Category Archives: Noir

Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.

Fatale

Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Frank Chambers is a drifter with itchy feet who needs a meal. Nick Papadakis, “the Greek”, runs a roadside diner and needs a handyman. Nick’s wife, Cora, is a lot younger than he is and is starting to regret a marriage she made for security rather than love.

the_postman_always_rings_twice

That’s not the cover I have, but it captures the book well so I thought I’d use it.

At first, Frank’s got no plans to stick around. He just wants to grift some lunch and get on his way.

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Half an hour later Frank has a job, Nick has someone to help round the diner and Cora has a lot more reason to start questioning her marriage.

This is classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way. On their own Frank and Cora aren’t saints, but neither is malicious. Frank’s a petty crook and womaniser, but nothing worse than that. Cora is smouldering frustration in a dress, but she’s resigned to the life she chose. The Greek? He’s a nice guy, none too bright, who loves his wife and has small dreams for his diner.

I didn’t realise until I came to write this post that almost every quote I picked was describing Cora. The novel is written from Frank’s viewpoint, and it captures beautifully Cora’s dangerous allure for him. There’s some lovely phrasing here, such as “When she spoke, it was in a whisper that sounded like a snake licking its tongue in and out.” Cora is Eve and serpent both. Frank doesn’t have a chance, but then nor does Cora, and certainly not the Greek. Nobody does.

Nobody sets out here to do anybody any harm. It’s just the situation. Frank and Cora have a connection, they have chemistry. In a very noir sense they’re just unlucky. Frank would rather just walk, but how do you walk from this:

She got up to get the potatoes. Her dress fell open for a second, so I could see her leg. When she gave me the potatoes, I couldn’t eat.

Soon Frank’s convincing Cora to leave Nick, but that would mean being poor and she’s not up for that. The diner isn’t much, but it makes money and run well it could make more. The only thing in their way is the Greek …

I’m not going to spoil the plot for those who’ve not seen the 1946 movie (Lana Turner on top form). All I’ll say is that Frank and Cora know that people will get suspicious if the Greek dies and they’ll likely get investigated for it, so they come up with a plan for the perfect murder. Do Frank and Cora though sound to you like the kind of people who can do anything perfectly?

I hadn’t seen the movie, so the story was new to me. It’s obvious from the opening that Frank and Cora are going to end up trying to kill Nick, but where that leads and how it comes to poison them I hadn’t anticipated at all. This is as much a psychological novel as a noir one. Are Frank and Cora in love, or just in lust? Nick loves Cora and counts Frank as a friend, so how do Frank and Cora trust each other given that they each know the other is perfectly capable of killing someone who wanted nothing but good for them?

Postman is tightly written coming in at around 114 pages in my version. It doesn’t need more because Cain packs depth into the detail. Nick is referred to through most of the book as “the Greek”, but of course this is Frank’s viewpoint and Nick stands in Frank’s way. Is it any wonder he prefers to objectify him? To give him a noun instead of a name?

Similarly, it’s easy to see Cora as a femme fatale, and of course she is but that’s a question of perspective too. If Cora were narrating Frank would be an homme fatale, an attractive stranger who won’t let her push him away and gets her thinking things she might otherwise never have thought. If Frank just left and never came back Cora would be unhappy, but she wouldn’t be dangerous.

That’s perhaps the most noir thing about Postman. This is a black hole of a novel where weak people do terrible things because none of them have the strength to resist their situation. This is a novel of an ugly crime carried out by small people. It’s brilliant, and if you have any interest in the noir genre at all you owe it to yourself to read it.

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Filed under Cain, James M., California, Crime Fiction, Noir

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.

photo

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.

photo 5

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.

photo 4

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.

When I got off the train I saw two blind men helping each other up the stairs

Dead Man Upright, by Derek Raymond

Dead Man Upright is the fifth, and final, of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels. It’s being reprinted later this year, after a lengthy period out of publication. It became sufficiently obscure that I’ve seen a great many discussions of his Factory novels which make no mention of it at all, which refer to I was Dora Suarez as the last of that sequence.

