Monday, March 29, 2021

"TNT" by Doug Masters (Loup Durand and Pierre Rey) (1978/1985)

TNT is a fitting name for a book that blasts the whole Men’s Adventure genre into another stratosphere. A bizarre fusion of James Bond and Maquis de Sade with a nuclear-age twist, TNT follows a rogue reporter who has been turned into a killing and sex machine after being exposed to radiation. The novel’s Sadean digressions into torture and exploitation are so surreal and extreme that it surpasses the boundaries and intentions of most Men’s Adventure novels that I’ve read, and would almost be considered pornographic if not for the ironically restrained prose of the novel, which feels strangely detached and matter-of-fact. As Joe Kenney describes, the writing is “almost puritan in its descriptions: cursing is kept to a minimum, [and] there’s not much gore.” 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"Later" by Stephen King (2021)

Later, Stephen King’s third crime novel published by Hard Case Crime, is a masterful fusion of melancholic macabre and grim fantasy that recalls past masters of the crime/horror hybrid like Fredric Brown or Joel Townsley Rogers’s The Red Right Hand. There’s also an air of wonderment that permeates the entire novel and which reminds of the crime stories of Ray Bradbury (collected by Hard Case last year). “I thought of asking her if it freaked her out to look up at night and see the stars and know they go on forever and ever, but didn’t bother. I just said no. You get used to marvelous things. You take them for granted. You can try not to, but you do. There’s too much wonder, that’s all. It’s everywhere.” Horror, in Later, can be frightening, but it can also be magical and fantastic. To borrow the title of a Sergio Martino movie, Stephen King explores all the colors of the dark in Later, a playful, gripping novel that’s as moving as it is chilling. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

"High Plains Drifter" (1973)

High Plains Drifter (1973) is a landmark film for Clint Eastwood: his second feature as a director (following the stalker-thriller Play Misty for Me) and his first western as director. Among his darkest works, it’s a surreal, disturbing tale that plays out more like a horror movie than a traditional western. Inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese (killed in public in 1964 while people looked on), High Plains Drifter is also a sharp critique of how society—and especially cinema—fetishes and romanticizes violence and brutality. Gorgeously filmed by Bruce Surtees, who transforms the western landscape into a blazing hellscape, the full infernal glory and grim beauty of High Plains Drifter is on display in a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Friday, March 19, 2021

"Bad Moon Rising" by Ed Gorman (2011) - FFB

It's coming up on 5 years since Ed Gorman passed away, and not a day goes by that I don't pass by his books on my shelf and think of him. And while I still have plenty of his nearly 120 books—including novels, novellas, and story collections—to get through, I still miss the thrill of hearing about a new Gorman novel, seeing his latest blog post, or reading one of his introductions to a reprinted classic crime novel. 

The hallmark of Gorman's style is the utter simplicity and clarity of his language. He doesn't go in for hardboiled-isms, procedural jargon, expletive overload, or any other attention-grabbing affectation. Straightforward prose is more than just a stylistic decision; it's the foundation of Gorman's moral universe. His protagonists shun pretensions of any kind—artistic, social, or political. In both style and substance, Gorman's work radiates a profound sense of honesty. His characters can see the worst qualities in others because they've first recognized them in themselves. Among my favorites of his books is the Sam McCain series. First introduced in 1999's The Day the Music Died, McCain is a lawyer and licensed PI in the small town of Black River Falls, Iowa, and one of Gorman's most compassionate and endearing characters.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

"A Death in Mexico" by Jonathan Woods (2012)

Jonathan Woods’s debut novel, A Death in Mexico (New Pulp Press, 2012), is an outrageous and unruly mescal-soaked murder mystery packed with plenty of euphoric and hallucinogenic highs and none of the regrettable aftereffects. Readers looking for a by-the-books police procedural won’t find anything so straight-laced or conservative in this book; adventurous readers—those willing to drink without first asking what’s in the glass—will savor Woods’s unorthodox mélange of sex and slaughter under the sun.

