Showing posts with label Gold Medal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gold Medal. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Whisper His Sin" by Vin Packer (Gold Medal, 1954)


In Whisper His Sin, Vin Packer revisits the collegiate setting of her first novel, Spring Fire. Instead of following a young woman in an all-girls school, however, this time Packer writes about a young man in an all-boys school whose affair with his dormitory advisor leads to murder. But despite the similar setting and central relationship, Whisper His Sin is, in my opinion, even better than Spring Fire. Daring and innovatively structured, the novel is as beautiful as it is bleak. Each chapter begins with a snippet from a newspaper account of the crime, or an interview with someone who knew the boys, casting a mist of inevitable dread over every page. Even when things seem to be going so right for the boys, from the very first page we know just how badly things will end for them.

Whisper His Sin is loosely based on the real life Fredan-Wepman murder case, which was still a recent headline when the book came out. In this fictionalized version, the main character is Ferris Sullivan. When he was younger, Ferris was expelled from school for having relations with another boy. Since then, his mother has tried to make him “normal,” and to turn him away from poetry and fine clothes; his father, on the other hand, has just ignored him. Sent away to college, Ferris was hoping to find acceptance. Instead, he wound up sharing a dorm room with a bullying jazz-head and a muscle builder, neither of whom have any tolerance for their new roommate. Ferris’ only ally is the senior dorm advisor, Paul Lasher, whose attentions shelter Ferris as much as they single him out and bring him more shame.

On Christmas break, however, Paul introduces Ferris to a side of New York he had never seen before, and for the first time Ferris finds himself surrounded by other gay young men like himself. Happiness is short lived, however, as a bully from their past forces a confrontation that threatens to oust Ferris and Paul’s relationship, which would not only cause a school scandal, but bring both of their personal lives crashing down. And now that they’ve tasted just how sweet life can be, the lovers would give anything—or do anything—to keep their secret safe, and to stay together.

It is emblematic of Packer that her sympathy lies with the pariahs and the outsiders, those who live shadowy lives pretending to be someone else in order to survive. In this case, they are also murderers. Packer doesn’t pass judgment on her characters or their actions. She’s more interested in exploring how social oppression and sexual repression affect a person’s mental and emotional state.

Vin Packer’s books, when looked at as a whole, are like an alternate history of the 1950s. It was a decade that we now associate with conformity, but she was looking behind the curtains, exploring characters whom society wanted to forget about, those people who didn’t conform to the norm and strived to be individuals in a world that wouldn’t let them be who they wanted to be. As Ferris’ mother tells her son, “A man who can’t walk with other men, and walk like other men, is a misfit, and a misfit is never happy! Not ever!” A palpable fear of being different runs through many of Packer’s novels, and it is clearly pronounced in Whisper His Sin. Some six decades later, society has a come a long way, but we’re still facing a lot of the same issues, and it’s remarkable to look back and see someone writing so pointedly and honestly about these issues—and, most remarkably, getting them printed. Packer’s Gold Medal books are priceless gems of subversion and social commentary, and Whisper His Sin is a marvelous example of not only her politics and sympathy, but also her meticulous craft.

Gold Medal wanted to capitalize on the topicality of the story—the front cover even advertises, “How a strange and twilight love lighted the way to frenzied murder.” (Oddly enough, the front cover shows a man and woman—perhaps showing two men together might have been too racy?) Packer, however, is not interested in exploitation. She is, at heart, a humanist, concerned with getting into the hearts and minds of her characters, understanding them as real people, unlike the world that sees them only as miscreants and aberrations.

Though the plot might not seem like something out of Woolrich or Goodis, Packer’s characters share a similar mournfulness and despair, and they’d be at home in any of those more classic noir novels.

“Hope was dried up in him, leaving a vacancy he could fill with no other emotion. Not hate, not pity, certainly not love—not even fear. Only envy now, a thin thread of it, for the simplicity of the people around him, for what he was sure they had. Dull, uncomplicated lives, minds that did not have to think, and the ability to sleep.”

Packer also goes to lengths to show that her characters, while not justified in their actions, acted out of human fear and desperation.

“Should I live my life out in a state of abject misery and loneliness, just so strangers who don’t give a hoot about me won’t talk about me? Is that a life?”

And while much of the world considered their homosexuality a sign of mental illness, Packer made it clear that her characters were not insane, weird, or otherwise mentally disturbed.

“Lasher half fought the memory because of an insidious fear that there was something sick about him and Sullivan together like that. He had never been really innocent, he reflected. Sentimental, self-pitying, yes. Soft, and by nature more than a little depraved. But not ever diseased, or deranged to the point of despising innocence, to embrace despair.”

Another of Packer’s recurring themes is that her characters—pariahs, forsaken, and murderers alike—aren’t so abnormal and atypical as one would like to think. They’re in every big city, every small town, every school, and every home. In a way, Packer is able to sneak in an ounce of hope into her novel. Maybe one of her readers feels that he or she is different and that there’s no one out there like them, no one to understand them—as Packer’s novels show, they’re not alone, and that the problem isn’t with them so much as with a society that wouldn’t acknowledge or accept difference.

“I used to feel that way too. Then I shipped out a few times. My God, was I naïve! People all over the world are like me. No matter where I go, I’ll find my own kind. I’m not such a minority as I used to think!”

Vin Packer aired the dirty laundry of the 1950s, turned social norms inside out, and made private shames into public issues. There’s still something very refreshing about the honesty of her novels, and they hold up as not only insights into their time, but also well-crafted and entertaining crime novels.

Whisper His Sin is available from Stark House Press in a two-novel anthology that also includes The Evil Friendship.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"The Twisted Ones" by Vin Packer (Gold Medal, 1959)

A truly frightening psychological thriller on par with Jim Thompson, Vin Packer’s The Twisted Ones (1959) is written with cold desolation and unflinching violence. Structured as a triptych narrative about a sixteen-year-old rapist, a nineteen-year-old murderer, and an eight-year-old arsonist, it is a stark portrait of how three seemingly ordinary young people are driven to murder for reasons beyond even their own understanding. Though their crimes are monstrous, Packer doesn’t treat her characters as monsters, and she gets into their heads with chilling sympathy.