Suarez is often claimed to be Raymond’s best book. I disagree with that. It’s undoubtedly extremely powerful and an important work of British noir, but He Died with His Eyes Open is for me ultimately the more interesting work. Suarez though makes sense as a finishing point for the Factory novels. It’s so bleak, so mired in filth and horror, that it’s hard to see what could follow it. Anything after it risks anticlimax.

Dead Man Upright isn’t a bad book. It’s worth reading if you’re a Raymond fan, as by now I suppose I am, but it’s not a necessary book. Lots of books of course aren’t at all necessary. There’s no requirement that books should be. Being entertaining is often enough. Raymond though generally tried to do more than merely divert his readers and here the truth is he’s written a reasonably solid crime novel with some moments of genuine interest but one that doesn’t really say anything the previous four novels hadn’t already said.

Dead Man Upright opens about a year after the close of Suarez. The nameless protagonist is drinking with an ex-colleague, Firth, who was fired for drunkenness. Firth believes his upstairs neighbour, a man named Jidney, is a killer. Jidney is middle aged, appears to have little money and isn’t handsome but even so he’s gone out with a string of women. Each of them is with him for a few months, and then suddenly never seen again. The nameless detective is sceptical, but only a little investigation reveals that there’s something very wrong with Jidney indeed. Jidney may be far better off than he seems, the women often disappear after changing their wills in his favour, but most of all he has the dead eyes of a killer.

He was dissatisfied with his face today; it gazed at him, sallow and without expression. He pinched it and narrowed his eyes, but they – even though women insisted that they were ‘mysterious, an artist’s eyes, Ronnie’ – looked back through him flatly., at a flat world; he meant no more to his own eyes than anyone else did. Subaqueous, the eyes of a detached watcher in the depths of a lake, they were not interested in him but in the past; they were still reliving and cautiously catching up with the chaotic situation of a few hours previously.

He tried to correct their lacklustre gaze, but it was a waste of time. Their inky dispassion, his smile, his stereotyped views – mastered and learned by heart in jail – on art, death and relationships, formed part of a fixed set of gestures and passed for wisdom; any attempt to tamper with them contradicted his mask, which immediately loosened, threatening to slip aside like a scrap of plastic dangling from the ear of a drunk. The only reassurance he could extract was the knowledge that the mask had never betrayed him yet; it had deceived all his victims, beckoning them archly into a trompe-l’oeil parlour of sanity, when in reality he was staggering to keep his balance in the roaring slipstream of events, clutching his mantle of self-mastery round him in the frozen delirium of hatred, living to the limit only at the apex of the death he brought the other, and dead to the world thereafter, as well as before.

For the reader there’s no mystery here. The quote above is from early on and is from Jidney’s perspective. Raymond here is exploring the killer’s psychology much more closely than in his previous novels, where he focussed much more on the victims. In common with Raymond’s other killers though Jidney is a banal mockery of a human being who pretends to be like us so that we don’t see the true horror he represents. Jidney is a shell of a man containing a howling void, as intent on lying to himself as he is to his victims.

Raymond’s on familiar ground here, which is both good and bad. As ever some of the writing is extremely good. I loved this line for example:

Where he wanted memory, like a serf, to bring him his version of the past like a brand new coat, it would arrive instead holding something sodden and bloody which bore no relation whatever to the elegant garment he wanted to shrug on.

At other times though it’s hard to escape the feeling of having seen it all before. It is different to take the killer’s perspective, but it’s not as if he ignored their inner worlds entirely in his previous books. As ever the detective beats out the truth, haranguing suspects and generally making such a nuisance of himself that opposition is simply worn down by his persistence, but I’ve had four previous novels with him doing much the same thing. Worst of all was an occasional feel for me of Raymond-by-numbers, as the following quote illustrates:

It wasn’t a room that anyone with positive aims in life would put up with for long. The greasy red carpet was worn through to the threads and I looked down at it thinking that at least the blood wouldn’t show when someone cut his throat over it. The wallpaper was the shade of green that only said hello to people looking for a place to kill thsemleves; in fact it was the ideal surroundings for your end to introduce itself to you in the mirror set into the junk city wardrobe; I expected my doppelganger to walk through it any moment with the message that this was it.

