Sunday, September 11, 2016

Agatha Christie Double Feature

From the time I left school I wanted to find something, but I didn't yet know what that something was going to be. It was just something I was looking for in a vague, unsatisfied sort of way. It was somewhere. Sooner or later I'd know all about it. It might perhaps be a girl. . . . I like girls, but no girl I had met so far had been important. . . . You liked them all right, but then you went on to the next one quite gladly. They were like the jobs I took. All right for a bit, and then you got fed up with them and you wanted to move on to the next one. I'd gone from one thing to another ever since I'd left school. 

Yup, Agatha Christie knew, as does anyone else who has read enough crime fiction, that a restless and bored young man will soon find himself in deep kimchi. Especially where spooky dames are concerned!

I had a few days off work and was in the mood for a more relaxing kind of read, so I pulled a couple Agatha Christie novels off the shelf to dig into. I used to devour her novels back in Jr. High. I think I read all of the Poirot's by the time I was in 10th grade. Same thing with the Lew Archer novels. On the surface, no two private eyes could be more dissimilar than Archer and Poirot. But thinking about it now, both detectives dug into to the psychological torment of their cases instead of going around beating people up and shooting people. They were novels of dialog, questions and answers, delving into the past and unearthing secrets that lead to crimes of the present.

These two novels are stand-alones in the Christie catalog. Endless Night was published in 1968, the same year that Beggars Banquet was released by the Rolling Stones. Reading the novel, I tried to envision the narrator, Michael Rogers, in the time when "Sympathy for the Devil" might have been played in swinging London pads. And for the first part of the book I could. Rogers had the restless and dissatisfied voice of many noirish antiheroes of the 50's and early 60's. His laconic and somewhat cynical voice is music to the aficionado's ear. And you don't have to be a genius to know that, no matter how much he seems to confess to you, he's still hiding something in reserve. He thinks that perhaps he's found that something he'd been looking for when discovering the crumbling estate The Towers on Gypsy's Acre. A place abandoned and rumored to be cursed. It's even got a local gypsy woman named Mrs. Lee who promises to tell our hero his fortune if he crosses her palm with silver. Naturally she sees evil forebodings in Michael Rogers's future and warns him off Gypsy's Acre.

One day, while exploring Gypsy's Acre after a public auction, he meets Ellie Guteman. Ellie is one of those dreamy, somewhat haunted goth-girl types that walk in mystery. She and Rogers strike up a conversation over the uneasy beauty of Gypsy's Acre and soon they fall in love. Rogers learns that Ellie is an American heiress, sheltered by an army of advocates, lawyers and shifty relatives. Upon her twenty-first birthday, Ellie will have a fortune at her control. For the first time, Rogers tells us that he's found love and purpose. Ellie surprises him by purchasing The Towers, and the two of them hire an architect to rebuild the crumbling estate and live "happily ever-after."

Here is where the novel shifts gears from Gold Medal territory to Gothic Romance. The young lovers live on Gypsy's Acre in the midst of ancient curses, meddling relatives and ominous warnings to leave before unspeakable evil consumes them. Ellie injures her ankle in a fall and Greta, her childhood au pair and companion moves in with them to help run the staff. Greta is described as a Valkyrie by Rogers, who takes an immediate distrust to her. Her beauty and power are undeniable, but he resents the hold she seems to have over his new bride Ellie. It's almost all very Dark Shadows, with simmering emotions stewing in ancient curses, figures in the woods and modern threats left on dead birds. But it's a slow burning stew, with not a single murder occurring until well past two-thirds of the novel.

For the second Christie novel, I read Murder at Hazelmoor. This one is another stand-alone mystery published way back in 1931, but could have easily featured either Poirot or Miss Marple as the detective. Instead, we have a plucky young woman named Emily Trefusis doing the sleuthing. Emily has a personal stake in the mystery at Hazelmoor because it's her fiancé, Jim Pearson, who's got his neck on the chopping block as the chief suspect in the murder of old Captain Trevelyan. The murder has taken place, as proper old British murders should, during a dark winter storm. As an added bonus, the murder occurs during a séance in which our main suspects are six miles removed from the dastardly scene of the crime. The séance in this case is a game of "table turning" in which spirits tap their messages out through a series of knocks on a table. Think of a Ouija board only without a board and planchette. It's during the table turning that the spirits warn our amateur occultists that Trevelyan is being murdered. The game then breaks up immediately as its participants believe one of them is displaying remarkable bad taste. Ahh...but wouldn't you know, the spirits never lie.

