Friday, January 30, 2015

The Last Good Kiss (James Crumley, 1978)

Private detective C.W. Sughrue is hired by a wife of an alcoholic writer to find her hubby and bring him back home before he drinks himself to death. The man has been on a crazy binge covering several thousand miles and C.W. had always been one step behind him until he finally lost the lunatic and gave up on his search. But then madame informs him that she received a postcard from San Francisco with the following "cryptic couplet": "Dogs, they say, are man's best friend, but their pants have no pockets, their thirst no end."

A bit weird message indeed (remember, guy is a writer) that can be interpreted in many different ways, but it immediately makes our hero (remember, he is a detective) start looking for an alcoholic dog "hanging" around the bars in San Francisco area. After three days, he does find this beer drinking beast named Fireball Roberts in some "ramshackle joint" and yes, he is getting intoxicated with elusive Abraham Trahearne. Our protagonists then form some sort of a weird friendship (and together with bulldog Fireball!) start the unforgettable journey.

Fueled with booze and with most of it happening on the road, this is probably the closest to some sort of Gonzo hard-boiled mystery I'm ever likely to read. But having said that it doesn't mean that this is some light and comical easy reading. It is in fact very fucking dark and it takes its crime aspect deadly serious.

Two stories intertwine. Technique I'm generally not particularly fond of because it (almost) always results in some big twist at the end being that stories are in fact related. But it can work if (a) plots are solidly constructed and (b) novel is written by skillful writer. And in this one it works beautify.

How can it not work with the main characters both damaged by war (younger with Vietnam, older with WWII)... an alcoholic writer with a block... married to beautiful wife who waited for him during the war... Doesn't ring a bell? Check out the 'Title' section of the facts below ;)

Great stuff, tough but strangely poetic, pretty crazy at times. I loved it! Hunter S. Thompson meets Raymond Chandler.

5/5

Facts:

Hero
C.W. Sughrue - P.I. who also works part-time at a topless bar. 

"C.W.," I said.
"What do the initials stand for?" she asked, smiling.
"Chauncey Wayne," I confessed.
"C.W. will do fine," she said, then laughed. 

Location:
Impossible to list all the places that C.W. drives to in his El Camino. Starts in Montana, then his first lead takes him to San Francisco and from there to Bakersfield, Spring Creek NV, Denver,  Columbia Falls, Salt Lake City, Colorado and back to Montana.

Body count: 3

Dames
Ex-wife Catherine - "She could have passed for thirty. A great thirty- And she damn well knew it." Plus Betty Sue aka Melinda

Blackouts
He gets punched from behind when trying to find a key to his hotel room after returning from town "tired of trying to get drunk without success". 

Title: 
 Two possibilities. When he kisses Catherine "so hard it blurred the careful lines of her lips, mussed her hair, and made her drop her carry-on bag", she responds by saying "You bastard. That was the last one." (note that she does not explicitly specify it was the last good one!). Towards the end there's more profound and fatalistic kiss of Betty Sue and she simply whispers "Thank you for everything."

Hard to decide, I think this book should be called "The Last Good Kisses". Second one seems more probable but I would still go for the first one. The thing is that kiss scene is immediately followed by a paragraph in which C.W. contemplates his life and this paragraph (which is pretty cool btw) contains the following sentence: "My future [seemed like] a series of long goodbyes." So I would like to think that Crumley hinted to aChandler's masterpiece. Or was he just arrogant and suggested that every one of his future books would be as good as The Long Goodbye?

Edition: 
First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, 1988

Cover
Very appropriate, see 'Location' section.

Cool lines:  
"In what condition did you find him?"
"Drunk," I said, not specifying which of us.

"Unlike yours, old buddy," I said, "mine act ain't act." Then I grabbed his wrist and squeezed the heavy silver bracelet into his soft flesh. "Intellectual discourse is great, man, but in my business,  violence and pain is where it's at."[The Coolest!]

