Monday, August 31, 2015

Perchance to Dream (Robert B. Parker, 1991)

Style is okay and there are few moments of brilliance (see hero and cool lines sections) although sometimes I got the impression that Parker tried too hard to emulate Chandler and came up with some truly corny dialog.

Problem is the story. Or lack of it... Marlowe basically breaks the case and finds the bad guys after the first ten chapters (and chapters are pretty short btw). And then for some reason he keeps calling Vivian and she keeps whining and the damn thing doesn't move anywhere. So Parker throws in some Chinatown-like water rights conspiracy nonsense that just doesn't make much sense either.

Simply not good but it is at least bearable. Unlike that abomination of Black-Eyed Blonde published last year.

2/5

Facts:

Hero
"You're a private detective," he said. He had one of those Hollywood elocution voices which has no real accent but sounds nearly British, especially if you haven't heard a real one. He sounded like a guy that recited bad poems on the radio.
"When I'm not polishing my yacht," I said.

Location
L.A. and fictitious (I think) Neville Valley 200 miles north of L.A.

Body count:  
4, not counting the unfortunate kitten thrown out the open porthole into the sea by that asshole Simpson.

Dames:
Vivian, still beautiful with eyes nearly coal black and full of heat and a full lower lip that seemed specifically meant to be nibbled on. And still tough:

"I'm not as tough as I look, Marlowe," she said
"If you were as tough as you look", I said, "you'd probably have to be licensed." [Fatale]

And of course horny and a bit kinky Carmen, still cute as a ladybug but far dumber, with the moral sense of an hyena.

Blackouts
Yes, no less than three of them:

...something erupted against the side of my head and the lights coalesced into a brilliant starburst and then blackness into which I slid as peacefully as a drunken seal.

Huh, drunken seal? The second one lacks this kind of imagination and is more or less limited to use of a comparative (or is it superlative?) of the adjective red:

I couldn't breathe. The reddish haze got darker and redder and finally enveloped me and I plunged into it and disappeared.

The last one lacks any imagination at all. Pretty standard stuff:

Something hit the side of my head and I went back once again to a place I'd been spending too much time in.
 
Title: 
According to Wikipedia it's another euphemism for dead.

Edition: 
Futura, 1991

Cover
She is definitely young Bacall but the guy looks more like the dude who played Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep. Is it possible that artist was given the wrong film still?

Cool lines
"This your car?" the fat cop said.
"Nice huh?" I said. "You want to sit in it?"
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" the fat cop said.
"Sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to talk so fast."
"You'll be talking fast in the back cell under the big lights in a little while," the fat cop said.
"The smaller the town, the tougher the buttons talk," I said.[The Coolest!]

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pearls are a Nuisance (Raymond Chandler, 1950)

Checked this one out while reading's Chandler's letters and watching again the brilliant HBO series with Powers Booth. It's a collection of three short stories and seminal essay The Simple Art of Murder.

Pearls are a Nuisance (1939)

Not bad, but quite forgettable cozy buddy-buddy nonsense. Of interest probably only to Chandler's scholars.

Finger Man (original story 1934, re-written with Marlowe in 1950)

Opens with Marlowe testifying against some bad ass mobster. Besides the killing he's accused of, this guy Manny also seems to have a history of shady dealings with "a big politico, a fixer". So some powerful people would prefer Marlowe to stay away from Grand Jury and DA advises him to watch his step. Our main man responds simply by saying "sure" and goes back to his office where he's met by a friend who hires his services as a bodyguard for the forthcoming night.

So by the end of the first chapter, the setup is complete. And the two plots merge pretty soon which is good - I don't like those predictable endings with "surprising" revealings of "unrelated" sub-plots. What follows is standard classical PI story with gamblers, corrupt politicians, tough guys and amoral dames.

Good stuff. Also memorable for the first appearance of Bernie Ohls in Marlowe story.

The King in Yellow (1938)

Royalty from the title is King Leopardi (what a fucking great name!), jazz band leader whose wild party is broken up by our hero Steve Grayce, a hotel detective. King has an attitude that matches his "blue" blood and gives plenty of it to Steve:

"Leopardi does what he likes, where he likes, when he likes. Nobody's stopped him yet, gumshoe. Take the air." 
... 
"I never did like house peepers," he sneered. "They smell like public toilets."

He doesn't stop at verbal abuse, the asshole even takes a shot at our hero! So no wonder Steve throws him out of the hotel. Only instead of management's gratitude, he gets canned for mistreating VIP guests. Jobless now, he decides to join the ranks of private investigators and his first assignment offers to him itself - when cleaning the room after his fight with Leopardi he finds a blackmailer note in King's wastebasket.

It does take its time to get things going, but I really liked this intro. Story then progresses nicely, some colorful characters are introduced (with more crazy names like Dolores Chiozza and Jumbo Walters ) and everything finishes with an excellent, very surprising ending centered around a family tragedy. I could sense it coming with that old broken couple and the blind guy crying. Sad world indeed is the world of Raymond Chandler but you enjoy every moment of it.

