Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blood Moon - Frank Castle

Jake Reese had suddenly reappeared on the creek's south bank, sitting on his horse there, silhouetted, his features not quite visible. But his urgent gesture which called for attention was highly visible, with a hurried pumping of his arm which cried danger. He pointed, arm stabbing, violently, and another turn by Burnett showed what could be the beginning of the end for them all. 

Gold Medal Books - February 1960
The plot for this hard-boiled western by Frank Castle is fairly simple. Dain Burnett has tracked down one of the two people that robbed, tortured and killed his younger brother of $15,000. The pair of swindlers were a couple of con artists named Rupert Kinnick and Norma Young. In an attempt to flee to Mexico the two killers, Kinnick and Young, were hiding among a wagon party that was massacred by a band of Comanches, leaving Kinnick dead. Norma Young, however manages to escape only to be "rescued" by Dain Burnett, who has been on their trail. Burnett's mission is to take Norma Young back to the nearest jury and see to it she hangs for the murder of his brother.

Seems like an easy thing to do, right? Well...not so fast. Of course as things must go, Norma Young turns out to be stunningly gorgeous and vulnerable. And she has no idea that the man who rescued her is the brother of the man she's accused of killing. To complicate things further, the Burnett and Norma are in the middle of nowhere with a war party of Indians on their trail. Lucky for them, a certain Jake Reese shows up to aid them in their plight. Jake Reese is one of those frontier types who once lived among the Apaches and knows the ways of the Native American. He has a knack for coming and going like a shadow in the night. But because he's white, his life is in just as much danger as Burnett and Norma's lives.

To add further trouble, our three survivors meet up with a party of union soldiers accompanied by two shady characters named Phil Ainslie and Mose Jobe.

Both of them civilians; the one in the lead had a gambler's look about him, pale features and jet-black hair, a thin mustache, dandified gear which received much hard wear. The other was grossly fat, with porcine features, dressed like a ragpicker, his clothes greasy black, as though they had not been off him in a month.

Burnett is immediately wary of Ainslie and Jobe, especially after Ainslie seems to recognize Norma Young from Albuquerque. Ainslie is constantly setting himself upon Norma, conversing in hushed tones. Norma seems to want no part of Ainslie's attentions. Jobe is just an outright psychotic, and has a knack for raping and killing and collecting scalps. He'd like nothing more than to add Norma's hair to his collection. As the nights progress, the party of soldiers are picked off one by one, with blame being put on the Indians following them. Other nights are spent fending off raids from warring Comanches.

Burnett pretty much goes through a gauntlet of bullets, arrows, knives and fists in this book. There is treachery and violence in just about every chapter. I'm trying to remember if I've read any of Frank Castle's novels besides this one. I've got three of them in my collection of paperback westerns. The other two are MOVE ALONG, STRANGER and FORT DESPERATION, both them Gold Medal paperbacks as well. If they're as good as this one is, I'm looking forward to saddling up.




Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Long Wait - Mickey Spillane

Wendy was a pretty little head, all right. A little on the hard side when you looked close and the make-up didn't take away the brittle lines that were etched in the corner of her mouth and eyes. She was a million bucks in a green dress under artificial lights and two million in bed. A dime a dozen in the daytime though. 

Signet Books 
Oh snap! That's a mean thing to say about Wendy! But that's how it goes for dames in Mickey Spillane's world. I'm trying to remember now if any of the dames in this novel were called Kitten. I don't think so. That's a name Mike Hammer uses for his babes. And as most of you probably know, Mike Hammer ain't in this hardboiled soap opera from 1951.

As plots go, this one features the old reliable amnesia gimmick for its fuel. Our hero, Johnny McBride returns to Lyncastle, a burg a couple connections from Chicago, to right some wrongs and clear his name. In order to accomplish this, he promises the reader that he's kill someone, break someone else's arms, and a third person will "get a beating that would leave the marks of the lash striped across the skin for all the years left to live." Oh and that last one is a woman. So yeah, Johnny McBride ain't fooling around!

So Johnny pulls into town by bus on the first page. Next thing he knows he's getting the bum's rush by a copper. But Johnny's planned ahead. His plans and a nice fat roll of dough get him into a swanky hotel. But it's not a day he's in town before he's hauled in by the cops for murder. This is after a couple of punches get thrown and someone gets kicked in the stomach and pukes and another gets a belt in the teeth and...well, after things settle down, the cops are dismayed to learn they can't hold Johnny for squat because he's got no fingerprints. That's right, he's got no fingerprints!

