Saturday, July 30, 2011


Making some last minute changes to my upcoming short story collection, DIG TEN GRAVES, re-arranging the order, pulling one story out, putting a different one in, etc.

The idea was to include only ten stories (hence the title) but I've decided to include one "bonus" story as well, taking the total to eleven. It's a bonus story because, thematically, it's very different from the rest-- doesn't really fit in, but I like the story and it'll be tacked on at the tail end so what the hell, right?

Also, a very special guest will be writing an introduction, a guest I'm very excited about... If you are able to guess who before it comes out, I'll send you a free PDF.

So mark your calendars-- DIG TEN GRAVES, August 5, exclusively on Kindle.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dig Ten Graves

I'll tell you the truth: I'm kinda inconsistent as a short story writer. About half of the stories I write are, well... suck-ish. And very often I can't really tell the difference until some time has gone by.
The stories you'll find in DIG TEN GRAVES, however, are good ones. I promise. I've put together my absolute best work here, including the almost-award-winning "It Will All Be Carried Away", plus nine others. Six of them have seen publication already, and four will be appearing for the first time in this volume.
The cover image is by Dawn Sketch, of Aspiring Authors, with some tweaks by her husband Ron Warren. Ron is the fella who put together the cover for my novel, THE BASTARD HAND.
Release date is set for Friday, August 5. Exclusively on Amazon as an e-book, and for the amazing price of .99 cents. Spread it around, okay?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 5

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Here are some of the other great talents that emerged in the Golden Age of Noir:

William Lindsay Gresham wasn't prolific by any means, but his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley is still well-regarded as a twisted, bizarre noir that gave readers an uncomfortably close look at the depraved world of the carny circuit. Tightly written and very, very tense.

Irving Shulman. He started off as a writer of tough stories and ended as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, where he wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause. Noteworthy novels:

The Amboy Dukes
Cry Tough
The Square Trap

In latter years, Ira Levin would write Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives, but he’s on this list primarily for one novel, his first. A masterpiece of noir.

A Kiss Before Dying

Bruno Fischer was an active Socialist who actually ran for office in New York. When he wasn’t directly involved in politics, he wrote great crime novels. Amazingly prolific in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, he suddenly stopped writing until the ‘80’s, when he produced his final novel. Here are just a few:

Fools Rush In
The Restless Hands
House of Flesh
So Wicked, My Love

Elliot Chaze was a newspaperman who occasionally wrote novels. In the ‘50’s, he wrote three, but only one of them, Black Wings Has My Angel, was a noir. It’s too bad he didn’t tackle the genre again, since he managed to produce a cult favorite. Some critics think it’s the best book Gold Medal ever put out.

John D. MacDonald is hugely important in both noir and hardboiled circles. For tightly-paced detective fiction with a very likeable hero, you can’t go wrong with any of the Travis McGee books. This list, however, focuses on his “non-series” work, all masterly-plotted and beautifully written. MacDonald was the consummate professional of noir.

The Brass Cupcake
Murder for the Bride
Judge Me Not
Weep For Me
The Damned
Dead Low Tide
The Neon Jungle
Cancel All Our Vows
All Those Condemned
A Bullet for Cinderella
Cry Hard, Cry Fast
April Evil
Death Trap
Cape Fear (aka, The Executioners)
One Monday We Killed Them All

William P. McGivern was another one who went on to do teleplays in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. He wrote convincingly about cops skating on the edge of moral corruption as well as heisters and professional criminals.

Shield For Murder
The Big Heat
Oddsa Against Tomorrow
Rogue Cop
Night Extra

Ed McBain was the creator of the best-selling ‘87th Precinct’ police procedurals. The first few in the series, at least, were great examples of hardboiled, told, for a change, from the point of view of honest cops (honest cops? In hardboiled/noir fiction? You’re kidding me, right?).

The Blackboard Jungle (as Evan Hunter)
Cop Hater
The Mugger
The Pusher
The Con Man
King’s Ransom

So you may have noticed a distinct lack of the female voice in the genre throughout the decades. Noir was a boy’s club for the most part, no question. There may as well have been a sign on the door saying No Girls Allowed. But a small handful of brilliant women writers broke in anyway, and showed the boys a thing or two about how to get it done.

Patricia Highsmith was a master (mistress?) of high tension and brutally cynical prose. Her heroes were invariably amoral sociopaths, and her brand of humor was so dark as to completely blot out any light whatsoever. She was well-known as a first-grade misanthrope, and it shows in her work. A really terrific writer; if you haven’t read her, do it now.

Strangers on a Train
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Blunderer
Deep Water
Little Tales of Misogyny
Slowly, Slowly, in the Wind
A Game for the Living
This Sweet Sickness
Two Faces of January

By the 1950’s, Dorothy B. Hughes had stopped writing to settle into married life, but throughout the ‘40’s her work was extremely popular. She wrote several books, but three in particular are considered benchmarks in the genre:

The So-Blue Marble
Ride the Pink Horse
In a Lonely Place

Vin Packer was the pen name of the prolific Marjane Meaker, who is remembered mostly today for launching the so-called "lesbian pulp" underground movement of the '50's. In truth, though, the vast majority of her remarkable books had nothing to do with lesbianism. They were solid noir with complex characters and a notable sense of non-conformity.

