Friday, May 30, 2014

"Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense" by Sarah Weinman


To say it is long overdue is a criminal understatement — Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense Paperback is simply one of the most significant anthologies of crime fiction, ever. Highlighting a vital lineage of writers who have largely been marginalized, trivialized as “cozy,” or just plain forgotten, editor Sarah Weinman reclaims an important yet neglected arena of noir fiction that she designates as “domestic suspense.” As the name suggests, these stories take place within the confines of the home, and while they don’t use the stereotypical noir setting of smoky bars and foggy back alleys, they lack none of noir’s darker shades. The stories in this anthology are as bleak, grim, and nasty as anything written by these women’s more celebrated male contemporaries — and, in many cases, these stories are all the more disturbing for their recognizably residential settings. Without the generic hallmarks to separate reality from fantasy — tough guys in fedoras, chain-smoking dames, and fast-spewing gats — noir takes on a whole new realm of disturbing possibility, and the writers of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives pack plenty of nightmares into their pages...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Last Days of Wolf Garnett" by Clifton Adams


The Last Days of Wolf Garnett was originally published in 1970, one year before Clifton Adams died all too young at the age of 52. It was Adams’ second consecutive novel to win the Spur Award for Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America (the other was 1969’s Tragg’s Choice). It’s a doomy, atmospheric western with a grim, mysterious plot. If you’re looking for a noir western, you couldn’t ask for a much darker—or much better written—tale than this. As its title indicates, the book is preoccupied with death. This concern, however, was not new to Adams’ work; the theme had haunted his books from the very start of his career and, as this Wolf illustrates, continued right up until the end.

“So this, he thought emptily, is the way it ends. After almost a year of fury and grief, his only satisfaction was a grave on a barren hillside, a horror that had once been a man.”

When Frank Gault pulled into the frontier town of New Boston, he was looking for Wolf Garnett, the outlaw who killed his wife. He found the man—but, according to Sheriff Olsen, Garnett was dead and buried. Gault wants proof, but the deeper he digs, and the more people he asks, the more Olsen tries to shut him up. Convinced the sheriff is hiding something, Gault risks life and limb for a revenge that might just be futile. What if, in fact, Wolf Garnett really is dead?

Clifton Adams is among the darkest, most noir-tinged of western writers. His style could be characterized as “eerie bleakness,” a phrase used in the book to describe Gault’s own thoughts. Adams doesn’t write stories of wide-open ranges or little houses on the prairie. For Adams, the range is a desolate purgatory—the western equivalent of the noir gutter. Here, just as in The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado, his protagonist is homeless, a haunted drifter with nothing to return to and nowhere to go. One of the hallmarks of Adams’ work is his characters’ inner-lives. His people are frequently lost in their own labyrinthine anxieties and obsessions, driven by their self-loathing: “Gault sat beside the dying fire, smoking, trying to keep his mind away from the past.” But this is a futile endeavor—actively distracting yourself only deepens the mark of that which you are trying to forget.

One of Adams’ recurring themes is that death is never easy, never simple, and never neat. His westerns may express an existential worldview—preoccupied with the meaning of their lives, or lack thereof—but they’re also grounded in ugly, gritty detail. His characters are lost in thought, but their feet are firmly planted on the ground, and their fate six feet under. “For almost a year Gault’s thoughts had been concerned exclusively with the subject of death. In his dreams, waking and sleeping, he had killed Wolf Garnett a thousand times. But it had never been like this, with the crunch of bone and rush of blood. In his mind it had always been swift and clean and right.” As in his two Desperado books, the act of killing is a disturbing and character-changing experience. “Two men he had killed in almost as many days. It was not a comfortable knowledge to live with.”

Gault is a “Searcher,” in the tradition of Alan LeMay’s novel (now better remembered as the John Ford film). “Lord, Gault thought wearily, I feel like I’ve been traveling half a lifetime. Without sleep or rest. Sometimes he almost forgot why he was doing it.” The search both gives meaning to Gault’s life, but also drains the life from him. It’s a self-destructive path that seemingly offers no happy ending. Like so many of noir’s denizens, whether in the west or in the gutter, Gault is as cursed as Sisyphus, caught in an endless circle of punishment.

Gault admits towards the end of the book, “I’m a different man already.” It’s an ambiguous statement, because with the self-knowledge gained throughout the story, Gault—like many of Adams’ characters—don’t like what they’ve learned about life, or what their experiences have revealed about themselves. “There was a wild man locked up inside him. And rivers of bile. They would not let him rest or work or do any of the quietly productive things that ordinary men did.”

