Tuesday, 30 October 2012

THE IVORY GRIN by John Ross Macdonald.

John Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar)
1915 - 1983

Was this splendid  Pan 1957 cover
art the work of  John Edwin Keay
(better known as Jack Keay)
Or could  it be John R Keay?
Sometimes you pick up a book and immediately get that certain feeling, which was what happened when I started this one - which just happened to be my first John Ross Macdonald thriller. That was back in 1988. On the back cover I found some connections with other authors. ‘John Ross Macdonald’, the cover blurb informed me, was a pen name used by Kenneth Millar who had written several thrillers under his own name and whose wife Margaret was no slouch herself when it came to tapping out an occasional mystery. Like The Iron Gates? I hardly needed further encouragement, and anyway, the plot had already got its claws into me and wasn’t letting go.
The plot: Lew Archer is hired by the butch Una Larkin to find a former employee, a young coloured girl who has run out on her. Archer doesn't like Una and only half-believes the reasons she's given for wanting to trace her former employee, when the girl turns up dead.  Archer wants to know why, and by this time he’s changed his employer and has begun searching for a missing man.
His new search takes him to a Gothic mansion, an insane mobster and a doctor who has lost all self-respect in his obsessive fixation with a faithless wife. 
Beside the quirky gothic touches, Macdonald conveys a brilliant picture of small town nineteen-fifties America which Ray Bradbury would have liked (and probably did).
The cover is graced with a positively luminous cover painting by 'Keay'. At first glance it's a fairly typical late nineteen-fifties cover.  But the near-photo-realism is unusual and also the luminosity  of  the colours.  The picture of the grey-suited detective sitting on the edge of a desk as he questions a suspect while a policeman in the background stands in the horizontal shadows of a  Venetian blind,  combines to creates a brilliantly time locked image redolent of  countless American TV cop shows or noir movies. It’s no wonder that the presenter of a BBC series about the tough women who featured in so many noir films delivered her chats years later sitting in front of this image. 

Now does anyone remember the name of that series?

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Night I Died by Cornell Woolrich (1936)

Detective Fiction Weekly
for August 8th 1936,
showing the story as an
anonymous publication

“The Point about me is that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did – all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.”

I’ve no idea how many noir stories pivot on the idea that a man’s life can change in an instant (usually for the worst), but I’d guess lots. Usually in these stories it’s the man’s life which changes; the woman is the one who’ll make the changes happen because she’s got into some mess, been kidnapped maybe, or is being blackmailed, so he has to rescue her or get her out of trouble. Or she’s a Machiavellian scheming bitch that any man with sense would run a mile from, but we just know he’s got such a bad case of the hots they’re going to end up swinging together.

There are some things that a man in a noir story should never do. He should never let his wife take out life insurance for him. And he should never never go home early to give her a surprise. You just know if he does that, the one in for the real surprise will be him.

So when Ben Cook goes home earlier than usual with a bag of toffees for Thelma, he probably deserves all he’ll get and, as he goes into the house, we’re not the least surprised that he hears voices.  Or that the voices are those of Thelma and a man he doesn't know. And the next thing he knows, he hears the two of them plotting his death.

With the advantage of surprise on his side, Ben takes control of the situation and Thelma’s scheme now undergoes some fundamental restructuring as Ben drops out of sight in order that the world will believe he’s dead and that that all-important insurance claim will be paid – initially, at least – to Thelma.

But we have a fair way to go before we’re at the end, and the path is likely to get a mite bloody.

This story was first published in Detective Fiction Weekly, August 8th, 1936. Happily I've been able to locate the cover of that issue at The Fiction Mags Index. And look closely at that cover. Did he really publish this story anonymously?   I read the story in Four Novellas of Fear, 2010, A J Cornell. Publications.

Thin Air by Robert B Parker

Thin air is what Lisa St Claire has vanished into, at least that’s how it seems to her husband, Boston cop Frank Belson. But then, Lisa is young and very pretty, and poor old Frank’s getting on in years, so what can he expect?

Private Eye Spenser knows Frank and Lisa and isn't convinced by the poor old Frank school of thought, and when someone takes a shot at Frank, Spenser becomes even more convinced that there’s some other reason for Lisa’s disappearance. In fact the reader knows there is another reason; because we've witnessed her abduction on page one, though we’re not sure who’s responsible or why, or exactly what’s going on. 

Spenser’s investigation into Lisa’s past, before her marriage, takes him deep into a history of abuse, alcoholism and prostitution and ultimately to a barrio fortress in a Massachusetts mill town which has become the hub of a power struggle.

In the closing chapters, a battle taking place in the streets surrounding the fortress moves into the crumbling walls of the stronghold itself.

This was my first Robert B Parker novel, and damned if Parker didn't die in January 2010. This keeps happening. I try to keep up with authors while they’re still around, but I guess most of them had been working at their writing a lifetime before they became well-known enough for any of us to find them.

