Sunday, November 9, 2014

Me, Hood! (Mickey Spillane, 1963)

Needed something normal after that excruciating Woolrich experience and who else would be more appropriate than good old Mickey Spillane? It's amazing how popular his titles still are and how easy (and cheaply) they can be obtained. So I usually keep a few of his paperbacks ready for a right moment and this little one containing two novellas and one short story seemed perfect. I mean, with the titles like "Me, Hood!" and "Kick It or Kill It!" there was no doubt about what I was going to get.

And yes, no surprises here. It's yet another sex & violence madness. Plot is pretty far-fetched and due to its relentless pace (the whole thing is about 70 pages long) it quickly becomes almost incomprehensible. And to make matters worse, it falls into the "grand issues" category. But at least we get an early warning about this because our hero, after being recruited by a secret service (I think) to do some dubious job, quickly concludes that:

Patriotism doesn't exist on any local level. Suddenly we're international and I can only think of three fields where you striped pantsers could exploit me: The narcotic trade through Italy, Mexico or China; illegal gold shipments to Europe; then last, the Commies.

Welcome, once again, to the beautiful, frightening and simplistic world of Mickey Spillane. Btw - I liked the touch with commies being written with the capital C - makes the whole thing a bit personal, don't you think?

But it turns out that the evil which our hero will be fighting in this one ticks the first check box. Heroin! And this is where things get absurdly hilarious and make this short pulp unforgettable. Because - believe it or not - 8 kilos (kilograms) of smack in the year of our lord 1963 cost "Millions. Not one or two. Not ten. More than that. Enough to get a whole city killed off."

Let's have a little break and do a quick math. To help us understand things properly, let's try to calculate the running costs of a junkie living in NYC in the early 60s. Assuming that street price is twice as much as 'retail' (probably much more; I have no idea really) and taken into account inflation that blows 10 millions to 77.79, we can calculate that price of a single gram is 19.447.50 US dollars. Since the daily dose of an addict is at least 1 gram (according to this site), we can conclude that an average junkie in 1963 would spent almost 60 grand a month supporting their habit. Which, in other words, means that drug addicts used to be millionaires.

So this makes a difference and puts a new perspective on the whole setup. Obviously since "There hasn't been a single shipment that size in twenty years", we can now better understand the ridiculous body count and involvement of CIA and Mafia. Italian boys even dispatch their top east coast enforcer, Keyser Soze like dude named Lodo to kill our hero. Which is another (also unintentionally funny) story, but I don't want to reveal everything.

2.5/5

Kick It or Kill It!

Craziness continues. Drugs again, but this time we also get Commies because "Reds are injecting a poison into this country." All three axis of Evil are somehow involved: Cuba is a collection point for China-grown narcotics and the whole deal is supervised by the Soviet attache. Also aided by mysterious and uber sinister Mr. Simpson who eventually (and most unsurprisingly of course) turns out to be a corrupted senator.

In short, it's a Spillane's take on Hammett's Red Harvest. Secret agent comes to some god forsaken little town and cleans it up. So I don't think that recapping the last five pages will be some major spoiler:

"The guy on the dock died easily and quietly... I took him with one sudden stroke... The other one... went just as easily... My hands were tied. My feet weren't. It took only three kicks to kill him... Then I was ready... When the man there saw me he tried to call out and died before he could. The other one was just as unsuspecting. He died just as easily. Soft neck... There was Harry Adrano. I shot him. There was Calvin Bock. I shot him. There was Sergei Rudinoff. I shot him and took the briefcase off his body and knew that what I had done would upset the Soviet world... There was the man who owned the airlines and I shot him... so I shot him too... I brought the shotgun up and let him look all the way into that great black eye and then blew his head off."

I liked that "soft neck" touch. Otherwise, no further comments are needed...

2.5/5

Facts (only for Me, Hood!):

Hero
I asked, "Who am I?"
His answer was flat and methodical. "Ryan. The Irish One. Sixteen arrests, one conviction for assault and battery. Suspected of being involved in several killings, several robberies and an un-cooperative witness in three homicide cases. Associates with known criminals, has no visible source of income except for partial disability pension from World War II. Present address.."
"That's enough," I said

Location:
New York

Body count
18, not counting "Holmes in emergency ward with a couple of slugs in his chest and not expected to live."

Dames
Miss Carmen Smith. Ryan's description (shortened, as it goes on for two hefty paragraphs):

Most times a woman is nothing... then one day you see one... you not only like but one you must have... instinctively you know... she's big and beautiful... full-breasted... She's not trying for anything. She doesn't have to... long legged and round and in her loins there's a subtle fire that can be fanned, and fanned, and fanned.

Blackouts
nope, but there is one in "Kick It or Kill it!"

Title: 
"May I ask who you are?"
"The name is Ryan, honey. In common parlance I'm a hood. Not a big one, but I get along."

"The things you do... are so different. I never know what to expect-"
"They're hood things, kitten."

