Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Texas Wind" by James Reasoner (Manor Books, 1980)

James Reasoner may open Texas Wind (Manor Books, 1980) with the Private Eye’s iconic visit to a potential client, the initial gestation to many a detective narrative (shades of Marlowe in The Big Sleep), but this is 1980, and just as the world is a different place than it was in Chandler’s time, the private detective is also a different person. Midway through Cody’s investigation into the disappearance of college student Mandy Traft, he is given a telling warning that immediately separates his character from the classic milieu of Marlowe, Spade, Hammer, Scott, or any of their veteran pulp colleagues. “I’d hate to have to file a report listing you as the victim. This isn’t the wild days anymore. Take it easy, okay?” Reprehensible, vulnerable, fallible, imperfect – perhaps the best word to describe Cody is the simplest of all: human.

As Ross Macdonald notes in his On Crime Writing, “Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society.” This is one of the unique appeals of the genre: the detective figure is pliable enough to be at once distinct and yet firmly part of a larger tradition. It is a difficult feat to balance a sense of history and remain independent, but Reasoner does it marvelously.

Like the great detectives, Cody is an anachronism. His perceptive cynicism marks him a realist in a fantasy world, and his values give him a sense of grounding while those around him flounder in meaninglessness. He immediately recognizes the phoniness in Mandy’s stepmother (who claims to be “friends” with her) and her friend Lisa (who pretends there is no sexual tension between them and Jeff, the third member of their musical group). He also empathizes with their need to cling to these facades when Mandy’s disappearance brought one glaring, unpleasant truth to the surface: no one was as intimate or close as they once thought. This was the closest thing they had to family and friends, and with Mandy gone, the charade can’t support itself, nor can it give meaning to their lives.

As for Cody, he may be a hero for trying, but even he realizes he’s a fool for thinking he could enact change in a world that is irreversibly changing. He makes mistakes, and he pays for them – and so do others. His few attempts at gung-ho heroism go terribly wrong. And when he ignores gut instinct to inform the police about the kidnapping and ransom request, you begin to wonder whether the attributes of detectives of yesteryear (bullheaded independence, reckless egoism, total disregard for law and order) are as admirable as we once thought. As readers we want to believe in Cody’s decisions, and believe that everything will turn out for the best in the end. We want the myth of the Private Detective and his personal agency to win out against an increasingly oppressive world. By the end of the book, however, even Cody isn’t convinced of this anymore. The weight of reality is just too hard to ignore.

In the midst of all of this despair is a life-affirming sense of humor. (A favorite observation is: “When we were back in the car, I noticed that Janice wasn’t sitting as close to me as she had before. The price you pay for carrying a human finger in your pocket, I guess.”) There’s real warmth to his characters’ interactions, and just as much fire when they’re fighting. For his first book, James Reasoner created a Private Eye novel as classic as it is modern, and fans of the genre are sure to enjoy the deft storytelling and rich characters it has to offer.

Here are just a few more of my favorite lines:

“I woke up to sunshine coming in the window and the smell of bacon cooking. I understood what people meant when they talked about waking up and thinking they were in heaven.”

“Her guilt on top of mine was like thick dust in the air, making it hard to breathe.”

“Maybe the problems of youth didn’t seem quite so important as you got older, but that didn’t mean they were less than earth-shaking for the people going through them. Everybody’s problems are important at the time.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Stories for Sunday: "The Frog" by Reed Farrel Coleman

In anticipation of Reed Farrel Coleman and Ken Bruen’s collaborative novel Tower (due out next week from Busted Flush Press), this weeks edition of Stories for Sunday will highlight one of Coleman’s short stories: “The Frog.”

Originally published in Plots with Guns (#33, Nov/Dec 2004), “The Frog” concerns a private detective named Gulliver Dowd who has been hired to track down Alain DeGail, the former director of a French insurance company who has mysteriously gone missing. But instead of the well-dressed executive-type he expected, Dowd has come across a defeated man, a misshapen blob of flesh and rags. Even though he never requests details from his clients, Dowd understands all-too-well the man he was hired to track down.

