background to Danger, The Racket, Illegal, The Great Escape, and dozens more. Burnett, on the page and on the screen, was an essential component in the formation and iteration of gritty realism in several crime sub-genres, such as gangster, hardboiled, and western noir. Not without a sense of humor, Burnett even provided the hoodlum hokum source material for John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking.

All of which makes one wonder: Why is most of his work out of print? The answer is certainly not that his novels don’t hold up. In 2009, Stark House Press reprinted a pair of excellent, forgotten books—It’s Always Four O’Clock and Iron Man, both rise-and-fall narratives of self-destructive ambition, the former about a jazz guitarist the latter about a middleweight boxer. In 2015, Stark House returned to Burnett with another double-header of should-be crime classics: Little Men, Big World and Vanity Row.

In his introduction to this volume, author and invaluable crime fiction scholar Rick Ollerman positions these two novels as part of Burnett’s “Urban Trilogy,” along with 1949’s The Asphalt Jungle. “Each one shows a different facet of crime and the reason for its ultimate downfall, related by the strengths but ultimately the weaknesses of the criminals involved. Hoods are people, Burnett shows us, complex and plagued with the same differences in personalities, the same sins and vices, as everyone else.” The crooks here aren’t villains, but schmucks caught in a bureaucratic system that offers no real chance for success. Good guy or bad, Burnett’s characters are all born to lose.

Originally published in 1951, Little Men, Big World is an ensemble narrative of vice and political corruption in an unnamed Midwestern city. At the center of the story is Arky, a bookie whose livelihood is under threat from all sides. There’s a rat in his organization selling out to the Big City boys across the river who want to move in and take over; Ben Reisman, a journalist, is bent on exposing the rackets; and Commissioner Stark wants to run him out of business and clean up the city. It is a book of many mysteries—Who is the informer? Who is the big boss? Who is corrupt and who is on the level? Who will wind up on top and who will fall back into the gutter?—but more than that, it is an exposé of under- and upper-world bureaucracies, the commonalities of their structures, and the ways in which their worlds intersect.

If the urban arena is meant to signify the height of American achievement—where gangsters, reporters, and politicians alike can wield earth-changing influence—in Little Men, Big World Burnett tears the skyscrapers down to one-story stumps. Unlike Horatio Alger and his underdogs, Burnett’s city boys never succeed through hard work and determination. Arky is the most Alger-esque of the bunch, a runaway kid and petty thief who was saved from jail by a benevolent judge. Plucked from the gutter and placed into prominence, Arky well understands the rule of the city: no one gets where they are on their own. From the lowly driver to the high court judge, they were put there for a reason by someone more powerful than them, who was in turn put there by someone even more powerful, and so on up to the top of a never-ending ladder.

The desires of the characters are abstract—Arky, Reisman, and Stark are vying for power and influence, but over who? Certainly, each other, but none have any tangible, clearly defined goal in sight. Arky seems caught in an ever-changing game of chess, shifting people’s positions and moving locations but never making any actual change. Stark wants to wipe out graft, when by his own admission, “as long as men want to gamble, there will be gambling an army couldn’t stop.” Reisman has risen from beat reporter to syndicated columnist, yet he is now “bored, depressed, at loose ends … he’d really hit bottom.” And what does his career even matter when he suffers from a potentially life-threatening ulcer? Burnett undercuts their ambitions by emphasizing the futility of their visions.

More than just a “crime doesn’t pay” parable, Little Men, Big World projects such a deeply cyncial worldview that even antiheroes can’t be celebrated. Burnett humanizes his pawns before utterly humiliating them. Arky might control the local rackets, but when his girlfriend brings her infant niece into the house, he finds himself emasculated and powerless; Arky’s thuggish driver, Turkey, is made to wear and apron and struggle to cook breakfast as part of his duties; Stark cleans up the underworld but he’s so unworldly not to recognize the ulterior motives behind his own promotion; and Reisman, whose ulcer bookends the novel, is the biggest fool of all for thinking he has made a change in the world when really nothing has changed, he’s only one step closer to death.

