Friday, September 30, 2011

"Quarry's Ex" by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime, 2011)

One of crime fiction lovers’ favorite fictional hitmen returns in Quarry’s Ex. Max Allan Collins’ character first appeared in 1976’s The Broker (now renamed just Quarry), and has since appeared in eight more novels and several short stories.

Quarry’s latest mission finds him in Boot Heel, Nevada, a low-budget version of Las Vegas. He’s on the heels of a Nick Varnos, a fellow hitman whose target is a B-movie director named Art Stockwell who is currently shooting Hard Wheels 2, a Billy Jack-esque biker movie. Selling his services to the director, Quarry poses as a publicist and hangs around the set, looking to stop Vargas, and to figure out who in the crew hired the killer in the first place. Things get more complicated when Quarry runs into someone from his past he never thought he’d see again: his ex-wife, Joni, who is not only appearing in Hard Wheels 2, but is married to Stockwell. Once before, she crossed Quarry, and now he wonders if she’s decided to cross her current husband, too.

Quarry’s Ex was my first step into the series, and it certainly won’t be my last. Between his smart-alecky sense of humor, wry cultural commentary, and sardonic quips, it’s hard not to be won over by his personality. These are two of my favorite lines: “Outside it had been as dry as unbuttered toast, but in here the air conditioning stopped just short of a meat locker” and “He was shaking, like a Hell’s Angel version of Barney Fife. Maybe a touch scarier.”

While he may be a bit of a smartass, there’s a humility—and humanity—to Quarry that makes him a well-rounded character and more than just a one-dimensional archetype. The moment that jumps to mind is when, after the day’s shoot ends, the hot young Production Assistant invites him out, and he has to turn her down to do his own investigating. He narrates, “She looked a little disappointed. It was one of those moments when I wished I was someone else.” The remorse in his tone feels sincere, but so, too, does the more physical longing in his next observation: “I took a few minutes to watch her go, because that well-shaped behind in a pair of jeans was enough to make me believe in God again. For a few seconds, anyway.” In those three sentences, Quarry reveals a few different sides to his personality: the loner who longs for companionship; the suave, macho playboy persona; and the witty, sarcastic observer.

As a film lover, the movie-shoot setting was an added treat. I was reminded of my favorite Richard S. Prather novel, The Cockeyed Corpse, which finds Shell Scott protecting bosomy babes shooting a nudie cutie in the desert. Collins’ book isn’t nearly as farcical as Prather’s—in fact, Collins’ book is a far more accurate portrayal of filmmaking than Prather’s—but they both share a similar fond satire of showbiz.

2011 has turned out to be one hell of a great year for Max Allan Collins and, in turn, for fans of his. This spring saw the release of Kiss Her Goodbye, one of Mickey Spillane’s incomplete Mike Hammer novels that Collins finished, and which turned out to be one of Hammer’s most enjoyable exploits yet. This summer, Collins also released Bye, Baby, Bye, a Nate Heller story set around the death of Marilyn Monroe. Next month, Hard Case is releasing another Collins/Spillane collaboration, The Consummata, and the Nate Heller short stories will be collected in Chicago Lighting. If that wasn’t enough, Collins’ also has another graphic novel, Return to Perdition, in November. The sustained high-quality of Collins’ recent work is impressive, and I’m looking forward to catching up with all the Quarry titles that I’ve missed out on.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Getting Off" by Lawrence Block (Hard Case Crime, 2011)

After a year-long hiatus, Hard Case Crime is back, and they’re making up for lost time with one of their most gloriously pulpy and enticing titles yet: Getting Off, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson. The additional writing credit is a nod to Block’s past, one of the pseudonyms he used for some of the more “steamy” books he wrote back in the 60s. Nearly four decades after Jill’s name last graced a book cover, Block has dusted off the pen name to give her another run. The result: a scandalously fun, thoroughly hardboiled, and genuinely sexy crime thriller. It’s like a sleazy Cornell Woolrich revenge fantasy. Noir has rarely been this titillating before.

The story is about a twenty-three year old girl from Hawley, Minnesota. She’s gone by many names—Kit, Carol, even Lucretia Eagle Feather—but her real name is Katherine Anne Tolliver. She’s young and beautiful, and men would die just to sleep with her. And that’s just fine with her…as long as she gets to do the killing. Her record is nearly perfect, except for those first five men she slept with. So, she makes a list, packs her bags, and sets out on a bloody trip down memory lane.
“Killing was fun, there was no getting around it, and killing men she’d slept with felt appropriate, and that was as much as she had to know.”
The front cover of Getting Off carries the tag line, “A Novel of Sex & Violence”—and it’s no joke. Some readers might not be too amused by the kinky antics to be found within the book. But, if your tastes do run in that direction, then get ready for a wild ride. I have never blushed this much reading a book in public ever before, and I relished every shameless second. Right from the first page, Block seems to be writing with a Cheshire cat’s grin on his face. He’s clearly having a blast. But as sordid as the story gets, Block never loses his sense of humor nor lets his guard down as a writer.

Despite the graphic content of some of the scenes, when you step back and let your cheeks revert to their natural color, you’ll notice how impeccably crafted the prose is, and how much restraint Block shows in his descriptions. There are points when things get pretty over the top...but they never get too over the top, if you get what I’m saying. There’s a fine line between using absurdity for literary effect and just being absurd. Partly it is a matter of taste, and partly it is a matter of intelligence. Longtime readers of the author know that Block has plenty of both, and this is what ultimately makes Getting Off such a satisfying read. Getting Off is not only erotic and suspenseful, but smartly written and cleverly plotted, too, with a fiendishly funny finale waiting for readers in the very last line.

And I can't finish the post without mentioning that great cover art by Gregory Manchess. Hard Case Crime has given readers some of the best cover art of the past few years, and Getting Off stands tall among the best of the best.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"The Killing of the Tinkers" by Ken Bruen (2002)

“If I had to pinpoint one second when I made the worst judgment of my life, I’d say it began then.” The Killing of the Tinkers, the second of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novel, was originally published in 2002. When we last saw Taylor at the end of The Guards, he was contemplating going to London, sobering up, and getting his life back together. As The Killing of the Tinkers begins, it is a year later, and he’s heading home to Galway. He’s drinking heavier than before, picked up a nasty cocaine habit, and brought back a few secrets with him, too. He’s in town only a day before he’s back on the job as a private investigator. Someone is brutally killing young “tinkers”—a nomadic Irish group on the outskirts of society—and the Guards aren’t doing anything about it. Offered a place to live and a nice salary, Jack Taylor signs on to do his best.

