Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ray Banks' hard world and a question for readers

Ray Banks' novella Gun is more Bosch than Botticelli. Here's how Banks describes some of the characters (though not the protagonist):
"He wore a silk Aloha shirt that framed chilled, pale skin and clung to a spare tyre that belonged on a monster truck."

"Another one wore a cap, had box-whites on his feet and a hare lip."
And this, about a gangster who claims to have lost a leg in the Falklands war:
"A lot of thoughts running through Richie's head, the same old story about a lost leg on Goose Green when everyone knew what really happened — stupid bastard mainlined an artery."
Those are nice examples of a world defined by grotesquery and stupidity — morally defined, I mean. The grossness is neither titillation not the butt of jokes, not something for you, me, the author, or a pretty hero to laugh at. Banks' world really is as harsh as its inhabitants look.

The novella's ending seemed standard-make, but I'll be eager to see what Banks gets up to in his novels. Now, how about you? Who creates the harshest, hardest, toughest worlds you have visited in your crime-fiction reading? Which authors create characters whose physical appearance reflects their world?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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45 Comments:

Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Without a doubt, James O. Causey, "Frenzy" To call the protagonist, Normand Sands morally bankrupt would imply that he had morals at one point in time and this is doubtful. There is but one character in the book with any redeemable qualities, Norman's brother. Norman is a dengenerate, a two bit grifter with mose scams that almost work, but for his greed and uncontrolable need to grab just a little more. He's a gambler, a thief, a con man, a card cheat, a pimp. His only goal in life seems to be to flount all the seven deadly sins. And no one is off limits, not his family, not the women he lusts after, not his business partners, his neighbors, or his fellow crooks.

I have it good authority (Causey's neice) that Causey modeled Norm on his own brother, which is even scarrier.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not hears of James O. Causey, but I just did a quick search, and yep, it appears that his was not an edifying fictional world. Yikes, I wonder how closely Sands was modeled on the author's brother.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

This is not strictly my bailiwick, Peter, given the nature of the bulk of my crime fiction reading -- I don't, e.g., read a lot of American hard-boiled PI novels, where perhaps these worlds are most often found. But then I'm not at all sure they are to be found in the hardest boiled, blackest noir, and even less in the most gruesome. Would Eliott Pattison have a place in this? Anyway, enough blether about what I'm not sure of. I'm going to opt for Lawrence Block and the first nine or so of his Scudder series; Parker and the earlier Spenser novels; and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux books. And perhaps Ken Bruen and Jack Taylor, though I'm not so sure the world around Taylor is in itself that rough and touch.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

According to his niece, very closley. Norman was modeled after James' brother Roland, the nieces father! Interestingly enough, his other brother was actually named Norman and was an attorney and judge in Long Beach, CA. I wrote a review on Frenzy awhile back and she contacted me to tell me that the photo I posted of James O was actually James father, also named James and called JO. She provided me with an actual photo of James O, the author and has promised to share some family stories. She's a busy lady, an attorney herself and was for sometime in charge of software piracy prosecution for a Silicone Valley company.

As she put it in her email to me, "By the way, Uncle Jimmy's book 'Frenzy' was inspired by some of my father (Roland's) own life and captures much about the horrible side of Roland (aka Norm Sands) - who had property in Gardena, was a crook and did time in prison, was a con and very violent. Jimmy and Roland never got along. I loved my uncle Jimmy with all my heart. He was a fantastic, loving and highly intelligent person. He lived in Laguna Beach, California most of his life, including until his death."

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I would never have thought of Eliot Pattison, but he's a brilliant choice, the isolation of his Tibetan settings contributing in no small way to the harshness of things.

The worlds of the Matt Scudder and Jack Taylor novels strike me as grim parts of a larger world in which the possibility, at least, of some larger, and maybe happier world exists. Not so in the constricted world of "Gun."

But I must not forget that this was a novella, a long short story, really, a lot heavier on atmosphere than on narrative. That's why I'll be interested to see what happens in Banks' novels, whether the tone varies and the constricted world opens up.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds like quite a family -- a bunch of lawyers and judges and a violent con man.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Just your average American family ;-)

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A bit like Whitey and Billy Bulger, maybe, though I think Billy was a bit of a bully when he was president of the Massachusetts Senate.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Good analogy! BTW, I think you'll enjoy the book and thanks for the comment over on my blog. I have a couple others of Causey's I need to read.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It took me a bit of doing to get to Crimeways. Clicking your name on your comments here got me your Blogger profile and your list of blogs, Clicking "Crimeways" there got me to a blog that had no posts. I had to do a search to find that Crimeways had moved to Wordpress.