Come Destroy Me
Whisper His Sin
The Thrill Kids
The Young and the Violent
Dark Don't Catch Me
3 Day Terror

Helen Nielson was the only female writer of the ‘50’s who contributed regularly to Manhunt and other digest crime magazines of the time, and her novels were every bit as bleak and nasty as the boys.

Obit Delayed
Stranger in the Dark
The Crime is Murder
False Witness
Seven Days Before Dying

By the early ‘60’s, the explosion of noir fiction was winding down. One of the last of the old school to make a significant mark was Donald Westlake. Under the pen name Richard Stark, Westlake wrote the terrific series of books about professional thief Parker. Brutal and fast-paced, they are some kind of benchmark in noir. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Here's just a few.

The Hunter
The Man with the Getaway Face
The Outfit
The Mourner
The Score
The Jugger
The Seventh
The Handle
The Rare Coin Score
Deadly Edge

Lawrence Block was coming up at the same time as Westlake, and in fact the two men were great friends. While Westlake disguised himself as Stark, Block took on multiple pen-names and wrote in a wide variety of styles and genres. Through the early '60's, he wrote a solid string of noirs that, fortunately, have seen print again in recent years.

Grifter's Game
The Girl with the Long Green Heart (aka Mona)
Death Pulls a Double-Cross (aka Coward's Kiss)
You Could Call It Murder (aka Markham)
A Diet of Treacle (aka Pads are for Passion)
Deadly Honeymoon

The individual impact of Lawrence Block wasn't over, however, and neither was Westlake's. More about both writers when we come to part seven.

But before that:
Next Wednesday, a brief diversion into... Espionage Noir!

Go to Part Six

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Day in the Sun

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this here, but back in the ‘90’s, when I was living in Memphis, I worked as a tour guide at Sun Studio. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Sun was the recording studio where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and about a ton of other great rockabilly and blues performers cut their first tracks. It pretty much put rock’n’roll on the map.
It was a kick-ass job, I won’t lie. I got to meet people from all over the world—England, Germany, Japan—and talk to them about great music. I’d play clips from songs, answer questions, hang out, gently ask folks not to touch Elvis’s microphone in the corner.
But the best part of the job was having the opportunity to meet some of popular music’s greatest heroes. Billy Lee Riley (“my gal is red hot, yer gal ain’t doodly-squat”…) was a regular presence for a while, as he was recording a brand new record at the time, and he told me all sorts of great stories. Rufus Thomas showed up a couple times. Roscoe Gordon.
On top of that, I occasionally got to give the tour to more modern performers when they’d come through town on tour. One of the highlights: giving the tour to Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps—and having them paying ultra-close attention to every word I said. Cool, but a bit nerve-wracking as well.
But the absolute best day at Sun occurred shortly before I left the job for greener pastures:
The BBC was in, doing a documentary on rock music, and for the occasion Carl Perkins showed up, as well as Jerry Lee Lewis, Scotty Moore (Elvis’s original guitar player) and D.J. Fontana (Elvis’s original drummer). In the cafĂ© next door, I shared a Coke with Carl Perkins and he told me a great story about how Sam Phillips had promised him a Cadillac after “Blue Suede Shoes” sold a million copies. They took a publicity shot of Phillips handing the keys to Carl, with the Caddy behind them. After that, Carl told me, Phillips had the cost of the Caddy deducted from Carl’s royalty payments.
I told that story during every tour I gave after that.
Before the BBC started filming, I went upstairs, where Jerry Lee Lewis was getting make-up put on for the cameras. “Excuse me, Mr. Lewis,” I said. “I’m Heath. I’m a big fan of yours.”
And Jerry Lee turned around, sort of stiff-necked, to look at me. “’course you are, son,” he said, and turned back to the make-up artist.
An hour later, all four of them were in the studio, jamming. The little place was packed solid with cameramen, sound men and crew. The only person in the room not doing anything but watching? Me. I was crouched in the corner, trying to stay out of the way, and watching these four musical legends play together.
It was one of the highlights of my meager little life.
When I wrote The Bastard Hand, old Sun rockabilly was part of the soundtrack, as well as older Sun blues and R&B, like Howlin’ Wolf, The Prisonaires, Jackie Brenston. That music is STILL on my soundtrack, no matter what I write.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ah, the Sweet Smell of Rejection...

"Thanks, but we don't believe the described book would be salable in today's extremely tough marketplace."

Can someone please remind me again why I do this? Christ...

Okay, shake it off.

I've been told it's bad form to bitch and whine at rejections; rejections are just part of the deal when you're a writer, that's very true. But there are two reasons I mention them, on occasion, in this public forum:

One: I need to vent, get it off my chest, before I can get back on that unruly horse and head out again.

Two: For other writers who are struggling to get noticed, to get read, to get agent-ed. You ain't alone, brothers and sisters.

When The Bastard Hand came out to positive reviews, there was a little part of me that thought "okay, first book out, doing well, should be much easier to get an agent for the next one." Ah, the naivety of the young writer... or middle-aged writer, whatever...

