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Lawrence Block, A Diet of Treacle
A Diet of Treacle (originally published as Pads Are for Passion under the house name Sheldon Lord) is a little different — it's a more traditional type of noir involving a trio of under-30s in 1960s Greenwich Village. Joe Milani is a vet of Korea who revels in the coolness he gets from a good marijuana high. Leon "Shank" Marsten, Joe's roommate, is just looking for his next deal or his next lay. Both of them surround themselves with Hip.
Anita Carbone, however, is very Square — a good little Italian girl whom Joe meets one night at The Palermo and can't get out of his mind afterward — she has the life he wishes he could return to after his having turned on and dropped out. But Anita wants what Joe has — unpredictability, what she sees as excitement.
A Diet of Treacle is much more a character piece than Block's other Hard Case Crime titles. It is also the first of his "sleaze" titles I've read that actually features a fair amount of sex talk — though a good portion of that concerns so-called "promiscuous virgins" (girls experienced in sex every way but the main route).
Block's style really captures the voice and spirit of the darker side of Beat and Hip, but in a way that makes me unsure if his research came from life or from other books. Luckily, while the main focus is on these three characters and their individual sex and drug experiences, there is a certain level of tension over the proceedings: we know something is going to happen, just not what.
In fact, when all hell finally breaks loose, it is a bit of a relief. Having really enjoyed Grifter's Game, The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and Lucky at Cards, this one comes across as comparatively weak, but A Diet of Treacle is still vintage Lawrence Block, and Block is always eminently readable.
Mickey Spillane, Dead Street
When Mickey Spillane died, he left behind several unfinished manuscripts. Lucky for us, they were left in the care of his good friend (and most vocal proponent) Max Allan Collins to prepare for publication. Most will require so much work to complete, however, that Dead Street is the only one that will be printed under Spillane's solo byline.
It's more than somewhat appropriate that Hard Case Crime is publishing a Spillane novel, since the publisher whose tone HCC is trying to recapture — Fawcett Gold Medal Books — was created to tap into the hardboiled paperback market that Spillane's work unearthed all on its own.
Twenty years ago, police captain Jack Stang lost his fiancée when she was abducted and the vehicle carrying her subsequently fell off a bridge into the Hudson River. Now retired, Stang learns that the love of his life is still alive — though blind and with complete memory loss of the period before the incident.
Stang is hired by someone who knows of their previous connection to protect her from people who still want what they think she knows. But can Jack stand being so close to her and falling in love all over again, when she doesn't even know who he is?
Dead Street has all the Spillane hallmarks: deep characterization, a fast plot, realistic dialogue (peppered generously with tough-guy slang), and a great deal of sensitivity. Anyone expecting an exclusively hardboiled experience is forgetting what a romantic Spillane was (Mike Hammer more than once let his heart rule his head to the detriment of a case, at least temporarily), and Dead Street is, above all, a love story.
According to Collins's afterword, eight chapters of Dead Street were already complete. Collins wrote the final three based on Spillane's notes and Collins's own discussions with the author. The transition is definitely noticeable, but perhaps only to a Collins fan like myself. Nothing against Spillane, but Collins is simply a more literate writer. He uses more complex sentences and includes more information in them. (This probably comes from his extensive comics work, having to put as much story as possible in those little boxes.) But he retains the tone of the rest of the book (as well as Spillane's signature knockout ending), so it hardly affects the book's impact, and the average reader probably won't notice the difference.
In fact, there's very little at all wrong with Dead Street. The atomic bomb subplot feels a bit dated (even when you consider that the book took ten years to write), but one doesn't really expect a Mickey Spillane novel to be grounded in the present day. Even though he is writing about the last quarter of the twentieth century, it's the 1950s all over again. Whether writing about Mike Hammer or Jack Stang (incidentally, the name of one of Spillane's best friends), he stripped-down prose harks back to the great old days of classic crime fiction — and that's always a trip worth taking.
