Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: Elmore Leonard, Freaky Deaky (1988)

Freaky Deaky begins with three major characters who appear at first in pairs of alternating chapters: Chris Mankowski, a Detroit cop who is leaving the bomb squad for a different assignment; and Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, aging hippie radicals scheming to use their anarchic skills in more financially rewarding ways. Elmore Leonard manages these characters with remarkable skill, insinuating them into each other's lives while folding in other characters along the way. While Chris is likable throughout, in the early stages of the novel Robin and Skip are more annoying than anything else, but Freaky Deaky's great humor eventually overwhelms any shortcomings in the novel's cast of characters. No great insights into the criminal mind here--just a great deal of entertainment. Grade: A-

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pulp Poem of the Week

You plan the hell
out of something like this,
but you never can be sure
how it'll come out.
It's the only thing
that worries me.

W. L. Heath
Violent Saturday

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: Peter Rabe, Agreement to Kill (1957)

As I was reading Agreement to Kill, my first Peter Rabe novel, Rabe's prose kept reminding me of Joseph Conrad (né Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), the Polish-born British novelist who was not fluent in English until adulthood. Though stylistically very different, Rabe and Conrad both write with a self-confident awkwardness: While their styles are effective, neither writer seems entirely comfortable with the English language. Once I had finished Agreement to Kill, I discovered (to my surprise, I admit!) that this analogy is exactly right: Like Conrad, Peter Rabe (né Peter Rabinowitsch) was not a native English speaker, having fled Nazi Germany to the United States as a teenager in 1938. Agreement to Kill is an oddly memorable book whose strangeness is actually complemented by the sometime awkwardness of Rabe's writing. The plot reminded me a bit of Gil Brewer's A Killer Is Loose, in which an ordinary man is trying to escape the forced companionship of a psychopathic killer. In Agreement to Kill, though, our ordinary guy (Jake Spinner) is befriending a professional killer (Loma) rather than fleeing him. Jake is tired of being an ordinary guy--which for him has come to mean being a sucker and a loser--and he wants Loma to introduce him to the other side of the law. Available in a reprint two-fer from Stark House Press. Grade: B+

Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Review: Ed McBain, Cop Hater (1956)

The American police procedural begins more or less here, with Ed McBain's first 87th Precinct novel in 1956. The prose is slapdash, but the plotting is impressive in its willful directionlessness. Someone murders a detective from the 87th Precinct, and the other detectives from the precinct, naturally, want to catch the killer, but the novel resists falling into a clichéd gathering of clues that lead inexorably to his identity. Rather, the detectives spend most of the novel frustrated as they follow a series of weak leads that go nowhere. In this way, McBain strives for a new sort of realism in crime fiction while at the same time still trying to provide readers with the page-turning momentum that they expect. Cop Hater does not entirely succeed; nevertheless, it is a valiant attempt at something new. Grade: B-

Pulp Poem of the Week

He was in bed
when she came in;
the lights were off
except for the small table lamp
which threw a shaded glow
at one side of the double bed.
Half consciously, she noticed
that George hadn't opened
the window for the night.
Once more she smiled,
this time inwardly.
George was about as subtle
as a fractured pelvis.

Lionel White
Clean Break

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jason Starr's Six Crime Novels That Have Most Influenced Him

1. George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972)
2. Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me (1952)
3. Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
4. Charles Willeford, The Shark-Infested Custard (1993)
5. Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty (1990)
6. Ken Bruen, The Guards (2001)
To read Jason Starr's comments on the six crime novels that have most influenced him, visit the Vertigo Comics blog.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Review: Gil Brewer, The Vengeful Virgin (1958)

The Vengeful Virgin is a good example of a type of artistically flawed noir that exists somewhere between Everyman noir and psycho noir. At the outset, such novels seem to be about ordinary folks--in this case, Shirley Angela, an eighteen-year-old giving twenty-four-hour hospice care to her rich stepfather, and Jack Ruxton, a TV and intercom salesman and installation man. But Shirley and Jack seem like Everyman and Everywoman for only a few pages until amour fou erupts and a murder plot is born, by which time they have both lost their knack for sane behavior. This change happens so quickly--particularly in the case of Jack's readiness to join with a stranger in a murder plot--that it seems doubtful whether Shirley and Jack were sane to begin with. Put another way, The Vengeful Virgin is like Everyman noir on speed: The characters transgress from their straight-and-narrow lives, as readers know that they will, but they do it with more dispatch than Gil Brewer (or any other writer) can reasonably hope to get away with. Grade: B

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Harlequin Bowdlerizations

Well, at least the covers do look nice!

