Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Donovan's Brain" by Curt Siodmak (Knopf, 1943/Bantam, 1950)

Curt Siodmak’s career is truly something extraordinary. Born in Dresden, Germany in 1902, he earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics before he decided to change paths and become a writer and filmmaker. An early collaboration with his brother, Robert Siodmak, was the now-legendary People on Sunday (1930), a documentary-esque fictional story about a group of working-class citizens who go for a picnic on their day off. One of the first naturalistic films of its kind, it was co-directed by both Siodmak brothers as well as Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, and was co-scripted by the Siodmaks with the help of Billy Wilder. At the time, these were unknown but ambitious young artists making an unknown, low-budget movie. Within a few years, they would all meet again – but this time in Hollywood, where they all fled to because of Nazi persecution, and it is here in America that they would leave their indelible mark on the arts.

After leaving Berlin, Curt Siodmak made his way to England where he made several films, but it was in Hollywood where he truly hit is stride, writing some of the best horror and sci-fi scripts of his time, most notably The Wolf Man (1941) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). It was around this same time that he also wrote the novel for which he would be most famous for – Donovan’s Brain (first printed in Hardcover by Knopf in 1943; Mercury Mystery digest in 1945; first Bantam paperback in 1950). Three times the novel has appeared on the big-screen (1944’s The Lady and the Brain, 1953’s Donovan’s Brain, 1962’s The Brain) and once on television (an episode of Studio One in 1965 entitled, “Donovan’s Brain”), in addition to several radio broadcasts (twice by Suspense in 1944 and 1948, and a parody by Orson Welles also in 1944).

Fusing elements of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain takes the standard archetypes of “the mad scientist” and “the monster” and combines them. Dr. Patrick Cory has been experimenting, without success, to keep a brain alive outside of its body. He is convinced that the brain has untapped power to continue being conscious – and to communicate – even after death. When he gets an emergency call to assist with plane crash victims, he brings the sole survivor back to his laboratory for last-minute operations. But when he realizes that death is inevitable, Cory decides that he has the perfect candidate for his own experiment: the brain of Warren Horace Donovan, a world-famous millionaire and genius.

With the brain stabilized, Cory begins a series of seemingly futile attempts to communicate with the brain. And then one night he begins to get subconscious commands that he cannot control: to write with his left hand – even though he is right-handed – names he knows nothing about. It is then that Cory knows his experiment is a success, and that Donovan’s brain is alive and in communication with him. But soon Cory begins to question whether he is really in control of the experiment, or whether he himself is the lab rat. And so begins Cory’s travels to unravel not only the mystery of Donovan’s brain, but also the mystery of Donovan’s past life and his unfinished business.

The novel is written as though it is Dr. Cory’s diary, filled with his muses on the day’s progress (or lack thereof). It helps to keep the story moving quickly, as we aren’t bogged down by excessive background detail or character descriptions. There’s plenty of mystery, as we have to keep reading in order to collect enough contextual information to fully comprehend the story.

While the science behind the story acts as an implausible but interesting “what if...” scenario, Donovan’s Brain seems much more an exploration of one man’s monomania. Much like Ahab in Moby Dick, we watch as the character is transformed through passion and determination into the very thing he is trying to hunt down. The quest for “the monster” ends ironically with him finding “the monster” within himself. The power that Cory sought through his experiments he is able to enact in reality though the commands of Donovan. Money, authority, prestige, and physical force – things that he never had in his own life are now suddenly at his fingertips. But are they really “his” or are they Donovan’s?

Much of the story has to do with this gradual change of identity, until Cory and Donovan are inseparable, sharing not only the same thoughts, but also the same ailments and experiences. Cautionary tales abound within horror and sci-fi stories, but more than the morality of Cory’s experiments Siodmak seems concerned with the limitations of the scientist himself rather than science. In trying to manifest a more perfect human consciousness, Cory only magnifies the human weakness for corruption, violence, and greed. It is us, and not science, that is the problem. As Siodmak writes, “Man can engender what he is himself. Nothing more.”

And now for a few more of my favorite quotes from Donovan’s Brain:

“The human body can adjust itself to most unnatural conditions.”


“I’m not interested in civilization. We are so ignorant of our souls that we take refuge in mechanics, physics, chemistry. We are losing our consciousness of the human dignity that distinguished man from animal. You are making the human being a highly specialized stone-age man ruled by egotism. You are creating a mechanical, synthetic life and killing the spirit that has lifted humanity above the beast.”


“He may have been an honest man all his life only because he was convinced if things were ever too bad, he could be dishonest and change his luck. Now that this had not worked out either, he despaired.”


“When hope ends, the world ends too.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Cranked" by Bill Crider (Busted Flush, 2006)

This Sunday morning was something special - my upstairs neighbor seems to have gone away for the weekend but forgotten to shut off their alarm, which beeped from 6AM until about 7:15 or so. Not sure if someone turned it off, or the alarm just got sick and tired of making all that racket. I sure did. Even with earplugs, my fan, and the rest of early-morning New York noise coming through my open window, the alarm was unmistakable, and unavoidable.

So, cranky that I was, I decided to read Bill Crider's "Cranked." Winner of the Derringer Award and nominated for an Anthony, "Cranked" was published in Duane Swierczynski's excellent anthology Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir (Busted Flush, 2006). The cover advertises, "Old, Bold, Uncontrolled" - and if that has some unpleasant double meanings, then perhaps the other quote would be more appealing: "Every Story New!" Which means when you look at its great lineup (Jeff Abbott, Megan Abbott, Charles Ardai, Ray Banks, Mark Billingham, Steve Brewer, Ken Bruen, Milton Burton, Reed Farrel Coleman, Colin Cotterill, Bill Crider, Sean Doolittle, Victor Gischler, Allan Guthrie, John Harvey, Simon Kernick, Laura Lippman, Stuart MacBride, Donna Moore, Zoë Sharp, Jenny Siler, Jason Starr, Charlie Stella, Duane Swierczynski, Robert Ward, Sarah Weinman and Dave White), you have a whole lotta' great new stories to look forward to.

"Cranked" really hit the spot this morning. It's about how a quiet day at a gas station can suddenly turn into a fiery hell when the four wrong people run into each other at the wrong time. There's Karla, a female undercover agent for the drug squad who took a jail sentence for someone else; then there are a couple of crank-addicted rednecks with pistols, one of whom is responsible for Karla doing time; and there's Lloyd, a cranky old man with a stomach problem who just broke out of the nursing home.

Lloyd may be a senior citizen with false teeth, but when you get down to it, he's old-school hardboiled how knows how to kick some serious ass and still charm the ladies:

"He wondered how much fun a man his age could stand and how long somebody who was damn near dead would last with a woman like this one. By God, maybe he’d just find out."

Read "Cranked" online here courtesy of Busted Flush Press.

