Category Archives: Hardboiled

Talk and cock is all I got

The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dilllman

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World remains the leading contender for my book of the year. I was blown away by his use of myth and language to create something that seemed both archetypal and yet wholly new.

The Transmigration of Bodies isn’t in that league, but it’s still well worth reading. Signs married classical Greek and Aztec mythology to a contemporary plot; Transmigration does something similar, save that here the mythology is that of Sam Spade and Lew Archer, the mythology of hardboiled and noir fiction.

Transmigration

Love that cover. Here’s the opening sentences, as hardboiled as you could wish:

A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air. Eyeing the third of mezcal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day.

That him is “The Redeemer”, a lawyer and general fixer who gets things done for people who need things doing and who doesn’t ask too many questions. He’s a man who “excelled at nothing but the ability to diminish malediction; to free folks from cell blocks, or their own promises.” Right now he’s holed up in his apartment long on hangover and short on food and water, but unwilling to go out since an epidemic which the government has indicated “may be a tad more aggressive than we’d initially thought” is sweeping the country leaving bodies and chaos in its wake.

He whiles away the time drinking mezcal and fooling around with his neighbour the “Three-Times Blonde”. Her boyfriend’s not at home and nobody wants to travel and risk exposure to infection. The Redeemer may never get another opportunity to screw the Three-Times Blonde, but there’s no condoms and anyway local crime boss the “Dolphin” (so nicknamed for having “burned a hole in his nose snorting too much blow”) calls up with a job. Down these mean streets a man must go…

The job’s a messy one. They always are. The Dolphin’s son’s been kidnapped by a rival crime family, and in return he’s kidnapped one of theirs, Baby Girl. Problem is she’s dead, killed by the epidemic. That’s bad, but it turns out Dolphin’s son’s dead too of a hit and run. Both families have kidnapped corpses, but they still need an exchange so they can bury their own and for an exchange to work you need middlemen to make the necessary arrangements.

The Redeemer takes local heavy the Neeyanderthal along by way of muscle, but mostly he does his job through a mix of attitude and chat:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often, people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person. One time this little gaggle of teenage boys had gone to the neighbor’s on the other side of the street and stoned the windows and kicked the door for a full half-hour, shouting Come on out, motherfucker, we’ll crack your skull, and the pigs hadn’t deigned to appear; that was one of the first times the Redeemer had done his job. He went out, asked in surprise how it was they’d yet to bust down the door and added You want, I’ll bring you out a pickax right now, and that sure calmed them down; see, it’s one thing to front, to act like a big thing, but burning bridges, well that’s a whole ’nother thing. Soon as he saw what was what the Redeemer added: Tho, really, why even bother, right? Man’s in there shitting himself right now, and they all laughed and they all left.

The language here is a mix of high-end and slang. Words get thrown in like dieresis, ergonomic, but though is shortened throughout to tho. Everyone who can be given a nickname has one, so much so that when a character is described by their actual name I wondered why they didn’t stand out enough to get called something new.

The Redeemer’s equivalent working for the other family is the Mennonite. Dolphin’s daughter is the Unruly. Names here have power. A name captures character while providing protection and camouflage. If you call the Redeemer you expect redemption, his name is his calling card, but his personal life stays screened behind it and he can remain both public and anonymous. That’s useful whether you’re dealing with criminals or the authorities (assuming you can draw a distinction).

The epidemic has stripped their world back to its essence, but there’s a sense it hasn’t changed anything. Even before the police and government withdrew they were never in charge. If you have a problem you go to one of the families or you go to the Redeemer or the Mennonite or someone like them. If you know something you keep your mouth shut about it, and if you don’t know anything you pretend you do. It’s a world of connections, favours owed and repaid, social currency.

As with Signs there’s some lovely imagery. I’ve discarded more quotes than I’ve used here, but I couldn’t resist this one from a brothel the Redeemer visits while working out what happened to the dead son:

One girl was dancing before a cluster of liquored-up fools, naked but for the mask over her mouth; each time she leaned close she made as if to take it off, and the boozers whooped in titillation.

Sex and death. There’s nothing like a crisis to take us back to the essentials. The epidemic allows Herrera to cut away everything but that he wishes to explore: existence in anarchy; the use of informal social networks where formal ones are inadequate; navigating a world where potentially lethal violence is rarely more than a wrong word away. The parallels with Mexico as it actually is today are obvious. The epidemic will burn itself out, nobody here thinks it’s the end of the world, but when it does all that will change is more people on the streets. That and it’ll be easier to find an open pharmacy in which to buy some condoms.