Vanity Row, Burnett’s follow-up in 1952, seems very pedestrian on the surface. Police Captain Roy Hargis is investigating the death of a big shot lawyer, and both his superiors and the underworld are putting the pressure on him to pin the murder on the lawyer’s mistress, Ilona Vance, who naturally Hargis falls in love with and believes is innocent. These broad narratives strokes were nothing extraordinary at the time, and are even less so now, but the significance of Vanity Row lies not in its formula but in Burnett’s politically-rooted skepticism of such archetypes. Hargis is another of Burnett’s corporate cogs, placed into power by a character euphemistically referred to as the “big political boss.” Hargis’s unmerited advancement was so he could be used to circumvent official procedure and cut through red tape. Living in a swank hotel and accepting “favors,” Hargis more closely resembles a gangster than a cop, a division made even more complicated by Hargis’ earnest (and naïve) ambition to be a righteous hero. Burnett’s cynical worldview, however, doesn’t allow for such easy chivalry: In a world in which there is no clear line between good and bad, or right and wrong, how can you know which side you are truly on?

As the investigation gets deeper and more dangerous, Hargis futilely puts his career and life on the line to absolve Ilona Vance. Subverting the traditional moral balance of crime novels, the revelation of truth in the final chapters does not set everything right. Justice, in Burnett’s world, is never just: it is a political tool, like money, influence, and power, and it is inherently corrupt.

As a social documentarian, Burnett offers a fascinating and morally ambiguous counterpoint to contemporaneous procedurals like Dragnet. He doesn’t view crime as a battle between cops and robbers, and forensics aren’t a literary tool to piece together an incomplete narrative. Instead, Burnett posits cops and robbers as complements in a fluid structure with no clear diving line, and police methodology not a means to a truthful, more complete narrative but just an added layer of and adulterated facts and obscured certitudes. In Little Men, Big World and Vanity Row, the mysteries might be solved, but the real problems still remain.

This review was originally published at The Life Sentence on October 12, 2015. It appears here in a slightly revised form.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"Dead Girl Blues" by Lawrence Block (2020)

Dead Girl Blues is perhaps Lawrence Block's darkest, most unsettling book yet, equally disturbing and compelling, and I couldn't put it down. A first-person narrative through the eyes of a sociopath, it's not for the feint of heart—something any reader will recognize after only a few pages. It only takes that long for the crime to happen: our narrator walks into a bar, picks up a woman, and takes her to the woods where he murders her and then rapes her. Written in the form of a diary, the rest of the book follows the narrator over the next several decades of his life as he builds a new identity, starts his life anew, and reflects on his crime, wondering whether he will be caught and whether he will do it again.

If you're looking for lighthearted entertainment, I suggest picking up any one of Block's Burglar books—they're delightful. Dead Girl Blues is a very different beast, one that is well-written (as is anything by Block) but whose story is certainly challenging.

In some ways, Dead Girl Blues feels like a throwback to the Midwood, Corinth, and Nightstand paperbacks that he was writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s—lurid, ribald, provocative, tantalizingly indecent, treading in forbidden desires, pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Yet those books, like Dead Girl Blues, offered something beyond the cheap thrills advertised by their titles (Border Lust, A Girl Called Honey, So Willing, Sin Hellcat, those last three written in collaboration with Donald Westlake)—a dry, black humor, often in the most unexpected of places; a gripping narrative; playful, unconventional storytelling methods; and an imitable voice that can only be described as "Lawrence Block," a sense of phrasing, eye for detail, and overall personality that's present in all of his works, regardless of their genre or the name on the cover.

Reading this book actually reminded me of the first time I encountered Block's work. I was in Partner and Crime Bookstore (RIP) in Greenwich Village, waiting for the second performance of W-WOW's live old time radio show to start. Kiz Reeves, one of the owners, was behind the counter. She knew I was into crime fiction—I was, after all, spending my Saturday night hanging out alone in a mystery bookstore—and had been turning me on to some great stuff, Fredric Brown, Craig Rice, Jonathan Latimer. Out of the blue, she asked if I had read Lawrence Block. I hadn't. She walked over to the shelf and pulled out a copy of his short story collection One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, turned to "The Burning Fury" (originally published in Off Beat Detective Stories #2, February 1959), and told me to read. I did. And I was hooked. The short story is very similar to the first few pages of Dead Girl Blues. A man is in a bar. A woman enters. He knows he is going to do something bad to her. He tries to drink himself into a blackout before he can hurt her. The story ends with them two of them at her place as he starts to assault her, the reader well aware that the worst is still yet to come. I hadn't felt such chills before—even now, recalling the story, cold runs through my body leaving a trail of goosebumps. Many things impressed me about the story. Getting so deep into a protagonist's psyche in only a few pages. The unique way of structuring the story by leaving the most brutal aspects unspoken: it's Hitchcockian in the way that Block implicates us readers in the crime by making us write the conclusion in our minds, and our imagination makes it all the worse,. Yet there's also a sobering sense of reality to the story, and the gravity of what was happening. Block wasn't glorifying misogyny, violence, or alcoholism. "The Burning Fury" was scary in ways that were unlike other crime stories from this era that I had read: there's no pleasure at the end of this mystery, only sadness, revulsion, and fear. Years later, Block would revisit several of these themes of this story in greater detail in his in his Matthew Scudder series—the horror of sexual violence, the destructive power of alcoholism—but even in this early story there's a sense of real damage to the characters and their lives that is profoundly shocking, distressing, and saddening.

