Joe Denton, a bad cop fresh out of prison, never has the chance to even try to go straight. His wrecked life is waiting for him in the persons of Sheriff Dan Pleasant (a former partner in crime) and District Attorney Phil Coakley (the victim of the attempted murder that put Joe in prison). Phil is on the verge of having evidence that will put Dan and Joe in prison for a long stretch, so Dan works to force Joe to solve this problem by whatever means necessary. There is no shortage of plot in Small Crimes, but the narrative is driven moreso by the characters. Sheriff Dan and D.A. Phil are no mysteries, but Joe is a more challenging personality to understand, as are several of the supporting characters in the book: Joe's parents; dying crime boss Manny Vassey; and, most of all, Charlotte Boyd, a nurse in the hospital where Manny is dying. Grade: B+
In one type of Gold Medal PBO, the protagonist finds himself plunged into a crime-driven crisis: Perhaps he is accused of a crime that he did not commit, or perhaps he chooses to participate in a seemingly harmless crime that goes horribly wrong, or perhaps there is some other scenario involving crime and the protagonist's life spiraling out of control. In any case, such plots can make for compelling reading, as Charles Williams and his Gold Medal stablemates showed over and over again (for Williams, see A Touch of Death and Hell Hath No Fury). But Go Home, Stranger deviates from this general formula in a crucial way: It is not the protagonist, Pete Reno, who is caught up in a crime; rather, it is his sister, and she stays off stage for virtually the entire book while Pete runs around playing amateur detective and trying to prove her innocence. The result is remarkably bland; instead of a character desperately trying to extricate himself from a nightmare, we have a character trying to solve a puzzle that does not involve him, which is not nearly as interesting, even if someone is trying to kill him to prevent him from discovering the truth. Grade: C
Jack Cox, an American expatriate living in Tijuana, is a man without a country, but if he will murder political militant Bruno Lazar, he will be given a fresh start: $50,000 and citizenship in a new country. Wade Miller keeps Cox's past misdeeds vague enough so that he can emerge as a sort of Everyman as hired assassin. What we see of Jack we like, and we root for him to succeed--though it is unclear whether that means killing his target or walking away without even making the attempt. There are, of course, a pair of women in the mix, the most important being Dorlisa Weber, who is working to protect Lazar while Cox is working to romance her and gain her confidence so that he may defeat her. Well worth seeking out. Grade: B+
One of my interests is Japanese noir, though I occasionally find these novels tough going due to the sometime inscrutability of Japanese culture. To help make these things more scrutable, I try to mix in a few nonfiction works on Japan, and I have just read a really great one: Mark D. West's Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, Statutes (2005). Using methods largely from economics, West examines the intersections between laws and social norms as they affect Japanese culture in seven areas, including the management of sumo wresting and the handling of karaoke noise complaints. Probably the most noirish chapters are those dealing with love hotels and debt-suicides. Academic but highly accessible. Witty, too.
The plots of Daniel Woodrell's "country noirs" have a purposeful aimlessness to them. Woodrell strives not for the tightly plotted crime thriller of some imaginary Noir World but for the meandering reality of the an actual place--the Ozarks--where shit sometimes happens along the way. Thus, the uncomfortable pleasure of a Woodrell novel is simply immersing yourself in his characters and their place and their language. If drama happens, so much the better. In Tomato Red, we see through the eyes of Sammy Barlach, a surprisingly articulate many-time loser with remarkable powers of introspection and self-knowledge. Sammy's voice, in its inexplicable power, reminded me of Huck Finn, though Huck's voice is more consistent and ultimately more believable than Sammy's. Beyond this, Sammy is no Huck. Sammy is older and far more damaged than Huck, and whereas Huck flees civilization, Sammy seeks it--he wants a family, a community that will have him. In the world of noir, though, lighting out for the territory may be a better option. Grade: B-
While reading James McKimmey's Winner Take All, I formulated David's Law of Noir Absurdities: Absurdities are justifiable only in the service of a memorable plot that could not be executed without them. McKimmey's novel certainly begins absurdly: Our hero, Mark Steele, is minding his own business when a long-lost twin brother appears on his doorstep. Steele is streetwise and down on his luck. The long-lost twin is rich and not so tough, and he has a proposition for Steele. It seems that the rich twin has a $100,000 gambling debt, and, due to his lack of toughness, he would like to pay Steele to impersonate him and deal with the underworld types who want their money. (The proposition is slightly more complicated than this . . . but you get the basic idea.) So, I granted McKimmey his absurdities of premise, and I hoped to be rewarded with something memorable, but Winner Take All ultimately disappointed. There was one nice twist along the way, but in the end the book did not justify its absurdities and sank under its own artifice. Grade: C+