Back in town, I worked a couple of divorces and repossessed a few televisions from households where domestic strife was the commodity of exchange. It worked like a charm. My cynicism restored itself, and my bank account remained flush.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Model For Murder (Robert Terrall writing as Robert Kyle, 1959)

This one doesn't waste no time with the usual introductions. On the first page there's a mandatory "I'm private investigator" monologue, next we learn that we are in New York and that our gumshoe is already on the case. He's about to handle $500 to a girl blackmailing his client (page two) when she starts shooting at him through the closed door. And then, for some strange reason (or is she simply pissed off at herself for failing to kill him?), she decides to shoot herself!?! And we are still in the middle of the third page!

Great start! And it gets better - proxy endorsement letter (something related to the stock exchange trading), stolen jewelry and counterfeit money are objects of desires in this one. They are of course also the reasons for the mayhem that follows. Blackmail, murder, robberies from the past, fucked up families, sleazy hotels (and fancy hotels with sleazy detectives), gangsters, G-men, cops, jazz clubs, beautiful women, tough guys,... and our private dick in the middle of all this. Used and eventually betrayed by his client.

Maybe it sounds too convoluted, but it's really easy to follow. Partly I think because the action is almost entirely driven by our hero. Not much happens without Ben's actions actually provoking it, there are no parallel sub-plots that would later cause some dramatic twists, no clues are given that would eventually become important.

But although a little too linear for my liking, it's still enjoyable old school hard-boiled novel. Always a pleasure to go back in time when people lived in hotels, used public phone booths and when police used something called Speed-photo to send fingerprints around. Amazingly, even the mighty Google cannot come up with anything useful when searching for "Speed-Photo".

4/5

Facts:

Hero:
Ben Gates, PI

Location:
New York, Cleveland

Body count: 4

Dames
Plenty of them in this one. First one to walk on (and off) the stage is Gail Ives - "an obscure supper-club singer, at present unemployed". Then there's greedy and amoral Mrs. Ringsted (she was in her early forties, and had made up her mind to stay there as long as possible), a call-girl Sandra Foote (although young, this girl had her grow), beautiful model Dorothy Terranova, "skinny" and not-so-dumb trophy wife Diane Santos. And in Cleveland there's a prostitute Jeanette and another one whose name has escaped me. I probably forgot some other girls altogether...

Ben manages to score with not just one, but two of them!

Blackouts
One:

Simply "There was a blaze of reddish light." Regaining consciousness is a bit more elaborate: "The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the cluster of stars known as Orion. It is the only constellation I can recognize, and I don't see it often, since I seldom find myself lying on my back in a parking lot after dark."

And a half:

"... he only hit me once. I could still distinguish between light and shade, but physical objects bled into each other , and the smog was bad. I was able to walk by myself, though they insisted on helping me."
 
Title: 
It's cool sounding but it doesn't have anything to do with the story. Or does it? The thing is that Dorothy actually is a model and also a friend of the victim. But after her promising (and very sexy) introduction, her character is left behind completely forgotten so I was expecting her to re-appear in the final twist. Something like when we all expected Seagal to show at the end of the Executive Decision even though he had dropped from the plane an hour before. But nothing like that happens... so nice touch, Mr. Terrall - you got me on this one!

Edition:  
Mayflower-Dell Paperback, 1965
 
Cover
Fantastic one, super cool! It depicts (with a bit of artistic freedom) a scene in which Ben meets Dorothy after her nude photo-shoot. As usual in these old paperbacks, no credit is given to the author but on Amazon's website it's attributed to the great Bob McGinnis.

Cool lines
I washed and shaved, used one of Diane's big-toothed combs on my hair and straightened my tie. There was lipstick, dirt and blood on my shirt, but there was nothing I could do about that.

"I've been humane so far," I remarked. "Please, don't stick your head out of the car, or I'll blow it off." I added, for Blick's benefit, "Bang, bang."