It is, on the whole, a complex and prismatic look at the social, sexual, psychological, and emotional conditions that can contribute to a crime. Some of the situations are ordinary—such as an aloof high-schooler still getting used to his father’s new, and much younger, wife, or an aging momma’s boy struggling for his own independence—while others are more extraordinary—such as an eight-year-old wunderkind with photographic memory winning thousands of dollars on a national game show. But what each of these stories share in common is a deep-seated fear of being different, an unshakeable sense of isolation and anxiety, and an inevitable sense of doom. The family situations, the loneliness, and the alienation felt by the characters seems so ordinary that to witness everything snowball into murder is profoundly disturbing. Packer manages to make her criminals as terrifying as they are identifiable.

Packer is mostly known for her daring and controversial subject matter, but she was also a highly skilled writer who deserves more praise for her formal experimentation. 5:45 to Suburbia unfolds on a series of March 6th birthdays that jumped back and forth between the 1920s and 1950s, while Whisper His Sin, The Girl on the Best Seller List, and The Evil Friendship preface each chapter with excerpts from fictionalized books, interviews, and newspaper accounts. The Twisted Ones is written in seven parts, each broken down into three individual narratives (one for each of the characters) that could almost stand alone as separate short stories, even though by the end characters in one story learn about characters in the others through the newspaper and television. The clean division of the chapters both mirrors the isolation felt by the characters, but it also speaks to the synchronicity of their traumas, as well as their shared social and personal problems. Though they feel alone, their issues aren’t only their own—they are problems that need to be faced by society as a whole, which is a recurring message throughout Packer’s novels.

The big question in The Twisted Ones is—how, as a society, do we even begin to make sense of these seemingly senseless crimes? It is one thing to commit murder to get someone’s money or property, or out of revenge—but what about when even the criminals don’t understand what they did? And how do we come to terms with the fact that they are so young? Youth violence continues to be a much talked-about topic in today’s news: a few years ago it was school shootings, and now it is bullying and suicide. Packer’s novel continues to be relevant some half a century later because she faces the complicated issues of youth violence head-on, examining it from multiple perspectives, and avoiding any reductive conclusions. It’s interesting to compare The Twisted Ones to portraits of youth violence in movies at the time, such as Rebel Without a Cause. As great as Nicholas Ray’s film was, Packer’s novel is far more disturbing, and it lacks the self-destructive glamour of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. There’s nothing romantic or alluring about the crimes in The Twisted Ones. The book still packs a bleak and unsettling punch, and like a lot of Packer’s novels, this one still has a lot to say to modern readers.

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Cover art by Robert Abbett

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Dark Intruder" by Vin Packer (Gold Medal, 1952)

Vin Packer’s first novel, the controversial hit Spring Fire (1952), is famous for being among the first paperback originals to explore issues of homosexuality in contemporary America (in this instance, on a college campus). For her second novel, Dark Intruder (also 1952), Packer chose an even more taboo topic: incest. But as in the case of Spring Fire, Packer isn’t really interested in exploiting the subject for sleaze appeal or shock value. Instead of judging her characters as freaks of nature or perverts, Packer sympathizes with them as social outcasts: people who either can’t or won’t conform to moral standards. Packer’s gift to readers is a great sensitivity for difference, a sociological and psychological insight into human behavior, and an understanding that what is typically labeled as “abnormal” might be more normal—and common—than many would care to admit.

Dark Intruder was published by Gold Medal in 1952. Set in the town of Hillsboro, VA, the novel centers on Jett Black, the 18-year-old daughter of wealthy horse breeder Blake Black. Since her mother died during childbirth, Jett has been the only female in her father’s life. As the father-daughter-lover boundaries get thorny, however, an accident leaves Blake crippled. Enter Luke Hetherington, a temporary manager to keep the ranch going until Blake can get back on his feet. At first, Jett is resentful of Luke’s authority on the ranch, but soon she finds herself increasingly attracted to him. As Blake’s chance of a full recovery becomes less and less likely, he becomes more possessive of all things around him, not only the ranch, but also his daughter. But Jett is no longer the compliant daughter she once was, and no matter what decision she makes, no one will walk away clean from this mess.

One of the things that Packer does well in Dark Intruder is to counter the “backwoods tramp” archetype. In a different setting, Jett could be like one of the young college girls in Spring Fire: naïve, confused, and full of feelings and urges she can’t control. Like the sorority girls in that first novel, Jett doesn’t sit well with the standard life-path that has been set out before her. Strong-willed and independent, she doesn’t want to go off to college—which would most likely culminate with her getting married and becoming a housewife. Instead, she models herself on her father, and wants to hold a position of social and economic power. In this sense, she reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck’s character in The Furies (based on the novel by Niven Bisch), another story of a father-daughter ranching dynasty with incestuous undertones. Ultimately, Packer doesn’t see Jett as just another myopic conception of a girl with “daddy issues”—her troubles go deeper than even she realizes. She’s a young girl who doesn’t fit in her with times or surroundings, and she acts out in the only way that seems natural to her.

Even though Dark Intruder ends with the restoration of conventional morality, just like with Spring Fire, Packer still manages to work in a lot of social criticism. Also like in Spring Fire, Packer’s representations of orthodox heterosexuality are subversive and disturbing. Jett’s first sexual encounter with Luke is particularly shocking in its violence. Packer describes Jett feeling as though “a knife of terror cut through her” when Luke touched her. The whole scene feels more like rape than love—an ironic, and complex, counterpoint to the relationship between Jett and her father. But even that bond wasn’t without its violence—their first kiss ends with him pushing her to the ground. Packer doesn’t endorse incest, but nor does she comply with standard hetero-normative partnerships, either. Her common concern with both relationships is the brutality that Jett must suffer at the hands of both men. Vin Packer was able to smartly subvert the titillating theme of the book and make some smart and progressive comments on contemporary gender politics.