It all begins when a young female corpse is discovered mutilated in the streets of San Miguel de Allende. Leading the investigation is police inspector Hector Diaz, a man prone to indigestion, ill-timed erections, and hallucinations of Aztec gods. After the corpse is identified as Amanda Smallwood, a young model from Texas, the trail leads Diaz to a local community of expatriate American artists that includes a charming convicted child molester, a Canadian diplomat’s wife, and scores of jilted lovers and wannabe artists living Bohemian fantasies with total abandon—any of whom seem desperate, envious, inebriated, or crazy enough to have committed the murder.

Friday, March 12, 2021

"The (Original Adventures) of Ford Fairlane: The Long Lost Rock ’n’ Roll Detective Stories" by Rex Weiner (2018) - FFB

The 1970s witnessed a rebirth of interest in the hardboiled private eye. This new wave of gumshoe scribes paid tribute to their pioneering forebears, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also modernized the genre and its hero for their own time. Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective series started in 1971 with The Snatch; Robert B. Parker's first Spenser book, The Godwulf Manuscript, appeared in 1973; James Crumley debuted two beloved series characters, Milo Milodragovitch in The Wrong Case (1975) and C. W. Sughrue in The Last Good Kiss (1978); Lawrence Block launched Matthew Scudder in Sins of the Fathers (1976); and Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone in Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977). The new breed of private eyes was so successful that their influence and popularity—and, in several cases, sequels—continue to this day.

Into this fray rode Rex Weiner’s Ford Fairlane, an ex-bouncer-turned-punk-rock-PI who made the New York and L.A. scenes in two serialized stories in the New York Rocker and the L.A. Weekly in 1980. Long out of print, both are now collected in The (Original Adventures) of Ford Fairlane: The Long Lost Rock ’n’ Roll Detective Stories (2018), which also includes an insightful “Backstory” by Weiner, as well as contextual interviews with the stories’ original editors, Andy Schwartz of the Rocker and Jay Levin of the Weekly, and with filmmaker Floyd Mutrux, who first tried to bring Fairlane to the screen (he is not at all responsible for the obnoxious Andrew Dice Clay–fronted adaptation from 1990, that dishonor belongs to Renny Harlin). The reappearance and reappraisal of the Fairlane stories is overdue, as these should-be classics of the genre strike a perfect tonal balance between tradition and innovation.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

"A Corpse Walks in Brooklyn: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #5" edited by John Pelan (2013)

Ramble House's fifth volume of Day Keene's pulp stories is one of their strongest collections in the series thus far. Edited by John Pelan and featuring an introduction by Robert J. Randisi, A Corpse Walks in Brooklyn: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #5 includes three of Keene's series characters (Silent Smith, Herman Stone, and Matt Mercer) in characteristically excellent tales, but it's the non-series stories that really elevate this volume.

While Keene's pulps often focused on innocent everyman protagonists who were framed or detective-proxies (be they private eye, cop, or a stand-in), some of his funnest—and darkest—yarns were about criminals. The one in this collection is among my favorite of Keene stories. "I'll Be Seeing You" is about a racketeer who plots to get rid of the newly-elected D.A. when he meets her sister one night, unaware that she has a plan of her own underway. The ending has a delightful and dark sense of poetic justice. Keene's criminal-centered stories are often shorter than his detective-based narratives, which gives them an extra sense of bit—and "I'll Be Seeing You" shows Keene's teeth at their sharpest.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Rock Hudson Collection: "Seminole" (1953), "The Golden Blade" (1953), and "Bengal Brigade" (1954)

Before he was the debonair leading man in Doris Day rom-coms like Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), and before his commanding performances in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), Rock Hudson was a man of action, portraying rugged characters in a variety of genres. Hudson’s star persona was quite diverse, capable of channeling the suave charm of Cary Grant, the physical dynamism of Burt Lancaster, or the soft-spoken intensity of Gregory Peck, often in the same role. And it’s this versatility that makes Hudson’s body of work so rewarding: he could lend his talents to such starkly different movies, from light hearted comedies and war pictures to heavy dramas and outdoor adventures, and be just as convincing in each of them. 

