Category Archives: Hardboiled

It was a sweet setup, with a ninety thousand payoff

Richard Stark’s Parker, by Darwyn Cooke

I don’t review many comics or graphic novels here. That’s not because I don’t read them; it’s just a question of focus. Graphic novels aren’t novels with art, and it’s a mistake to review them as if they are. It’s also why when I do talk about them I prefer just to talk about comics. It’s obvious when you talk about a comic that the art matters just as much as the writing. The phrase Graphic novel though, that implies to me it’s an illustrated novel and that’s not really what a comic is.

Except of course when that’s exactly what it is. Darwyn Cooke’s Richard Stark’s Parker is a dazzling adaptation of the original Richard Stark (a pseudoynm for Donald E Westlake) novel The Hunter. It’s beautifully drawn with a well-chosen bluish-gray colour palette and every page drips with early ’60’s cool. Although Westlake personally approved the project he sadly didn’t live to see the finally finished work. That’s a great shame, but Cooke did him proud.

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That image should really be in landscape of course, but then it wouldn’t fit properly into the space I have. So it goes. Buy the comic.

The plot is simple enough. Parker has been wronged; robbed and left for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get even. He doesn’t care who he hurts along the way. Parker’s only weapons are his charisma, his wits, his sheer physical presence and the strength of his hands. He won’t need more.

Here’s the third page (not counting title sequences and so on), with Parker striding into town. Anyone familiar with how the novel opens will immediately be able to see how without using a single word Cooke captures Westlake/Stark’s prose.

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Parker soon tracks down his ex-wife, and it’s then that we see quite how much of a bastard he is. Parker isn’t a hero, he’s not even really an anti-hero, but he is a a protagonist. Parker drives the story at breakneck pace and it’s never less than exciting, but equally Parker is never anything better than brutal scum.

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It’s important to say (for a Guardian reader like me anyway) that I don’t think this is glorifying violence against women. We’re not supposed to like Parker. Rather this shows how Parker solves problems – with his fists. Parker doesn’t care whether the person on the other end is man or woman, powerful or weak, he just cares about what he wants and about getting even with anyone he thinks has wronged him. Unfortunately for his ex, however good her reasons may have been at the time she definitely wronged him.

The two pages above though do help illustrate one potential problem with this comic. The female characters tend to be quite similarly drawn and simply aren’t as developed as the males. Mostly the women are pretty blondes with snub noses; the visual range for the men is much wider. I’ve not seen enough of Cooke’s other work to know whether this is just an idiosyncrasy of his particular style or whether it reflects a lack of female character differentiation in the underlying novel. It certainly feels authentically early ’60s, but not perhaps in a good way – this is a story in which men drive the action, and in which women are essentially passive.

Adapting a novel presents some challenges, not least how to deal with situations where it’s hard to avoid including solid chunks of text. The backstory to what happened to Parker, to why he wants revenge so badly, takes a little while to tell and telling it all through images could detract from the main thrust of the tale. Cooke comes up with an elegant solution, and I’ve excerpted a page below which I think neatly demonstrates it.

photo 1

Firstly I think that’s a beautifully evocative piece of art in terms of illustrating the planning stage of a heist. It’s also though an elegant way to insert a fairly large chunk of text without having to use multiple pages in which there’d be relatively little actually happening. Cooke adapts his art to the needs of the narrative, but still maintains a consistent style. The result is a comic which is a consistent winner at the level of the individual page, but which is even better as a cohesive work.

One last example. If you’re a fan of classic noir cinema this should hopefully stir your heart a little. If you’re not, well, Guy Savage can recommend some films for you that will almost certainly change your mind.

photo 2

I opened by talking about how I don’t review comics here much. I made an exception for this one because I thought this such a success. This is a comic which pulses with ’60s hardboiled cool. It’s one to read with some hard bop playing in the background and a whisky on the table (well, really a bourbon but I’m an Islay fan, so whisky it is). If you don’t like comics I’m not saying this will convert you, but if you do or if you’re a Richard Stark fan and are interested in seeing a fresh adaptation of this much adapted novel (at least three movie treatments so far), then it’s a definite win.

Finally, a short technical note. I read this comic on my ipad using an app called Comixology. The app works beautifully and is how I read most of my comics these days, though given how lovely this one turned out to be I did find myself slightly wishing I’d just got a hardcopy.

Cooke has adapted two more Parker novels after this one, and has plans to do a fourth. I fully expect to be reading all of them.

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Filed under Comics/Graphic Novels, Cooke, Darwyn, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Noir, Stark, Richard, Westlake, Donald E.

He was the kind of puppy that would lick any hand that he was afraid to bite.

The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald

The Way Some People Die is where MacDonald stops imitating Chandler and Hammet and becomes his own writer. It’s the best of the Lew Archer series so far (it’s number three) and it’s as twisted a piece of classic hardboiled as you could wish to read.

The cover above is the one I have, from Black Lizard which is a Vintage Crime imprint. It’s a great cover, and physically a nice book, but I couldn’t resist sharing this older cover with you which I also love.

Lew Archer is hired by a concerned mother to find her wayward daughter., Galatea. The daughter is “crazy for men”, and now she’s disappeared with one leaving a good job as a nurse behind and with the only news being a postcard from San Francisco. It’s not much of a case, girls leave home all the time, but Archer agrees to make some easy inquiries. Before he leaves the mother’s house he takes a look at a photo of Galatea:

Pretty was hardly the word. With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets.

As you’d expect, it’s not as simple as a young woman who’s grown up and left home. Archer isn’t the only person looking for Galatea and the man she ran away with may be as much a danger to her as the people she’s hiding from. All this and somewhere out there is a package that people are prepared to kill to find (yup, there’s a MacGuffin).

What follows is a byzantine web of greed, double-cross and murder with Archer painstakingly working his way through to unravel just what it is that Galatea has got herself mixed up in. Finding Galatea isn’t Archer’s problem, it’s keeping her alive once he’s found her. All that and Galatea herself is no maiden waiting to be rescued, she’s as hardboiled as the rest of them.

On the level of a detective story The Way Some People Die works extremely well. Archer’s methods make sense (mostly he talks to people, follows up connections, occasionally circles around to talk to someone again once he has new info, it’s dogged detective work). The plot though complicated isn’t needlessly so, by the end you can see why things played out as they did.

All the elements of a great hardboiled novel are present and correct. To actually be a great hardboiled novel though you need more than stock ingredients and snappy dialogue. You need to do something that others aren’t doing, or at least aren’t doing as well. You need to reach beyond the genre.

What raises this novel beyond just being solid genre work is MacDonald’s eye for psychological depth, mood, and description. The Way Some People Die is suffused with a pervasive sense of weariness and sadness.At one point Archer observes of Galatea’s mother:

She lived in a world where people did this or that because they were good or evil. In my world people acted because they had to.

Later, Archer finds himself in a motel room with a pretty girl turned junkie who makes a living conning out-of-towners into thinking they’re going to get lucky:

It was an ugly little room, walled and ceiled with cheap green plaster that reminded me of public locker rooms, furnished with one bed, one chair, one peeling veneer dresser and a rug the moths had been at. It was a hutch for quick rabbit-matings, a cell where lonely men could beat themselves to sleep with a dark brown bottle. The girl looked too good for the room, though I knew she wasn’t.

That’s great description, and it’s not the only example I could have used (there’s a brilliant blow-by-blow account of a fixed fight at one point). Good as it is though it isn’t where MacDonald becomes his own writer. It’s his characterisation that does that.

Take the character of Dowser. Dowser is a racketeer, a mobster, a rich man who lives  in a gated house surrounded by bought women and hired men. So far so standard, but as Archer comes to know Dowser he sees a pathetic and empty man terrified of his own extinction.