The Last Days of Wolf Garnett, if it isn’t clear enough already, is not a happy book. It’s a hard-hitting story of hard-lived lives, dripping with melancholy, regret, and rage—but rendered through Adams’ lyrical prose, it somehow becomes a thing of beauty.

It’s just a downright outstanding novel from a great writer who deserves to be better known.




Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Dancing With Dead Men" by James Reasoner


In Dancing With Dead Men (2013), James Reasoner redefines the mythological western gunslinger in starkly human terms. 

Logan Handley, Reasoner’s protagonist, is no fast-draw he-man; instead, like John Bernard Books in The Shootist, he’s an all-too mortal being whose toughness is matched only by his fragility. Whereas Books is dying of cancer, Handley’s ailment is “infantile paralysis,” the result of a bullet wound suffered during a courageous act that stopped a robbery and prevented a public massacre. Having regained only partial movement, Handley heads to a hot springs facility in Arkansas where he hopes to recover fully. Robbed of his money en route during a train holdup, Handley arrives in Arkansas nearly broke, and he takes work sweeping a barbershop by day and tending bar by night. Bad luck seemingly follows Handley, as the bank is held-up just as he is depositing his money. This time, however, he fights back. Handley’s new-found fame lands him a job as security for a lumber magnate caught in a violent dispute over territory—but it also brings back his past, as well as an old enemy with a score to settle.

One of the major themes of the western genre is “the death of the west.” For Reasoner, however, the theme is more than just an historic inevitability: Dancing With Dead Men investigates what happens after the blaze of glory, after the ride-off into the sunset, and after the bullets stop flying. Handley’s curse is to live with the injuries suffered in the opening showdown. His “infantile paralysis” is cruelly ironic—not only is he debilitated by an illness that typically afflicts only children, but he is humbled by the confrontation of his own vulnerability and physical limitation.

Dancing With Dead Men's plotting is perfectly timed—alternating between the action-mystery of the timber feud and the more personal story of Handley's recovery—and Reasoner's prose has never been finer. Lines like this remind of the bleak poetry of Clifton Adams: 

“The cold was gone and so were the hands holding him, along with everything else except the night's blackness. It closed in around him. Logan didn't mind at all. He welcomed the oblivion.” 

Reasoner’s prose also extends in the opposite direction, showing a flair for pure pulp action that rivals Spillane. 

“Logan aimed the Walker at the surviving guerrilla's face. Even though it didn't seem possible they could, the man's eyes bulged out even more as he opened his mouth to beg for his life. Logan pressed the trigger first, and the man's head exploded like a pumpkin dropped from a hayloft.”

But more than just masterfully crafted action, plot, and style, it is Reasoner’s characters that stick with you. Memorable and compelling, they’re each imbued with a touch of the human condition and Reasoner’s graceful empathy. With a writing career four decades long—and still going strong—Reasoner has more than earned his reputation as one of the western’s finest scribes.

***

Dancing With Dead Men is available as a paperback or as an ebook.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"The Axeman of Storyville" by Heath Lowrance


The Axeman of Storyville proves that you can take the man out of the west, but you can’t take the west out of the man.

Gideon Miles was one of the first black US Marshals, and around the turn of the century he doled out justice with his partner, Cash Laramie. Now it is 1921, Miles has holstered his guns, turned in his badge, gotten married, and started a jazz club in New Orleans. But when a serial killer begins hacking up prostitutes in the notorious Storyville district and the police refuse to help out, Miles comes out of retirement. A New Orleans gialloThe Axeman of Storyville is a blend of noir, western, and horror, set to a brassy jazz soundtrack.

The location may have changed, but the social injustices that were at the heart of Edmund A. Grainger’s original Cash and Miles are still very much a part of Heath Lowrance’s The Axeman of Storyville. Going back on the job requires Miles to come face to face with a prejudicial caste system that can’t be overcome by a fast draw or a hard fist. While inside his club he’s a man of high position and authority, on the outside he has to contend with a racist world that doesn’t respect him as a businessman or as a lawman. And more than just victims of sexual violence, Miles finds the women victims of a larger institutionalized misogyny that prevents them from leaving sex work and denies them police protection and medical attention.

The failed promises of the west—freedom, equality, justice—have followed Miles east, and they weigh down on his spirit far more than old age. His is a moral fatigue, of worn-out hurt and hope betrayed. He’s sick of the culture of ignorance and violence that he grew up in, that he couldn’t escape even in the farthest reaches of the desert, and that continues to fester wherever he may roam.

