Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)

Cover Painting by R B Farrell
Matt Cordell was a private detective until the day that he found one of his employees in bed with his wife and whipped him with a gun. Now his wife has gone, he’s lost his license as a result of the pistol-whipping, and spends most of his time in the Bowery in close communion with a bottle. At least that’s how it is until Johnny Bridges tracks him down and asks a favour. Johnny is a tailor and suspects that his new partner Dom Archese is dipping into the till. Won’t Matt at least take a look around the place for an old friend? But when Matt and Johnny visit the tailor’s shop, Dom is already there, shot dead.

Evan Hunter pictured 2001
a.k.a. Ed McBain
a.k.a. Curt Cannon
(1926 - 2005)
There are a lot of blondes in this one and they’re all trouble. Christine Archese is Dom’s widow, but Matt learns they’ve been separated six months. So who’s she sleeping with now? Larainne Marsh is Christine’s twenty-four year-old younger sister who works in a five and ten store but sings with a band and just could have the talent to make it to the top. And ever present for Matt is the phantom presence of Toni McAllister, his former wife.

When the police find that Matt is involved, Lieutenant Miskler puts a tail on him, the wonderfully named Albert de Ponce detective 3rd/Grade. Matt’s treatment of women here is rough even by the standards of the old Manhunt magazine (where Matt Cordell first appeared). Extra-marital relationships are rife in this book, and another murder is on the cards before the end. But what really causes the trouble is that everyone – everyone – is lying. This is real noir, great noir, the pace is breathtaking and I was hooked from the start. 

The first issue of Manhunt
including Die Hard by Curt Cannon
January 1953
The first Cordell short story Die Hard written under the pseudonym ‘Curt Cannon’ appeared in the first issue of Manhunt magazine, January 1953. The Gutter and the Grave was originally published as I’m Cannon – For Hire under that pseudonym (the title was one that Evan Hunter hated, according to Booklist). Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime writes of the character’s name “Cannon was a name foisted upon McBain by the editor’s at Gold Medal; the character’s original name in his magazine appearances was Matt Cordell. When McBain decided to let us reprint the book, he asked us to change the character’s name back to what it had originally been.”

Ardai’s – and Lawrence Block’s comments can be found here:
 Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks 
Gold Medal 1958 edition

Another useful page is: Thrilling Detective Website

Three episodes of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were based on Hunter’s stories (as Curt Cannon). Evan Hunter had just finished proofing the galleys of the Hard Case Crime reprint of The Gutter and the Grave when he died of laryngeal cancer July 6th, 2005.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain (2012)

James M Cain's posthumously
published novel
Hard Case Crime (Titan), 2012
Cover by Michael Koelsch
One of Cain’s tentative working titles for this novel was American Beauty. The book reads like a romantic melodrama, but for readers over a certain age who will remember the significance of a drug Joan is given by a friend while she’s on honeymoon, the novel takes on an added dimension. This is a horror story.

Most of the details given here come only from the first 11 pages. The story opens at a funeral where twenty-one year-old mother Joan Medford is burying her husband Ron. Joan hasn’t lost much sleep over Ron’s death; he’d always resented the marriage he felt forced into when Joan became pregnant, and even as his coffin is being lowered into his grave, Joan and Tad are both still recovering from his last beating. The last time he’d come home drunk Joan had sent him packing and he’d driven a borrowed car into a culvert wall at 70mph.

His sister Ethel makes it clear she believes Joan deliberately sent him to his death. Joan has to bite her tongue as she has to depend on Ethel to take care of her small boy Tad, while she looks for work. Ethel is only too pleased to have Tad in her care; she and her husband Jack Lucas are childless, she’s recently had a hysterectomy, and it’s clear she’s going to have a problem letting go of the boy.

James Mallahan Cain
(July 1 1892 - October 27 1977)
Photo by William L Klender
Also at the funeral is Tom Barclay who’s standing in for another cab-driver and is strongly taken by a glimpse at the young widow’s legs.

When Joan gets home, she’s visited by Sergeant Young and Private Church, who advise her that someone has been attempting to blacken her name by spreading rumours about her. The officers had previously met Joan when informing her of her husband’s death; now Joan guesses that Ethel is spreading rumours, attempting to have her declared an ‘unfit mother’ for Tad. Learning that she’ll have to seek work, Sergeant Young suggests she try waitressing at The Garden of Roses restaurant.