If you'd like to buy the anthology, you can order it from Busted Flush's website.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"The Hotel Murders" by Stewart Sterling (Avon, 1956)

Stewart Sterling (pseudonym for Prentice Winchell) certainly chooses interesting professions for his characters. His most famous character is Fire Marshall Ben Pedley, who fights both crime and flame in such novels as the excellent Nightmare at Noon (which has one of my favorite descriptions, “A venomous cauliflower of smoke blossomed suddenly at the sill”). Under the name Spencer Dean, Winchell also created Don Cadee, a department store security officer.

And then there’s Stewart’s other famous series character, Gil Vine – an in-house detective for the Plaza Royale Hotel in New York City – who made his novel debut in 1947’s Dead Wrong. I started the series out of order with the fifth book, The Hotel Murders (Avon #762, 1956), originally published as Dead Right (J.B. Lippincott, 1956). As novel as the occupation is, the plot hardly seems to take advantage of all it has to offer. As the story begins, Vine is called down to Florida to fill in for their local house detective who is in the hospital. He immediately spots Mark Trevar as a suspicious character – but little did he expect that Trevar was a wire-tapper out to nail a big business tycoon, nor that he would wind up with a bullet in his skull. It looks like suicide, but when a hotel employee takes it on the lam and a businessman attempts to steal the tapes himself, Vine starts to think these hotel walls are withholding valuable ¬– and deadly – secrets.

The fun wordplay and action sequences that I remembered from Nightmare at Noon seemed to be missing from The Hotel Murders, which plodded along with too much dialogue and too few sparks of excitement. Like a lot of writers from this era, the similes and metaphors are wildly inventive – as though the authors are competing to outdo one another. And this is where Sterling seems to be at his best – he seemingly has a limitless supply of “new” ways to describe the most common elements. Unfortunately, this inventiveness doesn’t extend to the plotting. The suicide frame-up and blackmail angle is hardly unique, and Stewart has nothing new to add to the scenario. The investigation unfurls in a rather staid manner, with revelations that are neither surprising nor satisfactory.

Not having read the other Gil Vine novels, I can’t say how this one compares. Being impressed by Nightmare at Noon, I am certainly going to continue to read other Sterling novels (and have a nice Ace “double” sitting on my shelf – The Body in the Bed and Dying Room Only). Richard Moore has an informative essay over at Mystery*File called “Stewart Sterling: King of the Specialty Detectives” which is very positive about both the Fire Marshall Pedley and Gil Vine series. Has anyone else read Sterling? If so, please chime in with your thoughts in the comments section.

As always, a few samples of The Hotel Murders:

“He lay sprawled across the green-damask sofa just to the right of the corridor door. The bold stare of the poodle-dog brown eyes made me think, for one second, that he was simply stupefied with liquor. But the gun in his right hand pointed to a pencil-wide ribbon of shiny cellophane which seemed to have been fastened behind his right ear with a gray eraser. The smell of burnt powder was sharp.”

“My recollection is she had cold vichyssoise and boeuf Stroganoff at that luncheon but that’s because I was watching her every second. I can’t remember a thing I ate.”

“His clothes looked as if he’d been made up for a Gay Nineties masquerade; it must have been a fine tailor who could make a suit look that outdated.”

“It’s a stupid sleuth who lets his emotions color his judgment. And an inhuman one who can keep from having it happen once in a while.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"How To Clap One Hand" by Richard S. Prather (Writer's Digest, Feb 1955)

It’s often said that one can learn a lot about writing by just reading – and certainly this is true. On the other hand, it can be a rare pleasure when a writer you admire shares their wisdom and experience. In the February 1955 issue of Writer’s Digest, pulp writer extraordinaire Richard S. Prather published an essay entitled, “How To Clap One Hand.” Much like his fiction, the essay is unpretentious and entertaining, as well as finely crafted. The title comes from the famous Zen kōan, “We have all heard the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Which is how Prather views most articles purporting to tell you “how to write.” In a down to earth manner, Prather demystifies the writing process as much as one can without being dogmatic or overly restrictive, while at the same time retaining the precious mystery of creativity and individualism.

Underlying the essay is a firm belief that writing requires both work and risk. While Prather may seem to encourage quitting one’s job to become a writer (something today that seems highly inadvisable – but what do I know), he never pretends that any level of monetary success is guaranteed. He reminds that you may fall flat on your face, just like you might in any endeavor. But that stopped people from taking chances in other occupations.

In the end, Prather is highly supportive of “aspiring writers” – a phrase he never uses in the article. As he states, writers are those who write, regardless of wealth or prestige. And if you want to be a writer, put a page in the typewriter and go to work.

Below are a few excerpts from the article.

I understand that Hemingway writes standing up, that Gardner dictates to secretaries, and others talk into wire recorders. I sit down with the portable on my lap and hack at it.


When I write a book I keep telling myself “This’ll knock ‘em dead” until I’m half hypnotized into believing it. If you think your stuff’s good as you write, and it’s fun to bang on the typewriter, the words come out much more easily. If you lose that free-wheeling kick, you groan, get indecisive and sweat.


It’s getting so that when people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I feel like bashing them over the head with my typewriter and saying, “That’s where I get my ideas!”


You can put off the jumping-in-with-both-feet until your bones are brittle; why not do it while you can bounce? Say you were to take off for the mountains or beach, or even stay in the hometown if that’s where you want to be. Say a year later you’ve flopped, gone broke, haven’t sold a word. So what? In that you you’ll have learned more about writing – and turned out more wordage – than you would have in ten years of part-time scribbling.


When the plot looks right, I do a Synopsis, each chapter outline being written on separate pages. I usually wind up with a 500-600-word synopsis and 100-200 single-spaced pages of “plot-stuff,” with the parts I can use underlined in blue pencil. I number the usable sections with the number of the chapter into which they’ll fit; sometimes, when I reach that point in the first draft, I merely lift them bodily and put them into place like a piece of jigsaw puzzle; more often I rewrite and shape them, then slide them in.


Whether he’s sold a hundred books or nothing at all, the writer is still a guy who writes. Take a look at your typewriter and see if there’s paper in the carriage. If not, put some in the thing and write.


Writing is a little like riding a merry-go-round and reaching time after time for the brass ring. After a little practice you’ve got just as good a chance as anybody else – but first you’ve got to get on the horse. That’s really the only “secret” there is. You’ll go around in circles, and maybe you’ll get as dizzy as I am, but it’s a helluva nice ride.