While Dark Intruder might share some of the same themes of Spring Fire, it didn’t have quite the same emotional pull for me. There was something so recognizable—and surprisingly modern—about the characters in Spring Fire. Those adolescents seemed so much more relatable and realistic than anyone in the Dobie Gillis series. The confusions and crises faced by those characters were things that we all went through in our own way and in our own time. That sort of connection didn’t happen to me with Dark Intruder. Packer is such a skilled writer that I could sympathize with Jett, but only from a distance. Luke is, by necessity and design, little more than a store-window hunk—a hyper-masculine fantasy that Packer doesn’t in the least believe in. He’s there to fulfill a plot-function, not as an object of our sympathy. Blake, on the other hand, we understand a little more, but I don’t think we’re supposed to care about him, either. In his own way, he is just as misleading, confining, and corrupting an influence on Jett as anyone—or anything—else in the book.

Fifty-nine years later, Dark Intruder is still an interesting and worthwhile read. Its subversive politics and criticism of conventional gender norms make it stand out from other novels of the time, and singles out Vin Packer as one of the most perceptive and socially progressive writers of the Gold Medal lineup.

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Cover art by Amos Sewell

Monday, October 3, 2011

"Dead Dolls Don't Talk / Hunt the Killer / Too Hot to Hold" by Day Keene (Stark House, 2011)

Stark House Press returns with one of their strongest collections yet, a triple-header of 1950s noir from the incomparable Day Keene: Dead Dolls Don’t Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold. These are sweaty, grimy, relentless thrillers that capture Keene at his zenith—masterfully concocted plots, breakneck pacing, and some of the sleaziest characters you’ll find in 50s paperbacks.

The protagonists in these stories are all “average joes” —Keene’s stock-in-trade—whom fate, or coincidence, has thrown for a deadly loop, but none of them are entirely innocent. Keene’s characters are remarkably mature in their self-awareness. They know they’re philandering dirtbags and no-good heels, and they don’t pretend for a moment they’re any good. But that’s what makes them so sympathetic and, oddly enough, relatable. It’s easy to see how they’re lead down the path, and how they engineered their own doom. Coincidence and bad luck play a big role in each of the plots, but the majority of the blame likes squarely with the protagonists themselves: guys who want sex and booze so bad they’d screw up everything right with their lives just for one wild fling. We’ve all known someone like that, and that’s one of Day Keene’s formulas for success. Everyday people in everyday situations gone massively out-of-hand—our craziest dreams turned into living, breathing nightmares.

Dead Dolls Don’t Talk (Crest, 1959) follows a juror who learns the hard way what it means to find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Hours after returning a verdict of “guilty” in a murder case, Doc Hart wakes up next to the condemned man’s wife…dead wife. On the run and wanted for murder, Hart’s only friend is Gerta, the young woman from his shop whose affections he turned down in the past. Together, the two of them head to Mexico to unravel an increasingly complicated scheme that looks harder and harder to prove.

Hunt the Killer (1951, Avon)—my favorite of the bunch—is about a Florida smuggler, Charlie White, who is released from prison only to walk immediately back into the same trap that put him there. Only this time it’s not smuggling he’s wanted for, it’s murder. If only he could figure out the identity of his mysterious employer, Señor Peso, he’s sure he could prove himself innocent.

Too Hot to Hold (1959, Gold Medal) is about a dissatisfied husband whose dull life takes an unexpectedly exciting turn when he steps into a Manhattan cab one rainy morning. In the back seat is a suitcase filled with more money than he’s ever seen before. There’s no identification tag, so he’s takes it, and soon finds himself a mob target. Meanwhile, back at home things are headed for disaster as his nympho daughter threatens to make a scene if he doesn’t sleep with her, and his spiteful wife is on the warpath about his obtuse behavior.

If you’ve never checked out Keene before, this is the perfect place to start. Not only are all three books top of the line noir, but David Laurence Wilson’s meticulously researched introduction is a must read. Keene, whose real name was Gunard Hjertstedt, is one of those writers who didn’t leave too many clues about his own life behind him, and Wilson’s essay sheds light onto one of the author’s biggest mysteries—himself. Exquisite literary taste and impeccable scholarship make Stark House not only one of my favorite contemporary publishers, but also one of the most reliable out there today.

One thing you can always count on Day Keene for: killer openings. He knows how to hook a reader from line one like nobody else, and the beginning paragraphs to each of these three novels are some of his best. Take a look and if you like what you read, check out Stark House Press’ website for more information.

From Dead Dolls Don’t Talk:
“There was no boy and girl business about it. Both of them knew what they were doing. It was a thoroughly adult and sordid affair involving proven lewd and licentious conduct, resulting, so the State alleged, in murder:

"The man’s name was Harry L. Cotton. He had been a professional aerial crop duster. He was big. He was young. He had a way with women.”


From Hunt the Killer:
“It was hot. It was dark. The cell block smelled of men sleeping with dreams. Men without women for years. Of fear and despair and frustration. Night after night, alone. Three walls, a high window, iron bars. A hard, narrow cot—and you. With disinfectant replacing affection. A small squirrel in a big cage. Staring hot-eyed into the dark. Wanting a drink. Wanting a woman. Trying not to blow your top. Hysteria building up inside you.”

From Too Hot to Hold:
“Although his actual physical death didn’t take place until two days later, Mike Scaffidi began to die the moment he picked up a fare in front of Grand Central Station at exactly 9:25 on the morning of November 3, 1958.”

Sunday, May 29, 2011

50 Great Gold Medal Titles

Find a Gold Medal paperback. Look at the title. Chances are, you’ll probably want to read it. Doesn’t matter if you’re familiar with the author’s work, or even if you like them. Heck, even if you hated the last book you read by the author, one look at another title and you might think to give him or her a second chance.