Murder at Hazelmoor is the only Christie novel in which I actually solved the murder with the clues provided. I don't know if that makes me as smart as Emily Trefusis, or just lucky. And no, it wasn't just guesswork on my part. I fully expected to have been duped but the clues are there to point to the culprit. There are loads of red herrings and everyone has a reason for doing the old codger in, but only one of them done it.

Both novels are easily found in practically any used bookstore. Happy sleuthing!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Female Man - Joanna Russ

A beautiful chick who swims naked and whose breasts float on the water like flowers, a chick in a rain-tight shirt who says she balls with her friends but doesn't get uptight about it, that's the real thing. 

Bantam, February 1975
Yeah, if you think you're going to find anyone like that beautiful chick in this novel, keep looking. She's not real, or never was real, or real only in the imagination of the fool that wastes his time seeking her. I don't know which, because the passage above is a single chapter out of Joanna Russ's 1975 classic The Female Man.

I didn't say "Feminist" classic, or Science Fiction classic because I don't feel equipped enough to address this book on either of those terms. What I know about Feminist Literature could be fit into a shot glass. As for Science Fiction, yes, you'll find this novel under that category, but I think it's a limiting label. It's "science" fiction in that it has time travel and parallel dimensions but I would be tempted to just call it a novel of ideas and leave it at that. As for plots, I couldn't summarize one here for you. It doesn't matter. There isn't a point to reading a book like this to see what happens next. In fact, often in the novel, I didn't know which dimension I was in, or whose voice I was listening to. Sometimes it's clear, but there are 4 viewpoints to see through in the pages that trying to find solid purchase within any one of them is frustrating. So I let the novel present itself to me on its own terms and discovered that, once I surrendered to it, I really liked it.

There are four characters: Janet, Jeannine, Joanna and Jael. Janet is from a future (not "our" future) society named Whileaway where males have been extinct for more than 800 years. Jeannine is from a contemporary (parallel?) society wherein the Great Depression continues into the 70's. There was no feminist shift in attitudes, likely no civil protest to speak of. Woman may have jobs, but their place is to marry and have children. Joanna's (Joanna Russ?) world is "our" world as it was in the 70's, and Jael's world is that in which a war of the sexes has been waging for several decades. All four women are gathered into one time and place in the novel, and all four women are the same woman living apart in their own time and place. How they relate to each other, and what each separate dimension exposes them to is what the novel is about. And let me warn you, men, mankind, the male species, the beings with the Y chromosome, do not represent here well at all.

For example, there is Cal, who is Jeannine's fiance. Cal is something of a bore, who is likely impotent as well. Cal's relationship with Jeannine is one of convenience for him, and one of nothing for her. There is no benefit to Jeannine for having Cal in her life, beyond saving her from becoming a spinster. Then there is Davy, who is Jael's boytoy. And that is in the literal sense. Davy is a robot, designed for Jael's pleasure only. The sexes live apart in Jael's world, and the men address their sexual desires by selecting certain boys to undergo surgery to change them into something resembling females. Joanna's world has your standard run of the mill jerkoff guys in it who objectify women, fear women, blame women, hate women, desire women, and...well you get the idea. Her world is our world and the women in it have learned to play the game. More on this below. Janet's world, in the future, has managed without men for so long that they're not even missed. Janet's world comes across as perhaps the most desirable of all options. So let that sink in for moment. The best option is a world without men. Perhaps it's a debate worth having that Joanna Russ intended this as a takeaway. I don't know.