Kino Lorber Studio Classics’s Rock Hudson Collection highlights three of the actor’s early adventure pictures: the frontier epic Seminole (1953); a Middle Eastern swashbuckler, The Golden Blade (1953); and Bengal Brigade (1954), set during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

"Becoming Day Keene" at the Los Angeles Review of Books


Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I have a piece on Day Keene focused on his working-class upbringing, early years as an itinerant actor, and his radio career, and how these experiences influenced and are reflected in his later pulp stories and paperback novels. 

Struggle is rampant in Keene’s world, and nothing ever comes easy. “It burns me up when I think of it. I get all sick inside,” admits a police lieutenant in Wake Up to Murder, lamenting about how he’s only an $80-per-week cop raising a family instead of the rich man he thought he’d be. “I guess all we little men of the world have the same problem. We’re all riding a blind horse. And despite our best efforts, most of the time it plods on where it will. And all we really can do is hang on and keep our heads.” This working-class ethos stems from Keene’s own upbringing and his pre-pulp careers as an itinerant actor in the 1920s, specializing in vaudeville and stock theater, and as a radio writer in the 1930s.

The full essay, "Becoming Day Keene: The Pre-Pulp Career of Gunard Hjertstedt," is available here.

I am deeply grateful to the LARB for publishing this piece, and my fabulous editor Boris Dralyuk for his patience, support, and enthusiasm. 

"P.J." (1968)

Kudos to Kino Lorber Studio Classics for releasing P.J., a missing piece of the private eye movie puzzle that had never before been on home video. Originally released in 1968, it’s a fascinating look at a genre—and an industry—on the brink of change. P.J. is poised precariously between two eras, it’s like a last-call for late-era Golden Age Hollywood decadence that also looks ahead to ‘70s ambivalence. P.J. recalls more the shaggy dog detectives of the following decade, like in Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in Hickey & Boggs (1972) or Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973), than a classical model like Humphrey Bogart. 

In P.J., George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) stars as the titular character, a down-on-his-luck private detective who has been reduced to framing a wife by posing as her lover so her husband can catch them in a motel room and have evidence for divorce; the husband even throws in an extra $50 so he can beat up P.J. to make it look more convincing. Later, P.J.’s loyal bartender gives him a tip on a bodyguard job for Maureen Preble (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress to business tycoon William Orbison (Raymond Burr). From the pre-credit sequence, we know that Orbison has hired an assassin, though it’s not clear who he hired—or who he wants killed. Multiple attempts have been made on Maureen’s life, and P.J. is determined to keep her alive at any cost. As expected, the case is more complicated than P.J. or the audience can imagine. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Noir February at The Kulturecast

Chris Stachiw, host of The Kulturecast podcast, was kind enough to invite me to program a month of episodes based around noir movies. I was greatly honored by the invitation, and lost track of how many movies and themes I considered. In the end, I went with my gut and chose 5 favorite noir films that I think are under-seen and under-appreciated. I looked at it as an opportunity to help spread the word about these movies. Here's a list of the films with a schedule of speakers:


1) The Sound of Fury (1950) - Chris with Trevor Gumbel

The Sound of Fury, also known as Try and Get Me, was directed by Cy Enfield before he was blacklisted and forced to relocate to England to continue working. This movie epitomizes post-WWII noir for me. Frank Loveloy is a vet who is down and out. Unable to find a job, he runs into sharp dresser Lloyd Bridges who offers him an easy job—just drive a car. Soon, Lovejoy is a getaway driver, and things go south from there. What really hits me about the movie is the ending—utter bleakness. No redemption, no justice, just a rioting mob and widespread violence. 

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