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wild Wives (Charles Willeford, 1956)

PI Jake Blake is sucked/suckered into two love triangles in a single day. First one is kind of amusing (at first), but second one is violent, sexy and ultimately deadly. Man is killed and Jake, together with his femme fatale accomplice, must hit the road toward Mexico in order to escape the electric chair. Passion cools down pretty soon and fades out completely when money (or lack of it) gets involved. Tragic conclusion is inevitable and justice will be served in the end - in the "Postman Always Rings Twice" manner.

Not sure where to start. I love Hoke Moseley stuff but I didn't really know what to expect from this one, written 30 years prior that. Was Willeford's quirky style already distinct and memorable so early on or was this going to be just another detective novel?

Such concerns were dispelled right away. There is a classical opening scene with detective siting bored and jobless in his crummy office when femme fatale walks in with a gun. But here our damsel in distress is a teenager with a water pistol! Hehe, nice touch. The whole thing quickly takes more serious tone, but as the story progresses it soon becomes pretty clear (and cool too!) that this is not going to be a detective story. It's rather "crime of passion" kind of thing in which the main protagonist just happens to be a private detective. In other words - Willeford is playing with the genre and he's using one classical crime/mystery template to tell a story of another one.

It goes even further because there's also a little twist in the "passionate lovers condemned to destroy each other" part. The thing is that neither of them is quite likeable so we don't really root for no one in particular. Florence at first appears to be a cool, horny and calculative bitch (always plus in my book) but then we learn that she's just a messed up girl who recently came out of the mental institution. And without going into details, let's simply say that Jake is pretty much an asshole.

The most enjoyable part of this for me was that I didn't even have time to think about such matters because pace was so furious. Towards the end it reaches almost comical intensity and the Las Vegas wedding scene with a gin soaked witness sleeping in the chapel (one page) and the one in which Jake wins $1400 on a dice game (two paragraphs) are unforgettable. It says on the cover "A Novel" but with less than 100 pages I think it qualifies more as a novella. Either way, it's impossible to put it down once you start reading it.

Could go on and on about this little masterpiece, but instead let me just finish this post by saying "Read It!". Can't think of many better ways to spend a couple of hours of your life.

5/5

Facts:

Hero
Jake Blake, PI

Location:
San Francisco, Las Vegas

Body count: 3

Dames
At the beginning:

Florence had something that I'd never run into before in my entire life. During the many years I had spent in the army, I'd met women in Paris, Berlin, Manila and Tokyo, but never, never one like her before. The mundane domestic variety I'd clashed with in the States I didn't count at all--I decided to stick it out for awhile to see what would happen. 

And a bit later:

I hadn't realized it before, but Florence Weintraub was just about as dumb as a woman could get.When it came to any thinking, I realized, I would have to do it all.

Blackouts:
He drew his fist back. I saw it coming but I didn't feel it. It was a sure-shot solar plexus blow and the film turned a dirty black, interspersed with shooting stars...
 
Title: 
It's of course about Florence but I'm not sure why plural is used. I mean, she has mental problems but it's never explicitly specified that she is a schizophrenic.

Edition:  
First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, March 2006

Cover
See 'Dames' and 'Title' sections

Notable cover blurbs:  
This one from Elmore Leonard is well known, but let's just put it here for the record (and play a little with a typeface): 
"No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford."
 
Cool lines:  
"Now, try this: I call it a Desert Wind. Nine-tenths gin, one-tenth vermouth. No olive. No onion. Nothing, just a toothpick."
I sipped the Desert Wind. "It's fair," I said, smiling, "only next time, skip the toothpick. The wood absorbs too much of the gin."
[The Coolest!]


"Go to your room!" He told her fiercely.
"Fuck yourself," she remarked quietly and wandered over to the fireplace.
"I wanted to take a look at you, Blake," he said, ignoring Florence's suggestion.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Macao Mayhem (Terry Harknett, 1974)

Was a bit disappointed at the beginning. Just another formulaic thriller, placed in somewhat exotic surroundings and fueled by over the top violence. Story is about some sinister mastermind criminal orchestrating a plot in which few small time Hong Kong gangsters would kidnap high ranking US official and sell him for 5 million bucks to Chinese (I think). It gets even more ridiculous when it turns out that this genius (mysteriously referred to as "Man from Macao") is only slightly less small-time than his crew. Story just doesn't add up (why the hell would killers bring a massacred body to a whorehouse?) and to make matters worse, police investigation is pretty pathetic too and based on some hard to swallow coincidences (victim was a cop's friend, his partner's informer knew her house maid etc).