Joan quickly makes new friends there, and her looks make her popular with the customers. Two of these are Earl K White the III, a wealthy investor in his sixties, and the young and attractive Tom Barclay. Very quickly this develops into a romantic triangle, with Joan having to decide between an elderly and wealthy investor with a heart condition, who physically revolts her, and an attractive but penniless young man.

Whether the story has the same impact on readers will depend largely on whether the reader is familiar with the name of a drug introduced in the late 1950s and banned in the early 1960s. Some won't get it, though many will continue to read James Ardai’s enlightening afterword. This has all the elements of a detective story as Ardai reveals how he learned of Cain’s unpublished novel, the search for it, the discovery that it existed in more than one version, and gives some details of what must have been an agonizing editorial process of collating and refining numerous pieces of a literary jig-saw until the novel had (hopefully) reached a state that it’s author would have been satisfied with.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Iron Gates (Taste of Fears) (1940) by Margaret Millar

Dell Mapback #209 (1948)
Cover art by Gerald Gregg
The novel opens with a dream – it is immediately obvious that it’s a dream – in which Lucille Morrow sees her husband Andrew’s dead wife Mildred leaving the house to walk in the park at night, despite the thick snow – and the hideous wound in the back of her skull.

Although Lucille is happy with her marriage, it quickly becomes obvious that her step-children Polly and Martin are hostile toward her, and Polly hates her father for having married again after her mother’s death. Mildred was murdered one night in the snowbound park, and although there are stories of a figure with an axe seen in the neighbourhood at that time, her killer has never been caught. Although the children have never accepted her, Lucille is a calm and organised person, and is valued as such by Andrew and his unmarried sister Edith.

Margaret Millar
(1915 - 1994)
Polly is about to marry Lieutenant Giles Frome. When she goes with Andrew and Martin to bring him to the house for his leave, the return journey is interrupted when they happen on a major rail crash and stop to help with the injured and dead. Giles is disturbed both by the sight of so much death and the family’s apparent calm in its presence.

The next day a shabby-looking stranger visits the house to deliver a box to Lucille. A housemaid hears a scream from her room, and later that day the family discover that she’s disappeared. Lucille is eventually found in a hotel room, but she is now in an unresponsive state, and is placed in the Pentree nursing home under the care of Dr Goodrich. The mysterious box remains undiscovered.

The case is taken up by Inspector Sands, who soon connects Lucille with another murder and reopens the investigation into Mildred’s murder; an investigation he believes was badly mishandled by another member of the force, years before.

Margaret Millar’s story explores the motivations of complex characters in intensely structured environments; the iron gates of the title refer to the gates of the Pentree asylum, which isn’t far removed either geographically or in nature to the Morrow family’s house at the edge of the park. The first acts of violence strike outside of these environments, the strangely tranquil snowbound park or the squalid city backstreets. The dream with which the novel opens sets the mood for the rest of the book, this at its most intense in the chapters dealing with Lucille’s residence in the asylum, when her deranged state is conveyed through disturbing stream-of-conscious passages (and James Joyce is name-checked here). Millar’s husband John Ross Macdonald sometimes introduced gothic motifs in his novels, and here there’s a similar suggestion of something fossilised or corrupt at the heart of a romanticised setting, the house in the frozen waste of the park.

My copy of The Iron Gates (UK title Taste of Fears) was included in a paperback volume, Alfred Hitchcock presents Stories for Late at Night part 2 (this volume actually edited by Robert Arthur), published by Pan 1965. Millar wrote one other Inspector Sands novel, Wall of Eyes (1943).

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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Hollywood and LeVine by Andrew Bergman (1975)

Hollywood and LeVine
I really enjoyed this, but I'd probably enjoy any story that concluded with Humphrey Bogart at the wheel of a speeding car. Set in Hollywood in the 'Forties. LeVine, to use his own words, is a balding, overweight private eye. An old friend in the screen writing business calls him to Hollywood to work on a case, but Le Vine gets there only to find his client swinging from a gallows on the Warners studio lot.

Andrew Bergman
LeVine Guesses that more is going on here than mere artistic conflict, and soon stumbles onto a CIA scheme to uncover Communist infiltration into the Hollywood movie system. There are numerous appearances by celebrities of the time (including a very young congressman, Richard Nixon). And if this book has pressed the right buttons for you so far, you'll probably love the car chase at the end (the best since the one in Richard Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon) with none other than Humphrey Bogart at the wheel. Leave your serious face at the door and enjoy.

