Monday, December 29, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

He was disturbed,
still trembling, still vibrating
with the throes of the crisis,
but he was the master;
the animal was downed,
was cowed for this time,
at least.

But for all that, the brute
was there. Long dormant,
it was now at last alive,
awake. From now on he
would feel its presence continually;
would feel it tugging at its chain,
watching its opportunity.

Frank Norris

Monday, December 22, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

It would be fun
to cut Katsu,
to see what it felt like
to kill with a knife.
He'd already shot
somebody today;
if he strangled Kyle afterward
it would be like hitting
the murder trifecta.

Ken Bruen & Jason Starr

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review: Cornell Woolrich, Fright (1950)

Cornell Woolrich fans (myself included) are highly skilled at praising his strengths while discounting his weaknesses. Usually, this means reveling in the momentum of his plots while overlooking their inherent absurdities. Though I give Fright passing marks on the whole, its weaknesses are too great to ignore. Yes, the prose is overwrought, but the greater problem is that the book's protagonist, Prescott Marshall, is not a sympathetic character. I found him self-absorbed an unlikeable from the start, and his problems are problems of his own creation. He is not an innocent victim of the fates, as are many Woolrich heroes, and an unsympathetic Woolrich protagonist can make for tough reading. Grade: C+

Footnote: Fright makes an interesting pair with Seymour Shubin's Witness to Myself (Hard Case Crime, 2006), which covers a similar (but different!) noir landscape.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

She spoke broken, halting English,
but since I spoke Thai better
than she spoke my native tongue
we conversed in her language.
Though for the most part
we'd used body Thai,
which is something like body English
but more passionate.

William Knoles
Jade Brothel

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: William Knoles, Jade Brothel (1961)

Background: I became interested in William Knoles (a.k.a. Clyde Allison) as a result of reading Feral House's Sin-a-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties. Earl Kemp, famed editor of sex paperbacks, claims that Knoles "was the best writer I ever worked with" (putting him above Donald E. Westlake and Lawrence Block) and that Greenleaf house editors took turns with him because "everyone wanted to be Clyde Allison's editor." But total trash is total trash, right? We'll see. I bought a random Clyde Allison novel for a song on eBay to see what it is like.

Review: Jade Brothel is the story of Dave Owens, a thoroughly loathesome American living in Thailand. Owens will do anything, legal or not, to earn a buck, and in his spare time, if he is otherwise unable to find a sex partner, his visits the brothel that he owns. But this book is not about the brothel, its title be damned. Rather, the main plot centers around Owens getting into the movie business with a Hollywood refugee named Jaybee, whom Owens plans eventually to kill in the name of more money. If Knoles had written this novel for Gold Medal, it might have been pretty good, but the requirements of the sleaze paperback formula make that almost impossible. And it's not just that the sex scenes are too many or too long or too forumulaic--it's also the repulsive pride that Dave Owens takes in narrating his conquests, which makes the sex scenes repulsive, too. But at least ***SPOILER ALERT*** it was nice at the end of the book when he got chewed up by crocodiles. Grade: D

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

I'm not hard to hire.
All you have to do is
offer me money.

Robert Terrall
Kill Now, Pay Later

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Review: Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Slide (2007)

Even moreso than its predecessor, Bust, Slide succeeds or fails (depending on your point of view) as noir comedy. The novel's third-person narrative is filtered through the minds of half a dozen characters, all of whom are caricatures and only one of whom (police detective Joe Miscali) is not a blathering moron. The idiocy and the jokes (which are often one and the same) come in an unrelenting stream. Though I found Bust a more satisfying novel, especially in its plotting, I cannot deny that Slide was entertaining. Grade: C+

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

I found it amazing
how many men,
when asked to supply
a photo of themselves
by a young woman
over the Internet,
responded by sending
a digital snapshot
of their penis.
Charles Ardai
Songs of Innocence

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Book Review: Jason Starr, Tough Luck (2003)