Taylor’s best, however, isn’t always good enough. His addictions continue to spiral out of control, his romantic relationships and friendships are pushed to the test, and the killings still continue. Things couldn’t get any lower for Taylor…until he’s asked to catch a crazed swan murderer who is terrorizing local lakes. When even that proves too much for him, Taylor once more has to confront the darkest parts of his soul to try and put himself back together again.

As much as I loved The Guards, I’d have to say The Killing of the Tinkers is even better. Stylistically, Ken Bruen is in a class of his own. Right from the first page, Bruen hits a pitch-perfect perfect noir groove and doesn’t let go until the very last page. Jack Taylor starts off in a bad way and only proceeds to get worse. “Did I feel good? Did I fuck. A sense of desolation engulfed me. Cloud of unknowing? …Not quite. I knew and was not consoled. Emptiness lit my guts like a palpable sense of dread.” It takes a special author to be able to find something beautiful and honest in such unrelenting despair, and Bruen is the guy to do it. While The Killing of the Tinkers does have its moments of humor (especially when mocking Sting and Dire Straits), when it goes for the punches, you feel it in your gut. In the words of Jack Taylor, “Lord knows, feeling bad is the skin I’ve worn almost all my life.”

Within the private eye genre, each detective has his own process for detection that defines his character. Jack Taylor’s process is that he’s often too much of a wreck to do anything. While there’s something darkly humorous about that, it’s also an important part of Bruen’s worldview. The Killing of the Tinkers isn’t overly concerned with detailing the detection process, and the mysteries are actually easily solved, but this only goes to show how prevalent crimes of all sorts—human, swan, or otherwise—are in our daily lives. Scratch the surface, there they are; dig deeper, and you’ve find a treasure trove of despair; or just use your eyes to survey the people around you, and you’ll find gut-wrenching stories just waiting to be told. Noir is all around, that is what Bruen reveals to us. And maybe that’s why Jack Taylor drinks so much—to stop himself from seeing, not only the worst parts of the world around him, but also himself.

Taylor’s increasing self-awareness from The Guards to The Killing of the Tinkers is one of the most fascinating progressions in the series, as well as the most haunting. Even though he knows himself better than in the first book, he seems even more incapable of getting his life back together. Bruen stands alongside Lawrence Block when it comes to writing palpably about the actual pains, and damages, of addiction. There’s nothing romantic about Jack Taylor’s vomiting, his blackouts, and the relationships he’s thrown down the drain. As Taylor tells one of his drinking companions, “I fucked up, Keegan.” Keegan says, “So…put it right.” Taylor’s humble, but heartfelt, reply: “I’ll try.” And that’s one of the differences between The Guards and The Killing of the Tinkers. I’m not sure if Taylor was trying in the first book. He was on the case more often, but it was though he were acting automatically. Even though now he’s struggling to retain control of himself more than ever, he also seems to understand more what the stakes are, and he has more of an investment in setting things straight.

The Killing of the Tinkers is a lonely book. Even though Jack Taylor is surrounded by more friends, and has more female companionship, than in The Guards, his addiction has cut him off from the rest of the world. Everyone recognizes his coked-out eyes, and they call him out on it, but it doesn’t change his ways. Taylor’s own growing sense of futility and failure only add to his alienation. What carries us through all the darkness, however, is Taylor’s sense of drive. He doesn’t know where he’s going, or who is in control, but he’s not standing still. There’s the sense that he wants to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that he’s going to get there one of these days, but he’s just not there yet. At first he tells himself that he doesn’t feel any real love for either of the women in the story—Kiki and Laura—but eventually he comes to realize that he’s just lying to himself. Whether it is too late to turn either relationship around is another question, and I won’t spoil anything for you, if you haven’t already read the book. But regardless of whether it works out or not, there is still that potential for hope that remains in Jack Taylor. Sure, he’s a likable drunk with an endearing hardboiled exterior and sensitive poetic interior, but what makes me so drawn to Jack Taylor is the way he reaches out to hold onto his own life. He swats and stumbles more than he connects, but I’m rooting for him all the way, and will continue to root as I dig into the third novel in the series, The Magdalen Martyrs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Patti Abbott's Latest Flash Fiction Challenge

Patti Abbott is hosting a new Flash Fiction Challenge over on her blog. Her past Challenges have turned out some terrific stories, and one event even spawned a book: Discount Noir. Already for this latest Challenge she's got Heath Lowrance, Chad Eagleton, and Gerald So. David Cranmer even dropped a comment saying he might be involved. I can already tell this is going to be a great lineup. Patti will also be donating money to a charity organization for everyone that joins in. Below is the announcement that Patti made on her blog earlier today:

******************

Reginald Marsh is a painter I am very fond of. He considered his work to be social realism and most of his scenes were from New York in the twenties and thirties.

You can find many examples of his work if you just google-image his name.

Challenge: Write a story in any genre of under 1000 words based on one of Marsh's paintings. If you don't have a blog, I will post it.

End date: Three weeks from today, October 18th.


I will donate $5.00 for every story submitted to Union Settlement, a social service
agency in East Harlem servicing 16, 000 people, with a minimum contribution of $100. This agency is near and dear to our family and badly in need of donations in these times.

Hope someone wants to play. It's my money but your talent I'm buying.
If you're interested in joining in on the fun, let Patti know on her blog.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"The Guards" by Ken Bruen (2001)

“Without mystery, we are lost!” says the deathbed-wino to Jack Taylor, an alcoholic Irish private eye whose most positive asset is also his biggest drawback: “You have a rare gift, my friend. …You never probe or pry into a person’s affairs.” The poetic irony is not lost on Taylor, who has spent the better part of his adult life in an inebriated stupor trying to avoid probing into even his own life.

Originally published in 2001, The Guards is the first entry in Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series. A former member of the Irish Guard who was kicked out for insubordination, Taylor now spends his time in the local pub, occasionally doing favors for people. Ann Henderson has heard of his reputation—both as a PI and as a drunk—and wants his help proving her daughter didn’t commit suicide, and that it was murder. Reluctantly, Taylor agrees to help.

One of the novel’s many brilliant touches is the surprising ebb and flow of the plot. Taylor is alternately too busy staying sober—or too busying blacking out while catching up on lost-benders—to do much detecting. There’s no sense of urgency to Taylor’s investigation, no race against time to save another soul, or to stop the killer from striking again. In Taylor’s sober moments, we come to learn of his past sins—the relationships he tanked, the pain he’s inflicted upon loved ones and hated ones alike—and why he so badly wants to blot out the past. As the story progresses, Taylor’s detection is directed more inward than outward, and it becomes clear that the real mystery Jack Taylor is solving is himself.