Earlier in the spring, Eric Beetner published a terrific essay at the Mulholland Books blog called “Talking Titles” in which he discussed the history of noir titles, from Mickey Spillane to Jason Starr to his own novel, One Too Many Blows to the Head, co-authored with J.B. Kohl.

Beetner’s essay got me to thinking about my favorite titles. A lot of them—but not all—come from Gold Medal paperbacks. I didn’t merely want to repeat what Beetner did so well in his essay, so I decided to put my own spin on it. I went through all the Gold Medal titles listed at BookScans and picked out my 50 favorites. I won’t claim they are the best titles (I’m sure I missed some gems), nor will I claim that these are the best novels. I haven’t read most of them, so I have no idea if they are any good. Some are classics (Down There by David Goodis, Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson), some are forgotten gems by celebrated authors (Some Must Die by Gil Brewer), and some I had never heard of before. All the titles are arranged alphabetically by author.

So, without further ado, here are Pulp Serenade’s selection of 50 Great Gold Medal Titles. If you have favorites of your own, be sure to mention them in the comments section.

Meanwhile Back at the Morgue by Mike Avallone
Not I, Said the Vixen by Bill S. Ballinger
Seven Votes for Death by Pat Bannister
Satan Is a Woman by Gil Brewer
Some Must Die by Gil Brewer
Hell’s Our Destination by Gil Brewer
Lovely and Lethal by Frank Castle
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze
The Lady’s Not For Living by Dexter St. Clair
The Captain Must Die by Robert Colby
Make My Coffin Strong by William R. Cox
Case of the Nervous Nude by Jonathan Craig
I Came To Kill by Gordon Davis
The Lady Kills by Bruno Fischer
Second-Hand Nude by Bruno Fischer
Death and the Naked Lady by John Flagg
Down There by David Goodis
The Moon in the Gutter by David Goodis
The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis
Assassins Have Starry Eyes by Donald Hamilton
Jezebel in Crinoline by Homer Hatten
Horsemen From Hell by Homer Hatten
So I’m a Heel by Mike Heller
Red Runs the River by William Heuman
To Kiss, or Kill by Day Keene
Come Murder Me by James Kieran
Cry Hard, Cry Fast by John D. MacDonald
The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald
It’s Your Money—Come and Get It by Sidney Margolius
The Name of the Game Is Death by Dan J. Marlowe
The Raven is a Blood Red Bird by Dan J. Marlowe and William Odell
Killers are My Meat by Stephen Marlowe
Homicide Hussy by Atha McGuire
I’ll See You In Hell by John McPartland
Come Destroy Me by Vin Packer
The Evil That Men Do by Hugh Pentecost
Everybody Had a Gun by Richard S. Prather
Strip For Murder by Richard S. Prather
Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe
It’s My Funeral by Peter Rabe
Kill The Boss Good-by by Peter Rabe
Murder Me for Nickels by Peter Rabe
Let Them Eat Bullets by Howard Schoenfeld
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
Death Takes the Bus by Lionel White
Lament For a Virgin by Lionel White
Fires That Destroy by Harry Whittington
Don’t Speak to Strange Girls by Harry Whittington
Hill Girl by Charles Williams

A few words on the selections:

Some of the titles are simply salacious (Second-Hand Nude by Bruno Fischer), which is often enough. Others are deeply nihilistic (Hell’s Our Destination by Gil Brewer, or Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe). There’s also a sense of humor in some of them (Strip for Murder by Richard S. Prather, Meanwhile Back at the Morgue by Mike Avallone). Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has by Angel and Goodis’ The Moon in the Gutter have a poetic ring to them, while Day Keene’s To Kiss, or Kill almost seems like a pulpy evocation of Hamlet’s dilemma. There’s something melodic about Donald Hamilton’s Assassins Have Starry Eyes and Homer Hatten’s Jezebel in Crinoline, they roll nicely off the tongue and there’s an element of wordplay that is subtler than, say, Death and the Naked Lady by John Flagg. Harry Whittington even seems to be looking out for us readers, offering us the sage wisdom, Don't Speak to Strange Girls. (How many of Whittington's own protagonists could have been spared, had they heeded the author's advice?)

Many of the titles are blunt, but few are as economical as Hill Girl by Charles Williams. 8 letters and it tells you exactly what you want to know. Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson is, at first, strange, because there’s nothing sexy or alluring about that number—but there’s an inherent desolation that lures one in. Stephen Marlowe takes a comic spin on the hardboiled sensibility with Killers Are My Meat, and Lionel White’s Death Takes the Bus harkens back to the pulp days of yesteryear (I can almost imagine Fredric Brown using a title like that, but I doubt that White’s novel is anything close to Brown). Sidney Margolius’ It’s Your Money—Come and Get It, Vin Packer’s Come Destroy Me, and Peter Rabe’s Murder Me for Nickels outright provoke the reader, taunting them and making them implicit in the crimes contained within the pages.(Rabe’s also makes me wonder why he has such low self-esteem, why not Murder Me for Quarters, at least?). And is there anything more violently chilling than One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald?

Titles are tricky business. The best of them not only draw our eyes to the book, but also capture our imagination in their own way.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"The Captain Must Die" by Robert Colby (Gold Medal, 1959)

One of my favorite lines of dialogue from a movie—indeed, one of the most celebrated in all of film history—comes from Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game. “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.” Depending on the translation you watch, the wording might be a bit different, but the significance and emotional wallop of the line never diminishes. It’s a sage, subtle piece of wisdom from one of the greatest humanist filmmakers of all time. It doesn’t excuse our foibles, fumbles, or fuckups, nor does it legitimize the terrible things people do, whether deliberate or accidental. The line does, however, cue us in to Renoir’s worldview, which is as attuned to the most lovable and admirable qualities of his characters as it is to the deplorable aspects. As Charles Silver wrote in his outstanding essay on the film, "Renoir is, after all, the most tolerant and humane of all artists, and his central message is a forgiving one: that everyone has his own reasons for his behavior, no matter how foolish or selfish."