The Harlequin Vintage Collection was published in October 2009. The decision to publish these books grew out of an appreciation of (and perhaps nostalgia for) their cover art, as executive editor Marsha Zinberg explained, writing on Harlequin’s blog:

Harlequin mounted an art exhibition in May [2009], entitled The Heart of a Woman, which got people from many departments poring over old covers. Soon we had postcards and notepads—not to mention business cards—created that trumpeted our roots in the late 1940s. And folks both within our building and in the broader publishing community seemed completely taken with this vintage art. So why not publish a few of the texts that accompanied them?

At first, Harlequin intended, Zinberg says, to “[c]hoose six books and reprint them, EXACTLY AS THEY WERE THEN, as a small collection to celebrate our sixty years in business” [emphasis hers]. The six titles chosen were Dale Bogard’s Pardon My Body; James Hadley Chase’s I’ll Bury My Dead and You Never Know with Women; Alan Handley’s Kiss Your Elbow; Perry Lindsay’s No Nice Girl; and Tom Powers’ Virgin with Butterflies. True to Harlequin’s plan, the covers of these books were faithfully recreated with only two minor alterations: the vintage prices were removed, and a small copyright symbol was added next to the Harlequin logo.

The books were not chosen, however, with only their cover art in mind. While it was not necessary that the novels be great literature, it was a requirement that they not offend readers in 2009, as Zinberg explains:

We wanted books whose cover art appealed to us, and we had to be in physical possession of the book, but in some cases, once we started reading the text, we simply couldn’t see publishing the story, for a host of reasons . . . content, language, political correctness, etc. Several were eliminated, no matter how striking the cover!

Even given this winnowing process, however, Harlequin could not find novels that they were willing to reprint faithfully. Says Zinberg,

Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership. Also, grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years. But that did entail a text edit, which we had not anticipated. AND, we had to clear those adjustments with the current copyright holders, if we had been able to locate them.

Unfortunately, I purchased all six titles in the Harlequin Vintage Collection before I learned that they had been bowdlerized. Once I learned this, I lost all interest in reading them . . . until I became curious to see exactly what the Harlequin editors had done.

Will the real James Hadley Chase please stand up?

Of the novels in the Harlequin Vintage Collection, I was most interested in the two written by James Hadley Chase, a significant, though minor, figure in the history of noirboiled literature, so I purchased a copy of the original Harlequin edition of Chase’s I’ll Bury My Dead (published in January 1954), and I compared it to the Harlequin edition of 2009. I did not compare the entire novels line by line. Rather, I read the 1954 edition, and whenever I came to passage that I suspected the Harlequin editors might have tinkered with in 2009, I paused to compare the two.

First, the minor changes. Zinberg’s comment that “grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years” is the observation of an editor at a purely commercial press. When Library of America published their volumes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, they would no more have tinkered with the grammar and spelling in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon than they would have changed the names of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Canonical writers, however, get respect that lesser writers like John Hadley Chase rarely receive—and a publisher like Harlequin does not respect any writers at all. Thus, in the 2009 version of I’ll Bury My Dead, “inter comm.” becomes “intercom”; “over-mantel” becomes “mantel”; “driving-wheel” becomes “steering wheel”; and so on. These changes, while not criminal, are certainly regrettable.

And now for the more substantial changes.

Passage #1


. . . she thought her new nigger-brown reverse calf shoes made her feet look even smaller than they were. (63)


. . . she thought her new reverse calf shoes made her feet look even smaller than they were. (87)

The original sentence is offensive in 2009, just as it was in 1954. Of all the bowdlerizations, this is the one that I am most sympathetic to. But was it really necessary to delete the word “brown,” too?

Passage #2


. . . that dark, cheap bitch of a girl of his grinning at me too. (68)


. . . that cheap bitch of a girl of his grinning at me, too. (94)

I find it remarkable that “bitch” was preserved while “dark” was deleted, especially given that the character described is not African-American. This character is first described as “dark” on page 31 of the 1954 edition—an adjective that is faithfully reproduced on page 45 of the 2009 edition! Why the inconsistency? My best guess is that the Harlequin editors were on edge after “nigger” popped up on page 63, so the word “dark” looked different to them on page 68 than it had on page 31, especially when used in anger.

