Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Shepard Rifkin, The Murderer Vine (1970)

Mississippi Burning crossed with a detective novel crossed with a revenge novel crossed with stupidity. North meets South done with a nuance that makes My Cousin Vinny look like Proust. Dumbest of the dumb (spoiler follows!): Our New York private investigator has been hired to infiltrate Mississippi, to get proof that five rednecks have murdered three civil rights workers, and then to execute the rednecks. Our genius p.i. floats on top of an inflatable mattress beneath the swamp-side clubhouse of the rednecks. He has a tape recorder with him. Upon his arrival beneath the clubhouse, the rednecks immediately and spontaneously and unambiguously announce their guilt. They practically get down on their hands and knees and shout their confessions through the chinks in the floor. And then, if that isn't dumb enough, in the novel's final chapter. . . . Sheesh. Grade: D-

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

"Don't move," he said,
in a voice that was
forty percent gravel and
sixty percent inert materials.

Donald E. Westlake
Somebody Owes Me Money

Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Review: Charlie Huston, The Shotgun Rule (2007)

The second half of Charlie Huston's dedication for The Shotgun Rule points to the subject of his novel: "To the kids who don't know any better. / The ones with the attitude problems. / What the hell are they thinking? / Man, believe me, they aren't. / That's the point. / We never do." In general, subjects who don't think (and idiot teenagers in particular) are a better subject for sociologists than novelists. And if the "point" of Huston's novel were nothing more than the fact that some kids never think, then it would be a waste of time. But even if the four kids at the center of The Shotgun Rule never really do think, they nevertheless achieve enough depth as characters--especially during the novel's extended climax--to make this a richer story than I had expected. Grade: B

Memo to Charlie Huston or his editor or his publisher or anyone in a position to fix a simple problem: Please fix the botched cultural reference on page 128. Face Dances is an album by The Who, not The Rolling Stones.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: Bill S. Ballinger, The Wife of the Red-Haired Man (1957)

The Bill S. Ballinger narrative gimmick: first-person chapters alternate with and play off against third-person chapters. This iteration of the gimmick, however, is less than inspired. The third-person chapters tell of the red-haired man and his wife on the run from the police. The first-person chapters are narrated by their police pursuer. Unfortunately (and unlike superior Ballinger novels), these chapters run in near chronological lockstep such that if they had been written as a single third-person narrative, the reader's experience would not be much different. But what really drags down the novel is its clichéd plotting: The police investigation is driven by the cop's unerring hunches, and the red-headed man has a sixth sense that unfailingly alerts him when he is in danger. If you've never read Ballinger before, start with Portrait in Smoke or The Tooth and the Nail instead. Grade: C

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

There was now only
the process of taking away.
He wondered if
it was like that with everyone,
and he decided that
it must be.
And he wondered how
they felt,
and reasoned that
they must feel
about as he.
That was all
there was to life:
a gift that was slowly
taken away from you.
Jim Thompson
Heed the Thunder

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Book Review: Jason Starr, Fake I.D. (2000)

I love Jason Starr, but Fake I.D. did not quite work for me. The cover of the Hard Case Crime reprint asks, "How far would you go to get what you want?," but I found it difficult to relate to (or feel sympathy for) the novel's protagonist, Tommy Russo, who is pretty much a pathetic creep right out of the gate. As well, I was not convinced by Tommy's character arc, either as a descent into some kind of psychosis or as the erratic behavior of a man with a metal plate in his head (which Tommy has). In the end, it's easy to see Fake I.D. as a dry run for Starr's far superior Tough Luck (2003). Grade: C+

Friday, May 15, 2009

Book Review: Robert Bloch, Shooting Star (1958) & Spiderweb (1954)

Truly inspired packaging from Hard Case Crime. This two-fer makes me misty-eyed for bygone days that I am too young to remember. Now if only the novels were better. . . . On a micro level, these books are well done. Robert Bloch has writerly chops to spare, and I enjoyed almost every page. But on a macro level, these books are completely forgettable. The protagonist of Shooting Star is Mark Clayburn, a small-time literary agent who, because he works in the true-crime field, also has a private investigator's license. This combination has interesting possibilities, but they go untapped. The literary agent fades mostly from view; the private investigator takes center stage; and Clayburn emerges as a super-low-cal Philip Marlowe wallowing in the muck of Hollywood. Also set in California, Spiderweb traffics at first in the noir-friendly universe of psychic charlatans but then veers into a fairly conventional blackmail story. In this realm, try William Lindsay Gresham's Nightmare Alley or Cornell Woolrich's Night Has a Thousand Eyes instead. Grade: C+

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

He cursed us in a low,
steady, monotonous voice,
ripping his words
off back-alley fences,
off privy walls.

Robert Bloch

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Book Review: Marvin H. Albert, The Chiselers (1953)

Detective Jerry Stone has taped evidence that will expose government ties to the mob in the anytown of Murbank, but he is gunned down in his driveway before he can deliver that evidence to the governor's special prosecutor. Soon thereafter, Stone's partner, Morgan Diamond, is beaten almost to death. Why is he left alive? The mob has plans for him--but then again, Diamond also has plans for the mob. Solid, fast-paced Gold Medal fare. Grade: B+

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Book Review: John Lange [Michael Crichton], Zero Cool (1969)

Michael Crichton, posing as John Lange, novelizes a nonexistent Nicholas Cage movie. Grade: C

Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: John D. MacDonald, One Monday We Killed Them All (1961)

For me, a major disappointment. Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I have seen this novel raved about in several notable places, but I really had to work to get through it. I found its first half slow and ponderous, weighed down by lectures on American law enforcement . . . and our judicial system . . . and our penal system . . . and so on . . . lectures of the sort that I would expect to hear in a bland freshman-level sociology class. But the crowning disappointment, once the narrative quickens, is that the novel's title, One Monday We Killed Them All, is not an accurate description of the Monday in question, no matter how you interpret it. Ah, John D. MacDonald. At least we'll always have Soft Touch. Grade: C-

Pulp Poem of the Week

The lights were coming on,
twinkling in Glendale,
flickering over Forest Lawn,
sparkling along San Fernando Road.
Los Angeles, that gaudy old
whore of a city was putting on
her jewels for a big night.

Robert Bloch
Shooting Star