“The death of the west” is a long-popular theme, but Lowrance approaches it from an unusual and provocative angle—a man who has both outlived the west, and who has left the land and gone east. Seen in this light, The Axeman of Storyville could be called a post-western. More than just a shifting of geography, the whole narrative seems informed by the parent genre, and in its absence is a ghostly presence that haunts Miles down every alley.

Lowrance is a writer with a distinctive voice and a one-of-a-kind vision, and his fusion of noir and western continues to take both genres into new and exciting directions. I can’t wait to see what Lowrance has in store for us next.

***

Friday, May 23, 2014

"The Posthumous Man" by Jake Hinkson


“From the darkness, something stabbed my face.” And that something is life.

So begins Jake Hinkson’s The Posthumous Man, in which a man who killed himself is brought back to life in the emergency room. Elliot Stilling is given the rarest of opportunities in the noir universe—a second chance, which he screws up almost as soon as he is brought back to life. First mistake: falling under the rapturous spell of his nurse, Felicia Vogan. Second mistake: escaping from the hospital. Third mistake: accepting a ride in Felicia’s car—a ride that leads Elliot into a circle of thieves aiming to rob a truck carrying two millions dollars worth of Oxycodone. And now that he knows about the plan, it’s too late to back out now. 

As economical as it is electrifying, The Posthumous Man is a lean, mean, noir machine that evokes the stripped down Gold Medal paperback thrillers of the 1950s. In particular, Hinkson seems to be channeling the spirit of David Goodis and his brooding blend of melancholy and action, two qualities that would normally be at odds with one another, but in the world of noir they go hand in hand. But Hinkson is no copycat, and instead of Goodis’ gutter blues Hinkson sings of a spiritual crisis.

Elliot is a former preacher, and even though he claims to have given up on his old beliefs, the separation between old and new self isn’t so simple. “It had been almost two years since I had been brutally relieved of the impression that God was listening to me. But like a grown man crying for his mother, some part of me cried out for Jesus to help me.”

In Stan, the mastermind behind the drug heist, Elliot finds his counterpart, someone who is also trying to reconcile divine aspirations with human failure. But while Stan has embraced a life of crime—“Apostle Paul earned his glorious salvation by being the chief sinner. I figure to outdo him.”—Elliot hasn’t lost all faith. He may have resigned himself from ever finding redemption, but he does believe in the goodness of others, chiefly Felicia. For Elliot, the stakes of the robbery are higher than two mil: he’s putting his existential philosophy to the test, looking for some reason—and someone—to live for.

Hinkson’s meticulously sparse prose is tinged with moments of noir poetry, such when Stan tells Elliot, “you’re pouring yourself a long tall drink of misery,” or this Emily Dickinson-esque exchange when Stan and Elliot first meet:

“Elliot Stilling. That name sounds familiar. You somebody I heard of?”
“I’m nobody.”
“Nobody’s nobody.”
“Most people are nobody.”

A stunning novelist (Hell on Church Street) and astute critic (Noir City and Criminal Element), Jake Hinkson is a dangerous man—a dangerous man we can take great pleasure watching out for.

***

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"The Cutting Season" by Attica Locke

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I review Attica Locke's The Cutting Season as part of my column "The Criminal Kind."

Here's an excerpt:
"A labyrinth of intersecting histories and politics, The Cutting Season dexterously reveals its narrative threads in the best fashion of the genre: the ease of the storytelling belies the complexity and nuances of the story. When Inés Avalo, a migrant worker from a neighboring farm, is found murdered on the estate’s grounds, Belle Vie’s manager, Caren Gray, finds herself pulled into the investigation. The police suspect Donovan Isaacs, a young student who works part-time on the estate acting in historical recreation. The estate’s lawyer encourages Donovan to take a plea bargain for a lesser sentence, but Caren is convinced that he is innocent and that Belle Vie wants him to take the rap in order to cover something up. Looking into the dirt on Belle Vie, it turns out, also means dredging up her family’s own complex history with the land, including the unsolved disappearance of her great-great-great-grandfather, Jason, who had been a slave on the plantation prior to the Civil War and worked the land as a free man, but who vanished without a trace over a century ago.
The mysteries of The Cutting Season run much deeper than the identity of the murderer. Much of the book is concerned with who owns, and who is the author, of “history,” and Locke uses Caren Gray’s investigation as a means of scrutinizing the social record and public memory. The Cutting Season can be seen as part of a historical moment, along with Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, that reexamines not only America’s legacy of slavery, but also its cultural representation and misrepresentation. Unlike those movies, however, Locke doesn’t adopt a single interpretive strategy. Instead, there is a meta-consciousness to her book. She sees discrepancies as sites of meaning and insight — historical inaccuracy as a vehicle for understanding not only what certain parties want to see in the past, but also what they fear from it."