Dowser is short, so short that even when he wears sandals by the pool he wears ones with two-inch heels. He can’t bear to be left alone, when his men leave the room he insists Archer stays until one of them returns. He can’t live without the validation of an audience, someone to talk to, to talk at. His real communication is in money, he can’t trust anyone he isn’t paying because he doesn’t know what they want.

It’s an extraordinary portrait. Dowser is humanised, but never ceases to be terrifying. He’s a monster, a hateful creation, and  MacDonald brings out how pitiful Dowser is without the reader ever forgetting quite how dangerous Dowser is too and so without ever actually making him pitiable.

Dowser isn’t the only great character here. MacDonald is forensic, but also compassionate and in contrast to Dowser is Keith Dalloway. Dalloway is a failed actor, a man too good looking for his own good and a drunk. MacDonald takes what with most writers would be a minor supporting character and gives him humanity. What in a film would be almost a walk-on part becomes something much more here, a study of missed chances and a reminder of human frailty.

The reason great crime,  more than any other genre, overlaps with literary fiction is that great crime doesn’t just ask what, it asks why too. MacDonald could have just made Dowser another mob boss from central casting, and if he had this would still have been a very solid novel. He could have made Dalling another good-looking act0r-wannabee, and the plot wouldn’t have suffered any.

MacDonald though asks why. He makes Dowser, Dalloway, Galatea, into real people who become more than just a mob boss, a patsy and a damsel in distress/femme fatale. The result is a book that’s no longer merely influenced by Hammet and Chandler but, that stands alongside them.

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Filed under California, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US Literature

“Death always doubles off”

The Crazy Kill, by Chester Himes

Over Christmas I read an article which quoted PD James. She talked about how the pleasure of crime fiction was the knowledge that by the end of the book order would be restored. Bad things happen, but good wins out. The world is, ultimately, just.

That’s true of some crime fiction, but not of any crime fiction I enjoy reading. It’s not true of Chester Himes. In the 1950s Harlem of Himes’ novels the bad guys generally do get punished, but so do several other people along the way and there’s no restoration of order because there was never any order to begin with.

Here’s the opening of The Crazy Kill:

It was four o’clock, Wednesday morning, July 14th, in Harlem, U.S.A. Seventh Avenue was as dark and lonely as haunted graves.
A colored man was stealing a bag of money.

The bag is full of change. It’s on the seat of a double-parked car, just near a cop on patrol and a grocery store manager who’s opening up and will be back in a moment to pick up the bag and take it inside. Problem is, a bag doesn’t have to be left alone long in Harlem to go missing.

Nearby at a wake Reverent Short is leaning out of a first-story window watching proceedings. He leans too far out, falls and ends up in a large basket of bread sitting outside the bakery below.

The Reverend’s fine, but when he returns to the wake he does so with what he claims to be a vision. He saw a dead man, and when the partygoers go outside they find right in that same bread basket the body of Valentine Haines, stabbed through the heart with the knife still jutting out.

Before long everyone’s wondering who killed Val. Was it Johnny, local gangster and Val’s business partner? Was it Dulcy, Johnny’s girl and Val’s sister? What about Chink Charlie? He’s got the hots for Dulcy and he owns a knife just like the one sticking out of the corpse. Everyone says Val had no real enemies, but there seem to be a lot of people who might be in the frame for his death.

The Reverend’s throwing out accusations and stirring up trouble; Dulcy doesn’t seem to mind Chink Charlie paying her a little attention; and Johnny’s a jealous man with a violent temper. If things carry on as they are Val’s body won’t be the only one with a knife sticking out of it. Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed are soon on the scene and applying pressure.

The questioning was conducted in a soundproof room without windows on the first floor. This room was known to the Harlem underworld as the “Pigeon Nest.” It was said that no matter how tough an egg was, if they kept him in there long enough he would hatch out a pigeon.

I won’t say more about the plot. It’s only there because without it nothing would happen. As ever with Himes the real substance is in the characters, and in the sense of Harlem life. Johnny is a successful gambler and gets a lot of respect, even from the police. He wears sharp suits and drives a fancy car. The Reverend says, and believes, that he’s sworn off all alcohol, but he drinks a nerve tonic of his own devising which is a mix of hard drugs and harder liquor.

This is a Harlem filled with gambling joints, whorehouses, the Holy Roller Church where the Reverend preaches and where the congregation roll around on the floor when the spirit moves them. It’s Summer, it’s hot as hell, and tempers are running high. The only place there’s any relief is in the bars and gambling joints where people like Johnny spend their time:

Inside it was cool, and so dark he had to take off his sun glasses on entering. The unforgettable scent of whisky, whores and perfume filled his nostrils, making him feel relaxed.

In a sense this is Damon Runyon territory. It’s a different decade, a different part of New York and everyone’s black, but otherwise he’d recognise a lot of this. Just look at the names some of the characters have: Chink Charlie, Baby Sis, Reverend Short, Valentine Haines, Deep South, Mamie Pullen, Dulcy, Johnny, Pigmeat, Poor Boy, Doll Baby, Alamena, and of course Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed themselves.

The difference though is that Chester Himes doesn’t write comic novels. His characters have none of the loveable nature of Runyon’s rogues. Take away Runyon’s humour, and his affection, and the milieu isn’t so different. Damon Runyon after all portrays a world in which people scheme, cheat, take crazy risks and kill. Runyon does it with a laugh. Himes’ books have plenty of laughs, but hollow ones, and you can smell his characters’ sweat.

There’s always a question with novels forming part of a series as to where one should start. With the Harlem cycle the answer has to be at the beginning with A Rage in Harlem. The answer definitely shouldn’t be The Crazy Kill. It’s solid, but probably the weakest of the three I’ve read so far.

Jones and Ed barely feature, which isn’t vastly problematic as Himes’ interest is always more in his criminals than his detectives, but their presence sets up expectations about the kind of novel this is which aren’t quite realised. The plot, clearly intentionally, makes very little sense which is fine as Himes is all about the atmosphere but does make what happens all a little random (which again is clearly intentional, but even so is a little unsatisfying).

Although The Crazy Kill features a crime, and detectives who solve that crime, it’s not really a detective novel. At the end I found myself wondering if it would have been better with a little more detecting, or with none at all. It’s messing with Mr. In-Between that causes the problems there are here.

In writing this I found two reviews online by other bloggers, here and here. That first link has two extremely well chosen quotes and so I’d strongly suggest at least following that to get a little more of a taste of Himes’ prose. Otherwise, if you’ve read the first two Himes and enjoyed them then you should absolutely read this, but if you’re not already a fan this won’t be the one to convert you.

The cover up above is from the Vintage Crime edition, which I don’t particularly recommend as it has absurdly large margin spaces. There’s a Penguin Modern Classics edition now available, and if I were buying this now that’s what I would get. For the curious there’s also apparently a biography of Himes written by James Sallis, which makes it rather fitting that this review follows my review of Drive.

On a very final note, I found two alternative covers for this online, which I thought I’d share because they’re just great examples of vintage cover art. Particularly the first.

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Filed under African-American Literature, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, Noir

Keep cool, fool

The Real Cool Killers, by Chester Himes

I read (and wrote about, here) the first of Chester Himes’ Harlem detective novels back in March 2009. It was a larger than life portrait of 1950s Harlem that showed it as an absurdist abyss of poverty and violence. It was lively, funny and ultimately very angry. I liked it.

Himes didn’t just write genre fiction, in fact he didn’t even mostly write genre fiction, but it’s the Harlem detective novels for which he’s (not very well) remembered. That’s probably unfair, but serious works about the impact of racism on labour relations just aren’t as easy a sell as fast moving crime novels with oversized guns and frequently comic mayhem.

Well, it’s a year and a half later and here I am reading another of his genre novels, and I still haven’t read one of the serious ones. The funniest thing about The Real Cool Killers though is that for all it’s lurid excess and mordant humour it comes with a sucker punch. It’s hard hitting, exciting and grotesque but by the end of it all it makes real points about Harlem life. It’s a serious novel after all.

