Saturday, April 12, 2008

The seamy side of noir: Money Shot and The Ice Harvest

The crime-fiction borders I have crossed most recently took me into the dim and smoky half-world of strip clubs and porn talent agencies – appropriate, since I picked up the books right after a convention dedicated to noir.

Christa Faust's Money Shot has everything a noir story ought to: fast pace, stripped-down prose, killing, confrontation with some of the darkest crimes humans can commit, and an ending that hits like a punch in the stomach. But it also has an ambivalent, mature attitude to cathartic violence, and a refreshingly nuanced view of the milieu its protagonist inhabits.

The milieu is the pornography trade, and the protagonist is Angel Dare, once a porn actress, now owner of an agency that supplies talent to strip clubs and porn-movie producers. Faust's view of the subject is neither moralistic nor hedonistic. There is a hierarchy: some clubs are stinking and sleazy; others are harsh, viciously competitive, but a good source of income for dancers who can fight their way to the top. As narrator, Angel Dare meets women and men scarred by drugs and cosmetic surgery, but she also recalls good times and good, generous people.

Some aspects of the novel might catch the eye of an adventurous gender theorist. Angel is forced into a disguise as a man to avoid killers who want a briefcase full of money that has disappeared from her office, and it is during this phase that she turns detective. But when the time comes to kick ass, she sheds the male garb and becomes a woman again.

Faust dedicates the book to the multimega-million-selling crime author Richard S. Prather, who died shortly before its publication. Prather's Shell Scott may be inimitable, but Faust has a good ear for his goofily reflective over-the-top wisecracks in lines like "Now that I could see where I was, I still had no idea where I was" and this:

"I slowly pulled open the Civic's passenger-side door and put my bare feet on the grimy concrete, high on beautiful, full-color action movie fantasies of dishing out .44-caliber justice. That's when I realized I was naked."

I've just started The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, but I'll mention it here because its opening scenes take place largely in a string of strip clubs in Wichita, Kansas, on Christmas Eve 1979. The clubs are nearly empty, most who are there would rather be somewhere else, and a kind of resigned humor marks the proceedings:

"Shouldn't you turn down the heat a little, Dennis?"

"Sure. I bet the nude members of our staff would greatly appreciate that."

"I see your point."

The novel became a 2005 movie that featured John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton in the leads, Harold Ramis as director and Richard Russo and Robert Benton as screenwriters. It's very much worth watching even though Phillips says he hated the ending.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

I haven't read any Shell Scott in 35 years, at least, but I'm intrigued by the close of that linked essay about him which includes Stephanie Plum as one of his literary descendants.

Goofy, silly Stephanie Plum? Hmm. Next time I'm at Jelly's (the local used bookstore) I'll have to pick up a Scott book to see if I recognize the similarity.

(Yes, I admit it. I own all of Evanovich's Plum books; they amuse me.)

April 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can't say I see great similarity between Shell Scott and Stephanie Plum beyond, perhaps, one or two of Plum's especially salacious thoughts about Morelli.

There's nothing to be ashamed of in liking the Plum books. I've read four of them. The first has an opening worthy of Jane Austen, and that opening description in the fourth book, about Trenton in the summer smelling like the inside of a pizza oven, is one of the best, vividest and funniest pieces of scene setting I have read anywhere, not just in crime fiction. The woman can write.

April 12, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

MONEY SHOT is near the top of my TBR pile; thanks for the endorsement.

I haven't read ICE HARVEST, but saw the movie. I know the critics panned it, but I thought it was pretty good. Not a classic, but I didn't feel as though I wasted my time watching it. I'll have to keep an eye open for the book.

April 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Someone at NoirCon in Philadelphia suggested that the movie version of The Ice Harvest got lost in a shuffle of major movies released around the same time. I didn't know what critics had said about it, but it is decidedly not worthy of a pan. It makes good use of John Cusack's deadpan acting style, for instance.

I hope you enjoy Money Shot. Come back, and let me know what you think.

April 12, 2008  
Blogger Juri said...

The original novel of THE ICE HARVEST is easily one of the best crime novels ever. (At least of those that I've read, and it's so good I find it hard to imagine anyone would write a better one. Or if there's one, I think we'd've heard about it already.)

As for the thing that will be taking place in Finland in the near, as-yet-undefinable future, I will see myself to that there's a place for Mr. Phillips, too.

April 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I won't speculate publicly about the nature of the Finnish thing, lest I start a round of self-replicating rumors. I will say that if it's a conference, Scott Phillips would make a fine guest.

There are also interesting interviews floating around about the differences in tone between the novel The Ice Harvest and the movie made from it.

April 14, 2008  

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