It doesn't really work that way, especially if you've chosen, by design, to write in a sub-genre that really doesn't have much commercial appeal. You know, like Noir fiction.

I will admit that, with each rejection I get, a little black cloud appears over my head and cute little lightning bolts zap me about the face and neck. That stormy weather ain't gonna change.

But... and here's the good part... the storm becomes shorter each time. In fact, it's cleared up dramatically just since I started writing this bit. I'm already feeling better. The sun is peeking out from behind the black cloud.

"... today's extremely tough marketplace..." Well, the marketplace is something I'll never understand and honestly it's not anything I'm interested in. I write what I write, and have to trust that, eventually, it will find its audience.

Okay. Done. Gonna get back to work on my next obscure masterpiece...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Favorite Films Noir

Ed Lynsky pointed out this list of “top ten film noirs” over at the Twitter. It’s not bad, I reckon, but somehow a little… unsatisfying. So because I’m a freak for lists, I thought I’d offer up my own.
Totally subjective here, of course, and for discipline’s sake I’m only including old ones. In no particular order:

Out of the Past
1947-Jacques Tournier
Mitchum is a former P.I. with a shady past who now runs a gas station- until he’s drawn back into some unfinished business with the smoking hot Jane Greer and the sleazy evil Kirk Douglas.

Night of the Hunter
1955- Charles Laughton
Mitch again, this time as wicked preacher man Harry Powell, who will stop at nothing—including marrying and murdering widow Shelly Winters—to find a cache of hidden money.

Kiss of Death
1947-Henry Hathaway
Victor Mature is an ex-con who turned state’s evidence so he can have a life with new wife Ann Gray. Brian Donlevy is the cop who helps him. And Richard Widmark… well, Widmark (in his first major role) is the psychotic Tommy Udo, who learns of Mature’s betrayal and sets his sites on him.
Widmark’s portrayal of Udo set a new standard for movie baddies. He’s scary as hell. Kiss of Death is a masterpiece.

Pickup on South Street
1953-Sam Fuller
Doesn’t get much better than this one. Widmark is a master pickpocket who finds himself in possession of some microfilm that some Commie secret agents will stop at nothing to get back.

A boarding school master (and complete asshole) is targeted for murder by his wife and his lover, who’ve had enough of his bullying and cruelty. But after they pull it off, the wife becomes more and more convinced that her husband is actually still alive. Crazy plot twists, mounting paranoia and jangled nerves follow.

Criss Cross
1948-Robert Siodmark
Because he can’t keep away from Yvonne DeCarlo, Burt Lancaster (as an armored car driver) is forced into helping pull off a heist by DeCarlo’s gangster beau, played by the one of a kind Dan Duryea. Superior noir with a surprisingly bleak ending.

Black Angel
Based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich; a superior noir. June Vincent’s estranged husband has been accused of murder. With the help of the awesome Dan Duryea as the victim’s hopelessly alcoholic songwriter husband, she sets out to find the real killer.
Also with Peter Lorre as the inevitable sleazy nightclub owner. Surprising ending. Solid movie.

Night & the City
1950-Jules Dassin
Essential noir, with a first-rate cast, shot on location in London. The brilliant Widmark is an ambitious but none-too-bright hustler who finds himself running for his life when his plans to swindle a nightclub owner go awry. Also starring the gorgeous Gene Tierney, and Herbert Lom.

Odds Against Tomorrow
1959-Robert Wise
Ed Begley is an ex-cop who has a plan for the perfect score. Harry Belafonte is a musician who owes a huge gambling debt. Robert Ryan is the career criminal whose unreasoning hatred of black people will ultimately destroy him and everyone around him. Odds Against Tomorrow is a beautifully filmed, high tension morality play that manages to be gritty and entertaining while maintaining a deeper relevance.

Woman in the Window
1944-Fritz Lang
Edward G. Robinson is a stolid professor who finds himself involved with a beautiful artist’s model, played by Joan Bennett. When her jealous lover shows up, Robinson is forced to kill him in self-defense. Covering up the crime is made all the harder when Robinson’s D.A. friend is assigned to find the killers, and the victim’s sleazy bodyguard shows up to blackmail the inept pair.
Robinson is great as always. Bennett is gorgeous. And Dan Durya, as usual, steals every scene he’s in as the sleazy bodyguard. But the last three minutes are annoying—they go for a total cop-out ending.
Aside from that: Solid.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Last Deep Breath, by Tom Piccirilli