Beyond its regrettably dated title, Devil in Dungarees is an excellent PBO. In particular, I was pleasantly surprised by its wandering third-person point of view. The novel begins with its focus on Walt Bonner, a good cop gone bad who is helping a gang of thieves to rob a bank. Having read more than a few books like this, I thought I could see the formula that was coming: Marvin H. Albert would soon show me the cruel events that had led Bonner to this desperate moment, and the narrative would expect me to feel sympathy for him and maybe even root for him. This assumed, however, that the third-person narrative would follow only Bonner. In this, I was wrong. After only a few pages, Bonner temporarily exited the stage, and the novel made its first shift to another third-person POV. Albert had me on my toes, and he kept me there for most of the novel. I do not mean to imply that Devil in Dungarees attempts anything innovative or daring in its narrative structure. Rather, I note that Albert made enough interesting (and sometimes dark) narrative choices to win me over. This one may not be at the top of the genre, but it is well above most of the heap. Grade: A-
His eyes were dimming crescents, straining upward into the starrednight sky, as if trying to make out, to visualize, some phantom face that no one elsecould see. And what is love anyway but theunattainable, the reaching out toward an illusion?
It may have taken me longer to finish The Fast Buck than any other Gold Medal novel I have read. The problem is that, for at least the first half of the book, Bruno Fischer's plot keeps resetting itself--every time events seem to be leading somewhere, things more or less start over. As a result, I never felt much compelled to pick up the book and read (or to read for very long once I had picked it up). The novel is narrated by Bert Peake, a somewhat likable lifelong hood (with time out for service in WWII) who wants to make some fast money and then maybe play life straight. He goes begging for work at the door of Ted Lumm, a childhood friend who is now a major player in organized crime. Lumm may or may not or may or may not have someone for Bert to kill, but he definitely has a memorable femme fatale, Lorraine Callender, to throw in Bert's path. The climax of the novel, when it finally does come, is not very climactic. My advice is to skip this one. Grade: C-
Ostensibly a lawyer, he maintained a luxurious Hollywood office. He even kept office hours. But he hadn't appeared in a courtroom for years. He didn't have to. He knew where too many bodies, male and female, had spent their lost weekends. His was a nasty business but he never had trouble with his conscience. He had none.
Acceptable, though not memorable. Private detective Lee Baron moves home to Florida to take over his recently deceased father's one-man detective business. Almost immediately he is hired by an old flame, Ivor Hendrix, who has become fearful of her husband. Lee seeks out the husband and instead finds an armless body, and things escalate from there--plot elements include a bank robbery, a thug with a head the size of a watermelon, and Ivor's nymphomaniacal sister. The plot meanders a bit as Lee wanders among a cluster of locales in the Tampa Bay area, trying to figure out what's going on. Characters are a bit thin even for this genre, but Brewer keeps things moving and hopes that you don't notice too much. Worth reading, but not if you haven't read A Killer Is Loose or The Brat or The Red Scarf. Grade: C+
Day Keene's first novel. Has Hollywood screenwriter Robert Stanton been framed for murder? He is accused of killing a woman he claims he never met to cover up fathering a child with a woman he claims has never met, but there is compelling evidence that he is lying on both counts. Will he be able to prove his innocence? A little bit of noir, a little bit of procedural, a little bit of whodunit, and a whole lot of cheese. Grade: D+
I have seen one reader describe this novel as "gun porn," and I understand why: In Gun Work, a kidnapping-cum-revenge novel, David J. Schow describes a seemingly endless array of firearms with the sort of detail and enthusiasm usually reserved for desciptions of the female body in bad sex writing. Nevertheless, I found myself fascinated (and more than a little creeped out) by these guns and the men who love them so damn much. Schow's writing helped a lot: He has an elegantly dense hard-boiled style, and his action scenes are among the clearest and most vivid that I have read. But my enthusiasm for this book is in part due to its novelty to me: If I should encounter "gun porn" a second time, I susepct that I will find it fairly tedious. Grade: B+
