Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"To Kiss, or Kill" by Day Keene (Gold Medal, 1951)

You got to admit, Day Keene knows how to open a book with a bang. Take the opening line of To Kiss, or Kill, published by Gold Medal in 1951: “You never can tell what a big, tough Polish boy will do when he finds a nude blonde in his bathroom.” What more do you need to draw a reader into the story? Concise and vivid, Keene gives us enough details to tantalize our imagination about what has happened in the past that lead up to this moment, and enough clues to make us anxious over what will happen next. It is a prime example of the sort of economical, visceral, and absolutely gripping writing that comes to mind when we think of the pulp fiction school of crime writing that took over the paperback industry in the early 1950s. Bill Crider felt similarly in his own review of the book: “Who could resist reading on after a beginning like that? Not me, that's for sure.”

The big tough Polish boy Keene is writing about is Barney Mandell, an ex-prizefighter who has taken one too many blows to the skull. Before he got punch drunk, he married Gale Ebbling, a socialite from a wealthy and respected family. It was she and her father who convinced Barney that he was going crazy and that he should enter a sanitarium. When he gets out, two years later, his wife isn’t there waiting for him, so he takes to the bottle and takes to a blonde. When he awakens, she’s dead. The police think he’s gone batty and want him back in the sanitarium. Barney is almost convinced, too, until other bodies start showing up. Soon the Treasury department starts questioning him about a deceased uncle, and then there is the issue of the money he left for his wife to send to his mother while he was away but never was. Dodging bullets and the cops, Barney must now piece together not only what happened in the past two years, but also uncover why it was he was originally committed.

Keene is in top form with To Kiss, or Kill, and his driving pace is pitch perfect. Unfolding over the course of just a couple of frantic days, the momentum never stops, and Barney’s increasing self-doubt and anxiety seems to infect the narrative flow. Cleanly plotted, Keene never gets tripped up in unnecessary exposition. The most pivotal scene to the plot, where Barney finally tears down the house of cards that others built up around him and begins to expose the conspiracy surrounding him, is handled masterfully. Keene’s fine hand maneuvers through the details with clarity and exactitude.

But the sweetness of Keene’s prose isn’t so much in the plot twists as it is in the punches they deliver. Lines like, “Gale was bad. She was evil. She was a part of his blood. She was a dream that would never die…” The sentences are simple enough, but they build upon each other in a way that no one sentence could do. Short and stubborn, they come across like failed valedictions: Barney’s unsuccessful attempt to wipe out the bad girl from his life, the one that brought him so much pain. The last impression of this book, however, is one of prolonged anguish. The mystery is over, the world is seemingly right again—but not for Barney. Those unsettling notes at the end meant that the novel stayed with me for quite some time after it was over.

Also, one of the most striking things about this novel is its title, a clever, pulpy twist on “To be or not to be” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet!

For those with ereaders, the book is available for free courtesy of Munsey’s.

Also, the cover art is by Barye Phillips.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interview with Dan Wells on "I Am Not a Serial Killer" (Tor, 2010)

Dan Wells' debut novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer, is fiendishly well-written. Its main character is John Wayne Cleaver, a misfit teenager with a high intellect and a fascination for serial killers. Because he lives above the family mortuary, he gets to indulge in his morbid fascination from a safe perspective. The more he learns about serial killers, however, the more John realizes that he shares in common with them. Determined not to become one of them himself, he creates a list of rules to keep his inner "monster" at bay. All is going well until a series of brutal murders begin occurring in town, and John takes it upon himself to figure who–or what–is behind the killings.

Wells deftly blends humor and horror, sympathy and revulsion, throughout the novel. It is a daring book for a number of reasons. Not only for its up-close-and-personal look at violence tendencies and social alienation amongst teenagers, but also because Wells risks having a main character whose intellect we understand, but whose emotional core remains enigmatic. We do not know where his sociopathic drives come from–and, for that matter, neither does John. Contrasting this is an extremely sympathetic villain whose motivations for killing are not only very clear, but also endearing. That Wells preserves the mystery of his main character is a gusty move that pays off tremendously, and leaves readers eagerly awaiting the next two entries in the John Wayne Cleaver saga. Book two, called Mr. Monster, is due out on September 28 from Tor Books. Book three, recently announced as I Don't Want to Kill You, is still awaiting a release date.

Pulp Serenade: Where did the character of "John Wayne Cleaver" begin, and what about him appealed to you as a writer?

Dan Welles: One day while driving home from my writing group, I was talking to a friend about the Macdonald triad--three traits common to almost all serial killers. My friend said that it would be a cool idea for a book, using a character who had all the traits of a serial killer but was trying not to become one. It took me a year to figure out the best way to turn that into a book, but the character was there from the beginning, and I loved the painful tension it suggested. I also love villains, and in some ways this was an opportunity to write a book about a sympathetic villain instead of a hero. What's not to love?

PS: I've read in other interviews that you, like your main character, are very interested in serial killers. Where did this interest start, and how did it evolve into a novel?

DW: I don't remember where it started, though I do remember my Mom sharing news stories about various local criminals in an attempt to scare me into not talking to strangers. Ted Bundy lived and hunted in my home town, for example, so there was a lot of that "your neighbor could be a killer" vibe already in the background of the community. As for why it interests me today? There's a passage in the first book where John explains his interest to his mother; that's pretty much exactly my explanation as well.

PS: Did you start writing I Am Not a Serial Killer knowing that it would eventually be the first in a trilogy? Or did your conception grow as you developed the character of John Wayne Cleaver?

DW: I always knew he would be a great series character, though I didn't plan out a series or trilogy at first, I just wrote the best novel I could and then tried to sell it. When I did sell it, the publisher asked for two more and I said "yes, sir!" and then tried to figure out how to expand on the ideas with two more books. I'm really pleased with how it turned out, so much so that two or three years from now I might go back and write some more John Cleaver books. We'll see.

PS: A lot of readers will definitely relate to John's alienation as a social outcast in high school. Were any parts of this book particularly autobiographical for you?

DW: Not especially, though it's true that the book shares my distaste for bullies--I recognize that bullies are a big deal for a lot of kids, but in my experience the bullies at school never really got under my skin, so I hate stories about them. I hate books (such as Harry Potter, for example) where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, and yet the main story is all about how that guy in math class is a jerk; that just never works for me. So in I Am Not a Serial Killer, I specifically included a bully just so John could plow past him and not care. If there's a good teen message for the social outcasts buried anywhere in my book, that's it: the only people who care what teenagers think are other teenagers, so don't let them get to you. There are bigger issues to deal with, and if you focus on those you're already a big step up past the bullies.

PS: I was really struck by how sympathetic you were to John's adversary, the demon. Why did you feel it was important to have such a sympathetic villain?

DW: A sympathetic villain was part of the whole point: John is right on the line between hero and villain, which creates really great tension, but if he were fighting an obvious bad guy all of those gray areas would disappear--we wouldn't feel that tension anymore, because everything John did to fight the horrible monster would be inherently more justifiable. Making the villain very sympathetic--arguably more sympathetic than the hero--made every decision harder and more painful, but John had to make them anyway.

PS: At times, the first-person narration reminded me of Fredric Brown, one of my favorite writers. Was he an influence on you at all? If not, who are some of your favorite writers?

DW: I regret that I'm not familiar with Fredric Brown, though I'll definitely look him up. My favorite writers are kind of eclectic: Victor Hugo, Joseph Conrad, Neil Gaiman, Bernard Cornwell, A.A. Milne, Emily Bronte, and so on. None of those are obvious origins for John Cleaver, though, so I don't know what to tell you. I also read a lot of Russian literature, which is probably more of an influence on my style than anything. My favorite book of all time is Dune, by Frank Herbert.

PS: Your descriptions of the embalming process made me flinch more than most movies have! It is extremely visceral writing. What sort of research goes into scenes like those?

DW: Finding resources with descriptions of embalming is pretty easy, but I found that the trick to good storytelling was to search around until I found a mortician website (there are more than you'd expect) with a good FAQ. This is where morticians get on and ask each other questions about weird problems and corner cases, and then other morticians offer advice on what to do to solve them. That's where most of the really good fodder came from, plot-wise, because it let me establish a baseline and then tweak it with problems.

PS: While some parts of the book are grounded in factual descriptions, those related to the demon are rooted more in fantasy, yet they blend together very well. Did you put limits on the more fantastic aspects of the narrative, or create a list of rules as to what can and cannot happen?

DW: I did the same thing with the demon that I did with John's psychology: I figured out how it would work, and then treated it as frankly and plausibly as I could. If someone out there could actually do everything this demon can do, what would happen, how would affect his life? How would the police proceed with the investigation?

PS: I think it was very bold of you to address the issues surrounding violent tendencies in young kids. It is a very controversial topic, and you deal with it head-on, being sensitive but also not shying away from it or treating it lightly. How have readers responded to this aspect of the book?

DW: I've gotten a surprising number of emails from fans who struggle with violent and sociopathic tendencies, thanking me for the book. Some of them are grateful to see someone who's worse then they are, and others are grateful to see someone overcoming their inner darkness. I don't know how old they are, because they all rather wisely avoid telling me anything specific about themselves; the emails are very well-written, but a lot of kids with these kinds of problems tend to have an above-average intelligence anyway, so it's hard to say.

PS: Lastly, what can you tell us about your next book, Mr. Monster?

DW: Mr. Monster follows from the ending of the first book: John has found a demon and beaten it, but he had to let his monster loose in order to do it, and inner monsters are very hard things to put away again after you've given them that much freedom. It's kind of a coming-of-age book, you just don't know which one will come of age: John, or Mr. Monster.

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Story in Crimefactory 3.5

If you haven't heard the good word of the day, it is that Crimefactory 3.5 is finally live!

Keith Rawson, Cameron Ashley and Liam Jose are up to no good again, this time serving up an all-fiction issue with 12 all new stories. I feel honored to be among this issue's lineup with my story "Pursuit," and I have to say that I am both floored and humbled by the other writers included. One of my favorite short story writers Jason Duke is on the rampage again, this time with "Guns, Drugs, and a Shitload of Blood." Eric Beetner, who was previously interviewed here on Pulp Serenade, is on board with "Sins of the Father." Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee Sophie Littlefield opens the issue with "Five Ways Your Mom Was Worse Than You'll Ever Be." The Night Editor himself, Jake Hinkson, appears with "A Cold Night in Murder City." New Pulp Press' Jonathan Woods has "The Old Man."

That's already one hell of a lineup, but that's only half of the loot from this big score. John Kenyon has "Clean Up," Garnett Elliott brings "The Darkest of the Debbies," Jay Stringer gives us "A Bullet for Bauser," Robert Crisman has "A Date With Gentleman Freddie," Julia Madeleine contributed "Stalker," and Naomi Johnson closes the issue with "The Persistence of Memory."

That's over 100 pages of hard-hitting crime fiction. Get yours for free here (available in both PDF and Kindle editions).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Killer Inside Me: Jim Thompson vs. Michael Winterbottom

The most recent adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom and adapted by Winterbottom and John Curran, has been stirring up a lot of controversy, both in its depiction of violence and its approach to Thompson’s original novel. The cast is actually quite good—Casey Affleck nails the fragile affability of Lou Ford, and he is supported by an all around solid ensemble with underrated actors like Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, and Bill Pullman. Even Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson do well in countering their clean-cut Hollywood images as Lou’s bad and good girls—that is, when they are given lines to work with, and are allowed to be more than lifeless punching bags. And the dusty, desert setting of small-town Texas leaves an atmospheric impression that isn’t soon to be forgotten. These are the film’s strong points. However, their weaknesses far outweigh its strengths.

The major problem with Winterbottom’s film is its inability to get a grasp on the inner-life of Lou Ford. Thompson makes us complicit in Lou’s psychotic conspiracy. We’re in on his plan from the start, with him for every decision, no matter how planned or spontaneous. Winterbottom, on the other hand, limits us to being witnesses to Lou’s actions. When he sets his first plan into motion—plotting a double murder—we are not aware of it until he places the first punch. This could be excused by saying that it is easier for a book to get into the head of its protagonist through first-person narration than it is for a film. But to take that route is to admit that Winterbottom wasn’t up for the challenge, or that he couldn’t find creative ways to work around the constraints of cinema. Plenty of other filmmakers have given us access to their main characters psychologies, so why not Lou Ford?

One of the problems is that Thompson never wrote Lou Ford as a character that can be easily broken down and explained. The novel was written in 1952, when Freud and psychoanalysis were increasingly becoming a topic in popular literature and film. Whether it was serial killers or teenage delinquents, psychology was being used to “explain” the characters and their actions. And then along comes Lou Ford—a psychotic sheriff spouting Normal Rockwell, apple pie aphorisms and beating his girlfriends and committing brutal murders. Thompson gives us pieces into his past—childhood sexual encounters, longstanding guilt over his brother, and even a father who was also prone to sexual violence and perversity—but none of these ever gets us closer to figuring out what makes Lou tick. The more Thompson reveals of Lou’s character, the less we truly know of him.

Therein lies the horror of the novel. We never fully understand Lou on an intellectual level. Instead, Thompson makes us understand him on an emotional level. This is how he uses violence: as visceral moments that repel us. The brutality is sensational—not as in exploitation, but because they act on a physical level. Thompson never explicitly moralizes about Lou Ford, but by depicting the violence in such detail he is showing battery for all its ugly reality. It is interesting to compare The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, to William Inge’s Picnic from 1953, or even Peyton Place in 1956. The latter two were also scandalous in their own times, for (among other things) their depictions of sex in small towns. I wonder what those critics would have thought of Thompson’s book? He blows the lid of middle class morality far more than those other texts. In his own way, by confronting head-on the seedier sides of sex and violence, and not shying away from them, Thompson was making us aware of the awful truth of domestic violence without being didactic.

None of the violence in Winterbottom’s film functions close to the way it did in Thompson’s book. Winterbottom gets the shock value, but without placing it in a moral (or amoral) dimension—and without the psychological connection to the characters—it comes off as vapid and uninteresting. It is uncomfortable to watch Casey Affleck punching Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson for the nakedness of his punches, but it was only the sound and image that made me flinch, not the pangs of complicity of turning the pages and making all of this happen like when I was reading the book. Again, this is one of the challenges that is particular to adapting Thompson’s work. Winterbottom, however, seems to have ignored it.

Ultimately, I had a hard time discerning any perspective of Winterbottom’s towards Thompson’s source material. He seems to merely be visualizing what readers have been doing internally for the past 58 years—taking our mental images of Lou Ford’s terror and bringing it to life.

Casey Affleck does a terrific job considering the shortcomings of the writing and directing of the film. Particularly once Lou’s colleagues begin to catch on, Affleck conveys the delicate balance of the sheriff’s mental state, and his struggle to maintain control over the situation. Seeing Affleck coolly smoking a cigar in bed while being interrogated is mesmerizing—he never breaks his calm, not even for a second. His split-second movement from tranquility to savagery is spot-on, and his soft, squeaky voice is perfect for Lou’s country bumpkin manner of speech. It’s a shame that Affleck’s final scene—the moment when Lou Ford makes the decision to shatter his fictional world—is ruined by Winterbottom’s tasteless directing and over-reliance on cheesy, unrealistic special effects. Rarely will you hear me complain that an explosion is unnecessary or gratuitous—and The Killer Inside Me is the exception that proves the rule.
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