This novel was published in 1975 and a woman's role in that time is not where it is today. By those standards the novel has been regarded as some as a product of its time. But, really is it?  Consider the recent cases on the news of connected young men of means and "good" upbringing basically getting away with sexually assaulting young women. They didn't just come up with the idea of violating women out of the blue. Look at the one father who pleaded for leniency for his son for "twenty minutes of action." And for every case that makes the news there is no telling how many don't, for this very reason. Go online and see how often women are harassed about their looks. Women have yet to earn what men earn for the same job. Yes, there is an exception and an example here and there of the female CEO. But step back and look at the scrutiny that female CEO must face on a day to day basis that a male executive never would. Look at the Hollywood machine churning out big budget films every year, and the roles that women are given and the double standard of sex vs violence on film. Our adult movies coat sex in lurid and violent tones. In American suburbs children are "protected" from women who dare to breastfeed in public. If you think an angry book like The Female Man is dated, then you've probably been living under a rock.

He gave her to understand that she was going to die of cancer of the womb.
She laughed.
He gave her to understand further that she was taking unfair advantage of his good manners. 
She roared.
He pursued the subject and told her that if he were not a gentleman he would ram her stinking, shitty teeth up her stinking, shitty ass. 
She shrugged.
He told her that she was so ball-breaking, shitty, stone, scum-bag, motherfucking, plug-ugly that no normal male could keep up an erection within half a mile of her.

So yeah, I liked this book a lot. I'm glad I read it. It's challenging, it's angry. It shouldn't be forgotten so easily.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Captors - John Farris

"This is a time of revolution, moral and political revolution, as anyone who reads a newspaper knows. Most people associate revolution with violence and a period of anarchy. We've already had a little violence, which is necessary to earn recognition, but this country is well organized against the revolutionary impulse, so a major and bloody upheaval is as unlikely as it is undesirable. For one thing, there would have to be an economic basis for it, another Great Depression, a worldwide economic collapse. I think we can rule out that possibility. Therefore the revolution now taking place will remain youthful, a student revolt; the working class wont be involved at all. In fact this class is the greatest enemy the revolution has because the values of the proletariat are, as Elijah Jordan proposed, the values of institutions, not individuals." 

TOR books, September 1985
A lot of the fun I have reading these "tawdry" paperbacks from the past is seeing how little things have changed in society. Yeah, technology is full speed on the rails to hell, but its passengers, namely us, Americans from the 'burbs and the cities, are still the same miserable fucked up lot we've always been. Our hairstyles have changed, but not much else.

John Farris is one of those writers whose books are always enjoyable. He has a gift for telling a good story, whether it's horror or crime or suspense. And he's been doing it for many years. One of my favorites of his is All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By which combines Southern Gothic and Voodoo into an excellent pulpy novel that you owe it to yourself to check out if you're a horror fan. The Captors is unlike that novel, in that there is not a whiff of the supernatural to be found in its pages. Instead, it's psychological cray-cray, involving a wealthy but messed up family, a beautiful young woman, her fucked up friends and erotic shenanigans slopped all up in the house.

I've had this one on my shelf of unread books (that's the one sagging dangerously to the point of collapse!) for a long time. It's an early one by Farris, first published way back in 1969. Its story takes place in the summer of 1968, which I hear tell was quite a tumultuous year in America. No doubt, this story reflects the anxieties felt then with the war and upheaval and the seemingly impossible to cross generation gap. It tells what happens when you have a group of unbalanced and drugged up college students who take it upon themselves to claim vengeance on a symbol of the One-Percenters who've made a good living feeding of the world's unrest. A twisted game of Eat the Rich is in the offing. Wrap these ingredients up into the kidnapping of a pretty rich girl, and you have the plot of this novel. It reminded me a lot of the real life Patty Hearst kidnapping, which didn't occur until a few years after this novel was published. I expected something of a similar outcome here, sort of an erotic Stockholm Syndrome page-turner, but man, was I wrong.

"In a half-crazed and volatile world, they're allowed to sell arms and encourage aggression by doing so. If it's in our power to eliminate, completely, a source of human suffering, then we're justified, we're compelled to do it. The act of murder then becomes ethical. In a religious sense, it's holy."