Shades of Renoir’s maxim can be found in Robert Colby’s The Captain Must Die. At the end of his rope and with his back against the wall, Brick, one of the novel's main characters, yells out, “We got our reasons.” It’s a last-chance effort to justify the actions of he and his two cohorts. In an act of self-preservation they broke the law. And now they have to pay for it.

Originally published in 1959 by Gold Medal, The Captain Must Die follows three ex-GIs recently released from prison with a lingering vendetta against their former captain. After they track him and his wife to Louisville, the trio plots their bloodthirsty plan to terrorize the captain and get revenge for the 12 years they spent behind bars.

This is one of the most original and most compelling of the Gold Medal books that I’ve read. Colby mixes a superb suspense story with a sophisticated structure that, despite its complexity, reads smoothly and compulsively. Colby fragments the narrative, switching between the perspectives of all five main characters, and moving back-and-forth between time over the course of a few tense days.

By telling the story from multiple viewpoints, Colby accentuates the anxiety, paranoia, and resentment at the heart of each of his characters. They’re burdened by life’s myriad disappointments—loveless relationships, unfaithful spouses, crappy jobs, having to settle for less, and a host of other letdowns and injustices. Even the three GIs, though they are technically a team, can’t trust each other one bit. Everyone—the captain and his wife included—is worn down by resentment and bitterness.

When Robert Colby writes, “You played against trouble, forgetting that trouble held aces, too. And wore a poker face of danger,” he evokes Robert Burns’ famous quotation, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry,” albeit with a hardboiled twist. Noir anti-heroes try to beat the house at its own games. That’s why they are “heroic.” Of course, they can never win, because the house always wins. That explains the “anti.”

Ed Gorman first recommended this book to me, and his review really captures the fury and spirit of the book: “If you want a feel for the real Fifties in the form of a grim caper novel, this is your book. It's tight, deftly plotted and one of those hardboiled novels that is genuinely tough without showing off. There's a sweaty post-war anger on every page.” It’s been said that noir is the flipside of the American dream, and The Captain Must Die is proof of that.

Madge, the captain’s wife, illuminates one of the main themes of the novel as she tries to justify to herself the mistakes she’s made in her life, and the unintentional cruel consequences that followed:
“Yet in this life which fled so quickly must there always be an excuse for every action labeled by frail human beings – ‘wrong?’…. It was not an argument that would stand up in open society. It would not hold up in a court of law. But it was honest.”
At times like this, Colby's writing comes across like poetry with guts.

Though he’s never achieved the fame of his fellow Gold Medalists, Colby had a fierce talent and a gift for words, and The Captain Must Die is a hell of a fine accomplishment.

For more information, check out Peter Enfantino's "Robert Colby – A Tribute" over at Mystery File.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Amos Flagg Rides Out" by Clay Randall (Clifton Adams) (Gold Medal, 1966)

Clay Randall’s Amos Flagg Rides Out was the third entry in the Amos Flagg series, following Lawman and High Gun. While there certain similarities with the earlier books—that same great mixture of Western humor, action, and suspense, as well as the same terrific core cast of characters—Rides Out doesn’t merely repeat the formula. From the start, it’s apparent that a number of things are beginning to change—and not necessarily to the sheriff's advantage—and it is up to Amos Flagg to get things back to normal.

Something’s afoot in Sangaree County. A mysterious Chinese worker that rode into town on the stagecoach has gotten himself involved in a murder, which has the town on the verge of mutating into a riotous lynch mob. Meanwhile, Amos Flagg’s once-loyal deputy, Evan R. Webb, is now running against him in the upcoming election. Also, Webb suddenly has both the political and financial backing of a local religious group. And hiding amongst this group are two suspicious individuals who seem to shy away whenever the Sheriff is near.

If that isn’t strange enough, Amos Flagg’s father—the notorious outlaw Gunner Flagg, who spent most of his life either in jail or eluding the law—is now his son’s only deputy.

Amos Flagg Rides Out is a much more involved and complex story than either of its predecessors. There are numerous intersecting subplots and a lot of shifting between different characters’ perspectives. Clay Randall makes it all seem so effortless, however, and despite the intricate structure the novel reads very clearly.

Rides Out is also a lot more political than either Lawman or High Gun. Much of the drama revolves around issues of the separation of church and state (or the lack thereof), campaign funding, lobbyists, and false political promises. These are issues that are just as relevant today as they were back then. (Ed Gorman does a terrific job writing about some of these issues in modern politics with his Dev Conrad series.) Clay Randall also discusses the mob mentality, and racial and gender prejudices, in American society. Liz Caroline, local saloon owner and Amos Flagg’s paramour, says it best:
“Some folks don’t need a reason to hate. They do it as natural as breathin’…You ask a saloon girl about it sometime. Of course, we usually get it from the ladies of the town, and from ones like Genthe, but I guess we know nearly as much about that kind of hate as Ah Chee does.”
While I was disappointed that Amos Flagg’s cat, El Cazador, didn’t play as a strong a role in this book, one character I was glad to see get a much more prominent role is Amos’ father, Gunner. He’s changed a lot since his first appearance in Lawman, when he was fresh out of prison and on his way to Sangaree to rob the local bank. In High Gun, Gunner was a kindler, gentler outlaw, but his scheming mind was still thinking along crooked lines. Now, in Rides Out, he seems to have genuinely reformed and is trying to repair his relationship with his son (without making it too obvious).
“The old man heaved a long, silent sigh. He could no more erase a misspent lifetime than Amos could forget it. From time to time the old bitterness would boil over. Gunner accepted it. That was one advantage to age—learning to accept fact.”
On the surface he still plays the hardcase, the ex-con with nothing but contempt for law and civilized society. But when his son needs help, Gunner steps up. Amos, however, isn’t so quick to forgive and forget. The father-son conflict is very subtly written, and one of the most effective and compassionate parts of the Amos Flagg saga.

All in all, another terrific Gold Medal Western from Clay Randall (aka Clifton Adams), who is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. Great stories, strong characters, swift pacing, with nice doses of action and humor – the guy knew how to write a damned good book.