This is the second in Andrew Bergman's Jack LeVine trilogy, the others being The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 (1974), and Tender is LeVine (2001).

Very short write-up this time, mainly because my review was scanned from stuff written in the days I used a steam typewriter. But God, overall I wrote more in those days before the net!

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Thursday, 8 November 2012

They Don't Dance Much by James Ross (1940)

Harrap's 1986 UK edition of
James Ross's
They Don't Dance Much (1940)
(Cover design not credited)
The story is set in a North Carolina backwoods town, in the Depression years, and as the story opens, the narrator Jack  Macdonald,  has just lost  his  farm  through non-payment of taxes. 

James Ross (1911-1990)
Said by William Gay to be
“the man who invented Southern noir.” 
Jack spends a lot of his time hanging around the garage and roadside store run by his friend Smuts Milligan.  Smuts has some big plans for the store, and soon Jack is working for him as Smuts expands his business into a roadside diner and dance hall.

But business turns out not to be as good as Smuts had hoped and soon he's looking for alternative sources of income.  The novel's curious idyllic backwoods charm is interrupted by a harrowing   torture and murder as Smuts tries to learn the secret of an old recluse's hoard.

It’s a novel of rare brilliance. Raymond Chandler described it as “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town.”

       Signet #913, abridged
           edition, April 1952

When Daniel Woodrell reviewed Joe R Lansdale’s  Mucho Mojo  (1994) in The New York Times, he cited as Lansdale’s predecessors James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson, but went on to say:  “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned, though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot.”
And in that last sentence lies the rub. James Ross only wrote one novel. Which somehow makes it all the more important that you read it.

The photograph of James Ross shown here was found as part of the fascinating essay My Search for James Ross, One-Hit Wonder, by Anthony Hatcher, who obtained the photo at Elon University, North Carolina. I recommend the essay to any who wish a more detailed account of this novel and its author.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Murder Always Gathers Momentum by Cornell Woolrich

Years ago Richard Paine had deferred half his wages to help his employer Ben Burroughs through hard times; but now,  after Burroughs has declared himself bankrupt and cancelled his company’s debts, he’s been left comfortably well-off, while Paine is unemployed and he and his wife face  eviction.  Paine decides it’s time to ask Burroughs for the money he owes and goes to visit him by night. Through a window he sees Burroughs opening a safe, and, not believing that the old man will honour the debt, he decides to rob him. Things go wrong and Paine is precipitated into a chain of events which lead to him escaping across the city, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. 

This is not a favourite story of mine. This story of a frightened man in desperate times has an air of doomed inevitability about it from the start; almost from the first lines we know that no good is going to come out of Richard Paine’s night journey to Burroughs’ home.

As a portrayal of a man trapped in intolerable circumstances, it’s powerful stuff.  Francis M Nevins wrote in his book Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die:  “When it comes to putting us in the skin of a frightened little guy in a miserable little apartment with a hungry wife and children and no money and no job and fear of tomorrow eating him like a cancer, Woolrich has no peers. There is more of the anguish of the thirties in stories like Murder Always Gathers Momentum than in volumes of social history.”

True, and it’s interesting that the editor of Detective Fiction Weekly decided to publish this story in a time (December 1940) when its readers had not long emerged from the Great Depression and the world was slipping back into war, a time when most would surely have preferred to read more escapist stuff than being reminded they were themselves living in such desperate times.

As social comment the story is a valid document, while as fiction, criticizing Woolrich can be likened to throwing rocks at the moon. Let’s face it, we read Woolrich for his bleak worldview. But this one’s so remorselessly downbeat, and the final lines which reveal too late that the whole mess only began because Paine and his wife didn't communicate enough, left me with a flat and disappointed feeling. The problem wasn't the Great Depression, it was just a couple who should have talked more. And people say Americans don’t understand irony?
Below is a link to a free download of  the 27th October 1949 broadcast of  Woolrich's Momentuman episode of Suspense scripted by E Jack Neuman and starring Victor Mature and Lurene Tuttle. Details differ from Woolrich's original story.

Woolrich's 'Momentum' broadcast in Suspense