Tuesday, September 29, 2020

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2020

David Goodis Grinds His Axe in "Esquire"

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

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

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

DAVID GOODIS Philadelphia, Pa.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2020

"The Duel at Silver Creek" (1952)

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

Friday, September 18, 2020

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2020

"And She Was" by Alison Gaylin (2012)

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Edgar Wallace on Words and Writing

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

Image source: Wikipedia

Monday, September 14, 2020

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2020

"Ride a Crooked Trail" (1958)

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

Friday, September 11, 2020

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

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

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

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

Sunday, September 6, 2020

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

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

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

Friday, September 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Who Wore It Better: Woolrich or Prather?

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

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

Savage Bride

Gold Medal 719, 1957

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Gregory Mcdoanld on Words and Writing

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

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