A couple weeks ago I posted what I considered the ten best noir novels of the last ten years or so. A couple of readers with remarkably good taste immediately pointed out to me that I’d somehow missed Tom Piccirilli—in particular a book called The Last Deep Breath. They kindly pointed out to me what a complete douchebag I was for not having read him, and insisted that, until I did, I had no business calling myself a Noir Fiction Fan Boy.
Okay, no one really did that. But their enthusiasm for Piccirilli was evident, let’s put it that way.
And being someone who hates not knowing what all the fuss is about, I immediately bought the Kindle-fied version of The Last Deep Breath and read it.
By read it, I mean I fucking devoured that sucker. You know that old clichĂ© about not being able to put a book down, staying up ‘til the wee hours of the morning to finish it? I always have trouble believing people when they say that, but, well, that’s what happened. This is a monster of a good book.
The story: Grey, a drifter deeply troubled by an unsavory past, stumbles across his long-lost foster sister Ellie, slumped across his doorstep with a knife in her side. He manages to save her life, but before he can learn what happened to her, she disappears again—leading Grey to Los Angeles in search of her. His journey takes him up against sleazy Hollywood agents, porn stars, pimps and drug dealers, in a whirlwind of noir conventions turned on their ears.
The pace of The Last Deep Breath is lightning-fast, and stays centered furiously on Grey, an intriguingly damaged protagonist. But what I really love about this book is how Piccirilli pulls out all these ideas we have about noir fiction, shows us the undersides of them, and then deftly displays new ways they can be used.
A good example is the opening bit:
She turned over in bed, ran her fingers through the wet thatch of his chest hair, and said, “I want you to kill my husband.” Grey wasn’t surprised. It seemed like every third woman he ran into wanted her husband dead. No divorce. No let’s get him into AA or rehab. No he’s the father of my children, sweet baby Jesus he deserves a second chance. No smack him in the teeth and leave him bleeding in the gutter.
Right away, Piccirilli takes a concept as old as Cain (James M., that is) and lets us know that, no, he’s not gonna go that route because it’s too easy.
And he does that sort of thing all through the book—giving us a glimpse at the old way of doing it before tossing it aside and doing it the Piccirilli way.
The Last Deep Breath is an immensely satisfying noir. Be sure to take a few deep breaths before you read it, because you’ll be holding your breath the whole time.

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 4

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Today, Gold Medal Books is regarded as the greatest of all the paperback original publishers, and with good reason. Others, like Dell, Ace, and Bantam, were all putting out solid noir stuff, but Gold Medal was the undisputed king of the genre, and the one most writers—and readers—of the time chose first.

To give detailed bios of every single writer of note who published with Gold Medal and the others would take far more room than I have here, but this brief survey is a who’s who of all-time great practitioners of the art.

One of the greatest was Wade Miller, although “he” was a “they”—Robert Wade and Bill Miller. They met in high school, collaberated on a number of projects, and eventually gave the world the Max Thursday series. In a very short period of time, they wrote a handful of really great noirs under the “Miller” byline, and were among Gold Medal’s best-selling writers.

Deadly Weapon
Kitten with a Whip
Branded Woman
Murder Charge
The Killer
Devil on Two Sticks
Guilty Bystander
Devil May Care

Steve Fisher was a writer who eventually made his way to Hollywood and started writing screenplays. Well into the 1970’s, he wrote for a variety of TV cop shows. His early novels, though hard to find now, are worth seeking out.

I Wake Up Screaming
The Hell-Black Night
Saxon’s Ghost

Charles Williams was one of a handful of writers who helped define what noir meant in the 1950’s, writing stark, unsentimental stories, usually about men falsely accused and on the run. Some critics consider him the quintessential Gold Medal writer.

River Girl
Hell Hath No Fury
A Touch of Death
Man on the Run
The Long Saturday Night
Hill Girl

Gil Brewer’s amazingly tragic life seemed to fuel a talent that was staggering. Recently, several different small publishers have re-discovered Brewer and put out affordable re-prints. Do yourself and favor and buy them.

The Vengeful Virgin
Nude On Thin Ice
Wild to Possess
A Taste of Sin
A Devil for O'Shaugnessy
The Three-Way Split
A Killer is Loose
Satan is a Woman
Play It Hard
Some Must Die

Day Keene was amazingly prolific, churning out one terrific crime thriller after another through the '50's. He had a very sly sense of humor and a gift for tight, fast pacing.

Joy House
Home is the Sailor
My Flesh is Sweet
If the Coffin Fits
Naked Fury
Sleep with the Devil
Bring Him Back Dead
It's a Sin to Kill

Lionel White wrote almost forty books, mostly for Gold Medal, many of them masterful examples of the "caper novel". Clean Break was the basis for the terrific early Kubrick movie, The Killing.

To Find a Killer
Clean Break
The Money Trap
Death Takes the Bus

Later in his career, Charles Willeford would create Miami P.I. Hoke Mosley, but his early non-series novels were pure psycho-noir at its bleakest, funniest, and most disturbing. A true indiviualist with little regard for the social constraints of his time, Willeford once said "Just tell the truth, and they'll accuse you of black humor." Black Mass of Brother Springer, especially, is worth seeking out. He's a personal favorite of mine.

The Woman Chaser
Wild Wives
High Priest of California
Black Mass of Brother Springer (aka, Honey Gal)
The Burnt-Orange Heresy
The Whip Hand

Peter Rabe: He wrote with clean style, and a voice that still seems fresh today. The best thing about Rabe was that he never wrote to formula: with any book of his you pick up, you never know what you're going to get. The only certainty is that it will be unpredictable and highly entertaining. One of the most original of the Gold Medal boys. Some of his work has appeared again in recent years, thanks to Stark House and Hard Case Crime.