Monday, February 28, 2011

"Horsemen From Hell" by Homer Hatten (Gold Medal, 1955)

Horsemen From Hell has two volume settings: eleven and three. Homer Hatten’s style shifts between being fierce and intense at full blast to tedious and monotonous. It makes for an uneven book, but with occasionally inspired moments.

The book opens with Melissa McCutcheon stepping off the riverboat at a small, portside town on the Mississippi where she hopes to secure passage up north to Springfield. Her husband is a fugitive on the run, and she wants to track him down. The first few chapters are written with vivid details of decay and violence: a muddy wasteland with dilapidated houses whose roofs and walls are collapsing inward. Within seconds of entering the local saloon/hotel, Melissa is under attack from its crazed, libido-frenzied owner. Clothes are torn and tables are crashed. She throws boiling grease on his face, and sets his clothes on fire.

It’s one hell of an opening—savage, exciting, and atmospheric. Like Dudley Dean, Homer Hatten delights in putting his characters through intense physical punishment. As one character thinks in the midst of a fight, “There was nothing real except the brutally swinging boot.”

The next chapter is equally violent. Melissa hides in the attic while Burr Keltin and his Swampers duke it out in the saloon with Dale Mallonee and his band of Cherokees. Dale comes to Melissa’s rescue, and agrees to oversee her trip to Springfield, where he is looking for his former business partner who ran off with all his money. Needless to say, Dale’s partner will do anything to prevent Dale from reaching Springfield…

After a great opening, the plot tones down considerably. Melissa and Dale’s searches are, of course, linked, and Homer Hatten takes way too long setting up the context necessary for the final showdown atop an icy cliff during a storm. It’s well worth it to get to the end, when the action and atmosphere get kicked back up to 11, but it’s a long slog through exposition to get there. Even Hatten seems to get lost—Dale is absent for most of the story, and his “horsemen from hell” barely play any role in the story.

Most of the characters are one-dimensional, but at least Hatten shows us a different and refreshing dimension. The female characters defy the clichéd dichotomy of virgin/whore. Melissa is not so different from Charlotte Sherwood, the presumed “wife” of Dale’s adversary: they’re both intelligent, strong-willed women who fled the oppressive, restrictive morality of their homes. Proto femme fatales, they realize the men around them are easily manipulated by sex, and they’re not afraid to use it to further themselves. What makes them feel modern is that Hatten doesn’t villainize them for their sexuality or the way they use it.

Horsemen From Hell was published in 1955, one year after its author, Homer Hatten, committed suicide. His obituary stated that he had two novels left unfinished. I’m uncertain if Horsemen From Hell was one of them, but the novel’s inconsistent tone and sloppy structure makes me wonder if perhaps Hatten had intended to do more work on this novel, or if another unaccredited writer hastily completed the book from Hatten’s notes. I haven’t read other books by Hatten, so I can’t comment on whether it is stylistically consistent with his other Gold Medal Westerns. I just received Conquest and Westport Landing, so I will report back soon with more details. As it stands, Horsemen From Hell is a Gold Medal curiosity from an author deserving of more attention.

Some quotes I liked from the book:

“Her world had shrunk into a tight little circle that contained nothing except her aching body and a filthy gag that choked her when she tried to breathe and a tight-pulled rope that had long since rubbed the flesh away from her ankles so that now they were raw and tender and burned like fire.”

“Good whisky’ll put a man on his horse and drive a woman outta her petticoats.”

“For Mallonee, it was a nightmare, a furious, deadly madness of desperation, this clawing for a finger hold on the icy edge of a precipice.”

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Cover art by Frank McCarthy

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Wagon Train Woman" by Alan Henry (Gold Medal, 1953)

What is an unarmed, unmarried, and flat broke woman to do when she’s abandoned along a wagon trail? Alan Henry’s Wagon Train Woman (Gold Medal, 1953) starts with a promising premise, but it doesn’t take long for the book to run out of steam.

Bethenia Saunders was on her way to California with her lover when he came down with cholera. Their wagon train abandoned the couple and continued westward without them. Along comes Eban Clark, another would-be prospector who brings Beth back to his group of travelers. Eban and his band are torn: some want to kick her out, while others (Eban included) begin fighting amongst themselves over possession of her. As the group threatens to break apart, their dreams of striking rich in California seem further away than ever.

The narrative of Wagon Train Woman feels stunted. Most of the plot revolves around a few characters arguing about what to do with Beth, rather than doing anything about it. And when she finally takes initiative and runs away, they bring her back and start arguing all over again. It’s boring, repetitive, and strangely confusing to read. Even though there are only a few characters, it is hard to keep track of who is doing what and why.

Devoid of the physical details that make the journey believable, and it’s easy to forget that these are gold prospectors crossing a desert. Geographically, it’s not only non-descript, but seemingly invisible—it’s hard to ever picture exactly where any of the story is going on. There’s not much action, and the one-dimensional characters lack enough credibility to be either likable or sympathetic.

Wagon Train Woman also seems to miss one of the profound themes of The Western. A great irony of The Western is that despite the freedom and opportunity promised by the open landscape, the characters in the stories often have no choice when it comes to their actions. Moral conviction, past experience, and fight-or-flight scenarios dictate the Western protagonist’s decisions. Ultimately, it is futile to figure out what drives the characters in Wagon Train Woman: they all lack either credible or logical motivation.

All in all, Wagon Train Woman is a rather dull read. It’s unfortunate, too, because I like the idea of exploring the challenges that face a female character alone on the Western frontier, and the different options she was left with. The author doesn’t seem to know what to do with this premise, however, and reverts to focusing on the male protagonists who treat her like property. Once in a while she speaks up and says that she’ll make up her own mind about what to do – only she never does. It also seems that neither did Alan Henry.

Looking on the positive side, there were a few good lines:

“A man was left with a fury around him and a fury in himself, drawn to a woman like Beth whose kind already scarred him.”