Maybe you could put a post on the blank Blogger blog with a link directing visitors to the readl Wordpress blog.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I need to just delete the Blogger Crimeways and a few other start and stops. Also need to do a little design work to prominently display links between the two. Crimeways is dedicated to all crime fiction/noir, etc...Dirty Lowdown I do a little of everything, including music.Been talking to a couple other people about co authoring or contributing to Crimeways.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I think what you say in the second paragraph of your reply to my comment, Peter, is entirely right. It was that very question that most nagged at me as I was trying to come up with suggestions.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Ray Banks said...

Thanks for the comments, Peter. Much appreciated. I'll be quoting that "more Bosch than Boticelli", so be warned!

As to your question, the first name that popped into my head was David Peace - his work appears to be consistently set in a grimy, rain-blasted, godless world. Also, Derek Raymond, who coined the term "black novel" for what he did, and I can't think of a better description.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

David Peace...does not create a peaceful world. Hadn't even considered him. I'm blind but his books make me want to cover my eyes.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Deletions and directions are good ideas. You don't want readers to think the blog is dead.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I'm not sure that many authors write books as bleak as some of the suggestions here. Even David Goodis was apt to work in a note of romantic hope now and then.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ray, thanks for dropping in, and quote to your heart's content. I'll get an egotistical charge out of it.

it's said that Italian Renaissance painters believed physical beauty reflects inner goodness. It has been said by me that German Renaissance painters believed physical ugliness reflected inner degeneration. It was not much of a leap from there to Bosch.

David Peace is probably the least relaxing crime writer I've ever read. If his books were cities, they'd be Berlin.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, Peace's Tokyo: Year Zero makes me want to cover my ears. Peace uses the sounds of the wrecked and rebuilding city to great effect.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Tokyo was my intro to Peace...the autor obviously. I have been trying to write a review of that book for 6 or 8 months. I get so far then intentionally have my electricity turned off so the computer won't work and I won't have to think about it for awhile.Makes Ellroy look like YA fiction....by the way, Bank's came up in a thread on a FB Group today, The Crime Of IT All. Interesting group of authors there.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's blurb-worthy -- "Makes Ellroy look like YA."

I'll take a look at The Crime of It All. Thanks.

August 01, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Who creates the harshest, hardest, toughest worlds you have visited in your crime-fiction reading?

Richard Stark (Parker novels; The Hunter was enough for me) and James Ellroy (any). Two authors whose crime-fiction worlds I don't want to return to.

Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key, Derek Raymond's I Was Dora Suarez, and Allan Guthrie's Hard Man. Three authors whose crime-fiction worlds I'll gladly re-enter anytime.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Glass Key and Fast One are two exceptions to any generalization that crime fiction is harder and harsher now than it was last century. Guthrie's name and Banks' are often mentioned together. They once had the same editor, I believe. I'm not sure if Guthrie is Banks' agent now, but I suspect that readers who like one author will like the other as well.

August 01, 2011  
Blogger Ray Banks said...

Al and I are normally mentioned together because we share publishers in both the UK and US, as well as editors. Also, Al was editor on my first novel and happens to be a very good friend. He isn't my agent, though he does rep a lot of authors I like.

I'm also interested to know why Ellroy and Stark aren't revisits and Raymond is. I mean, Dora Suarez is way bleaker than anything Ellroy and Stark ever wrote ...

August 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The first big boost I got for you and Al came from Stacia Decker, who had signed John McFetridge and Declan Burke, whom I had already read. I'm not in book publishing, and that was the first time I'd ever thought about editoral tastes and sensibilities. Stacia Decker's are obviously good.

August 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ray, with respect to Elisabeth's interesting choices, Guthrie's characters, for all their hard exteriors, can be pretty emotionally fragile. Same with Ned Beaumont when he gets the crap kicked out of him in The Glass Key. But Parker is so dedicated to his job as to be in practical terms heartless, and Ellroy's characters are clowns or psychos or schemers amused at Ellroy's crazy world. Complete emotional breakdown in some characters, perhaps (such as Howard Hughes), but not much emotional fragility there. Maybe this has something to do with Elisabeth's preferences.

