Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shaft's Carnival of Killers (Ernest Tidyman, 1974)

I'm not a fanatical film buff regarding exploitation movies, but I like them enough to feel a bit embarrassed in admitting that this is my very first Shaft novel. And to be even more honest, I wasn't even aware that those cool movies were based on books. I've seen old Shaft paperbacks every now and then in the second hand shops and flea markets but they were always "filmed" ones. Babes pictured on the front cover of this one obviously caught my attention, I decided to check out its back cover and it was really no-brainer to take it home expecting good fun and easy reading.

And got both of these but was also pleasantly surprised how good and somehow original this stuff actually is. Especially style-wise, plotting could be better.

Starts like a good old fashioned crime novel. Shaft is enjoying his vacation on the Jamaican beach (where there's absolutely fucking nobody) having his first can of the Red Stripe six pack, but it doesn't take long until he's disturbed by the screaming girl being chased by a couple of thugs. But unlike Mike Hammer, he doesn't give shit about it. In fact, he finds the whole scene just "lot better than any shit on television".

He does get involved though and at that point I was expecting to get just another standard case of runaway girl involved into same shady business (drugs, porn flicks, blackmail, ... you choose) with Shaft helping her out. You know, just something to do in order to stay in shape and kill an hour or two while he's enjoying his holidays.

Well, I couldn't be further from the truth. Because in no time at all our main man is involved into some sinister assassination plot against the prime minister. Plot thickens and characters get introduced with a speed of light. There are beautiful women (obviously), corrupted officials, gambling mafia guys (I think), tough policemen, car chases, some fanatical revolutionaries, bombs, ex-FBI operatives turned private investigators, attack dogs etc etc. Not to mention insane taxi drivers! In fact plot gets complicated so much that pretty soon (6th chapter) even Shaft gets a bit confused and needs to do a little recapitulation and facts re-evaluation. But he basically just confirms what he already knew: "Suddenly it was politics, not pussy."

Cool stuff, but style is definitely winner over the content here. It is hilarious to read because Shaft is simply the coolest bad-ass motherfucker. And not at all in cartoonish way in which he was presented in the movies, here he is much more made of flesh and blood. More vulnerable (see facts) and - big surprise - not much of ladies macho-man either (see facts again). He's just this nice guy, almost of Lebowski kind, who wants to spend some quality time on his hard earned vacations...

Language is great too. Full of slang and cool jokes but at the same time it all seems to be totally natural and not forced at all. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Mr Tidyman spoke this kind of street slang in his private life. Very funny and also easy to follow.

Liked it a lot, will definitely check out some other titles - "Shaft Among the Jews" sounds crazy enough, doesn't it?

4/5 (adding an extra half point for a cool ending)


John Shaft, PI in NYC but just a tourist in this one

Jamaica - between Kingston and Montego Bay

Body count: 5

Most of them are disposed in a ways that would make Mike Hammer blush. And while speaking of these methods, I should probably add another corpse to the grand total. Because there's this pathetic hunchback-ed criminal and Shaft (1) jams the flashlight into his eye, then (2) tortures him by stepping on his ankle and twisting it until he gets confession and (3) finally snaps his neck by driving a car over the poor bastard. I don't think he actually kills him because later some policeman mentions that "he had crippled somebody" and Shaft himself concludes his works by saying that "If he tried again with the blowgun , it would be from a wheelchair"

Body count is also not accurate and complete unless I add a couple of birds to it. There's a scene where he shoots another asshole and unfortunate guy's body falls into some kind of bird cage containing two vulture birds. Shaft doesn't like them, so he just shoots them too.

  1. Marita Dawes - secretary and some kind of revolutionary (A dumb little broad with a nice ass but no brains involved in all this political bullshit)
  2. Sarah Watson - prime minister ex-lover
  3. Bernadette Lightwood - prime minister's wife
  4. Linda + Valerie - school teachers from New Jersey
But - amazingly! - Shaft doesn't fuck any of them. In fact one night stand affair with the latter two ends up pretty miserable, even humiliating for our main man (see below)

No less than three time. Which is amazing considering how tough he is supposed to be and also how short this novel is (130 pages). And while the first time is understandable (poisonous dart) and second time tolerable (car crash), the last time is simply unacceptable! He picks up two horny housewives in a hotel bar and brings them up to his room and they start drinking champagne. True, he is tired (but still horny!), but all this time he's nervious about what to do because he has never in a threesome. One of the chicks saves him of this dilemma by jumping on top of him from behind which makes him - well, you've guessed it - loose his conscious one more time. 

There's no shortage of killers and I guess that carnival part comes from the costume party that takes place at the end. 