That’s very Raymond, that’s the trouble, it’s a bit too Raymond.

Other flaws emerge. At one point there’s a fairly extended analysis of the killer’s handwriting and what it says about his inner life. The problem is that I find graphology as persuasive as phrenology, and the whole section just seemed a nonsense, and out of keeping with the detective’s generally much more matter-of-fact approach of just worrying away at loose threads until the lies unravelled and left the truth exposed. Later still the detective is given a deadline of 72 hours in which to close the case. That’s not coming dangerously close to cliché. That’s driving straight into it at full speed.

Around the two third mark, perhaps a little later, the book takes a sudden change of tack. In a call back to a technique used heavily in the first novel we’re treated to the killer’s own words (as we were to the victim’s in He Died), as the detective reads lengthy letters from Jidney justifying and explaining himself.

The issue with this is that Raymond has already established that Jidney is a narcissist and, like all Raymond’s killers, fundamentally a bore. He lacks the spark of life, and merely mimics it. His letters read convincingly, but in writing letters that convince as coming from a narcissistic bore Raymond doesn’t escape the obvious problem that the letters themselves are a bit boring.

Looking above I’ve been fairly damning. In a way that’s an overly harsh verdict on my part. If I hadn’t read He Died and Suarez then I’d have rated this much higher. Jidney is a genuinely chilling creation. Raymond creates real sympathy for his victims, making them flawed but human and wholly undeserving of the pain and terror that Jidney inflicts. Most cleverly of all Raymond doesn’t necessarily make them likeable. We don’t have to be good people in order to deserve compassion. We just have to be people. The detective is damned by all who know him as rude, aggressive, unreasonable, but the reality is that he is driven by a terrible love for all of us in our flawed futility. It’s not anger that makes him so bloody minded, it’s love, despair and an undending desire to save us even though we exist in a world that permits no redemption.

That’s powerful stuff, and as I say without the earlier books I’d rate this one higher. In the end though Raymond did write the earlier Factory novels, and this simply isn’t as good. It has its moments, but it has its failings too and while it didn’t deserve to be written out of his history as it was for a while, there’s a reason it’s taken a while to bring it back into print.

This partiular Raymond has been well served for reviews. There’s an excellent one here that I largely agree with, a more positive and again well written one here (I disagree with the conclusion about the meaning of the book’s final words, but it’s a point one can reasonably disagree upon) and a strongly positive (and very well argued) one by author Jeff Vandermeer here. I recommend reading all of them, as they each bring out different points. Perhaps that’s the best praise one can offer this novel. Four reviewers found different things to say. Even when not at the top of his game, Raymond still gives the reader something to think about. He still disturbs.

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

“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

I drive. That’s all I do.

Drive, by James Sallis

Readers often come to writers with expectations. Sometimes those are based on that writer’s previous work (and those expectations can be a straitjacket for a writer), sometimes they’re based on reviews or blog comments, sometimes they’re based on pure assumption (I have expectations about Danielle Steele, but truth be told I’ve very little to base them on).

When it came to reading James Sallis I expected competent crime writing. I expected solid thrillers with efficient prose and a well crafted plot; the sort of book I might read on a long journey or when tired. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of book, and plenty right with it. On the strength of Drive though James Sallis is a much more interesting animal.

Here’s the opening paragraph from Drive:

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

Firstly, that’s better than competent writing. Just seeing it again now it strikes me how clear it is. I’ve not yet seen the film version of Drive, but this unfolds in my head as I read it. I can see the blood and the light, hear the weeping and the sound of traffic. I even have an image of Motel 6. This is the kind of prose that often gets described as lean, taut, and much as I’d like to come up with something more original I find myself reaching for the same words. It is efficient prose, but it’s not merely efficient. It has style.