“We walk. We fall. We walk. We fall. It’s only the heights from which we fall that distinguish us.”


Coleman’s Moe Praeger novels were characterized not only by his fatalistic wit (there’s humor even in the darkest of situations) but also an unceasing humanism. He feels genuine empathy for his fallen characters, but also knows that even with their best effort everything won’t always turn out for the best. Despite its unassuming brevity, “The Frog” shares these same attributes. Fans of Walking the Perfect Square won’t want to miss out.

Read “The Frog” by Reed Farrel Coleman here at Plots with Guns.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Derek Raymond on Words and Writing

"If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up — if you do come up. It’s like working in a mine; you hope that hands you can’t see know what they’re doing and will pull you through. I know I wondered half way through [I Was Dora] Suarez if I would get through — I mean, if my reason would get through. For the trouble with an experience like [I Was Dora] Suarez is that you become what you’re writing, passing like Alice through the language into the situation."

-Derek Raymond (Robin Cook), The Hidden Files

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Interview with Greg Shepard of Stark House Press

Stark House Press’ lineup is a veritable Who's Who of classic crime fiction. Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, W.R. Burnett, Peter Rabe, Wade Miller – the list goes on, and thankfully continues to grow. Stark House is one of the most prominent advocates for pulp literature out there, keeping all your favorites in print and introducing you to a whole lot more. And their double- and triple- bills are easily some of the best deals around. Their new collection of three Harry Whittington novels – To Find Cora, Link Mink Like Murder, and Body and Passion (reviewed here) – is phenomenal, and it introduces American readers to a book previously only available in French.

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Shepard, head editor and publisher over at Stark House, about the Whittington trio, how the company got started, and what directions it will be going in.


Pulp Serenade
: To start things off, how did Stark House Press come into being?


Greg Shepard: Stark House Press began as a family affair back in 1998. We pooled our talents. My dad, Bill Shepard, is a retired editor, my mom, Joanne, a proofreader. My ex-wife is a painter and my brother Mark is a graphic design artist. And I had been a buyer, seller and distributor of books, and had the contacts. The initial concept was to specialize in genre fiction. Everyone but my brother dropped out, which left me to pursue what I wanted, which was mystery reprints, mostly hardboiled.



PS: What do you look for in prospective titles?

GS: I look for a good story, preferably one that I’ve read more than once that grabbed me as much the second time as the first. I also like to offer more obscure titles, as I did with Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and the new Harry Whittington. I have my favorites like Peter Rabe and Gil Brewer as well, and these are authors I keep coming back to for reprints.



PS: The recent collection of Harry Whittington titles – To Find Cora, Like Mink Like Murder, and Body and Passion – is like a treasure that most readers didn’t even know existed (particularly Like Mink Like Murder). From the introduction by David Laurence Wilson, it seems he and Lynn Munroe were researching these for quite some time. When did Stark House come on board in the project?

GS: David and I had talked about a follow-up to A Night for Screaming/Any Woman He Wanted even before that one was printed, so that would have been around three years ago. He had access to some of the rarer books like Cora is a Nympho, and somewhere along the line he tempted me with an English language version of a book he was then calling Mink, which had only been published in France. I was interested immediately.



PS: Were other Whittington titles considered? How did you all decide on these three particular titles out of the thirty-six recently rediscovered, or all the rest of his out-of-print work?

GS: If memory serves, I mentioned to David that I wanted to do Rapture Alley, the story of a woman’s descent into drug addiction. But he thought Cora and Body and Passion worked better with Mink, and suggested we pair Rapture up with another of Harry’s social mysteries down the line. Harry had written so many books, so many great stories, and David was right in the midst of researching them, I was more than willing to take his suggestion. And of the rediscovered books, we picked Passion Hangover — reverting to Harry’s original title, Like Mink Like Murder – for the simple reason of its complicated history and intriguing backstory. That and the fact that it was another great story.

PS: Since you specialize in pulp literature, where do you think its importance lies? Why are they continuing to survive and impact readers, when they were initially thought to be ephemeral, disposable books?