Read the full review here. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"North Beach Girl" (1960) and "Scandal on the Sand" (1964) by John Trinian




John Trinian is not your typical Gold Medal author, and North Beach Girl (1960) and Scandal on the Sand (1964) are not your typical Gold Medal paperback originals. Far from ordinary, these two titles are among the most unique and extraordinary Gold Medal originals I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. Once again, thanks must be given to the team at Stark House Books for rediscovering these should-be classics, and collecting them in new volume with three illuminating essays by historian Rick Ollerman, close friend Ki Longfellow, and daughter Belle Marko.

A radical blending of 1960s counterculture and noir sensibilities, Trinian’s novels evoke the West Coast spirit of the times with the doomy melancholy of Goodis. The plots vaguely touch on murder, but they're more like hangout books, with the characters drunk or stoned most of the time. Booze, drugs, and art flow freely through these pages—at times the inebriation is a pure high, at others it’s a hazy attempt to block out reality. But unlike something like Lawrence Block’s A Diet of Treacle, these books aren’t Beatnik-sploitation, or caricatures of the scene. Trinian, who was pals with Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, lived the lives he writes about. With each passing page, there’s an authenticity to North Beach Girl and Scandal on the Sand that can’t be faked—it gives the books their realism, but it also gives them their sadness. Trinian feels for his characters, their troubled pasts, their hazy futures, and their lost present.

Though at first glance, the title North Beach Girl might sound like some Frankie and Annette sandstorm, it is nothing of the sort. Erin, the main character, just quit her job as an artists’ model. She crashes as a garage paid for by another woman named Bruno, who runs a local art gallery. The gallery has attracted a local crew of beatniks, drunks, artists, wannabes and has-beens, including Riley, a painter who comes knocking on Erin’s door late one night, piss drunk, wanting to hire her as a model. Bruno, who obviously has some sort of affection for Erin, is resentful and jealous. Deep in debt and looking for a way out, Bruno wants Erin to borrow money from her dying grandmother in order to invest in a larger gallery space. And Erin, indecisive in life and love alike, hasn’t made up her mind what to do about anything.

“The bitter confusion of her life became magnified and it seemed to melt into a solid lump of nothingness. Why should she think about it? Life was wretched and disgusting. It was mean for the stupid idiots who could swallow its lies and shadowy promises. Only fools lived in peace. She thought of the cemetery where her mother was buried. Give and take, old ashes to even older ashes … have another drink and the hell with it. One negated the other.”

It’s as gloomy as any of Goodis’ gutter monologues, a pure mainline dose of 100% noir.

Trinian’s first line in North Beach Girl establishes the theme of entrapment that runs throughout the novel: “Erin covered herself with the pale green robe and sat on the empty packing crate by the narrow barred window.” From her workplace to the garage to the gallery to her grandmother’s house—and of course the variety of places where she goes to drink—Erin never has a place of her own. Always in between, borrowing, crashing, or killing time, she lives in a permanent state of impermanence. While she may be an anti-establishment figure of the time who has dropped out from mainstream society, Erin isn’t a romantic or idealistic character at all. She’s realistic as hell. Most of us have either known an Erin, or been like her (at least for a little bit). And that’s where the power of North Beach Girl is—in the characters. Unlike Riley who likes his “entertainment real simple,” where “the good guy wears a big white hat and the bad guy wears a black one,” Trinian writes ambiguous characters who are neither good nor bad, neither heroes or villains, nor even anti-heroes. They’re screwy people who drink too much and say stupid things and waste time and never seem to figure out what they’re supposed to do. And that’s why Trinian’s characters are among the most recognizably human—and modern—in all of the Gold Medal paperbacks.

Though sex, drugs and murder are very much a part of the story North Beach Girl, the novel isn’t plotted like your standard head-first-into-the-action thriller. Trinian takes his time, slowly developing the characters, their relationships, and their inebriated trajectories. North Beach Girl is structured like an extended bender, coming out of the haze for brief moments of recognition and sobriety, only to drive back into the fog once they see the bleakness of their circumstances.

“Hell,” Erin said softly, “people drink a lot.”