Christa Faust, Money Shot
Retired porn star Angel Dare — who now runs an adult modeling agency called Daring Angels — was having a bad body day. So when she was called back to the set by her favorite director Sam Hammer ("kind of a cross between Santa Claus and John Holmes"), the prospect of working with new, hot talent Jesse Black ("twenty-one, Hollywood handsome, and legendary below the belt") for a quick $2,500 and her picture on the video cover was a big ego boost and impossible to resist.
What happened next was a surprise only to Angel Dare herself (and just goes to show that even women sometimes think with their genitals — and it gets them in trouble, too). As she begins Money Shot: "I'm sure you're wondering what a nice girl like me was doing left for dead in the trunk of a piece of shit Honda Civic out in the industrial wasteland of downtown Los Angeles. Or maybe we've met before and you're wondering why it hadn't happened sooner."
Christa Faust is the first female author to be published by the previously all-boys club known as Hard Case Crime, and it's easy to see why this book was chosen as the inaugural feminine entry: Money Shot starts off with attitude and never lets up. Those who may be concerned that it won't match up to the other "manly" books in the catalog need not worry. Faust plays hardball.
Her influences may be readily apparent, at least at the beginning (Boogie Nights and Kill Bill jumped immediately to mind), but Faust has a voice all her own and she combines those influences along with a heavy dose of knowledge regarding the sex industry (including but not limited to whatever an "airtight reverse cowgirl" might be) to create a novel that feels completely original and yet totally familiar. I haven't had this much fun reading about sex since Terry Southern's Blue Movie.
With Angel Dare, Faust has created a character who is unforgettable. However, she is not yet in a book that is quite her equal. Money Shot's fantastic start does not translate to a bang-up finish, and this is a story that wanted — no, needed — a strong ending to match the stellar beginning and middle. The solution and conclusion are simply disappointing in comparison. Still, Faust is a powerful writer and one who will definitely produce greater works in the future. She's fierce, and I have no doubt she's here to stay.
Adrienne Jones, Gypsies Stole My Tequila
Joe Blood, former frontman of the famous late '70s punk band Blood Blister (you remember them, right?) is — horror of horrors! — about to turn 40. However this birthday promises to be very different from the others. Seventeen years ago, Joe and his bandmates Vin and Deke made a blood pact to kill themselves once they reached that age, and a cigar-smoking "time beast" has planted itself in Joe's kitchen calendar to make sure they keep their promise.
Still trying to live his life like it's the '70s, Joe dresses and acts the part of a punk has-been, even though his day job consists of working at a butcher shop (dressed like a cow), and his sole form of transport, a scooter he calls Road Bastard, is robbed daily by preteens who think he is a joke.
But Gypsies Stole My Tequila (which was originally published in the first Amityville House of Pancakes anthology) is not just about the sad life of an aging rock star. Adrienne Jones's comic novella is also about second chances. Joe's second chance comes in the form of Vin's son Max and his bandmates Pez and Shane. They have talent; they just need the guidance of someone with a musical vision. And Vin is convinced that the person they need is Joe.
What follows is bound to be familiar to most readers, but it is rendered no less effective for its conventionality. Hell, the ending is practically sentimental, which makes it by far the most traditional work I've read from this normally outré author. Other than its somewhat orthodox base, however, the only real weak point of Gypsies Stole My Tequila is the time beast itself — the catalyst of the entire plot — who, regardless, never comes across as believable or even necessary.
Jones's voice is so unique, however, and she makes the character of Joe so unforgettable, that everything comes across as completely original. In fact, written by just about anyone else, Gypsies Stole My Tequila would be practically groundbreaking, but coming from the author of truly off-the-wall books like The Hoax and Temple of Cod, it can't help but be mildly disappointing. That said, it's still a great introduction for those unfamiliar with Jones's style and hopefully will lead readers to seek out her more exceptional works.
Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Slide
When two authors with very distinctive styles collaborate, one's or the other's personality usually dominates. Or the resulting novel is such a mishmash that you can easily tell who wrote which section. Luckily, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr have somehow managed once again to avoid that with Slide, which contains one of the smoothest narrative noices ever put on paper.