If you’ve never read Bruen before, this is the place to start. Bruen is one of the most articulate, expressive, and unmistakable stylists in modern fiction. His sentences are as rich as they are compact. At once a model of minimalism and a cascade of feeling, Bruen’s prose is as emotionally attuned as it is aesthetically pleasing. As one character says of Jack Taylor, “You are not a man who gives away a lot…a lot, that is, in the information department. What you do say has the qualities of brevity and clarity.” The same could be said of Bruen. His prose read like poetic verse; and he skillfully uses blank space as though he were painting, and not just writing, on the page. Bruen epitomizes that wonderful contradiction that is noir: his stories are as full of despair as they are full of life’s dark beauty.

Also, it is an exceptional, and all-too-rare, pleasure to read as unabashedly a literate writer as Ken Bruen. His characters swap authors names, and even poems, not as a sign of their schooling, but because literature actually means something to them. Books are a means by which they find clues to their own questions, reasons for their own complexes, and compassion for their own failures. Nor is The Guards without a sense of humor. Taylor’s wry, sarcastic commentary on everything from the state of modern Ireland to Phil Collins, pop music, and literary greats like Derek Raymond, is as crucial to his personality as is his deeply rooted guilt and self-destructive tendencies.

One of the biggest mysteries to The Guards is Jack Taylor’s ultimate motivation. He lives half his live in oblivion, and the other half trying to figure out why he wants to be that way and how to stay there longer. When Ann Henderson approaches him with the case, he confronts her with his own existential dilemma: “How come you want…a drunk…to help you?” Without missing a beat, she provides an answer, something Taylor has never been able to do for himself: “They say you’re good because you’ve nothing else in your life.” Throughout the novel, Taylor struggles to come to terms with how true her words are.

So, why does Jack Taylor take the case? It’s an important question to ask of any private detective, because often their worldview is expressed through their motivation for taking a job, and why else do we read about private detectives except to view life through such penetrating and experienced eyes—the world seen upside-down, inside-out, and right-side-up? In the case of Jack Taylor, it all goes back to those five words spoken by the wino: “Without mystery, we are lost!” The process of working forces Jack to confront his own inner demons. When you look at the whole novel in this light, Ken Bruen doesn’t seem to be using the mystery plot as a means for righting some wrong in the world, for achieving justice, or actualizing revenge. It’s not so much about the world around us so much as what is inside of us. The mystery tells us where and how to look, and what to look for; it provides direction for our own detection, wherever it might lead us, and prepares us for whatever it might reveal.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

NoirCon Poetry Contest

Calling All Noir Poets!

NoirCon 2012 is hosting their first ever poetry contest. All the pertinent details are below.

Good luck to all those who enter!


Welcome to the First NoirCon Poetry Contest sponsored by NoirCon 2012

What is Noir Poetry? Noir Poetry is (1)* Poetry that makes reference to the subject matter, dialog or style of film noir or the hardboiled detective genre, or, (2)* Poetry that invokes stark urban landscapes and atmosphere, and which either alludes to crime and perilous attachments or else seems to bear dark knowledge of this territory, or (3) Poetry that tells the story of tortured souls – lovers, psychopaths, obsessives – driven down deadly paths, following desperate plans that are doomed to failure.

What to Submit: Your entry should be your own original work. You must be the poet of the submitted work(s). Entries must be original and unpublished works (either in print or on-line). Submitted poems should concern the subject of Noir Poetry and not exceed 2000 words.

English Language: Poets of all nations may enter. However, the poems you submit should be in English. If you have written a poem in another language, you may translate your poem into English and submit the translation.

Prizes and Publication: First prize: $250 and a copy of the printed program with the winning poem to be read at the NoirCon 2012 Award Dinner on November 9th, 2012. Second prize: $150 and a printed program. There will also be eight Most Highly Commended Awards winners. They will receive a copy of the NoirCon 2012 printed program and official NoirCon buttons. The top 10 entries will be published in the NoirCon 2012 printed program. The judge of the winning poem will be Robert Polito, Professor of Writing at The New School, New York City, New York.

Entry Fee: The fee is $15 for 1 to 3 original, unpublished poems dealing with Noir. Entry fees are not refundable. Entries will be accepted up until March 2, 2012 (postmark dates).

Deadline: March 2nd, 2012. Your entry must be postmarked by this date.

How To Submit: Send poems to: NoirCon 2012 Poetry Contest, c/o Society Hill Playhouse, 507 South 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147-1325. All entries must be postmarked by March 2, 2012. Omit author's name on manuscript and include a cover sheet with name, address, phone, and e- mail. Cash or checks (made out to Society Hill Playhouse, 507 South 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147-1325) should accompany poetry submission.

Announcement of Winners: The winners of the first NoirCon Poetry contest will be announced the week of NoirCon 2012, November 8th, 2012. Entrants with valid email addresses will receive an email notification.

Copyright: If your entry is selected for publication in the NoirCon printed program, you give NoirCon 2012 a nonexclusive license to publish your work in our publication. You may accept or decline this invitation as you choose. Your entry will not be published in print without your consent, and you retain all rights to your work.

Contact Information:
NoirCon 2012
c/o Society Hill Playhouse
507 South 8th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147-1325
(215) 923-0210

Questions: noircon@gmail.com
www.noircon.info

(*)definition by The Los Angeles Poetry Festival "Noir Corridor"

Friday, September 23, 2011

NoirCon 2012 -- Will You Be There?


NoirCon 2012
Philadelphia, PA
November 8th through November 11th

Lawrence Block - David L. Goodis Award Winner

Otto Penzler - Jay and Deen Kogan Award Winner for Literary Excellence

Robert Olen Butler - Keynote Speaker

Charles Benoit - Master of Ceremonies

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Pulp Serenade will be there. Hope to see many of you out there, too!

For more info, stay tuned to www.noircon.info

"The Cage" by Talmage Powell (Avon, 1969)

The Cage marks yet another crossover between Crime and Western writers. Talmage Powell, who got his start in the 1940s writing for pulp magazines like Detective Tales and Dime Detective, is best known for his Ed Rivers series of detective novels. He also wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and contributed several stories to Hitchcock anthologies over the years. And while Powell did write for Western pulps like Ranch Romances, he only published one full-length Western novel, The Cage, which appeared as an Avon paperback original in 1969.

Powell’s West bears traces of predecessors like Harry Whittington and H.A. DeRosso (especially their dogged, devastated protagonists whose heroism is tainted by their natural impulse towards violence) and points the way for the surreal sadism that George G. Gilman would soon bring to the genre. Powell isn’t interested in pastoral traditions. The only purification to be found in The Cage comes through sweat and blood. This is a grimy novel, whose sun-scorched landscapes are as brutal and remorseless as the characters themselves. In the grand tradition of Noir Westerns that stretches from Clifton Adams to Ed Gorman to Edward A. Grainger, Powell is interested in the flipside of the Western fantasy, the dark underbelly and harsh conditions of frontier living.