5/5 [anything written by the Master will always get five stars on this blog]

Facts:

Hero
We all know everything about Marlowe, but who is Steve Grayce, the (ex) hotel detective?

Steve frowned at the gun and didn't move. The big man looked him over. "You're tough," he said. "I been in the ring long enough to size up a guy's meat. You're plenty hard, boy. But you ain't as hard as lead. Talk it up fast."

Location
L.A.

Body count
None in Perils, 8 in Finger Man (half of them are related to the Manny Tinnen affair) and 7 in King

Blackouts
There's pretty funny one in Perils:

I bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun it. When I had it nicely spinning I gave it a full swing and hit myself on the back of the head with the floor. This made me lose my balance temporarily and while I was thinking about how to regain it a wet towel began to slap at my face and I opened my eyes.

And a more proper one in Finger Man when Marlowe gets "coshed" from behind:

Then he dropped the cigarette and stopped on it and a quick, light step made faint noise behind me. I was far too late turning.
Something swished and I went out like a light.
 
Edition:  
Pan, 1980

Cover
Frank Dorr from Finger Man scratching his black Persian cat Toby.

Notable cover blurbs: 
This one, coming from Daily Telegraph, is a bit old fashioned but still pretty cool:
"...As tense as a tiger springing into action."
 
Cool lines:  
Obviously, since Chandler and Hammett invented the hard-boiled language, there's no shortage of cool lines and below are just a few:

He had beautiful teeth, but they hadn't grown in his mouth.[The Coolest!] 

He took out a leather keyholder and studied the lock of the door. It looked as if it would listen to reason.

She had a mud-coloured face, stringy hair, grey cotton stockings - everything a Bunker Hill landlady should have. She looked at Steve with the interested eye of a dead goldfish.

But super cool stuff comes from the The Simple Art of Murder essay. The whole thing is available online here. I just pasted a small example of its brilliance:

There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

Brainquake (Samuel Fuller, written in early 90s, published 2014)

Paul Page is a bagman in New York who falls for a wrong woman. Together they steal money from his employers, go on the run and end up tragically in Paris. A bagman? Highly trained professional who transports dirty money for the organized crime.

It starts super cool: "Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park"

And with such a killer opening line and Fuller and mobsters and anti-hero with his babe on the run... it simply got to be good, right? Well, not exactly. First part - the boy-meets-girl & money stuff in New York - is okay and it might even function if it wasn't so insanely blown out of proportions. Cartonish characters (like that priest hit-man dude) I can digest but carrying not just millions but (literally) billions of dollars in cash while being chased by (again-literally) pirates is just a bit too much.

And it should end in New York because the whole Paris thing (another 100+ pages) quickly turns into an incomprehensible mess. Plot falls apart and there are so many incredible coincidences (like protagonists keep bumping into each other all the time) that they cannot simple be coincidences. I kept thinking for some time that they were some kind of metaphors (that I just wasn't getting) or shit like that. But further and crazier it got the more convinced I was that Fuller simply wanted to finish the book and had ran out of ideas.

But interestingly enough, the megalomania and surreal world from the first part gives us one of the craziest and most memorable villains in the long history of villains. Chapter 16 describes a typical day in the office of Cornelius Hampshire - the most powerful man throughout the civilized and uncivilized world of crime. In a mere five pages Cornelius and his four lieutenants manage to coordinate crime all around the globe - stuff ranging from narcotics and banana republic revolutions to money laundry and high investment banking. They of course also briefly touch on the piracy situation in which our Paul is involved in. And we get to know the humane side of Cornelius because he seems to be a big baseball fan:

"Good. Michael, what's going on with Citra?"
"She's being executed Friday."
"Get our liaison to buy her freedom. Give him a million."
"He's being executed with her."
"Goddam it! She's the best distributor in Malaya."
"She was."
"What about Russia?"
"The ban on farms growing poppies shot opium prices sky high."
"Addicts'll pay the difference. Take advantage of the revolt of the ruble. And, oh yes, on the baseball scandal? Kill any bastard selling drugs to ballplayers. I love that game. Don't fuck around with baseball. Ever."

Unforgettable. Super cool and funny. The whole chapter demands repeated readings!

I know this is Fuller's last book and it's great that Hard Case Crime published it but it has to be said the whole thing is a bit weird. 

2.5/5

Facts:

Hero
Paul Page, a bagman

Location
New York and Paris

Body count:  
20 - including two cops in the final shoot-out (although there could be more) but excluding Eddie and Michelle. And I wouldn't give this duo much of survival chances because in the very last chapter they are spotted (another unbelievable coincidence btw) in Avoriaz by the hit-man Father Flanagan.

Title: 
Paul suffers from some undefined brain disorder that he calls "Brainquake". It's not a tumor or anything else that modern medicine can deal with so I assume it must be another metaphor I have missed.

Edition: 
Hard Case Crime #116

Cover
Another cool one by Glen Orbik with Max Phillips designing the cover. And after visiting Phillips' website I finally realized that the man is not illustrator :) Need to check some of my old posts and fix artist's credits on them.

