Monday, January 24, 2011

Libby Cudmore Interview

Needle 3 has busted loose and is on the prowl. If you haven’t already gotten your copy, get it here now. If you have gotten then, then you already know all about Libby Cudmore’s powerful story “Until Proven Guilty.” It’s about a new prison guard named Christian who’s trying to keep his head on straight. On the one hand, there are his colleagues who take lecherous liberties with the inmates; and on the other there is Lily, the big house’s sole “lady lifer,” who tries to appeal to the more gentle side of Christian. Can he trust anyone? And who will lead him to the emotionally shattering doom we know is inevitable in the noir universe? “Until Proven Guilty” is as strong as it is sensitive, filled with both characters hell-bent for despair and hellishly potent writing.

To celebrate the release of Needle 3, Libby was nice enough to do a Q&A with Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: What was the genesis for "Until Proven Guilty"?

Libby Cudmore: This is going to sound so cheesy, but I think it came to me in a dream. I already had the character of Christian floating around in a few other stories (he shows up in “Props” over A Twist of Noir) and this was a way to give him a backstory. I dream a lot about TV shows I’m watching, and at that point, we were devouring Oz. I think there’s probably some unconscious notes of Vern Shillinger in the character Merv.

PS: Was there something in particular that drew you to the setting of the female cell block and its many inhabitants?

LC: Women are brutal. We’re nasty creatures. We are capable of cruelty that most people cannot even begin to comprehend, but, as in all my work, I didn’t want to do the whole “women in cages” fetish-y violence. I feel like that’s far too prevalent in modern crime fiction. I wanted to have characters who were tough, tender, manipulative, lost and yet, somehow in as much control of their fates as they could be.

PS: When you were writing "Until Proven Guilty," did you have the whole story figured out ahead of time, or did the story change during the writing process?

LC: The story sort of developed on it’s own. I’m not big on outlines. The only real change from the original draft to the one in Needle is the extra scene with Tina, where she says that Lily should just “take the rape.” Someone in a writing workshop actually said that phrase to me, “take the rape,” when we were workshopping this story. I thought it was such an awful thing to say—not just to a woman, but in regards to a story where it would destroy the entire 3rd act—so this was my way of getting back at her for saying what might be the dumbest, most offensive thing anyone has ever said to me.

PS: You have some great lines in the story, but this one is a hall of famer for sure: "She's a laundry room blonde, wood-chip roots like weeds sucking the vigor from the rest of her head." Is there any story behind this one?

LC: Yeah, and I’m sorry to say it’s a pretty dumb one. There’s a scene in Chicago where Renee Zellwegger dyes her hair blonde in the sink of her cell, and I thought it was such a great image that I borrowed it. I don’t know where the second half comes from.

PS: As both a reader and a writer, what draws you to the criminal element?
LC: The same person who inspired “Unplanned” over at Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers got me into Raymond Chandler in college, which is when I really started writing crime fiction . . . but looking back through my old notebooks, I realized I had been writing it for much longer than that. I’m drawn to frustration. I’m drawn to sadness. I like stories and songs about men and women in dark situations. Chandler aside, I love Tom Waits, Warren Zevon and The Smiths, all music with these tender, tragic, aching lyrics. But what I’m not drawn to is bitterness. I hate reading wry cynicism and it really annoys me in actual people. The best crime fiction is the kind with that last glimmer of hope. That’s something everyone can understand, something that everyone—no matter how cynical— can feel.

PS: When we met at NoirCon, you mentioned that you had traveled to other conferences and presented at some. Where have you traveled, and what did you present on?

LC: I’ve been to CrimeBake, Bouchercon and Sluethfest, where I sat on a panel about screenwriting. My story “Props” was made into a short film, so I talked a little bit about the process of making that. I’ve also presented at The End, a graduate academic conference at Indiana University and attended AWP for the last two years—I’ll be part of a reading series at this year’s AWP in DC, so swing by Busboys and Poets and say hi! And I just got back from a guest stint at the Stonecoast MFA program, where I sat on a roundtable about conferences, a panel about collaboration and showed “Props” at the 1st (hopefully) Annual Stonecoast Film Festival.

PS: You also mentioned that you were a huge fan of The Shield at NoirCon. I'm sort of ashamed to say that I still haven't seen an episode -- but it gives me the opportunity to ask you to convince me to watch it. So – convince away!

LC: Oh wow, The Shield. It’s the best-written show ever. It’s so complex, there’s no good or evil. Characters you like do bad things. Characters you hate do good things. The show lacks clichés, and just as you’re prepared to roll your eyes at what you think is inevitable, the story veers off course and you cannot believe what just happened. Going back to what I said earlier, there’s this sense that these characters really believe what they’re doing is right—in some form or another—and you watch as the stakes get higher and higher, as the crimes keep getting worse and worse, as the lies pile on top of each other and that light gets dimmer and dimmer. It’s this great slow, sad, sinking feeling, and I’ve never had that with any other show. Even my friend who hates cops loved The Shield—I can’t give a better endorsement than that.

I’m also in love with Walton Goggins, who plays Shane Vendrell, so there’s that. Kenneth Johnson, who plays Curtis Lemansky, is pretty dreamy too. But my guess is that doesn’t matter to a good chunk of your readers.

PS: What's the ideal writing environment like for you, and what is the typical environment that you write in like?

LC: I have a pretty great writing environment, actually. We’re renting a house this year, so I have my own office. I painted the walls purple, and I have my bookcase and my Tom Waits poster and all my weird desk stuff—voodoo dolls, tiny dinosaurs, action figures—and a space heater. It’s the warmest room in the house, so I have little reason to ever leave it, which helps me get a lot of work done.

PS: What have you been reading this winter?

LC: I’ve started a PI novel based on the Victor and Sheila stories that Crime Factory is serializing, so I’m going back and rereading Chandler books I’d only read once—The Little Sister, Lady in the Lake, Trouble is my Business—to keep myself in that PI frame of mind. I don’t read as much as I should.

PS: Lastly, any other publications or upcoming projects you can mention?

LC: I’ve got stories in current issues of Curly Red, Espresso Stories, Mysterical-E and stories forthcoming from Criminal Class Press, Connotation Press, All Things Girl, Hardboiled, Fridge and Emprise Review, the latter with my BFF and writing partner Matthew Quinn Martin.

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Be sure to visit Libby's blog, The Record of the Month Club.

Friday, January 21, 2011

NYC Hickey & Boggs Screening 1/22 8PM


















Tomorrow, Saturday Jan 22nd at 8PM, I am presenting a screening of Robert Culp's 1972 Private Eye classic Hickey & Boggs at 92YTribeca. I'm doubly excited because not only do we have a 35mm print of the movie, but also because the dude who introduced me to the movie -- the awesome (and Edgar-nominated!) Duane Swiercznyski -- was kind enough to agree to introduce the screening. If you are in the NYC area, come on down to Tribeca and join the party!

Ticketing information available here.

And here's a link to my review of the movie.

2011 Hard Case Crime Updates

Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime, just emailed a newsletter with lots of exciting updates for the 2011 calendar. Back catalog will soon be shipping! The return of Spillane and Collins! More Quarry! More Christa! More Block!