Webb and Temple Cameron fled poverty-stricken, Reconstruction-era New Orleans for Tacton Flats, a barren land just north of Mexico. They lived there in peace, until one day Webb returned home to find his wife brutally raped and in a catatonic state. Finding the tracks of two horses and one mule, Webb decides to pursue the attackers and exact personal justice. Convinced that seeing her attackers defeated might shock her back into reality, Webb brings along his wife. To prevent her from committing suicide or running away, he converts his wagon into a cage for Temple. With neighbors Ethel and Clyde Tomberlin at their side, the Camerons head towards the border, hell bent on bloody vengeance.

Though the plot is fairly straightforward, it is still effective because Powell conveys both the physical and psychological torment of his characters—their hard living, and their harder punishments. Even though the rape isn’t described in detail, the aftereffect of being brutalized into a near-vegetative state is still shocking. There’s something about the lack of motivation behind the crime, and its extreme violence, that foreshadows the new breed of horror movies to come in the 1970s, such as Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Like with the shower scene in Psycho, The Cage is at its most shocking early on, and then settles into a more low-key—but still tense—groove. The conventional approach would be to save the big bang for the finale, but Powell chooses to do the opposite. Once the unsettling tenor has been set, Powell relies on the complexity of his characters to carry the story forward. None of them stand for on any obvious moral platforms, and their contradictions create the ethical dialogue that underscores the narrative. Clyde, for instance, once fled a Kansas lynch mob that accused him of raping a girl, but here is giving pursuit with a miniature mob of his own. Ethel is far more strong-willed than her husband, but now she begins to wonder why she forced him to chase down strangers with no evidence against them, just as he was once chased himself. And then there’s Webb, who is as bloodthirsty and merciless as his wife’s attackers.

An unexpected counterpoint to this drama is the character Micco. One of the last of the Seminoles who fled the Oklahoma reservation they were forced onto, Micco is waging a warpath with his group through Texas on their way to Mexico. He’s witnessed firsthand the atrocities that his tribe suffered at the hands of the whites. He’s known starvation, unprovoked violence, and oppression—and so he’s decided to fight fire with fire, and take an eye for an eye, just like Webb. When Webb and Micco eventually cross paths, Powell doesn’t pass any judgment on Micco, who serves as a reminder that the morality of revenge isn’t so cut-and-dried, and that some crimes can never be properly atoned.

Stylistically, Powell kept the momentum going by alternating not just between Webb, Clyde, and Ethel, but also between Micco, as well as the two attackers. It is a whole lot of plot and action crammed into 127 pages, and it makes for a terrific Western thriller. Powell also slips in a couple of great passages. This description of a battered prospector they find on the trail stands out as the best:
“He was a sloppily huge man, pig-gutted and flaccid, clothed in a filthy muslin shirt and homespun britches. He’d taken one hell of a beating. Blood and dust and sweat were caked on his huge, lacerated face. His left eye was almost closed and the color of a rotten egg. Blood had seeped over his temple and ear from a scalp gash in his bald, bullet-shaped head. A lump on his jaw gave his face a lopsided twist, and his lips were like ruptured grapes.”
My eyes popped out when I read, “ruptured grapes”! So much of Powell’s language is as hardened as the Western landscape, and as literal as the violence, that a poetic jab like that caught me off guard in the best possible way. It made the simile all the more effective. Another powerful use of poetic language was this description of Temple in one of her frenzied outbursts: “Her lips moved like pieces of wood breaking.” Comparing human lips to wood isn’t an obvious comparison at all, but its unnaturalness really captures the inhuman quality of Temple’s state. Dried skin, jerky movements, staccato spitting—it’s all right there, compressed into a few expertly chosen words. With similes that good, it is best to space them out, and Powell doesn’t take such poetic licenses for granted.

My favorite line in The Cage, and one of the most telling, is also one of the simplest. It is when Webb says to Temple, “I’m sorry, very sorry, for only one thing. I’m sorry for the necessity of it all.” In a sense, he’s apologizing for the manhunt he took her on, as well as his own outburst of violence. But in another way, he’s also apologizing for this sense of savagery that was inherent in the world at the time. It was present in the Civil War that separated them as newly weds, it was in the Reconstruction that devastated their home, and it was in the dead landscape at the ends of civilization where they eventually settled. They were desperate to get away from humanity—and the people they encountered along the way were just as desperate, too. If there’s any ounce of Noir sensibility in The Cage, it is located in this single line. Those dark places that you flee always follow, no matter where you go. You can feel remorse, and you can feel pity, but the darkness remains inevitable. Webb can say he’s sorry all he wants, but it is that word “necessity” that is the most unsettling word of all. It disturbs the sense of peace that was supposed to have been reached at the end of the journey, and leaves it opened ended as to what further acts of violence might still have to committed in the future.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rex Stout on Words and Writing

Rex Stout makes writing novels seem so damn easy.
"I never worked more than three months a year. Thirty-nine or forty days on each novel, and I'd do two a year.

"No, there's nothing much to planning them. Of course, I was lucky on having hit on the name–Nero Wolfe. Simple but odd, people remember it. And Wolfe was born; he wasn't synthetic. I didn't have to sit down and decide: 'What color will his eyes be? Well they'll be blue. How much will he with? How will he walk? What expressions will he use?' He was born.

"I tried another detective later, Tecumseh Fox–because the Saturday Evening Post editors wanted a fresh detective–and he never was born. He was put together piece by piece and wasn't worth a damn.

"As for the story, you take a setting that interests you, think of what might happen in that setting, choose the most entertaining happenings, and then ask yourself" 'Well, why would a man want buy buy that champion bull? Why would some one murder a man because of a bull?' The answers come right along. You have your plot. You write it."

--Rex Stout, excerpted from "An Interview With Mister Rex Stout" by Robert van Gelder, New York Times, Sept 21, 1941
I was also struck by van Gelder's description of Stout's beard, with which he opens the article.
"His beard is not a particularly good beard: it has rather the sparse look of barberry bushes that have been trampled by the house painters. The beard's purpose, probably, is to ambush one's attention from the eyes above it, which are not cataloguing [sic] eyes and seem to reflect open judgments, but are intent and observing to a rare degree."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Leigh Brackett on Words and Writing

Leigh Brackett on living and writing with her husband, Edmond Hamilton:
You were asking how living and working together affected us. We almost broke up our happy home I think right after we were married. I had an order for a 40,000 word novel from Startling Stories and I said, “I think I've got an idea for an opening.” And he said fine. So we figured if we collaborated we could do the stories twice as fast, write twice as many, and make twice as much money. You know, which we didn't have much of at that time. So I went out in the kitchen and pounded the typewriter and came back in with a couple of chapters and I said, “What do you think of it?” He read it, said it was great, but where do you go from here? I said, “I don't know.” He looked at me, said, “You don't know! This is the so-and-so bleep adjective deleted way to write a story I ever heard of!” (Laughing) He used to write the last line of the story before he'd ever write the first one.