Here’s the setup. A white cola salesman named Galen is in a black bar in Harlem watching the locals dance to the jukebox. A black man takes exception to Galen’s presence and tries to cut his throat with a knife. The bartender protects Galen, and ends up cutting the knifeman’s arm off with a short-handled axe.

Galen leaves the bar, but outside gets chased down the street by another black man named Sonny who’s firing a pistol after him. Soon after, Galen is killed, shot dead in front of a teenage street gang called the Real Cool Moslems (none of whom are moslem). It looks like Galen was killed by Sonny, but Sonny’s pistol only fired blanks – he was high and looking to give someone a scare. That means there was at least a third person after Galen. It also means it really wasn’t Galen’s night.

By the time Harlem detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed turn up there’s a huge crowd gathered. Matters get out of hand with the teen gang. Coffin Ed opens fire and kills an unarmed gang member and shoots a bystander in the leg. It’s chaos, it’s Harlem in the 1950s and it sets the tone for a novel the entire story of which takes place in just one night.

It takes a while for the police to realise that Sonny’s gun wasn’t loaded, so when he escapes from custody they set up a dragnet over the whole area and start house to house searches for him. Nothing can get in or out. Meanwhile, Grave Digger carries out his own investigation using his local contacts and street knowledge. He has to work alone. Coffin Ed is under suspension for his two shootings and it turns out that might be for the best because as Grave Digger digs deeper he starts to realise that Coffin Ed’s own daughter may be somehow involved.

I have to admit, I rather groaned when I found out that Coffin Ed’s daughter might be involved. Even in the 1950s it must already have been a cliché. Thankfully it’s the only one and it’s at least used well.

The novel follows two main strands. One is Coffin Ed kicking down doors and beating up anyone who might know anything, determined to find out what went down. The other follows the Real Cool Moslems – black teenagers who dress up as fake arabs and who luck into hiding Sonny after he gets away from the police. Both strands get steadily darker as the night goes on. Coffin Ed finds out that there were good reasons for Galen to have enemies. Sonny finds that he might have been better off in police custody than the gang’s as their leader Sheik starts thinking of ways to amuse himself with his captive.

This is the opposite of the traditional cosy crime novel. Here the criminals aren’t cold blooded, they’re hyped up on drugs, furious or just plain malicious for the sake of it. They act on impulse and try to cover up afterwards and generally they’re not particularly competent. Grave Digger too is no Sherlock Holmes. He’s not stupid but his way of finding out whodunnit mostly involves beating people up until they tell him what they know. The whole picture is one of savage brutality and casual violence. The only white faces present are the police and the occasional visitor from outside Harlem come to enjoy an illicit thrill that they can’t get back in their part of town. Here, a white club goer complains about Grave Digger roughing up a witness in front of him, and Grave Digger responds:

“I’m just a cop,” Grave Digger said thickly. “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime-ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe.”

Grave Digger is no politer to other black men. Later that night he returns to the diner where Galen’s evening began. A couple of seats are cleared for him. The men previously in those seats object until they realise they’re dealing with a cop.

Both rose with alacrity, picked up their glasses and vacated the stools, grinning at Grave Digger obsequeiously.
“Don’t show me your teeth,” Grave Digger snarled. “I’m no dentist. I don’t fix teeth. I’m a cop. I’ll knock your teeth out.”
The men doused their grins and slunk away.

Grave Digger spends the whole novel angry. What’s fuelling that anger though is something more than the lies he’s told and the ugliness of what led to Galen’s death. What really makes Grave Digger angry is Harlem itself. It’s a place born of inequality, a place where he’s assured by someone that Galen wouldn’t have been killed for sleeping with a man’s wife because sleeping with a white man doesn’t count as infidelity – it’s just an easy way to bring some more money into the family home. Harlem is the zoo and the whites are keepers or visitors, all of them wondering why the animals behave so badly while making sure they don’t get out of their cages.

As the novel reached the end, the pointlessness of it all became inescapable. This is a book in which a fair number of people die and in which a lot of others go down for some serious time. It’s all meaningless. It’s just another night in Harlem and that’s the sucker punch I talked about at the opening of this blog entry. Everything that’s happens during the long Harlem night is exciting, it’s hardboiled, but it’s also futile and ugly and Himes wants the reader to know that. As dawn breaks the tone shifts and it’s suddenly apparent that all this adventure adds up to is some ruined lives and some ended ones. Crime novels are exciting to read, but Himes wants the reader to know that living in one isn’t nearly as entertaining.

Uptown in Harlem, the sun was shining on the same drab scene it illuminated every other morning at eleven o’clock. No one missed the few expendable colored people being held on various charges in the big new granite skyscraper jail on Centre Street that had replaced the old New York City tombs.

The Real Cool Killers

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Filed under African-American Literature, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir, US Literature

… he moved like a man whose conscience was clear, or lacking.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald

Raymond Chandler once said that Dashiell Hammett took crime out from the drawing room and back into the streets. Ross Macdonald in turn took crime out of the streets and into the hills and valleys of California.

I wrote about Ross Macdonald’s background and first Lew Archer novel here. It was a strong novel, but too derivative of Chandler and Hammett. Macdonald hadn’t found his own voice yet.

In The Drowning Pool I’d say he’s already much closer to finding that voice. I liked Moving Target enough to buy the sequel, but The Drowning Pool is better written and tighter and a distinct style is emerging which isn’t just a rerun of Macdonald’s inspirations.

There’s a line early in The Drowning Pool which though a little overwrought captures something key to the hardboiled crime genre: “Sex and money: the forked root of evil.”

Sex and money. There’s more to the hardboiled genre than that, but in terms of the crimes the genre explores those are the only two motives that matter. That’s Hammett’s legacy. The plot may be tangled, but what drives events is very simple indeed.

The Drowning Pool opens with Lew Archer being hired by a beautiful woman (naturally) who has received a poison pen letter alleging infidelity. Archer takes the case, and investigating the woman’s family finds a husband who may prefer other men, a mother-in-law who controls the family purse strings and keeps that husband emasculated and dependent on her, a daughter perhaps unhealthily fond of her father and family friends not all of whom seem all that friendly.

Archer also learns that the whole family are sitting on a fortune in oil. A fortune nobody can get to as long as the mother-in-law (who owns the land) refuses to sell up. When she is found floating face down in the family pool the question isn’t who benefits from her death, it’s who doesn’t.

I’m not going to talk further about the plot. It’s well crafted and satisfying and the various twists and turns are convincing. The plot is what makes this an easy read, it’s what keeps the pages turning, it’s not though what makes it worth reading.

What makes it worth reading is the sense of place, more particularly the sense of California. I said in my writeup of The Moving Target that I was impressed by how vividly Macdonald brought California to life. That’s if anything even more true in this novel. Here Archer goes for a swim in the sea:

I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people. They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through the mountains, cut down a thousand years of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted.

And here, later on that same page, Archer reflects on the oil town that’s sprung up not all that far from that beach:

The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since ‘thirty-nine or ‘forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores, There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all.

That’s a long quote above, but I think it’s a great one. The town’s expanding, sprawling, it’s capitalism made physical in steel and glass. It’s America changing as it always has changed, with the orange groves and the farms making way for yet another gold rush. It’s money, one half of the forked root of evil, and it’s irresistible.

As so often in the hardboiled genre, there’s a sense of corruption under a glittering surface. California is beautiful, the sea and the sky are both blue, but you don’t need to dig very deep or go very far before you find something much darker. Like the pool itself the surface of California is inviting, but it’s far from the whole story.

The underwater lights of the pool were on, so that the water was a pale emerald depth with a luminous and restless surface filming it.

And with that, there’s not a lot more to say. Macdonald tries less hard here than in the first novel with the zingy one-liners. He still manages a nice line in short sentence descriptions (there’s a couple of examples below) but he’s not trying so hard to mimic Chandler’s polish and the snap of Marlowe’s comebacks. It makes for a less forced style and plays better to Macdonald’s own strengths. Here’s those examples:

There were dark crumbs on the oilcloth-covered table beside the burner, and some of them were moving.