Did I mention this novel is one loopy ride? Didn't the amnesia hint give that away? Well trust me, it's a doozy, because Johnny McBride really isn't really Johnny McBride. He's really a guy named George Wilson, who was a pal of the real Johnny McBride after Johnny went on the lam for being accused of stealing $200 grand from the bank he worked at in Lyncastle. In addition to robbing the bank, he was also accused of gunning down District Attorney Bob Minnow. It seems McBride was believed to have killed Minnow because Minnow was going to arrest him for the bank theft. So after shooting DA Minnow, McBride hauls ass out of Lyncastle for parts unknown. But first he leaves the gun with his prints all over it at the murder scene. So, you'd think that is it for Johnny, only now, the cops can't hold him for murder because he doesn't have fingerprints anymore. So they have to settle for tailing him around Lyncastle as he tries to clear his own name.

Yeah, you kind of have to forgive a lot of stuff that makes no sense to enjoy this novel. Anyway, George Wilson, now assuming McBride's identity (because he's McBride's exact double and all) gets dope on a cat named Lenny Servo, who seems to deal all the cards from the stacked deck in Lyncastle. There's also a missing chick named Vera West, who was Johnny's girlfriend and coworker at the bank Johnny supposedly robbed. Johnny's after Vera because he's convinced that Vera had him set up for the bank job because afterward Vera hooked up with Lenny Servo. All this background stuff is revealed through a bunch of punching and teeth-kicking. And with people taking potshots at Johnny whenever suitable.

The novel is violent as hell and moves at a crazy pace. Johnny gets beaten up a lot and has a lot dames throwing themselves at him all the while. It's exactly what I would expect when I open a Mickey Spillane novel. You're going to be entertained and given your $1.95's worth. And you know you like this stuff anyway. Who wouldn't?





Saturday, July 8, 2017

Fadeout - Joseph Hansen

The wire mesh fence slumped as if the signs were too heavy for it. At one point it lay like a rusty circus net. It sprang like a circus net when he stepped across it. In the shadow of the Chute he found the place where Fox Olsen had died. Crude chalk outline on the planks....In the stinking dark forest of splintery posts under the pier lay pizza tins, beer cans, cigarette wrappers, condoms--the joyless detritus of American joy. 

Owl Book Edition 1980
I've heard good things about the Dave Brandstetter series for years and I own a couple of the early ones thanks to used book sales around the town. Some years ago I lent the whole set I had to a friend who was moving to Mexico. Since then I've got them all back and none the worse for wear. It's good to have friends who take care of books. Anyway, I finally read the first novel in the series by Joseph Hansen and am happy to tell you the good things I've heard were justified.

This isn't your standard California detective mystery, as the blurbs on my edition would have you believe. One even refers to Hansen as "a worthy successor" to Hammett. Well, Hansen and Hammett have names that begin with H, but that's about it for comparing the two as far as I'm concerned. This is a moodier, measured novel than Hammett's novels are. Dave Brandstetter is an insurance investigator, not a private eye, and is mourning the loss of a loved one as the novel begins. You don't get the feeling that Brandstetter is a "shoot first and ask questions later" type of guy.

The mystery concerns a missing person named Fox Olsen. It appears, to Brandstetter anyway, to be a staged car accident off a bridge in the rain instead of accidental death. Something just like the cover shows above. No body is found and before any life insurance is going to be doled out to the beneficiaries, Brandstetter has to verify that our missing and supposedly dead Fox Olsen isn't trying to pull a scam for the insurance money. Still, Olsen seemed happy enough, and successful enough in town with his popular radio show. So why take the fade-out?

The more Brandstetter probes the life of Fox Olsen the deeper things get. For one thing, Fox Olsen was a frustrated artist and writer. Add to that a marriage that harbored infidelity. To further complicate matters, an old friend of Olsen's returns after 20 years to rekindle a relationship the two had before Olsen joined the Air Force.

The novel was published in 1969, and I would imagine the gay themes, in addition to a gay detective protagonist were pretty controversial at the time. The mystery of the relationship doesn't take long for Brandstetter or the reader to figure out, especially to a modern reader.