--Leigh Brackett, excerpted from "An Interview with Leigh Brackett & Edmond Hamilton" by Dave Truesdale and Paul McGuire III, from Minicon 11, April 16-18, 1976

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"The Criminal Kind" Debuts at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Over the weekend, my new crime fiction column, "The Criminal Kind," debuted over at The Los Angeles Review of Books. In this first installment, I reviewed five books:

Duane Swierczynski
Fun & Games
Mulholland Books, June 2011. 304 pp.
"Duane Swierczynski is the Wile E. Coyote of crime fiction. His novels are filled with chases, explosions, and, amidst all the mayhem, a dash of philosophy about the absurdity of existence. "

Jason Starr
The Pack
Ace Books, June 2011. 352 pp.
"The Pack is one of Starr’s most realistic and relatable novels yet."

Megan Abbott
The End of Everything
Reagan Arthur Books, July 2011. 256 pp.
"The End of Everything is Abbott’s most refined and rapturous offering yet. "

Sara Gran
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2011. 288 pp.
"Claire’s journey through New Orleans is thick with atmosphere, and while she herself might be interested in heady concepts, the people she meets have complex problems that are all too recognizable, and that don’t lend themselves to easy solutions."

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Kiss Her Goodbye
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011. 288 pp.
"Dexterous and dynamic plotting, swift and explosive action, snappy dialogue, graphic metaphors, and energetic characters that come alive: this is action-mystery par excellence."

To read more, check out The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Monday, September 19, 2011

James M. Cain Discusses "The Cocktail Waitress"

This morning, Charles Ardai made a dream come true for readers all over the world: a newly discovered James M. Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, will be published in Fall 2012 by Hard Case Crime. Cain had been working on the book at the time of his death, and it took Ardai nine years to track down the original manuscript and obtain rights to print it.

Here is a brief sketch of the story, as mentioned in the original press release:
Combining themes from Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Cocktail Waitress tells the story of a beautiful young widow, Joan Medford, whose husband died under suspicious circumstances. Desperate to make ends meet after his death, she takes a job as a waitress in a cocktail lounge, where he meets two new men: a handsome young schemer she falls in love with, and a wealthy older man she marries.
In honor of this historic announcement, I decided to do some research to see if Cain himself spoke of The Cocktail Waitress in any interviews. The book turned up in a couple of places, including the recently released Packed and Loaded: Conversations with James M. Cain, by John McAleer (Nimble Books, 2010), a collection of transcribed discussions that were intended for a biography McAleer was working on when Cain passed away. Cain gives a rambling description of the plot, and mentions how he was disastisfied with the current state of the novel and was then in the midst of rewriting the manuscript.

The other mention I found was in a 1976 issue of Film Comment. Since the interview is currently out-of-print, I am reprinting just the portion that discusses The Cocktail Waitress.

So, without further ado, here is a working view of James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, as described by the author himself.
James M. Cain: My difficulty in writing a story is not in writing a story, or in thinking of something to write a story about, but in finding a reason this character in the first person would tell it. That's my problem. It doesn't have to be a very important reason, it can be the most special, cockeyed reason in the world that wraps up in a sentence or two. But just the same, I have to have that or I can't tell the story.

In my stories there's usually stuff that you wouldn't think any human being would tell at all. Now I've just finished a book called The Cocktail Waitress, where the girl tells her story, and there's some pretty intimate stuff. This girl, like most women, is very reticent about some things-you know, the sex scenes, where she spent the night with a guy. I had her tell enough so that what happened was clear and, at the same time, not go into details. Once she lingered with a sex scene, as if she wanted to tell it.

The Cocktail Waitress is about the tenth book I've started in the third person and half-wrote in the third person and then realized it wasn't right, and went back and rewrote in the first person.

Film Comment: It is interesting that you are utilizing a female narrator in your new novel. Which of your works do women like best?

James M. Cain: I haven't the faintest idea. I don't know if any of them like my books. I wouldn't say that they are the type that women, above anyone else, would particularity go for.

–excerpted from “Tough Guy” by Peter Brunette and Gerald Peary, Film Comment (May/Jun 1976): 50-57,64.

"Forty Lashes Less One" by Elmore Leonard (Bantam, 1972)

Elmore Leonard broke the mold when he wrote Forty Lashes Less One. He not only put the “wild” back into the “Wild West,” he made it crazier than ever before. Originally published in 1972, today the book still exudes a rare and precious chaotic energy and uninhibited creativity. When you get right down to it, the book is totally twisted—the humor is surreal, the violence palpable, and the characters are amoral at best. The story doesn’t proceed in any conventional direction, and it’s difficult to predict exactly where Leonard is taking you—and perhaps that’s because even the characters seem to be at a complete loss for control. Leonard leaves the typical Western paradigms in the dust, and instead creates something fresh, daring, and truly innovative.

As Forty Lashes Less One begins, Yuma penitentiary is getting a new superintendent, the ironically named Mr. Everett Manly. A minister by trade, he has no prior prison experience. Arriving at the same time is former soldier named Harold Jackson, Right away, the predominantly white inmates single him out because he’s black, but Harold remains defiant and holds his head high. Frank Shelby, the local kingpin among the inmates, decides to put Harold in his place and engineers a fight between him and another outcast, a Chiricahua Apache named Raymond San Carlos.

After spending time in the hole—“the snake den,” as they call it—Raymond and Harold become friends. Things begin to get strange when Mr. Manly decides to reform the two prisoners in an unconventional way: he wants them to become “warriors” like their ancestors. Raymond and Harold realize Mr. Manly is a little cuckoo, but who are they to argue for getting out of work duty? So, they run in the fields all day, and practice throwing spears. Then comes word that Yuma Penitentiary is shutting down. Everyone knows that Frank Shelby is going to try and make his escape. Meanwhile, Raymond and Harold start to plan their own escape, and how to exact revenge on Shelby and his goons.

That, in a nutshell, is Forty Lashes Less One. But it is a highly condensed nutshell that loses the ferocity of the characters, the spontaneity of the plot, and the unexpected humor and violence of the narrative. Everything unfolds so whimsically that the story feels alternately like a hardboiled prison narrative, a magical realist fantasy, and farcical nightmare. At points, Leonard seems to even be channeling the sardonic, anticlerical humor of Luis Buñuel, particularly in Mr. Manly’s attempts at educating Harold and Jackson about the Bible. Manly’s story about how all men are brothers turns into an unintended defense for incest. And Manly even admits to himself that one of the biggest motivations for him reforming these prisoners is so that, in the eyes of God, he might be redeemed for lusting after the female prisoners. Mr. Manly may be a minister, but his soul is as impure and corrupt as the murderers in his prison.