Notable cover blurbs: 
None really notable. Maybe because all of them are written by film makers?

Cool lines:Entire chapter #16

Thursday, August 6, 2015

So Nude, So Dead aka The Evil Sleep! (Ed McBain, 1952)

Wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time mystery. Of the amnesiac-awakened-by-the-corpse sub genre. With a touch of a special flavor because in this one our hero is a junkie. Which is cool - I prefer that leading character in these kind of average-guy-turns-amateur-detective types to be some sort of "society reject" than the usual doctor, school teacher, priest and so on.

It works well. For a while. But then it slowly drifts into unreal or even surreal. Stuff like our poor Ray being totally strung out on heroin disguising himself by painting his hair with a shoe polish (!?) and then right away impersonating a police inspector (he is only 26 btw) in order to interrogate a husband of a woman he's wanted for a murder of. Sure enough, his "cover" gets blown but that doesn't discourage him. He goes straight to the club where he picked up the victim the night before and starts interviewing the barman. In the middle of this charade, a beautiful woman approaches him and takes him to her luxurious home where she tries to seduce him. Eventually (pretty soon in fact) she will fuck him, but you could see the final 'surprise' twist miles away, couldn't you?

There's more of such stuff and it's really pointless to go through the entire list. Let's just say it culminates on the third day of his cold turkey. Instead of banging his head against the wall of some cheap Harlem hotel and slicing himself with razors, Rey is still vital enough to escape from cops by running eleven floors up the staircase (beating and disarming one cop in the process) and then jumping to several rooftops to complete his escape.

During all this time his investigation doesn't progress much and he himself resignedly concludes towards the end that:

"It's one hell of a rat race, " he went on. "There are so many loose ends, so many blind alleys. I keep asking people questions, but I'm not sure I'm asking the right ones - and I'm not sure the answers mean anything. All I know is that I've got to find the real answer before it's too late."

So the whole thing is a bit amateurish. But it has some nice touches too. I liked the idea of running against the clock which in Ray's case is simply trying to stay sane without a fix. And his character is superbly developed. At first I found flashbacks to his past a bit distracting but they don't really slow down the pace. And they do help us understand our hero and make him human so we don't judge him too hard and simply feel sorry for him. For fuck's sake, in a city as huge as New York he doesn't have a single friend (not even among junkies) and he calls his father when he gets into this mess.

Plot is okay and it's development becomes quite enjoyable once you stop paying too much attention to the story holes (like where are the cops?!?), loose ends and coincidences. The final whodunit is decent although far from shocking. All in all, it's a good, honest and unpretentious writing without moralizing or preaching on a difficult subject of drug addiction. I imagine it was pretty ground-breaking 60 years ago.

3.5/5 (adding an extra half point for the included excellent short story Die Hard)

Facts:

Hero
Ray Stone - ex-pianist, these days heroin addict

Location
New York

Body count:  2

The second one is pretty funny:

There was a neat little hole right between his eyes, and it dribbled blood down along the side of his nose and over his mouth.
Ray stared at the drummer.
"Massine? Mass-"
He was dead.

Well, people with little holes between their eyes tend to be dead. Elementary, Watson...

Object of desire: 
The answer seemed logical and simple to him: find that bastard. Find him, and the pressure would be off. The cops would have a new sucker to toy with. And then Ray Stone could contact Louie or any other damned pusher in the city.
 
Dames
Besides Eileen (lady on the cover) there is Barbara 'Barbs' Cole - "The warmest pair of brown eyes he'd ever seen" and (unfortunately too) briefly Chinese/Irish cutie Rusty O'Donnell ("They bill her as an artistic dancer. That means strip artist in English.")

Blackouts
Yes, he blacks out during the beatings that bad guys give him:

His eyes opened as he saw the gun butt reaching out for him. There was an explosion alongside his left ear, a fiery display of screaming stars. He struggled to keep his head up, felt the next solid blow crush into the base of his skull. He stopped struggling then.
 
Title: 
Pretty cool sounding, but not very profound - Eileen was simply nude when he found her dead. But I think it's still better than the original The Evil Sleep.

Edition:  
Hard Case Crime #120, July 2015

Cover
Love it! I think it's so good it qualifies for a painting and not "just" an illustration. Great perspective from above and light bulb (although it could be placed a bit over to left) that casts cool shadows and creates nice shades of red and scarlet. Very noir-ish, very stylish.  But not 100% accurate - murdered girl is blonde, her arm is supposed to have lots of needle marks and there should be two bullet holes in her belly.

By Gregory Manchess. Who btw ought to do some work on his website.

Notable cover blurbs: 
New York Times Book Review blabs the usual nonsense but finishes really cool: "Ed McBain owns this turf."
  
Cool lines:  
Can't think of any really memorable in So Nude, So Dead but I found this one from Die Hard pretty funny:

"Give me the police."
"Do you wish to report a crime?"
"No, a strawberry festival."
"What?"
"For Pete's sake, get me the police." [The Coolest!]