… my hood was still hot enough to fry the insects that splattered it.

I could easily have found more.

In the end, crime fiction is moral fiction. The people Archer encounters are motivated by sex and money, that’s why their actions lead to misery and death. Archer himself though is something quite different. The key difference for me between hardboiled and noir is in the morality of the protagonist. In noir, the protagonist is one more person driven by sex or money or both. In hardboiled, everyone else may be like that, but the detective isn’t that smart. He’s motivated by something else, something more noble, something which frankly the world he’s in has no use for. The hardboiled detective is motivated by the desire for truth, whatever the price, even if the price is paid by him. He’s a paladin, a paragon of virtue in a virtueless world. I’ll leave Archer the final word:

“I don’t know what justice is,” I said. “Truth interests me, though. Not general truth if there is any, but the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why. …”

The Drowning Pool. That’s the Vintage Black Lizard press imprint, a series I’m very fond of as the covers are generally good, the layout clear and the paper and bindings of good quality.

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Filed under California, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US Literature

We all have our weak moments

I was Dora Suarez, by Derek Raymond

Noir fiction is moral fiction. Noir is the examination of the horror under the surface of society, and a condemnation of the society which permits that horror.

I was Dora Suarez is the fourth of Derek Raymond’s factory novels, it’s the novel that reportedly led to his publisher vomiting on his desk when he read it (a story that, having read Suarez, I can believe) and refusing to publish it, it’s also the book that Raymond said broke him. It’s as black as noir gets, powerful and revolting in equal measure.

Suarez opens with a killer’s eye view of the murder of an eighty-six year old woman – Betty Carstairs, hurled through the front of her own grandfather clock, having interrupted the killer at the gory scene of the death of a beautiful young woman named Dora Suarez. There’s a terrible physicality to the scene, as Betty’s head hits the clock and the chamber pot she was carrying spills over the floor. There’s a sense too of the profound wrongness of her death. The narrator reflects on her life, lonely, filled with pain and illness, a small life with few pleasures. For all that Betty had little to live for, there’s the clear sense that she had the right to what little that was.

From the aftermath of Betty’s death, the novel moves to the killer’s reminiscences of Dora Suarez – whom he has just hacked apart with an axe and who while dying and afterwards he subjects to abuses that the book details but I won’t. After fully enjoying the results of his work, though self-critical for the messiness of the murder which wasn’t to his desired standards, the killer stops off on the way home at the house of a gangster named Roatta, a man who is unwisely looking to blackmail the killer for reasons yet unexplained. Flush from the deaths of Dora Suarez and Betty Carstairs, the killer makes short work of Roatta:

He produced a big 9mm Quickhammer automatic with the tired ease of a conjurer showing off to a few girls and shlacked one into the chamber. He told Roatta: ‘Now I want you nice and still while all this is going on, Felix, because you’re going to make a terrible lot of mess.’
Roatta immediately screamed: ‘Wait! Wait!’ but his eyes were brighter than he was, and knew better. They had stopped moving before he did, because they could see there was nothing more profitable for them to look at, so instead they turned into a pair of dark, oily stones fixed on the last thing they would ever see – eternity in the barrel of a pistol. His ears were also straining with the intensity of a concert pianist for the first minute action inside the weapon as the killer’s finger tightened, because they knew that was the last sound they would ever heard. So in his last seconds of life, each of them arranged for him by his senses, Roatta sat waiting for the gun to explode with the rapt attention of an opera goer during a performance by his favourite star, leaning further and further forward in his chair until his existence was filled by, narrowed down to, and finally became the gun.

When the trigger is pulled, the logistics of death are described in merciless detail – the brain, blood and bone marrow spattering the walls and furniture, a fragment of snot impacting on a table, what’s left of the corpse is described in all its horror and absurdity – Raymond refuses to look away. His gaze is forensic, as merciless to the reader as the killer is to his victim. In a sense, our faces are rubbed in the horror. It’s the same for the deaths of Carstairs and Suarez. Raymond denies the reader the luxury of a fade to black, we have to walk through the horror with him, making this in places a genuinely difficult novel to read.

Shortly afterwards came a passage which had me literally nauseous, a testimony to Raymond’s power as a writer and an effect I’ve (perhaps thankfully) never had before from a novel. Raymond again wants us to see it all, to understand everything, because only from that understanding can the deep moral outrage that fuels the novel emerge.

In the main, Suarez is narrated by Raymond’s usual unnamed protagonist of the factory novels. Suspended indefinitely after the last novel, he is brought back in to investigate the Carstairs and Suarez murders, and for once works with a colleague, an officer named Stevenson who is like a younger version of the nameless detective and is working the Roatta case. Suspecting a link, a suspicion confirmed by a photo showing that Suarez had worked at a club part-owned by Roatta, they work together to unravel the full monstrosity of Suarez’s death and indeed of her life.

In the first factory novel, the murder victim (Staniland) had left a series of tapes detailing his thoughts and philosophy. Here, in a similar device, Suarez has left a diary. The diary reveals that she was terminally ill, in extraordinary pain, that the night she was murdered she was planning to commit suicide – that she was interrupted in that goal by the arrival of the killer. Like Betty Carstairs, she was frightened, in pain and with little time to live.

The fact Dora Suarez was going to die anyway, and that her existence was filled with pain, is critically important to this novel. That’s because, by reducing the life she lost to a matter of a few hours spent in agony, Raymond makes the point that it doesn’t matter how much life was lost or what it’s quality was. The crime of murder is not a robbery of someone’s potential, to apply that test is to create a hierarchy of human worth, but murder is just as wrong whatever life a person had before them. The crime is that life matters, humanity matters, and the reason it matters has nothing to do with its quality or utility.

Raymond is excellent on the banal emptiness of the killer, on how his own lack of humanity leads him to destroying that of others. He is a sociopath, an empty shell driven by desires he cannot understand to relieve his own inadequacies in the blood of others. He is pathetic, and all the more dangerous for that.

… he was silent and well behaved in the boozers they went to only because he was trying to understand what natural behaviour meant through watching the people around him with exactly the same purpose and intensity as a bad actor, in an effort to make a copy of what he could never become.

The novel is, to a degree, a work of its time. First published in in 1990, AIDS looms large. Dora Suarez was in the final stages of it (and that too is described in all its ugliness), but her illness may have been inflicted on her, because it soon becomes apparent that Roatta’s club conceals a brothel catering to the wealthy and visibly infected who pay to sleep with infected women, as uninfected ones will not now go near them. The customers are in bad shape, often indulging in voyeurism (or the use of strategically placed gerbils), their own organs no longer reliable.

As ever with Raymond, there’s an element of excess to the novel. I saw it described somewhere as almost Jacobean, and that’s pretty fair, I’d go further and say Websterian (though I prefer Raymond to Webster). There’s a clear desire to shock, there’s a moral point being made and the gore isn’t simply gratuitous, but it is also gratuitous. It needs to be there for the points being made, but I had the distinct feeling Raymond also wanted to push boundaries, to write as repugnant a novel as he could. There’s a glee to his portrayal of the macabre that, while it doesn’t undermine his points, isn’t really necessary to them either.

As the novel continues, the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with Suarez, she becomes a symbol to him of that which drives him, of the quest for justice itself. As he reflects:

I thought as I drove that even though I was too late to save her, if I could solve her death, I might make some contribution to the coming of a time when such a horror would no longer be possible, a time when society would no longer throw up monsters.

I don’t know that I was Dora Suarez is better than He Died with his Eyes Open, but it is a return to the quality of that novel. I definitely enjoyed the intervening two, The Devil’s Home on Leave and How the Dead Live, but neither had the philosophical complexity of the first. I was Dora Suarez is good detective fiction, as they all are, but like He Died it’s also a lot more than that.