I liked the novel and would recommend it to readers who enjoy the Lew Archer mysteries. Also for readers who don't mind a more poetic depiction of a time in California that you don't see in 60's news-reels. I have the next four novels in the series and am looking forward to reading them. I understand that the as the series progresses so does Brandstetter in age and maturity. I believe they're still in print and available in e-format. I also see that there is a single edition of all twelve Brandstetter novels available through third-party sellers, but the price is a bit steep for that one.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Seven Slayers - Paul Cain

There was a sudden roar from a black, curtained roadster on the other side of the street; the sudden ragged roar of four or five shots close together, a white pulsing finger of flame in the dusk, and Coleman sank to his knees. He swayed backwards once, fell forward onto his face hard; his gray hat rolled slowly across the sidewalk. The roadster was moving, had disappeared before Coleman was entirely still. It became very quiet in the street.

Black Lizard Books - 1987
This collection has been sitting on my shelf for many years. I picked up this Black Lizard edition of Paul Cain's Seven Slayers many years ago from a used bookstore in Tempe Arizona that is now closed. A newer, updated version of that bookstore opened in Phoenix a few years ago but, man it's just not the same. I could go on about my favorite old bookstores closing down in the past couple decades (which seems only like a few years to me) but why bother.

So...what can I say about this book that hasn't been said better by other aficionados of the hard-boiled school? I don't know why it took me so long to listen to them and read this book. In a word, these stories rocked! They are chock full o bad guys who are really, really bad, bad-ass dames who can't be trusted and heroes that aren't wholly good. One of the coolest things I noticed in reading the stories is how Cain likes to keep the reader off balance. He does this in subtle ways, as seen in the above paragraph from the story "Murder in Blue" in how many shots were fired. Was it four or five? The omniscient narrator (the author) should know. Or this simple line from the same story; "She was ageless; perhaps twenty-six, perhaps thirty-six."

Or take the high-rise apartment setting from the story "Pigeon Blood" where the hero lives in a flat that has no wall, "At the far side, where the light from the living room faded into darkness, the floor came to an abrupt end - there was no railing or parapet - the nearest building of the same height was several blocks away."

All of the stories wind through the tropes of hard-boiled environments: gambling dens, dingy bars, nightclubs, apartments, rain-swept streets, and sketchy hotels. Fans of this genre will feel completely at home in these stories. Violence is sudden, bodies unexpectedly (for the characters, anyway) turn up in the shadows, bullets fly from across the block, gats are pulled from bathrobes...well you get the idea. No one can be trusted and greed is the common denominator. You'll have a blast reading them.

These stories were originally published in Black Mask way back in the 30's, back when Hammett and Chandler were producing the same kind of hard-boiled tales for the same publications. If you like those guys, you'll like Paul Cain's stories also. Cain's fictional output was limited to only one novel, Fast One, and 17 short stories. I have a copy of Fast One and am looking forward to reading it soon. He was a screenwriter under the name George Sims. His fictional output has been collected under the title The Complete Slayers for anyone interesting in shelling out a whopping chunk of change.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Dagger of Flesh - Richard Prather

The cloth slithered over her shoulders and down her back, baring the bold, high breasts. Ayla seemed almost unaware of her now nearly complete nudity, but her large dark eyes were fixed on me. She held the robe momentarily gathered at her waist, covering only the outer curve of her hips and the outside edge of each thigh; and standing like that with her black brows slanting upward, the full breasts thrusting forward, her legs parted slightly and her skin a startling white contrasting with the black cloth, she looked almost obscenely naked. She made me think for that moment of a hot, lusty woman who would enjoy herself in hell.  

Crest - 2nd Printing, May 1957
Back into my favorite genre of fiction with this unusual book by Richard Prather, who can always be relied on to deliver a fast enjoyable caper. Dagger of Flesh is unusual in that instead of our expected hero Shell Scott we have a private dick by the name of Mark Logan on the case. Even more interesting about the novel is that it was rejected by Gold Medal in its original version, presumably because Gold Medal preferred a Shell Scott caper to this unknown cat named Mark Logan. Then, years later Gold Medal apparently published the novel after exchanging Shell Scott's name for Logan, only forgetting to address all the pesky details like, Shell Scott and Mark Logan don't look anything alike and both have different backstories. Both, however, are full of piss and vinegar and never let their case at hand sidetrack  them from a lusty babe like the one in the above paragraph.

Gold Medal 

The novel begins with Logan in the sack with a hot dame he knows only as Gladys. Seems he picked up Gladys in a bar one afternoon and the two of them have been doing the dirty for the past few days. Mark feels a sense of guilt about it though, because he knows Gladys is married. She has no guilty feelings whatsoever and is more than happy to be spending her afternoons doing the horizontal bop with our hero. So, after making arrangements to hook up again the following evening, Mark Logan returns to his office where he has an appointment with an old friend named Jay Weather. Jay owns a successful men's clothing store and for the past week has been getting pressured by a couple of rough types to sell the store off at a price way beneath its value. And to make matters worse for Mr. Weather, he keeps seeing a parrot on his shoulder every day at noon, for exactly one hour. That's right, a parrot. Only no one else sees this parrot, just our distraught Mr. Weather.