Parker’s writing has been described as Chandleresque, sometimes to the point of self-parody. It is Chandleresque; I didn’t notice any parody myself, but this is the first Parker book I've read. Maybe you need to read a lot to notice it. I thought his writing had quite a light touch; in this one he seemed to be marrying elements of detective thriller and Western adventure, and I was quite happy to be along for the ride.

Detail: Spenser is spelled with an s as in Edmond Spenser, the writer of The Faerie Queen (what?); and the character has no known first name. Probably I will read another one of these.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Free Fall in Crimson by John D MacDonald (1981)

Free Fall in Crimson, Collins 1981
UK First Edition
Travis McGee is approached by a young artist whose millionaire father was beaten to death in a lay-by a couple of years before. The old man had been dying of cancer, with only a couple of months left to him, and there’s a suspicion that he might have stopped in the lay-by to buy illicit drugs to help him through his last weeks. Travis is hired to find out the truth.

His search takes him into the world of motorcycle gangs, and to a film director who made a couple of cheap cult biker movies years before and is now engaged on a seemingly doomed project making a film about hot air balloons.

Actually John had a beard in the
photo on the back of this book
but this looks cool anyway.
Travis spends a lot of time weaving between bikers, druggies and a long-clawed Hollywood sex-kitten; and a new lady comes into his life in the shape of the lovely Anne Renzetti. We don’t see too much of Meyer after the opening chapters, but there’s a lot going on  here all the same, and the final confrontation with the killer is truly frightening. I liked it.

HE WHO HESITATES by Ed McBain (1965)

He Who Hesitates by Ed McBain
Pan UK edition 1979
Roger Broome has come from Carey, up in the sticks near Huddleston, to the big city, as he does every Christmas, to sell the woodenware products he and his mother and brother make.
He's a big guy, six feet six, two hundred and ten pounds, and perhaps he doesn't have much sense of humour. Some people might even say he's slow, in a way. But he’s a polite sort of guy, and he has a knack of charming the ladies without really having to work at it… even if he does usually get the ugly girls, like Molly. But then he meets Amelia, and Amelia is really pretty, trouble is she’s also black. His mother might not like that.
Evan Hunter
A.K.A. Ed McBain
(Probably this photo shows
him at about the time he wrote
He Who Hesitates (1965))
Roger wants to speak to a detective about Molly.  Not a uniformed cop.  At the moment the detectives are all busy looking for Agnes Dougherty’s refrigerator, although why anyone would want to steal it beats them.
Head down against the snow, Roger starts to follow Detective Steve Carella.
This one is superb.  People talk pretty glibly about books that you just can’t put down, but to actually find one is a rare event.  This is such an event.  The detectives of the 87th Precinct only put in cameo appearances in this one.  The story runs for 150 pages and has the precision and economy of a short story.  The dialogue is brilliant.  Do yourself a favour. Read it.                      

Eyes That Watch You by Cornell Woolrich (1939)

Four Novellas of Fear by
Cornell Woolrich, 2010
A J Cornell Publications
Mrs Janet Miller is a contented woman. She has everything she needs. So long as she has the feel of the warm sun on her body, the blue sky overhead, and the voice of her son Vern Miller in her ears, she is content.

In fact she is entirely paralyzed and unable to speak or sign or do any thing at all without Vera or Vern’s assistance, but as long as she has those few things, she’ll ask for nothing more.

Woolrich with his own best
girl, his mum.
Then she learns that her daughter-in-law Vera is planning, with her lover Jimmy Haggard, to murder Vern. And there’s not a damn thing Janet can do to prevent it. She’s so helpless that when Vera realises her plan has been overheard, she doesn’t even worry about it. What can Janet do, anyway?

As I can't find the exact cover, this one
comes close, just four months before -
check the bottom left corner.
The murder is one of the most ghoulish that I've encountered in fiction, matching the burying-alive of Marty in the Cohen brothers Blood Simple. Vera plans to take advantage of a faulty bathroom water heater to gas Vern. She will escape the effects of the gas by wearing a gas mask. And just so that people won’t become suspicious at too many corpses turning up overnight, Jimmy Haggard has brought two masks, so Janet will also be protected whether she wants it or not.

At this point our synopsis has progressed about as far as it can without becoming a spoiler and the only additional detail that needs be mentioned is that our cast list isn't quite complete. We still need to meet a wandering young man with the unlikely name of Casement. And straight away you know this guy ain't what he appears to be…

This story was originally published in Dime Detective September 1939 as The Case of the Talking Eyes. I can’t find the relevant cover, though this one at least advertises another of Woolrich’s stories (another little research job to do, hm?) I actually read the story in the collection Four Novellas of Fear, published 2010 by A J Cornell Publications.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The White Road by John Connolly (2002)

Elliott Norton gets in touch with Charley Parker because he needs help defending a case in South Carolina.  A young black man has been accused of the rape and murder of his girlfriend, young, white and wealthy Marianne Larousse. Charley is having visions of a car that he knows no longer exists, on a road out of Hell, driven by a man Parker knows is dead. There is a pleasant ambiguity about Parker’s visions or dreams, nothing you can put your finger on, but it definitely gives an added dimension to the writing.