Mediocre stuff, especially considering it was written by the author of the solid Squeeze Play. But just when I expected it to fall apart completely and explode into a total chaos (true to its title), it got better. Much better. Relentless pace settles down a bit and marginal characters (Jenny, her boyfriend/pimp Kai) become more involved. It basically turns into a 'proper' mystery that is actually quite smart, makes sense and builds up some decent tension as it nears the conclusion.

Unfortunately neither suspense nor narration are sustained and at the end the whole thing pretty much disintegrates. Too bad, it would deserve a better ending.

It's far from perfect and could be probably improved by rewriting some dialogues and shortening action sequences descriptions but I quite liked it anyways. Characters are real, made of flesh. Especially both killers are memorable - contrary to the cliches they repeatedly (three attempts in 24 hours!) fuck up their contract and Jo is just a scared alcoholic. Our two cop heroes also get fair treatment but let's leave them for the next time. Will most probably check out other books in this series.

3/5
 
Facts:

Hero
Senior Superintendent John Crown of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force and his partner Chang Po. Their senior calls them "The Lone Ranger and Tonto".

Location:
Hong Kong (where "Spies were, of course, part and parcel of the scene.") and briefly Macao.

Body count
9, most of them meet their maker in a pretty gory fashion. Check this:
  • First victim - when already dead! - is slashed with aikuchi from throat down to her abdomen and then stabbed at least thirty times!
  • Then the door cut him in half against the frame and the weight of the descending car pulped his upper body into the ground. The Challenger began its roll, trailing a spray of blood.
  • Skin burst and bones crunched. Blood sprayed and crimson tissue oozed. Before so many of his vital organs were pulped into the street surface, Willie had time to reflect that he had been right to regard thirteen kills as unlucky.
  • Ju's body was hurled high into the air. For an instant it was whole. Then it disintegrated like a clay pigeon hit with both barrels. Pieces of torn flesh, charred by heat and dripping blood, rained down over vehicles and horrified watchers.
  • First shot took him in the stomach... The second entered the mouth, smashing the bridge-work...and lodge in the brain. The third and fourth went into his right and left eye... Blood poured out fast in vast quantities...
  • Guy is shot dead (with mandatory "spray of bright crimson") and then ran over by the car!
Dames
Unfortunate Mu Li (one of the highest paid call girls on the island), a bit less unfortunate prostitute Jenny (for some reason, she's referred to as "whore" all the time which was really annoying) and let's not forget the sexy maid Rosita.

Blackouts
Chung gets knocked out and it's pretty forgettable ("It was unsubtle but effective. With no chance of retaliation."). But there's another occurrence which definitely deserves mentioning even though is not related to any of our main heroes. Drunken sailor Hans de Jong is hit on the head when entering a brothel room where (surprise, surprise) "his" prostitute is and poor guy is so horny that he ejaculates when he sinks into unconsciousness!?!  I mean wtf - is this even possible??

Title: 
Pretty unoriginal. I think something like "The Man from Macao" would be better (I admit it's a bit 007-ish). It's also not very accurate because only 22% of killings take place in Macao. So "Hong Kong Mayhem" would be at least a bit more appropriate (but still unoriginal of course).

Cover
Illustration (not credited) of Crown and Chang causing mayhem on the streets of Macao. Crown's face expression is really cool, he looks pretty pissed off.

First time on this blog: 
Crime in Asia.

Cool lines
"No ifs!" Crown snapped. "You tried to sell yourself into this mess. I may let you buy yourself out of it. The currency is words."