It’s immediately apparent that this paragraph is just a slice in time. Driver is sitting, not in movement. Blood is still lapping towards him though, and whoever is crying is still doing so, so it’s not a static scene. This is the immediate aftermath of violence. A brief moment of reflection, caught between the action just past and the time for regret later. The story’s already started, the reader is thrown in, in media res.

From there Sallis tells a fairly straightforward tale of a heist gone bad, a doublecross and a spiral of resulting revenge and murder. Classic Hollywood stuff, and this is very much a Hollywood narrative. The tricks here are cinematic.

Characters are iconic (none more so than Driver, a man with no name, but there’s also hired muscle out of Houston called Dave Strong, a blonde named Blanche and so on). The story is told in scenes, each of which is framed so neatly you can almost hear Sallis yelling cut. The narrative jumps backward and forward in time, not so much as to be confusing but so that I was pulled in and forward, so that I wanted to see how it would all fit together.

Driver is just that. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver and part time getaway driver. Sallis tells enough of his past to get a feel for his character, but never his name. Here as the classic Fitzgerald quote goes, action is character. We know Driver through what he does, how he does it. What he says is almost unimportant, and besides he doesn’t say much.

Up till the time Driver got his growth about twelve, he was small for his age, an attribute of which his father made full use. The boy could fit easily through small openings, bathroom windows, pet doors and so on, making him a considerable helpmate at his father’s trade, which happened to be burglary. When he did get his growth he got it all at once, shooting up from just below four feet to six-two almost overnight, it seemed. He’d been something of a stranger to and in his body ever since. When he walked, his arms flailed about and he shambled. If he tried to run, often as not he’d trip and fall over. One thing he could do, though, was drive. And he drove like a son of a bitch.

Drive is just as focused as Driver himself. It sets out to tell a classic story (the difference between a classic story and a clichéd story is mostly execution) and it does so like a son of a bitch. I thought it one of the best and most invigorating crime novels I’ve read in a while, even though in terms of plot and character there’s nothing original here at all.

I’ll end with one final quote. It’s here because I think it’s a thing of beauty, and because it captures the novel. It’s Hollywood in a sentence.

Throwing the duffel bag over the seat, he backed out of the garage, pulled up by the stop sign at the end of the street, and made a hard left to California.

Haven’t we all at times wanted to throw a duffel bag over the seat, pull up to the end of the street and make a hard left to California? I know I have, and I don’t even know how to drive.

Guy Savage reviewed Drive here: here and is pretty much responsible for bringing Sallis to my attention. My copy came as a review freebie from the publisher.

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Filed under California, Crime Fiction, Noir, Sallis, James

There is no future in England’s dreaming

Nineteen Seventy Seven, by David Peace

David Peace’s debut novel Nineteen Seventy Four was not an easy read. It was bleak even by the standards of noir. The style was staccato, heavily influenced by Ellroy and the imagery at times flatly repulsive in its depiction of horrific acts of violence and abusive sexuality.

It had power though. It made me pay attention. It also brought 1970s Yorkshire to vivid life portraying it as a landscape of hard men and beaten women. Peace showed a thuggish and macho culture in which any softness was despised and in which brutality and corruption were rampant.

Nineteen Seventy Four was of course just the first of what later came to be known as Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. The quartet is a series of quasi-historical crime novels set in Yorkshire, each named after a year. The second in that quartet is Nineteen Seventy Seven. I just read recently Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan and with hindsight his influence on Peace was obvious. It was time to return with the Burn fresh in my mind and see how Peace held up.

For starters though, how does Nineteen Seventy Seven compare to Nineteen Seventy Four?

It’s still bleak.
It’s still staccato.
It’s still brutal.
Viscera and self-loathing drip from the pages.
It’s still bleak.
It’s still staccato.
It’s still brutal.

