Friday, February 28, 2014

Chalk Line Books: The Secret Squad, by David Goodis

Chalk Line Books, 2014
kindle edition
 originally published in 1961 as The Night Squad

my copy from the publisher (thanks!)

"It's like a shell-game ... You pick up the wrong shell, you're done. And the odds are always two-to-one against you. At least two-to-one, that is.  In this case it's more like fifty-to-one. But that's the gamble you gotta take. There just ain't no other way to play this deal." 

Good crime for me is all about edge, and David Goodis has rewarded me many times over in just this one book. Having never read anything by this author before, after reading this one,  I'll be collecting his other novels for my permanent collection.  

Set in a run-down neighborhood in Philadelphia known as "the Swamp," the story follows former cop Corey Bradford as he becomes caught between a sleazy but respected businessman named Walter Grogan and the head of Philly's Night Squad, Detective Sergeant McDermott.  Bradford, whose dad was a cop,  lost his place in the force for shaking down locals for a few extra bucks & taking bribes. Now near broke, prone to double shots of gin and divorced, he happens to be in a local bar called The Hangout when some thugs try to take Grogan out.  Bradford saves Grogan from being killed, and impressed, Grogan tells Bradford he'll give him fifteen grand to find out who's after him.  Bradford takes the job, but it isn't long afterward that he's contacted by Sergeant McDermott of the Night Squad, a small group of cops who were often referred to as "barbarians," "butchers," and "gangsters."  McDermott wants Bradford to join the squad and try to dig up any evidence pointing to Grogan as a criminal, putting Bradford into a moral corner -- if he works for Grogan, there's all that money; if he does the job for the Night Squad, it's bye-bye cash and any promise of escaping the Swamp, where for most people, with the exception of a down-at-heel, gentlemanly drunk named Carp, he's persona non grata. 

"They gave him back his badge -- and sent him down into the brutal throbbing heart of the slums."

 The people in this novel are all damaged in some way or another, and the action takes place in a neighborhood that's run down with little chance of escape for the people who live there. They're set apart and almost isolated from the rest of the city due to the neighborhood's geography --- the Swamp is bordered by an area of muddy water that can suck a man down.  The name of this place is appropriate -- very few of the inhabitants have a lot of hope of getting out, and this comes out brilliantly in the author's development of  his characters.  And, as in any good edgy crime novel, there's no pat or contrived happy resolution for any of these people.

This is a story that I genuinely liked -- the action, even if it's in Bradford's interior monologues, is dark and stays that way.  The Swamp is so well rendered here that by the time you finish the novel, you're well acquainted with every shabby rooming house and every dark alley in the neighborhood, as well as the inner miseries of the people living in it.  I definitely want to read more of this author. 

Definitely not for people who like happy endings or cutesy/cozy mysteries, this book ranks high on the noir scale.   I highly recommend it.  

A word about this edition of the e-book: it's very readable, uncut, and has a few line drawings scattered throughout the text.  Very well done. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1988
originally published 1949
250 pp

#5 in the Philip Marlowe series

I can't get enough of Raymond Chandler -- or more precisely, I can't get enough of Philip Marlowe. Eventually I'll make my way back to modern crime, but I have three more Marlowe novels (and one by David Goodis) to finish first. I'll be revisiting Marlowe á la Benjamin Black here shortly as well, when I get to his The Black-Eyed Blonde.  In this original series though, Marlowe as a person fascinates me, as does Chandler's look at Los Angeles of the time.  With The Little Sister, the plot is once again overly convoluted and overly complex, but Chandler is in rare form here, having Marlowe spill his guts about the city, his job, the people and even the state of California.

Marlowe is back in #615 Cahuenga "stalking the bluebottle fly" that's been buzzing around him for a while, when in walks Orfamay Quest, of whom Marlowe notes "nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth." * She's not Marlowe's usual fare -- no make up, and rimless glasses that "gave her that librarian's look." Hailing from the small town of Manhattan, Kansas, Orfamay wants Marlowe to find her brother Orrin. He came to Bay City a year earlier, and the last Orfamay and her mother heard from him was several months earlier.  Now they're worried about him.  Marlowe starts his search for Orrin at his last known address, and once again, our hero finds himself heading down the usual tangential road into a case that puts him smack into the glitz, glitter, and moral ugliness of Hollywood, a killer with a penchant for icepicks, corrupt cops, good cops who bemoan the kind of crooks the city draws, drugs and blackmail. It also leaves Marlowe feeling very, very low.