Slide is the sequel to the authors' first collaboration, Bust (also published by Hard Case Crime). That first book was my pick for one of the best books of 2006, but this one doesn't quite live up to it.
Both Bruen and Starr are masters of darkness in their preferred settings — Bruen in Ireland, Starr in New York — and Slide jumps from the one setting to the other with ease. Max Fisher, former computer-company mogul, has changed careers: he is now The M.A.X., a "gangsta" crack dealer complete with his own "ho," Felicia (who turns out to be not as dumb as her massively augmented breasts would seem to imply).
Max's ex-secretary/ex-mistress Angela Petrakos (read Bust for the details of their history together) has gone back to Ireland (where she doesn't seem quite so "Irish" as she did in New York) and has hooked up with a lunatic named Slide (because he says "I'm gonna let it slide" to those who wrong him — and then doesn't!) who is planning a career as a famous serial killer. Only Slide is under the impression that he has kidnapped Angela.
Slide is extremely dark fun all the way. Bruen and Starr put their characters (who are hardly likeable, even on their best days) through wringer after wringer (a Bruen specialty) just for their and our amusement. And it is quite a ride. I've never seen (except maybe from these two) a novel with no characters the reader is intended to identify with — simply a cast of hateful losers who deserve everything they get. I can't wait to see what Bruen and Starr cook up for their reported third novel together.
But unfortunately, all this proves to be just so much decoration, there possibly to hide the fact that there's not a very interesting story taking place. Whether this is due to "sequelitis," "sophomore slump," or simply "second story in a trilogy syndrome" (see Back to the Future II and The Two Towers for further evidence of this phenomenon) is not for me to say. All I know is that Slide was much more difficult to finish than its predecessor — and, after finishing it, I could remember certain scenes (fans should watch out for cameos from two particular authors) or specific turns of phrase, but not much actual plot. It is as if the authors knew they had a cup of really weak coffee and tried to add enough cream and sugar for us to not notice there wasn't much else in the cup.
That said, Slide is probably still going to be unlike anything else you read this year. It is a very different kind of comic noir, and one that you'll likely want to revisit. Also, once again artist Richard B. Farrell (Bust, Lemons Never Lie, Robbie's Wife) has produced one of the more evocative book covers I've seen lately. This only adds to the effect of what is already a rollicking, fun ride, just one that may not linger in your memory.
Paul S. Powers (edited by Laurie Powers),
Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street
Among all the famous writers who started in the pulp era, the name Paul S. Powers is one that is not well known. This is likely because most of the stories he wrote for Wild West Weekly (and others) were published under pseudonyms and house names. Also because his one novel, Doc Dillahay (also known as Six-Gun Doctor), was not a big seller, and it is a rare author who achieves fame and fortune by writing only short works — short stories are easily forgotten, whereas novels last much longer in the memory.
Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street is Paul Powers's memoir of his years in the pulp machine, producing thousands of words a week, primarily for publisher Street & Smith's cadre of genre magazines, and most recognizably under the name "Ward Stevens." His most popular characters were Sonny Tabor and Kid Wolf, and Tabor's adventures were even adapted for a short time on radio.
Equally as interesting is the history behind the publication of Pulp Writer. Written around 1943, Powers tried to get it published but was rejected. He then placed it in a trunk where it stayed until his granddaughter Laurie Powers, who had done her thesis on Doc Dillahay, began asking family members for information about her grandfather. Amazingly enough, one relative had boxes of Powers's old papers, including this manuscript.
She tells this story in the introduction of Pulp Writer, and she also uses the other papers to piece together some facts about the remainder of her grandfather's life after the writing of the memoir. Altogether, this gives a much fuller picture of the life of a very interesting (and productive — it is estimated he wrote over ten million words in twenty years) writer whose name is little-known even among pulp-era aficianados.