In Suarez, Raymond considers again the sheer beauty of life, its importance, and how that beauty is attacked not just by monsters and killers but by the small-mindedness of people who deny others what they haven’t the imagination to want themselves. There’s a vast anger running through this novel, but much of it is directed at those who take pleasure in the petty exercise of power. With so much beauty around us and life so fleeting, what is truly horrific is how many people do nothing with their own existences save live conservatively, hide within habit and bureaucracy and habit and refuse to see beyond their own routine. Our empathy for each other helps make us human, the killer having no empathy is no longer truly human, but the sometimes lack of it in the rest of us makes us all less than we could be.

In the end, if underneath the blood, fluids and horror Suarez has a message, it’s captured in this comment by our nameless protagonist:

… everything usefully done is done for others

I couldn’t agree more.

I was Dora Suarez

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Filed under British Crime Fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, Noir, Raymond, Derek

You’re the neon type, aren’t you?

The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald

It’s a curious thing how writers come in and out of fashion. A writer can be a great success in their lifetime, critically acclaimed, popular perhaps too, yet after a few years be largely forgotten. Others languish in obscurity, are even ridiculed, but years later come to be seen as masters in their field. There’s little pattern to it that I see, literary immortality is a crapshoot.

Ross Macdonald hasn’t fared so well at the tables the last few decades. In his day, Macdonald was a major writer of hardboiled fiction, he was referred to as belonging to the holy trinity of crime, along with Chandler and Hammett. Now, he’s little known, undeservedly so because while I don’t (so far anyway) put him next to Chandler and Hammett in terms of ability he’s an enjoyable read with a fine line in snappy dialogue and sense of place.

I heard about Ross Macdonald through a Tobias Jones article in the Guardian, which can be read here. Jones argues that Macdonald surpasses the other hardboiled greats, but that this took time with the early novels consciously imitating his predecessors. That’s interesting, and in a way reassuring, because I started with Macdonald’s first and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but notice quite how derivative of Chandler in particular it is.

Macdonald’s protagonist is private detective Lew Archer, the name a reference to Miles Archer – Sam Spade’s partner in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Archer operates out of LA, mostly doing divorce work, but in this first of fourteen novels he is hired by a Mrs. Sampson to find her husband who has failed to return from a trip. The Sampsons, naturally, are rich, and Mrs. Sampson is determined to outlive her husband and inherit his wealth. She’s concerned that he might be with another woman, which could mean she could get squeezed out of the inheritance, it soon becomes apparent though that the truth is more likely to involve kidnap.

As you’d expect, matters soon complicate. Sampson’s daughter, Miranda, is young and beautiful and in love with Sampson’s private pilot, handsome young Alan Taggert, but Taggert doesn’t love her back. Who is in love with her is Albert Graves, a lawyer and old friend of Archer’s, but to Miranda an old man of 40. Mixed in too are a has-been film star, a California guru operating a mountaintop temple, a piano bar singer with a background in jazz and drug-induced psychiatric problems, a smooth and silver haired hood and many more. It’s not original, these are all pretty much stock characters for the genre, but it’s well written and moves along speedily.

Normally, I like to quote passages from works, so as to give a feel for the writing. Here though, the one-liner tends to be king. Hardboiled fiction loves snappy dialogue, Chandler can maintain it for whole passages of glittering beauty, Macdonald isn’t that good (yet anyway), but he still has his moments. I thought this line, from the first page, quite marvellous:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money.

I also liked “unripe oranges like dark-green golf balls”, and generally was impressed by how vividly California was itself brought to life, a character in the drama. Archer goes from rich and secluded estates, to downtown dives, to grimy shacks, and throughout it all Macdonald has a nice eye for the California landscape.

From the summit of the pass we could see the valley filled with sunlight like a bowl brimming with yellow butter, and the mountains clear and sharp on the other side.

There’s a lot of nice little character descriptions too, a telephone operator who “was a frozen virgin who dreamed about men at night and hated them in the daytime.” “Her tone clicked like pennies; her eyes were small and hard and shiny like dimes.” A thug is described as follows “I didn’t like the way he moved toward me. His left shoulder was forward and his chin in, as if every hour of his day was divided into twenty three-minute rounds.” That’s very easy to picture, and tells you all you need to know of the thug in two sentences.

The Moving Target is an easily read book, which of course it should be. It was hampered for me by my reading it during a week when I’ve had a cold nasty enough to kill my concentration (though not so bad as to keep me from work), which meant it took days to read what should have taken an evening, even with that though I found my interest sustained and the pacing held up well. As it goes on, it gets nastier, as Archer gets further into the twisted lives of Sampson and his associates, a world of jaded sex, drugs, new age beliefs (not that they called it that then, but it’s what they are) and of course money.

The most unusual element is a focus on psychology, something I understand gets much more pronounced later in the series. The piano bar singer sings a song about her psychiatric issues with “decadent intelligence”, Archer early on asks if there’s “a psychological explanation for my being here”, Archer’s a form of secular priest, a therapist even, bringing the truth to light and encouraging confession (which may be good for the soul, but it’s lousy for your chances of avoiding the needle). Of course, hardboiled detectives always have that element of clergy to them, that feeling of being agents of a higher justice in a world that feels no need for it, what’s unusual here is the way the references tend to the psychological, the psychiatric even. So far it’s an interesting twist, I’ll see in due course if it gets too much in later volumes.

As I noted above, this is Macdonald’s first, and though at times there are some lovely bits of dialogue (“I wouldn’t trust him with a burnt-out match.” is another), at others he slightly overdoes it. The line between inspiration and pastiche can be a thin one, and once or twice Macdonald crosses it. Here, I thought the tires element just a metaphor too far:

“You want to go there?”
“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neon along the strip glared with insomnia.

That’s just too hardboiled. I couldn’t take it entirely seriously, it was too studiedly Chandler-esque, too plainly an imitation. Macdonald also has a habit of describing all the female characters’ breasts, which have nipples that look at Archer like eyes or point out at him (going on the films I suspect 1940 bras were a bit pointy actually) or generally tend to be a bit noticeable – giving me at least the slightly unfortunate impression that Archer was one of those men who speak to women’s chests rather than their faces.

Plotwise, this goes as you’d expect, Archer gets beaten up and sapped a few times (“His fist struck the nape of my neck. Pain whistled through my body like splintered glass, and the night fell on me solidly again.”), has guns held on him more than once, people get killed and the whole thing turns out more complex than it looks. This isn’t a novel that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it’s rather a novel by an author drawing heavily on what went before and writing firmly within the genre his predecessors created. It’s enjoyable, but it’s a novel for genre fans, not so much for those looking to take a dip outside their usual literary waters, for whom I’d recommend going back to Chandler or Hammett just like Macdonald himself did.

Still, for all that I am a genre fan, so I’ve ordered the next. For me, the jury’s out whether the psychological elements coming more to the fore will make it better or worse, it’s good Macdonald later finds his own voice but I may not of course like that voice. Still, there’s only one way to find out and this was good enough to make it worth sticking with Macdonald a bit longer while he finds his feet.

The Moving Target. I read this in the Black Lizard edition, a range published by Vintage. Black Lizard tend unfortunately only to be available in the US, I like them as they’re physically light with good paper and printing making them an easy and pleasurable read. Hopefully we’ll see more of them in the UK going forward, as there’s a bit of a paucity of good imprints for works of this kind right now in the UK (which is, in part, why I’m so fond of Serpent’ Tail).

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Filed under California, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US Literature

Pity, terror and grief

At its best, crime fiction is moral fiction. It is a forensic examination of the relationship between the individual and society, of our obligations to each other and of the gap between our image of ourselves and our shabby truth. It is a mirror held up, showing us the truth.