Once again, Chandler's descriptions of Los Angeles are at peak form, both positive and negative. Chapter Thirteen of this book finds Marlowe reflecting on the case, Hollywood, the city and himself, with Marlowe at his most melancholy state of all of the novels so far. For example,
"All I know is that something isn't what it seems and the old tired but always reliable hunch tells me that if the hand is played the way it is dealt the wrong person is going to lose the pot. Is that my business? Well, what is my business? Do I know? Did I ever know? Let's not go into that. You're not human tonight, Marlowe. Maybe I never was or ever will be. Maybe I'm an ectoplasm with a private license. Maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong things happens and never the right."
Later on:
"Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver's shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunchbox. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasé and  decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture mover in a sweaty undershirt."
By 1949, the publication date for The Little Sister,  in real life Chandler wasn't all that keen on Hollywood.  There's a wonderful piece written by him from The Atlantic in 1945, where he lets his readers know exactly what he thinks of working in the movie business. 

While the plot is once again complex enough to keep a file on who's who, how they're connected, etc. etc., I just love the sardonic cynicism of Marlowe. I also found myself for the first time in the series feeling sorry for the guy.   I cannot speak highly enough of these novels -- they are some of the most literary crime novels ever written.

 *After finishing the novel, it's very clear why he chose this particular description. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sharecropper Hell, by Jim Thompson -- and introducing a new e-format imprint: Chalk Line Books

November, 2013
Chalk Line Books
159 pages

kindle version, from the publisher -- thank you!

 Before I launch into Sharecropper Hell, let me introduce Chalk Line Books. Their motto: "eBooks to die for!" The simple but cool logo makes me want to buy the t-shirt, and if they had a tote bag, I'd buy that too.  Seriously.  As they say on their website, they are all about "republishing vintage crime fiction classics as ebooks".   You don't get much more vintage than Jim Thompson, but they also have another book out right now by David Goodis, The Secret Squad, which I have now have on my Kindle.   

 Moving on to Sharecropper Hell,  this novel was published originally in 1952 as Cropper's Cabin, and it's my introduction to the work of Jim Thompson.  It's pretty dark, although not quite what I was expecting. While there is a  crime, the focus is mainly on the central character, 19 year-old Tommy Carver -- who is arrested as a suspect in a murder he didn't commit -- and his relationship with his father, simply known here as Pa.  This is one of those novels where after finishing it you might feel like you want to wash your hands: it's got an excess of male pride, lust,  and a character who on the surface shows himself to be  a disgusting pig of a racist, while hiding much worse underneathThat doesn't mean the book is a bad one -- just that this story delves deeply into the darkness of human personality, and it ain't pretty.  However, there is an upside -- and that is in the character of Tommy. 

Set in Oklahoma, the novel follows Tommy Carver, who with his father does sharecropping for wealthy Native American landowner Matthew Ontime. Tommy is having a  relationship with Ontime's daughter Donna, but it has to be kept a secret. Tommy's dad, Pa, spares no bones in telling Tommy just what he feels about "half-breeds" and other Indians, and his hatred toward Ontime is fueled largely by Ontime's refusal to let the oil companies come in, lease his land, and drill for oil.  Pa and Tommy have a 10-acre plot of their own, but it's surrounded by Ontime's land, and not much value to the oil companies without the rest. When an oil scout dangles the promise of wealth in front of Tommy's dad, things come to a head with Ontime -- later, when Ontime is murdered, it's Tommy's knife they find in him. Pa can vouch for Tommy's whereabouts at the time of the murder, but says nothing.  As Tommy goes through his trial, and Pa never speaks up, he has only one thing on his mind -- revenge. He knows that whatever happens he's going to survive, if only to get even with his Pa.

While the setting is dreary and depressing, and at some points kind of hokey, my take on this book is that  in a kind of roundabout way, this book is a coming-of-age novel. In many ways, while Tommy is academically smart and shows a lot of promise, his pride is what does him in.  For example, he stands with his father against Ontime, because his Pa tells him that the money from the oil company would take care of Tommy for the rest of his life.  He even slings a few racial epithets at Ontime, and even at Donna, very unlike him but very much like Pa. But after Ontime is dead, after the trial, after everything, Tommy begins to understand the truth of things.  There's a bit of optimism at the end, which I wouldn't have expected just because of who the author is, but if you frame the whole thing as a coming-of-age story, albeit a very dark one, then the ending makes sense.