Peace still likes to make use of repetition. He uses words like hammer blows – a comparison I think he’d be pleased with (and given the subject matter probably intended).

1977 (I’m not typing it out in full each time) takes its inspiration from the real life Yorkshire Ripper murders and mixes real characters from that time with fictional ones. Peace keeps the timeline of the Ripper’s crimes, but changes the identities of the victims (though he keeps to the same categories of victims, mostly prostitutes and a sixteen year old shopgirl whom the Ripper killed after apparently mistaking her for a prostitute as she walked home late at night).

As the bodies mount up, policeman Bob Fraser and former-prize winning local journalist Jack Whitehead dig deeper and start to find discrepancies in the official version of what’s happening. Is the Ripper responsible for all the deaths attributed to him? Is there more than one killer? What’s really going on?

We’re in Ellroy-ian secret history territory here. The chapters alternate between Fraser’s and Whitehead’s perspectives (and investigations). It’s handy at times to keep track of chapter numbers, because their internal dialogues are essentially identical and when you’re following two hard drinking guilt-ridden men each sexually obsessed with prostitutes it’s easy to forget which one’s skull you’re inhabiting at any given moment. It’s fair to say they lived for me as a character. I just wasn’t quite sure that they lived for me as two different characters.

Fraser is married to a senior police officer’s daughter, and has a young son. His father-in-law is dying in hospital from cancer. Fraser spends his free moments with a local prostitute from Chapeltown which is a notorious red-light area. He’s obsessed with her and it’s affecting both his marriage and his job.

Whitehead is suffering the after-effects of the previous book (both characters were minor figures in that story). When he goes home the murdered children of the previous volume are there waiting for him. His line between reality and fantasy/hallucination is a thin one. He’s drinking heavily, and he too becomes fixated on a prostitute – this time a victim of the Ripper who survived her attack.

Whitehead starts receiving letters from what appears to be the Ripper (letters really were sent to the press and were thought genuine at the time). Fraser meanwhile spots some anomalies in a past case which lead him to suspect that some of his fellow officers may know more than they’re saying. As they both dig deeper the killings continue. Meanwhile the country at large prepares to celebrate the Royal Jubilee. It’s all very Sex Pistols (a band not referenced once in the book, but who could easily provide the soundtrack to it).

Here Fraser visits an old crime scene:

It opens.
I’m freezing.
Frankie lights a cig and stands out in the road.
I step inside.
Black, bloody, bleak.
Full of flies, fat fucking flies.
Ellis and Rudkin follow.
The room has the air of the sea bed, the weight of an evil ocean hanging over our heads.

The last line in that quote for me is key. There’s a physicality to the evil here. It sits upon the landscape. It broods. Before that though the rhythm of the entire section is discordant. Jarring. The majority of the book isn’t written in that style, but large chunks of it are and where Peace uses it the language becomes a battering ram shoving horror down the reader’s throat.

In terms of style Peace is effective. The book is hard to read in places. I know few other authors so able to show the sheer squalor and ugliness of these kinds of pointlessly violent crimes. Peace here wants to show what the victims suffer, and what those around them and those who investigate suffer too. He wants to show the humanity behind labels such as prostitute (though this is let down by the women in the novel all being very passive – he can’t here write women as strong as his men). He examines shattered lives and human debris.

Peace wants more than that though. He wants too to show how these particular crimes and these particular victims emerged from this particular time and place. He doesn’t just want to show the Ripper, but also the world that gave birth to him.