GS: For me the importance begins in the stripped-down simplicity of the story. Within that framework, there are so many marvelously unique voices – Thompson, Goodis, McCoy, Burnett, Williams, Rabe, Brewer, Packer, Williford, Chase, MacDonald, Woolrich, etc. — each with their own story to tell. And in revisiting these “disposable” books, we get to relive and experience the mores of another era, which by its very distance seems like a simpler, less complicated time — and that, too, has its appeal. But first and foremost, these are all great writers who continue to impact because of the quality of their work. 



PS: What was your initial foray into pulp fiction? Any particular titles or authors stand out that got you into the style?

GS: The first books that made a big impact on me were the young adult mysteries of Phyllis A. Whitney. Then for years I read mostly science fiction. Somewhere along the line I discovered Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer. But probably the first real pulp I read were the Honey West books by G. G. Fickling. The show was on TV when I was a teenager, and I gobbled up the books in all their delightful risquéness. Same with the Man from U.N.C.L.E. books (so I guess my first Whittington book was U.N.C.L.E. #2 back in the mid-60’s).

But in the mid-80’s I discovered the Black Box Thrillers edited by Maxim Jakubowski from England. And that, ironically enough, is where I got hooked on Jim Thompson, David Goodis, W. R. Burnett and Horace McCoy. After that I started collecting old paperbacks - back when you could still find them for a buck or less at used book stores - and reading them like crazy. That really was the start of my mania.

PS: I see on your website that Stark House has several non-crime fiction titles available – Algernon Blackwood, Storm Constantine, and a collection of essays on Invasion of the Body Snatchers edited by Kevin McCarthy & Ed Gorman. Is Stark House planning to branch out into other genres or non-fiction?

GS: The idea behind Stark House Press was that it would be rooted in genre fiction but not restricted to any one category. So we always felt open to offer science fiction, fantasy, horror, even westerns. We started with Storm Constantine, who writes fantasy and sf, because I simply loved her books. I contacted her and she was happy to work with us. I reprinted the Blackwood books for the same reason. I love his mystical fiction. But except in a general sense, there are no plans to branch out from the mysteries we’re doing now. But no plans not to either. I like to stay flexible. 



PS: Have you ever considered publishing paperback originals yourself?

GS: I don’t really think of myself as an editor, and have resisted the notion of publishing originals until recently. I enjoy my niche. But a few months ago, Ed Gorman suggested I read Charlie Stella’s new book, Johnny Porno, and I couldn’t say no. It was too good to pass up. It’s a great story and Charlie is a helluva writer. So I will be publishing one original next year in April. Whether I publish more, I just don’t know. I don’t want to encourage anyone to send in manuscripts at this point, though, because the main emphasis of Stark House will continue to be classic reprints.



PS: How do you feel about digital publishing. Is this a direction Stark House might venture into in the future?

GS: I prefer hard copy books myself. I’m not personally interested in digital publishing. I could see making our books available on Kindle as a way to support the authors, but I’m not pursuing it at the moment. I’m a fairly retro guy, and I just can’t get away from the notion of a book as a physical object. I like the look of a book, the smell of a book. You mentioned ephemeral earlier. To me, digital publishing is just that.



PS: Lastly, any upcoming titles that you can hint at?

GS: Well, we’ve just updated the website where we’re promoting a few future titles. We’ve got two classic turn-of-the-century mysteries from E. Phillips Oppenheim, including his rarest book, The Amazing Judgment, of which there are only about three or four known copies in the world. We’ve got two more South Sea adventure mysteries by A. S. Fleischman, Danger in Paradise and Malay Woman. I love his stuff. I always seem to see Robert Mitchum as the main character as I’m reading them.

We’ll be publishing another standalone title next year called One for Hell by Jada M. Davis. This has got to be the penultimate bad cop story, and if I could find another good Davis story to pair with it, I would. This is a one-hit wonder, but it’s a killer.

I also just signed a contract to publish two of Peter Rabe’s unpublished manuscripts, The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver. That’s pretty exciting. The one is a mafia tale set in Sicily, and the other a rollicking revenge story.