Here's the news as Charles tells it:

Friends,

Bit by bit, we're getting closer to the re-launch of Hard Case Crime with our new publisher, Titan Books. Our backlist titles are already available for pre-order from bookstores and online booksellers such as Amazon.com and BN.com; copies will start shipping in February. And we've got new books on the way, too -- if you go to our Web site, www.HardCaseCrime.com, you'll find cover art and sample chapters for four upcoming titles, all of them brand new:


* GETTING OFF: A Novel of Sex and Violence by Lawrence Block (writing as Jill Emerson) -- The story of a beautiful young woman who sets off on a mission to kill every man she's ever slept with (and she's slept with quite a few). For this book, Lawrence Block is reviving a pseudonym he hasn't used in almost 40 years, under which he wrote seven particularly sexy books back in the day. When he saw how sexy this new one was coming out, he thought...that's the Jill Emerson in me coming out again...


* THE CONSUMMATA by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins -- In the late 1960s, Mickey Spillane announced he was writing a new novel featuring the star of his bestseller THE DELTA FACTOR, but after writing half the book, he set he manuscript aside. Twenty years later, he handed the unfinished manuscript to his friend Max Allan Collins, suggesting that Max might finish it someday. And twenty-some years after that...it's finally done. It's the story of one thief going after another against the backdrop of Miami's Cuban-American community, and it's classic Spillane. Anyone who misses the Good Old Stuff will find plenty to love here.


* QUARRY'S EX by Max Allan Collins -- This is one I know you've been waiting for a long time, the next story in the saga of the hit man known as Quarry (star of THE LAST QUARRY, THE FIRST QUARRY, and QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE). This time, Quarry sets out to protect a movie director who's been marked for murder...only to discover that the director is married to Quarry's ex-wife, the woman whose infidelity pushed him into a life of crime in the first place.


* CHOKE HOLD by Christa Faust -- Another long-awaited title, this is the follow-up to Christa's Edgar Award-nominated MONEY SHOT. Ex-porn star Angel Dare is back; when a old co-star is gunned down in front of her, it's up to her to get his 18-year-old son, a hotheaded MMA fighter, to Las Vegas in one piece while two separate groups of killers are gunning for them.


Lots to look forward to! Do check out the covers -- and if you're hungry for some great reading now, you can prepare for the new books coming out (which doesn't happen till September/October) by ordering any of the old ones you've missed. If you haven't met Quarry or Angel Dare yet, you're in for a treat -- grab yourself a copy of MONEY SHOT or the earlier Quarry books. For Spillane fans, there's DEAD STREET, Mickey's last novel. And we have five other books by Lawrence Block you can enjoy while waiting for GETTING OFF to come out: GRIFTER'S GAME, THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART, LUCKY AT CARDS, A DIET OF TREACLE, and KILLING CASTRO.


Other news...


Things are moving forward on the film adaptation of LITTLE GIRL LOST -- I spent an afternoon with the screenwriter who's penning the adaptation, showing him around some of the real-world locations where scenes from the book take place. (And scenes from its sequel, SONGS OF INNOCENCE. We checked out the tunnels under Columbia University, and the all-night tempura joint on Broadway, and FAO Schwarz...) No guarantee the movie will go before the cameras, but...every step we take makes it that much more likely.


And HAVEN, the TV series based (loosely) on our 13th book, Stephen King's THE COLORADO KID, is gearing up for its second season on SyFy. The writers are working in a white-hot storytelling heat, with filming scheduled to begin in a few months. I'm biased, but I think the show really hit its stride in the second half of the season last year, and there are some great stories coming up. We don't have a premiere date yet for the second season, but I'll let you know as soon as we do.


One final bit of news (if you'll forgive a bit of boasting by a proud father): the Ardai/Novik clan saw an addition in December, a baby girl named Evidence ("Evi" for short).


We'll add a photo of her to the Web site just as soon as she's old enough to wear a fedora.


Best,

Charles

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Charles Ardai

Editor, Hard Case Crime

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying" edited by Bill Crider (Busted Flush, 2010)

Geezer Noir returns with a vengeance in Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying (Busted Flush Press, 2010). The first collection, released back in 2006, showed us that the elderly don’t always go gentle into that good night – give them a cane, a gun, a golf club, anything they can get their arthritic hands on, and they’ll put up a fight to the bitter, brittle end.

That first collection was just the tip of the proverbial ice-berg. The geezers are back, and this time with a whole new crew of writers, along with Bill Crider as editor. (Crider’s story “Cranked,” from the first anthology, won a Derringer and was nominated for an Edgar.) The 28 stories included feature characters ranging from their late 50s to the late 160s. That’s right – “Stiffs,” by Neil Barrett Jr., has a hitman that is 168 years old. The story also takes place on the Moon. Didn’t expect that, did you? I sure as hell didn’t.

Damn Near Dead 2 has a lot of surprises in store for readers. Some of the stories are downright hilarious (like Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Old Man in the Motorized Chair,” about a retired detective who has to solve a case before his favorite TV show about snakes begins, or Tom Piccirilli’s “Zypho the Tentacled Brainsucker from Outer Space vs. The Mob,” whose title says it all); others are tragic (like James Reasoner’s “Warning Shot,” about a security guard who accidentally kills a man while on duty, and Scott A. Cupp’s “Love Story,” about an ex-cop whose love for a woman unknowingly puts her in danger); while others show that darkness doesn’t decrease with age (Toni L.P. Kelner’s “Kids Today” and Marcia Muller’s “Sometimes You Can’t Retire” end with grim, ironic punches).

The stories and their characters are very diverse, but they are all excellent. The anthology reads cohesively cover to cover, and it never feels like the writers are going over the same territory or repeating the same ideas. There's a lot of originality to be found in Damn Near Dead 2, and the writers take the unifying theme seriously, which is what saves the book from falling into parody. Editor Crider and publisher David Thompson did a superb job in rounding up a strong crew of writers for this collection.

Starting off the anthology is Patti Abbott, who sets the tenor perfectly with one of her best stories yet. “Sleep, Creep, Leap” is about an elderly man who tries to do the right thing when he thinks his neighbor is in trouble, and winds up making things a whole lot worse. Abbott is a smart and patient writer, and she puts as much craft and care into building the characters as she does the suspenseful atmosphere. The payoff at the conclusion is as much due to the clever plot twist as to the characters coming full circle.

There are loads of other terrific stories – like Anthony Neil Smith’s “Granny Pussy,” about a doddering pimp and his over the hill hookers, which manages the difficult task of balancing its eccentric humor without turning its characters into caricatures – and I could go on and on about the masterful precision of Bill Pronzini’s retired hitman story “Trade Secret,” or how Don Winslow’s elegiac “Old Men and Old Boards” brings the collection to a tonally fitting close… But I should probably just let you discover the many joys, sorrows, laughs, and killings to be found in Damn Near Dead 2.

Damn Near Dead 2: Live Noir or Die Trying is now available. The print edition features outstanding original artwork from Jeff Wong, including the full-color geezer bandit on the front cover shooting his way to freedom, as well as several black-and-white drawings inside, including a fond farewell image of the late David Thompson. Check with your local bookstore to see if it is in stock or if they can order a copy for you.