How the Dead Live is the third of Derek Raymond’s four factory novels, written in 1986 it is a scathing diatribe against the Britain of its day, married to an analysis of what it means to be conscious of mortality in a universe without purpose, and of the implications that has for our treatment of each other. As ever with Raymond, it is a novel obsessed with death and the knowledge of death, and of how that knowledge both grants and denies purpose to life. It is crime fiction at its best.

I read How the Dead Live in an edition published by the ever excellent Serpent’s Tail, here with a far from excellent foreword by Will Self who mentions that he only read the novel in order to be able to write the foreword. Despite his usual intelligence, Self bizarrely manages to miss much of the point of the work, to the extent that his main criticism of it “[Raymond] simply isn’t aware of the social context within which things happen” is about as wrong as it could be – the book is in large part precisely about that social context and about how in 1980s Britain it was undergoing radical change.

How the Dead Live was written only a few years after race riots became headline news in Britain, when debates were raging in the press and Parliament about how to deal with the widespread alienation Britain’s Black and Asian population were experiencing. More than once in the book, almost as backdrop, we see the racism these new arrivals face – an Asian man chased by Whites at chucking out time, an Indian told to his face he can’t buy property because the area he wants to buy in is for Whites only.

Meanwhile, in Raymond’s Britain, the old order is literally dying. The men and women who fought in World War II are the last of a generation of Britons who had a purpose, who had a place in a society that valued them. As they die, they are replaced by Thatcherite businessmen hollowing out dying communities, and by young men with neither jobs nor a sense of personal worth. Here the unnamed narrator describes an unemployed petty criminal living in a derelict squat:

Men like him had been part of our protection once. They were the descendants of men who had sat still, stroking their horses’ necks as they waited for the cannon to open up across ravines very far from Thornhill but whose spirit, stil the same, was now unneeded and abandoned.

A page later, the young man is singing “Over the Hills and Far Away” to himself, perhaps in case we missed the point.

Raymond’s narrator describes indifferent politicians who “blag serenely on, as though poverty, since they have no policy for it, didn’t exist”. He describes endemic corruption, greed and squalor, town centres filled with violent drunks and crass new money. His Britain is not a naturalistic place – it is ultimately a touch too extreme for that and the counterpoints between the old guard and the new disaffected too marked, but it is an image that I remember well from living through the time. There is a sense that Britain had come unglued, lost its way, and that all the future held was further decline. For some, Thatcher’s vision promised a way forwards, for many others however it represented instead a new viciousness and selfishness that cast aside what little good remained.

Raymond’s is a bleak and furious vision, but what it is not is a vision uninformed by the social currents of its time. Rather, Britain’s decline and the perceived moral vacuity of the new order is one of the book’s central motifs.

Another key theme of How the Dead Live, is a classic Raymondian argument about the nature of mortality and consciousness. For Raymond, being intelligent is a curse, allowing one to understand the inevitability of death and the futility of life, while the stupid continue without that burden and simply enjoy themselves. To be stupid is a desirable state, as the intelligent cannot avoid the truth and the truth is insupportable.

Sometimes I wish my mind would go away and leave me in peace; I would give all that I understand and feel and know, my very existence, to get out of my situation. I would grovel for the superb gift of stupidity, to be able to smile at my own death without knowing what it was, like the sheep did that I saw killed with my father when I was small – I don’t know what I would pay not to see through what I sense, know through what I know, finding only the rottenness of others. All our agony is a short wonder to be forgotten like a day’s rain, as when the lights go down after a play and it begins to snow outside the theatre. But in my role how can I ever say what I intend – for language, like life itself, has become irretrievable, hobbling after what’s left of nature.

Once again, the slaughter of an animal (here a sheep, in He Died With His Eyes Open a pig) becomes a key symbol of the horror of death, but here the sheep is to be envied for not understanding its fate.

In He Died With His Eyes Open, the murdered Staniland voices through his taped thoughts ideas of the horror of existence, of the overwhelming beauty of it too and of the terror of understanding it all. Here, the unnamed sergeant has in a sense become Staniland, the voice after all throughout is really Raymond’s and both Staniland and the sergeant are his instruments. Less successfully, near the end another key character, Dr. Mardy, voices thoughts on existence, death and the burden of intellect that are essentially indistinguishable from those of Staniland or the sergeant (I would have preferred the character to remain a little more distinct).

The plot itself is fairly straightforward, a woman has gone missing in the village of Thexton, has been missing now for six months. Local police conducted no investigation, no missing person reports were filed, the case then somehow came to the attention of the Chief Constable who ordered an investigation. Our unnamed protagonist is therefore dispatched to the countryside to find out what happened to the missing woman. In no short order, he has uncovered local police corruption, blackmail, extortion and (this being a factory novel) existential horror and, for a change of pace, gothic horror too.

I mention gothic horror above because, although How the Dead Live is very much crime fiction, it also borrows from the tradition of the gothic novel. The husband of the missing woman lives in a vast mouldering pile, a decaying house hiding a terrible secret, a place once bright and full of life but now decaying and foul. Parallels with Britain itself are I think not accidental.

As the sergeant investigates, he uncovers of course the rottenness pervading Thexton, the corruption in this New England. But he also uncovers something more, the truth of the house and of what happened there. As the house’s secret is revealed, I found myself feeling both horror and loathing, an effect all the more impressive in that it was born of understanding and compassion, not the simple fear of the unknown so commonly employed. The true horror in this novel, as in Raymond’s others but here so much starker, comes when we know the truth and realise how terrible and how pathetic it is. The horror is born of pity, not fear.

My conception of knowledge is grief and despair, because that has been the general matter of my existence.

Raymond’s prose continues to be precise and excellent, I loved descriptions like “his face was pinched and tired, his lips like a machine that refuses a credit card.” There is also a lengthy sequence near the beginning where the sergeant and his sister talk, Raymond here capturing the flow of dialogue in a very natural way. Descriptions too such as “The windows all had the same mail-order leer that made a flat, to its family, whatever its colour, seem falsely safe, and each was whitened by the eyeball of a Japanese lampshade.” show a nice eye for detail – when I left home those lampshades were so common that even though I didn’t like them I couldn’t find anything else for my first flat. In Raymond’s hands of course they become yet another symbol of decay, a blind eye staring out of a place order has left behind. For Raymond, the corpse is never far away.

By all accounts I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth and final of the factory novels, is the best of the series. If that’s true, I have an extraordinary book still ahead of me.

How the Dead Live

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Filed under British Crime Fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, London, Noir, Raymond, Derek

The coke sweat had been dutifully airbrushed from the mayor’s forehead; only a contaminated grin remained

A Firing Offence is the 1992 first novel of George Pelecanos, later to become (relatively) well known as a scriptwriter for The Wire. It forms the first of his three part Nick Stefanos series, a trio of novels dealing with the exploits of (apparently fairly autobiographical in terms of character) D.C. based private detective Nick Stefanos.

After finishing the Stefanos series, Pelecanos went on to write his “D.C. Quartet”, an apparently much more ambitious and accomplished series of novels. It is not, therefore, the Nick Stefanos novels for which Pelecanos is now best known, they rather represent him finding his voice as a writer. That said, while it’s fair to say A Firing Offense isn’t terribly ambitious in scope it is a solid and enjoyable work of crime fiction and having read it I do intend to read the other two in the Nick Stefanos series before moving on to the D.C. Quartet and his other works.

So, enough of what it’s not. What is it? A Firing Offense is the story of how Nick Stefanos, a bored Advertising Director for Nutty Nathan’s chain of consumer electronics stores, agrees to help find a missing employee – a 19 year old kid who Nick briefly knew and who reminded him of his own pre-corporate self. Along the way, in fine hardboiled tradition, Nick gets beaten up, beats someone up, gets in a firefight and generally asks a lot of questions of a lot of people, some of whom aren’t too happy about answering. In terms of structure, it’s very much in the Chandler/Hammett vein, Nick asks around, puts two and two together, and knows he’s on the right track because people beat him up for being on it.