We’ll also be working with Ann Marlowe to publish Stephen Marlowe’s autobiography, Confessions of a Wandering Writer, hopefully late 2010. I’d publish more books a year if I could afford to, but I’m happy with the ones we’ve got coming up in the next year.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"What You Have Left" by James Sallis (Walker & Company, 2009)

It’s hard to think of a more perfect title for the collection of James Sallis’ three novels about the reluctant sheriff John Turner than What You Have Left (Walker & Company, 2009), which gathers between two covers Cypress Grove, Cripple Creek, and Salt River. The phrase “What you have left” appears in Cripple Creek and refers to a quote from the violinist Itzhak Perlman who continued performing even after breaking a string: “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” It’s as good an explanation of what art is as I’ve ever heard. But what makes the phrase so suited to Sallis’ trilogy is its ambiguous double meaning. Read one way, it refers to that which remains, which survives. Turned around, it suggests a movement away from something: a memory, a place, a person, maybe even yourself. The tension between these two meanings is the common thread that unifies – and haunts – all three novels.

Former cop, former convict, former psychologist, current recluse. That’s Turner for you, in a nutshell – a shell that is cracked wide open at the start of Cypress Grove when Sheriff Lonnie Bates approaches his cabin and asks his help on a murder case. Alternating chapters, Sallis also offers a counter-narrative that traces Turner’s past, the windy path that led him to murder, a path he would have rather left behind. Hiding anything is impossible; things submerged resurface; history reenters our lives always; the past is always present. It’s a lesson the characters all learn the hard, unpleasant way.

If Cypress Grove is about Time (with a capital T), Cripple Creek is about Family. The hitmen assigned to track down Turner are nothing compared to the emotional rocking he gets when his estranged daughter shows up and helps him with the case. And then there is his growing attachment to Val, a banjo-plucking lawyer, and Miss Emily, the possum who has taken up residence in his home. Families real and surrogate; reunions; separations; goodbyes. In giving up his status as a recluse, Turner must relearn the joyous, painful vulnerability of relationships.

An elegiac conclusion to the series, Salt River, fittingly, is about Death. The mayor’s son in a car crash; a dead body in a stranger’s house; sometimes something from within. Goodbyes come in different ways, but one thing is inevitable: you have to say them at some point, in some way.

Sallis writes with the cadence of an oral historian and the patience of a poet. He’s more likely to spend a paragraph talking about the particularities of a banjo, the resonance of a singer’s voice, or the simple joys of sopping up rabbit stew with bread, than any climactic plot point. For Sallis, it is the little things that make life not only worthwhile, but also lively. With sparse but redolent details, peppered with both humor and sorrow that is all too human, these novels have the feeling of a folk ballad rather than a symphony. Its power lies in understatement, and a deceptive simplicity that is the sign of a truly skilled writer.

I haven’t written down so many quotes from a book in quite some time. I couldn’t possibly copy them all down, and that would ruin the enjoyment of coming across so many of his quiet but profound thoughts and lyrical phrases. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Cripple Creek


“It’s a question of confidence – confidence and momentum. Back then it never occurred to me that anything could stop me. I know too many things that can stop me now.”


“You don’t use your time, it’ll sure use you.”


“Ambition is a strange rider. Sometimes the horse it picks can’t carry it.”


“Grace be with us all, who are so alone and lost.”


Cypress Grove


“The body remembers where we’ve been even as the mind turns away.”


“Why is it that so often we begin to define a thing – come to that desire, and to the realization of its uniqueness – only at the very moment it is irrevocably changing and passing from us?”


“Pain as the fulcrum, loss as the lever, to keep their worlds aloft. After a while that can get to be all they feel, all that reassures them they’re alive.”


Salt River


“Two schools of thought. One has it we’re best off using simple words, plain words. That fancier ones only serve to obscure meaning – wrap it in swaddling clothes. Other side says that takes everything down to the lowest common denominator, that though is complex and if you want to get close to what’s really meant you have to choose words carefully, words that catch up gradations, nuances… You know this shit, Turner.”
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