Cover
Great looking dark haired semi-naked woman. Hm, did I just use the word 'woman'? Correction - in Spillane's world they are called sweeties, kittens, dolls, kids, sugars, honeys...

Cool lines:  
I don't think I looked like the typical Haynes client. I wasn't carrying a briefcase, either. I was carrying a rod, but that was one reason for the $200 suit. It didn't show. 

"I need a doctor..."
"You'll need an undertaker more."
"Look..."
"Talk." My hand started to go white around the butt.[The Coolest!]

Fright (Cornell Woolrich, 1950)

All good stuff in this one happens in the first fifty pages. And such brilliant start it is indeed! We get to know this dude Prescott who is pretty unsympathetic figure - an average, self-centered guy, Wall Street wanna-be yuppie who's about to make a next step on the social ladder by marrying a girl from a wealthy family. One night he gets drunk, picks up a girl in a bar, takes her home and things happen. Soon she begins blackmailing him and finally he accidentally kills her.

It's a cool setup, especially because we don't (at least I didn't) feel sorry for him as a blackmail victim and kind of secretly cheer for Leona. True, she's a cold bitch but also very charming in her own way. Plus she has plenty of style when driving our poor Press crazy.

But then it begins. It probably began right at the start, but I didn't really notice because introduction was so good.

You see, in Fright nobody ever simply says something. Instead they relate, protest, admit, confine, echo, demand (and counter-demand), exclaim, interject, concur, chortle, parry, admonish, note, retort and even - I kid you fucking not - ejaculate!

And they do so palpitating, pensively, assiduously, obdurately, demurely, strenuously, vociferously, amiably, ebulliently, wonderingly, charitably, ruefully, inwardly, magnanimously, caustically, neutrally, stonily, guilelessly, reticently, deprecatingly, parenthetically. Or simply in dazed exaltation, in disquietude, in discomfiture, in fervent gratitude, in attitude of morose pensiveness, with aching diffidence, or surrounded by surreptitious air of excitement.

This shit is incredible. And relentless! While reading it, I kept thinking about the video I'd seen in which Elmore Leonard gives a few writing lessons. One of them being that "one should never use a verb other that 'said' to indicate a dialogue and certainly shouldn't use an adverb to modify 'said'.. because that's the author and not character talking". I'll bet that he had just finished reading Fright when he said that. Anyways, check out the clip, it's really cool and interesting!

I did read some short stories of Woolrich recently and as far as I can remember language used in that book wasn't so archaic and stories were easy to follow. I guess in this one he wanted to be authentic as much as possible since Fright is taking place in 1915. But still, for non native English speaker as myself, it was at times agonizing. I have great respect of all languages and enjoy old fashioned expressions (see 'cool lines' in Bulldog Drummond or Blackadder clip) but this was simply too much. No joy in reading a book if one needs to look-up obscure words in dictionary every five minutes. I just lost a modicum of my affability...

So much about the form. After the initial promising beginning, story falls apart. Or to be more precise: it turns into heavy psychological melodrama in which Press is paralyzed with fear and sinks deeper and deeper into madness and paranoia. Eventually he even has a nervous breakdown and contemplates suicide. There are occasional attempts to revive the plot and accelerate its pace but they are not very believable. Stuff with shooting the wrong guy is pretty pathetic, but episode with insurance agent is pretty cool though.

It is unforgettable, but for the wrong reasons. And I'll be definitely reading the next Woolrich on my Kindle with built-in dictionary.

2.5/5

Facts:

Hero
see the first paragraph of this post.

Location
Part one is titled "New York", second one simply "Some Faraway Town" and the last again "New York Once More"

Body count: 5

Dames
She was quite young; twenty-two or twenty-four at the utmost. She was quite pretty, but in run-of-the-mill sort of way. It was not a lifelong beauty of feature and formation such as Marjorie had; it was a transient coloration lent her by the fact of her youth alone, that would disappear with that again some day.

Huh? Transient coloration?

Blackouts
There isn't typical one but towards the end Press is so fucked up that he's kind of half conscious all the time. Needs alcohol to be able to talk and even to get asleep on the train back to New York,

Title: 
Press is overwhelmed, totally paralyzed with fear of getting caught for murder. No remorse, no sympathy, no nothing. Which makes him an even bigger asshole...

Cover
At one point Press "sobbingly screams" at her: "You're not human at all! You're a demon". Nice cover by Arthur Suydam but I found even better one. 

First time on this blog: 
First entry with YouTube  clips embedded. It's pretty easy and somehow cool so I also used the one with Blacadder although I know I pushed that language thing a bit too far with it.