I'm  looking forward to reading Chalk Line's next book, and I'm excited to see what they come up with in the future. I'm still a newbie to the old hardboiled, noir and pulp fiction, but as I read through these novels, I'm really liking them. What a lot of them have in common, and this book is no exception, is that they paint a picture of the past -- the people, the issues, and the darker side of humanity that has always existed among us.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
originally published 1943
266 pp


Cutting right to the chase, the fourth novel in Chandler's Marlowe series begins with a missing wife.  Degrace Kingsley, a businessman in the perfume business, hires Marlowe to find his wife Crystal. Although they'd been "washed up for years," Kingsley needs Marlowe to find her to make sure she hasn't "got mixed up with the police" -- he'd lose his job due to the scandal. He'd received a  telegram saying that she was on her way to Mexico to get a divorce and marry another man named Chris Lavery, but then two weeks later, he got a call about his wife's unclaimed car being left at a hotel in San Bernardino.  The last time he knew Crystal's actual whereabouts was a month earlier, when she was staying at their cabin up at at Little Fawn Lake at Puma Point.  Marlowe starts his investigation by calling on Lavery, then  leaves the city for the lake. There, he introduces himself to Kingsley's alcoholic caretaker, Bill Chess, who is about as unhappy as they come -- it seems that his wife Muriel has also disappeared, in fact, on the very day that Mrs. Kingsley was supposed to have come to LA for a party.   Marlowe, who thinks Bill is a "fundamentally good egg," even though he can become violent very quickly, asks Chess to walk with him to the lake. While watching a fat fish named "Granpa" swish around in the water,  Chess sees something else there, which turns out to be Muriel's dead body.   Not a believer in coincidence, Marlowe decides that he needs to look into both cases, and finds a lot more than anyone would have expected.

Things in Los Angeles have changed a bit since the time of The High Window. Chandler makes a number of references to the war starting with the very first sentence of the novel,  as a sidewalk in front of Kingsley's office building, made of "black and white rubber blocks" is being dismantled to go the government. Later, he notes that  armed sentries are standing guard at the dam at Puma (read Big Bear)  Lake, "at each end and one in the middle."  Marlowe runs into a woman who walked to her destination to save her tires for the government. Men are waiting to hear about their enlistment. At the same time, some things have remained the same: crooked cops, murder, blackmail,  illegal gambling and drugs are still in action in the city.   There's another big difference in this book that sets it apart as well -- a good deal of action takes place away from LA, up in the mountains where life is much slower, where deer walk unimpeded, and where people are actually nice and rudeness is conspicuous and not appreciated.

 The Lady in the Lake is quite intriguing, and although isn't my favorite of the Marlowe novels so far, Chandler is still very much on top of his game here. The same wisecracks and witty turns of phrase are still in play. Marlowe continues to try to hold on to his own moral compass while having to resort to less than ethical means to find the bad guys.  And while there is a  basic formula shared by all of these novels -- Marlowe being hired, Marlowe bumping into peripheral cases that somehow tie to his own investigations and get him into some sort of trouble -- each book is different in its own way. Normally when crime novels get formulaic I get bored.  For some reason, that's just not the case with these books -- between Chandler's writing, his focus not just on Marlowe but the other characters as well, and the way he describes Marlowe's Los Angeles, I can't get enough. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Traveling back through time: The High Window, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
originally published 1942
265 pp


"Phil Marlowe...The shop-soiled Galahad."

At book three in this series it's getting harder to come up with new things to say about Chandler's Marlowe novels.  They are, in a word, excellent.  Whether you read them for the writing, the often-cumbersome plots or the unforgettable characters, especially that of Philip Marlowe, considering that they were written around 70 years ago, the high quality of these books has remained steady so far.

Two women, one troubled and one simply trouble, are at the heart of Marlowe's adventures this time around.   Unlike his other novels, in this case, trouble doesn't come in a gorgeous package, but  one with "a lot of face and chin," who sucks down port as a self-remedy for her asthmatic condition.   She is Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a "warhorse" mother of a "damn fool of a son," who married a torch singer against mommy's wishes.  She wants Marlowe to find a missing rare and valuable coin known as the Brasher Doubloon, and if possible,  to pin the theft of the coin on her now-absent daughter-in-law. What should be an easy case becomes complicated by a down-at-heel ex-cop playing at being a  PI, a number of dead bodies, Marlowe's insistence on protecting his client (even though he hates her) and a case of blackmail that reveals more than even Marlowe bargained for in this case.

