Saturday, March 28, 2015

13 French Street (Gil Brewer, 1951)

Very Edgar Allan Poe-ish beginning. Our hero arrives to a secluded countryside house visiting his old friend who is now living there with his hot wife and aging mother. Something's definitely wrong and this delightfully dark and sinister atmosphere is nicely rounded up in the following dinner scene:

Dinner was a wake. We sat for three quarters of an hour over a rare roast of beef. And I met Verne's mother. Yes. Really there were three corpses at that table. The old woman, Verne, and the roast of beef.

Things then move forward pretty quickly with somehow predictable sequence of an affair, a murder and a case of blackmail. Needles to say, we know from the start it will end tragically.

But it's still great. Affair between Petra and Alex is all about sex. Very carnal stuff, there are no profound declarations of love made while watching the sunset. To be honest, Petra does seem to be a bit confused and cannot make a distinction between love and lust. Her husband is impotent which makes him "a machine with one part not working" to her. So "there's nothing wrong with him, only I'm too much for him... He couldn't keep me - happy" which then leads to a conclusion that "He's sapped. He's a dead weight. He can't do anything any more.

Alex's reasoning, on the other hand, is much more straight-forward: he's simply horny as hell. And he cannot handle the guilt of fucking his best friend's wife and deceiving his fiancee so he turns to a heavy drinking. What a sissy :) But there's a great feeling of fatality and inability to control his destiny right through the book's opening sentence: "Petra's letters should have warned me." to realization that "you are stuck like a fly in the glue".

Story is smart too. It's basically a drama about the damaged people in the post war America and not really crime/mystery thing although it smartly disguises itself as one. There's a character of Jenny that definitely plays some sort of the role since she has/had a relationship with Verne but this never gets fully revealed so reader expect some sort of a twist. At least I did. Also liked the fact it didn't follow the usual pattern in which hero gets fucked at the end and femme fatale walks away unpunished.

Hot stuff. Real page turner.

4/5

Facts:

Hero
Alex -An archeologist with no place to dig and with no one to give a damn if he did dig - but with a dream.

Location
Fictitious (I think) town of Allayne

Body count:  3

Object of desire: 
Sex/Money for Petra, Sex for Alex

Dames
It's all about Petra (btw the very first word in the book is her name):

She was tall, slimly provocative. All in black. Black hair, worn long, tumbling around her shoulders. Black eyes, all pupil, or all iris. Her skin was very white. Her black eyebrows arched slightly, making her eyes seem bolder than ever, and her smile had shock value. Long-legged, full-breasted, and the neckline of her dress reached down. Down. She was bold, beautiful woman.

Petra. She stood alone. There was nobody like Petra. One image was made, then the gods shattered the cast. Why?

Her breasts were large, perfectly formed, upthrusting, and firm. Her body was flawless, as if she had been carved with some lusty godlike precision from a warm, utterly unblemished slab of pure alabaster.


Blackouts
Lust and guilt drive Alex to drink himself into the oblivion:

I barely made it to the toilet. I blacked out in an agony of retching, tearing the stuff up, trying to vomi all the crazy hell out of the bottom of my guts.

Title: 
Book's very first paragraph:

The minute I stepped through the doorway at 13 French Street, I sensed something wrong - something I couldn't nail down. But she closed the door before I had a chance to run.

Also a bit of (not exactly subtle) symbolism. Number 13 doesn't need an explanation and France part of the title comes from Alex and Verne's serving in France during the WW2 where their frienship was forged and where Verne (admittedly drunk) had promised Alex that they would share his future wife.

Edition:  Fawcett Publications' Gold Medal #211, 1951

Cover
See 'Dames' section

Cool lines:  
He looked as if somebody had machine-gunned his soul. 

His voice was hollow, and when he smiled it wasn't a smile at all, just a torturing of the muscles around his mouth.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Instant Enemy (Ross Macdonald, 1968)

Simple case of a teenage runaway girl turns into a not-so-simple case of kidnapping in which no ransom is demanded but instead triggers the action that causes a few skeletons to fall out of the closets. It takes some time to take off and in fact we need to wait until the page 87 to start the body count meter running. But it builds up very elegantly and nicely and we know that we are heading into some pretty heavy shit when Archer interviews a missing girl's friend and asks her if Sandy grew old all of a sudden. And then he reminds her that "And I'm not talking about having a baby. That's a minor problem compared with the other things that can happen to a girl."