One of the reasons Forty Lashes Less One feels so unique is that, in many ways, it runs completely antithetical to the traditional Western. The West is supposed to offer endless horizons, heavenly vistas, and opportunities for renewal and purification. Forty Lashes Less One is the exact opposite: almost the entire book takes place within the penitentiary walls, and a significant portion even takes place in solitary confinement. All the characters are filthy, sweaty, and covered in blood or feces or sand. Even the brief glimpses of the landscape don’t inspire hope in the prisoners: “There was nothing out there but sky and rocks and desert growth that looked as if it would never die, but offered a man no hope of life.” The prisoners are confronted with a harsh landscape with little food or water, and few places to hide. An early escape attempt proves almost immediately futile. So much for Manifest Destiny—these characters couldn’t control their lives, let alone the world that surrounds them, no matter how hard they tried.

Another of Elmore Leonard’s masterful touches to Forty Lashes Less One is his choice of protagonists: Harold Jackson and Raymond San Carlos. The traditional Western is populated by cowboys, ranchers, lawyers, homesteaders, and other character-types who are typically white. Here, it is eye-opening and refreshing to see the West through the eyes of non-traditional characters. Not only is it a welcome reminder to how diverse the population of the West was, but also how divergent their experiences were. Brian Garfield’s Tripwire, published two years later, similarly focuses on a black protagonist, and uses his story as a lens for reconsidering what we typically consider the Western experience. Prejudice and racism were still present in the aftermath of the Civil War, and these narratives are useful critiques not only of American society in the past, but also the present. Ed Gorman’s masterful third book in his Guild saga, Blood Game, also examines racial conflicts in the West. More recently, Edward A. Grainger (David Cranmer) has been exploring similar themes in his Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles Western stories.

One of the great legacies of the Western genre is its social commentary. The building of homes, communities, industries, and legal systems are recurring themes in Western novels. While some books choose to idealize the past, others use the stories as an opportunity to deconstruct both historical and modern life, to take apart the pieces and examine them critically before piecing them back together. In Leonard’s book, Yuma Penitentiary becomes a microcosm for society as a whole. He critiques power structures, racial and gender attitudes, legal corruption, and even religion. When looked at in this light, Harold and Raymond’s rebellion becomes heroic not because they embody any righteous moral attitudes, but because of their defiant spirit. They’re non-conformists to the core. They recognize the bullshit and the corruption around them, and they don’t want to correct it so much as get the hell away from it all. There’s more than a bit of Huck Finn in them. In the end, however, they realize that a little revenge goes a long way, and they decide to revel in the pleasure of giving Frank Shelby and Mr. Manly their long-overdue comeuppance. Their final gesture in the novel is an inspiring moment of cultural dissent, a true declaration of independence. Harold and Raymond were freethinkers, counter-cultural idols whose resistance wasn’t at all out of place amidst the political upheaval of 1970s, Vietnam-era America. Elmore Leonard may have set Forty Lashes Less One in the first decade of the 20th century, but in a way he was still writing about contemporary times. Nearly four decades later, Harold and Raymond still have a lot to reveal about the topsy-turvy, politically screwed up world we live in. The Old West may be long gone, but it is still ever-present in the world in which we live.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"The Guns of Retribution" by Icy Sedgwick (Pulp Press, 2011)

England’s Pulp Press takes a trip back in time and across the ocean for their latest release, Icy Sedgwick’s The Guns of Retribution. It’s a fast-moving, no-holds-barred, hardboiled Western novella.

The story concerns bounty hunter Gray O’Donnell, who left his hometown of Retribution, Arizona six years ago. He wanted to escape his past and build a better future for himself. The search for wanted outlaw Blackjack Bud Hudson, however, has brought Gray and his cohorts--Billy Cole and Mahko—back to his hometown.

Sedgwick opens the novel with an exhilarating action sequence as the bounty hunters jump onto a moving train in order to apprehend Blackjack. But when Gray and his crew get on board, they find more than they bargained for. Gray’s old nemesis, Jasper Roberts, is waiting for them, and he’s not alone. He’s not only got a posse with him, this time he’s also got a sheriff’s badge. Gray O’Donnell and Jasper Roberts have a long, tumultuous history between them. Gray knows about all of the skeletons in Jasper’s closets, and the sheriff will do anything to keep Gray’s mouth shut.

As the opening chapter illustrates, The Guns of Retribution is at its best when the excitement runs high. There’s a visceral, tangible element to Sedgwick’s writing that gives the story added punch. Here’s one of my favorite examples from the book:
I didn't even get the chance to ask what my momma had to do with anything before Jesse's fist connected with my jaw. The force knocked me backwards and I hit the dirt. Pain exploded in my back, and burned in my jaw. My arms splayed out so I couldn't reach m guns. Jesse leaned over me, and hawked a gob of tobacco-stained phlegm into my face. I lifted a hand to wipe it away, and he drove his boot into my exposed side. Knocked the wind right out of me. I doubled over, and fresh spikes of pain erupted in my back. Something cracked in my chest. I couldn't breathe in without feeling like someone was stabbing me.
But even when bullets aren’t flying, Sedgwick keeps the pace driving forward, all the way to a thrilling climax. Smartly, Sedgwick balances the physical violence with the darker elements of Western society: massacres of innocent Native American communities, hypocrisy, sexual abuse, and corrupt law officials. Touches such as these give an emotional weight to the action, and make the story more than just a fun romp through the desert.

I’m excited to see that Pulp Press has ventured into the Western genre for the second time (the first was Charles Jackson's Death of a Dude), and I hope that this will not be their last. I will also keep my fingers crossed that this will not be the last we see of Gray, Mahko, and Billy. Sedgwick has the makings of a strong core trio of a series on her hands, and I for one would like to see an on-going saga, in the same vein of what Edward Grainger (David Cranmer) is doing with Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles.

To learn more about Icy Sedgwick and her other books, visit her website or follow her blog.

"Urban Noir" by Gordon Harries -- Check it out!

Gordon Harries (Crime Factory, The Rap Sheet, 3AM), one of Pulp Serenade's favorite critics, has been keeping his blog Needle Scratch Static quiet for some time. Now and then, he's dropped hints that something bigger was in the works. This morning, he finally unveiled his new project:

Urban Noir.