In this next quote the police arrest a man who may have evidence relating to one of the murders. This takes place just after Fraser has scared a woman into thinking he was going to rape her so that she’d stay out of the way while the arrest was made:

Back down the stairs they’ve got Barton outside, naked in the road, lights going on up and down the street, doors opening and then there’s Noble, Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Noble standing there, bold as the fucking brass he is, standing in the middle of the street like he owns the place, hands on his hips like he don’t give a fuck who sees this and he walks right up to Barton who’s trying to curl into the tiniest little ball he can, whimpering like the tiny little dog he is, and Noble looks up just to make sure everyone is watching and just to make sure everyone knows he knows everyone is watching and he bends down and whispers something into Barton’s ear and then he picks him off the road by his dreadlocks, twisting them tight around his fist, pulling him on to the tips of his toes, the man’s cock and balls nothing in the dawn and Noble looks up at the windows and the twitching curtains of Marigold Street and he says calmly, ‘What is it with you fucking people? A woman gets to wear her guts for bloody earrings and you don’t lift a fucking finger. Didn’t we ask you nicely to tell us where this piece of shit was? Yeah? Did we come and turn all your shitty little houses upside down? Did we have you all down the Nick? No we fucking didn’t. But all the time you’re hiding him under the fucking bed, right under our bloody noses.’
A maria comes down the street and stops.
Uniforms open the back.
Noble spins Barton into the side of the van, bringing him round all bloody and reeling, and then he tips him into the back.
Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Noble turns and looks again at Marigold Street, at the empty windows, the still curtains.
‘Go on hide,’ he says. ‘Next time we don’t ask,’ and with a spit he jumps inside the van and is gone.
We head for the cars.

For those who don’t know, when I was a kid in West London maria in that context was pronounced Mah-rye-ah, not Mah-ree-ah. They were the police vans used to take prisoners away.

The characters in 1977 are misogynistic, violent, racist and corrupt. If anything, the police are worse than anyone else. It’s a portrait without a hint of compassion. There is no humour here. Nothing redeeming. It’s just filth and shit and death and horror.

As the novel accelerates it becomes intentionally incoherent with it all until by the end I couldn’t quite tell what was real and what wasn’t, or indeed quite what happened. The ugliness washes over until everything is rancid and fevered.

And that’s where I come back to style and influences. Burn is a subtle writer. Peace, well, Peace has many strengths but subtlety isn’t wholly among them. Burn uses real events but at a remove, and he uses them to cast light on wider issues. Peace here is using real events but using them in part to explore those events themselves and the circumstances that gave birth to them. That raises an ethical issue for Peace that doesn’t arise to the same extent for Burn.

The characters here are mostly fictional, but these crimes did happen (albeit to different people) and the local police really did investigate them. I read an article in the Guardian a while back by one of those investigating officers. He complained that these books were a travesty of what occurred. He said that he and others worked hard and did their best to stop a determined killer and that they didn’t deserve the depiction Peace gave them or to be turned into monsters in his novels.

That’s tricky territory. I don’t know what happened back then. But I do know that real life is never quite this relentlessly terrible. Peace consciously avoids humour in his books (I’ll link to an article at the end where he discusses his views on that) but it’s a problematic omission. Were the police in the 1970s racist and violent? As best I recall yes they were. Was that all they were? I doubt it.

Nobody cracks jokes here. Nobody just helps someone else out. Nobody is generous. Yes, we lie and we cheat and we rape and we kill. But that’s not all we do. Peace charts a descent into hell (there’s a welter of religious imagery here and in a very real sense this is an account of two men’s fall into the abyss) but he has no contrast along the way and in that I think he undermines his own purpose. I think his world is so terrible I’m not sure I still recognise ours in it.

I’ve read a number of reviews online of this one and most are absolutely glowing. That’s not quite where I am. It has power and Peace can definitely write, but its monotonal grimness for me undercuts its reality and the Ellroy influence is still too obvious. Burn has wit and he lights the path to our damnation. Here at least Peace has yet to learn that.

Nineteen Seventy Seven (the cover there is taken from a recent tv series, sorry about that). I found online this fascinating interview in which Peace discusses his intent as an author with these books and why he avoids humour in them. Here’s a key quote to whet the appetite:

Crime is brutal, harrowing and devastating for everyone involved, and crime fiction should be every bit as brutal, harrowing and devastating as the violence of the reality it seeks to document. Anything less at best sanitises crime and its effects, at worst trivialises it. Anything more exploits other people’s misery as purely vicarious entertainment. It is a very, very fine line. Similarly, the sexuality in my books reflects the times in which they are set; I strongly believe that crimes happen at a particular time, in a particular place to a particular person for very, very, very particular reasons. Both Gordon Burn and Helen Ward Jouve in their excellent books on the Yorkshire Ripper have made the point before, but the Yorkshire of the 1970s was a hostile environment to be living in and especially for women.