And then it gets complicated. Really complicated. As usually with Macdonald, we need to go into the past where original sins lie. Fifteen years and three generations back in this one. Together with a bunch of characters and some identities changes this makes the story quite difficult to follow at times. Not to mention its relentless pace - poor old Archer is on the move constantly, driving all the time and even taking a flight to San Francisco. He gets a call from his client at 5am and for the next two days only manages to get sleep twice for an hour in a car (an ambulance the second time). So it's pretty funny when he orders a rare steak for the breakfast on the third morning of the case. He definitely deserved it!

It also gets darker and darker as it progresses. Practically all the characters are flawed in one way or another and Archer's strongest motivation for working on the case is to keep the girl (even though guilty) out of prison. He also develops a sympathy for her messed up boyfriend (this one is guilty as hell) and tries to stop him from getting into even bigger troubles. He succeeds only partly so ending (with a great fucking twist btw) just leaves you sad. Like it or not, we are living in a world full of greedy and amoral people.

Great stuff, another masterpiece. 14th in the series with Macdonald at his best. Although I do have one little remark: there's a way too obvious give away when Archer is given a check for a hundred thousand dollars dated for a week in advance. I didn't think for a second that he would actually be able to cash it. Total spoiler!

5/5

Facts:

Hero:
Lew Archer, PI

Location
LA, briefly San Francisco

Body count
2 in the present, 2 in the past and one unfortunate mud hen shot by some asshole 

Object(s) of desire: 
Davy wants to get to know himself and his father, Sandy wants to punish guys who raped her after giving her a shitty LSD that sent her on a permanent bad trip. Rich people as usually want (even more) money and (as usually) justice is what our knight in a white armor Lew Archer is after.
 
Dames
Runaway kid Sandy. Mrs. Fleischer, middle-aged blonde alcoholic. Ruth Marburg, bitchy millionaire. Mrs. Hackett - "She was handsome but a little fat and dull, and full of unpredictable emotions.

Blackouts:  
I went out, all the way. After a while the darkness where I lay was invaded by dreams. Huge turning wheels, like the interlocking wheels of eternity and necessity, resolved themselves into a diesel locomotive. I was lying limp across the tracks and the train was coming, swinging its Cyclops eye.

Title: Have no idea how to interpret it. Wasn't sure if maybe "Instant Enemy" was some kind of phrase and googled it but search came out only with some pretty ridiculous kind of spell that you can put on your friend that you're pissed off at. Definitely not related to this book, no magic spells here.

Edition:  Fontana, November 1974

Cover
One of the weakest of Macdonald's Fontana reprints but still pretty cool. And accurate too because Sandy steals a shotgun at the beginning. I can't remember whether the color of her sweater color was mentioned or not but her car was definitely green so I guess that qualifies.

Cool lines:  
I let her take me into the large drab living-room.It had an air of not being lived in, just being endured.

She looked anxious and lonely, like an overweight ghost haunting the wrong house.[The Coolest!] 

"I'm offering you a million dollars." She held her breath, and added: "Tax-free. You could live like a king."
I looked around the room. "Is this the way kings live?"

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The French Key Mystery (Frank Gruber, 1940)

A locked room mystery with a cool and original premise. Our hero and his side-kick, a couple of small-time con artists, get locked out of their hotel room and when they manage to get into the room, they find a corpse of a total stranger holding a valuable coin in his cold hand. For some reason that I must admit had escaped me, they decide to find the killer themselves instead of calling the authorities.

It's a classical, good old fashioned cozy crime with an amateurish detective but it's quite cool. Not sure that plot holds water all the time but it doesn't really matter because it's so fast-paced and entertaining. And both Johnny and Sam are cool characters, especially former is super likable although for my taste he is portrayed a bit too romantically. But he definitely has his moments and one of the best parts for me was conning that used cars salesman asshole.

A bit of a let down is the final revealing scene in which the whole cast is assembled in Janet's dressing room after her successful stage debut. It's simply silly but I guess in those days every crime novel had to end dramatically with everyone present in the same room and Poirot/Marple/.../Johnny Fletcher doing their whodunit routine.