No surprises here: Shaft & Babes. Cool, but it could be better by giving babes some guns.

Cool lines:  
It was black as a loan-shark's sympathy for delay.[The Coolest!]

The night was as dark as a pimp's soul. [The Coolest!]

She was a cold, dry fish, and he took a petty satisfaction in understanding why the Prime Minister had been baking bread in a hotter oven.[The Coolest!]

"Paw Paw Tree in West Kingston," the driver shouted. "No worse place than this. You not careful, they kill you for dollar."
"That's inflation," Shaft said. "In New York, they'll do it for fifty cents."

"What's your name, man?"
"David Michaelangelo," the bartender said.
"Jesus," Shaft muttered.
"You know my brother?"
I got to get out of here, Shaft thought.[The Coolest!]

They rammed their way through the crowded downtown area without accident. Shaft couldn't understand why, except that God probably loved Freddy [Taxi Driver] as an idiot. By all rights, there should have been three or four pedestrians and a couple of motor scooters draped over the front fenders.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Web of the City (Harlan Ellison, 1958)

Rusty wants to quit the Cougars gang whose leader (president) he used to be and leave behind the violent life in order to become a designer. Or something. But there is no way of getting out - he's a helpless captive of this urban jungle and things go from bad to worse when his beloved sister gets raped and murdered. Now his only redemption and way out of this mess lies in revenge.

I'm aware that Ellison is one of the genre's giants but this one somehow just doesn't do it for me. Hard to pin down the exact reason but I would argue that, like so many other debuts, it suffers from being over-ambitious in both content and style.

Starts great, I liked its pace and the concept of chapters being titled by the days of the week gives the book a real-time dynamic. First half takes place from Thursday to Tuesday but then it just gradually loses its momentum - 10th chapter is titled "Saturday a Week later" and three chapters later is just a simple "Days later". Problem of course is that nothing much happens after the initial prologue, introduction and actual crime; our hero wonders around pretty much lost and his "investigation" is - well, what would you expect from 17 years old confused and pissed off hooligan? - pretty cumbersome. Somehow he gets into his head the idea that there simply must be a connection between the killing of his sister, youth gang dispute (war) over the territory (turf) and some big shot drug dealer. Spoiler, fucking spoiler - there will be no connection...

Narration is a bit hard to digest sometimes because there are long sections of dialogue-less pages which badly impact already mentioned lack of pace. Also everything is concentrated on our protagonist and his moral dilemmas. Other characters are either completely good (mom, teacher) or bad (pretty much everyone else). City seems to be author's constant fascination - in spite of its clearly negative role. After all, it is suppose to be the mighty Web that catches our innocent Rusty, isn't it? Even harder to understand are author's sympathies with gang members. They are violent and on more than just one occasion pretty sadistic bunch but still Ellison addresses them as "kids" or even "boys". I definitely prefer more non-sentimental depiction of the youth gangs from The Real Cool Killers.

It is written very well with full of energy, but - once again - maybe a bit too ambitious. Like author tried too hard and couldn't decide if he was writing a pulp novel or more "serious" drama stuff. Lots of slang which I usually enjoy but here it's just a little too exaggerated. There is a funny moment where the slang word "procoo" is explained in - you've guessed it - slang as a "protective cust'id".

Undoubtedly good stuff and probably ground breaking back in the 50s as well as a great document of the era's youth gang culture. But too bleak and depressing for my taste to really enjoy it. I'll give it an extra half point for the additional short stories. Especially No Game for Children. Clever, well plotted with a good twist and also very violent!



Rusty Santoro, 17 years old ex-leader (Prez) of the gang Cougars.

Brooklyn, New York "the web of the" City - One gigantic, pulsing, living mass, moving, surging, pressing, hot and sweating, carrying along with it the fever of lechery and the stink of bad hot dogs, good papaya juice, tired feet.

Body count
2. But in the short story No Way Out (originally published as Gutter Gang) which is more or less a chapter from the Web of the City we do get another killing.

Louise "Weezee" Chaplin - highly attractive girl....aware of her growing body and so the sweater was a size and a half too small.

none. But there are even three of them in the short story Stand Still and Die!

Rusty is caught in an inescapable web of the city that doesn't let him go. To be honest, there are so many references to this metaphor that it was beginning to be a bit annoying.

Decent enough paining by Glen Orbik, maybe a bit reminiscent of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers poster. But not really accurate - Rusty just fucks three chicks but none of them actually tries to escape with him. Also sinister assholes pictured above them surely don't look like no kids. And I think that NYC should be somehow presented in the background as it plays a major role in this one.

Cool lines:
She bought a bottle of good Scotch from the man and Rusty wondered how she knew good from bad. She didn't seem to have the brains.