Mickey Prada is a throwback to the noir anti-heroes of old, a Seemingly Good Guy who gets in deeper and deeper after he makes one unfortunate decision, agreeing to place a bet with his bookie for a man who claims to be a member of the mob. As Mickey's life unravels, he makes more bad (and sometimes criminal) decisions, but he keeps reader sympathy because he is, after all, a Seemingly Good Guy. Jason Starr manages the affair with great skill and finishes with a closing line that is almost perfect. Grade: A-

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Book Review: Robert Terrall, Kill Now, Pay Later (1960)

Private eye Ben Gates must restore his good name after he botches the simple job of guarding gifts at a wedding. As pleasant and lightweight as a tale of murder and blackmail can be. If you like your crime dark, skip it. Grade: C

Footnote: I must gripe about this hideous cover. Robert McGinnis did the painting for the original 1960 paperback, featuring a deformed blonde who looked to be about nine feet tall with six feet of legs. For this reprint, Robert McGinnis was again hired for the job, and this time he painted a redhead who looks even more deformed than the original blonde. If ever a man thumbed his nose at a second chance, this is it!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

Roger knew well enough
what he wanted to do,
but he wasn't certain if
he would know just how
to go about it.

In the end
that didn't matter,
because Grace did.
James McKimmey
The Perfect Victim

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: Gil Brewer, —And the Girl Screamed (1956)

Cliff Reddick. Cliff Reddick. Cliff Reddick. As I was reading this book, I kept having to repeat the narrator's name to myself so that I would not forget it. Though this behavior is generally not the hallmark of a memorable book,
—And the Girl Screamed is by no means terrible. On the whole, reading it was rather like watching Gil Brewer cash a check. He's doing his job, going through the motions to earn his pay. Cliff Reddick is an ex-policeman who has been implicated in a murder that he had nothing to do with, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, he works to solve the murder while trying to evade the police who want to arrest him for it. To my mind, this is lazy plotting: The book would have been much more interesting if Reddick had actually been connected to the victim in some way, rather than just happening upon the murder scene. As the plot progresses, Brewer mixes in some 1950s hand-wringing about the rise of juvenile delinquency, and then he wraps things up and heads to the bank. For diehards only. Grade: C-

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

They said the leg was going
to be as good as ever,
but it wasn't.
You could see that by
the end of the first week
of practice.
I couldn't pivot and
swing fast enough to
go with the play even
when I saw it coming,
and they ran through me
like B-girls through
a sailor's bank-roll.

Charles Williams
"The Big Bite"

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Books Review: Richard Aleas, Songs of Innocence (2007)

Richard Aleas (or Charles Ardai, if you prefer) is the inverse of Raymond Chandler: whereas Chandler was terrible with plotting while creating unforgettable characters, Aleas crafts his plots with great care while creating easily forgettable characters. As a creation, John Blake, the noir hero of Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence, is little more than the sum of the problems that he encounters (and creates for himself). He's not particularly smart, not particularly witty, has no interesting hobbies, does not smoke a calabash pipe or wear a deerstalker cap. Thus, we are left with the noir-whodunit plots. My experience with both Aleas novels is that if you think much at all while you are reading, then the books' alleged surprises are not very surprising, so I am left with the pleasure of having my suspicions confirmed, which is, of course, a lesser pleasure than being surprised. Grade: C+

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

As he took his woman,
the fire was solely his own fire
and there was the sordid and dismal feeling,
and finally the downright horrible feeling,
of being alone in the bed.

David Goodis
Cassidy's Girl

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

The ghosts
of sad, cheap souls
live on
in sad, cheap furniture.

Ryu Murakami
In the Miso Soup
(translated by Ralph McCarthy)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

She was as beautiful
as only a woman
made for dirt can be.
P. J. Wolfson
Bodies Are Dust

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

Money is no fun
to go to bed with.

Gardner F. Fox
Witness This Woman

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review: James McKimmey, The Perfect Victim (1958)

James McKimmey's debut centers around the murder of a young woman in a small town. Townsfolk adored the victim, Grace, as a sort of tramp-with-a-heart-of-gold, and they are predisposed to accept the circumstantial evidence that points to a stranger--traveling salesman Al Jackson--as her killer. Jackson is a two-dimensional character (dimension #1: he's lecherous; dimension #2: he's a drunk), and the residents of Willow Creek are mostly small-town clichés. The novel's most interesting character is Buggie Alstair, who is a fraternity brother of a local boy and also a budding psychopath. On the whole, The Perfect Victim is sort of a tepid cross between Jim Thompson and Our Town. Grade: C

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

She gave me a smile
in my hip pocket.
Raymond Chandler
Farewell, My Lovely

Monday, October 6, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

Guards knew when the blue devils had
seized the inmates of these cages.
They couldn't eat.
And there were times, too, when
even the guards couldn't eat.

Theodore Dreiser
An American Tragedy

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Book Review: Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup (1997)

In the Miso Soup reminded me quite a bit of Gil Brewer's classic A Killer Is Loose (1954). Both books are narrated by an Ordinary Guy whose fate becomes entangled with that of a Roaming Homicidal Maniac. Both Brewer and Ryu Murkami invite readers to partcipate in Ordinary Guy's attempts to make sense of Roaming Homicidal Maniac, though in the case of Murakami, there is just as much time spent with Roaming Homicidal Maniac trying to make sense of himself. And this leads to my major complaint about In the Miso Soup: I have no problem in theory with books that become increasingly ponderous as they progress, but in this case that pondorousness comes at the expense of nearly everything else. The climax of the novel, such as it is, consists of Roaming Homicidal Maniac blathering on about his life story for 25 pages or so. And that's not much of a climax. Grade: C+

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

She pulled off her brassiere and
held it aloft. There were cheers,
and she turned from one side
to the other triumphantly.
Her breasts looked enormously
distorted in the moonlight,
their hard, clean crowns gleaming
and the shadows they cast hanging down
like ugly sinister forebodings
of the ruin age would bring
to their strength, their thrust.

David Karp

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Review: P. J. Wolfson, Bodies Are Dust (1931)

Part of the story of police inspector Buck Safiotte. I say part of the story because Bodies Are Dust does not have a neat plot of the beginning-middle-end variety. The novel begins seemingly at random in the middle of Safiotte's sordid life--characters enter the story in a confusing, half-explained way--and most of what follows lacks any kind of moral center. Indeed, reading Bodies Are Dust made me feel unclean, which is no easy trick for a novel published 1931. And while the end of the book may not bring a full sense of closure, it serves as a fitting coda to the world that P. J. Wolfson portrays. Bodies Are Dust is not noir for the weak of spirit. It shines an ugly, messy light on an ugly, messy world. Grade: A-

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

If you want to know
the truth that much,
go out and commit
a crime yourself.
That's the only way
you'll ever know.
Asa Nonami
The Hunter
(trans. by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: Gardner F. Fox, Consider This Woman (1959)

Today Gardner F. Fox is remembered mostly as a prolific writer for DC Comics, but he was a prolific writer of fiction as well, including a number of titles for Gold Medal, mainly in the realm of historical fiction. Witness This Woman is a weak, though not incompetent, crime novel. The cover reads, "Was she faithless, a cheat? Kirwan didn't care--her testimony would make him the next District Attorney." Unfortunately, whoever wrote this cover copy seems not to have read the book. Assistant D.A. David Kirwin knows that he will have no trouble convicting the accused killer of Joe Farella, but the testimony of a woman has nothing to do with it. Furthermore, Kirwin may very well end up caring about more than just winning the case. The novel's plot centers around Kirwin's crisis of conscience: Is he willing to send a man to the electric chair if there is a 10% that the man is innocent? What if the conviction will put Kirwin on the fast-track to becoming governor? Regrettably, it is not worth reading the book to find out the answers to these questions. Grade: D

Monday, September 15, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

I looked down at myself.
It was like seeing
a technicolor rainbow shining
on a bushel basket full
of mangled bread dough.