So far, he's only posted an introduction and a sampling of things to come, but already I'm looking forward to reading his new critical essays. Here's the rundown of the site, in his own words:
The site with focus on post-vietnam crime fiction and the modern crime fiction that operates in it’s slip stream, featuring reviews of both prose and film (when addressing the fiction of some of today’s best writers, seventies cinema becomes inescapable. Hell, one of the major character beats of Wallace Stroby’s terrific ‘Cold Shot To The Heart’ was inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Getaway’) and feature interviews. The odds are you already have a good idea of what I’m talking about, but already written for the site is a critique of Martyn Waites’ ‘Mary’s Prayer’, Sebastian Rotella’s ‘Triple Crossing’ a piece on Christa Faust’s relationship with Hardboiled… you get the idea.

The site will start to dribble out content now and launch properly in conjunction with another site I'm going to be involved in. More on that soon.
Be sure to add the blog to your Bookmarks or Blog Feed and check back often for updates. In the meantime, you can still catch up on some of Gordon's great essays for other publications around the net. His essay on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest is a must-read for all hardboiled fans, and you can find it in the first issue of Crime Factory. His interview with author Jeremy Duns (Free Agent) over at The Rap Sheet.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Brian Garfield Interview

Brian Garfield’s first published novel was written when he was just 18 years old. The book was called Range Justice, and it was the start of a long, exciting, and critically acclaimed career. Garfield’s bibliography is impressive not only in its diversity and quantity, but especially its quality. Western, Crime, Adventure, Suspense, Historical, War, Comedy, Biography, Espionage, Political Thrillers, and even a book on Western Cinema—Garfield has tackled them all with the same level of professionalism, attention to craft, and excellence. In 1976, his book Hopscotch won the Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writer’s of America. Longtime readers of Garfield know that his is a name to trust.

While it was his suspense novels that first caught my attention—books like What of Terry Conniston? (a gripping caper about a rock band’s kidnapping-gone-wrong)—but it was his Westerns that made me a diehard fan. When Garfield writes about The West, he doesn’t rely on old gimmicks and stale characterizations. The characters feel fresh, and there’s a pulse to the stories, the same sort of driving energy you would find in one of Garfield’s more contemporary-set crime novels. Then there are novels like Relentless, The Threepersons Hunt, and Fear in a Handful of Dust, modern day Western Thrillers that are crackling with action and suspense.

Recently, Brian Garfield was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: I read that Luke Short was an early mentor to you. How did you meet him, and what were some of the most important things you learned from him?

Brian Garfield: I met Fred ("Luke Short") Glidden in 1955 or thereabouts. He was mayor of Aspen, Colorado at the time and had a great office above the Post Office. He lived out in the woods on a very steep slope that overhung a river, and he could drop a fishing line from the porch right into the river. He loved to fish, but they had a home in Arizona, too.

He was a big man, kind and gentle. Even though I was a snotty teen-ager, he treated me as a guy rather than as a kid, and he was generous enough to criticize a few short stories I'd written. The most valuable advice he gave me over the next few years was, "Take out all the Western trappings. Your story should depend on characters and behavior. If it still works after you get rid of the clichés, it's a story."

PS: What other writers have influenced you?

BG: Writer influences? Lots of 'em. The usual ones -- Hemingway, O'Hara, Greene... If you want to write you've got to like to read. When I was a small kid, we lived down the road from Rex Stout (whom I met again years later in the Mystery Writers of America). His clean prose was a marvelous example. (Still is.) I liked Ernest Haycox's imagery and choice of words. (Still do.) I liked Hank ("Will Henry" / "Clay Fisher") Allen's energy and accuracy; he later became a friend. Growing up in Arizona, I met Western writers like Nelson Nye who were encouraging.

PS: Your website mentions you sold your first novel at 18. What was the book and how did you manage to sell it at such a young age?

BG: In 1957, at age eighteen, I wrote a Western and then went off to join the army. After I got out of uniform, Avalon Books bought the novel -- Range Justice. It was published in 1960 but had been written earlier. That was my first. Avalon was a publisher of formula-genre titles for the lending library market. It was a good place for me to do an apprenticeship, although the pay was very small. I don't know where a similar market exists today. Wish I could help, but I'm at a loss there.

PS: You published 11 Westerns for Ace in the 1960s, among them, The Night it Rained Bullets (one of my favorites of yours). How did you come to write for Ace, and do you have a favorite of those Westerns?

BG: I wrote the Jeremy Six novels because it seemed like a good idea at the time, although in retrospect the setting was too close to the Dodge City of Gunsmoke. I guess my favorite of them would be Big Country, Big Men, partly because it took Six away from Spanish Flat. I'd learned by then that if you liked to create new characters, you shouldn't write a series. (On the other hand, a series is lucrative.)

PS: Justice at Spanish Flat is an abridged version of Range Justice. Did you or Ace do the abridgement?

BG: The abridgement for the paperback was done by somebody at Ace, possibly Don Wollheim.

PS: How did you come up with the character of Sam Watchman and his two novels (Relentless and The Threepersons Hunt)?

BG: Sam Watchman was sort of based on a Navajo classmate of mine at the University of Arizona. He told stories and I listened. The second novel, The Threepersons Hunt, was triggered by a story he'd told me years earlier about a Navajo cop who'd been sent (as punishment) to solve some crime on the White Mountain Reservation, which of course was Apache -- i.e., enemy country. Soon after that we met Tony Hillerman, who was a lousy poker player but a great gentleman. Any thoughts I might've had about a Watchman series bowed to Tony; in any case I suspect I'd said all I had to say about Sam Watchman. (Meanwhile my college classmate ended up going to law school; last time I saw him he was an Assistant DA in Tucson.)

PS: How did you and Donald Westlake come to collaborate on Gangway and what was it like writing with him?

BG: I settled for a while in New York in 1965, got invited into a weekly poker game, and met some great writers there -- Larry Block and Don Westlake were the first; later came Ross Thomas, Bob Ludlum, Justin Scott, so forth. The agent who represented most of them was Henry Morrison, and he was a player in the game, too. One time, when Don W. and I were a bit bored with the same old same old, we decided to write a Western comedy together for the hell of it. Gangway was the result. It was great fun, but probably four times as much work as either of us would have done on a book of his own, because one of us would write it and then the other would expand it and then the other would fix it, so forth. We collaborated on other things as well -- the movie The Stepfather, for example. I wrote a screenplay for 20th Century Fox based on Don's "Richard Stark" novel Butcher's Moon, but it never got filmed. (That's the fate of most movie projects.)

PS: How did you come to work with the same editor as them?

BG: My old agent had died. Henry Morrison agreed to take me on, but only if I'd write something other than Westerns -- he felt they had too restricted an audience, no matter how good the books were. In some ways he was right; in others I think there's a lot of room for good fresh Westerns as long as they get away from the formula. It's a big part of our history, and there are aspects that have never been exploited. (Take for just one example the life of Bill Tilghman.) Henry is nearly 80 and not really agenting any more; he's been producing the "Jason Bourne" movies.