(Image courtesy of The Richard S. Prather/Shell Scott Website)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Movies for Monday: "The Naked Spur" (1953)

For this week's edition of Movies for Monday, head on over to Gary Dobbs' blog The Tainted Archive where I had the honor of being a guest blogger. In anticipation of the June 1st Wild West Monday the Third, I wrote about Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur (1953), which stars James Stewart as a bounty hunter on the trail of wanted outlaw Robert Ryan. A psychological Western shot on-location in the Colorado Rockies in glorious Technicolor, the film also stars Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell as Stewart's cohorts and Janet Leigh as Ryan's young girlfriend. Even under the magnificent expanse of the Western sky, the film still has all the claustrophobic tension you'd expect from one of Mann's noir films as greed slowly tears the group apart and tests the loyalty of everyone involved.

The original theatrical trailer is available to watch online at The Internet Movie Database.

Click here to read my review of The Naked Spur.

Interview with Gary Dobbs on "The Tarnished Star" (Robert Hale Ltd/Black Horse Westerns, 2009)

One of the most unique voices on the Web belongs to Gary Dobbs, who generously shares his extensive knowledge of The West on his blog The Tainted Archive and has published a number of short stories on the web on such sites as Beat to a Pulp, Thieves Jargon, and A Twist of Noir (1, 2, and 3). On June 30th, his debut novel, The Tarnished Star, will be published by Robert Hale Ltd/Black Horse Westerns under the name "Jack Martin." The story concerns Cole Masters, an honest sheriff who arrests the son of a wealthy family for murder, and soon finds that upholding the law isn’t as easy – or safe – it is seems. You can preorder the book from either The Book Depository or Amazon.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Gary about his upcoming novel, his passion for The West, as well as his Wild West Monday initiative.

Pulp Serenade: First, can you tell us something about The Tarnished Star? Briefly, what is the story, and where did you get the idea from?

Gary Dobbs: I've always loved the traditional western - the films of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewert and others of that ilk. And I also have a great love for writers like Louis L'amour, Max Brand, Elmer Kelton. I spent my teens reading westerns by George G. Gilman, a man who I think wrote westerns with the lean qualities of Chandler. So when I decided to write a western novel I think I channeled all this into my own work and with The Tarnished Star I think I've produced a western that could have come out of the Forties or Fifties but is modern in its pace and substance. It's about courage and the need to stand up and be counted and not expect some higher power to sort out life's problems. Hopefully it's everything a western readers needs for an enjoyable few hours between the covers.

PS: Why publish under the name “Jack Martin”?

GD: Well Jack Martin was my maternal grandfather and probably the greatest hero I have ever know. He gave me my love of the wild west or rather the mythical stories of the wild west. And these remain with me to this day - I love all sorts of fiction - horror, crime even science fantasy but whenever there's a western about I always gravitate to it. You can give me The Magnificent Seven over Star Wars any day of the week. And so by adopting the name of Jack Martin every western I write will be a tribute to the man who loomed large in my life and still does even if it has been nearly three decades since he passed away.

PS: How did you get connected with Robert Hale/Black Horse Westerns?

GD: I've always been a writer and published a number of stories and even a radio play but never a novel - although I'd written several over the years. And then when a friend of mine suggested I try a western I was initially dubious. Does anyone read westerns these days? Does anyone publish them? Some research led me to Robert Hale and I checked out several titles from the library. My first attempt for them came flying back and Tarnished Star was snapped up and I was delighted.

PS: When did you first become so interested in the Western genre, and what about it continues to appeal and fascinate you today?

GD: As I say my initial fascination was inherited from my grandfather. But it's a wonderful and versatile genre that doesn't deserve the bad press its gotten these last few years. Sure it often resorts to cliche but then what genre doesn't in some form or other? There's a certain freedom with the western and it allows the writer to play with themes and ideas that are unique to the genre. But I think that at the root of all westerns there is a morality that we have lost in modern life and that it resonates with readers even if they don't always realise it.

PS: The unique history and mythology of “The West” has continued to captivate both readers and writers for well over a century now. Do you have any thoughts on why it is so everlasting, and what it can offer to contemporary readers of the 21st century?

GD: A very good question. The West was being mythologiesed even while it was happening but beneath all this there is the basic concept of good and evil. The western also stands up for the little man - often a lone rancher going up against land hungry corporations or a man trying to build a life for himself and his family without interference from the outside world. It's all about braving whatever life can throw at you and enduring because of it. These themes are universal and timeless and have just as much relevance today as they ever had.

PS: On your blog, The Tainted Archive, you write a lot about Western history. Where do you do your research, and what role did it play in writing The Tarnished Star?

GD: I wouldn't call it research since it's always been a massive interest with me. I have a large library of western history and of course I buy anything new that I can find - The monthly magazine Wild West from the Weider History Group keeps me up with current developments with a western connection. I've probably got an encyclopedic knowledge of western lore and although I may have to check up on something from time to time I think I'm carrying more than is healthy around within my head. I; I'm hoping to visit America next year, touring the present day West and I think that maybe one day I'd like relocate and become a citizen. I often joke to friends that my interest comes from the fact that I was Calamity Jane in a previous life.

PS: As someone who writes both Western and Noir fiction, do you see any similarities between the two genres?

GD: Very much so - what is Chandler's lone detective wandering the mean streets, if not a modern version of the sole cowboy riding the range? In some ways the structure of noir and westerns are very similar. It's usually someone going up against sinister and powerful odds with only their own ingenuity and courage to protect themselves.

PS: In addition to being a writer, you are also an actor and a cab driver. Have these other professions aided your writing in any way?

GD: Cabbing helps pay the bills - but writing and acting are two side of the same coin. Both enable me to live in an imaginary world and I've never happier than creating something, bringing something into being. Ideally it would be great to write a classic western that brings the genre back to the forefront and then take a part in a movie version which would be directed by the wonderful Clint Eastwood and starring someone like a middle period John Wayne.

PS: Is this the first novel you’ve tried writing? If so, what was it like making the transition from short stories to this longer format?

GD: No my first novel I wrote in longhand when I was about 12 or 13. It was called The Ultimate Spy and was a cross between TV's The Six Million Dollar Man and a character from the 2000AD comic called M.A.C.H 1 - which I think stood for man activated by computer hyperpuncture or something like that. I wish I still had that to read now. I've written several novels in the past and one, Smith's Way which was a crime thriller featuring The Queen, Prince Charles and a plot to liberate the Royal Corgi's almost saw print and was part dramatised on BBC Radio Wales. But The Tarnished Star is my first published novel.

On the subject of short stories - I find the small form harder than novels since you've got to make every word count.

PS: Wild West Monday the Third is approaching – would you care to say anything about your initiative? And are there any books you can recommend as starters for those readers not familiar with the Western genre?

GD: I just think it's a shame how neglected the genre has become of late and with the internet and its possibilities of worldwide interaction between fans I think we can bring it back into favour. I mean go to any bookshop and most books are like 500 pages plus - now not every story needs that amount of words. Books have become too much like product, indistinguishable from groceries. I think the story should dictate the type and length of book and not some misguided idea that all books must be of a uniform size.