While I don’t think this has quite the depth of Signs it’s still a fun read that works well as noir novel and reasonably well as social allegory. I was left with a sense of futility; all this effort to exchange people already dead. At the same time there is a nobility here; all this effort to exchange people already dead. It’ll be interesting to see how this one settles in memory.

Other reviews

Unsurprisingly, there are many. Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviewed it here; Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes here (I absolutely agree with his final two paragraphs); and David Hebblethwaite wrote two posts on it, one on the use of names in the fiction here and the other on networks and conversations here. I also rather liked this James Lasdun review in the Guardian, which is a little more critical of it than I am (though still overall positive). I’m sure there are many more, and if you wrote one or know of one please do leave a link in the comments.

9 Comments

Filed under Hardboiled, Herrera, Yuri, Mexican Literature

The hand that holds the money cracks the whip.

Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain

James M. Cain is one of the giants of noir fiction. I’ve previously reviewed his The Postman Always Rings Twice, and like pretty much everyone I loved it. Since I’ve never seen the movie of Mildred Pierce and didn’t know the story in advance I figured it would be something similar – desperate people struggling to keep their heads above water but with the land increasingly far from sight.

Well, there’s a bit of that, but Mildred Pierce is something darker and richer too. It’s a novel about a woman who gives everything she has for a daughter who just doesn’t give a damn. It’s a story of love, obsession, power and definitely money. It’s bloody good.

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Mildred Pierce is a married mother of two daughters. It’s the Great Depression and times are hard: her husband’s real estate business is a failure and Mildred’s baking cakes at home for sale to their neighbours to help make ends meet. When the marriage breaks up things look bleak; Mildred’s barely getting by, and soon might not be getting by at all.

… in the same mail was a brief communication from the gas company, headed ‘Third Notice’, and informing her that unless her bill was paid in five days, service would be discontinued. Of the three dollars she got from Mrs Whitley, and the nine she got from the other orders, she still had a few dollars left. So she walked down to the gas company office and paid the bill, carefully saving the receipt. Then she counted her money and stopped by a market, where she bought a chicken, a quarter pound of hot dogs, some vegetables, and a quart of milk. The chicken, first baked, then creamed, then made into three neat croquettes, would provision her over the weekend. The hot dogs were a luxury. She disapproved of them, on principle, but the children loved them, and she always tried to have some around, for bites between meals. The milk was a sacred duty. No matter how gritty things got, Mildred always managed to have money for Veda’s piano lessons, and for all the milk the children could drink.

Money isn’t the only problem. Now Mildred’s divorced the other wives see her as a threat and the men, married or not, see her as fair game. An unmarried woman is a dangerous thing. Her best friend advises her to land another man as soon as she can, and the recruitment agent she sees tells her flat-out to do the same because there’s no jobs and millions of applicants, most of them with training and experience – Mildred has neither.

Here are sales people, men and women, every one of them with an A1 reference – they can really move goods. They’re all laid off, there’s no goods moving, but I don’t see how I could put you ahead of them. And here’s the preferred list. Look at it, a whole drawerful, men and women, every one of them a real executive, or auditor, or manager of some business, and when I recommend one, I know somebody is getting something for his money. They’re all home, sitting by their phones, hoping I’ll call. I won’t call. I’ve got nothing to tell them. What I’m trying to get through your head is: You haven’t got a chance. Those people, it hurts me, it makes me lie awake nights, that I’ve got nothing for them. They deserve something, and there’s not a thing I can do. But there’s not a chance I’d slip you ahead of any one of them. You’re not qualified.

Mildred’s pride means she sees herself as a potential secretary or  receptionist, but nobody else does. She’s not willing to do just anything and even turns down a job as a housekeeper. Eventually needs must though and as things get more desperate she gets lucky and finds a job as a waitress at a diner. Slowly, things start to turn around for her because Mildred is smart and strong-willed and nobody’s fool. Well, nobody save her daughter’s fool.

Veda is Mildred’s oldest, and Mildred spoils her relentlessly ignoring every sign of the effect that’s having. Nothing is too good for Veda, who is rapidly growing up to be a vain and arrogant snob. They row, Mildred stung by Veda’s condescension and ingratitude, but Mildred’s more proud than angry seeing in Veda an indomitable self-respect which Mildred feels she compromised in herself by taking that waitressing job. Mildred’s sure Veda would never have lowered herself that way, and Mildred intends to see that she’ll never have to.