Here is the full table of contents:

Introduction by Charlaine Harris
Editor's Foreward by Bill Crider
“Sleep, Creep, Leap” (by Patti Abbott)
“El Conejo” (by Ace Atkins)
“Stiffs” (by Neal Barrett, Jr.)
“The End of Jim and Ezra” (by C. J. Box)
“Out Stealing Buddha” (by Declan Burke)
“Love Story” (by Scott Cupp)
“All About Eden” (by Christa Faust)
“Flying Solo” (by Ed Gorman)
“Neighborhood Watch” (by Carolyn Haines)
“Memory Sketch” (by David Handler)
“Some Things You Never Forget” (by Gar Anthony Haywood)
“The War Zone” (by Cameron Pierce Hughes)
“You’re Only Dead Once” (by Dean James)
“The Sleeping Detective” (by Jennifer Jordan)
“Kids Today” (by Toni L.P. Kelner)
“The Old Man in the Motorized Chair” (by Joe R. Lansdale)
“Angel of Mercy” (by Russel McLean)
“Miss Hartly and the Cocksucker” (by Denise Mina)
“Sometimes You Can’t Retire” (by Marcia Muller)
“The Investor” (by Gary Phillips)
“Bill in Idaho” (by Scott Phillips)
“Zypho the Tentacled Brainsucker from Outer Space vs. the Mob” (by Tom Piccirilli)
“Trade Secret” (by Bill Pronzini)
“The Summer Place” (by Cornelia Read)
“Warning Shot” (by James Reasoner)
“Cutlass” (by Kat Richardson)
“Chin Yong-Yun Takes the Case” (by S. J. Rozan)
“Granny Pussy” (by Anthony Neil Smith)
“Old Men and Old Boards” (by Don Winslow)
Afterward by Bill Crider

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Raven Settles a Score" by Donald MacKenzie (1978; Berkley 1981)

Donald MacKenzie’s series character Raven is a bit like a British Travis McGee, with a dash of James Bond thrown in. He’s a former police officer turned rogue playboy who lives on a houseboat. In Raven Settles a Score, he is contacted by Roderic Campbell, a thief who cracked the safe at the Korean Embassy looking for money but found something far more dangerous – evidence of an international drug conspiracy that many would kill to keep quiet. Soon Roderic is dodging bullets and his girlfriend is kidnapped, and only Raven can sort of this web of corruption.

Two facets raise the book above the potential mediocrity of the plot. First is the fact that before becoming a writer, MacKenzie himself was a professional thief. Evidence of his first-hand knowledge can be seen in Roderic’s character – details of past heists, and how to pick locks using the springs from an alarm clock, are among the most memorable aspects of the book. Second is that MacKenzie organizes the plot in an unconventional way that reminds of Lionel White’s Clean Break. Each chapter takes the perspective of a new character, fragmenting the narrative flow and shifting the time-span of the story.

Raven Settles a Score is well paced with a solid story and engaging characters. The plot isn’t too complicated, but its simplicity makes it a little more believable, for the most part. The finale is a little fantastic – but who can blame the author for giving readers an action-packed ending to the book? Certainly not me. All in all, an entertaining read for those looking for a little mystery and action.

And now, a short quote from the book:

“Raven’s face and voice were obstinate. ‘Retribution, Jerry. That’s what it is. And I’m wielding the hammer.’”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Open Season on Cops" and "The Arabella Nude" by Michael Avallone (Gryphon Press, 1993)

I picked up a collection featuring Michael Avallone’s "Open Season on Cops" and "The Arabella Nude" knowing little about the author, but instead on the strength of its publisher, Gary Lovisi’s Gryphon Books. Lovisi is a fine writer himself, and as a publisher he’s responsible for bringing to the public some wonderful, rare books that we’d otherwise not be able to enjoy. This two-fer was published in 1993 with two original covers (one on either side) by Frank Hamilton, in the style of an old Ace Double. Both stories were originally from Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and featured Avallone’s series Private Detective Ed Noon.

Both stories were enjoyable, but "The Arabella Nude" (MSMM July 1963) was definitely the better of the two. It had a fun plot, playful language, and good interplay of action and humor. Ed Noon is knee-deep in danger over an antiquarian nude statue that collectors would kill to own, but when he agrees to help Nicholas Ackademian protect the statue, Ed finds all the guns are pointed at him. Between dodging bullets from Mrs. Ackademian and ducking punches from goons, Ed gets an education in art history that they don’t teach in schools. Avallone’s narration often cracks wise, with lines like this: “There was a long silence. The pregnant kind, without babies.” Sometimes he even makes up phrases, like “I scratched Russia” – which I think means that he scratched his chin (or maybe his forehead). Even if it doesn’t, the line still puts a pretty funny picture in my mind.

In "Open Season on Cops" (MSMM Sept 1962), Ed Noon teams up with the son of a murdered cop to find his killers. This one is more serious in tone, perhaps because of its subject matter. Its plot is straightforward, but suffers for it. A lot of the detection occurs off the page, a tactic more convenient for the writer than it is entertaining for the reader. Still, there’s a good fight at the end, and some solid hardboiled lines like this: “The shoulders, upper sleeves and rear of the tunic below the collar line looked as if someone had bombarded him with about a pound of rotten tomatoes. He had bled like a broken sieve.”

Gary Lovisi’s line of Gryphon Doubles has some great sounding rarities. You can browse through them here, but these are some of the books I am looking forward to reading in the near future: Hot Rock Rumble and Double Take by Richard S. Prather; Terran Girls Make Wonderful Wives by James Reasoner / Minesweeper by Gary Lovisi; and Carboncopy Killer and 12xZero by Howard Browne. Drop by his website and have a look around, you’re sure to find something to suit your tastes.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jonathan Woods Interview

Jonathan Woods’ short story collection Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem (New Pulp Press) was one of the wildest literary rides of 2010. Some of the stories reminded me of Bukowski writing a 70s Men’s Action Novel, others had the surreal fever of the Hell sequence at the end of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway – but these comparisons don’t do justice to the originality of Woods’ collection. They’re funny, sexy, thrilling, and all-around terrific stories.

Woods’ has that rare zing of spontaneity and impulsiveness that make a story seem to come alive on the page. Temptation lies around the corner for his characters, and more often than not they follow it to the end of the line. They do it for sex, money, a need for adventure, out of drunkenness, and occasionally just plain stupidity. Woods’ characters are a diverse lot, and they’re a fun, albeit sometimes dangerous, lot to be around. But isn’t that what you want from a story? Something to take you out of your everyday life for 10 minutes and give you a jolt, some charge of narrative electricity to wake you up from the quotidian humdrum nausea? Woods takes you around the world – Mexico, Venezuela and, heck, even Southern Vermont – and there’s plenty of exhilaration and peril to experience at every turn.

Take “Drive By” – for my money, one of the best stories in the collection – about a frat boy taken for a ride by a gorgeous, mysterious woman who encounters danger, sex, and excitement. This pulpy cocktail is at the heart of many of Bad Juju’s stories, and it’s irresistible. In the excellent story “Looking for Goa,” a criminal couple’s bond is put to the test as they hide out after a bank robbery. Woods mixes taut suspense with perceptive comments about human behavior and relationships, capping it all off with an effectively clever twist. My favorite of Woods’ endings is from “Dog Daze,” about a woman who tries to come between a man and his dog. Woods times the punchline just right, achieving a nice balance of ironic humor and an open-ended ambiguity that leaves you wondering where the characters will go next.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Woods at NoirCon 2010. Afterward, he was kind enough to answer some questions by email for Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: How did this collection come together?