PS: Who are your biggest literary influences, and what about them has most influenced your work?

GD: I tend to gravitate towards entertaining writers - I'm not worried about literature for literatures sake. Fuck trying to be clever just give me a good story. Ian Fleming is a massive influence because his writing creates a chemical rush in the brain which makes the reader hurl through the pages. British western writer George Gilman is also another great influence because his books are perfect in the sense of being entertaining books and the character he writes about "Edge" is like "The Man with No-Name" taken to the extreme. I've read a lot of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz. Mickey Spillane, Terry Pratchett in my time and they all have one thing in common - Entertainment.

In my own writing if I can grab the reader the way all these guys do then I'll be a happy man. I guess with my westerns I like to be something of a cross between Louis L'amour and George Gilman with a little Ian Fleming thrown in there.

PS: What’s next for you? Any future projects that you can divulge?

GD: I'm working on several projects at the same time - an historical crime, a comic fantasy and the second Arkansas Smith adventure - the first Arkansas Smith will be out in March 2010 from Robert Hale LTD. I'm starting work on another series of Larkrise to Candleford in June and I think we'll be filming through to Jan 2010 so I've plenty on my plate. I love the fact that George Gilman, the author I used to read while skipping school loves Larkrise and never misses an episode, that's kind of surreal. And of course The Archive will not be neglected no matter what else I am doing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Hobbyist" by Fredric Brown

Try as we might, some Sundays we just have to spend catching up on work. So, for those of you who, like myself, have a long "to do" list, here's a real short story that you can read quickly, but that will certainly stay in your memory. It's called "Hobbyist" and is by one of my favorite writers, Fredric Brown. The story was originally published in the May 1961 issue of Playboy, and later in the collection Nightmares and Geezenstacks.

Since I've already gushed about how much I admire Brown's writing several times on this blog, I won't repeat myself, except to say that Fredric Brown never fails to deliver a gleefully fiendish tale. Such is the case with "Hobbyist," about a man who visits a pharmacist in search of an undetectable poison and winds up getting more than he bargained for.

Read "Hobbyist" by Fredric Brown.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Wild West Monday The Third! Coming Soon...



If you missed the first two Wild West Mondays, don't despair - number three is right around the corner, and it's going to be bigger than ever before. Spearheaded by Western author Gary Dobbs, whose debut novel The Tarnished Star (published under the name Jack Martin) is being released by Robert Hale LTD/Black Horse Westerns this June, Wild West Monday is a global effort to show love for the Western genre. And it's easy and fun to participate:

On Monday, June 1st, go to your local bookstore or library and request and express your interest in Western literature. Ask if they have a section dedicated to them, and if they don't already, then suggest they start one.

For more information on Wild West Monday the Third, check back to Gary's blog, The Tainted Archive, all this month for exclusive special guest bloggers and other Western goodies.

To help get in the mood, I have included a link above to a moving speech by Western icon William S. Hart. Filmed as a prologue to a re-release of his final film Tumbleweeds, Hart pays homage to the genre which he loves dearly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Pick-Up" by Charles Willeford (Beacon Books 1955/Black Lizard 1990)

“I’m pretty much of a failure in life, Helen. Does it matter to you?”

“No. Nothing matters to me.” Her voice had a resigned quality and yet it was quietly confident. There was a tragic look in her brown eyes, but her mouth was smiling. It was the smile of a little girl who knows a secret and isn’t going to tell it. I held her hand in mine. It was a tiny, almost pudgy band, soft and warm and trusting. We finished our drinks.


That’s the sort of one-two punch Charles Willeford delivers again and again in Pick-Up (Beacon Books, 1955). First, a sobering dose of existentialism, concentrated into a solid brick of reality that hurts to swallow, then he follows it up with an enigmatic description that belies the surface simplicity of the text. Just what is that smile on her face? Who is this walking female contradiction, at once a world-weary lush and a small child, and who lives for love and yet loves because there is nothing left to live for. And if the man is a failure, why does he even continue to try, even if all he tries for is death?

Coming after a collection of poetry (Proletarian Laughter in 1948) and Willeford’s debut novel High Priest of California (1953), Pick-Up follows the doomed trajectory of a pair of alcoholics who meet in a bar and find they share a common sense of futility weighted down by dashed dreams and hopeless futures. Harry Jordan is an aspiring artist who spent World War II painting murals instead of fighting, and who afterwards taught when he lost confidence in his own work, and ultimately gave up teaching when he lost faith in his students. Helen Meredith drank her way out of a staid, middle-class existence ruled by constraining morality, an overbearing mother, and a husband she didn’t love. Neither does Harry show much concern for his wife and child on the other side of the country. Disappointed by the past and unconcerned with the future, Harry and Helen join to drink away the days in desolate companionship.

But then, something like love develops between them. A love that spurs them back to life as much as it hurtles them towards death. Unable to live apart from one another, even long enough to work a job, they realize that the real problem is that they are unable to live. Acting on a suicide pact, they soon realize that are also unable to die. So, the two of them continue to wallow in life’s wasteland of nothingness, all the while hoping and searching for a way out – permanently.

Willeford shares with David Goodis an affinity for characters stuck ‘down there’ – for whom the gutter and the mire are like cozy fixtures to come home to. But it’s important to recognize that these authors aren’t slumming, or dragging their pens through the mud for the sake of dirtying the page. Far from it – they strip away the distractions and complacencies and obligations give life the illusion of order and purpose in order to get to the heart of the matter: to find that common strain of uncertainty that we all have to deal with. Nor is there anything grimy about their prose: there is never the sense that they are exploiting their characters for the sake of shocking sheltered readers. And instead of gutter lingo, their books are filled with the lamentations of those who can no longer cry for themselves or ask for help from others. They speak to no one, yet they speak for everyone, and therein lies the paradox. In screaming loneliness, Pick-Up manages bring us together.

Those who have read Pick-Up are well aware that the last two lines of the novel throw you for a loop that makes you start back at the beginning and re-think all you have just read. I struggled with whether or not to discuss those lines on this blog, because on the one hand I think they merit a discussion, yet on the other hand to reveal them would to spoil Willeford’s carefully crafted novel. In the end, I have decided against it and will leave the novel’s finale a secret. As William Denton notes on RARA-AVIS, “You could analyze Pick-Up with and without the last two lines, and it'd work perfectly both ways. Neither version is better than the other.” I agree, and would only add that what I think Willeford is doing is challenging not only the pervasive archetypes of the hardboiled genre, but also our preconceptions as readers. In the end, I don’t think he’s being antagonistic at all, but instead wants to remind us how universal despair really is.