I've thought about how much I could tell you of the plot without giving anything away. I hate spoiling stories for others, and this one has too many twists going for it that divulging them here would ruin the fun in reading this book. I will say it takes its time getting going. It's a slow burn of a novel for the first half, giving you the feel of the characters and their relationships with each other, instead of high drama and noise. That plays to the novel's suspense in the last half of the book. You'll get the violence and killing you've come for, but you have to be patient.

I've read several of John Farris's novels now, and I have no hesitation in recommending his books to genre fans. As with most of his books, this one can be easily had on Kindle. I've rarely seen it used, but I've seen a number of his other novels out there on dusty bookstore shelves. That's most of the fun in enjoying these old books, discovering that nothing is really new under the sun, and that your fears have already been experienced by others before you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Deadly Edge - Richard Stark

Whatever Manny was high on--and it was clear he'd been taking some sort of drug--the peak had apparently passed during his time in the bedroom, leaving him now in a pleasant cloudy afterglow, his mind turning slowly and coming up with strange materials from the bottom of his skull. 

Berkley, 1974
One of the things that gives me pleasure is knowing that I've got more Parker novels to read. I've read about half of them now, all out of order, and have loved them all. There is nothing like entering the hardboiled world of the Parker novels to remind me of why I love the genre so much. Deadly Edge from 1971 is no exception. Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) holds true to the formula of previous Parker novels. Set up a job, complete it, divide the loot, and clean up the resulting mess that ensues. Parker is a cold-blooded professional, a man of few words, showing no emotion, and is absolutely no one to screw with.

In Deadly Edge, Parker has assembled a team of heist men to rob a rock concert. The first 3rd of the novel is spent detailing the heist with clockwork precision and detail. Parker and his partners Keegan, Briley and Morris hack their way into the concert venue through the roof. With every step of the job worked out in advance they're able to get in, steal the receipts, and out again without anyone getting hurt. Yeah, they'll have to tie up a few people, threaten a few lives, but the money is all they're after. Parker has made it his business to only work with professionals. Amateurs, hot heads, and punks have a bad way of screwing things up and costing lives. And this job goes down like a perfectly executed recipe. All that is left is for Parker and his partners is to split the take and go their separate ways.

Only something has gone wrong. Parker and his gang return to their hideout to discover that a 5th member of their team, an old timer named Berridge who decided to back out of the job due to bad nerves, has been left dead on the bathroom tiles, his skull caved in with a plumber's wrench.

From there, the novel shifts to Parker at home with his new girlfriend, Claire. She's just purchased a new house for her and Parker to share on his time off between jobs. She knows that Parker will never be domesticated, but hopes that their home together will be a refuge from his other life.

He went on to tell her the whole story, from beginning to end. He left out only two things: the names of the people he was with, because they wouldn't mean anything to her, and the discovery of Berridge's dead body in the house afterward. 

It's shortly after Parker has moved in with Claire that he gets word that Keegan is trying to reach him. Parker is disturbed that Keegan should try to contact him so soon after the job, and decides that he'll go to him in person to see what he wants. The murder of Berridge after the concert job has left unanswered questions. Maybe Keegan has learned something important. Turns out that Parker's hunch regarding Keegan was right. He did know something. Only he's never going talk again. Berridge's killer has come for Keegan. It's clear to Parker that someone with a sadistic flavor for torture and murder is after the team that knocked over the rock concert. And soon, they'll be coming for Parker and Claire. And so, my friends, we're off into Parker's World of violence and revenge.

I can't recommend these novels enough. They're all available again, after many years of only getting found in libraries and used bookstores. Stark's style is economic and lean. No literary tricks and self-indulgence going on here. Suspenseful and ruthless, these novels are some of the best in the world of crime literature.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - Michael Avallone

The man's face was a grotesque mask of outraged flesh--hairless, nearly fleshless. At some time, this man had been in a great fire that had left his face a skull-like travesty of scarred tissue. His nose was merely a pair of twin holes studding the distance between the pit of a forehead and an ugly gash of mouth. His head was an encrustation of scarred, dead tissue. Only the browless eyes showed any evidence of life. And the expression they held was not...quite...sane.