Well, things get even messier from there. After asking his old friend Jay Weather how things are going at home with the family, Logan realizes that Weather's new wife is Gladys, the same chick he's been banging the past week. Oh brother, some detective this guy is!

Thanks to a police psychiatrist buddy of Logan's, we learn that Jay Weather's invisible parrot may just possibly be the result of a post hypnotic trance. You see, just a week prior, Jay Weather hosted a small party at his mansion that featured a professional hypnotist named Joseph Borden. As for the two characters pressuring Weather to sell his shop, well they're for real all right, as Mark Logan soon discovers when one of them saps him with the butt of his gun later that night at Weather's store.

The plot thickens with a whole heaping dose of hypnosis hoo-haw which Mark Logan has to wade through. Along the way he tangles with the whole kooky crowd that attended this wacky hypnotist party that Jay Weather hosted. That includes Gladys, the sex-hungry wife, their daughter Ann, another horny sex kitten that seems more than anxious to sink her claws into our hero. And a couple of bizarre artist types, including one Ayla Veichek, who can't seem to cross a room without her clothes slipping off her body.

Well, we're not 40 pages into the book before someone kills Jay Weather, using Mark Logan's gun as the murder weapon. And to make matters worse for our hero, it seems that Logan has fallen victim to a hypnotic spell of his own. Only problem is, he has no idea who is responsible.

So you can see, this is a fairly ridiculous plot for a detective novel. There are plenty of scenes that stretch credulity to say the least. And Logan is a far cry from Hercule Poirot when it comes to using his "little gray cells." But that really doesn't take the fun away from the book. Many of Prather's capers are over the top with goofiness. These books don't take themselves as seriously as some other private eye novels of that era did. So there you have it, for  what it's worth. Now if I can just figure out why whenever someone mentions Winona Ryder's name in public I run around on all fours barking like a dog...it's getting kinda embarrassing.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner

No engagement, no courtship even: he and Judith saw one another three times in two years, for a total period of seventeen days, counting the time which Ellen consumed; they parted without even saying goodbye. And yet, four years later, Henry had to kill Bon to keep them from marrying.

Vintage Books, August 1972
Oh man, I don't really mean to go so long between posts. Life has a way of interfering with the fun stuff. I've been working longer hours at my day job, you know what I mean, that crap you have to do to provide a paycheck that affords the stuff you were really born to do. And I'm halfway through what will hopefully be my 3rd novel. Here's hoping that someone out there has checked out my first two novels...but this ain't the place for plugging my stuff. This is the place to look back at that...HEY! What the hell is William Faulkner doing here in the Files? This ain't typically a scene for that hi-falutin literature stuff that comes with over-sweetened lattes.

Honestly, I'm kind of surprised myself. I didn't really intend on digging into this book again, twenty-some years after the first time reading it. But it's been sitting on my shelf with my other meager collection of Faulkner novels, and I see it and think "gawd-dang that was a good effin' book" and next thing I knew I was wading into the swamp of Sutpen's Hundred all over again. And I mean pulled in like quicksand, succumbing to the winding labyrinthian (sometimes tortuous) prose of what I think is Faulkner's very best novel. I'm not anywhere near a Faulknerian expert. I've read about 5 of his books, and two of those (including this one) twice. But, man...could that dude write!

So...yeah, everyone knows this is a difficult book to read because of the style and structure of the novel, the long passages, the stream of conscience and the confusing timelines. I heard all that stuff too before I first read it. But I was an English major at FSU...I can take it, bring it on! And yes, those first dozen or so pages alone are daunting enough, wherein Quentin Compson agrees to meet the old spinster Rosa Coldfield and first hears the story of Thomas Sutpen who came from nowhere with his two pistols, a horse and a "herd of wild negroes" to pull his 100 mile homestead up from the very earth itself, erect his mansion from the clay of the land and by the sweat of his brow and to later marry Rosa's sister Ellen who gives birth to Henry and Judith thereby keeping in form and destiny Sutpen's plan to seed the south with his offspring and carve his name into the hearth of the noble gentry of Yoknapatawpha County Mississippi. But pushing aside the difficulties of the book and forging onward through the dense prose will reward the soul with a storm of tormented passions that leaves one breathless at its conclusion. A story of past sins that haunt the present, of a family cursed, of murder and violence and war, all told and retold through the lenses of three generations and fifty years of loss and ruin.