Aside from Chandler's witty metaphors,  zippy prose and his take on the sprawl that is Los Angeles (which I am absolutely fascinated by, probably more than anything else in these books) what I am beginning to appreciate more about these novels is in the way Chandler explores people.  Getting to the whodunit and most especially the why is really a vehicle for exploring individual psyches, especially  Marlowe's.   He becomes much more of a damsel-in-distress rescuer in this book, and continues his moral duty of keeping his client shielded from any possible fallout, even though it might mean that he soils his integrity in the bargain.   He continues to hold onto his principled self -- his twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses is all he wants -- he can't be bought off, despite the expectations of clients and crooks alike.  He works hard to get not only to the truth, but also to the heart of  just what it is about people that makes them tick.  But it's not just Marlowe -- pretty much anyone who takes any role in Marlowe's investigations gets even the tiniest bit  of psychological air time from his or her creator.  It's these individual stories when combined that showcase the people who exist in Marlowe's city; his interactions with these people who help to define who Marlowe is. And isn't.   

The High Window didn't feel as clunky or convoluted plotwise -- I am having so much fun with these novels and this one did not disappoint. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Traveling back through time: Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
originally published in 1940
292 pp


"Such murderers are very dangerous. They have to be removed -- sometimes with blackjacks." 

After reading two of his novels now, I'm beginning to like Raymond Chandler much more for his writing than for his plots.  For anyone who thinks crime fiction has no place in the literary world, the Marlowe novels might make you change your mind.  Chandler's an amazing writer when it comes to social commentary,  the similes, metaphors and the sharp, electric prose he's famous for,  and of course, his superb depiction of the city of angels of the 1940s that is so lifelike you almost feel that you're along with him for the ride. The novels are also a way for Chandler to examine American society of the time.

After a case to locate a missing husband fizzles, Marlowe is watching a "big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck" staring at a building on Central Avenue. On this "not the quietest dressed street in the world," the big man is wearing a particularly gaudy outfit, looking "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."  The man, whose name turns out to be Moose Malloy, recently released from prison, goes into the building, a "second floor dine and dice emporium called Florian's." Marlowe, curious after watching someone else get thrown out of the building, follows and goes into the building, where Malloy makes him go into the place with him. Malloy is  trying to find his girlfriend Velma, who used to be a singer at the place years earlier -- now the place has changed hands along with clientele. After shooting the manager of the place, Malloy takes off leaving Marlowe to deal with a lazy cop named McNulty who needs "a little credit" in the department -- he wants Marlowe to "take a gander around for this dame." Marlowe's interested and notes that
"Nothing made it my business except curiosity. But strictly speaking, I hadn't any business in a month. Even a no-charge job was a change."
Yet, it isn't long until he does get a paying job, from a guy by the name of Lindsay Marriott, who supposedly picked his name out of a phone book needing a bodyguard.  Things go terribly wrong when Marriott is murdered, leaving Marlowe to get the bottom of who killed him and why. His quest to find Velma and to find out who offed Marriott takes him on a meandering trail through the city, leading him to an alcoholic woman with a very nosey neighbor, a fake swami, a older millionaire and his much younger  wife, some very corrupt cops, blackmail, theft, and an offshore gambling operation run by a man whose power and money can buy a city mayor.  

While I am not much of an analyst when it comes to reading -- a) there are a huge number of analyses of Chandler and his writing all over the place and b) I'm just not good at it so don't pretend to be -- one thing I particularly noticed in my reading was Chandler's use of the color red. To me, where ever Chandler focused on mentioning red, some kind of danger -- emotional or physical -- was nearby.  Velma, Malloy's old sweetheart, was a redhead. Anne Riordan, daughter of an ex-police chief and an ally of Marlowe's in this book, is also a redhead.  He likes her enough to keep some of the worst details from her and finds himself thinking about how her apartment would be a "nice room to wear slippers in."  He watches a red neon light flashing in the hotel room where he stays just before getting on the water taxi to go out to the gambling boat.  He meets ex-cop and boat driver Red Noorgan, with "hair the shade of red that glints with gold," who has "Violet eyes. Almost purple. Eyes like a girl, a lovely girl," with skin Marlowe describes as "soft as silk" and a voice that was "soft, dreamy, so delicate for a big man that it was startling. It made me think of another soft-voiced big man I had strangely liked."  There are likely more instances, but I found the use of red quite interesting here.