Stop This Man!
A House in Naples
Kill the Boss Goodbye
A Shroud for Jesso
Murder Me for Nickels
The Box
Benny Muscles in
Anatomy of a Killer

Robert Edmond Altar is noteworthy because of the ‘strange factor’. Bizarro characters and an almost Southern Gothic flavor of psycho noir. Black Lizard reprinted them in the mid-80's. Good luck finding them now.

Carny Kill
Swamp Sister

Dan J. Marlowe came to the world of writing fiction late in his life, but in a short period of time managed to hit impressive numbers—both in the number of quality books he wrote and in number of sales, usually for Gold Medal Books. “The Name of the Game is Death” is considered one of the greatest noirs of all time.

The Name of the Game is Death
The Vengeance Man
Never Live Twice

Fredric Brown is known primarily as a science-fiction writer, but in the ‘50’s he wrote a handful of very highly-regarded noirs that were experimental in nature and existential in philosophy.

The Fabulous Clipjoint
The Screaming Mimi
The Far Cry
The Lenient Beast
Here Comes a Candle

They called Harry Whittington the "King of the Paperbacks", and with good reason. The guy wrote something like 180 books in about ten years, almost all of them distinctive for having as a protagonist a 'decent fella' on the run and facing overwhelming odds.

A Night For Screaming
The Devil Wears Wings
Web of Murder
Any Woman He Wanted
You'll Die Next

Chester Himes was the first black writer to make real headway in the genre with his tight and tough novels about Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. Hardboiled Harlem noir with a deft social conscience. Great stuff.

If He Hollers, Let Him Go
The End of the Primitive
The Real Cool Killers
Cotton Comes to Harlem

Jim Thompson is the Golden Boy of Psycho Noir, though the last few years have seen a strange critical backlash against his work. It's true that he wasn't as consistent a writer as some of his contemporaries, but when Thompson was on his game, no one-- absolutely no one-- could touch him. His books capture better than any one else’s the world of the sociopath faced with obstacles he’ll stop at nothing to overcome, and the inevitable spiral out of control. His novels were bleakly comedic sometimes, always weird, and even the mediocre ones were never boring.

Now and On Earth
Heed the Thunder
Nothing More Than Murder
The Killer Inside Me
Cropper’s Cabin
The Criminal
Bad Boy
The Alcoholics
A Swell-Looking Babe
The Grifters
Savage Night
The Golden Gizmo
A Hell of a Woman
The Nothing Man
After Dark, My Sweet
The Kill-Off
The Getaway
Wild Town
Pop. 1280

Next Wednesday, more great talent from the '50's...
Part Five

Saturday, July 16, 2011

And the winners are...

Okay, times up, pencils down.

Thanks everyone who played, I appreciate it. Some of you have really kick-ass taste in music-- there were more than a few sleazy noir songs I'd never heard before, so... thanks for that.

Winners were selected totally at random from little ripped up pieces of paper, pulled out of a bowl by my wife.

And the first winner is...

Benjamin Sobieck. His song of choice: Heaven's Toll, by Ramsay Midwood. Cool song, Benjamin. Let me know your mailing address (either in a comment here, or you can e-mail it to me at, or honestly whatever way is easiest for you. I appreciate your support!

Second winner:
Al Leverone. Al chose Whitewash, by Buckethead. Al, I think I already have your e-mail, but send it just in case, okay? And thanks!

And finally, the third winner:
Bolen Steiner.
Bolen is a Nine Inch Nails fan, and chose Something I Can Never Have.
Let me know what your mailing address is, Bolen, and thanks a lot for taking part in my little contest.

Everyone else: thanks for sharing your musical tastes with me, it was fun and enlightening.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stephen King, and why I love him

I really like this quote from Stephen King, because it sums up pretty nicely how I feel about the dreaded "doorstop thriller":

"So many of the 400-pagers are disposable... When I see books by some of the suspense writers that are popular now, I think: "These are basically books for people who don't want to read at all." It just kind of passes through the system. It's like some kind of fast-food treat that takes the express right from your mouth to your bowels, without ever stopping to nourish any part of you."

There are exceptions, of course, but I think for the most part that's spot on.

But King himself writes monstrously long books, doesn't he? Ah, a quandary.

The things I DON'T like about Stephen King: His books are, indeed, waaaay too long, usually. And he writes too goddamn many of them. I can't keep up. In fact, I'm a good DECADE behind.

The things I LOVE about Stephen King: nobody, and I mean NOBODY, writes better or more believable characters. That's King's gift to the world, and that's why he'll be remembered 100, 200 years from now.

Also, the man is a brilliant short story writer. As behind as I am on his novels, I never miss a short story collection from him. If you don't believe me, read Everything's Eventual and see for yourself. It's a collection by a man at the top of his form.

Stephen King's enthusiasm for writing and for reading (he's still a big ole' fanboy himself) are infectious. Long live the King.