And Powers is not shy about revealing how he succeeded during this era. Because of his persistence (he started out writing short, two-line jokes), and his ability to gear his stories to their markets, he states that the Depression hardly affected his income. Powers also goes into the process of getting published, working with editors, and how important it is to be flexible in a constantly changing marketplace. This is information straight from the man who used it, making Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street vital for anyone interested in being a published writer, or just interested in the process.
Powers writes his story just like you'd expect a pulp writer to: smoothly and with very little dressing. His plain, clear language makes it easy to go right along with him as he tells his tales of writing and publishing and struggling for the next paycheck while trying to make ends meet with a family depending on him. It's a really great read, and one of the best books I've read all year.
And after you read about Powers's life, make sure to pick up some of his fiction. A collection of four Sonny Tabor novellas called Desert Justice was reprinted in 2005 by Leisure Books as an affordable paperback. Others are available in hardcover and large-print formats, and they're a lot of fun: filled with action and engaging characters, especially Tabor himself. In addition, they allow the modern reader to essentially go back in time, if not to the real Wild West, at least to the period when they brought a lot of joy to readers looking for an escape during a rough period.
Robert Terrall, Kill Now, Pay Later
The name Robert Terrall may not mean much to you. But how about Robert Kyle (the name under which Kill Now, Pay Later was originally published)? Or Jose Gonzalez? If those names don't ring a bell, another one might. Terrall was also one of two men who wrote Mike Shayne novels under the pseudonym Brett Halliday (the other was Davis Dresser, Shayne's creator).
Shayne's name will undoubtedly be familiar to most crime fans, being a character who was not only featured in those novels and a popular radio series (later TV), but who also loaned his name to a magazine (Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine) that published stories by many of crime fiction's biggest names. "Halliday" (presumably Dresser) was also the host (after John Dickson Carr) of Murder by Experts, one of the best crime anthology radio shows of its day.
As Kyle, this prolific writer's claim to fame was a series of novels featuring P.I. Ben Gates. Kill Now, Pay Later is the third in that series of five, and Hard Case Crime has released it under Terrall's own name for the first time.
Hired by an insurance company to guard wedding presents, Gates is subsequently drugged and wakes up to a missing diamond bracelet and two dead bodies. Passing out on the job is not likely to bring new referrals, so Gates takes it upon himself to solve the mystery (against the wishes of Lieutenant Minturn of the state police, who is pretty much satisfied that Gates had something to do with the crime) before he becomes corpse number three.
Unlike most of the other books put out by Hard Case Crime, this one is a pretty straightforward private eye tale. Gates has an eye for the ladies (and, more importantly, they for him), which makes question and answer sessions interesting, but the actual solution — thought it takes place in the midst of a conflagration — is rather anticlimactic. And the tidy, tie-up-all-the-loose-ends conclusion, while satisfying in its own way, is certainly not what Hard Case Crime readers will be expecting.
Still, Ben Gates and his friend/colleague are charming characters I would follow to another book, and Terrall's style is smooth enough to make Kill Now, Pay Later a light, easygoing read that would probably appeal to fans of Erle Stanley Gardner's novels under the name A.A. Fair (Top of the Heap, for example).
Israel Zangwill, The Big Bow Mystery
In an interesting twist, New York upstart Dybbuk Press has gone from publishing solid horror anthologies (namely Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre and Badass Horror) to rereleasing Jewish-related public-domain texts. The first was Maurice Liber's highly respected biography of Rashi, an important 11th-century rabbi.
Then came two novels by well-known British Zionist Israel Zangwill. Merely Mary Ann is a romance that was adapted into a Janet Gaynor film. The second of Zangwill's novels to be published by this burgeoning small press is The Big Bow Mystery, widely accepted to be the first novel-length locked-room mystery. (Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was not only the first mystery of any kind but also the first of this kind.)
On a foggy morning in early December, Mr. Arthur Constant is murdered in his lodgings at Mrs. Drabdump's in Bow, England. Due to the deceased's positive state of mind, the coroner rules out suicide. Unfortunately, due to the location of the body and an additional set of circumstances, he also rules out murder. The ensuing mystery brings George Grodman — ex-policeman and popular author of Criminals I Have Caught — out of retirement, much to the chagrin of his former colleagues.