Here Mildred, convinced that Veda has a real talent for music, prepares to take her to a new and extremely expensive piano tutor:

For the occasion, she laid out some of Veda’s new finery; a brown silk dress, brown hat, alligator-skin shoes, and silk stockings. But when Veda got home from school, and saw the pile on the bed, she threw up her hands in horror. ‘Mother! I can’t be dressed up! Ooh! It would be so provincial!’ Mildred knew the voice of society when she heard it, so she sighed, put the things away, and watched while Veda tossed out her own idea of suitable garb: maroon sweater, plaid skirt, polo coat, leather beret, woollen socks, and flat-heeled shoes. But she looked away when Veda started to dress.

As of that quote there’s about half the book to go, and I haven’t touched on most of what happens up to then and I’m certainly not going to say what happens next. If you’re lucky enough like me not to have seen the film before reading the book it’s worth having the opportunity to discover the story for yourself.

Mildred Pierce wasn’t remotely what I expected. I thought it was a crime novel. It’s nothing of the kind. Instead it’s the story of one highly determined woman; of the men she forms relationships with; the women who support her; and above all of the dangers of a parent putting the weight of their own ambitions on their child. It’s a remarkably powerful read. It takes talent to turn what could easily have been a soap opera into a taut pageturner, but Cain easily pulls it off and this is right up there with his other classics Postman and Double Indemnity*.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but I expect that’s only because I’ve missed them. Please let me know in the comments.

*Actually, I think in the case of Double Indemnity the film’s better than the book, but it is a good book even so.

13 Comments

Filed under Cain, James M., California, Hardboiled

It was the action of a shit, and Bobby wasn’t that, except that he was and apparently always had been.

9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Bobby Zha is a down-on-his-luck San Francisco cop, unpopular with his colleagues and the top brass but with a knack for the street which makes it just about worth their while keeping him in the job. He’s divorced and his teenage daughter barely talks to him. Doesn’t sound original does it?

Don’t worry though, because within about 30 pages Bobby Zha will be gunned down in a deserted alley with his partner suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bobby’s been set up. As he lies there dying he sees standing over him the Jinwei hu, the celestial fox of Chinese folklore that his grandfather used to tell him about:

The fox was pure white and carried its tale high and curled like flame over its back. Its eyes were red as coals, fierce with anger. White canines showed on either side of its mouth.

Bobby, an atheist who’s long since run out of good reasons for living, finds “the appearance of the celestial fox far more shocking than the thought of his death.” Getting killed in the line of duty is a risk of the job. Seeing a celestial fox though? That’s just plain strange.

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Bobby wakes up, which he wasn’t expecting. Even more unexpected is that he doesn’t find himself recovering from being shot or in some undreamt of afterlife. Instead, he finds himself in the body of coma victim Robert Vanberg who’s spent the last twenty years a vegetable in a New York private clinic. Fortunately for Bobby, Vanberg has access to a substantial trust fund and before too long he’s on a plane back to San Francisco to investigate his own murder.

Grimwood sets up expectations of a science-fiction explanation early with an intercalary chapter set in 1942 Stalingrad (inserted between the early chapters where Bobby is Bobby and the later ones where Bobby’s come back as Vanberg). In that a boy assists a Russian scientist experimenting with keeping heads alive separate to their bodies, and before his death Bobby was investigating a shooting at the home of an aged Russian scientist. Could the technology have advanced over the intervening decades? Has someone for some reason has transplanted Bobby’s memories and personality from one body to another?

Perhaps, but none of that explains the fox, nor does any of it explain the faint psychic abilities Bobby seems to have picked up since his death. Now, when he touches someone, he gets a sense of their character and even some of their memories. Perhaps it’s just intuition, perhaps it’s something more.

We’re talking genre mashup, or perhaps it would be better to say genre fusion. 9Tail Fox has elements of police procedural and hardboiled detective story combined with science fiction or supernatural thriller (but the reader can’t be sure which). Cleverly, Bobby’s ignorance of how he ended up in Vanberg’s body is matched by the reader’s uncertainty as to whether the explanation will be technology or magic.