Pick-Up is currently out of print, though used copies of the 1990 Black Lizard reprint can be found for decent prices. Munseys has made available a free e-text of the book. Those looking for more information on Charles Willeford should check out Mike White’s thoroughly researched essay “Madness in the 20th Century” over at Cahiers du Cinemart. Don Herron also has a nice piece called “Collecting Charles Willeford.” Dennis McMillan also runs an informative site, which includes a nice introduction by Maura McMillan. Lee Goldberg also has a fascinating blog post about a once thought lost manuscript by Willeford. For a complete bibliography, check out RARA-AVIS.

And now for some quotes from the book:

“The Great American Tradition: You can do anything you think you can do! All Americans believe in it. What a joke that is!”


“His large brown eyes, fixed and staring, were two dark mirrors that seemed to hold my image without interest, without curiosity, or at most, with an impersonal interest, the way one is interested in a dead, dry starfish, found on the beach.”


“As far as I was concerned the world we existed on was an overly-large, stinking cinder, a spinning, useless clinker. My life meant nothing to me and I wanted to go to sleep forever and forget about it.”


“Any premise which bases its salvation on blind belief alone is bound to be wrong, I felt. It isn’t fair to those who find it impossible to believe, those who have to be convinced, shown, who believe in nothing but the truth.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Riddle Me This" by Mike Roscoe (Signet, 1953)

The shadow of Mickey Spillane looms large over Mike Roscoe’s Riddle Me This (Signet, 1953), the second entry in the Johnny April series. The first time I saw the name “Mike Roscoe” I was immediately reminded of Spillane’s iconic private dick “Mike Hammer” – and the fact that both names end with a not-too-subtle phallic reference doesn’t help either. In fact, the author’s name is probably one of the few original aspects to the book – it is the combination of two real life detectives, Michael Ruso and John Roscoe, who worked together in Kansas City before becoming writing partners. But the similarities don’t stop there.

Mike Roscoe seems to be well aware of the anxiety of influence, as he seems to use Spillane’s legacy as a model to capitalize on while also altering its design in attempt to make it his own. The general plot of Riddle Me This, much like Spillane’s groundbreaking I, The Jury (1947), begins with the death of a fellow private eye, which spurs the main character into action as he races against the police force to discover the criminal and exact retribution. Johnny April’s relationship with the police chief, just like Mike Hammer’s, is a mix of mutual admiration and professional rivalry. Both fictional detectives also happen to have sexy secretaries who are hopelessly in love with them.

Riddle Me This, however, is no I, The Jury, Roscoe is no Spillane, and Johnny April is definitely no Mike Hammer. April is dumb as a doornail, and Roscoe’s prose lacks not only the vibrancy and excitement that characterized Spillane’s novel, but also those odd moments of surreal poetry that remind you just how capable and skilled a writer Spillane could be when he was at his best. Nor does Riddle Me This come close to the strength and propulsion of Spillane’s plotting, which often goes overlooked by those who don’t look beyond his bombastic prose. Riddle Me This plods along with little excitement and scenes that go on too long because of unnecessary dialogue. Moreover, the clues turned up in the course of the investigation are held together by flimsy links that challenge not only the logic of the novel, but also the patience of the reader.

Roscoe often tries to imitate Spillane, but rarely comes close to replicating his predecessor’s singular style. The action sequences are particularly reminiscent of Spillane. Consider this passage:
I came up off the floor in a hard, quick lunge, my hand flat and stiff and aimed for his belly. Just as the fingertips made contact, I rolled forward using my shoulder and arm muscles for extra push.

His belly was soft and yielding. My hand sunk in. I stood up and stepped back, quick, in case it wasn’t enough.

But it was.

His face went dead white and he sank slowly, moaning to himself.
When he hit the floor, he vomited.

“You sonuvabitch. You shouldn’t stand so close to your words.”

He vomited again as I walked out.
Now compare it to a scene from I, The Jury:
I swung on him with all of my hundred and ninety pounds. My fist went in up to the wrist in his stomach. He flopped to the floor vomiting his lungs out, his face gradually turning purple.
Roscoe may borrow Spillane’s characteristic vomit-inducing beatings, but he can’t recreate the passion of the prose, or its gut-churning details that seem to ooze off the page like so much blood and…um, vomit.

Riddle Me This does try to differentiate itself from Spillane by making a gallant attempt to be socially conscious. April is avenging the death of a black P.I., and throughout the novel he comes across racist white cops who wear their prejudice on their sleeve, to which April always responds with a punch to the nose. While the book’s advocacy for racial equality is certainly admirable, all too often it feels preachy and overly simplistic, as though Roscoe is just setting up straw men rather than fully grasping the gravity of the situation. In the book all it takes is one punch from Johnny Roscoe to change someone’s tune; things aren’t that easy to change in real life.

In attempting to revise Spillane’s model, Roscoe occasionally takes time away from the plot to take a pot shot at the other writer. “The tabloids scream murder, rape, syndicated crime, government corruption – but these pathetic creatures whisper to me about perversity, masochism and unorganized human frailties. The public doesn’t consider this aspect of ‘the great private eye’…” Roscoe talks big but fails to deliver anything close what he describes in this passage. The motivations of the crime are weak and ambivalent, which makes for an uneventful and unsatisfying conclusion. Moreover, he seems to have forgotten the “frailties” in writing his characters, as more often than not they come off as unconvincing cardboard cutouts rather than living, breathing human beings. Spillane’s characters at least carry their convictions strongly. They might not always come off as realistic or nuanced (particularly if they are Communists), but they have energy and drive that compels the narrative forward. Ultimately, even more than originality, this is what is most lacking in Riddle Me This: convincing characters and a story that draws you in and makes you eager to turn the pages.

Even though I didn’t much care for the book on the whole, I can’t deny that there were a few good lines worth quoting below, including a promising opening paragraph:

“It was raining, Goddammit. It was raining. Long cables of wet lashed the sky and earth together. Thunder ricocheted off the heavy, gray clouds. Rain is romantic in San Francisco. In Miami, it’s conductive to a number of interesting things. In Kansas City, it’s a godawful mess.”


“What a lousy goddamn rotten mess being a detective is sometimes.”


“I hit him. I hit him like a sonuvabitch, starting the blow from up high and dropping it across the right side of his mouth so hard I felt the shock along the soles of my feet. He dropped the camera. Then he sagged in the middle and crumpled at both ends, falling into a heap at my feet.”


“There was the smell of rain and fresh blood and stale urine. That was the smell Paul had died in. Maybe when his murderer died I could have a worse smell cooked up for him.”