That is just the beginning, but that is pretty much all that is written toward the solution of the puzzling death until the final chapter, where all is revealed. For the intervening pages, author Zangwill holds up a mirror to Victorian society and laughs at what he sees. Zangwill draws his characters with very broad strokes and names them with a Dickensian flair (let's just say that Mrs. Drabdump's lodgings leave something to be desired). The solution is clever and imaginative in its own way, but it is the modern-style humor (very dry and typically British) that keeps The Big Bow Mystery accessible to the 21st-century reader (though fans of Bleak House will likely enjoy it as well).
The Big Bow Mystery is available in many electronic forms online for free, including text from Project Gutenberg and audio from Librivox (with an entertaining and adept performance from Adrian Praetzellis that is all the more astonishing coming from an amateur), so why would you actually spend money on this particular edition? Well, first, publisher Tim Lieder's introduction puts the book into its proper social context. Also contained within are several original illustrations by Justin Weber and Thien Tran that add considerably to the reading of this century-old text — not to mention the evocative cover painting by Mark Gerther, Merry-Go-Round, dating from 1919. Plus, this edition also includes a bonus short story, Zangwill's "Cheating the Gallows," which is similar in structure (it's a short mystery), but has a very strange solution that makes it an odd piece of work indeed.
Paul Levine, Trial and Error
(Reviewer's note: As this is the fourth entry in a continuing series, I suggest beginning with the first book, Solomon vs. Lord, and reading your way through. I apologize in advance to those who choose to read on and have plot secrets from the first book and its sequel revealed to them.)
Trial and Error is the first novel in the Solomon vs. Lord to actually pit Solomon versus Lord since the first one, aptly titled Solomon vs. Lord. The actual case is based on the technicality that a murder committed during a crime makes the criminal instantly culpable for the victim's death, even if he or she did not actually fire the shot.
This is how Victoria Lord gets her first big professional case. She hopes it will bring in big money to the firm of Solomon & Lord, but her partner ("in law and in love") Steve Solomon sees it differently and offers to defend the fellow.
This really upsets Steve's nephew Bobby, a 12-year-old Asperger's semi-genius who can speak dolphin and work anagrams in his head — because Bobby knows the crime, perpetrated under the banner of Animal Rights, was a phony because the pieces don't fit logically.
Trial and Error is author Paul Levine's fourth romantic comedy/legal thriller in this series in two-and-a-half years, and he's finally showing some signs of wear. This entry is the shortest one yet, but at least its size fits its plot better than Kill All the Lawyers's did; this one is a quick weekend read.
Bobby's anagrams, a highlight of others like The Deep Blue Alibi, are weaker here, but this could be more due to the boy's burgeoning interest in baseball (turns out Bobby has a "live arm") than any lack of imagination on the author's part. A lot of the sexiness of the previous novels is also missing in Trial and Error. Levine seems to have cut the story to the bare bones in order to keep the page count down. And the cover art is the most pedestrian of the series so far.
But there's still a lot to love about Trial and Error. The characters are still the familiar ones from before (though Solomon's and Lord's quirky parents — Herbert T. Solomon is a personal favorite — barely make a token appearance), and Solomon makes a surprising decision that opens the door for further adventures — a decision that is both narratively sound and, at this point, just about necessary to keep things going in the right direction.
Max Allan Collins, Deadly Beloved (Ms. Tree series)
Any new Max Allan Collins novel is cause for celebration, especially one from Hard Case Crime, because they are revisiting his best characters from his earlier days. First, they reprinted the first two novels Collins ever published (featuring professional thief Nolan) in Two for the Money. The next year saw the telling of his professional hitman Quarry's "final" story in The Last Quarry, which was based in part on the short film "A Matter of Principal" (available in the DVD set Max Allan Collins's Black Box).