In a way, Dead Girl Blues seems like Block is doing what readers had to do after turning the last page of "The Burning Fury": they had to finish the story for themselves. But violence isn't the end of this story, it's only the beginning. Much like with the recent revelations of the Golden State Killer, part of what is so disturbing—beyond the monstrosity of the crimes–is how a sociopathic killer can just integrate himself into society and lead a seemingly normal life.  And while the book isn't without its moments of humor—the last third of the book, in particular, feels like a twisted satire on the model American family—it's darkness that pervades Dead Girl Blues from first page to last.

After more than sixty years as a wildly prolific author, Lawrence Block continues to write books up to his usual high standard. Since that Saturday evening in Partners and Crime when Kiz handed me One Nights Stands and Lost Weekends I've read everything with Block's name that I've come across, and I've found something to enjoy in all of them. As always, as soon as I finish one book, I'm already looking forward to his next.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Hell on Church Street" by Jake Hinkson (New Pulp Press, 2011)

Is this noir enough for you? "The story of my life is I lived, I fucked up, and I'm going to die. I'll probably go to hell." Hell on Church Street is the debut novel from Jake Hinkson, who first made his mark as a scholar in the pages of Eddie Muller's Noir City Sentinel and with short stories in ezines like Beat to a Pulp. Hinkson's first book is like some unholy union of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, and Charles Willeford's The Black Mass of Brother Springer. Hell on Church Street tells the story of Geoffrey Webb, a rotund con artist with a clerical collar and a delusional superiority complex. After taking a job as a youth minister for the Higher Living Baptist Church in Little Rock, Webb begins a doomed affair with the preacher's teenage daughter. Once the local sheriff gets wind of this, he attempts to blackmail Webb into stealing a valuable document from the preacher, which sets off a chain reaction of violence in the Baptist community.

Hell on Church Street is one of the rare novels that actually deserves the over-used comparison to Jim Thompson, not just because Webb follows in the footsteps of such crazed protagonists as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey (Pop. 1280), but because Hinkson takes a risk and deviates from Thompson's iconic moulds. As Webb's world spins further out of his control, he develops a self-awareness lacking in Ford and Corey: "And then it hit me. Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I wasn't as hidden and smart as I thought I was. Maybe the problem had been me all along." Despite his perverse sociopathy, Webb suffers a genuine fall from grace, and we sympathize with him in ways that we never can with Thompson's protagonists.

Who do we hold responsible—or thank—for unleashing such a savagely psychotic, yet strangely compassionate novel as Hell on Church Street? That would be New Pulp Press, a small outfit under the editorial leadership of Jon Bassoff. Over the past three years, they have cultivated an arsenal of bold, experimental crime fiction titles - many of them from debut authors such as Hinkson—that carry on in the grand noir tradition without pandering to pastiche. Leonard Fritz's In Nine Kinds of Pain is a love letter to the seediest aspects of Detroit, with literary echoes of Burroughs and Bulgakov; Heath Lowrance's The Bastard Hand is a crack-addled ride through the backwoods of Mississippi; and if you ever wondered what a collaboration between Bukowski and Ian Fleming might have looked like, check out Jonathan Woods' collection Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. And with Woods' debut novel, A Death in Mexico, already on deck for 2012, New Pulp Press is a small publisher to watch.

(This review was originally published January 23, 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Monday, July 13, 2020

"The Syndicate" (1960) by Robert Chestnut (Clarence Cooper, Jr.)

The Syndicate starts on hardboiled overdrive right on page one, and only revs up with each turn of the page. Andy Sorrell, muscle for the New York mob, has just arrived in the "West Coast" city of Hollisworth, in search of three man who ripped off a syndicate bank for half a million dollars. He was told to take care of the men—not to find the money. Sorrell has every intention of killing his marks, but he's also set his sights on taking the loot for himself. While Sorrell's boss, Lou Pulco, had promised him that Hollisworth, a syndicate town, would be cooperative, Sorrell finds himself one step behind someone else who is after the money.