Speedloader, from Snubnose Press

The good folks over at Spinetingler Magazine have offered up something new: Snubnose Press, an imprint designed for short story collections in e-book format. And that’s very cool indeed.
If their first outing, Speedloader, is any indication, you’d be wise to keep your eye on Snubnose. This is six stories right out of Hell, featuring writers who know their business and don’t pull their punches. It’s very hard to disturb me as a reader, but a couple of the selections here had me squirming uncomfortably. So, you know… well-done, mates.
The incomparable Nigel Bird opens the collection with the gripping “You Dirty Rat”, a WWI-era tale of revenge that manages to be beautifully layered and thrilling at the same time. I’ve not seen Bird take a misstep yet.
“Plastic Soldiers”, by W.D. County, is an engrossingly disturbing story about a boy faced with the evil of monstrous adults, and forced to take a stand to save his own life and the lives of some other kidnapped boys.
Mathew C. Funk’s “Cuffs”, is a chilly, nerve-wracking tale about a motorist accosted by a scary cop, and it’s fueled by a nice sense of paranoia and doubt.
“Mori Obscura”, by Nik Korpon, is another genuinely disturbing tale, involving an ex-junkie, a kidnapped child, and some very, very bad men…
“Herniated Roots”, from Richard Thomas, is a dark, somewhat depressing story about a “recovering” alcoholic trying to keep his life together, until he meets a beautiful woman who offers him either redemption… or total ruin.
And finally the awesome Jonathan Woods gives us “Crash & Burn”, a wildly unpredictable story about corrupt Mexican drug cops, a slighted woman, a raped Mexican official out for revenge, and… the vice president of the United States. Written with the usual Woods flair and black humor.
So, a solid collection, and a nice mix of writers I’m familiar with and ones I’d never read before. This is another one that’s a steal at .99 on the Kindle.
Very much looking forward to Snubnose re-loading.

Drunk on the Moon, by Paul Brazill

Roman Dalton doesn’t WANT to kill people. It’s just in his blood. See, three times a month he becomes stricken with a curse that transforms him from an ex-cop turned P.I. into a blood-thirsty werewolf. And it’s a good thing, too, considering that Dalton’s seedy underworld is infested with all manner of gangster zombies, lizard-men and other creatures of the night. It’s good to have a leg up in this crazy world…

A werewolf/private dick… if you’re like me, you’re thinking, “Damnit, why didn’t I think of that?” Well, you’re too late, man, because Paul Brazill already managed to sift through our collective unconscious and pluck this gem of an idea out. And that’s ALSO a good thing, because he manages to do something with it that most of us wouldn’t be able to. He saves it from becoming corny or annoying or trite by making Roman Dalton a genuinely interesting character, surrounded by an equally interesting supporting cast.

Drunk on the Moon, the first installment in a promised series of stories about Roman, is an oddly fragmented, episodic thing, designed to jangle your nerves a bit and upset your expectations.

Throughout, Paul Brazill gives us the flavorful language and keen observations about surroundings for which he’s become so well-regarded, and the violence, when it happens, is sudden and unexpected and over before you can blink. Again, that’s Brazill messing with your expectations about werewolf stories.

Future stories about Roman the werewolf P.I. will be written by a wide assortment of writers, all onboard to see what they can do with Brazill’s vision, so I imagine we’re going to see some amazingly varied approaches. But there’s no question that Brazill has set the bar high with Drunk on the Moon
.99 cents on the Kindle. A ferocious bargain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hardboiled/Noir Writers Part 3

Part One here.
Part Two here.

The late ‘30’s and the ‘40’s didn’t offer much new in the hardboiled/noir world. There were plenty of solid writers, but there wasn’t much fresh on the market and it seemed that the Golden Age of creativity in the genre was over.
Not that the ‘40’s were completely devoid of anything noteworthy-- Jonathan Latimer wrote a book that really shook things up dramatically. He’s mostly remembered now for his more comic-oriented crime novels, but in 1941 he wrote what many consider to be one of the most brutal hard-boiled novels of all time, the hard-to-find Solomon’s Vineyard. This novel was censored and decried and condemned, and the unexpurgated version never saw print until the 1980’s.
--Solomon’s Vineyard (aka The Fifth Grave)

But for the most part it was rough-going for readers of hardboiled/noir. The steady decline of the pulp magazine market didn’t help things. It had been going downhill for some time. The interest in crime stories that dominated the magazine stands in the ‘20’s gave way in the ‘30’s to action heroes like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and the Spider. And by the end of the decade, even those were suffering from poor sales.
But it was the emergence of this new thing called ‘paperback books’ that really sounded the death knell of the pulp magazine. New printing technology made binding books between stiff covers affordable. At first, publishers concentrated on ‘classic lit’ or mainstream fiction, but it didn’t take long for some savvy publishers to realize the true potential of the paperback original.
It took awhile for everything to gel, but right from the start the idea of a book printed in a cheap, easy to handle format was a huge success. During World War II, paperback books were popular with soldiers—they were convenient, could fit easily in a pocket or knapsack, and were considerably more resilient than a magazine. The industry continued to grow after the war, when the idea of paperback originals first took hold.
By the early 1950’s, publishers like Gold Medal Books had staked out a considerable territory and in the process created a whole new type of publishing. It was the beginning of the second Golden Age of hardboiled/noir.

