Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Multitude of Favorites 8: Classic Noir Writers

This is probably the most difficult genre for me to pick only four or five writers from, as it's the one I feel most passionately about, so I'll probably cheat a little bit.

When I say "noir", I might mean something different from what you mean. For me, it's all about those brilliant, hard-working scribblers of paperback originals, back in the '50's and early '60's. You can make a solid case for Cornell Woolrich being a master of noir, or James M. Cain, and I wouldn't argue the point-- but the crop of hugely talented workhorses who emerged to fill the racks at local drug stores across the country, those guys really, really speak to me. And they've honestly been the biggest influence on my own work.

Here are the ones I personally just can't do without:

Charles Willeford. His nasty sense of humor, his sense of irony, his willingness to go to places in his fiction where very few dared to go, make him a sort of literary hero to me. Willeford seemed to have no fear, and his famous quote, "Just tell the truth, and they'll accuse you of black humor," still resonates. My favorites are THE BLACK MASS OF BROTHER SPRINGER (also known as HONEY GAL), THE WOMAN CHASER, HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA, and PICK-UP.

Jim Thompson. In recent years, there's been a bit of a backlash against Thompson from critics who are falling all over themselves in their eagerness to point out Thompson's flaws as a writer. You know what? Fuck those guys. Yeah, he wasn't as consistent a writer as some of his contemporaries, but when he was ON, when he was ON... no one could touch him. He wrote brutal, funny, tragic and surreal novels that transcend any genre and stand up beautifully today as fully-realized studies of madness and lust. A few I really love are POP. 1280, THE GETAWAY, THE GRIFTERS, A HELL OF A WOMAN and SAVAGE NIGHT.

David Goodis. Cain and Woolrich not withstanding, it's my opinion that Goodis IS noir. His novels were the bleakest, saddest and most moving of the period, almost all centered on losers and has-beens obsessing over the things they couldn't have and barreling full-tilt toward oblivion or destruction. A few that really got under my skin are BLACK FRIDAY, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (originally published as DOWN THERE), THE BURGLAR, and CASSIDY'S GIRL.

John D. MacDonald was the hard-working man of noir. He was hugely prolific for decades, but the stuff he wrote in the '50's and early '60's was powerful because of its connection to things most readers could relate to; a lot of it took place in the suburbs and the middle-class working world. He was great with character and tension and could always be relied on for fast-paced novels you just couldn't put down. I'm a big fan of: A BULLET FOR CINDERELLA, CRY HARD, CRY FAST, and ONE MONDAY WE KILLED THEM ALL (what a great title!).

The reason I don't list Cain or Woolrich here: Cain only wrote one novel I'm crazy about, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. The others are fine, but not brilliant. And Woolrich, well... he's important in the development of noir, yes, but reading him is a challenge. He's like the Lovecraft of noir-- a little ponderous, a little hysterical, a little melodramatic. I'm not really a fan. Let the stoning commence.

Now here's where I cheat a little bit. Picking those four as my all-time essential writers of noir is easy enough, but there are SO MANY others I really love and I NEED to mention them, because they are fantastic and you have to read them. They are:

Peter Rabe.
Charles Williams.
Day Keene.
Gil Brewer.
Wade Miller.
Vin Packer.
Helen Nielsen.
Harry Whittington.
Chester Himes.
Patricia Highsmith
Lawrence Block.
Donald Westlake.

You're not going to go wrong with any of those names.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What's Been Happening on Facebook While You Were Away

I know you hate missing everyone's important status updates on Facebook, so I thought I'd keep an eye on things and give you a little summary of what's been going on. Here's a brief sort of survey for you, a random selection of status updates to make you feel as if you haven't missed social media at all. You're welcome!

"Cats are awesome."

"Guns are awesome."

"Guns are horrible."

"You are all idiots and I don't know how I'm able to tolerate you."

"I'm so funny/crazy!"

"I don't care what you think of me, no, really, I don't, for real."

"I sure do like to drink!"

"I am tolerant of people not like me."

"I hate everyone, and if I could get away with murdering you all, I would."

"Did I mention, I love to drink!"

"I am lonely and miserable and will regret posting this."

"The world is beautiful and nothing bad can happen if you RAINBOW"

There you go. Rest assured, if you ever have to endure another long absence from Facebook, these are the updates you are missing. Hopefully, you'll make it through.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Robert E Howard and Putting a Bullet in Your Head

On June 11, 1936, Robert E. Howard, prolific pulp writer and creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Breckinridge Elkins, Sailor Steve Costigan and countless other brawny hero-types, went out to his car, put a gun to his head, and blew his brains out.

Not a very heroic move, for someone so in tune with the stoic, 'never-surrender' attitude of the classic hero.

The reason he did it, nominally, was that he'd just been informed that his mother (who'd fallen into a coma) was going to die. He couldn't handle it. Howard was very attached to her. I'll leave it up to you to decide how healthy or unhealthy that attachment was.

But I suspect there was more to it, really; the person who ends his own life begins, usually, with a predisposition toward suicide. They spend most of their lives barely hanging on, searching desperately for a reason to keep living. But deep inside they often feel like all their reasons are a sham, and that the true, horrible nature of the world will eventually overwhelm them. And so, in the end, they are overwhelmed, and they snuff it.

I can't bring myself to judge suicides harshly. I've heard some folks say of them that it's cowardly, that it's weak, to kill yourself. That's a cop-out and an over-simplification. People who are predisposed to suicide expend tremendous amounts of personal strength just getting through the day. But you know, in the end, strength can only hold out for so long.