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Filed under British Crime Fiction, Crime Fiction, Noir, Peace, David

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

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

It was winter, and it was dark.

The Prone Gunman is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s most famous novel translated into English, though since only two of his novels have been translated that’s not perhaps saying too much. Both The Prone Gunman and earlier novel Three to Kill have been published in the UK by the always excellent Serpent’s Tail, but with different translators, The Prone Gunman being translated by James Brook.

Three to Kill took a normal man and explored how he changed when his situation changed, becoming a casual killer when removed from his normally bourgeois existence. It was Marxist noir, fiction where the psychology of its protagonist was merely a function of his socio-economic position, and so a dark commentary on the hypocrisy of society.

The Prone Gunman is in some ways a more ambiguous novel. Like its predecessor it is, in places, very violent. Like it’s predecessor, it makes no distinction between descriptions of people and of things, humans are given no more weight than rooms or vehicles. There’s an inescapable implicit judgement in that. Also like it’s predecessor it is at times quite simply a very effective thriller.

Where The Prone Gunman differs though is in its plot, which is bordering on stereotypical and in its slow subversion of that plot. The protagonist here is one Martin Terrier, a professional hit man working for a shadowy organisation known as the company. He wants out, but the company wants him to do one last job, and is prepared to go to terrible lengths to persuade him to come back.

As plots go, that’s pretty trite stuff. And for the early part of the novel we’re in very comfortable territory. Terrier carries out a hit, hands in his notice, casually breaks up with his then girlfriend as he is moving on and not planning to take her with him. He is a sociopath, utterly without affect, when it becomes apparent to him that the company is pursuing him and that those close to him may be tortured, even killed, it is a practical problem and nothing more.

That makes for a good thriller, but then The Prone Gunman goes further. Before too long (and I’m going to avoid any major spoilers here) it turns out that Terrier is a killer for a reason, he has a plan. He left a small town, a girl he loved, swearing one day to come back and have revenge on those who once mocked him and to take the girl finally for his own. Now, a career of murder behind him, he has enough money to make those dreams come true.

Unfortunately for Terrier, while he is a superbly effective assassin, he’s also just not that bright. In fact, one starts to suspect that he’s an emotional as well as a moral imbecile, stuck in adolescence and with a romantic dream fuelling him that bears little resemblance to reality. For ten years he’s lived with a goal in mind, the tragedy of The Prone Gunman is what happens when he turns back up expecting that goal now to be fulfilled.

I have to be careful here, there’s a lot of plot in this book’s 150 odd pages, and it would be very easy to spoil it. I’ll return to the issue of what makes Terrier interesting in a moment, but first I want to talk a bit more about Manchette’s style, the peculiarly passionless way in which he details a scene. The following three quotes are respectively a person, a room and a murder. Here’s a person:

Alex was a twenty-seven year old brunette with short hair, striking blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a beautifully formed neck and jaw line. She was tall with long legs and breasts almost as firm as her thighs. She was dressed now in a three-piece light-gray pantsuit and a white shirt. She had a white leather handbag on her shoulder and in her hand a rectangular wicker basket with a top.

What’s noticeable there is we know a great deal about what Alex looks like, nothing at all about what kind of person she is. It’s not just the female characters that are treated this way, it’s not a question of simply treating women as objects, Manchette treats everyone as objects. The men’s descriptions are equally dispassionate.