Okay, you get the idea, the 10-cent shadow of such in what I was going for there. And...ornate prose aside, I can't recommend this book highly enough. On this second go-round I'd forgotten how heartbreaking so much of the novel is. How painful and tragic and cruel the human condition can be. This is what the best literature does for us. It hurts and disturbs and, ultimately, provides a glimmer of hope. Don't let the difficult rep stop you from reading this book. Dig into it and surrender yourself to the words and don't worry that a particular passage of the moment doesn't make sense. It's not meant to make sense on a linear destination like we're used to. Take it as it comes and stick with it. It will come together by the end you will not be sorry afterward.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Blue City - Ross MacDonald

I didn't go near him. I had the notion that his tense body would give off a sour-sweat odor of depravity. But I moved close up to the wretched smile and took the envelope from breast pocket. He winced and jerked as if I was trying to tickle him. I had an impulse to hit him then, but I held it back. Violence might destroy the remnants of human dignity that kept him erect and smiling, and turn him into something queer--so queer that I wouldn't want to look at it. Another violence might do something to me too--make me howl like a dog or cry like a baby or pleat daisies in my hair.


Bantam Books
For his third novel, Blue City, Ross MacDonald was still finding his hardboiled style while giving the reader a straight up dose of sex and violence, It mostly works, barring MacDonald's ever-present penchant for the awkward English Major touches. It's a simple revenge tail of a prodigal son returning to his hometown to avenge the murder of his father. Only in in this instance, John Weathers doesn't know that his father J.D. Weathers has been murdered upon his ignominious return home. Unshaven, road weary, penniless, and homeless, he only learns of his father's murder, two years before, from a rummy in a cheap bar. A few hours later he learns that his father was something of a crook, albeit a gentleman crook, with an array of enemies from both sides of the law. The town itself, unnamed but located a few hours from Chicago, is a snake-pit of corruption and vice, thanks to the legacy of J.D. Weathers and his associates.

If' you've only read MacDonald's Lew Archer novels, Blue City is going to be a jarring experience for you. People are shot, stabbed, sliced, kicked in the head, hit with shovels, beaten, slapped, raped, slashed in the face, punched...well it ain't pretty friends. And John Weathers is no Lew Archer by any stretch. In fact it's difficult to have any empathy for John Weathers at all, as he spends the first third of the novel barging into living rooms and night clubs pushing people around and accusing them of being complicit in his father's murder.

For a lead protagonist, John Weathers is a little hard to swallow. We learn that he's been on the road for a number of years and is home from the war, and that he's only 21 years old. At no time in the book does he seem like a man that young. Granted, war experience will age a person, but John Weathers must have had some college time in the army because there are a few instances where he lapses into professor-speak, For instance, after beating the crap out of a couple hoods in a restroom he informs the bartender, "If the comic in the lavatory doesn't come to in another five minutes, you better send for a police ambulance."

He is also better read than your average 21 year old combat veteran. "Some of the titles I noted were Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Sentimental Education, To Have and Have Not, The Wild Palms. It was somehow comforting to know that the good people of the town that supported Kerch were protected against the lubricity of Rabelais, the immorality of Flaubert, the viciousness of Hemingway, and the degradation of Faulkner."

Plot-wise, Blue City doesn't come close to the labyrinthine plots of the Archer novels. There are past sins to answer for, some skeletons in closets, but the main plot is a relatively straightforward pursuit of justice. Everyone in the novel carries a collective guilt for the corruption within our unnamed Blue City. Complacency, greed and vice by its citizens produce the cesspool in which they must live. Even the mayor, Freeman Allister (note the subtle symbolism in the name!) is not immune to the lure of complacency in which he attempts to get along with the entrenched political forces.

Women don't fare any better then the nefarious men of Blue City. They're all either prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics and schemers. Abortion seems to be a thriving business. They're routinely beaten and raped in the course of their lives. It's literally South of Hell the way it's depicted. It's an angry novel, one that in some ways reminds me of Sanctuary by William Faulkner in its exuberant embrace of depravity.

First published in 1947, Blue City is still in print. I would recommend it to fans of hardboiled literature as well as fans of Ross MacDonald who may have missed this novel among the better known Archer series.