Cool lines:  
The man's head, over the top of it, was like an egg sitting in its cup, waiting to be cracked.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Squeeze Play (Terry Harknett aka Thomas H. Stone, 1973)

Private detective gets hired by an old poor black lady to find her niece. Innocent Avis left her Seattle home and went to San Francisco six months ago in order to find her long lost sister. She did find her alright but in process got hooked on heroin and found herself mixed up in a nasty blackmail affair. It's a big time game involving organized crime, beautiful women with a shady past, failed actresses with their sleazy cameramen companions, tough cops (one is named Bogart!), dirty politicians, switched identities and so on.

In short - it's a classical detective novel. Written in 1973! I think its biggest quality is that it doesn't try to reinvent the wheel and keeps things simple and as straightforward as possible. Plot is far from trivial but still easy to follow and the final revelation (let's not even call it a twist) totally makes sense. Characterization is more than decent, especially our main mulatto hero is complex just enough. Special mention must go to the time and location - even though it takes place in San Francisco, there's no mentioning of hippies, Nixon, Vietnam war and so on. It felt like the author had intentionally ignored all that political and sociological crap and had instead simply focused on telling a damn good mystery story.

It's nothing special really, certainly nothing I would call a masterpiece, but it simply works. At least it worked for me. There are many more ways to fuck up these kind of novels then there are ways to make them right and it seems to me that Mr. Harknett was well aware of that.

I often buy crime paperbacks of unknown (to me at least) authors at flea markets and second hand bookstores and usually they are pretty disappointing. But I'm really glad I came across this one and will definitely check out the other four of Chester Fortune series. I googled Terry Harknett (and Thomas H. Stone too) and was amazed how obscure he is, especially since he wrote more than 200 books! There's basically just his Wikipedia page with a single link to some publisher and that's it. No online interviews, studies, blog posts etc. Would appreciate if anyone would give me some tips about his stuff!

4/5

Facts:

Hero:
Chester Fortune, PI. Cover describes him as "Fortune is a Man of Violence in a Violent World"

Location
San Francisco

Body count
Pretty bloody affair for mere 120 pages: 6 + 5 mobsters + not sure about "two detectives and a patrolman went down, clutching at their stomachs and spraying blood"

Dames
Karen - "Youth was a thing of the past for her and he guessed she was into that period of a woman's life when the thirty-second birthday comes around every year."

Blackouts
There was a split-second of agony under his skull, a blinding flash of white light, then darkness. Cool and soft and damp like the earth in a forest after a summer storm.

Title: 
Poor beautiful damsel in distress Karen is being blackmailed (squeezed).

Cover:
see 'hero' section

Cool lines:  
The severed head hit the ground and rolled. Flames exploded from the wrecked car and in their flickering light he looked into the sightlessly staring eyes of what had once been Natalie Webb.
"Told you the ride was coming to an end, baby," he muttered.[The Coolest!]


The right side of his chest was soaked with blood, which had finished seeping from the wound made by a knife. The heart they had cut out was lying several feet away from him.
"I always thought he was a heartless bastard," Bogart said between teeth clenched against his pain.
"Just wasn't cut out for the job," Fortune responded.[The Coolest!]

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Rat On Fire (George V. Higgins, 1981)

Reads like a stage adaption of Elmore Leonard. Dark but funny, authentic and realistic but at the same time very believable. And of course full of interesting characters who establish themselves almost entirely through dialogues.

Story is unusual and cool too. Not some big time multimillion caper involving pros and beautiful dames. There's simply this ass-hole lawyer who owns a run-down building in slums which gets infested by rats so (obviously!) his tenants refuse to pay him the rent. So instead of fixing these problems (as you probably know yourself, this is something fucking landlords never do), he rather opts for an insurance arson scam.

I love character and dialogue driven plots so this one should be 5/5 and it actually was for the first third or so. But the whole setup takes way too long before some action finally kicks off and by then it loses a lot of its initial momentum. Also dialogs become repetitive, tedious and too long so at times it feels like you are stuck inside some endless monologues. It still works and plot sticks together but everything simply becomes a bit boring to be honest.

Good and interesting stuff, but it feels more like an experiment than finished product. I'll be definitely checking Higgins again.

3.5/5

Facts:

HeroThere is no central hero. I think that of all the characters I most (dis)liked Jerry Fein
Location:Boston
Body count: 1
Dames:/
Blackouts: /

Title: 
Leo sets the building on fire by catching some rats, then pours gasoline over them (!) so their skin itches, sets the poor rodents on fire (!!!) and lets them run into the interior of walls where electrical wires and pipes are. So it's pretty accurate title, probably plural would be more appropriate.

But of course rat is just a metaphor for our bunch of villains, so - again - plural would be more accurate.
 
Cover
Pretty cool and somewhat funny. Letters and burned match beneath them are placed in such position that one can imagine a slightly grinning face.

Cool lines:
Oddly enough, couldn't find nothing to put here. No witty Tarantino-esque one-liners, the whole thing is simply too serious and realistic. Jerry's insane ravings about nig*#*! are memorable (as much as I hate to admit some of them also funny) but they are far to politically incorrect to quote them here.