Where A Firing Offense is unusual however, is in its pacing and in its portrayal of the world of work – in particular the worlds of crummy office jobs and of working a salesfloor. This is a 216 page novel, for about the first hundred of those pages Nick is pulling down his job at Nutty Nathan’s and his enquiries into the missing boy are very much a sideline, we therefore spend a great deal of time seeing what it’s like to be an advertising director. In order to free up time to look for the kid Nick goes to work out of a local branch outlet, and so we see what it’s like to work a sales floor. Almost half the book then is not so much Nick running after bad guys, as Nick drinking too much and putting in a mediocre performance at a mediocre job, while his friends and colleagues mostly do likewise.

Generally, fiction deals poorly with the world of work, I’m not sure why, perhaps few authors have experienced it and those who did hated it, after all had they loved it they wouldn’t have left to become authors. Here, however, we have overpromoted management, bored employees, people watching the clock until they can go home, the world of work in all its tedious drudgery. It’s a marvellous portrait, not least when Nick reaches the sales floor and we see the various ruses and scams the salesmen pull to ensure they get the plum customers (those looking for TVs or steroes rather than say radio alarms) and how they convince them not to buy the best TV for them but the ones with the highest commission for the salesman, then making some extra on top by selling unnecessary warranties and parts insurance.

Lloyd was still with his customer, an older woman who seemed to be edging away from him in fear. I walked over to McGinnes, who was scribbling seemingly unrelated letters and numbers onto the sales tags.
‘You remember the system?’ he asked, continuing his markings.
‘Refresh my memory.’
‘The first two letters in the row are meaningless. The next set of numbers is the commission amount, written backwards. The final letter is the spiff code [a sales bonus], if there is a spiff. A is five, B is ten, C is fifteen and so on. So, for example, the figure on this tag, XP5732B means twenty-three seventy-five commission with a ten dollar spiff. That way, you’re pitching the bait that doesn’t pay dick, you look right beside it on the next model, you see what you get if you make the step, in black and white. ‘ He stepped back to admire his handiwork.
‘Just in case one of these customers asks, so we keep our stories straight, what do we tell them the numbers mean?’
‘Inventory control codes, he said with a shrug.

Shortly before this little exchange, we spend over a page and a half watching McGinnes, the best salesman on the floor, convince an old man who’s come in to buy the advertised special offer to upgrade to a much more expensive set, in part on the basis that it has a high IS (internal spiff, the customer obviously having no idea what that means) and by such tricks as putting a lousy aerial on the set the customer had originally intended to buy – all paired with a folksy patter and an ability to come from whatever part of the US the customer hails from. It’s a marvellous sequence, fun to read and really brings to life the sleazy ambience of the Nutty Nathan’s salesfloor.

The salesmen themselves are from the Glengarry Glen Ross school of charm, swearing heavily, drinking extraordinary amounts (including during the working day) and in the case of McGinnes taking copious quantities of drugs as well. It’s a vision of a sort of retail hell, a working environment so unbearable that only by mocking their customers and deadening their senses can they make it through the day. Competition for commissions is high, with the hapless Lloyd kept on primarily to deal with the low value items nobody else wants to touch, it’s a profoundly ruthless environment and Nutty Nathans becomes a sort of microcosm of the wider city of DC, a place drowning in drink and narcotics in which nobody is really clean.

As noted above, Pelecanos spends around 100 pages of the book, almost half, on Nick’s life at work and the people he knows there. During this half, pacing is carefully gradual, with Nick starting to get deeper into his investigation, but the bulk of his activity still centring around his normal life. All this comes, however, with undertones of menace because on page 2 we are told how the story will end: “with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.” That means, during this entire 100 pages of quotidiana we’re aware that by the end of the book people will have died in terrible violence, once we’re past the halfway mark we start to accelerate to that end, but it’s a measured acceleration and the drive from normal life to automatic weapon fire and painful death is always a controlled one (for the reader anyway, not so much for Nick).

Pelecanos then brings the world of work to life, and shows a real skill at pacing, where he also shows real skill is in his descriptions. Here we have Nick’s favourite lunch spot:

In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.

And here we have Nick, getting changed to go to head office rather than the sales office:

I finished shaving and undid my tie, switching from an Italian print to a wine and olive rep. I changed my side buckle shoes to a relatively more conservative pair of black oxfords that had thin steel plates wrapped around the outside of the toes. I put on a thrift shop Harris Tweed, secured the apartment, and drove to work.

Note the relatively spare, hardboiled, prose style there.

Generally, Pelecanos brings early 1990s D.C. to life, the drugs, the racial tensions. There is a palpable sense of place through the whole novel, and given that to me a sense of place is key to writing good crime fiction, it’s an important element of the novel’s success.

Not everything, however, is quite so successful. The characters are incredibly hard drinking, Nick clearly has an alcohol problem, not yet fully developed but plainly there, that’s fine but so does almost everyone else and it’s fair to say that almost every character of note in the novel spends their time drunk, stoned or both. That may be a fair reflection of early 1990s D.C., but I wasn’t wholly persuaded. Worse though is that’s a symptom of a problem with Nick as a character. Generally, he is convincing, he is part of a Greek community that feels real (as it should, given Stefanos himself comes from such), he feels as if he has a life beyond the book, but he is also portrayed as being a bit cool and for me that didn’t wholly work.

Nick has great taste in music (I actually dug out my old Elvis Costello discs on finishing the book, apparently a common reaction to it), he can hold his own in rough clubs aimed at men ten years his junior, he is popular with women, the two times he gets in fights knowing that’s what’s about to happen he basically kicks ass, he is a fine shot too. Basically, he’s a bit badass.

Now, in part that’s all good hardboiled stuff. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op can all handle themselves in a fight, Spade and Marlowe are both handsome fellows and well dressed. Pelecanos is writing a hardboiled crime novel. It’s just that Spade, Marlowe and the Continental Op were professional PIs, Nick is an advertising director slightly past his glory days. He’s cool, but he’s cool in a slightly sad way for a character the wrong side of 30.

In fairness, that slightly pathetic quality is in part intentional. Nick’s ex-wife left him because he wasn’t accepting adult responsibilities, an element made interestingly ambiguous given that it’s clear she’s accepted them herself but that in doing so she’s lost along the way an essential part of her own character. Pelecanos gives the impression that much of Nick’s motivation in looking for the missing kid is seeking his own youth which is slipping away from him. The trouble is, those elements of ambiguity, of whether accepting adult responsibilities is simply a form of surrender, are slightly undercut by Nick later on taking down a bad guy in brutally effective fashion. It’s also undercut slightly by Nick’s success with women. Put another way, Nick’s traits that come from his status as hardboiled hero sit slightly oddly with Nick’s traits which come from him being an ageing scenester who’s sold out and isn’t sure he got anything worthwhile in return.

Still, those criticisms aside, it’s a well written and well paced crime novel. It’s not more than that, but that’s nothing to be sniffed at, it’s an enjoyable read and Nick is ultimately an interesting character to travel some of America’s backways with. As I said at the outset, I intend to read the sequel, and I look forward eventually to reading George Pelecanos’s more ambitious works, the ones he wrote when he finally felt free not to follow a hardboiled template that at times seems to work against what he’s trying here to achieve.

A Firing Offense

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Pelecanos, George, US Literature

A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o

Chester Himes is a new author to me, one that I had never heard of until I saw A Rage in Harlem recommended in a Waterstone’s Staff Pick.

However, that reflects more on me than it does on Chester Himes, because some investigation reveals that he is in fact a highly regarded African-American novelist with some forty years of output, not least among which is a series of detective novels collectively referred to as the Harlem Detective series. Himes’ fiction often dealt with issues of race and justice, issues he was perhaps unusually qualified to speak to having spent eight years in jail himself for armed robbery.