ACE Books 1965
About a year ago I came across of handful of The Man From U.N.C.L.E tie-in paperbacks. They were fairly well-used but the price was low enough to go ahead and buy them. I have only the vaguest memories regarding the original TV show when it ran in the 60s. I am a bit surprised that it's not seen syndication repeats as much as crap like Gilligan's Island and Hogan's Heroes. There were a lot of cool shows that deserve another audience, and way too many shitty shows that never seem to go away. I can think of a few others that I wouldn't mind finding on independent/cable stations that still play old TV shows from the mid twentieth century. Most shows, like the two mentioned above, should just go the way of songs like "Shook Me All Night Long" and "Life in the Fast Lane" but you can bet they never will. Anyway...that's a rant for another time.

This novel tie-in is pretty much what you'd expect. A breezy spy romp featuring Napoleon Solo and his frequent partner Illya Kuryakin as they attempt to thwart the latest scheme of world domination hatched by the evil agency Thrush. In this adventure, the plan is a chemical attack on major cities that turns innocent citizens into gibbering lunatics before succumbing to death. The chief mastermind of said plot is the evil and scarred genius Mr. Golgatha. For most of the novel, Napoleon Solo works solo (yup!), with the occasional aid of Jerry Terry, girl spy. Actually, most of the time Napoleon Solo is rescuing girl spy Jerry Terry, as she seems to have a knack for fainting and getting shot more than doing anything heroic. Along the way, Napoleon Solo also tangles with the sexy and deadly Denise Fairmount, a colonel for Thrush, and a sexy bitch with 28 (or so) kills on her resumé. Golgotha is one of those maniacs that wears a cape and scares the crap out of his enemies with his gory face. He's also one of those evil geniuses who talk too much, long enough for our hero to figure out escape plots from his clutches. In this case, Golgotha is such a chump for Solo's bullshit that you end up wondering just how such an idiot can become the evil genius he portrays himself as. And he's not the only one who pulls boners (I couldn't resist!) in this novel. There's one scene wear Napoleon Solo can easily just shoot Golgotha in the head and being done with the whole nefarious plot to poison innocent civilians. Instead, Napoleon Solo and Jerry Terry just steal Golgotha's cape and uniform to make an unsuccessful escape! I mean, hapless henchmen get blown away without a thought, and somehow you don't just blast away the main bad guy when you got him cornered...major fail there in the plot!

Anyway, since this is just the 1st novel in about two dozen to follow, it's clearly not to be held to the highest literary standards. If our characters didn't do dumb things we wouldn't have half the stories that exist. As it is, I was able to finish this novel in an afternoon, so I can't complain about it getting a bit silly. That's probably the point of it all anyway, right?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Bordersnakes - James Crumley

"Well," Milo says, "let's see. Connie's married to a banker with shady connections. Connie's dead, crooked brother-in-law is both a banker and connected to one of the border familias. Maybe Western art and banks are good places to hide drug money...Shit, I don't know.

Warner Books Paperbacks - September 1997
Bordersnakes, by James Crumley, goes so over the top in its violence and vice that it almost turns into a satire of the blood-n-thunder-n-guts romance genre that guys over 50 who dig this sort of stuff really go for. I mean I've read some violent books in my time, but dang! this is one of the most violent. Its heroes, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue do the sort of fightin', fuckin' and drinkin' that would kill an keyboard pussy like myself. And pretty much bury any other Average Joe to boot! As far as plots go, there isn't much of one except for a bunch of drinking, fighting and fucking episodes strung together across an American Southwest roadtrip undertaken in the name of vengeance. That's really all you need to know to get into it. The quote above kind of recaps a bit of it. Mostly the "shit, I don't know" part. Someone stole Milo's inheritance, and someone left Sughrue gut-shot and left to die outside a bordertown tavern. The two detectives stew in their separate misery awhile, then collectively decide to team up and go after the motherfuckers responsible!

