Thursday, 10 April 2014

Scattershot

The Nameless Detective series really hits its stride following up the superb Hoodwink with another great slice of noir. The book opens with Nameless getting down to a bit of jogging. The things folk will do for love. He's still going steady with Kerry and she's suggested he take some exercise to rid himself of some of his extra ampleness. Jogging isn't really his thing though, neither is healthy eating but he's desperate to please his girl. The relationship is heading into a fair bit of turbulance though. Spurred on by the green eyed monster Nameless turns up the pressure on Kerry to get married, which soon makes matters worse. Business is booming though and he soon has three supposedly routine jobs on the go. But the scattershot of the title is about to hit with a fusillade of bad luck that threatens to strip him of everything he loves. Nameless is a born worrier and this time he has plenty to worry about.
With his girlfriend giving him the cold shoulder Nameless sinks into a blue funk and turns to his other true love; the stories from his pulp magazines from titles like Double Detective, Dime Detective, Black Mask etc with classic pulp writers like Norbert Davis, Cornell Woolrich & Judson Philips. His choice of viewing for a four hour movie stint at the theatre is a pair of classic noir oldies - Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe & Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum - both of which featured in my own Christmas noir-fest of 2009.
Pronzini has delivered another of his superb page turners that serves up a trio of locked room mysteries, with varying degrees of cleverness both in the puzzles and the way Nameless attempts to solve them. Scattershot is also an essential title for those of us trying to read them in order to follow our hero's ongoing story. This one's a game changer.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Fabulous Clipjoint

By the time Fredric Brown wrote this, his first full novel, he had already been a prolific contributor to the pulp mags of the 1930s & 40s, turning in works across multiple genres from Sci-fi to Noir. The Fabulous Clipjoint duly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and introduced a popular pair of would be detectives, Ed & Ambrose Hunter, that would feature in a further six novels. Ed is an 18 year old living in Chicago with his father, step mother and teenage step sister. His hum drum existence as a printer working at the same firm as his father by day and dreaming of becoming a jazz musician by night is shattered when his father is found dead, murdered in a dark alley in a seedy part of town. Teaming up with his Uncle, a carnival worker and ex private dick, who he hasn't seen for a decade, Ed vows to track down the killer. Brown has a unique approach to writing noir that surely shouldn't work. He manages to evoke a gritty, shadowy world filled with suspense, while also maintaining a streak of humour that runs throughout. It's both a crime story and a coming of age story as Ed follows what leads they have, while discovering how little he really knew about his own father from the stories Am tells. Brown's playfullness with the narrative comes to the fore in the scenes where Ed does a spot of roleplay, playing a sharp-suited gun killer with an imaginary gun as they try to bluff info out of suspects. And it's smooth. Brown's first person narrative and snappy dialogue just roll through the mind. It's not short of detail either with Ambrose's sometimes off the wall observations fuelled by the author's own wide experience ranging from the nature of handbags to the basic physical structure of the universe, carney lingo, pop culture references, Jazz, movies, books etc. There are clever little touches like Ed ordering "Rye," from the bartender because he'd seen George Raft order it in the 1935 version of The Glass Key but getting Dutch courage not from a stiff drink but rather from the Juke box and the high wail of Benny Goodman's clarinet. After reading several ultra cynical modern day noir novels recently it was refreshing to see that even during the golden age of the genre Noir wasn't always entirely bleak, cold and black.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Spring already

So it's the first day of spring though the weatherfolk seem to think we started already. This is one of the last pictures we ever took of Harry before he got ill and passed on. I know I posted this before but it's been a while since we've seen him on here. Back when I first started blogging he featured all the time. So here he is once again discovering spring, like he did every year until 2011 and still does in our memories.

My dog discovered Spring,
Though it wasn't hard to find.
It's carried on the air,
The song of feathered kind.
Soon the blossom,
The hungry nests,
Life rioting all around.
It cannot hide
This tide of life.
My dog barks,"Spring is found."
Michael Finn

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Galveston

So a few nights ago I was wandering around my home town, singing the theme from True Detective at the top of my lungs and wondering what the hell happened to my Batman pyjamas. An acoustic accompaniment surged up from the brickwork and echoed along the inky blackness of the Leeds/Liverpool like the ghosts of dead navvies playing for their souls. And then I woke up, lurid trouserware restored. You can't get away from Nic Pizzolatto's enthralling tv series even in the embrace of Morpheus. Having reached episode three, further research revealed the writer and brainchild behind the series had written a fairly well received novel. So here it is. It tells the story of Roy Cady or rather Roy tells his own story. He's a bagman for a New Orleans loan shark named Stan Ptitko. Roy gets a double life changing alarm call in the shape of lung cancer and an attempt to set him up for the big sleep by his own boss. What our unreliable narrator steers our gaze away from is just how bad a man Roy Cady is, his job description often going way beyond threats with menaces. Roy is very good at making other people dead. He survives his date with death, killing everyone at the double cross and along with the only other survivor, a young prostitute, the two of them hit the road.
It would be a stretch to describe the book as a crime thriller though it certainly occupies the framework of a crime novel but like its protagonist it wants to be something else. Pizzolatto is far more committed to exploring human nature. Roy is the archetypal killer. It's the man's one true tallent. And he wants to change. Wants to draw a line. He's confronted with his own mortality which forces him to look into the shadows of his own character. He sees the young prostitute, Rocky, as being something still unminted. She's the vamp - the femme fatale but Roy still sees the archetypal ingenue or at least the possibility. If he can't save himself, then maybe he can save her. But Rocky has her own dark secrets and motivations that confound Roy's expectations. The crime novel has never been a genre that disregarded the philosophical but generally it would be used to colour the narrative and add depth and substance to the characters, rather than actually being the focus, with the plot and narrative falling behind to mere backdrop.  There are some big ideas and complex philosophical conundrums going on that Galvaston with its always sunny beach and Motel populated with broken or lost humanity, somehow serves up the time to explore them in a pulp sized burp of fiction. And like in True Detective, Pizzolatto uses the passage of time to show a more complete picture of the life tracks involved. People change and one smiling snapshot in the sun tells nothing at all. The author's writing is insightful, colourful, entertaining and challenging. Some of the early chapters are filled with some eyebrow lifting metaphor and imagery but it soon gets reigned in as Pizzolatto finds his stride. A true page turner.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Labyrinth