“Life is a thin curl of smoke in the evening. When the cool night breeze hits the smoke there’s nothing hanging in the sky but a couple of whispy memories.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Movies for Monday: "Plunder Road" (1957)

VHS tapes may be unfashionable nowadays, but I still stand by mine like a trusted old friend. Most of my friends either threw their VCRs away years ago, or relegated it to the bottomless pit of some dusty closet, lost in a jungle of tangled cords and corrugated boxes from which it will never return. Aficionados of classic movies, however, realize that many great movies have never been released on DVD or Blu Ray. In the past couple of months, stores seem to be almost giving away old videos for as little as $1, and many of them are not only rare, but also fine films. Recently I’ve acquired the hard-to-find Grapevine VHS of King Vidor’s The Jack-Knife Man (1920), In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914) and Local Color (1913) with Tom Mix, The Disciple (1915) with William S. Hart, as well as a noir gem I had never heard of before: Plunder Road (1957).

The film opens with a magnificent, near-silent heist that rivals the famous scene from Rififi (1955). It’s the dead of night in the pouring rain, and a train moves steadily through a small, backwoods town, carrying with it $10,000,000 in gold bullion. A band of criminals lead by Gene Raymond overtake the train and its guards and make off with all the gold. Hiding it in three large trucks, the gang splits up and heads on a cross-country journey in hopes of avoiding the dragnet and reuniting at their hideout in Los Angeles.

A taut 76-minutes shaking with nervous energy, Plunder Road is a hard-edged thriller with nary a wasted word or gesture. Director Hubert Cornfield relies on dynamic sequences rather than a wordy script to tell the story: kinetic montages (such as the opening heist) capture action and movement that compels our attention but remain enigmatic. We enter the story without any pretext of the plan or what is happening. It is as if Cornfield and his screenwriters (Jack Charney and Steven Ritch, who also appears in the film as one of the criminals) have chopped off the entire first act of the story and hurdled us blindly into what would typically be the climax of the story.

Cornfield turns the film 180-degrees as they robbers hit the road. Instead of the wide-open rural train tracks and action-oriented scenes, we now are trapped in the claustrophobic trucks with the characters and the stolen gold. As they listen to the radio for updates, unaware of the progress of their cohorts in the other vehicles, we feel their every anxiety and share in their every drop of sweat. But rather than fill the void with unnecessary dialogue, Cornfield forces us to bear the strained, uncertain silence as we await the inevitable.

Strong acting (including the one-of-a-kind Elisha Cook, Jr. at his sensitive but hardboiled best), expressive cinematography by Ernest Haller (whose nearly five decade career included Rebel Without a Cause, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Gone With the Wind, and Mildred Pierce among many others) and a stellar score by Irving Gertz, converge to make Plunder Road a gripping, well-crafted crime movie that stands out from an era filled with so many great, gritty mysteries.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Spend it Now, Pay Later" by Nik Morton (Beat to a Pulp, 2009)

For this week's edition of Stories for Sunday I turn to David Cranmer and Elaine Ash's excellent publication Beat to a Pulp, a treasure trove of hard-hitting e-pulp that includes stories by such writers as Jack Martin, Chap O'Keefe, Patti Abbott, and Charles Gramlich, to name just a few. Their latest gut punch? "Spend it Now, Pay Later" by Nik Morton, an unsettling and timely story of a single mother caught in an economic depression who jumps at an opportunity to get herself out of debt and build a future for her daughter. The price: nothing much now, just her arms twenty years down the line, and that's a long way off... Morton has over thirty years publishing experience behind him (including several Black Horse Westerns under the name Ross Morton), and this latest story - a taut, nightmarish allegory from first word to last - is proof of his highly honed craftsmanship.

Read "Spend it Now, Pay Later" by Nik Morton.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"The Burglar" by David Goodis (Lion Books 1953/Black Lizard 1991)

David Goodis is anything but a forgotten author – but his 1953 novel The Burglar might just qualify as “forgotten.” Originally published by Lion Books, it was reprinted by Black Lizard in 1991, and is now once again out of print. Even beat-up copies fetch a decent price online, which certainly limits the number of readers who can get their hands on it. Its scarcity is a disservice to Goodis’ legacy, as The Burglar not only stands out as arguably one of his strongest works, but also one of his most unique. Unlike the quotidian characters with latent criminal desires that are typically the focus of his works, The Burglar instead chooses a quartet of thieves. And nor are they washed up and broken down like the musicians and artists of Down There or The Street of No Return – these crooks are savvy and successful, as the opening heist scene exemplifies.

Even though they just stole a hundred thousand dollars worth of jewels, all is not well amongst Nat Harbin’s gang. First there’s the girl – Gladden – who is in love with him, and whom he has brought up like the little sister he never had. Bored, lonely, and unsatisfied, she daydreams at the dinner table. When Nat reminds her they are both still young, she coldly replies, “We’re half in the grave.” And then there are the two goons – Baylock and Dohmer – competent at their craft, but lacking Nat’s artistry and Gladden’s heart. And then there is Nat himself, a child of the depression whose parents suffered to save the family and died failures. He’s burdened by guilt – a sense of loyalty to a dead man who taught him everything he knows, and whose daughter he vowed to protect.

One day everything changes. Nat meets a woman in the bar, and suddenly he feels free – able to leave his life of crime behind him, able to leave those two goons in the dust. Able to say goodbye to Gladden. So he does – and that’s when he realizes he’s been trapped by a third party who wants to blackmail him and his cohorts and take all the jewels for himself. Responsible for breaking his family up, Nat is more vulnerable and alone – and guilty - than ever before.

The Burglar also stands out for its focus on a group dynamic as opposed to a solitary protagonist. (The only other two works of his that come to mind are Black Friday, which similarly concerns a band of thieves but the main character is an innocent man whom bad luck and fate conspired against, and The Blonde on the Street Corner.) This significance becomes apparent when you begin to examine the bitter homefronts of the sour relations of Retreat from Oblivion and the marital anxieties of Of Tender Sin: all of these characters are striving for a functioning homelife and unable to find it. But in The Burglar, the characters have created a working family in which not only does everyone have a role to perform, but everyone also profits in the end. But even this does not quell the latent paranoia and lingering ennui that lies beneath the surface of all of Goodis’ novels. And in the end, Harbin and his crew are no different than any of Goodis’ other characters: they destroy what they love and sabotage their own dreams.

And unlike The Wounded and the Slain, there is no pretense of a happy ending. Harbin and Gladden give everything they’ve got, only to discover that it isn’t enough. In Goodis’ world, it never is. And that is the most despairing of all of the author’s reoccurring themes. The one reassuring fact is that Goodis, like his characters, never gave up, and would go on to publish nine more novels, including the highly underrated Somebody’s Done For, a fitting title for his last novel, which is also arguably the pinnacle of his career.

A few quotes from The Burglar:

“The night air had a thick softness and the smell of stale smoke from the factories that had been busy in the day, and the smell of cheap whiskey and dead cigarettes and Philadelphia springtime.”

“Gerald was always contending that burglary is no special field of endeavor, and every animal, including the human being, is a criminal, and every move in life is part of the vast process of crime.”


“As matters stood, life offered very little aside from an occasional plunge into luxurious sensation, which never lasted for long and even while it happened it was accompanied by the dismal knowledge that it would soon be over.”