Passage #3:


“Hit you? The only woman I’ve ever hit is my wife,” Leon said. (107)


“Hit you? Never,” Leon said. (145)

These lines are spoken by Ed Leon, a private detective hired by the novel’s hero, Nick English. Leon has, in fact, recently slugged the woman to whom he is speaking; he did so because she was drunk and violently resisting his attempts to save her from the bad guys. He gains control of her by knocking her unconscious, and the punch is faithfully reproduced in 2009 edition. This punch is important to the plot, so it stays. The joke about spousal abuse is not important to the plot, so it goes. The joke, however, is important to the characterization of Leon, and without it, readers’ perceptions of him will be substantially different.

Passage #4:


She was too frightened to pull out the knife. She held on to the handle, crying weakly as she felt her life draining out of her.

A voice said, “Lie down and die, you bitch,” and a hand came out of the darkness and shoved her savagely and violently to the ground. (113)


She was too frightened to pull out the knife. She held on to the handle, crying weakly as she felt her life draining out of her.

[paragraph deleted] (153)

In 2009, we have a kinder, gentler sociopathic serial killer.

Passage #5


"There's no needto worry about me," she said hurriedly. "I'm really quite all right."

“Are you?” He reached out and put his hand on her arm. “But you’re lonely, aren’t you?”

This was more than Corrine had bargained for. She had been prepared for a mild flirtation and his company, but the atmosphere had changed so suddenly that she now wanted him to go.

“Well, lots of people are lonely, she began, and then stopped as he smiled. His smile sent a chill up her spine. “It’s—it’s very kind of you to bother, but . . .”

“It’s not a matter of kindness,” he said quietly. “It’s a matter of attraction. Why should we waste time? Sooner or later it is bound to happen. Why not now?”

“I don’t know what you mean. . . .” She tried to pull free, but his grip tightened.

“Don’t you? Where does that door lead to?” He jerked his head towards the door opposite the lounge.

“That’s my bedroom. Will you let go of me? You—you’re hurting me.”

He leaned forward, turned the handle and opened the door.

“Come along,” he said, pushing her forward. “There is a cure for loneliness, you know.”

“No, please!” she cried, pushing against him. “You mustn’t. It’s not right.”

“Isn’t it? Do you bother about what is right and what is wrong? I don’t,” he returned, and led her into the room.”

“You’re not to come in here!” she exclaimed feebly. “How dare you! You must leave at once.”

He forced her across the room. She felt the edge of the bed catch her behind her knees, and she sat down abruptly, still trying to free her wrist from his grasp.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, one knee on the bed, his face close to hers. The sightless amber-colored eyes now terrified her.

“You really mustn’t!” she said desperately. “Please let go of me.”

“Oh, be quiet,” he said, his voice suddenly harsh, and he caught her to him in a grip that made her cry out. She felt as if she had been delivered into the clutches of some savage animal. (134-135)


“That’s no need to—to worry about me,” she said hurriedly. “I’m really quite all right.”

“Are you?” He reached out and put his hand on her arm. “But you’re lonely, aren’t you?”

[rest of the passage deleted] (180)

Does editor Zinberg’s really think that cutting a full page from the novel is a “small [adjustment] to the text”? With the removal of this implied rape, our sociopath is again bowdlerized. It is interesting (and more than a little unsettling) to note, however, that a passage later in the novel [page 224 in the 2009 edition] indicates that this encounter ultimately became consensual! Of course, the significance of this later passage is changed completely in the 2009 revision.

Passage #6


The hard-faced man who had followed them said, “Shall I give her a little tap, Mr. English?” His clenched fist was itching to come into action. (147)


The hard-faced man who had followed them said, “Shall I call the cops, Mr. English?” [second sentence deleted] (196)

As with Ed Leon’s comment about beating his wife, a passing reference to violence against a woman is deleted. Oddly, the novel’s brutal descriptions of murders of women are faithfully reproduced (with the exception of Passage #4, above).

Passage #7

“You’re going to walk into a load of grief, shamus,” she said, “if you try to force yourself on me.”
“It’s a risk I’ll gladly run,” Leon said, inside the lobby by now. He closed the door and leaned against it. “It’s not often I have the opportunity of forcing myself on a redhead as well stacked as you. . . .” (195)
“You’re going to walk into a load of grief, shamus,” she said, “if you try to make a move on me.”
“It’s a risk I’ll gladly run,” Leon said, inside the lobby by now. He closed the door and leaned against it. “It’s not often I have the opportunity of making a move on a redhead as well stacked as you. . . .” (260)

Here, a passing reference to rape is deleted. Given this, along with the implied rape deleted in Passage #5, it is interesting to note that a second implied rape was allowed to remain the 2009 edition. In this scene, Penn, a henchman to our sociopath, offers to try to save a woman’s life if she will have sex with him. He asks her, “Think you could be nice to me?,” and she responds by threatening to scream (page 250 in the 2009 edition). Their private encounter is interrupted by the arrival of the sociopath, but when he leaves, Penn stares at the woman until he is certain that his boss is not coming back. The chapter then concludes with Penn locking the door and putting the key in his pocket.