This one holds on to its forth star by the skin of its teeth. The cleanness of Pronzini's complex plotting is mired under a snarl of coincidences that form the overarching theme of the book. It doesn't quite have anywhere to go though and our nameless hero is reluctant to wrestle with the metaphysics of relentless fate so it ends up simply with our hero puzzled and deflected by the coincidences. Nameless is certainly off his game even though he's out from under the shadow of that wracking cough and the incipient threat it promised during the first batch of novels in the series. The tangles in the case he's investigating come unravelled more from the paranoia of the perps than from any real deduction on his part. Major plusses are the locations. San Fran rising up though the fog. Bodega Bay, location of Hitchcock's superbly noirish (screenplay by Evan Hunter) The Birds is easy to call up, even after the woes of rampant commercialism that Nameless/Pronzini rail against having supposedly spoilt the isolated remoteness of the place.
In the end Pronzini has a last attempt to make something of the rash of coincidences but unless you step over the genre boundary into horror à la Final Destination or the Omen and add a supernatural element it's got no real bite. Frankly I was more disturbed by Nameless's seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of nautical terms.

Friday, 17 January 2014

King's Ransom

After the last couple of slightly under par books, McBain blasts back with one of the best so far. It's a really snappy read with plenty of the author's trademark forays into the philosophical but also with a strong theme running throughout examining the degrees of ruthlessness that men will employ to follow their dreams. Think Shakespeare à la McBeth in a shoe factory. The book opens during a long scene at a board meeting where several share holders begin plotting to gain control of the company so they can produce a cheaper shoe. Doug King ridicules their plans and storms out of the meeting, his own plans already in place. Plans that are immediately threatened by both treachery from within and the kidnapping of his son from without. But worse is to come when it's discovered the kidnapped boy was not his son but rather the Chauffeur's boy; the dilemma of whether to still pay the ransom and financially ruin himself or to save himself and let the boy die being one that would have social consequences just as final.
The entire precinct are called out to hunt the kidnappers, though the police angle on this one is secondary to the King family and the Kidnappers. Carella carries most of the police angle with a little support from Meyer and the boorish Parker, though even Lt. Byrnes comes out from behind his desk to lend a hand. It all gets very tense. The plot was used and expanded upon in the highly regarded Japanese film 'High & Low' by the brilliant Akira Kurosawa.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Til Death

Ed Mcbain's 9th in the ever entertaining 87th Precinct is a bit of a departure, lighter than usual with McBain in a playful mood throughout. The plot is slight of stature with Steve Carella responding to an unsubstantiated threat to his soon to be brother-in-law's life on his wedding day. A threat that comes with company, in the tiny but dangerous form of a black widow spider. As plot devices goes, McBain might have to beg pardon for his cliches. But never mind that. Once the ball is rolling McBain goes to work. He populates every blind corner and opportunity with the threat of impending death, has suspects crawling from every shadow and he has a ball doing it. Carella drafts in two of his off duty colleagues, Kling & Hawes with girlfriend in tow, and tasks them with keeping vigil during the big day. Carella himself attends with his heavily pregnant wife Teddy. Even with impending murder lurking, the tensions and distractions of a good wedding can keep even the most professional detective's senses blunted. Before long things escalate and Meyer Meyer and O'Brian are also drafted, tracking a trombone case all over the city.
I've mentioned in previous reviews McBains attitude to editorial directives. Cotton Hawes was one such directive when his publishers deemed Carella too old and too married to persistently carry off the hero's role. Subsequently McBain proceeded to create a young hero, Cotton Hawes, that he would delight in sending up and humiliating at every opportunity. At the same time in 'Til Death, the author spends nearly an entire book introducing the extended family of the detective he was directed to ditch, developing Carella's relationships and history yet further. 'Til Death is a bit of an oddity in the series, being several steps closer to being a theatrical farce than to the gritty police procedural we are used to, but as ever McBain's easy prose, the banter and snappy dialogue coupled with the carefully nurtured cast of regulars makes for a short though enjoyable interlude in city cop life.