“He couldn’t speak. The thing that crushed down on him was the sum weight of all the years, and her voice was a lance cutting through it, breaking it all up and showing him it added up to nothing but a horrible joke he had played on himself.”


“Trouble? They don’t know what real trouble is. Look at them walking. When they take a walk, they take a walk, and that’s all. But you and I, when we take a walk it’s like crawling through a pitch-black tunnel, not knowing what’s in front, what’s in back. I want to get out of it. I want it to end, there’s no attraction and I want it to end.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Interview with James Reasoner on "Hunt At the Well of Eternity" (Leisure Books, 2009)

April 28th marked the debut of a new adventure hero, Gabriel Hunt, in the novel Hunt at the Well of Eternity (Leisure Books, 2009) by James Reasoner, acclaimed and prolific author of more than 200 books. From detective tales in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine to the ten-volume Civil War Battle Series, Reasoner has written it all – and Hunt at the Well of Eternity exemplifies both his ability to craft thrilling plots and his eye for historical detail. This first book in the series finds Hunt at a gala event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Bored by the formality, Hunt gets more excitement than he bargained for when the waiters suddenly drop their trays and turn their guns on a mysterious woman carrying an antique whisky bottle wrapped in a vintage Civil War flag. The woman is kidnapped, but Hunt manages to save the flag and the broken remnants of the bottle, which lead him first to Florida to investigate a Southern regiment, and then to the jungles of Guatemala, which might just be the home of the enigmatic fountain of youth. Thoroughly engaging from first page to last, Hunt at the Well of Eternity is an exciting and promising start to the Gabriel Hunt series. I’m certainly looking forward to reading of our hero’s future adventures.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing James Reasoner about Hunt at the Well of Eternity, series novels, adventure fiction, and his vast experience as a writer.

Pulp Serenade: Hunt at the Well of Eternity is the first in the Gabriel Hunt series, our first introduction to a character that will appear in several other books down the line. How was Gabriel Hunt “born” both as an idea, and within your own book?

James Reasoner: Gabriel Hunt came out of the mind of Charles Ardai and was born from a desire on Charles' part to bring back the sort of pulp adventure fiction that was popular in the past. He wrote an excellent series bible that really made the character come alive, so by the time I became involved, Charles had already done all the heavy lifting, creatively speaking. While I was writing my book, several little touches occurred to me that I thought might fit in well with the character, so I emailed Charles to make sure he agreed and we were able to work all of them into the manuscript.

PS: Is crafting a series character different than writing a character you know will only be in one book?

JR: If it's a character in a house-name series (and I've written a lot of them), you can't have any major changes taking place. Gabriel Hunt falls into that category. He has to be essentially the same character at the end of my book as he was in the beginning, so the next writer can pick up the reins. If it's a series of my own, I have more leeway, so I can have characters change and develop as they go along. I tend to think in the long run when I'm plotting a series, so I might plant the seed for something that won't really become important until two or three books later. Having that time is a real luxury. In a one-shot book like Dust Devils, I have to get everything that's important about those characters into that book, so I have to be more selective about what I include.

PS: The story is fast paced and takes us from New York to Florida to Mexico and Guatemala, and finally back to New York. How do plot out your novels? Do you do a lot of outlining?

JR: I've worked from all sorts of outlines in my career, from lengthy, detailed ones of 40 or 50 pages down to half a page or occasionally no outline at all. In general I prefer a four or five page outline that gives me enough structure so I don't get lost as I go through the story, but enough leeway for the writing to still be creative and fun. In the case of Hunt at the Well of Eternity, there's a lot of Doc Savage influence in it, especially in the way it's structured. I was a huge Doc Savage fan as a kid during the Sixties, when the Bantam paperback reprints were coming out regularly.

PS: Did you re-read any classic adventure writers to get in the spirit for Gabriel Hunt? Or do you have any favorites that you can recommend to readers (such as myself) that aren’t as familiar with the genre?

JR: I didn't re-read anything specifically to get ready for Gabriel Hunt, because so much of it is already imprinted on my brain! I'd recommend the Doc Savage novels by Lester Dent, as mentioned above, especially the ones originally published in the first three or four years of the pulp. Really, any of the Docs published before 1940 is going to be pretty good. Robert E. Howard is still best known for Conan and his other fantasy fiction, but he was one of the best pure adventure writers of all time. I'm especially fond of his stories set in the Middle East about Francis X. Gordon, also known as El Borak. P.C. Wren is the classic author of French Foreign Legion yarns such as Beau Geste. H. Bedford-Jones was one of the most prolific pulp authors and wrote scores of adventure novels and hundreds of short stories and novelettes, some of them historical, others contemporary to his time. Edgar Rice Burroughs is another long-time favorite, and as good as many of the Tarzan novels are, I like the John Carter novels even more, and for kitchen-sink adventure novels that throw in just about everything, you can't beat The Mucker and Return of the Mucker. This just barely scratches the surface of the vast amount of excellent adventure fiction written in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

PS: What is an average writing day like for you?

JR: I write on the computer, although occasionally I might make notes for something in longhand. My first several novels were first-drafted with a fountain pen in spiral notebooks, then I worked on manual typewriters, electric typewriters, and finally computers. I get nostalgic for the typewriter days every now and then, but I'd never go back to one. I like the speed and the ease of rewriting on a computer.

I write about three hours in the morning, take a break for lunch, and then write another four or five hours in the afternoon, sometimes longer if I have a deadline pressing. Research, answering emails, things like that, are usually done in the evening. When I was younger I wrote a lot at night, sometimes all night, but that changed when kids came along. Occasionally I'll play a movie soundtrack or a jazz CD while I'm working, but for the most part I write in silence.

PS: Your first novel, Texas Wind, was published in 1980. Has the process or experience of writing changed for you since then?

JR: Technically, the process has changed. As I mentioned above, my first books were written with a pen and then typed up by my wife Livia or myself. She still edits all my work before it's ever sent out, but we email files back and forth now. Creatively, I hope I'm a little better at it now. After all these years, plotting is easier most of the time. One very important thing that hasn't changed is that it's still fun. I wrote to entertain myself long before I was ever paid for it, and I still try to enjoy myself with everything I write.

PS: As someone who writes so prolifically in so many different genres (Western, Mystery, Adventure, Non-Fiction, Fantasy, War), what is it like switching between them so often? Do you have a favorite?

JR: I'm lucky in that when I was growing up I was an avid reader, and I read widely in many different genres. That's carried over into my writing. I really enjoy switching genres (and combining genres at times, as well). Because of that background as a reader, I'm able to switch between genres as a writer without much trouble. I'm greedy. I want to write it all!