In the genre of noir sociopathique, drama commonly comes from two sources: the cat-and-mouse game between the law and the sociopath and/or the uneasy excitement that the reader may feel in vicariously participating in sociopathic behavior (and in wondering who the next victim will be). Neither of these, however, is much of a factor in The Disassembled Man. There is a lawman, yes, but he stays pretty much in the background, and the crimes of our sociopath, Frankie Avicious, are about as dramatic as the action of the buzzsaw. The focus of the plot, therefore, is mainly on watching Frankie deteriorate--but as the narrative becomes increasingly outrageous and surrealistic, readers may lose interest in Frankie as they become increasingly unsure how reliable his first-person narrative is. Beyond this, some readers may enjoy the novel as black comedy, especially in the aggressiveness of its metaphors, as in, "My throat got as dry and tight as a frigid virgin in bed with a bald insurance man," or, "I cried like a teenage prom-queen runner-up cutting red onions after burying her dog in the backyard." For me, though, a little of this goes a long way. Grade: C
Tate Morgan is a many-time loser who has long relied on his brother Sam to get him out of tight spots. In The Bitch, Tate faces his tightest spot of all after he betrays Sam's trust and helps to plot a robbery that goes horribly wrong. This novel resembles what I call Everyman noir, in which the main character is typically an ordinary, likable guy who, desperate for money, sets out to commit what seems a harmless crime (but then noir ensues). The Bitch is interesting novel of this type because Tate is an unusually unsympathetic protagonist. (As a title, The Bitch is just a gimmick to sell books--much more accurate would be to call it The Asshole.) Gil Brewer sets himself quite a challenge in trying to make readers care what happens to Tate Morgan, and he is, I think, at least partially successful. Grade: B+
Charles Williams' Nothing in Her Way is a novel of the con game--one con involving mining sand for glass, the other involving horse racing--in which Cathy Dunbar and Mike Belen seek belated financial revenge on the men who ruined their fathers' business more than two decades before. A nice read with the obligatory twists and turns. Grade: B+
A bleak portrait of life with a traveling circus, Jim Tully's Circus Parade focuses on anecdotes and character sketches rather than sustained narrative. As a result, the proceedings may sometimes be tedious, especially for readers familiar with the subject matter. Grade: C
Daddy Cool features the most jarring contrast between style and subject matter of any book that I can remember reading. While the plot is fairly brutal--featuring, among other things, the gang rape of a child and an assassin who works only with knives--the novel is written in the most wooden grammar-book prose imaginable. Even the profanity-laced dialogue is written as though Donald Goines imagined that some schoolmarm somewhere would be assigning him a grade. I found the narrative sometimes to be powerful when I was able to tune out the prose style, but tuning out the prose style was difficult. Grade: C
After the train wreck of 1957's The Angry Dream (aka The Girl from Hateville), Gil Brewer finished the year with two much stronger efforts: The Brat and Little Tramp. Little Tramp is a Noir Everyman story, in which our ordinary guy, Gary Dunn, is blackmailed by the title character into kidnapping her so that she can extort money from her father, who also happens to be Gary's former boss. For me, what often elevates truly great noir is the ending: Simply put, how memorable is it? Gil Brewer loads up a powder keg and lights the fuse. Will he snuff the fuse, or will he let it blow? And if he lets it blow, will the explosion somehow surprise me--but without making me roll my eyes? This time out, Brewer does a fine job of packing the explosives, but if you ask me next week what happened to the keg, I probably won't be able to remember. Grade: B
In need of something to keep me awake as I drove from Ohio to Virginia, I found this on CD at a Books-a-Million for $10. The most I can say for it is that it did manage to keep me awake . . . barely. There are a couple of memorable characters (the title character and Carl Webster from The Hot Kid), but no drama to speak of. Skip this one. Grade: C-
Though the title of 2006's The Last Quarry seemed to promise there would be no more, Max Allan Collins's crass, banal hitman has returned to narrate his genesis . . . and it's pretty good. In fact, if you read The First Quarry immediately after Deadly Beloved, MAC's previous effort for Hard Case Crime, it will seem like Raymond Chandler. Grade: B
Unless you adored Slide, the second entry in the Max Fisher saga, there is not much reason to read the third. In The Max, the same noir comique schtick is in place, right down to the heavy-handed in-jokes, which are stretched even thinner this time around. The best plan: Read Bust, the first and best entry in the series, and then stop. Grade: C-
A: Excellent. I intend to read it again. B: Good. I might read it again. C: So-so. I didn't mind reading it. D: Bad. I resented reading it. F: Atrocious. I finished it only because I'm compulsive that way.