Published in 1960 by Newsstand Library, The Syndicate was written by "Robert Chestnut," a pseudonym of Clarence Cooper, Jr., a pioneering Black author of crime fiction. Cooper was born in Detroit in 1934 and published seven novels before he was found dead of a heroin overdose in the 23rd Street YMCA in New York City in 1978. His widely-acclaimed first novel, The Scene, was also published in 1960, by Crown Publishing, however that book appeared under his real name. The Syndicate's publisher, Newsstand Library, was decidedly more sleazy, a Chicago-based operation best known for publishing Charles Willeford's The Woman Chaser (1960). Other Newsstand titles give you an idea of their market: Fraudulent Broad, Amorous Avenger, Doomed Sinner, Sinful Cowboy, Jambalaya Loverman, Bogus LoverOffice Playgirl. Clearly, The Syndicate was of a different cut from other Newsstand titles—while it sticks to the two-word title format, it distinguishes itself by using only an article and a noun rather than an adjective and a noun. Joking aside, the lurid element of The Syndicate differentiated from the more serious literary aspirations of Cooper and is one reason why it was released under a pseudonym. Another possible reason for the pseudonym is that, perhaps, The Syndicate could have been written for quick cash, rather than as a literary work. I do not know Newsstand Library's author agreements, but if they are like Gold Medal then they paid authors upfront for a print run rather than based on royalties. Since Crown was a more legitimate publisher, my theory is that they were paying Cooper based on royalties and that either his earnings were slow to come in or that they were lower than anticipated, so he wrote a quickie for the sleaze market. This is only a theory, but it would explain both the pen name as well the sex-and-violence-driven narrative that was characteristic of sleaze paperbacks of this era.

While Cooper delivers on the prurient pleasures promised by the publisher's ill repute, his style is like that of a post-modern Robert Leslie Bellem, that gat-tastic 1930s pulpster whose wild vocabulary delivered hallucinatory scenes of violence and near-dada synonyms for guns and mayhem. Like Bellem, Cooper revels in orgiastic violence mixed with surreal imagery and wordplay. Cooper's indulgence in excess makes even Mickey Spillane look tame. However, Spillane wrote with a certain earnestness—he wasn't without a sense of humor, but one got the sense that Spillane wrote at face-level—and there's something sly and subversive about Cooper, an awareness of what he was writing and what his audience expected. It's like a straight-faced send-up of Spillane-style machismo without the winks and nods of a writer like Richard Prather; instead, Cooper reveals humor through excess, and criticism through his protagonist's blind devotion to his hyper-masculine ways. The protagonist's homophobia (devoted to all three pages of chapter one) and misogyny (devoted to all three pages of chapter two and which appear throughout the book) are amplified through first-person narration, in keeping with the genre's stereotype, but Cooper amplifies them to such an extreme amount that it becomes a sort of critical lens; by making the subtext "text," he reveals the hardboiled masculinity for all of its monstrous, bigoted reality.

As the cliche goes, sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar—and sometimes a gun is not a gun. When Sorrell is sent to meeting with his syndicate contact, a club owner named Brace Lilly, he feels threatened both by Lilly's homosexuality as well as Lilly's armed guards. "I sat, but all the rods made me nervous," Sorrell remarks in first-person narration, however embedded within that statement is Cooper's own estimation of Sorrell's fragile masculinity. It is moments like these that save the book from succumbing to the violent, misogynistic tendencies of its protagonist. One doesn't have to read between the lines to see that Cooper doesn't endorse the behavior and worldview of Sorrell. The same can't be said for Spillane and his series character, Mike Hammer. Even Sorrell is disgusted with himself and his actions: a woman he rapes says she should kill him for what he did, and he says, "I won't argue the point." Hammer never offers such moments of critical transparency.

Sorrell's moments of awareness are some of the most interesting aspects of The Syndicate, which otherwise unwinds as expected with Sorrell either shooting, slapping, or screwing everyone he comes across. Even Sorrell remarks that his predilection for sex in the most inopportune of times—such as when numerous parties are trying to kill him—reminds him of a lab experiment in which hungry male rats, when shown a female rat and food, choose the female rat over the food. "What that test proved then, I don't know, but it sure let me see that rats and men have a lot in common. Here I was, about to have my ass scissored, staring down at something that had C'mon sucker written all over it." At times Cooper reminds of Jim Thompson, allowing the mental state of his protagonist to dictate, and at time dominate, the narrative. As the book progresses, Sorrell's pscyho-sexual urges become increasingly dominate—he has so many flashbacks to his deceased lover, as well as his own father, and the sea, that eventually even Sorrell himself thinks he is going crazy. At one point, after being blindsided, Sorrell wakes up in a room with a corpse, a set-up he's supposed to take the fall for. He calls for a doctor to tend to the victim and then makes his escape. Only he doesn't just flee, he has a moment of introspection that belies the casual brutality that characterizes him for much of the novel.