One aspect of Trinian’s writing that does remind me of Lawrence Block, and also anticipates the work of Ed Gorman, is the portrayal of alcohol and drugs. These aren’t people who drink to have fun, or get high to have a good time—they’re just sad wrecks of people. Trinian has great sympathy for them and their constant need substances—and he never pities them, perhaps because he was something like them, himself. As his daughter, Belle Marko, writes, “He was popular and unreliable, his own worst enemy in many ways, getting in his own way with self-sabotage and isolation, depression and bouts of rage and horrible remorse. He was plagued with demons …” One of the biggest clichés of noir literature is its senseless and unrealistic celebration of alcoholism. Trinian, on the other hand, hammers home the unpleasantness of what it really is like.

The second book in the anthology, Scandal on the Sand, also sounds like a Frankie and Annette movie, but it is even less like one than the preceding novel. It begins with a great, and totally surreal, first line:

“In the deep, in cold darkness, a hundred feet below he rocky cliffs and half-hidden among the fan fronds and greenly-waving fields of sea grass, the great gray whale hovered, his tail fins moving now and then to maintain his depth.”

The first couple pages are all from the whale’s point of view—an unorthodox narrative as exciting and it is insane, and yet Trinian pulls it off perfectly. The story is set into motion when the whale washes up on the beach, gets stuck, and can’t get back to the ocean.

An ensemble narrative like John D. MacDonald’s Cry Fast, Cry Hard, Scandal on the Sand follows a group of characters on a single afternoon that all come together because of the spectacle of the beached whale. There’s Karen and Hobart, a hookup from the night before that Karen resents and that Hobart thinks will lead to marriage. There’s Joe Bonniano, a wanted hitman whose picture is on the front page of the newspaper and who is hanging around for a delivery of money. Also near by is Mulford, a cop whose stupidity is matched by his ego and quick temper. Out for a stroll are Fredric, a one-time Hollywood star-turned-dope addict, and his wife, Becky; Riley, an ex-con tow truck driver; and even a sleaze photographer named Earle and his two bikini models. And overseeing all of this is Alex, a lifeguard too hungover to notice what is unfolding on his beach.

Scandal on the Sand is, in my eyes, an even greater accomplishment than North Beach Girl. Structuring the novel around the beached whale is just a magnificent, maverick concept that borders on the avant-garde. The whale functions as a unifying symbol for all the characters: a manifestation of their collective problems, disappointments, uncertainties, and pains. Confronting the whale brings out their true character—in some it reveals compassion, in others indifference, opportunism, and violence.

Like in North Beach Girl, Trinian’s characters are distinguished by their waywardness and uncertainty. In Scandal on the Sand, the action may be compressed into a single afternoon, but the characters experience years of life through their reveries and regrets. Unable to actualize any change in their lives, they’re stuck in a limbo consisting always of nights-before and nights-after-next; days are spent forgetting and planning, and rarely doing. Of Karen, Trinian writes, “She felt a terrible need to search for something, anything, inside or outside herself that would help erase the idiotic outcome of the night before.” Trinian also has Fredric ask his wife, “Becky, do you think that if I can manage it on pills today, pills alone, without anything else, that I’ll still be all right by this evening?” These aren’t characters living for the day so much as they’re struggling to just make it through. As Earle sums it up, “Sometimes I do good; sometimes I don’t. Beer one day, champagne the next. Up and down, and down and up. That’s life.”

Scandal on the Sand also has its moments of hardboiled noir philosophy, like this line that reads like something out of Richard Hallas’ You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up:

“What had Herb said? That Joe wouldn’t even break away from the post? That the odds weren’t in his favor? That was a laugh and a half. Joe had known that all along. Because that’s the way it had always been. Not matter what. Dice, roulette, poker, the horses. Everything always ended with a bust-out.”

North Beach Girl and Scandal on the Sand have whetted my appetite for Trinian, and convinced me that he is one of the true unheralded greats of the Gold Medal canon.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Elmore Leonard on Words and Writing


On Tuesday January 24, 2012, I had the great pleasure of seeing Elmore Leonard speak at the Center for Fiction here in New York City. These are some of Leonard's words of wisdom from one of the most extraordinary careers in writing.

"I don't write seriously. I always write having fun."

"[My style is] simple, declarative sentences telling a story ... I think."

"I write three pages to get one. I revise continually as I go."

"I don't want to appear smart. I want to tell a story."

On dialog: "Don't you hear people talking in your head? That's all it is. Use it."

"I never introduce or inject myself into the story. I'm nowhere to be found. I never use a word my characters wouldn't use."

"I don't like to write about weather."

"Verbs other than 'said' call attention to themselves. You're mucking it up with your 'ly' words."

"When I get to the last page, it is done."

"After 45 books I'm excited about the next one."
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