His latest, Deadly Beloved, features yet another celebrated return, that of Ms. Michael Tree. What most people don't know is that Collins (along with artist Terry Beatty) is responsible for the longest-running private investigator comic book series. That it featured a female P.I. was even more ground-breaking, as Ms. Tree originated in 1980, before Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton came to fame with their girl gumshoes.
Deadly Beloved is the first all-prose novel to star Ms. Michael Tree, and it features cover art by Beatty in a nice combination of the usual Hard Case Crime motif and Beatty's own comic style (Ms. Tree's features have been softened considerably, for one thing). Ms. Tree has appeared in short stories — most notably "Inconvenience Store," which was adapted into the indie film Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market with Collins himself directing (it is also available in the Black Box DVD set) — but this is her first long-form appearance.
Comics have been a large part of Collins's career: he wrote the daily Dick Tracy strip for fifteen years, and even Road to Perdition started out as a graphic novel. This is simply a warning for those who may be put off by the comic book–style character names in Deadly Beloved. They aren't quite Chester Gould–quality puns, but they're close. (If the Ms. Tree/mystery pun doesn't make you groan, you'll probably be fine.)
Past fans of the character and her adventures will notice immediately that a good portion of the backstory that originally served as the impetus for Ms. Tree's exploits has been changed to suit this brand-new story, the murder of a philandering accountant by his jealous wife. But those coming to Deadly Beloved with little foreknowledge are in for a surprise: Ms. Tree is a hard-boiled woman with a heart as dark as any male private eye they've come into contact with before. Not the shy, retiring type, she has no compunctions against putting a bullet into anyone who gets in her way. Fans of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series (Collins is a highly vocal fan) will find a kindred soul in Ms. Tree.
The only real downside in Deadly Beloved is in the way the story is told. Its visually related origins are very apparent, especially in the use of the "telling her story to her therapist" conceit, which is usually only successful in comics or movies. Collins makes it work for the most part, but the jumping back and forth from the actual story to the "outer" conversation was jarring. Still, Collins has included some of his leanest prose yet in Deadly Beloved — I guess writing for those little boxes has made him an expert at picking his words carefully for the greatest impact — and I look forward to more adventures from both Collins and Tree.
Cornell Woolrich, Fright
The year is 1915 — not the most popular year in which to set a crime novel, to be sure — but the year is really unimportant, except to make the events that occur in Fright even more shocking than they would have been in 1950, when it was first published under the pseudonym George Hopley.
Preston Marshall is a lucky man. He has a job on Wall Street and a lovely fiancee, but a single drunken night leads to an event that, one week later — the week after the sinking of the Lusitania, in fact, though the two occurrences are not otherwise connected — begins his downward spiral into a life where every minute is filled with ... wait for it! ... Fright.
Author Cornell Woolrich is probably best known for writing the novella that Alfred Hitchcock turned into his classic film, Rear Window. (His work has been the basis for numerous radio, TV, and film adaptations, one of the most recent being the Angelina Jolie–Antonio Banderas potboiler Original Sin, loosely based on Waltz into Darkness with all the noir trappings intact.)
All these works share some similarities, despite their different approaches, namely protagonists who respond to the events around them far more dramatically than those events really deserve — at least at first. Marshall's reactions in Fright get him into a deeper quagmire than his original actions ever would have.
Woolrich uses this intense nature of Marshall's to keep the suspense level high. So high, in fact, that a couple of scenes — if the tension were just one notch higher — would work just as well played as comedy. But no one is laughing as the events in Fright get darker and darker still (shocking even this jaded reader; I can only imagine how they affected the 1950 audience), culminating in a tragic ending that twists all that came before (but you have to pay attention to details to pick up on its real significance).
This is a terrifically suspenseful dark crime novel from an author whose name is synonymous with noir among those who know the subgenre. Used copies of the "George Hopley" original (and, until now, only) edition of Fright can run upwards of fifty dollars, and it is great to see this Cornell Woolrich classic revived by Hard Case Crime for a much less upsetting price.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)