Monday, August 31, 2020

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

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

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

Friday, August 28, 2020

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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

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

Monday, August 24, 2020

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

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

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

Saturday, August 22, 2020

"Already Gone" by John Rector (2011)

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

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

Friday, August 21, 2020

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

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

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

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Talmage Powell on Words and Writing (2)

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

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

"Eldorado Red" by Donald Goines (1974)

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2020

"Frantic" by Noël Calef (1958)

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

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

Saturday, August 15, 2020

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2020

"Red Ball Express" (1952)

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

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

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

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

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

Monday, August 10, 2020

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

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

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

Sunday, August 9, 2020

"Nude in Mink" by Sax Rohmer (1950)

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

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

Saturday, August 8, 2020

"Rhode Island Red" by Charlotte Carter (1997)

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

Friday, August 7, 2020

"Fun & Games" by Duane Swierczynski (2011)

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

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

Thursday, August 6, 2020

"Raid on Rommel" (Henry Hathaway, 1971)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 1, 2020

"Blacktop Wasteland" by S. A. Cosby (2020)

Blacktop Wasteland
is hard-lived working class noir to the bone, with characters propelled by desperation amidst a decaying landscape as destitute as it is hopeless. As the author, S. A. Cosby, so eloquently puts it, "Progress had left this part of town behind. It was abandoned just like the store. A blacktop wasteland haunted by the phantoms of the past." Cosby writes crime fiction like a classic blues murder ballad, less about catharsis and more about empathy, and filled with sadness and a gnawing sense that nothing could have turned out right no matter what. Bad decisions generally fuel crime novels—being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or taking a risk one knows they shouldn't—but what makes noir so very "noir," and what gives it that overarching sense of doom, is that a good decision wouldn't have solved the problem; in noir, good decisions, if they exist at all, do no good at all. This is the world of Blacktop Wasteland, of roads that go nowhere, or characters born into lives they can't escape, and of an ace drag racer who can't get anywhere, who can't outrun his past, who can't go straight but can't live a crook's life, and who is perpetually on the run for the bad things he's done and the good things he didn't.

Raymond Chandler once said of Dashiell Hammett that he “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Cosby imbues his novel with that same sense of gravity and urgency. Blacktop Wasteland's protagonist, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, commits crime not as a way of life, but as a way to live. Bug lives in rural Virginia and runs a failing garage. He needs money to pay rent and child support, to put food on the table, to keep his mother in a nursing home, and to put his daughter through college so she has a chance to escape a city that offers little hope for a life beyond sweat and tears. So he does what comes natural: he drag races. The son of a getaway driver who disappeared one day never to be seen again, Bug has held on to his old man's wheels as both his heritage and his curse. But when that fails to solve his problems,  he heads deeper into his father's way of life and agrees to be a getaway driver for a jewelry store heist with a trigger-happy kid and an old acquaintance who just out of jail. Bug knows it is too good to be true—but even he can't foresee the world of hurt into which he's driving with the pedal to the metal.

Embedded within the heist narrative is a much more despondent socio-economic portrait of contemporary America, of broken cities with crumbling structures, and the working class left to struggle to get by. "The empty buildings stood like forgotten monoliths to a lost civilization," Cosby writes. One of the aspects of this book that sets it apart from other heist novels is that the stakes are high for such low return, and that Bug goes for it anyway because he has no other choice. He's not risking his life for chance to live on easy street—he's just trying to hold on to the shaky world that he's made for himself and his family, however tenuous and unfulfilling that world may be. Bug's despair is perfectly captured in this passage in which he reflects upon his hopes and dreams:

"Beauregard finished his coffee. Once upon a time, he had dreamed of living in a house like this one. A house with running water and a roof that didn’t leak like a sieve. A house where everyone had their own room and there wasn’t a slop bucket in the corner. He put the coffee cup in the sink. He didn’t know what was sadder. That his dreams had been so modest or that they had been so prophetic."

The heartbreaking irony of Bug's tragedy is that every move he makes in order to get ahead puts him that much further behind. The straight life saddles him with debt and the criminal life puts him on the run; trying to do right by his family only makes him more vulnerable to their manipulations; and trying to be loyal only means he hurts the ones he loves more. As his father once told him, "Listen, when you're black in America you live with the weight of people's low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it's a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut 'em loose. Because that's what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom." Freedom is something that Bug has never known, not truly, anyway. His money, his time, his driving, even his love—it's all been taken advantage of and exploited by others. But Bug is not a guilt-less victim, and he's certainly complicit in his own downfall. Perhaps the saddest part of Blacktop Wasteland is that even though Bug knows he's part of the problem of his own life, and that he's brought violence into his own home, he doesn't know to fix things to make them right, because in this noir world, there's no right decision.

Blacktop Wasteland is the enthralling second novel from Cosby. As hardboiled as it is melancholic, it sets a new bar for heist novels, and I loved it from first bleak page to last. His first novel, My Darkest Prayer, came out last year, and I will certainly be reading that soon, and sign me up for anything else Cosby writes, consider me hooked.
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