Don't get me wrong though. Reading this novel was a joy. I had a week of Arizona roadtrips to do myself, so I threw this book into the backpack for company. It was the right choice to suit my mood. Heads explode, guts explode, coke is snorted, tequila is consumed (by the bucketload!), fists are thrown, chicks are screwed...I mean this is Guy Shit Testosterone stuff with a capital T. There are also some brutal scenes that push the edge of squeamishness. I found myself squirming a few times in discomfort at the bad shit that is done within these pages. It's a grindhouse ride, to be sure, and none of it would work if it wasn't for Crumley's poetic writing style. He carries the novel all the way with a confidence that would crush lesser writers. Little phrases like "smiles as tentative as neon in the sunshine" snap off of just about every page. There have been more than enough comparisons to writers like Raymond Chandler in blurbs for Crumley's novels, but take it from me, James Crumley is one of a kind. I've read about half of his novels now, and I've yet to be disappointed in the kick they provide. There is an initial adjustment that needs to be made in starting one of his books however. Nice opening lines meander into digressions that seem random and pointless, but stick with it. It's worth it. I wouldn't recommend starting his works with this one. Go back to one of his earlier novels that feature Milo or Sughrue alone. Either The Last Good Kiss or The Wrong Case are great for newcomers. If you like those books you'll have a blast with this one.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Death Wish - Brian Garfield

"These young scum grow up in a welfare state where they see that violence goes unpunished and the old virtues are for stupid pious fools. What can we expect of them that's any better than this random vicious despair? These radicals keep arsenals in their attics and advocate the overthrow of an economic system which has graduated more people out of poverty than any other system in history. They arm themselves to attack honest hard-working citizens like you and me, and to shoot down beleaguered policemen, and what happens? The public is propagandized into outrage over the behavior of the police in defending themselves and the public!"

Fawcett Crest Paperback
The white man roars!

Well, it's not that simple. I pulled the passage above from a speech by one of Paul Benjamin's coworkers. It comes about halfway into the novel, after Paul has returned to work for the first time since his wife's brutal murder at the hands of random muggers. At this point in the novel, various versions of this speech have been uttered by a number of characters. They're frightened, angry and holed up in a city that is drowning in crime and chaos.

But are they really?

The interesting thing about this novel is that it's a case of strong suspicion equaling strong evidence. The upper middle class people in Paul Benjamin's circle are, for the most part, right of center on the political spectrum, suspicious of others encroaching into the world they grew up in, convinced that a fine line of defense by the police is all that protects them from the murder and rape that surrounds them. Paul Benjamin was the exception to that philosophy, The ultimate bleeding heart liberal, a friend calls him. Until a random act of violence destroys his family, that is.

Everyone has seen the movie that was based on Garfield's 1972 novel, And by now most everyone has seen the four sequels that have followed it. Those films don't bother much with the tragic psychosis experienced by Paul Benjamin. Instead, they're more feel-good flicks for the armchair streetfighter that percolates inside most of us. They're "movies for guys who like movies" as TNT used to say. The novel doesn't let us off so easily. It doesn't give us the release of getting to share Paul's retribution on the scum that destroyed his family. Instead, it's only in the final 4th of the novel that the first would-be mugger is killed. And just who is that scumbag mugger? Just a petty junkie living on the fringes in the park, as scared as the citizens he prays upon.

And more murders follow. More of life's losers that opt for the easiest opportunity to take a few dollars, or to hock a stolen TV, or to joyride in a stolen car.

There is an ugly current voiced in the novel that hasn't ever gone away. Over four decades later it's still fueling hatred inside of us. Here in Arizona we're subjected to a celebrity sheriff that has made a career of persecuting and accusing others not "like us" for the crime in our state. Arizona also boasts a semi-literate former governor (who now has designs on becoming VP of the U.S.!) who stated that our deserts were full of headless bodies. We have a community of angry retirees that would happily wall their town off to separate themselves from the "illegals" and welfare slobs who come here to either steal jobs or live off the system, it's never clear which. They've convinced themselves that they're the only generation that worked for what they have. We have a would-be political party who believes in shooting first and aiming later. We have people running for president who stoke fear in society, appealing to the worst of us for their own gain. The strongest lobby in Washington keeps banging a drum that things would be better if everybody was armed.

This book and movie tapped a nerve that's not pretty.

For more on this, check out the excellent review by Cullen Gallagher over at Pulp Serenade.

Dang! Aren't books supposed to be an escape?