"I stopped before I got half away, crying inside myself, like a baby or something. That feeling was riding me hard again, piggy-backed, with a pair of cold fingers in my eyes. 

The the voice started talking, speeded up, like Woody Woodpecker, and it was laughing at me because I didn't have what other folks had, because I was tainted, like a leper, with a curse on my head.
It was no using trying to get around the facts: Something was wrong with me. 

And whatever it was was scary as hell . . ."

Is Sorrell's machismo an act? Is he covering up for something in his past? Cooper gives hints at what is bothering Sorrell—a dead wife that he still feels connected to, a father he misses and thinks is looking down on him—but Cooper never solidifies these reminiscences. And all the better that he doesn't. There's no easy answer for Sorrell's past, no dimestore psychology that can explain him. These inconsistencies in his behavior, and glimpses into his mental state, make for a much more compelling character, and add a bit of mystery to a mystery novel that, otherwise, holds no real mystery to it.

Republished by Molotov Editions in 2018 (with an afterward by the great Gary Phillips), The Syndicate is an overlooked classic of American noir. "Every goddamn thing in the world was against me," muses Sorrell, "just like it'd always been all my frigging life." Has their ever been a better distillation of the noir ethos than those 18 words? It is these darker undercurrents of The Syndicate that fascinate Domenic Stansberry, author and editor/founder of Molotov Editions (who reprinted the book). In an essay at Crime Reads, Stansberry  calls attention to "the inherent allegorical irony in a story about doomed gangsters—written by a black man hiding his identity from a mostly white audience—a story which nonetheless carried a forbidden charge, an acknowledgement of a fixed system, a character trapped both by his own nature and the fabric of the world; a dark book nonetheless vibrant in its nihilism."

Sunday, July 12, 2020

"The Bughouse Affair" by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini (2013)

The Bughouse Affair 
is a collaboration between two modern legends of the PI genre (who also happen to be husband and wife): Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. Equally influential are Pronzini's Nameless Detective and Muller’s series sleuth, Sharon McCone. First seen in 1977’s now-classic Edwin of the Iron Shoes, McCone showed that modern-day mean streets are not just for boys, and cemented the female PI as a character to be taken seriously by writers and readers alike. Pronzini's Namless first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1968’s “It’s a Lousy World” and has appeared in several dozen novels over the past half-century.

Since the passing of Kenneth Millar (a.k.a. Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar, Pronzini and Muller have been the reigning King and Queen of mystery fiction. Like the Millars, their marriage is a match made in heaven: two top-tier crime writers, each with their own distinctive style and independent reputation. Also like the Millars, Pronzini and Muller are the only other partners to receive the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. Unlike the Millars, however, Pronzini and Muller have also consummated their marriage on the page, through numerous collaborative novels and anthologies.

A delightfully screwball historical set in late-19th century San Francisco, The Bughouse Affair centers around the PI firm of ex–Secret Service agent John Quincannon and ex-Pinkerton Sabina Carpenter: partners in profession, not love, much to Quincannon’s dismay. With Quincannon repeatedly lousing up his attempts to catch a serial burglar, and Carpenter losing track of the female pickpocket she is trailing, business is not going so well. The cases seem increasingly to be interrelated, and a fellow claiming to be “Sherlock Holmes” enters their lives, and makes things worse. This pain in their necks claims to have both cases wrapped up but doesn’t, and it’s up to Quincannon and Carpenter to step up their games, save face, and solve the case.

The Bughouse Affair may be a more cordial cozy than Pronzini's recently released noir novellas, Kinsmen and Femme, but it’s an equally fine piece of mystery craftsmanship. Like a tightly edited, multinarrative movie, The Bughouse Affair never drags, jumping between Quincannon and Carpenter’s adventures, creating a comical dialectic between their diametrically opposed personalities. Stubborn with unrequited love, Quincannon is the classic hardboiled dick who acts out of instinct rather than intellect. Carpenter is more sophisticated and cerebral in her practices but equally stubborn when it comes to her feelings, hence her refusal to give Quincannon the time of day. Originally appearing in Pronzini’s 1985 novel, Quincannon, it’s great to see the two detectives back on the page again. They’re an instantly likable duo, charming and amiable enough to win over even a noir-hardened, cozy-phobic reader like myself. I hope it won’t be too long before Pronzini and Muller pair them up on another case.