Here we have a room:

Terrier took his hands out of his pockets, turned his back to Félix, and went into the house, going directly into the main room, where there was a dining nook, a living area, and a convertible sofa where visiting friends could sleep. The walls were made of rough boards coated with a clear varnish, most of the furniture was rustic and old, and here and there old copper utensils decorated the place. In the hearth burned a wood fire that Félix had lighted a little while before and stoked with a copper toasting fork some sixty centimeters long that he had purchased the year before at an antiques shop in Ireland.

There’s not much difference in tone between the passage describing a beautiful woman, and that describing a fairly expensive but otherwise ordinary living room. And here we have a murder:

Their eyes met. Dubofsky opened his mouth to shout. Terrier quickly shot him once in his open mouth and again at the base of his nose.
At the discreet sound of these shots, the redhead turned. Terrier also turned, and they found themselves face to face just as Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound. Terrier took two steps forward, extended his arm, put the silencer against the girl’s heart, and pressed the trigger once. The girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead on her back. Terrier got back in the Bedford and left.

That’s actually a very chilling sequence, but the point is it’s delivered in much the same calm voice as everything else. Part of what makes Manchette effective as a writer is his flatness of style, none of it really matters. It’s all just objects and forces in motion, recorded equally and without distinction.

The other interesting thing with Manchette is how deeply cinematic he is, not in the sense of high octane action (though this book does contain some fairly over the top sequences), but rather in that his gaze is an external one. We don’t know what Terrier or anyone else thinks, we don’t know what the author thinks, we merely know what is observed and plainly recounted to us. The author’s eye is a camera, recording without judgement or interpretation, as a reader we must work out for ourselves what is signified by the things we see. This makes Manchette a disquieting writer, his scenes are often ambiguous, doubtful, his refusal to attach significance to people or events leaves the reader devoid of clues normally present.

Manchette uses this most effectively in this book in his descriptions of Terrier himself. At times the writing goes into close up, we see Terrier’s expressions and reactions, but without explanation. Here’s some brief examples. In this first, he’s had a setback:

He seemed to reflect for a moment. He did not seem shocked. Perhaps he experienced a little sadness. Certainly he must have been thinking, for his face was screwed up in concentration.

In this second, he’s suffered a major blow, a disaster for his plans:

Terrier tossed what he was holding onto the pillow and abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing his gloved hands over his stomach. He leaned forward and gave a long sigh. His mouth was open and he blinked repeatedly. He seemed to calm down after a moment. He got back up.

And here, after extraordinary danger and hair’s-breadth escape (possibly only temporary), he learns that he may have been set up (I assure you, in a novel like this that’s really not a spoiler):

His haggard face at first registered great perplexity; then it registered worry, thoughtfulness or whatever other movements of consciousness that might cause his face to look as it did.

There’s two things going on here, firstly that cinematic eye I spoke of above, and secondly a refusal to give the reader access to the omniscience of the author. Manchette must have an idea what Terrier is thinking, but he doesn’t share it with us, we can only make guesses.

As the novel continues, Terrier’s character becomes more absurd, in a way pitiful, though never less competent an assassin. I can’t detail too much how Terrier’s plans unravel, but it’s fair to say his old love isn’t as he remembered her those many years ago, their relationship is not what he might wish, by the end his whole situation is descending into tragic farce. He starts as a stereotypical cold-blooded killer, he ends with us understanding that he was a highly efficient murderer but a deeply deficient adult human being, and those around him are not really much better. He wants to leave his life, to recapture a dream from adolescence, but as one character angrily says to him, “There’s nowhere to go.”

Manchette’s book is in part I suspect a satire on the very type of novel it starts out being. The cliché intentional as he goes on to tear down that which he has set up.

For all that, I didn’t like this as much as Three to Kill. My impression is that this is generally the more highly regarded novel, and as a pure thriller it probably is the better work, but Three to Kill raised questions about what makes us who we are that I thought challenging and disturbing. The Prone Gunman subverts its own genre, but while it does still cause the reader to doubt their own certainties for me at least it doesn’t do so quite as effectively as that earlier work.

The Prone Gunman

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir