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+

Book Review: Robert Bloch, The Will to Kill (1954)

The noir is willing but the plot is weak. This is the story of Tom Kendall, a veteran of the Korean War who is prone to blacking out and waking up next to women who have been killed in the manner of Jack the Ripper. Is Tom a murderer? Is he the new "ripper"? The truth comes out in a series of discoveries/revelations that will have you rolling your eyes until you find yourself looking at your own brain. Any novel that combines amnesia with Saucy Jack has no right to be this bad. Grade: F

Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: David Karp, Hardman (1953)

Hardman is more of a character study than a crime story, but there is never that much character to study. The title character, Jack Hardman, is an infamous, best-selling, hard-boiled writer whose demon is sadism. Readers are not meant to like Hardman. Perhaps they are meant to be intrigued or fascinated. But his character is too one-dimensional for that. He enters the book a sadistic punk, he leaves the book a sadistic punk, and there is nothing much interesting about him in between. Oddly, it is the characters who surround Hardman--his agent, his editor, his woman, his hangers-on, his reading public--who give this book its interest. Grade: C-

Pulp Poem of the Week

He tried to hate them because
they were enjoying themselves.
He collected some hate,
aimed it, and tossed it,
then knew right away
it was just a boomerang.
There was no one to hate
but himself.

David Goodis
The Wounded and the Slain

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book Review: Asa Nonami, The Hunter (1996)

Bland Japanese police procedural featuring a wolf-dog trained to hunt human targets. In sum, a cross between Cornell Woolrich's Black Alibi and boredom. Grade: D+

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

Brandy, he thought.
Actually, it was
carbolic acid.
Thus Philibert Faroux,
of Noroy, Oise,
outlived his spree by
a mere two hours.

Félix Fénéon
Novels in Three Lines
(translated by Luc Sante)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Book Review: Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950)

Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train gives only the barest idea what the original novel is like. While Hitchcock's film is a stylish (read: superficial) tale of good vs. evil, Patricia Highsmith's book is a complex psychological study of the evil that we are all (perhaps) capable of. Though Highsmith's characters and their motivations and behaviors are not always 100% convincing, and though in the end the plot takes a regrettable turn for the hackneyed, on the whole this novel triumphs on its merits. Grade: A-

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

I sat up at the counter and
pretended to look the menu over
but I was watching Stella.
I was never so glad
to see anybody in my life.
There was something about her
that got me. She wasn't
all over you. She had
that cool aloofness--
luscious figure, soft skin.
I watched her fill
two bowls of cereal.

Marty Holland
Fallen Angel

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Book Review: Ken Bruen, American Skin (2006)

I wanted to like American Skin much more than I did. Its (black) heart is in the right place, but it badly needs a good editor. The plot develops largely in flashbacks prompted by the free associations of its characters, and these sometimes redundant intrusions prevent the plot from ever gaining the momentum that it should. Perhaps more annoying, though, is the way that the book is slavered in pop-culture references for the sake of pop-culture references. For example, one of the book's major characters is so obsessed with Tammy Wynette that he will brutalize anyone who dares to insult her. We are told that he became a fan of "Tammy" (he thinks of her by her first name, just as another character is on a first-name basis with Bruce Springsteen) while in prison, but that is pretty much all we are told to help us understand the significance of his obsession with her. As well, we are given little help in understanding the resonance of the many Tammy Wynette songs whose names are mentioned in passing. Of course, the problem may be that my pop-culture IQ is too low to appreciate what Ken Bruen is up to--but I doubt it. Grade: D+

Monday, August 4, 2008

Pulp Poem of the Week

It was a woman's gun,
a little pearl-handled automatic,
not as big as his hand
as he let it rest in his lap,
but there's no difference between
being killed with one of them
and with a .45 unless
it's prestige you're after.

Charles Williams
Hell Hath No Fury

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Book Review: George Axelrod, Blackmailer (1952)

Blackmailer's pleasantly convoluted plot cannot fully compensate for its forgettable cast of characters, particularly its narrator, publisher Dick Sherman. The great noir writers can make you root for criminals, but George Axelrod did not make me care one bit what happened to Dick Sherman--who isn't even a criminal. Part of the problem is that Axelrod has a tendency to lapse into screenwriting when he is writing a novel. If you write pages of dialog for a movie character, that movie character can be likable simply because a likable actor is reading his lines. Novel writers do not have this luxury, a fact which Axelrod seems sometimes to forget. Grade: C+

Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Review: David Goodis, The Wounded and the Slain (1955)

Bad things happen after a Yale graduate marries a hopelessly frigid woman. Thus, depending on your point of view, The Wounded and the Slain is a cautionary tale about either premarital abstinence or Ivy League schools (or maybe both). Grade: C