The paperback originals had to have solid plots, lots of action, some sex (though not as much as the covers suggested), and pitch-perfect pacing. No time for character introspection that lasted more than a paragraph. No time for lengthy detailed descriptions of places and things. The best writers of the paperback originals were masters at sketching images in the reader’s minds, giving them the essentials and keeping the story rolling along like a sleek roadster.

It was a time of transition for the writers trying to make a buck, and some of them adjusted to the cross-over better than others.

One of the most successful of these was Cornell Woolrich. He had a solid career in the pulps, and many of his stories were translated for the big screen. When pulps gave way to paperbacks, he shifted gears and enjoyed renewed popularity as both Woolrich and William Irish.
Woolrich didn’t write in that lean, spare style that we’ve come to associate with noir and hard-boiled; his prose was rich and full, brimming over sometimes with melodrama that, to a modern reader, can be occasionally tiresome. But for all that, not too many writers could match him for ratcheting up tension, creating almost palpable dread, and making sure the reader kept those pages turning to see what awful thing was going to happen next.
He was also one of the first writers in the genre to give us stories from a female point of view. In fact, most of his best stories are tales of women driven to murder to protect their honor or to avenge the death of a loved one. Most notably, his so-called “Black Trilogy”.
There’s been speculation that Woolrich was a closest homosexual, and that he suffered from depression and bouts of alcohol-fueled self-loathing. Reading his work, you wouldn’t find these speculations surprising. The world he writes about is a dark, untrustworthy place. Although his frantic wordiness can be rough going (a little Woolrich goes a long way), he is essential noir. Try one or two of these:
--The Bride Wore Black
--The Black Curtain
--Phantom Lady
--Black Alibi
--The Black Angel
--Black Path of Fear
--The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
--Rendezvous in Black
--I Married a Dead Man
--Savage Bride

David Goodis was the other notable writer who shifted well from pulp to paperback, although many critics think that his work suffered throughout the fifties. It’s true that, as early as 1947, Goodis seemed destined for mainstream success with his novel Retreat from Oblivion. But by the beginning of the new decade it seems that, for some reason, he opted for a sort of anonymousness by writing paperback originals and keeping a low public profile. Mainstream success didn’t elude him; he eluded it.
Some critics consider Goodis the true father of noir, usurping the role usually reserved for James M. Cain. He was certainly more consistently entertaining. To some degree, his subject matter reflected what we’ve come to believe about his own life. Goodis wrote about the losers, men who had fallen from grace due to circumstance or their own poor choices. His novels were dark and pessimistic and grim, without an ounce of humor. Bleak stuff, and highly recommended for a serious dose of noir.
--Retreat from Oblivion
--Dark Passage
--Of Missing Persons
--Cassidy’s Girl
--Street of the Lost
--The Burglar
--Moon in the Gutter
--The Wounded and the Slain
--Black Friday
--Street of No Return
--Shoot the Piano Player (aka, Down There)

So the death of the pulps didn’t always have to mean the end of careers. Several other writers of varying talent made the switch, while still writing for the handful of pulps that still existed. However, by the mid-fifties a whole new crop of amazing young writers had premiered, and the face of crime fiction altered, shifted subtly into a thing of more sophistication that the old pulp writers could ever have imagined.

Private Dicks

By far, the most popular writer in the genre in the 1950’s was Mickey Spillane.
Spillane was-- and still is-- a polarizing personality in crime fiction. Some have dismissed him as jingoistic, xenophobic, hateful. Entirely possible, but his ability to pull a reader in and keep him involved shouldn't be overlooked. Spillane was a master at giving the readers what they wanted, and was hugely important in the history of hardboiled. His novels about Mike Hammer were ultra-violent, misanthropic, and unapologetically nasty. As a protagonist, Hammer was a raging, hateful creature of vengeance, driven by some peculiar code of honor that only he seemed capable of abiding.
I, the Jury
My Gun is Quick
Vengeance is Mine
One Lonely Night
The Big Kill
The Long Wait
Kiss Me, Deadly

A whole slew of private detective heroes emerged in the wake of the Mickey Spillane phenomenon of the 1950’s, and even the ones who’d been around earlier enjoyed renewed success.

Brett Halliday’s series about Mike Shayne is noteworthy— first of all, there were tons of them. Halliday has been writing Shayne’s adventures all through the 1940’s, but the surge of interest in P.I. novels that came on the wake of Spillane’s success lent the series new life. While the plots were often interchangeable, they were all solid and remarkably well-written. As a character, Mike Shayne wasn’t given to too much introspection, and Halliday wasn’t big on social commentary—Shayne has been called the “generic private dick”. But for all that, the Mike Shayne novels were never boring. The movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was based loosely on Halliday’s novel “Bodies are Where You Find Them”.
Here’s a sampling:
Dividend on Death
Bodies are Where You Find Them
The Corpse Came Calling
Murder is My Business
She Woke to Darkness
Death Has Three Lives
Stranger in Town
Shoot the Works

In the part of town where the sun still shone, there were the light-hearted novels of Shell Scott, by Richard S. Prather. Scott was, in many ways, the ‘anti-Hammer’—funny, good-natured, and with an appreciative eye for the ladies. As a character, Shell Scott was a likeable rogue with an easy grin and a solid sense of humor, and his books are diverting and fun.
Case of the Vanishing Beauty
Everybody Had a Gun
Always Leave ‘em Dying
The Wailing Frail
Three’s a Shroud