This isn’t my first Grimwood, though it is my first since starting this blog. I’m used to him being strong on description, on a very concrete sense of place (even where the place is one he’s made up), and this is no exception:

The building which gave the quay its name had been elegant and even beautiful, in a strict utilitarian sort of way, with half pillars flanking its doorways and art deco plaster work framing each window. But someone had kicked holds in a wall painted to look like stone, leaving a savage wound now colonised by pigeons, who cocked their heads and stared suspiciously at the three men stood in front of them.

More interesting though is the character study. Bobby starts out something of a cliché, but that’s in part because that’s the role he’s cast himself in. Now he’s been recast. Bobby was overweight, something of a slob, ethnically half-Chinese and not particularly attractive. Vanberg by contrast is younger (he went into the coma aged only eight), good-looking, white, and very rich. Bobby’s moved race, class and income bracket, and people treat him very differently as a result.

Not being dead is only Bobby’s first big surprise. His second is learning what people really thought about him.

Bobby put two fingers of whisky in a glass and splashed with water from a carafe. ‘Here.’
‘Pour one for yourself,’ said Bea. ‘While I deal with the curtains …’
She paused. ‘Did you really know Sergeant Zha?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bobby. ‘Pretty well.’
‘What did you think of him?’ Curtains done, Be a flopped into a chair to take off her shoes, flashing stocking as she did so.
‘He was okay,’ said Bobby finally.
Bea tossed her shoes onto a carved table. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Believe me, he was a shit.’ They sat in silence after that, Beatrice slowly sipped her whisky into ice and emptiness, while Bobby thought about what she’d said and the viciousness with which she said it.
‘What kind of shit?’ he asked eventually.

Bobby thought of himself as a man who bent the rules. He learns that others just thought he was corrupt. He thought he had a special knack for dealing with kids and the homeless. That bit’s true, but he didn’t know he was widely considered incompetent at pretty much everything else. He thought he’d caught some bad breaks over the years. He didn’t realise that for everyone around him he was the bad break. He thought his daughter hated him. It turns out she was about the only person who didn’t.

The investigation itself is classic crime novel stuff. Bobby pokes his nose where it’s not invited, asks unwelcome questions and uses his inside knowledge of his own death to suggest he knows more than he does. He knows for example that his partner was there when he died, but nobody else does as his partner’s report said that Bobby had gone out on his own. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

At the same time, Bobby enjoys his new body and sudden wealth. He sleeps with a variety of women who wouldn’t have looked twice at him before, including a policewoman assigned as his liaison officer who he realises (slightly too late to avoid hurting her) wants something more serious than a one-night-stand. Old Bobby, and for a while new Bobby, would have cared more about what he wanted than the consequences his actions have for others. New Bobby has a chance to be a better man and that may be more important than finding his own killer.

9TailFox raises some interesting questions about outsider status and social hierarchies, with people who should know better deferring to Bobby now he’s rich and white in a way they never would have back when he was just himself. Ultimately though, this is not a philosophical novel. It’s a hardboiled body-swapping murder mystery with enough depth to avoid it being disposable but not so much as to make it indigestible. I should probably read one of the five or so novels he’s written after this one…

Missed references

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that not having read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margherita (shameful I know) I completely missed the significance of a character being named Persikov and the inclusion of a black cat named Lucifer. There may well have been other references, but if there were and if they had any deeper significance I have no idea. I only picked up on the connection at all because Grimwood mentions it in the afterword, though possibly the book being dedicated to Bulgakov should have been a clue. So it goes.

Other reviews

None in the usual blogs I frequent, but there’s a good review at the Strange Horizons website here and one by Paul Kincaid here.

19 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Grimwood, Jon Courtenay, Hardboiled, Science Fiction

‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

What is there to say about this one? This is as classic as classic gets, and I say that as someone who’s reviewed Don Quixote here. This is one of the ur-texts of hardboiled fiction, source for one of the greatest film noir movies of all time. It’s also bloody good.

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I’ve read The Maltese Falcon before, so while it wasn’t on my #TBR20 list I thought I could allow a read of it while I was in San Francisco last month. How can you not read Dashiell Hammett when in San Francisco? It’s half the reason I wanted to go there in the first place.

Here’s how the book opens:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Right away Hammett has put Sam Spade front and centre, while at the same time making him slightly questionable. He sounds lupine; he’s “pleasantly like a blond satan” which makes him sound charming but not particularly reassuring.