August 03, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Emotional fragility" is definitely part of it, Peter. And Fast One is absolutely another one to add to my little list.

Let me try to explain further... Au fond, these three writers express a deep humanity in their novels. It gets back to what I've tried to articulate before, what Raymond Chandler meant when he wrote: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption (my italics). It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

The last sentence of this quote has been cited so many times that it has almost become laughable. But it's that first sentence that really grabbed me when I first read that passage. I think I require redemption--for myself as a reader, for the main protagonist, or for both of us--at the end of a novel. This is not to be confused with any religious reference, happy endings, "closure," or anything like that. I know I've tried to explain this previously at DBB. Probably not any more successfully than I'm doing now. It's a sensation, how I feel emotionally when I close the book.

Re the bleakness in I Was Dora Suarez... Indeed. I probably had to put this book down a dozen times before I could finish it. It is not bedtime reading. It is no accident that that was the fourth and final "Factory" "Black novel." Raymond wrote of IWDS, "Suarez was my atonement for fifty years' indifference to the miserable state of this world; it was a terrible journey through my own guilt, and through the guilt of others." And Ali Karim wrote in his blog, Existentialist Man, "If it's possible for a book to be utterly repugnant and deeply compassionate at the same time, then I Was Dora Suarez is."

I don't shy away from horrific subject matter if I can get that feeling of redemption from being exposed to it, from feeling the unnamed Factory detective's rage coupled with his determination to see justice done.

The only Parker novel I read left me cold and a little bored in spite of some wonderful, mininalist, Hammettian passages. In fairness to Stark/Westlake I admit that the "heist" and/or "caper" crime novel is almost never of interest to me going in (with the notable exception of W.R. Burnett's take on the theme) but that can't explain my antagonism towards Parker himself and how, at the end, I couldn't have cared less whether he was alive or dead. In the introduction to Levine, a collection of short stories about NYC Homicide detective, Abe Levine, Westlake wrote something to the effect that Levine's deep compassion for the dead and his enormous respect for the simple fact of being alive provided a writing antidote to the relentlessly hard-boiled Parker novels. I'd call that redemption.

August 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: For someone who insists she does a poor job of explaining herself, you do a beautiful job of explaining yourself.

If you ever decide to read another Parker novel, you might consider Butcher's Moon, which offers stirring, even beautiful passages of Parker's sidekick Grofield recovering from serious injuries.

August 03, 2011  
Blogger Ray Banks said...

What Peter said. Beautifully done.

Just a brief addendum, however: Dora isn't the last Factory novel. There was another one after it called Dead Man Upright. If you liked the others, it's well worth seeking out.

August 04, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Ray, You are absolutely right; I'd forgotten about the fifth Factory novel as, for whatever reason, Serpent's Tail did not publish this one around the time they published the other four. I see that Melville House Publishing, under their International Crime label, is set to publish Dead Man Upright in 2/2012. Can't wait! I see also that they are set to re-publish the first 4 Factory novels in October. Now I'll want to buy these versions + DMU in order to have a matching set...

From what I have read, DMU is not quite as bleak and despairing as I Was Dora Suarez...?

I sometimes think that if Raymond Chandler had been writing in the 1980s, his "voice" would have been very much like Derek Raymond's. With the anger, bitterness, frustration, and hopelessness--and wistfulness--jacked up a few more levels. There are many beautifully written passages in Derek Raymond's novels that can stand with Chandler's any day.

Here is a blurb from amazon.com

The fifth and final book in the author's acclaimed Factory Series was published just after Derek Raymond's death, and so didn't get the kind of adulatory attention the previous four titles in the series got. The book has been unavailable for so long that many of Derek Raymond's rabid fans aren't even aware there is a fifth book.

But Dead Man Upright may be the most psychologically probing book in the series. Unlike the others, it's not so much an investigation into the identity of a killer, but a chase to catch him before he kills again. Meanwhile, the series' hero—the nameless Sargent from the "Unexplained Deaths" department—is facing more obstacles in the department, due to severe budget cutbacks, than he's ever faced before.

However, this time, the Sargent knows the identity of the next victim of the serial killer in question. But even the Sargent's brutally blunt way of speaking can't convince the besotted victim, and he's got to convince a colleague to go against orders and join him in the attempt to catch the killer... before it's too late.

August 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes, I probably ought to step back from this discussion until I'm up to speed on the Factory novels.

August 05, 2011  
Blogger Ray Banks said...