(This review was originally published February 10, 2013 in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It appears here in a slightly revised form.)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

"Femme" (2012) and "Kinsmen" (1993/2013) by Bill Pronzini

2013 marked the 45th anniversary of one of crime fiction’s most enduring and hardest working PIs: Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. Making his first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1968’s “It’s a Lousy World,” Nameless has appeared in 36 novels and more than 40 short stories. At the moment, his is the longest running PI series currently in print. By this point, he’s out performed and outlived the Continental Op, Spade, Marlowe, Archer, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, and most of his snoopy brethren. Nameless now stands with Holmes, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and Spenser as one of the longest surviving literary private eyes of all time, and Pronzini deservedly towers tall alongside their titanic scribes. Pronzini was instrumental in modernizing the private eye genre, moving away from overly stylized syntax and hardboiled super heroes towards a more realistic and humanistic presentation in which we can recognize our own world and ourselves. Whether they know it or not (and hopefully they do), all contemporary PI writers and readers owe a great debt to Pronzini. Scholar, collector, editor, anthologist, and writer, he is, without a doubt, among the most significant minds in the mystery field of the past century.

Over the years, Pronzini has kept the name of his first-person narrator closely guarded, revealing it only once in the entire run of the series thus far (or so rumor has it, I’m still playing catch-up and haven’t come across it yet). Despite his anonymity, however, Nameless is among the most recognizably human of private eyes. He is an archetype fueled by heart rather than hype. He carries a gun not out of bloodlust (like Mike Hammer), but for protection from a world he knows is twisted, violent, and remorseless. He’s not hard drinking, fast loving, or quick with the quip. A San Francisco resident, devoted collector of pulp magazines and crime fiction scholar (like Pronzini, himself), Nameless is aware of his profession’s literary tradition, and he shows affection for his predecessors without ever seeming affected or self-conscious. He’s less extraordinary than he is ordinary; more like a neighbor we’re likely to sit at a counter with at the diner than someone who would save the world from certain doom. Nameless is a professional, he does his job, and he cares about it, but he’s mortal, and—more importantly—he mourns. “It’s a hell of a world we live in,” he says in Kinsmen, “A hell of a world.”

Cemetery Dance published two new additions to Pronzini’s ever-lengthening bibliography, the novellas Kinsmen and Femme. Kinsmen, originally published in Criminal Intent 1 in 1993, finds Nameless investigating the disappearance of two college students last seen at a backwoods motel in upstate California. When he learns the couple was interracial, Nameless begins to wonder if there’s more behind the townsfolk’s tight lips than just innocent resentment of his prying eyes. Pronzini doesn’t indulge in the usual PI dramatics; like Ed Gorman, the great humanist amongst all PI writers, Pronzini is too sensitive to the pain of the victims, too sick over the hate of the criminals, and too hungover from bearing witness for too damn long. Says Nameless as he exits a movie theater in disgust at the film, “Entertainment? Hell no. There’s nothing entertaining about blood and pain and abused flesh. Not at the best of times and sure as hell not when your job is dealing with the real thing in the real world.” Pronzini has exchanged romance for reticence, excitement for empathy. “It made me feel cold, dirty, and sad and angry,” Nameless says of the case, and it’s a feeling that pervades the whole work. There’s nothing sanctimonious about this, as one might expect from Chandler or Spillane. Instead, Pronzini offers weariness and melancholy.

Femme, a new work from Pronzini, is an outstanding addition to his already impressive body of work, and proof that after nearly 80 adventures, the Nameless series is still going strong, still crisp, and never boring. Evoking the famous meeting of Private Detective Sam Spade and duplicitous dame Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who claims to be looking for her sibling, Nameless’s new case begins when Cory Beckett engages him to find her missing brother, Ken, wanted for stealing a diamond necklace from his employer’s wife. The case may be classical PI territory, but Pronzini’s approach is fresh. The initial investigation has amusing trappings—annoying yachtsmen, packing-peanut entrepreneurs, union leaders, and extramarital affairs—but, in characteristic Pronzini fashion, the emotional ruin at the heart of the case is devastating, and downright sorrowful. “Sickness and disgust, mingled with sadness and an impotent anger at the inhumanity of it,” is what Nameless feels. Private eye fiction isn’t all fun and games anymore.