3.5/5

Facts:

Hero:
Fletcher chuckled. He was at reasonable peace with the world. His clothing was dry, he'd had his morning coffee and after a while the sun would shine. That was enough for him. He was a reasonable man.

"You're the man who lives - by your wits, shall we say?"
"Who doesn't? To be just as frank with you, Miss Winslow, I'm a book salesman. And if you'll pardon my modesty, I'll say that I'm probably the best book salesman in this country. I am a spellbinder-"
"True..." murmured Betty Winslow.
"At the same time," Fletcher went on heedlessly, "I've had some experience in criminal matters."

Location
New York, briefly some godforsaken mining town in Nevada

Body count: 2

Object of desire: 
Vedder continued to regard the golden piece. "Where'd you get this? It's interesting. Only about 58,000 were coined."
"58,087 of the 1812's... which this isn't. It's an 1822, of which 17,796 were coined and only a few issued. It's the most valuable American coin in existence." 

Dames
Janet, an aspiring actress - "She was a swell girl but she lied like hell." [Fatale]

Blackouts
A hundred little red blacksmiths pounded against his skull with little red sledges. Their anvil work made a terrible din. Fletcher cursed the blacksmiths and they went away. Bees came then and buzzed and were enveloped in scaring, agonizing fire.
 
Title: 
"French key? What's that"?
"It's the invention of a Shylock hotel manager. Let's say you owe three weeks' room rent. The manager wants to lock you out, but wants to make sure you can't get in with your pass key and carry out your belongings. He takes this French key, which is made of soft metal, sticks it into the lock and breaks it off. You try unlocking that door then."

Edition:  Avon, 1946

Cover
Very cool one, and even without the usual blondes + guns. It's actually related to the story - after being locked out of their room, Johnny and Sam must go through the adjoining room and its outside windows still to get to their room.

Cool lines: /

Monday, March 2, 2015

Very Cold for May (William P. McGivern, 1950)

Paul Pine reads McGivern in Halo for Satan so I decided to have a go at this one. Pine's remark about "PI being brilliant and women in it beautiful" hinted some sort of a trashy pulp so I was a bit surprised to find it a very classical murder story in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Not really my cup of tea, especially since our main protagonist is some sort of a PR hotshot. Which is pretty fucking high on my top ten list of shitty professions.

But it turned out to be quite good and interesting. It deals with a government corruption, moral hypocrisy of officials, war profiteering and media spin-offs that cover up all this shit. Murder mystery and our hero's personal dilemmas (also related to his marital problems) are elegantly placed in this background of post-war America.

It has to be said though that it is a bit weak on the plot. Jake - as likeable and interesting as he is - is not very good detective at all and is simply lucky to break the case because he gets his main clue from a slip of the tongue of one of the villains. Both whodunit and the following twist are not very believable (twist is surprising though) and the "revealing" scene with complete cast assembled in a true Poirot tradition is totally unnecessary. I also found bits that (I guess) were supposed to make this a bit more hard-boiled (cop friend and that aging mafioso type) a bit redundant.

But still, it was a good and entertaining reading. Reminded me to read classical mysteries more often.

3.5/5

Facts:

Hero
Jake Harrison, senior account executive at Gary Noble and Associates, Public Relations.

Location:
Chicago

Body count: 3

Object of desire: 
May Laval's diary. She's writing her "tell-all" memoirs book based on this diary that would expose dirty deeds of lots of powerful people ranging from gangsters to politicians and businessmen.

Dames:
May Laval, once beautiful model who still craves for attention and tries to get it by publishing her controversial book. Then there's Jake soon-to-be ex (?) wife Sheila and ass-hole Riordan's wife Denise. May is definitely the most interesting one of the three so it was too bad she was the first one to go.

Blackouts: /

Title: 
A word game that I didn't find as amusing (or intriguing) as it had probably been intended. I mean - May is dead and dead people are very cold.

Edition:  Penguin, 1987

Cover
This has to be the dullest cover so far on this blog. Have no idea what kind of message did art directors at Penguin try to convey to the readers by putting some old picture of an empty street on the cover. Surely they are not suggesting that because of all the corruption etcetera Chicago has become a ghost city?

Cool lines:  
"Jake, you act like you you're tired or something."
"I was taken unexpectedly drunk last night," Jake said, and winced. He wondered if he were likely to develop into the sort of graceless idiot who was never at a loss for rakish comments about his hangovers.