A Rage in Harlem is the first of the Harlem Detective series. Written and set in 1957, in it we first meet his two detective characters, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. In later novels I understand they take a more central role, but here they are closer to plot elements than characters, larger than life forces of nature the presence of which drives the actions of others. The real protagonist of A Rage in Harlem is one Jackson, a “square” and churchgoing man, honest and with a profound faith in his girlfriend Imabelle.

As the novel opens, Jackson has been introduced by Imabelle to men who claim to be able to raise ten dollar bills to hundred dollar bills, using a secret technique they possess. As they proceed, they are raided by a man claiming to be a police officer, Jackson is apprehended but the other men run taking their equipment and Imabelle with them. The policeman asks for a bribe from Jackson in return for letting him go, and to get the money Jackson is forced to steal money from his employer’s safe. To get that back, Jackson goes gambling, and loses everything he has (in one of the better written gambling sequences I have read). By the end of this, fairly short in terms of the novel, sequence of events Jackson is penniless, a thief and believes that he is pursued by the police.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that the policeman is one of the gang of swindlers, that Jackson is the subject of a grift, and that he may well be one of the most gullible men in Harlem. All that said, he decides that Imabelle would not have gone with the others willingly, and so with the aid of his brother, a con man and junkie who cross dresses as a nun to swindle the poor by selling modern day indulgences, he sets out to rescue her.

A Rage in Harlem then is a novel of extremes. Goldie, Jackson’s brother, is an extraordinary character. He lives with two other professional criminals who cross dress as part of their own grifts, and they inhabit a world that squares like Jackson cannot comprehend (if they could, they wouldn’t be squares). Many characters are grotesques, many scenes are grimly comic, absurd even with unbelievable elements happily thrown in. At the same time, all this sits with a convincing depiction of life in Harlem in the late 1950s, a life often of grinding poverty, poor education and remarkable isolation from the wider New York City.

The language of the book is vivid, as you would expect, here we have an exchange between Jackson and a taxi driver:

A black boy was driving. Jackson gave him the address of Imabelle’s sister in the Bronx. The black boy made a U-turn in the icy street as though he liked skating, and took off like a lunatic.
‘I’m in a hurry,’ Jackson said.
‘I’m hurrying, ain’t I?’ the black boy called over his shoulder.
‘But I ain’t in a hurry to get to heaven.’
‘We ain’t going to heaven.’
‘That’s what I’m scared of.’

Similarly, here Jackson trades remarks with a shoe-shine boy:

‘Man, you know one thing, I feel good,’ he said to the shoe-shine boy.
‘A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-o,’ the boy said.
Jackson put his faith in the Lord and headed for the dice game upstairs on 126th Street, around the corner.

As the novel progresses, Jackson essentially falls through a crack in his world, moving from the realm of god fearing and church going people to the world of hustlers, con artists, pimps and killers. He moves from the world of prey, to the world of predators, and since he is by nature prey he spends a good part of the novel running from people and desparately hoping not to be brutally killed, for brutal death is rarely far away in Himes’ Harlem and in the course of the novel a fair number of characters do die – as often as not from sheer bad luck or meeting the wrong people at the wrong time.

Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson move through this world of casual violence and relentless criminality as part of the forces devoted to keeping some kind of order in place, they are both themselves black, coloured detectives as the people of the time term them. The police department is largely white, the white officers whenever depicted have neither understanding of nor sympathy for the blacks of Harlem, Jones and Johnson don’t have much more sympathy than their white colleagues, but they do understand and that coupled with their remarkable capacity for violence makes them effective and feared men.

They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket.

Discussing the attitudes of the police, takes me to the depiction of race in the novel generally. As is common in novels of this period and earlier dealing with issues of race, black characters are routinely described in terms of how black they are. One may have a coal coloured face, another be an ordinary brown, all of which is essentially merely descriptive, but then a sharp line is drawn between black people who are variously brown skinned and those who are “yellows” or “high yellows”, people whose skin is light in shade. High yellows are seen as more attractive than the brown skinned, and characters (including black characters, almost everyone in the book is black) will refer to others as a “high yellow” making distinctions as finely honed as would be found in any caste system. At one point a bystander quotes an old folk saying, as follows:

Black gal make a freight train jump de track
But a yaller girl make a preacher Ball de Jack

I have seen this distinction made before, in the works of writers such as Hammett and Spillane and in the songs of artists like Leadbelly (who in one sings of his “yellow girl”). A fairly formal differentiation between people according to the degree of blackness present in their skin tone appears to have been fairly common in American life in this period. For all the distinctions drawn, however, between the brown skinned and the yellow skinned, the key difference is with the white skinned. In this book blacks and whites barely communicate, the black characters occasionally interact with white policemen and that unwillingly, their world is a self-contained one and points of contact between black and white experience are few.

Life in Harlem is difficult, poverty is endemic, the police are feared and never assisted – which given they spend most of the novel arresting anyone in sight who looks a bit out of place is hardly surprising. At one point Jackson flees through an alley, slipping in mud, tearing his clothes, getting covered in blood and filth and reduced to rags. When he hits the street, he is not the worst dressed man in it, his appearance is not of itself remarkable enough to attract the near constant police attention.

Colored people passed along the dark sidewalks, slinking cautiously past the dark, dangerous doorways, heads bowed, every mother’s child of them looking as though they had trouble.
Colored folks and trouble, Jackson thought, like two mules hitched to the same wagon.

With poverty comes violence, at one point Jackson goes to a rough bar, where he is surrounded by whores and grifters, marked out by muggers, a whole ecology of crime clustering around an obvious mark. A fight breaks out, to the entertainment of all (the people of Harlem here love watching the troubles of others), and swiftly descends into farce:

Two rough-looking men jumped about the floor, knocking over chairs and tables, cutting at one another with switchblade knives. The customers at the bar screwed their heads about to watch, but held on to their places and kept their hands on their drinks. The whores rolled their eyes and looked bored.
One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes – two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped around him to keep warm. They kept slashing away at one another like two rag dolls battling in buck dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.

As well as race, poverty, brutality and violence, A Rage in Harlem is also full of almost slapstick humour. A car chase in which multiple squad cars pursue a fleeing hearse, which proceeds to careen through a central market scattering livestock, vegetables and meat in its wake and which en route loses its contents including the corpse of a freshly murdered man becomes a form of comic sequence, over the top, grim in that the driver is genuinely terrified but funny because it becomes ludicrous in the extremity of the description. Himes himself described his detective series as “absurd”, his Harlem becomes at times a grotesquerie, filled with freaks and morbid humour. Jones and Johnson are barely people, closer to caricatures of grim law enforcement, Jackson is astonishingly and continuingly gullible, Goldie so unredeemable he spends a fair time drugging Jackson so he can look for Imabelle without interference as Goldie has come to believe she has a wealth of gold on her person. Characters here are not subtly crafted portraits from life.

Well, except one character, Harlem itself. Harlem convinces, Harlem is really the main character of the novel, it is a novel about Harlem, its absurdities and cruelties. And it is in the descriptions of Harlem that some of the book’s best passages are to be found:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desparate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.
The farther east it goes, the blacker it gets.

I’m not sure where I’ll go next with Himes. My (perhaps incorrect) impression is that he wrote what he considered serious fiction, and separately his detective fiction. I enjoyed the detective fiction, perhaps despite and perhaps in part because of its grotesque elements, his serious fiction is doubtless enjoyable too and it would be interesting to see how it compares. Still, I would not wish to give the impression that the crime fiction is not worth reading, it is, and it is that for which he is most famous. There is real skill here, the occasional extremity of description is intentional, not inadvertent and Himes has things to say which are I think worth listening to.

I link here to an essay I found online on Himes work, I particularly liked the reference to him “coupling craft with a searing and sometimes brutal black-humored “fabulism,””, a line I wish I had come up with myself as it definitely captures something of this work.

A Rage in Harlem

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Filed under African-American Literature, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Himes, Chester, New York, Noir, US Literature