Elisabeth - I think the reason ST didn't publish DMU with the other Factory novels is that they didn't have the rights to the book. Dora effectively ended Raymond's career with his publisher, and he moved (I think) to Warner, who published DMU, his brilliant autobiography The Hidden Files and his last, posthumous, non-Factory novel Not Till the Red Fog Rises.

For my money, Raymond was right when he said Dora broke him. You can tell from the book - the force of emotion makes it chronologically disjointed, almost a fever dream. DMU is a lot tamer in comparison. Not to self-promote too much, but I wrote a wee thing about the book last year for The Rap Sheet: http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2010/01/book-you-have-to-read-dead-man-upright.html

August 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Ray, Thanks for the link. Just read it. You explain better than I why Raymond is on my list of hard and bleak writers whose work I can go back to over and over again: "What is often forgotten about Raymond’s work is that glimmer of hope, that belief in humanity ... because we recognize our own darkness and fight against it. We may struggle to connect with other human beings, just as the detective struggles to save his long-dead daughter..." The recurring nightmare visits and visions the detective has of his mad wife and his dead daughter are absolutely wrenching. Again, that deep humanity that sets Raymond apart from, say, Ellroy.

Interesting, too, that you note "[Raymond] was never a particularly adept plotter" -- a quality he shares with Chandler. Who cares, right? They both wrote so beautifully.

Poor crime fiction, cursed more than any other genre with the "good plotting" / "bad plotting" albatross.

I've just requested Raymond's The Hidden Files via my institution's InterLibrary Loan program -- thanks for the tip!

August 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The most interesting discussions of noir that I've read do tend to be filled with words like hope and compassion.

In re plotting, some commenters thought I did not think much of Ross Macdonald bssed on some of my recent comments about The Galton Case. Au contraire. I rolled my eyes at the book's amateur Freudeanism, but I was in awe of the plotting.

August 06, 2011  
Anonymous Al Guthrie said...

Thanks for mentioning me in such exalted company, Elisabeth! That's outrageously flattering.

As for the "hardest, harshest, toughest worlds" I'd put in a word here for Ted Lewis, particularly GBH. If you haven't read it, beg, borrow or steal a copy.

I'd also recommend PJ Wolfson's BODIES ARE DUST, a lesser-known early noir (first published in '31, I think). To my mind, Hammett wrote hardboiled rather than noir, but if he'd written noir, BODIES is what it might have been like.

And you can't beat Ray Banks's BEAST OF BURDEN, the final, exceptional novel in the Innes quarter. Brave, brave writer, that man.

August 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Al, thanks for the recommendations. I read and liked Jack's Return Home. Why is Ted Lewis little remembered today? Talk about unfortunate early losses.

I'll look for Wolfson right away, or at least after Bouchercon.

You're right that Hammett wrote hard-boiled rather than noir, but he flirted with noir in parts of The Glass Key, I'd say.

August 06, 2011  
Anonymous Al Guthrie said...

Peter,

I think Lewis is pretty well remembered (I'm aware of two people currently writing Lewis biographies and I'm sure there are others), but he's rarely stumbled upon since most of his books are out of print. It's hard enough for writers of contemporary hardboiled psychonoirs to stay on the print radar (Vicki Hendricks's 2008 Edgar-nominated Cruel Poetry is out of print already)...

Yes, The Glass Key is a noir contender. The Dog House chapter is stunning. Imagine that every chapter and you've got PJ Wolfson.

August 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Al, so let me ask what I really meant: Why aren't Ted Lewis' books more widely available?

I've read just enough of Vicki Hendricks to know that she is something special. Could it be that the greater cultural currency the word noir attains, the less available the hardest-hitting noir is? Are readers scared of it? Are publishers scared?

The Dog House chapter was probably the most eye-opening experience I've had reading crime fiction, that a scene of such violence and despair could have been written in a crime story in 1930 (and without what would be considered today graphic detail). Our frozen brothers and sisters in the Nordic countries showed great taste in naming their top crime fiction award The Glass Key.

If PJ Wolfson is all Dog House, that's a hell of an endorsement for PJ Wolfson.

August 08, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Al, It wasn't flattery but rather sincere praise! There is a certain poignant quality to so many of your characters, characters that seem to be trying to understand themselves and their world but lack the ability, the mental equipment, to speak about their needs and longings.

