Monday, June 29, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

You can label almost anybody
by finding out what time
they go to work in the morning.

Robert Bloch
The Scarf

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: Robert Bloch, The Scarf (1947)

While The Scarf is not the tour de force I had hoped for, it is nevertheless the best of the four Robert Bloch novels that I have read. The titular scarf belongs to narrator Dan Morley, an aspiring writer whose psychological problems, especially with women, are the result of his unhealthy boyhood relationship with Miss Frazer, his unmarried schoolteacher. The scarf is Morley's keepsake from his memorable last encounter with Miss Frazer, after which he ran away from home. The story follows Dan and his burgeoning writing career from Chicago to New York to Hollywood. My taste runs to the noir side of noir, and The Scarf was plenty dark enough for me, but I found Bloch's execution lacking, especially in the book's regrettably contrived dénouement. Grade: B

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

New York and Hollywood
is full of her, she is
everywhere you turn,
and when you have reached
the ripe age of thirty-six,
you have learned it is
useless to try to warn
her of the pitfalls.
Because nothing can daunt her--
nothing except time,
years of batting her pretty head
against too many disappointments,
and her firm white fanny
against too many mattresses.

Steve Fisher
No House Limit

Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Review: Steve Fisher, No House Limit (1958)

There was one thing about No House Limit that bugged me and bugged me and bugged me such that it really interfered with my ability to enjoy the novel: the portrayal of the gambler Bello and his craps expertise. On the one hand, No House Limit presents itself as an insider's look at Vegas and crapshooting: most of the chapters begin with short tutorials about Vegas and/or craps, and in an afterward he wrote for this Hard Case Crime reprint, one of Steve Fisher's sons mentions the research that his father did for this book. But the portrayal of Bello playing craps is all wrong. Bello, we are told, is a legendary craps player with a betting system so mathematically complicated that onlookers are helpless to understand what he is doing. But this is nonsense. Saying that someone is a great craps player is like saying that someone is a great slot-machine player. In both games, the house always wins over the long haul. That's the point of casino games! So Bello has developed a complicated system of placing bets . . . that all favor the house! Fisher should have done more with the loaded dice angle (which does figure to some degree in Bello's success), and he should have left the idiocy alone. Grade: C

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book Review: James M. Cain, Double Indemnity (1936)

As lean as noir comes with pacing so relentless Cain seems to be daring you to notice that his razor-thin characters disappear when viewed from the side--and when you do notice, you don't care. Grade: A

Monday, June 15, 2009

Book Review: Jim Thompson, Nothing More Than Murder (1949)

With his third novel, Jim Thompson arrives in the world of noir, though he has not yet discovered his distinctively creepy voice. I wasn't sure what to make of Nothing More Than Murder's clumsy plotting as its chronology lurched artlessly around while its backstory came and went. If this were a third-person narrative, I would diagnose an evolving writer feeling his way through a new style of writing, but the narrative is written in the first person, so perhaps this clumsiness is an intentional reflection on its narrator. And perhaps, because this is Jim Thompson, I give him the benefit of the doubt. Grade: B

Pulp Poem of the Week

I had seen
so many houses burned down,
so many cars wrecked,
so man corpses
with blue holes in their temples,
so many awful things
that people had pulled
to crook the wheel,
that that stuff didn't seem real
to me any more.
If you don't understand that,
go to Monte Carlo
or some other place
where there's a big casino,
sit at a table,
and watch the face of the man
that spins the little ivory ball.
After you've watched it a while,
ask yourself how much
he would care
if you went out and
plugged yourself in the head.
His eyes might drop
when he heard the shot,
but it wouldn't be from worry
whether you lived or died.
It would be to make sure
you didn't leave
a bet on the table,
that he would have to cash
for your estate.
James M. Cain
Double Indemnity

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: W. R. Burnett, High Sierra (1940)

Part crime novel, part character study of a gangster in winter. The wooden dialogue is predictably quaint. The rambling plot feels surprisingly realistic. The aging gangster is unexpectedly affecting. All this, and a beautiful young blonde with a clubfoot. Grade: A-

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Review: Donald E. Westlake, Somebody Owes Me Money (1969)

Lightweight, pleasant for a while, tedious in the end--and the author knows it. Near the conclusion of the novel, one of our heroes asks, "Do you know this is ridiculous?" And then later she complains, "You wouldn't get away with that in a mystery story." This is not cutesy metafictional commentary; this is an author who feels compelled to apologize. But Donald E. Westlake is author enough to know that in his line of writing, you don't revise a failure. If want to keep the money coming in, you type THE END and move on to the next one. Grade: D+

Monday, June 8, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

It don't take
much brains
to outsmart
a man who
trusts you.
Jim Thompson
Nothing More Than Murder

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: Gil Brewer, The Girl from Hateville [a.k.a. The Angry Dream] (1957)

The Girl from Hateville (originally published in hardback as The Angry Dream) reads like the outline of a Gil Brewer novel--the outline of a bad Gil Brewer novel. The narrative is so thin that it often feels like there are paragraphs missing. In one paragraph, Al Harper, the novel's narrator, will be standing in his house, and in the next paragraph he will suddenly be in his car. Or, in the course of a conversation, a character will "repeat" something that no one has previously said. (It makes me wonder if pieces of text got lost in the move from hardback to paperback--not that the answer is particularly worth finding out.) But the big sin is all those missing paragraphs that are needed to make the behavior of Al Harper even remotely believable. Or to make the novel's ending a little bit less laughable. The premise in a nutshell: Al Harper returns to his hometown. Everyone hates him there because his father, who was the town banker, robbed everyone blind. Al's father (apparently) committed suicide after (supposedly) emptying more than $200,000 from the vault. Al wants to know the truth about his father, and of course there are a couple of good-looking women involved. In sum, conventional noir . . . that crashes and burns. Grade: F

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Book Review: Jim Thompson, Heed the Thunder (1946)

Jim Thompson's second novel is the oddly plotless chronicle of more than a decade with the Fargo family in the farm town of Verdon, Nebraska. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that this novel has a profusion of small plots, none of which stick around long enough to be deeply engaging. Not bad, but somehow I had expected a bit more thunder. Grade: C

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pulp Poem of the Week

What can a man do
when a girl
grabs him like that?
A man has to be
W. R. Burnett
High Sierra