Jonathan Woods: The stories in Bad Juju were written over about 2½ years. The first was “Ideas of Murder in Southern Vermont.” I stole the title from Wallace Steven’s famous poem. After that story, I have no recollection which stories were written before or after which other stories. My friend the painter Bill Komodore was my first reader for most of them.

The organization of the stories in the published book was the result of consultations with the spirit world and some dreams I had. One of my favorite plays is called 52 Pickup by T.J. Dawe and Rita Bozi. The titles of 52 scenes from a relationship, from beginning to end, are written on a pack of playing cards, one scene per card. To begin the play one of the two actors throws the cards in the air. The two actors randomly pick up cards one at a time, acting out each scene of the relationship in the random order in which each card is retrieved. I think this same idea applies to the arrangement of the stories in Bad Juju. That being said, I like the order in which they appear in the book. And the last line of the last story ends the book perfectly.

PS: At what point did New Pulp Press get involved, and how did you link up with them?

JW: I met Jon Bassoff in May 2009 when we signed the agreement by which New Pulp Press agreed to publish Bad Juju. I went up to Denver to meet him in person, to make sure he didn’t look like Quasimodo. He favors black T-shirts, jeans and local Denver microbrews. A few weeks before that he’d read Bad Juju and loved it.

Jon’s company New Pulp Press is one of the really exciting new ventures in crime fiction publishing. Along with the crime fiction series published by PM Press and Europa. The best new writing is being published by small presses. Examples on the lit side include: Tinkers by Paul Harding, publisher: Bellevue Literary Press; Joshua Mohr’s Termite Parade published by Two Dollar Radio; and Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon from McPherson & Company. That’s where it’s happening. And on the web. About half of the stories in Bad Juju were originally published in various webzines. 
 


PS: Where do your stories typically begin -- with a character, a location, a title, or something else?

JW: They begin when I lower a bucket into the old id and draw it back up. “Maracaibo” – I just liked the name. It felt like one of those late 1940s adventure movies with William Bendix and some sexy broad set in the tropics. “An Orphan’s Tale” was inspired by two sentences in a Eudora Welty novella called “Moon Lake.”

PS: What is your writing routine like?

JW: When I’m writing a story, it’s like I’m in a fever, working night and day until it’s done. There are gaps of varying length between each story. Writing a novel is different. You have to hack at it day in and day out like cutting your way through a jungle with a machete. I write exclusively on a computer. Some of my revisions I do by hand on printed pages. I like to write late at night. There’s something about that time, when you’re totally enclosed in stasis. The world cast into darkness.


PS: Are these stories based on your own travels at all?

JW: I have traveled to all the places I write about except Maracaibo. All the stories are strictly made up by yours truly, though “Incident in the Tropics” was extrapolated from a real life incident I witnessed in Panama. 
 


PS: What character do you see yourself in most?

JW: I am all my characters. And they are me.

PS: You open the book with two terrific quotes. One is from Dashiell Hammett, "I haven't laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother," and the other from Donald Barthelme, "Oh, there is nothing better than intelligent conversation except thrashing about in bed with a naked girl and Egmont Light Italic." How and why did you
select these two particular quotes?

JW: The ingredients of my stories are sex, violence and humor. Sex and violence are around us every day, in the newspapers, on the late night TV news. The humor part is to keep me from putting a bullet through my brain. The two quotes kind of tie into that. The Hammett quote combines violence and humor. The Barthelme quote combines sex, humor and a certain wistfulness. The two quotes just seemed like a great way to introduce my stories.

PS: What other writers would you pick as major influences?

JW: Chandler and Cain, obviously. Poe. Barry Gifford. Chester Himes. Henry Miller. Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam. Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Frank Miller. Quentin Tarantino. The list goes on.
 


PS: Let's put you in the shoes of Earl Thigpen in "Drive By." A gorgeous, strange woman picks you up, buys you dinner, then gives you an AK-47 and asks you to kill her brother. Do you say yes?

JW: Anything can happen.
 


PS: A reoccurring motif in your collection is characters traveling abroad who wind up in trouble. Do you think these same characters would get in trouble if they just stayed home, or are they unconsciously seeking out trouble themselves?

JW: For me noir and tropical countries just seem to go together. But actually ten of the 19 stories in Bad Juju are set in the States. My characters would get into deep shit no matter where they are.
 


PS: There's a terrific line from your story "Maracaibo": "Bill watches her leggy departure, fascinated by the enigma of desire." This "enigma of desire" seems to be a central theme to many of your stories, could you say a few words about what it means to your characters?

JW: Love and lust are major plot points in my stories, as they are in life. 
 

PS: Are there any plans to expand any of these stories into full-length novels?

JW: Not at the moment. I actually enjoy writing short stories more than novels. There’s an intense period of creation and then you have this object called a story that works like a multifaceted gemstone. I think short stories are one of the great contributions of America to literature. Think of all the great names of our short story writers: Poe, Bierce, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Paul Bowles. 
 


PS: Bad Juju has taken you on the road recently -- we met at NoirCon in Philadelphia. Where did you travel to, and what were your experiences like with your first book?

JW: Since Bad Juju was published in April 2010, I’ve been traveling around quite a bit promoting the book. This has included a reading at the KGB Bar in NYC, Noir@theBar in St. Louis, BookPeople and the 2010 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Murder By the Book in Houston, Bouchercon and Noircon and a bunch of appearances in my hometown of Dallas. It’s been great fun. I’ve met tons of great people. And I love reading excerpts from the stories aloud. It adds a whole other dimension.
 


PS: What's up next for you? Any news or projects you can share?

JW: I’m working on some new stories. There’s a new one up on Plots with Guns called “Swingers Anonymous.” This year 2010 has been very much devoted to promoting Bad Juju. Hard work, and lots of fun.

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Be sure to visit Jonathan Woods online at Southern Noir, and visit New Pulp Press to purchase Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"East of A" by Russell Atwood

“East of A” was originally a short story in the July 1997 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. That was when Russell Atwood first introduced his series Private Detective Payton Sherwood to readers. The story was about a missing teenager from New Hampshire who followed a musician to New York City and never made it back home. Payton thinks it might be tied into a recent purse snatching and murder, so he takes to the streets of New York City’s famed East Village and Alphabet City, which Atwood vividly captures from intimate, first-hand experience. It’s the author’s stamping ground, and his geographical know-how gives a unique flavor to the story. There are a couple of convenient coincidences in the plot, and Payton hasn’t fully come of age as a character yet, but Atwood makes up for this with a sobering twist at the end. More than anything, however, it is that local authenticity that stands out in the story.

Two years later, Ballantine published Atwood’s full-length novel East of A. Same title, same neighborhood, same Private Detective, but Atwood takes things to another level. The writing is rich and confident, the plotting intricate but precise, and the characters as lively and vivid as their East Side surroundings. Atwood bends the Private Eye genre without breaking it, and his story is absorbing and original.

This time around, Sherwood comes across a teenage girl named Gloria being attacked on the streets. When he steps in, he gets beaten up and she gets away. Before she flees, she steals his gold Rolex. At first he just wants his watch back, but soon he uncovers a mystery that he can’t let go of. Word on the street is that she stole a lot of drugs and that the dealers are looking for her – but they can’t find her, and neither can Payton Sherwood. Soon some of the local residents of Alphabet City are turning up dead, and Payton wonders how much longer before someone else finds the girl first?