Gil Brewer
The Squeeze

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book Review: Natsuo Kirino, Real World (2006)

Near the end of Real World, a detective is talking to one of the book's teenaged protagonists. The detective speculates about what the teenagers may have done and why. The teenager replies, "Don't you think that's taking it a little too far?" The detective agrees and says, "I don't think even you all would do something that stupid." But the detective's speculations are absolutely right, and she sums up precisely what I was thinking as I read this book: what a bunch of stupid teenagers. So I felt my reaction was validated by the detective's comment while at the same time I naturally wondered if Kirino were making the point that some of us have gotten too old to recall just how stupid teenagers can be. If that is the case, then consider me reminded. Grade: C-

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Book Review: Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (1925)

Upside: High literary noir. The respectable godfather of such disreputable godchildren as Seymour Shubin's Anyone's My Name and Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. Downside: Reading Dreiser is like watching a world-class sprinter run the wrong way up the world's fastest escalator. You know that, eventually, he's going to get to the top, but you can't stop wondering why he didn't take the stairs--or, even better, the right escalator. Grade: B

Monday, September 8, 2008

Book Review: Jason Starr, Cold Caller (1997)

I always knew that telemarketers were sociopaths. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. Grade: B+

Pulp Poem of the Week

He shook tooth powder into his mouth.
His grandmother could smell liquor
like a dry sourdough in the Klondike.
Patricia Highsmith
Strangers on a Train

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

She leaned forward again
so quickly that
four things bobbed--
two of them earrings.

Robert Bloch
The Will to Kill

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Book Review: Gil Brewer, The Red Scarf (1955)

Nothing revelatory here--just Gil Brewer doing his job and doing it well. The plot of The Red Scarf follows a classic noir template: the temptation of a good, decent, ordinary guy. The novel's backstory is that its narrator, Roy Nichols, is trying to make a go of running a motel with his wife, but forces are conspiring against them. The highway that was supposed to run past their motel may never get built, and their business is drying up. Roy travels to Chicago to ask his brother for a loan to save the motel. The brother refuses. As the novel begins, Roy is on his way home from Chicago to Florida. Soon financial temptation will be thrown in his path . . . and noir will ensue. Grade: B+

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Review: David Goodis, Cassidy's Girl (1951)

David Goodis continues to disappoint me. Cassidy's Girl is the best of the three Goodis novels I have read this year. Indeed, it could have been the noir masterpiece that it strives to be (as could have The Moon in the Gutter), but in my reading Goodis simply does not have the writerly chops to pull it off.

Of course, one should not expect polished prose from any writer of paperback originals--writers like Goodis cranked out novels and stories as fast as they could roll blank sheets into their typewriters, and readers should accept that their writing will not always be deathless. But Goodis is less deathless than most, and the problems with his sometimes fumbling prose are brought into sharp relief by the modesty of his plots. To his credit, Goodis strives to build his books around nuanced characters, but to do this successfully requires a precision that he cannot muster. In
Cassidy's Girl, he is more or less in control of his material until the final chapter, and then the wheels fly off. His halting attempts to describe moments of epiphanic discovery result in such nightmarish sentences as this:

The next thing in his mind was the start of another discovery, but before he could concentrate on it, his attention was drawn to Haney Kenrick.
Egad. And I would argue that the novel's plotting collapses in its final chapter as well, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will keep that rant to myself.

In the end, Goodis' failures might be seen as the result of unusually high ambition in an author of noir PBOs. Few authors of paperback originals attempted to portray their characters with the same emotional depth. By comparison, Jim Thompson is also not much of a prose stylist, but the wild depravity of his plots hardly gives readers a chance to notice. Goodis, however, in attempting more subtle effects, leaves his writing too naked for observation. Grade: C+