Thanks for the tip on the Wolfson novel. It has been requested via InterLibrary Loan as of a moment ago. You gave me some tips re other period crime writers over at Rara-Avis a while back. All good. The Lewis novels are next on the list.

August 08, 2011  
Anonymous Al Guthrie said...

Peter: re the reason Lewis's books aren't more widely available. I can only speculate, but my guess is that no one has made an offer to the rights holder that the rights holder is prepared to accept. Also, I think the most famous book, Jack's Return Home/Get Carter, is tied up at Allison & Busby, and I expect most publishers would want that as well -- it would make sense to take on the entire backlist. Without something to lead with, it would be difficult to justify paying over the odds to buy the rights from another publisher simply to publish the rest of the full backlist. There probably wouldn't be much business sense in that, and certainly no obvious marketing strategy to generate the kind of sales to make it a worthwhile investment. But as I say, that's all just speculation.

Re noir: it's a niche market, has been since as long as I've been involved in publishing. When I first started out as a writer, I was advised by several industry professionals to avoid using the term under any circumstances. It was okay to say that I wrote 'dark crime fiction' but if I said I wrote 'noir' then that would be the kiss of death. Independent of that advice, an editor at one of the Big Six told me back in 2003 or so that a maximum of 2,500 Americans read noir fiction. He was very dogmatic about that number. So a noir writer whose sales reached 4 figures was doing well. I was short-listed for the Debut Dagger in 2001 but it took me nearly 400 rejections and three years to find a publisher for Two-Way Split, and that was a start-up POD press who didn't pay an advance. So, yes, publishers have long been scared of noir because it's niche, and big publishing likes big books.

As to readers: here's the irony. The better you write noir, the more you'll disturb the reader. And a lot of readers don't enjoy being disturbed. It's an odd thing but I swear writing noir fiction is like going on a date fresh from a beating, your nose broken, cheek swollen, lips puffed up, clothes blood-smeared. Hell, you're probably smelling of urine too. The odds are stacked against you, but it's the hope that (despite all evidence pointing to the contrary) you'll somehow still get lucky that drives you on. It would probably be more sensible to go home and have a bath but the noir spirit is not a sensible one.

Elisabeth: thanks! That's a lovely observation. I do try to be non-judgemental, and almost always write from the perspective of my characters to give them a voice. I do find a lot of people don't like that, though. Empathy seems to be in very short supply (particularly in publishing houses).

Hope you both enjoy the Wolfson. In terms of style and mood, it's closer to the Dog House chapter than any other Hammett I can think of. Not Dog House intensity all the time, of course. But, well, you'll see... I've read a couple of other books by Wolfson, by the way, and they're not ones I'd recommend.

August 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought Jack's Return Home under the title Get Carter at Crimefest in Bristol, where it was on sale because Mike Hodges was part of the festivities. I don't think I'd previously heard or read discussion of any of Ted Lewis' book other than that one. So yes, your speculation makes sense.

Damn me, it sounds like writing noir is a noir experience. I'm not not sure life meets art that way in hard-boiled or romance.

OK, Wolfson and more Ted Lewis top the list for my post-Bouchercon reading. Thanks.

August 09, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Al and Peter, Just received my InterLibrary Loan of Wolfson's Bodies Are Dust. A bit of serendipity as the lending library is the Univ of Texas, Austin, the home of many of Dashiell Hammett's writings, correspondence, etc.

Lovely library ephemera include a hand-stamped, hand-lettered check out card with dates back to 1933. On the half title page, a previous reader has penciled: "Very vicious. Should not be in Library." With this backhanded endorsement, I am naturally anxious to begin reading it! A brief glance at the text does reveal some pretty rough language for a books published in 1931.

August 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder how old that "Very vicious" notation is. One hates to make generalizations about certain parts of the country, but one does so anyhow.

August 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll keep Wolfson at the top of my list for post-convention reading, but it's all Bouchercon all the time for me for the next few weeks. That title alone is one of the grimmer ones I can think of -- Bodies Are Dust.

August 16, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I wonder how old that "Very vicious" notation is.

Further investigation seems to indicate that "Very vicious" and "Should not be in Library" were written by two different hands. And I'd say, based on the script, that both were written some time ago. Clue? The book was not checked out between 1948 and 2008, when it also went out on ILL.
Although I am loathe to impugn my own sex, I believe that both comments were written by women. Probably cozy aficionados (aficionade?), the sissies!

August 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Screwy dames.

August 17, 2011  

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