In the meantime, Charley's friends Angel and Louis are on a mission in the South, helping some murderers to atone for their past – at the point of a gun. And while these stories are unfolding, the fanatical preacher Faulkner (introduced in Every Dead Thing) is in a prison cell, planning to take a twisted revenge on Parker through the very men that Parker is hunting.

There is at least one more character in this gallery of grotesques, but he’s so far down the evolutionary scale that he keeps his larder hidden in deep mud. You’ll like Landron Mobley, honest.

I made two mistakes with this book: the first was to read it before Every Dead Thing (if I’d checked, I’d have realised that I was starting with the second book of a series…doh!). My second mistake was waiting so long (months!) before writing it up (I had to spend an hour scanning pages, remembering details and making brief notes before I could attempt this ‘review’).

What the hell, this was a great read.

For anyone who doesn't know, Connolly’s an Irish writer and in 2000 Every Dead Thing copped both a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, then a Shamus for Best First Private Eye Novel. Connolly is believed to be the first author from outside the USA to win the award.

The jacket illustration by Mark Harrison is after a detail from an engraving by Veneziano, Allegory of Death and Fame, 1518. Just so's y'know. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974) by Donald E Westlake

The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was, “Basically, you're not a bad person, Kunt.”

“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way... “With an umlaut,” I explained.

When a reader finds this exchange on the first page of a novel, he or she will probably get a good feeling about that novel, possibly accompanied by helpless giggles.

Donald E Westlake
Harry Künt, with an umlaut, an obsessive practical joker, winds up in jail when one of his jokes goes wrong and injures two Congressmen. (Actually he causes a seventeen car pile-up, but it's the Congressmen who count against him.)

His only crime might have been a misfired practical joke, but now that he's in jail he's invited to join in with the robbery of two banks.

In the prison he has stumbled on a strange and very private club: seven prisoners who have their own tunnel leading from the prison into the town. Escape is not on their minds; these are the world's first prison commuters. But they have one extraordinary plan. In the town there are two banks, just waiting to be robbed by seven men; men who have the best alibi of all - they are already in jail.

In the town, as well as a robbery waiting to happen, there's also a pretty girl who Harry just happens to have fallen in love with.

As if this weren't enough, the prison has another mystery. Someone is sending out notes reading HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER. Warm characterisation and ironic humour make this more than just another book.

Death in the Air by Cornell Woolrich (1936)

Cornell Woolrich is a familiar name to followers of horror and hard-boiled detective thrillers alike. Black Alibi (1942) was filmed by the team of Producer Val Lewton and Director Jacques Tourneur as The Leopard Man (1943), while his gruesome short story Papa Benjamin was damn-near ruined when used for a segment of the portmanteau film Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (the story featuring Roy Castle).  

Death in the Air utilizes the unusual setting of New York’s elevated railway system - to great advantage. Inspector Stephen Lively – inevitably nicknamed ‘Step Lively’ – is on his way home from work on the ‘El’, a journey that carries him down major city streets, sixty feet in the air; then the track veers off into Greenwich Street, where the surroundings change dramatically:

“The old mangy tenements closed in on both sides, narrowing into a bottleneck and all but scraping the sides of the cars as they threaded through them. There was, at the most, a distance of three yards between the outer rail of the super-structure and their fourth-floor window-ledges, and where fire-escapes protruded only half that much.
“What saved them from incessant burglarising in this way was simply that there was nothing to burglarise. They were not worth going after. Four out of five were tenantless, windows either boarded up or broken glass cavities yawning at the night. Occasionally a dimly-lighted one floated by, so close it gave those on the train startling impression of being right in the same room with those whose privacy they were cutting across in this way.”

It’s during this part of the journey that the policeman notices two people engaged in a strange dance in one of these apartments, then a little further on realises that the man he’s sharing his compartment with is dead, killed by a bullet coming from outside.

‘Step Lively’s’ nickname is an ironic one, as he’s possibly the most languid policeman employed by the force. After pulling the communication cord, he realises that the journey back to the lighted apartment from which he suspects the bullet came, will involve a tedious journey, as he'll have to first descend to street level, then climb back up again. In the event he decides simply to walk back along the elevated track. 

The languid detective’s journey back along the busy railway line, then risking his neck clambering from the line to the open window – where he finds a woman’s corpse and needs to rescue it from a blazing building while under the influence of a ‘crazy weed’ reefer that he’s unwittingly discovered in the room and started smoking, makes a riveting read.

Vintage Woolrich, first published in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1936. I found the story reprinted in Murder on the Railways edited by Peter Haining, Orion 1996