As Kinsmen and Femme exemplify, the mechanics of Pronzini’s plotting are flawless and fluid. No hiccups, no stretches in logic, nothing beyond believability. He is reticent with his use of similes, but when he does use one it is uncontrived and spot-on. Ken Beckett is described not just as a moth “unable to resist the pull of a destructive flame,” but as one “fluttering back and forth, going nowhere.” The elegance of Pronzini’s language prevents it from seeming a cliché. His phrasing, so direct, is at times like poetry. “Alive, she’d been beautiful; dead, she was a torn and ugly travesty.” His use of the semicolon is a surprising and delicate touch, maintaining the subtle, lyrical lilt of the sentence.

Both novellas have the smooth efficiency and concision of a short story, but expanded to 180-ish easy-reading but hard-hitting pages. Unpretentious, Pronzini doesn’t resort to extreme violence, kooky concepts, or narrative or stylistic gimmicks. He doesn’t have to. There’s an ease to his prose, like João Gilberto’s guitar work. The skill is in making something so complicated sound so effortless, relaxation the true sign of mastery. He doesn’t pander or perform; where others stretch the private eye form to make room for themselves, Pronzini tightens it in calm confidence.

The real pleasure, though, is in the voice. His detective isn’t out to change the world, just out to do a job and do it well. Along the way, he’ll do the right thing if he can. Nameless isn’t an idealist. He’s a realist—and Pronzini is the same, not out to change the game, just to do his job, tell a good story, and entertain a few readers.

(This review originally appeared on February 10, 2013 at the Los Angeles Review of Books)

Friday, July 10, 2020

"Blood on the Mink" by Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg's criminal past has been coming to light—and I, for one, am thrilled, just as readers were undoubtedly thrilled decades ago. In 2011, Stark House Press republished two of the sci-fi master's earliest novels,  Gang Girl (1959) and Sex Bum (1963), both of which originally appeared under the pseudonym Don Elliott. These are from the heyday of smut paperbacks, a time when rising talent (like Silverberg, Donald Westlake, and Lawrence Block) were cutting their teeth on T-and-A-tastic yarns, honing their writing skills and getting paid for it. On a sadder note, veteran pulpsters like Harry Whittington, who could barely sell to legit paperback houses anymore, also resorted to the likes of Corinth to pay the bills.

Fifty-plus years later, Silverberg's Don Elliott books hold up as more than just a literary curiosity: they're damned good, deftly plotted crime stories about low-lifes trying to fight (or sleep) their way to the top. Imagine if James M. Cain's protagonists threw a few more punches and copped a few more feels.

And now comes another of Hard Case Crime's legendary rediscoveries:  Blood on the Mink, a "lost" Silverberg novel. It was originally published as "Too Much Blood on the Mink" by "Ray McKensie" in Trapped magazine in 1962. Trapped's second-to-last issue, it turns out: one of many casualties in the pulp era's retreat to oblivion in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was subsequently forgotten by most of the world, until Hard Case head honcho, Charles Ardai, turned up with a copy of that old magazine. Bless you, Mr. Ardai, for making noir-lovers' dreams come true, time and time again.

As it turns out,  Blood on the Mink is one of Hard Case's best rediscoveries yet. The story is about a government agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a counterfeit money operation in Philly. There's a momentum to these 158 pages that you just don't feel in today's crime novels. Perhaps it's simply the pace at which it was written—banged out as fast as possible so as to get the check as soon as possible—but I think it's something more. This is from an era before doorstop best sellers, when mysteries and thrillers couldn't be mistaken for a set of Shakespeare's complete works. Whether tales from the actual pulps, or full-length novels from the likes of Gold Medal or Lion, the best writing contained a sense of fury one couldn't find elsewhere. That inimitable sensation runs all through Blood on the Mink. It has a vein-bursting pulse, an ecstatic energy that surges through the pages. At times, it is almost drug-like: a hallucination of paranoid plots, constant adrenaline, and a nonstop parade of sex, violence, and subterfuge.

What saves the book from becoming an orgy of excess, however, is Silverberg's stylistic restraint, and his attention to detail and craft.  Blood on the Mink is by no means as extreme as something by Mickey Spillane. Silverberg's style, at least here, is more reminiscent of the cool precision of a Peter Rabe. When it comes to action, there's a remarkable balance of clarity and brute force to his choreography:

I started up out of the chair, ostensibly heading for the door. But Chavez reacted as I expected. The right hand went diving into the jacket to get the gun. I swung to my left and caught hold of him as though we were going to waltz, wrapping my left arm around his shoulders and grabbing his jacket-front with my right. He couldn't draw his gun out of the jacket—or his hand, for that matter. His face was white with hatred and surprise. I held him tight.