Moments later Sam’s secretary is showing in a woman named Wonderley, “a knockout”, a femme as fatale as any that ever lived on the page:

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

What follows is a dizzying tale of murder, betrayal, and above all greed. Miss Wonderley tells Sam that her sister has fallen into bad company with a man named Floyd Thursby. Now the sister has disappeared, and Miss Wonderley fears Thursby might harm her, even kill her. She wants Thursby watched and her sister brought safely home.

By the start of chapter two Sam’s partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered and the case has become personal. Sam didn’t like Miles any and he was sleeping with Miles’ wife, but even so a man can’t let someone shoot his partner and do nothing about it, particularly when the police start poking around looking for someone to blame. Whatever’s going on, it’s much more than a runaway sister.

‘That – that story I told you yesterday was all – a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes. ‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’ ‘Then—?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes. ‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’ ‘You mean—?’ She seemed to not know what he meant. ‘I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.’

The Maltese Falcon has some of the finest characters in any crime novel I’ve read. Miss Wonderley is really Brigid O’Shaugnessy, and by her own account in the past she’s been “bad – worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad”. She’s in serious trouble, the worst kind, and she’s dependent on Sam Spade to help her out of it but what exactly it is is far from clear. For a damsel in distress she’s surprisingly hard to get a straight answer from, but then being a knockout is all the explanation she’s ever needed in life.

Sam gets visited in his office by Joel Cairo, a small-boned Levantine dressed in rich clothes and armed with heavily scented handkerchiefs and a small-calibre pistol. Joel’s looking for an ornament, “the black figure of a bird”, and he’s not the only one because the fat man is out there too and he has a vicious street thug bearing twin .45s watching Sam wherever he goes.

The fat man, actually named Gutman, is another memorable character. He’s loquacious, jocular, well mannered and well groomed. He’s appetite in a bulging suit, polite but determined. The thug, a gunsel named Wilmer, is a bitter little killer full of anger and resentment at the world. The two of them make a dangerous combination.

I should at this point make a small aside and note that this is not a particularly gay-friendly novel. Cairo is an effeminate gay and portrayed as ugly and unwholesome in part because of that. Wilmer is a gunsel, a term that today because of this book and the film means a gun-thug but that originally meant a catamite – Hammett used the term so that he could get the gay subtext into the book without being too explicit and it worked so well that when I first read it and saw the film I had no idea of the implications.

Above all of them though there’s the character that’s by far the greatest in the book – Sam Spade himself. Spade changes his mood and his manner to the occasion: dumb when he wants to be underestimated; angry when he wants to intimidate; charming when he wants to persuade; sharp-tongued when he wants to put someone back in their place. He’s quick-witted and poker-faced, and the real crime is that Hammett never wrote another novel featuring him. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest fictional detectives ever written.

The chances are almost everyone reading this knows the plot, the secret of the “black bird” and what’s really going on with O’Shaugnessy, Cairo and Gutman. It’s possible though that some of you may not, and just in case of that I won’t say anything more about what happens. I will say though that while Chandler remains my first and greatest hardboiled love, Hammett knew how to write a plot and the plot here is one worthy of the characters.

This is probably as close to a love-letter as I’ll write in a review, until at least I reread The Big Sleep at which point I’ll likely gush to a level that makes this look restrained. Still, it’s The Maltese Falcon, and to quote Spade from the film in a line he never says in the book, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

I’ll finish up with a quick comment on the film, which I rewatched while out in San Francisco. It’s amazingly close to the book, with large chunks of dialogue taken straight from one to the other. It’s as well directed as you’d hope from John Huston at the top of his game, but above all it is incredibly well cast.

Bogart of course makes a definitive Sam Spade. He looks nothing like the book’s description of the character, but that simply doesn’t matter as he completely inhabits the part and in doing so pretty much defines the iconography of the cinematic private detective. Mary Astor matches him in a career-defining role as Brigid O’Shaugnessy – a woman who is varyingly vulnerable, bold, affectionate, manipulative, seductive, dangerous, terrified and more.

Sydney Greenstreet seems to have stepped out of the book as Gutman; Peter Lorre is a marvellously questionable Cairo (though I’ve never seen Lorre disappoint); and perhaps most impressive of all is character actor Elisha Cook, Jr who captures Wilmer in all his petty viciousness so well that at times I almost sympathised with him. The supporting actors are equally well chosen, the whole film crackles with talent and is just an exceptional joy to watch.

16 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Dashiell, Hammett, 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.

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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