In the novel East of A, Payton Sherwood emerges as a mature character, a modern incarnation of the Private Detective that pays homage to the classic archetypes but doesn’t blindly repeat them. His apartment is messy, he’s not exactly a gourmand (often eating cheese and crackers), and he doesn’t have the token secretary like so many PIs of yesteryear. Like many of the residents of Alphabet City and the East Village (including the girl he is looking for), Payton Sherwood is a little lost himself. Perhaps that’s why he ignores the job offers from his former employer, Metro Securities, in order to pursue an empty dream of finding this girl. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel, no reward waiting for him, no prize girl to put her arms around him. Payton’s not the white knight that Marlowe was, nor is he the vigilante that Mike Hammer was, or even the seeker of booze-and-broads like Bill Crane. Payton’s interest in Gloria goes much deeper – deeper than perhaps he even realizes – and reveals the detective’s own uncertainty and indirection in life.

Even more than the original short story, here Atwood proves that he can write New York with the best of them. Reading East of A takes me right back to my first visits to the East Village and Alphabet city, right around the same time the book was published. Since that time, St. Marks Place and the surrounding streets have changed greatly. East of A is like a time capsule, perfectly capturing the neighborhood the way it might never be again. If you never visited during that time, read the book and you’ll know the sights and smells like you were there just yesterday. Atwood’s prose is also both colorful and inventive – a favorite turn of phrase is when he describes a fight by saying “It went on like that for five pages.” It cleverly conveys the lengthy, arduous encounter without belaboring it for five pages.

East of A is now out of print, though it is available as an eBook. The short story is also available for eReaders, or as a free PDF from the author’s website. Atwood’s follow-up, Losers Live Longer, also features Payton Sherwood and was published by Hard Case Crime in 2009.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“From that distance, the city stays the city of your imagination: a scintillating island of promises, of hope, of love renewed. Not until you get closer is the sobering truth revealed: you’re happier to see her than she is to see you. Not angry, not resentful. Worse. Uninterested, dispassionate, preoccupied; her reticence inspires myth.”

“We’re all in the gutter, I thought, but some of us are looking at the swollen cigarette ends, wadded pizza-parlor napkins, and a discarded, toothless comb.”

“We’ve got these voids, empty spaces,” he said, “some of us – maybe all of us – inside us. You got to fill it with something. People try smoke, alcohol, God, violence…You smoke, right? So maybe you can understand a little. There’s a poem goes, ‘Water is taught by thirst.’ So true.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Rough Cut" by Ed Gorman

“There aren’t any heroes in this,” he said.

“I know.”


Looking back on Ed Gorman’s first novel, Rough Cut, originally published in 1985, it’s remarkable not only for how assured the writing is, but also because so many of the themes and motifs that would come to haunt his work are already evident. No heroes, just broken men who’ve broken the only home they knew, and who try and find compensation in their work. You can see shades of it in the tragic titular character in The Sharpshooter, in the troubled brothers on the police force in The Midnight Room, and especially in political consultant Dev Conrad in Sleeping Dogs and Stranglehold. The seed of all these characters is to be found here, in Rough Cut.

Advertising executive Michael Ketchum is the first of many jaded, world-weary, emotionally damaged protagonists that would come to populate Gorman’s fiction. He knows that his colleagues are opportunists, cheaters, and sometimes just plain assholes – but murder is something he didn’t expect. Office tensions are pushed to the max as bodies pile up and deceptions come to the surface, and Ketchum wonders if there will be anything left of his business to run – assuming he’s not next on the killer’s list.

A highly entertaining thriller, there’s something of the novel’s driving plot and unsentimental tone that reminds me of the best qualities of the first generation of paperback writers. Yet the book is anything but a throwback, and Gorman brings a lot of original ideas to the page. The poisonous advertising setting (inspired, no doubt, by Gorman’s own experiences in the field) is distinctive and ripe with bitterness, drama, and potential violence.

Among the most defining – and gratifying – characteristics is Gorman’s protagonist, Michael Ketchum, an average joe who unwittingly becomes an amateur detective, as many of Day Keene’s or Harry Whittington’s characters had to do decades earlier. But unlike his predecessors, Ketchum isn’t driven by his hard-on radar, or a need for self-preservation, but instead by a mature sense of responsibility. He doesn’t seem scared so much by death as by the all-too-real threat of losing his main advertising client, and having his business go under. There’s so much dead inside him already that if the business went, he’s not sure there’d be anything left of himself. I think he’s also aware that no matter how big a jerk his colleagues can be, they all need that paycheck at the end of the day – and as one of two heads of the company, Ketchum doesn’t want to let them down. At least that is how I read the office as a surrogate family.

Gorman’s prose is never lacking in empathy – it’s what gives his thrillers the overtones of tragedy, and it’s what gives the story an extra punch. Infidelity and duplicity are what gives so many of Ketchum’s colleagues hope to get through the day. I’m not sure whether Ketchum is better off seeing through the charade, or if his lack of illusions makes him all the more hopeless.

Strong plot, strong characters, strong writing – Rough Cut is one helluva debut novel, and the start to a wonderful career that only grows richer with each new book.

Rough Cut is available from Ramble House books, paired with New, Improved Murder.

And here is an interview I did with Ed when The Midnight Room came out.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“When you get that sense of isolation, that sense that you can confide in no one, then you’re easing open the door of madness and peering inside.”

“You reach a certain age, or state of mind, and what you find yourself doing is clinging–clinging to things that you once would have scoffed at as mediocre, things that are now embarrassingly important.”

“My life pushed in on me like walls meant to crush.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Stark House Newsletter January 2010

Greg Shepard's latest Stark House Press Newsletter.

Hello Everyone,

We’re just a week or so away from shipping Peter Rabe’s wonderful pair of previously unpublished novels, The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver. About The Silent Wall, Keir Graff of Booklist said that “It’s a claustrophobic noir, at times almost unbearably tense, and would certainly have a following if it had already been published.”

Cullen Gallagher’s blog, Pulp Serenade, has been revisiting some already classic Rabe books, and regarding The Return of Marvin Palaver, he says: “Funny and inventive, The Return of Marvin Palaver shows us a new side to Rabe. His hardboiled novels were always a shade witty, but here he fleshes out the humor and runs with it. A really enjoyable, quick read.”


And with the bonus of the rare Rabe short story, “Hard Case Redhead,” this volume offers not only the trademark Rabe style but different shades of this wonderful talent. It won’t disappoint. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “If you don’t like these books, you don’t like ice cream.”


A question: What kind of books were written by some of the paperback era’s most popular and prolific writers, that featured elements of crime, an (un)healthy dose of violence, and an even bigger dose of larger-than-life fantasy women? Here’s a hint: sometimes you wrap a Hemingway cover around them when you ride the train or take them to the doctor’s office.

Yes, they’re books that have come to be known as “sleaze” novels. While that may or may not be a good label, there is some truly entertaining fiction hiding under that umbrella that deserves to be read. The genre seems to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence lately, with books by Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake and others coming back into print.

We offer you a pair of books by Don Elliott, the not-so-secret pseudonym of the one and only Robert Silverberg, author of such books as Dying Inside, Nightwings, Lord Valentine’s Castle, and many, many more. Silverberg may be known primarily for his science fiction work, but he has written everything from history books to crime fiction to yes, sleaze.

The original books, Gang Girl and Sex Bum, have long been sought after by collectors and those avid few who have been working through the years to uncover and identify who wrote which of these “sleaze classics.” They’re being reprinted here together for the first time.

As entertaining as these books are, the introduction to the book by Silverberg himself is a brilliant evocation of the times and the circumstances that gave rise to this genre. The intro itself will make you want to read these books and perhaps look for more by other favorite writers of the time. If you felt perhaps a bit uncomfortable picking up a sleaze title, Silverberg puts the books into a context that is both fascinating as a historical snapshot and gives the reader a non-apologetic enthusiasm to dip a toe in these once “forbidden” waters:

“…And because we all worked under pen names, we were free to let our inhibitions

drop away and push our characters to their limits, without worrying

about what anyone else — friends, relatives, book reviewers — might

say or think about our work. We had ourselves a ball, and got paid nicely

while we were doing it.


And also we never forgot that we were doing the fundamental thing that

writers are supposed to do: providing pleasure and entertainment for

readers who genuinely loved our work.”

-Robert Silverberg, from his introduction to the Stark House volume of Gang Girl/Sex Bum, “Those Good Old Soft-core Days”


Exciting stuff--undiscovered Rabe and re-discovered Silverberg (er, make that Don Elliott). We hope you give both a try.


And as always, you can receive these books and every new Stark House Press book fresh from the printer with our own Crime Club. See our website (www.starkhousepress.com) for details (including info on a limited time discount special for new subscribers), or shoot an e-mail to griffinskye3@sbcglobal.net. And to subscribe or unsubscribe to this newsletter, use the same address.


Cheers,

Greg Shepard, publisher

Stark House Press

"Of Missing Persons" by David Goodis

Written during his Hollywood years and based on his unproduced screenplay, Of Missing Persons would be the last of David Goodis’ novels to debut in hardcover. William Morrow & Co. originally published it in 1950, and a paperback edition from Pocket Books appeared the following year. (Interestingly enough, an Argentinean film was made based on the book, alternately known as Section des disparus or Sección desaparecidos). The story is about Paul Ballard, the head of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Missing Persons, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown surrounding the case of Myra Nichols and her missing husband. With the newspapers pointing fingers and throwing accusations of negligence and an internal investigation underway, Ballard is ready to throw in the towel. But professional pressure and a nagging conscience make quitting a lot harder than it seems.

Of Missing Persons gets lost in Goodis’ bibliography. Stuck in between the early success Dark Passage and his PBO sensation Cassidy’s Girl, it wasn’t a hit when it first came out, and it hasn’t been reprinted since the Pocket Books edition, nor is it available as an eBook. All of which is a shame, because it is actually an entertaining and interesting book, if uneven at parts and certainly unconventional. It was written around a turning point in Goodis’ career – Hollywood wasn’t working out, and his marriage was falling apart – and you can sense a tension between trying to write a mainstream novel while still making it personal. Much of the book is more introspective than action oriented, so the attempt to write a book in a more popular vein didn’t exactly work, but the result is certainly of interest to the Goodis aficionado, and it might actually appeal more to those who prefer his early thrillers (like Dark Passage and Nightfall) to his more brooding later novels.

Despite Elizabeth Bullock’s criticism in the New York Times that "the first fifty-odd pages of this fine story are so slow that you may have to fight your way through them," it is actually in these pages that we can most recognize Goodis and his characteristic style and themes. Ballard is another in a long line of melancholic, depressive protagonists, and much of the first half of the book finds Ballard dealing with inner conflicts as much as external ones. He envies smoke because of its freedom to float away – but even this has nihilistic roots, because doesn’t smoke come from ruins and ultimately fade away into nothingness? Ineffectual and uncommunicative at home, he can only express himself through work. Later Goodis protagonists would be artists and musicians, but Ballard is no less dedicated to his craft. This persistence wrecks his health in any number of ways – physical, psychological, and emotional – and locks him into a Sisyphusian rut that prevents him from breaking free, even when opportunity is knocking on his door.

When the Nicholas case takes an unexpected turn, Goodis doesn’t take the opportunity to dive into the action and take the more conventional route. Instead, he delves deeper into Ballard’s emotional conflicts at home and at the office. His heated, bitter dialogues with witnesses and colleagues shows his self-hate projecting outward onto others. Readers wanting excitement will be disappointed; but those looking to burrow deeper into Ballard’s doubt and depression will find Goodis’ typically rich characterization.

Unfortunately, not all the characters are as well developed as Ballard. His wife, in particular, deserves more attention. We see her devotion to her husband, but also the damage and disappointment it causes in her life, but we rarely get indie her head like we do Ballard. Myra Nicholas also seems a bit one-dimensional. Goodis places a lot of emphasis on his main character, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the novel would be improved if the supporting characters were a bit more dynamic and less conventional.

Nowhere is Goodis’ intent to write something that would appeal to wide audiences more noticeable than the Hollywood ending. You can almost hear the orchestra’s fanfare drawing the curtains to a close as the characters on-screen smile at the certainty of a happy lifetime ahead of them.

Goodis would go on to write better books than Of Missing Persons, but that doesn’t justify its critical neglect. Perhaps once Hard Case Crime gets up and running again, this might be a good candidate for republishing. Ideally, I’d love to see a compendium with both the novel and the original screenplay. That might be too much to hope for, but I can dream.

"The quiet in the office was a thick liquid, stagnant and misty, like a blocked stream. Smoke from a dying cigarette came out of the ashtray, curled its way up and flowed away to nowhere. He envied the smoke. It was free substance. It could go where it wanted to go. He couldn’t. He was chained here."

"A roach in the kitchen seemed to symbolize a sordid, hopeless road ahead, a dismal journey sloping downhill, a rut that became deeper and deeper as the years went by."

"You bat your brains out, trying to do a job. You stay up for nights at a time. You go without meals. You work until you’re ready to drop. Then you work some more. That’s what it amounts to. It’s work, work, work. Not from nine to five. But from the time a case starts until the time it ends."

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Cover art by Ray App

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Harry Whittington Returns to Stark House Press

Just saw on the Stark House Press website that there will be a third volume of Harry Whittington's novels. The collection will include Rapture Alley, A Taste of Desire, and Strictly for the Boys. Scholar David Laurence Wilson will be providing an introduction. His past essays on Whittington and Fleischman have been spectacular, and I am greatly looking forward to reading more of his fine scholarship and criticism.

Stark House's website says the book will be released Winter 2011/2012. So, looks like we'll have to wait a little while longer. In the meantime, you can brush up on Whittington with either of their fine volumes. One includes A Night for Screaming and Any Woman He Wanted, and the other includes To Find Cora, Like Mink Like Murder, and Body & Passion. The latter collection I reviewed here.

Previously on Pulp Serenade, I interviewed David Laurence Wilson, as well as Stark House publisher Greg Shepard.

Check the Stark House Press for more updates.

Rapture Alley / A Taste of Desire / Strictly for the Boys
1-933586-36-2

$21.95

Three rare novels of death and desire.

“Plenty of twists, turns and complications.” Eric Peterson, The Restless Kind.

New introduction by David Laurence Wilson.

WINTER 2011/12

Friday, January 7, 2011

David Goodis Obituaries

David Goodis
March 2, 1917 – January 7, 1967
In his honor, I am posting several obituaries. Please click on the images for larger, more easily readable files.

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"Fire in the Flesh" by David Goodis (Gold Medal, 1957)

Forty-four years ago today, on January 6, 1967, David Loeb Goodis passed away. To celebrate his legacy, I am writing about Fire in the Flesh. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1957, it was the second to last book he saw in print during his lifetime.

David Goodis didn’t write about happy people. That’s an understatement. His pages were crowded with crushed lives and discarded dreams. The denizens of Fire in the Flesh surely rank among the sorriest, sorrow-sodden lot in all of Goodis’ fiction.

In Fire in the Flesh, five people were burned to death in a second story apartment, and everyone is looking for Blazer, a homeless firebug with a fondness for muscatel wine. The cops want to question him as a suspect; Clem Daggart and his crew of bootleggers want to get revenge for the death of Lew Daggart, Clem’s brother who was killed in the fire; and Cora, another lost soul, wants to save Blazer’s life, if there’s anything left behind the drunken haze.

At this point in Goodis’ career, plot had dwindled to the barest frameworks, like a rotted structure ready to collapse any minute. But in Goodis’ world, sometimes this is the only thing his characters have to call a home. Mood was always the author’s strongest suit, with a rhapsodic and melancholic sway. This is where Fire in the Flesh excels. Philadelphia has never seemed so cold and barren as it is presented here. We first meet Blazer asleep in a coffin-like abandoned car in an automobile graveyard. From there, he and Cora flee through maze-like alleys and deserted lots overflowing with garbage, finally seeking shelter in a rundown apartment whose walls and ceilings threaten to cave in at any moment.

In earlier books, failed but talented artists were reoccurring protagonists. They at least had some redeeming facet, some faint glimmer of ability and hope. The characters in Fire in the Flesh don’t even have that to cling to. Only Clem once showed promise as a high school student, but even that was beaten out of him by his brother Lew, forcing Clem to drop out before he finished his degree. Blazer distributes flyers or anything else that will net him the 29 cents needed for the muscatel, which he drinks with Burt Promfret in a cold, unlit basement, where the two of them hide from Burt’s obese, tyrannical wife. The rest of the characters are similarly stuck in an ambitionless rut, epitomized by this line of dialogue: “We can’t get nowhere… Only thing we can do is stay in these alleys, and I swear if it gets any colder…” Goodis’ characters are forever trapped in the gutter, and book after book things only get worse for them. On the shelf together, they form one big, unhappy family that is incapable of bettering themselves.

Fire in the Flesh is written from an unstable third-person perspective, occasionally lapsing into first-person narration from a variety of characters. It’s an unconventional approach, but Goodis pulls it off rather smoothly. Stylistically, there’s nothing to distinguish the different voices – they’re all unmistakably David Goodis. Some might consider that haphazard, or you could consider all the characters as extensions of some facet of Goodis’ own persona. Personally, I side with the latter. Too little is known about his private life, but on the page he created a surrogate existence with a developed and complex biography that reveals a great deal about his own life. At least we can speculate as much. Struggles with both personal and professional failure, social alienation, substance dependency, domineering females, submissive males, family trauma – these topics repeatedly appear throughout Goodis’ work. He seems to identify so closely to these issues, as though he is trying to work out something deeply personal on the page.

More so than in any of his other books, the division between “good” and “bad” characters is blurred to an ambiguous, empathetic compromise. Clem Dagget, who is supposed to be the villain, reveals himself to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole novel. He’s built up to be a feared, ruthless kingpin – but whenever we encounter him, his violence is directed inward more often than not. He’s as troubled as Blazer, and both of them have fallen so far that for the moment they’ve given up trying to climb out of their rut, out of their depression. But there’s something surprising about all of the characters, whether its something they do, a motivation for an action, or a piece of their past. The solution to the mystery is shockingly banal and understandable (which doesn’t excuse it, but at least it explains it). Fire in the Flesh might be short, but Goodis makes every page count.

After Fire in the Flesh, Goodis would only live to see one more book in print, Night Squad (1961, Gold Medal). Within 10 years, he would be dead, all too young, at the age of 49. His final book – and masterpiece, in my opinion – Somebody’s Done For, was published after his passing in 1967.

Here are a few of my favorite passages from Fire in the Flesh:

“The desk was a wreck. Dagget sagged to his knees. He stayed there, kneeling as though in fervent supplication. Then very slowly he shook his head, sadly refusing the supplicant. As he got to his feet, it seemed he was falling instead of rising. There was a certain dullness in his eyes, a certain look that said, It’s the escalator going down and where it stops don’t matter.”

“But what Clem didn’t know, these Purcell gutters run very deep and climbing the walls sure as hell ain’t no cinch. Or maybe he did know, which made the climbing all the harder when the world said, Who you kidding? You wear the button-down collar and the college-style tie but it’s just a Hallowe’en getup. You’re strictly Purcell merchandise and we’re all agreed you don’t rate up here. So get back, bum. Get back and get down where you belong.”

“Curled up there against the wall, his knees pulled up high and his arms crossed over his chest, he closed his eyes and gave a sigh of utter fatigue. And made the long plunge into dead-tired, limb-frozen, fully blacked-out slumber.”

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Cover art by Barye Phillips

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Scott Phillips, Sophie Littlefield, Noir, and The Apocalypse

Scott Phillips and Sophie Littlefield talk it up over at Mulholland Books! Among other things, they talk about writing, genre, Charlton Heston, and the end of the world.

Here's what Scott Phillips has to say about the apocalypse:

"As for the end of the world, I’d be surprised if it’s an all-out nuclear exchange that leaves only cockroaches and microbes. It seems to me much more likely that things will just get shittier and shittier in all kinds of predictable ways until the world is no longer recognizable to us or hospitable to human life, at least not on a large technological scale. I’m attracted to dystopian or apocalyptic stories for the same reason I like certain types of crime or noir stories: they’re about people on the edge of normalcy, about to trip into abnormalcy and destruction. And I find all this funny, which is probably an indication that I’m not really a very nice person deep down."


Read more here at Mulholland Books!

Reminder: Goodis Memorial 1/9/2011

Just a reminder about the David Goodis Memorial this coming Sunday, January 9. I'll be there taking pictures and reporting on the events.

Anyone else going? Leave a note in the comments section.

For more info, see Lou Boxer's NoirCon blog at www.noircon.info.

Aaron Finestone has posted several selections from The Burglar to be read at the memorial.

AGENDA FOR GOODIS MEMORIAL

11:00 AM at the Mausoleum at

Roosevelt Memorial Park

2701 Old Lincoln Highway

Trevose, PA 19053

215.673.7500


11:30 AM Brief Graveside prayer


Please bring along your favorite Goodis quote or reading.


Then we will wind our way back to Goodis' home in East Oak Lane, Goodis' birthplace in Logan, Goodis' Hospital at the time of his death, and Goodis' choice for the origin of OF TENDER SIN.


The excitement of the day will culminate with a lively day of books and beer in Goodis' Port Richmond section of Philadelphia at the famous


PORT RICHMOND BOOKSTORE

3037 Richmond Street

Philadelphia, PA 19134


RSVP at
info@noircon.com

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NoirCon 2010 program illustration by Jeff Wong.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Nightmare in Darkness" by Fredric Brown (Dennis McMillan, 1987)

Few writers could make the bizarre seem like the natural order of the world like Fredric Brown. The strangest things make the most sense, and anything ordinary should be observed with a suspicious, untrusting eye. Volume 11 in Dennis McMillan’s Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps series, Nightmare in Darkness (1987) is another excellent collection of the author’s matchless imagination and creative panache. Comprising vintage pulp stories along with previously unpublished pieces, as well as a remembrance by one of Brown’s children (his son Linn), Nightmare in Darkness is both entertaining and enlightening.

Linn Brown’s introduction portrays his father as aloof and enigmatic, even to his own family. Apparently Fredric would spend only two hours every morning writing – no more, no less. He speculates that Fredric could have written more (which would have provided more income for the family), but that at first he just didn’t want to. Later, Fredric was too sickly to have the strength to write. Between allergies and emphysema, he was never the image of health.

One of Brown’s specialties was the “short short,” and Nightmare in Darkness has three exceptional specimens. “Why, Benny, Why?” shows the darker side of Brown’s humor, and the cruel irony and cosmic injustice that often rules his fictional worlds. In this disturbing twist on wish fulfillment, a young woman walks home alone and discovers that sometimes your worst fears can come true. In “Mirror,” which was never published in Brown’s lifetime, the titular object manifests a man’s guilty conscience. And in the previously unpublished title story, “Nightmare in Darkness,” Brown makes one of his definitive statements on the horror of our everyday reality. That it is believed to be the last story Brown ever wrote only makes the final revelation all the more powerful.

Brown also had a knack for imaginative titles, and “The Cheese on Stilts” surely rates among his best. The story is the first of three involving Carter Monk, a reporter whose nose for a good story usually winds him up in the most unusual predicaments. This one finds Monk at the scene of a murder, the investigation of which leads to – yup, you guessed it – “the cheese on stilts.” I won’t spoil the surprise of what it actually is. Also, Brown manages to work in a Schopenhauer reference, probably one of the rare times that the philosopher’s name was invoked in a pulp magazine. The other Carter Monk stories included are “Footprints on the Ceiling,” which is about a theater troupe that is shocked by what appears to be a murderer that walks on walls, and “The Monkey Angle,” which finds Monk investigating what a runaway monkey has to do with a kidnapping case.

Other pieces of note are the original ending to The Screaming Mimi (a wonderfully outlandish flight of fancy that takes an unexpected twist); “Get Out of Town,” which blends Brown’s love for music and bars with a fun gangster story; “The House of Fear,” about a housewife whose night classes in “Logic” prove life saving; and “Trouble Comes Double,” a cautionary tale about why one should never pass up a lobster dinner for a backstage invitation from a shapely dancer.

To close, two of my favorite quotes from the collection:

“And that gosh-awful melody went on, and each note seemed to hang in the air like a dead body hanging by its neck from one of a row of gibbets.” –“Get Out of Town”

“One by one the other lights were coming on now, and I could see my lobster again. But, instead of eating it, I watched the girl. She was even better looking than the lobster.” –“Trouble Comes Double”

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Cover Art by Joe Servello

Monday, January 3, 2011

"Melanie" by Edward A. Grainger (David Cranmer) over at The Tainted Archive

Pulp Serenade can't get enough of Edward A. Grainger's on-going adventures of Cash Laramie. The latest installment, "Melanie," is available over at Gary Dobbs' Tainted Archive as part of the West West eMonday celebration.

In "Melanie," Marshall Cash Laramie saves a little girl from getting run over in the street, but can he save her from everyday evils that await her at home?

Another terrific story with compelling drama and complex characters from David Cranmer. Let's hope the Cash Laramie stories keep coming!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

"The Last Deep Breath" by Tom Piccirilli (Tasmaniac Publications, 2010)

It takes a special kind of writer to make the ugly truth so damned beautiful to read. Tom Piccirilli has that touch, and The Last Deep Breath is a stunningly dark and evocative example of contemporary noir fiction. Published in a beautifully bound edition from Tasmaniac Publications with illustrations by Daniele Serra, Piccirilli’s tale eloquently captures the good-but-futile-fight of one man against a morally bankrupt world.

Noir protagonists are rarely so ambitious as to want to change the world. Putting one life back on the right track is difficult enough. Often it is impossible. Yet this is the mission that Grey has given himself. He crosses the country in search of his foster sister, whom he last saw hobbling into his New York City apartment with a knife in her side. Then she vanished. So Grey takes to the road, digging deep into the vice, opportunism, and immorality that flows through the country’s veins.

The Last Deep Breath is what Piccirilli has called a “noirella.” Its 100 pages are tightly composed, the prose as economic and suggestive as a poem, and the final punch even greater than Piccirilli’s recent Shadow Season. There’s a dreamlike insistence and ambiguity to the story. Piccirilli organizes the material into compact, impressionistic chapters that move ahead with swift, grim determination.

Much of Grey’s journey, like his name suggests, is rather sketchy. Piccirilli doesn’t give us all the details of his life or his mission, but those details he does provide are bold and intimate. We only see the briefest glimpses of Grey drifting between America’s highways and back roads, and the pick-up relationships they inspired, but their amorality and ambivalence sets a tone that resonates throughout the book. Compared to the near-nihilistic overtones of these passages, Grey’s seemingly moral search for his sister seems incongruous until it becomes apparent that his sister is the only thing preventing him from capitulating and giving up on everything. The desperation and hopelessness of his endeavor only fuels his own fire all the more. And therein lies the contradiction of noir protagonists, caught on the precipice between losing and believing in nothing, and not knowing which is worse.

In its sordid (and occasionally surreal) depiction of Los Angeles and the seamier side of the entertainment industry, The Last Deep Breath stands alongside Eric Knight/Richard Hallas’ You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. They are picaresque adventures into the Noir Heartland of America, and they turn the tables on the genre of road stories that is such a firm fixture in our culture. Donald Westlake commented on this aspect of American literature: "One of our continuing myths was summed up in Huckleberry Finn: Our escape, what we think of as our escape, is that we can always light out for the territories. Well, we really can't, not anymore, but that's part of the American character—that belief that at any moment, I could just drop the coffee cup and disappear." Westlake wasn’t talking about Piccirilli’s book, but that’s the horror and the salvation at the heart of The Last Deep Breath: the sister’s past and Grey’s future is one and the same.

As an added bonus, The Last Deep Breath closes with Piccirilli’s short story “Between the Dark and the Daylight” (nominated for the International Thriller Writers Award for "Best Short Story" in 2009). A tragedy set around a hot air balloon ride gone disastrously wrong, the setting is as innovative as the story is heartbreaking. The story was rightfully anthologized in Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg’s excellent Between the Dark and the Daylight: And 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year (Tyrus, 2009).

If I haven’t already exhausted my enthusiasm, let me end by again praising Piccirilli’s impeccable craftsmanship, and his unerring sense of character and mood. Perhaps because of its brevity, The Last Deep Breath is a great indication of the author’s talent and capabilities. I am looking forward to seeing what Piccirilli has in store for us in 2011.

I interviewed Piccirilli back in 2009 about Shadow Season.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from The Last Deep Breath.

“She knew the reality, he knew the dream. Grey wondered if there would be any middle ground to find.”

“I was wasting time and time was wasting me.”

“None of it means anything to anybody. It’s just what we do.”

“He felt rooted and light on his feet as he moved to the first bouncer, spun, and brought an elbow up high to the no-neck’s temple. The guy dropped like a dead rhino.”
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