“Beth’s fists were small but her knuckles were cruel and sharp, tearing across Eban’s cheek. Then abruptly she drew away, leaving Eban with a searing memory of the heat that was in her.”

“Always a man ran, and it seemed whatever direction he took, he wound up in the same place, or worse. He ran hardest when he was never as sure that only fool’s legs carried him.”

Friday, January 7, 2011

"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, December 23, 2010

"Stop This Man!" by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1955; Hard Case Crime, 2009)

Originally published in 1955, Stop This Man! was Peter Rabe’s first crime novel. It’s also more in line with certain genre conventions than his later novels (such as the previously reviewed Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep). The story is about Tony Catell who just pulled off a beautiful job heisting gold from a laboratory. Unfortunately, the gold had already been exposed to nuclear radiation. Still determined to sell it, Catell sets off on a cross-country journey to California, leaving a trail of corpses rotten with radiation. All the FBI has to do is follow the bodies to get to Catell – but can they reach him before it is too late?

Despite a strong, fast opening, the novel hits some speed bumps after Catell hits the road. Switching perspectives between Catell and the feds on his trail muddles the plot and seems unnecessary. One of the strengths of Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep were their mega-streamlined plots. This is not the case with Stop This Man! Particularly in the second half of the novel, Rabe becomes increasingly interested in digressing from the plot, focusing less on the catch-me-if-you-can with the FBI and more on Catell’s reluctant involvement with California gangsters. It seems as though even he got tired of the hot-topic cat-and-mouse chase formula and wanted to write something different.

While the plot is less focused than Rabe’s later books, there’s a mercurial drive that redeems Stop This Man! The characters act unpredictably, and their detours are frequently more interesting than their final destination. There are some wonderful turns of phrases, vivid descriptions of radiation nausea, and some particularly colorful characters (my favorite: “A shrill-looking whore was eating a doughnut that left sugar grains sticking to her lipstick”). These are the qualities that would come to define Rabe, and you can see seeds of their development even in this early novel.

Stop this Man! was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in August 2009.

Some quotes from the novel:

“Catell reached forward, lunging and the world jarred with a screeching searing flame of red that weaved, burst, and then sank sharply into itself, leaving nothing but a total dead black.”

“In the first instant of seeing, of knowing, Catell heard the terrible sounds of everything that breaks, bursts, and rips apart beyond repair, and the mad turning of all that moves, speeds, dashes about for a while, turning like a giant wheel, around, around. Then the wheel stopped.”

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Cover Art by Robert McGinnis

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Kill the Boss Good-By" by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1956; Black Lizard, 1988)

No one writes gangster novels like Peter Rabe. His lean, precise phrasing belies the rich characterization, political insight, and frequent humor of his prose. Rabe also has the unusual capacity to be bleakly cynical, darkly funny, and starkly violent, all at the same time. Kill the Boss Good-By is all of these, as well as a very entertaining crime thriller.

Kill the Boss Good-By, originally published by Gold Medal in 1956 and reprinted by Black Lizard in 1988, is an unpredictable whirlwind of vice, corruption, psychopathy, and horseracing. Thomas Fell is the boss, but when he goes missing, his underling Pander decides to make some big changes in the operation. Pander stops paying off the local officials, he allows some of the bookmaking offices to get raided by the cops, and he runs out some of the old timers and brings in a new crew. When Fell returns from his mysterious sojourn, he is crazier than ever, and determined to reclaim his territory at any cost. Meanwhile, The Combine in Los Angeles watches over them, waiting to see which man wins, and which man dies.

Despite having different characters, Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep are close siblings. Both were published in 1956 and are concerned with the corrupt, concentric worlds of politics, big business, and the mob. The two books also proceed with the grim determination of their main characters, and their mental states set the pace for the stories. Here you can see Rabe’s background in psychology showing through. In Dig My Grave Deep, Rabe writes with calculated resolution because his protagonist, Daniel Port, isn’t the type to act hastily. In Kill the Boss Good-By, Thomas Fell is a lunatic who is recovering from a mental breakdown, so Rabe invests the narrative with Fell’s amplified irrationality. Erratic and volatile, Fell acts with increasing mania. Giving away clothes, early morning trips to the racetrack, sudden violence, and appearing totally oblivious in conversations, Rabe perfectly nails Fell’s psychological deterioration.

Bill Crider has commented that, “Rabe’s character names are always worth a second look.” Rabe clearly has fun with his characters in Kill the Boss Good-By. Take a look at this line and you’ll see what I mean – “I can’t lose,” said Fell. With a name like Fell, how can he not lose? And Pander is the perfect designation for a weasel trying to impress the higher-ups.

Kill the Boss Good-By stands apart from other crime novels written around the same time (at least the ones that I’ve read). Rabe is a true original, and he brings innovation and an inimitable voice to the book. Not only is there no hero, there isn’t even an anti-hero. We watch Fell with curiosity, amusement, and even a slight detachment. He’s wholly compelling, but not really sympathetic. We root for him because Pander is despicable, stupid, and greedy, but Fell is only slightly better. Fell’s increasing psychosis makes him all the more dangerous, and is impending downfall is unmistakable.

As is tradition on Pulp Serenade, here are two small quotes from the book that I particularly liked:

“You saw me throw out that cigarette. That’s the cure; you don’t care one way or the other.”

“You see a boxer with a beautiful nose and you got a fighter without heart.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Dig My Grave Deep" by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1956; Black Lizard, 1988)

Peter Rabe’s Dig My Grave Deep is a hard-hitting story of political corruption. Gangsters, businessmen and politicians are indistinguishable from one another, and law and order are just signs that corruption is going smoothly. And the closest thing to a hero is a disillusioned mobster whose chief – and perhaps only remaining – virtues are that he doesn’t lie and that he can see the whole crooked charade for what it really is. But in a deceitful world of double-crossers, profiteers, and opportunists, an honest criminal is a rare friend, indeed. One worth killing, and maybe dying, for.