The mystery plots that eventually tie together are a little clunky, but I loved this novel and I wish I had read these books long before now.  The writing alone is worth working through the convoluted  plotlines, but most of all  I love the character of Marlowe. As I found in The Big Sleep, he's a knight of sorts in a city where knights don't really have a place -- and I really like that about him.  FYI -- this book was written in the 1940s so you're going to encounter some pretty ugly racial slurs and racist attitudes as you read. That sort of stuff is a bit shocking, but considering the times, not so unusual for back then.

definitely recommended -- now on to the third Marlowe novel.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Traveling back through time: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992
originally published in 1939
231 pp


"Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." 

While I'm patiently waiting for my next installment of crime novels from the UK, I decided to peruse my shelves for something I haven't read yet and came up with this book.   The Big Sleep is Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel and if the first book of this series is any indicator, I'm going to have a lovely time over the next few weeks with the rest.  As I often say, just because a book was written decades earlier doesn't mean it's not still good. 

Marlowe is a $25 dollar-a-day plus-expenses private eye living and working in the Los Angeles area.  He once worked for the DA as an investigator, but according to Marlowe, they fired him for insubordination, something on which  he tests "very high." He's been to college, lives in a small apartment, furnished with very little except "a few books, pictures, radio, chessmen, old letters, stuff like that,"  things that "took the place of a family."  He keeps rye in his coat pocket along with his gun and has a decent enough relationship with the DA's office even though he no longer works there.

the poster for the 1946 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

The Big Sleep begins as Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood home, summoned there by the family patriarch, the General.  They meet in the Sternwood's steamy greenhouse, where the old man, confined to a wheelchair, reveals the reason for Marlowe's visit. It seems that Sternwood's younger daughter Carmen has racked up some debts and now they're being called in. It's blackmail, but the General doesn't want to go to the police. He wants Marlowe to take care of things.  While they're talking, the General brings up the disappearance of his son-in-law Rusty Regan, former bootlegger and formerly of the IRA, once married to older daughter Vivian, and now missing. He doesn't ask Marlowe to find Regan, but as it turns out, Regan is never far from anyone's mind in this  novel. The trail to the blackmailer begins at a store owned by Arthur Geiger, Rare Books and De Luxe Editions, where it doesn't take long for Marlowe to figure out exactly what sort of books Geiger has to offer.  Parked outside the Geiger home later that night, Marlowe hears shots and then the sound of someone running, so he breaks in and discovers Geiger dead on the floor and a drug-addled Carmen Sternwood buck naked after having had photos taken of her.  Add to this scenario a car that had done an end run over the Lido Pier and pulled out of the water by police the next day, and we're off on a true, hardboiled adventure that doesn't let up until the last page.

Marlowe is an interesting character. He can be tough as nails, not afraid to use violence when necessary, and women make him "sick" --  in fact, he says he's unmarried because he doesn't like policemen's wives. At the same time, there's a philosopher in this man, who is a keen observer of and comprehends even the smallest nuances of  human nature. Irony leads him to come up with similes that are so cool you can really picture them in the mind's eye -- for example this one:
"The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings."
From the outset you get the impression that Marlowe's going to be some kind of knight-like character, coming to the rescue of damsels in distress:
"Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree an didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying."
 He's very much into protecting his clients and doesn't give in to the whole money/corruption scene like a lot of the cops who offer protection for a cost. He's a bit of an idealist who can't be bought. When he's not always totally honest with the police, it's all about protecting his client.  However, it's like sometimes he understands there are some women who don't want to be rescued no matter how hard he tries, and that no matter what, he  realizes that the only way he can keep certain things from the General is to  become a "part of the nastiness" he's fallen into.

The Big Sleep, if you haven't read it, may seem a bit old-fashioned and misogynist -- lots of bad treatment of women, plenty of homophobia etc., but remember that this was written at a different time when those things were pretty much the status quo.  If you can get past the negatives, the novel is superb -- one of those books where when it's over, you can't wait to pick up the next in the series. It's the character of Marlowe that makes this book so good, and then, of course, there's Chandler's incredible writing talent that created him and brought the streets, foothills and people of  Los Angeles so vividly to life like a photograph of the past.  I'm going straight onto the next one from here -- that's how much I loved this book.  Definitely recommended, although it's probably not for every crime fiction reader.  Now I'm going to go put my DVD starring Bogart and Bacall in my blu-ray player, make some popcorn and push play.