PS: What inspired you to create the character of Paul Benjamin for Death Wish and Death Sentence?

BG: The Paul Benjamin character was a sort of everyman to me. Impetus for the Death Wish story came one night in late 1971. At the time, I lived out along the Delaware River, near Lambertville NJ, and I'd driven into New York to go to a party at a publisher friend's. I parked on the street. When I came down I found that somebody had slashed the convertible top of the car to ribbons. It was about a two-hour drive home, and really cold, and I thought about finding the guy who'd slashed the roof. I never did find him, but the novel came out of it so I think I got the better of him.

PS: Did you have any inclination that he would be so enduring and controversial?

BG: No, I really didn't foresee that the story or the character would be enduring or controversial. When the movie was made in 1974, my wife and I went with Don Westlake to an advance screening, and we all felt it was just another Bronson action movie. The screenplay by Wendell Mayes (which is excellent) had been written for a different actor and director (Jack Lemmon, Sidney Lumet) and we were disappointed. Then I went off to Africa on a research trip and didn't hear much of anything about it until later in the summer when it hit the fan. It was a surprise.

PS: Of all the movies made of your work, which one do you think is the best and why?

BG: At the moment I think I've had something like 20 movies made. A few are bad, most are routine. I especially like The Stepfather but my real favorite is Hopscotch. By coincidence, perhaps, or purely out of ego, I was one of the writers and producers on both films. Hopscotch works because everybody connected with it was having a very good day. I worked with the crew and I loved the cast, the director, the whole shebang.

PS: How much research do you do when you are writing a Western?

BG: Research? Sometimes. If it's a specific novel about a specific subject (the Wild West Shows and shooting contests for Wild Times, or the early ranch life of Theodore Roosevelt for Manifest Destiny) I enjoy the research, and do a lot of it. If it's one of the older Westerns, mainly I relied on my own background as a chore-boy and teen-age cowhand, and used the Western formula for the rest; that's why their stories are so predictable. A couple of early Western novels (The Vanquished, The Lawbringers) required research, and I always love doing it.

PS: I loved reading about Boag, the main character in Tripwire. Did you ever consider turning him into a series character and continuing his story?

BG: No, I didn't think of Boag as a series character, but he's one of my favorites, too. We're still trying to get things together to make it into a movie.

PS: I was really impressed by all the survival skills in Fear and a Handful of Dust. Did you learn these first-hand, or how did you research them?

BG: Fear in a Handful of Dust does not contain a lot of stunts I actually tried. I heard about them and read about them quite a bit before writing the book. It too became a movie (Fleshburn), not too bad in view of its tiny budget.

PS: There are two collections of your short stories that I know of – Checkpoint Charlie and Suspended Sentences. Is there a plan to release another collection of your stories in the future, or maybe a complete bibliography on your website for collectors to track them down individually?

BG: Those two short story collections you list are the only ones to date. I'm trying to get a collection of Western short stories published. To me, short stories take less time but are often harder to write than novels (there's no room to mess around).

PS: What is the biggest change, positive or negative, that you’ve seen in the publishing industry since you started writing?

BG: Publishing today - what a can of worms. The Internet has changed everything. That's the big change, of course, and publishers of all kinds are still trying to figure out how to deal with it. Therefore so are authors. Wish I had much wisdom to offer, but the field has a lot of gopher holes in it. Your guess may be better than mine.

PS: Do you have a favorite of your own books?

BG: Do I have a favorite of my own books? Several, I suppose; it's like asking "which of your children is your favorite". For different reasons I'd put at the top of the list Kolchak's Gold, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Hopscotch, Wild Times and The Thousand-Mile War. Two have been filmed (Hopscotch and Wild Times).

PS: What projects are you working on now that readers can look forward to in the near future?

BG: The new novel, which I'm still working on, is a sort of thriller. I hope it'll be out next year but am so ignorant of the publishing situation today that I can't promise a thing. Wish I could (for my own sake as well as yours and others').

PS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to write something in the Western genre?

BG: Advice? Keep writing and keep making and using contacts -- eventually, if it's a good story well told, it'll find its way to readers or an audience or both. The details and the pitfalls keep changing, however. You might be better off consulting a younger writer, since I learned most of my storytelling and marketing skills too long ago. Find someone closer to the current marketplace. It really won't help you to learn how I sold my first "real" novel to a "real" publisher -- he died years ago, and I have no idea who's there now or even if there's a "there" there. Since you live in Brooklyn, I'd suggest you pick the publishers who publish the current books that you like to read. Call that publisher, and ask which literary agents they recommend. This may be a way to find an opening.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"A Venom Beneath the Skin" by Marcos M. Villatoro (2005)

Last week, Marcos M. Villatoro dropped by my local mystery bookstore, Partners and Crime, for a reading in support of his upcoming Romilia Chacón novel, Blood Daughters. Unfortunately, a prior engagement held me up and I missed the first part of the event. Villatoro was still there, and I was lucky enough to meet him, if only briefly. The store was sold out of the first two books in the series, Home Killings and Minos, but they suggested that I start with book three: A Venom Beneath the Skin. I’m not usually one to start a series in the middle, but the novel looked promising, and the people at Partners and Crime have never steered me in the wrong direction. Once again, their recommendation didn’t disappoint.

A Venom Beneath the Skin is a riveting thriller, the type of book that will keep you up past your bedtime or make you miss your subway stop. There are procedural, action, and political elements to the novel, but Villatoro fuses them all together with a gripping story and strong, three-dimensional characters. Even though this was the third book in the series, it wasn’t difficult to jump right it. Romilia Chacón is an instantly likable character, someone who has the right balance of believability as a single mom and action hero. Romilia is both strong and credible, someone capable of extraordinary heroism but who is recognizably ordinary in her flaws.

A Venom Beneath the Skin begins with the assassination of Chacón’s former partner and lover, Chip Pierce. The FBI is convinced that the killer is the notorious drug dealer Tekún Umán, and that the motivation was his jealousy and obsession over Chacón. She, however, is convinced that it has something to do with the case he had been working on: an unexplained explosion at a homeless flophouse that doubled as a drug depot in Los Angeles. Authorities suspect that the bomb was planted by terrorists, but no one has figured out why the target would be homeless drug addicts?

One of the strongest aspects to this novel is its multi-cultural worldview. A time capsule of current anxieties and politics, Villatoro navigates the complex and sensitive issues affecting America at the moment without becoming preachy or opportunistic. Instead, he works them seamlessly into the plot, which unfolds with the intensity and drive of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Romilia Chacón returns for a fourth novel, Blood Daughters, which is due out Oct 1 from Red Hen Press.
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