Daniel Port is a gangster who wants to get out of the rackets while he’s still alive. Max Stoker, his boss and slumlord politico, isn’t happy with the decision. Neither is Stoker’s political rival – Bellamy – who will do anything to get Port on his side to help crush Stoker and gain control of the territory. But Port isn’t one to sell out his friends so easily, so he decides to do Stoker one last favor and take care of Bellamy and his goons. Just one last job, and he’s out – if he can survive.

When he was at his best, Peter Rabe was one of the most distinctive and starkly original paperback writers of his generation. He writes with the same cool and calculated determination of his main character, Daniel Port. You think you know what Gold Medal books are like, then you come across something like Dig My Grave Deep and it throws you for a tailspin. There is none of the fevered impulses of Jim Thompson or Harry Whittington, none of the poetic melancholia of David Goodis, none of the sex fantasies-turned-nightmares of Gil Brewer. Rabe is a world away from all of that, and his characters occupy a world less driven by libido than it is by rational intellect.

As a character, Port is, above all things, smart. And not just street smarts, either. He has a deep, cynical understanding of business and politics and the fraudulent façade that masks a world as dishonest and criminal as any underworld organization. What makes him valuable to Stoker and Bellamy isn’t just the backdoor dirt he has on everyone, but that he thinks strategically. Stoker is smart, but he’s also quick to jump to the wrong conclusion. Port instinctively sees plots and counterplots where others see the easy, wrong answers.

Like Port, Rabe has the ability to see through bureaucratic pomp and circumstance. Dig My Grave Deep is a political story that could take place in any arena – banks, government chambers, or business offices of any variety. You don’t have to look too far beneath the surface of Port’s story to see that Rabe is writing about capitalism as much as crime – though, for Rabe, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two.

This passage captures Rabe’s jaded but perceptive worldview. The cyclical pattern he describes is almost existential.
“I want out because I learned all there was: there’s a deal, and a deal to match that one, and the next day the same thing and the same faces and you spit at one guy and tip your hat to another, because one belongs here and the other one over there, and hell, don’t upset the organization whatever you do, because we all got to stick together so we don’t get the shaft from some unexpected source. Right, Max? Hang together because it’s too scary to hang alone. Well? Did I say something new? Something I didn’t tell you before?”
Think about that the next time you’re sick and tired of office drudgery.

Before I make this sound too depressing, let me quote Bill Crider’s review from Mystery File: “What is unexpected in the book is its humor, of both the tongue-in-cheek variety (Rabe’s character names are always worth a second look) and off-the-wall variety (Port’s bodyguard is involved in several hilarious incidents).” I couldn’t agree more – especially about the “off-the-wall” variety, as some fight scenes have a wonderful slapstick edge to them. And there’s even something humorous about the political element to the story. Port seems to accept everything that is going on, and makes no attempt to stop corruption. In fact, he has no real problem with aiding the corruption – he’s just particular about who is in power and how contemptible they are. Better some crooks than others, seems to be Port’s view.

Dig My Grave Deep was originally published by Gold Medal in 1956. It was reprinted by Black Lizard in 1988, which is the edition that I read. It is, once again, out of print, but used copies of the Black Lizard edition aren’t too hard to find online.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"The Sharpshooter" by Ed Gorman (Gold Medal, 1994)

James Reasoner once told me that Ed Gorman’s Westerns were even darker than his crime novels. After reading The Sharpshooter, I’d have to agree. I’d also have to add that The Sharpshooter is one of his best (along with his latest Dev Conrad novel, Stranglehold). It is distinguished by Gorman’s trademark excellence: sage but humble wisdom, tragically empathetic characters, and impeccable storytelling.

Mitch Coldwell is tormented as only a noir protagonist can be. A washed-up trick shooter who tries to wash away a lifetime of sorrow with booze, no one in town takes kindly to him. Except for Evelyn, a local nurse who can look beyond the inebriation and see the human Mitch once was, and could be again. But then local tycoon Jeremiah Belden’s son is killed, and Jeremiah puts the blame on Evelyn. Soon she goes missing, and Mitch is the only one in town who suspects foul play. Can he put himself back together enough to save the missing woman?

Before I make it sound too depressing, one of Gorman’s gifts is his of humor. Whether it is Mitch vomiting on neighbors or trying to willfully wet himself in the back of a carriage, Gorman’s comic sensibility is utterly human, and you can find in these light-hearted moments the same perceptive and knowing qualities as you could in the book’s darkest scenes.

Amidst all the bleakness, Gorman is able to create these magical, spontaneous moments of warmth between two characters. The characters could have known each other for lifetimes or for minutes, but these brief feelings of human attachment and connection stand out as one of the most significant aspects of Gorman’s work. Evelyn’s kind words to the town rummy on a bench; John, Mitch’s colleague in the show, who stood by during the best and worst of times, and is willing to be there for the worse that’s yet to come; Sonia, Evelyn’s co-worker, who learns to look beyond Mitch’s boozing; and even a corrupt employee’s moment of honesty – these scenes, however fleeting, overpower all the moments alienation and self-loathing that occur in the story.

One of the aspects of Gorman’s writing that I find continually rewarding is his modest but unerringly articulate style. The clarity of his expression, the sleekness of his plotting, and the openness of his narration makes The Sharpshooter all the more powerful.

Picking just a few of my favorite lines of this book is no easy task – but I’ll give it a shot.

“So, you see, there are all kinds of reasons why people that dislike other people. The only thing you can worry about is if you’re good to the people who care about you. Nobody else matters, the way I see it.”

“No, there was no way I’d ever blame her for what she’d done. She’d just been trying to survive the best way she knew how. Sometimes that’s all a person can do.”

“The men, being men, tended to end up in liveries, blacksmith shops, feed stores, and, of course, saloons, where they promised their wives they’d be 'only for a beer or two,' but then started doing the kind of serious drinking that middle-aged men do to push back the grave momentarily and feel young again. It’s not much different than their wives looking in dress shop windows.”
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