Another writer who benefited in the wake of Spillane's success was Frank Kane. His series character Johnny Liddell first appeared in '47, and throughout the '50's remained steadfastly popular. As Bill Crider noted, if it's a Frank Kane novel, it's likely to be a "competent, straight-forward P.I. story". Kane wrote almost 30 novels about Liddell; here's just a sampling:
About Face
Bullet Proof
Poisons Unknown
Grave Danger
The Living End

However, the most significant writer of P.I. novels to emerge in the ‘50’s (sales notwithstanding) was Ross MacDonald. His books about Lew Archer came closer than anyone before him to perfecting the sub-genre and honing it to a razor-sharp edge. He’s regarded these days as the true heir to Chandler, keeping the torch lit for the lyrical hardboiled style. As the series progressed, Archer mellowed, and so did the books. But the early adventures were tough-minded and violent, all the while maintaining a curious sense of melancholy and insightfulness. I think he was actually better than Chandler. He was a more consistent writer, and the scope of his literary concerns was just as all-encompassing.
The Dark Tunnel
Trouble Follows Me
Blue City
The Three Roads
The Moving Target
The Drowning Pool
The Way Some People Die
The Ivory Grin
Meet Me at the Morgue
Find a Victim
The Name is Archer
The Barbarous Coast
The Doomsters
So the private eye novel was riding high; that didn’t mean there weren’t readers interested in the other side of the fence. The publishers of paperback originals were ready to give ‘em what they wanted, with a whole slew of immensely talented writers who were expert at mining the materials of crime, deceit, and avarice to bring out the leanest, meanest novels imaginable.

go to Part Four

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gun, by Ray Banks

• One of the great things about Kindle and e-readers in general: the return of the novella. If no one else has already predicted this, I’ll do the honors. Novellas and short novels are coming back. And thank Christ for that, maybe the days of over-blown doorstop thrillers are nearing an end, eh? One can only hope.
• If Ray Banks novella, Gun, is any indication, there’s some seriously tight, noir-to-the-bone stuff to read. Although, to be honest, most of it won’t come anywhere NEAR Banks’ quality. He’s one of our finest writers, and all his formidable skills are on display with Gun.
• The story: our young hero, Richie, has a simple enough task: go to Florida Al’s place, pick up the gun his boss wants, and bring it back. Piece a’piss, right? If you answered “yes” to that question, then you clearly haven’t read enough modern noir. I want to avoid spoilers here, but I can safely tell you that Richie is in for one seriously shit day.
• One of my favorite things about Banks is his knack for great dialogue. Crime writers in England, Scotland and Ireland have a big advantage over us Americans in that their vernacular is so colorful and entertaining. Everyone’s always saying “Oh, aye,” and talking about “chining” someone or calling other people “lad”… let’s face it, Brit criminals talk cooler than American ones. And Banks knows how to pepper the dialogue with this great language without it ever becoming incomprehensible.
• If you haven’t read Ray Banks yet (and honestly, why haven’t you?) Gun is a good place to start. Short, hard, and brilliantly written. And it’s only 99 cents on the Kindle.

Smonk, by Tom Franklin

Reviewing a book prominently that came out several years ago? Why the hell not? Especially if it’s a book as remarkable as Smonk.
This was the first Tom Franklin I’ve read, and upon finishing it my first thought was “holy Christ, so THAT’S how it’s done. THAT’s how you mix the blackest of black humor, crazy action, bizarre-o characters, and some of the vilest and disgusting scenarios together in one nuthouse package.” Okay, I didn’t think ALL of that at once, but that’s what it comes down to.
Smonk is, nominally, a Western, in that it takes place in the wild days of the American frontier, but to call it simply a Western doesn’t really do it justice. In fact, it doesn’t even take place in the West—the small town of Old Texas, Alabama is the setting. This town is a creepy Southern Gothic nightmare, a cesspool of burning dog carcasses and dank water. Into this town comes gouty, cankerous, one-eyed E.O. Smonk, raising hell, beating up the men, seducing the women, and wreaking general havoc. The citizens decide they have enough of the old bastard, and so set up an ambush—but Smonk is as wily as he is vile, and turns the tables.
Meanwhile (to use a scene-changing stand-by that Franklin employs often)….
A teenage whore named Evavangeline is on the run from the foppish Captain Walton and his mutinous band of Christian Deputies. She experiences an ever-increasingly weird series of encounters that ultimately takes her to the town of Old Texas, where some dark, dark secrets await to be uncovered… and right into the path of E.O. Smonk’s deadly plans for the town.
There are scenes in this book that will make your stomach turn. But, as vile as Franklin’s imagination is, all the gross stuff is delivered with such rare humor and dead-pan language that you can’t help but laugh.
Do I sound like I’m gushing a little? Well, so be it. Smonk is by far the most original, entertainingly strange novel I’ve read in a long time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Crimes in Southern Indiana

Frank Bill's debut collection of stories. Coming September 7th. One of the three or four books due before the year is over that I'm extremely jazzed to read. Mark your calendar.