I started out as a mystery writer, though, and had published probably a couple of million words of mystery fiction before I ever wrote a Western, so mystery is my first love. But I found that I have a real affinity for Westerns, too, and have written more of them than anything else.

PS: What’s up next for you?

JR: A lot of books under various pseudonyms and house-names, mostly Westerns but a few historical novels and a contemporary thriller thrown in there, too. Nothing under my name is in the works at the moment other than a short story or two, but there are several deals pending that could put my name back out there on the shelves again.

PS: And finally, do you have any writing wisdom you can share with writers (of all ages)?

JR: The things that have kept me in the business all these years are persistence, professionalism, and a willingness to take chances. You have to be stubborn enough to really believe that you can do this. I went through a dry spell in the Eighties when I couldn't sell anything, but I kept writing, trying everything I could think of that I might be able to sell. This was after I had published several novels and fifty or sixty short stories. I remember being excited to get a check for $60 from a men's magazine for a short story. So I wrote more of them, and while they didn't all sell, enough of them did to keep me going as a writer. Then a friend asked me to ghost a book for him, and I made a contact that led to some work for a book packager, and suddenly I had four books under contract and have never looked back since. That's the persistence part. The professionalism is as basic as keeping up with the markets and what's being published, and submitting material that's presented the way the editors want it presented. Several editors have told me that my manuscripts are some of the cleanest and easiest to read that they've ever seen, and that's what I strive for. As for the willingness to take chances, if someone asks me to write something I've never written before, I don't hesitate. My answer is, "Sure, I can do that." For the freelance writer, those are words to live by, I think.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "Danny Denver," an episode of "Richard Diamond, Private Detective"

Today's edition of Stories for Sunday is a little different than usual. Instead of a short story, I am highlighting a script for an episode of Richard Diamond, Private Detective, a radio show that ran from 1949-1953 (and was later a television series). The radio version starred Dick Powell and was written by Blake Edwards. Last night I was lucky enough to catch a live performance of one episode, "Danny Denver" (#98, originally broadcast May 11, 1951), at my favorite bookstore, Partners and Crime. Once a month, they present W-WOW! Radio, a performance of old time radio mysteries complete with music, sound effects, and vintage commercials - all done live in-store. It's really a treat to see, if you're ever in the city you should definitely try to catch a performance.

In "Danny Denver," Richard Diamond is hired to commit a murder, but the victim isn't your typical soon-to-be-corpse. It is Danny Denver, a ventriloquist's dummy who has already been destroyed several times, and keeps coming back. Diamond reluctantly takes on the case, and soon finds himself amidst a screwy acting troupe who all think Danny is not only real, but also responsible for a murder, which means that Diamond now has two mysteries to solve.

The script, courtesy of Old Time Radio Researchers Group, includes handwritten notes meant for the final performance. It is certainly a unique and insightful historical document, as well as an entertaining read. For more information on the show, check out these comprehensive notes on the history of Richard Diamond, Private Detective by Frank Passage.

Read "Danny Denver" by clicking here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories of Fredric Brown" by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg (Southern Illinois U.P., 1985)

Reading Francis M. Nevins, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg’s excellent anthology Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories of Fredric Brown (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985) I was struck with this realization: Yes, Fredric Brown does believe in justice – but what an unsettling, discomforting sense of justice. The old adage is that the punishment should fit the crime, but in Brown’s paradoxical world, the punishment always fits the criminal. A slight difference in rhetoric, but astronomical when put into practice.

[Note: I’ll warn you now – slight spoilers ahead for some stories. I’ll try and keep them to a minimum, however, and use only the details necessary to illustrate Brown’s unique worldview.]

Consider a story like “The Dangerous People” (originally published as “No Sanctuary” in Dime Mystery, August 1949) in which two strangers sit in a train station, each one thinking that the other is an escaped homicidal lunatic. So there they sit, hands clenched around a weapon and ready to strike, while meanwhile the real criminal walks free. And that is where the ironical justice is: a “lunatic” escapes one asylum and walks into the bigger asylum that is the everyday world. A clever turn of events, certainly, but in Brown’s twisted reality, there is no comforting resolution to the story. The real killer walks among us, while “normal” citizens are slowly turning into crazed murderers themselves.

In other stories, however, the real criminals do more than walk free: innocent lives pay for their crimes (though it is debatable just how “innocent” anyone really is). Take “The Night the World Ended” (Dime Mystery, January 1945), in which two journalists play a trick on an alcoholic bum named Johnny Gin. Fabricating a phony newspaper that pronounces the world will end that night, they bet whether or not he will come out of his drunken haze and return to reality. Things go awry, guns go off, and a couple bodies pile up – and I won’t say whose. The point, however, is that Johnny Gin plays the sap not just to a couple of cocksure writers, but also to life itself. He drinks to forget his past, and in the midst of all the chaos he comes to remember just what it is he put behind him – but Brown never reveals it to us. He allows Johnny Gin that little bit of privacy, that small but sacred piece of information that makes him human to us readers. Was Johnny a criminal who is now paying for his crimes? Or is he just an average Joe? Maybe, after all, he is just a nobody, like everyone thought. And maybe so are you and I. And if that is the case, so are the journalists who started this screwball gag that snowballed into an existential boulder that knocked Johnny Gin back into the gutter from which he came – and knocked a few other people over, as well. All of us – nobodies doing nothing nowhere.

Now, where is the justice in that?

That is where the joke is. The two journalists wanted to fabricate the end of the world for Johnny Gin? Well, essentially, that is just what they did. It didn’t happen the way they imagined it would, but it happened nonetheless. So tomorrow, after the story is over, they will open the paper and see exactly what they jokingly predicted. Only this time it won’t be funny.

Other excellent stories include the soberly macabre “Little Apple Hard to Peel” (Detective Tales, Feb 1942), in which comeuppance comes at a big cost for both the giver and the receiver; Nightmare in Yellow (Nightmares and Geezenstacks, 1961) in which a man’s desire for freedom is granted, but not in the way he expected; and “The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches” (Dell, 1949), the hardest to find of Brown’s novellas and an extremely clever Woolrich-esque search to exonerate a wrongly jailed man – worth reading just for the pleasure of seeing how Brown incorporates the title. In an otherwise excellent story of psychological torment, “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen” (Mystery Book Magazine, Winter 1948) jumps the gun with its twist ending and delivers its merciless denouement without proper build up. But even a flawed Brown story has his unmistakable sensibility – like a Cheshire cat, he grins knowing the worst is still yet to come.

Instead of choosing my favorite lines from all the stories included, I decided to reproduce the final story in the collection: a piece of Brown’s flash fiction, his entire philosophy boiled down to six sentences.

“Mistake” (Rogue, May 1963)

Standish gave himself up to the police. “I killed a man, he said. “I thought it was a perfect crime, but I made a mistake.” They asked what his mistake had been. “I killed a man,” he said.
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