If you liked that, just wait until you read the climactic gunfight...

Reading  Blood on the Mink today, it seems like it should have been a crime fiction staple for decades by now. It fully embodies the finest craftsmanship that the pulps had to offer. Now that it is available once again—and to a wider audience than even in its initial printing—it will finally have the chance to become the classic it deserves to be. And with two more rare short stories in the mix, as well as an afterword by Silverberg himself, this is definitely one of the most fun Hard Case titles to come along in some time. I hope Hard Case continues to include more of these bonus features in future volumes.

(This review was originally published March 31, 2012 at the Los Angeles Review of Books. It has been slightly edited from its original form.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

"Rapture Alley" (1953) / "Winter Girl" (1963) / "Strictly for the Boys" (1959) by Harry Whittington

Stark House Press continues their revival of Harry Whittington with their third anthology of deep cuts from the "King of the Paperbacks." The nickname is well deserved. During the renaissance of the paperback originals in the 1950s and 1960s, Whittington was one of the hardest working pros, pumping out multiple titles a year. Ultimately, he published over 170 novels in his three-decade-long career. More than just prolific, he was one of the most reliably entertaining and distinctive paperback writers of his era. Whittington wasn't a flashy plotter: he shot from the hip, and when he hit the bull's-eye, it stuck. His were stories of intensely driven characters living out their unlucky lives as the world closed in on them. He might not have been as bold as Jim Thompson or as plaintive as David Goodis, but Whittington's novels, like the work of those two titans, were character-driven tragedies, at times more realistic and recognizable than those of his more lauded contemporaries. Like Day Keene and Orrie Hitt (both of whom Stark House has also reprinted), Whittington wrote of people you'd find across the street, down at the corner, or sitting next to you in the bar. He turned commonplace situations into frenzied odysseys of obsession and self-destruction.

The three novels selected for this anthology have never been reprinted before, and two of them never even appeared under Whittington's own name. To long-time Whittington fans, this volume will provide a revelation of the depth and diversity of the author's talent, while newcomers will find plenty of reasons to dig deeper into the author's seemingly endless backlog.

Rapture Alley, originally published in 1953 under the pen name "Whit Harrison," charts an aspiring model's descent into heroin addiction: "It seemed that her life had become a bad dream, an endless nightmare in which everything continually worsened." Whittington's rendering of Lora's condition may be, at times, melodramatic, but he nails his portrait of the psychological strain and self-loathing that surround addiction. The doomed relationship-and the impossibility of a truly happy ending-are hallmarks of the author's worldview.

Winter Girl was originally released in 1963 as A Taste of Desire, under the "Curt Colman" byline, by the sleaze specialist Corinth, with numerous scenes added by hacks to spice up the text. Thanks to editor David Laurence Wilson, who restored the novel to Whittington's original version, we're finally able to see the book in its intended form, and it's a real treat. The final product is sort of a "boy and his dog" meets "backwoods tramp" mash-up set in the Deep South. Among its author's more unusual creations, it stands out for its sensitive yet unsettling coming-of-age narrative. The motivating crime - the search for the narrator's stolen prized pet - is nothing compared to the more pedestrian tragedies he faces on a daily basis: alcoholic fathers, abused mothers, rampant unsatisfied ambitions and desires, and the gradual realization that he's fated to become just like everyone else in his crummy, beaten-down town.

The real prize of the anthology, however, is Strictly For the Boys, originally published in 1959, and the only one of the three to bear Whittington's own name. The story is about a battered wife attempting to flee an abusive husband who refuses to let her, her mother, and her new boyfriend alone. Downright disturbing in its realism and sobering depiction of domestic violence, Strictly For the Boys displays a social consciousness that was prescient for its time, and which continues to be relevant today.

Editor and scholar David Laurence Wilson deserves special commendation for his tireless efforts to restore Whittington's reputation (and, in the case of Winter Girl, to restore the text itself). Wilson and Stark House publisher Greg Shepard give their books scholarly attention on par with the Library of America. Meticulously researched and lovingly edited, Stark House presents these forgotten paperback novels not as pulp curios, but as real literature, and set the bar high for other reprint series.

(Originally published January 23, 2012 at the Los Angeles Review of Books)