I believe that these seven passages cover most, if not all, of the bowdlerizations done to James Hadley Chase’s I’ll Bury My Dead in the Harlequin Vintage Collection edition. I do not have a sense of whether the other five titles in the Harlequin Vintage Collection would have been tampered with more or less than this one. The example of I’ll Bury My Dead, however, seems sufficient to show that if you are interested in reading any of these novels as they were actually written (or at least as they were originally published), then you should avoid the Harlequin Vintage Collection.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pulp Poem of the Week

He was thirsty,
but mostly he was hungry.
Supper last night had been
a doughnut and a cup of coffee.
Breakfast today had been
a notch taken in his belt.
Floyd Mahannah
Stopover for Murder

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: James Hadley Chase, I'll Bury My Dead (1954)

Nomination for Worst Noir Metaphor of All Time:
"His Adam's apple flopped about like a frog on a hot stove.”

Nomination for Worst Noir Declaration of Love of All Time:
"This is the wrong time and place, my dear, but I'd better tell you now.
I'm in love with you. I guess I've been in love with you for years.
It was only when I thought I was going to lose you, I realized it.
Sorry, Lois, but there it is. Better late than never, I suppose.
Having got that off my chest, let's get busy.
There must be some lifebelts somewhere down here."

Grade: D+

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book Review: W. L. Heath, Violent Saturday (1955)

Length: 124 pages. Title: VIOLENT SATURDAY. Given this pair of facts, I was surprised by the relatively leisurely pacing of this novel. The story is set in the small town of Morgan, Alabama, where three strangers from Memphis arrive to rob the local bank. The first half of the book (and then some) consists of character portraits as we get to know the three robbers and the locals who will somehow be affected by their crime. And this is what provides Violent Saturday with much of its drama: As we are meeting our cast of Alabamians, the unstated question hanging over their heads is, How will they be involved in Saturday's violence? And just how violent does a Saturday have to be to earn the name "Violent Saturday," anyway? The gimmick is sort of like The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but the drama is greater. If you're on the bridge, then you're on the bridge--only one fate can await you. But if you're in the bank on Violent Saturday, there is a wider range of possibilities. Grade: B

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book Review: Lionel White, Clean Break [a.k.a. The Killing] (1955)

Johnny Clay, just paroled, masterminds a complicated racetrack robbery. His inspiration is that he will work with men remarkable only for their desperation, not their criminal backgrounds. Thus, when the job is done, the cops will have no idea whom to suspect. Lionel White's third-person narrative shifts deftly among the parties involved, sometimes making small jumps backward in time as it moves from character to character. The characters are fairly flat, and the prose is there just to get the story told, but these shifts in perspective keep things interesting and keep the pages turning. Grade: A-

Monday, January 4, 2010

Pulp Poem of the Week

In Clichy,
an elegant young man
threw himself
under a coach
with rubber wheels,
then, unscathed,
under a truck,
which pulverized him.

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

Friday, January 1, 2010

Book Review: Floyd Mahannah, Stopover for Murder (1953)

Rufe Baylor, an itinerant engineer, is on his way to a job in Alaska when he gets off a bus in a small California town. Short on money, he agrees to serve as a stiff in a fixed boxing match, which he somehow manages to win, thereby incurring the wrath of the boxing promoter. To this point--about 25 pages into the novel--Stopover for Murder seems a pleasant noir lite, but it soon morphs into a fairly traditional whodunit that Rufe must untangle. Grade: C+

Top Ten Novels Reviewed in 2009

1. Bill S. Ballinger, Portrait in Smoke (1950)
2. James M. Cain, Double Indemnity (1936)
3. James McKimmey, The Long Ride (1961)
4. John D. MacDonald, Soft Touch (1958)
5. Gil Brewer, The Brat (1957)
6. Bill S. Ballinger, The Tooth and the Nail (1955)
7. Marvin H. Albert, Devil in Dungarees (1960)
8. W. R. Burnett, High Sierra (1940)
9. Harry Whittington, Hell Can Wait (1960)
10. Paul Tremblay, The Little Sleep (2009)