So no, they aren't weak, necessarily. They are sick. They are stuck in a cycle that no human being can escape from on their own. They need help. Because even the strongest among us can't fight forever, and especially against our own treacherous brains.

It's always hard for us, the ones still hanging on, to hear about yet another brilliant mind doing itself in. What future would, say, Kurt Cobain have had? Hunter S. Thompson? Ernest Hemingway? Or most recently, the staggeringly talented Cort McMeel? We can only speculate, I guess.

And I especially can't help but wonder what brilliance REH might have had ahead of him. I wonder what great heights he might have achieved in his art. He wrote something like 800 stories in the ten year span he was active, and redefined pulp action forever afterward.

It's a goddamn shame.

I wish like hell he could've gotten some help, way out there in the barren countryside of Texas. RIP, REH.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Multitude of Favorites 7: Classic Hard-boiled Writers

It only took six posts to tell you about my favorite writers in genres other than hard-boiled and/or noir. That's not too bad, is it? But now I come to the genre that's closest to my black and twisted little heart. I've split this one in two, the first part here focusing on classic hard-boiled and the next part focusing on classic noir. Yeah, I know, I'm that guy who bitches when people spend a lot of time trying to define what separates those sub-genres, and here I am doing it myself. But as Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself, fuck you."

Long-time readers of hard-boiled lit won't find any surprises here. Sorry 'bout that. But if you're new to the genre, these are the four toughest, meanest, most visionary hard-boiled writers of all time:

Dashiell Hammett. If you haven't read Hammett before, you need to get on that. It would probably be no lie to say he more-or-less invented the form, or at least perfected it. His style was so lean and unsentimental and just barrelled along so forcefully that reading him is always a visceral experience. THE MALTESE FALCON is, of course, an amazing novel, but my favorite stuff of his involves the implacable Continental Op-- try THE BIG KNOCKOVER, THE DAIN CURSE, and the brilliant RED HARVEST.

Donald Westlake, using the name Richard Stark, wrote my favorite on-going series, about professional thief Parker. Parker is the distillation of the classic hard-case, a man who exists solely for the job. He's ruthless, amoral, and completely engaging, and Stark's economy of writing reflects the psyche of his protagonist perfectly. THE HUNTER, THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE, THE OUTFIT, and SLAYGROUND are among my favorites.

Paul Cain didn't write much, but what he did produce was stunning. Raymond Chandler called Cain's first and only novel 'some kind of high-water mark in hard-boiled', and that's about right. That novel is FAST ONE. There's also a collection of short tales from Cain available called SEVEN SLAYERS. Great stuff.

Dan J. Marlowe wrote what I would consider the hardest of all hard-boiled novels, featuring a protagonist so mean and focused it's almost scary. THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH was a real wake-up call for me as to how brutal a main character can be and still have the reader in his corner. Other good ones by Marlowe are THE VENGEANCE MAN, ONE ENDLESS HOUR, STRONGARM, and NEVER LIVE TWICE.

Come back next week for my picks of classic noir writers.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Multitude of Favorites 6: Western Writers

I've said in previous posts that I came to reading Westerns rather late. Always enjoyed Western movies, but never really got around to reading them until the last few years-- I would wonder why I waited so long, but I suspect that I came to them at exactly the right time in my life, a time when I could truly appreciate them.

In this relatively short period of time, I've read maybe a hundred or so. Not much compared to other Western fiction fans, but enough to cut the wheat from the chaff, I think, and to know which writers are top-notch. I really love the work of Edward A. Grainger (his Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles stories were among the reading that first got me excited about the genre) and Wayne Dundee has proven to be an expert story teller who never fails to entertain. Also, Loren Estleman's work in Westerns has really impressed me. So has Robert B. Parker's (even though I'm not a fan of his Spenser novels, sorry).

Having said all that, here are four that really opened my eyes to the vast possibilities in Western fiction:

Luke Short had a career that spanned decades, writing traditional Westerns, until late in his career when his work started getting a bit darker. He was brilliant at writing action scenes and dialogue, and fully fleshed-out characters the reader could care about. He was also a great, great plotter. A few of my favorites: GUNMAN'S CHANCE, FIDDLEFOOT, and VENGEANCE VALLEY.

Lewis B. Patten. He wrote from the very early '50's until his death in 1981, but I think he really began to shine in his own unique way in the mid-to-late '60's. His work strikes me as a bit more cynical than his contemporaries, with moral situations a bit more complex and endings that were more ambiguous. I especially liked THE ARROGANT GUNS, THE ODDS AGAINST CIRCLE L, and DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER.

James Reasoner is a super-humanly prolific writer who works in multiple genres, but he's probably best known now as a master of Westerns and military historical fiction. He got his start writing literally hundreds of books in various Men's Adventure/Western series, like STAGECOACH STATION, ABILENE, THE TRAILSMAN, and the hugely fun LONGARM series. He's terrific at action scenes, dialogue, and character and is, in many ways, the ideal modern writer. Some of my favorites under his own name are THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY, SAVAGE BLOOD, REDEMPTION KANSAS and REDEMPTION HUNTERS.

Elmore Leonard's work in Westerns seems to be gaining more notice lately, even though he's primarily known now as a writer of brilliant, scathing crime novels. That same deadpan wit and sharp dialogue was always evident in his early Western work, and as much as I enjoy his modern-day stuff, I honestly think I prefer his Westerns. If you've never read a Western before in your life, you would probably do well to start with Leonard, particularly VALDEZ IS COMING, HOMBRE, and/or LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER.

Favorite Adventure Writers
Favorite Espionage Writers
Favorite So-Called Literary Writers
Favorite Speculative Fiction Writers
Favorite Horror Writers