Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Five shots

While I gather some thoughts on the apparent difference of temperament and style among the paperback original writers whose work I've been reading (Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Charles Williams), here are some more of my recent noir shots along with one at least as blanc as it is noir.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, February 23, 2015

My first book cover as a photographer!

Stark House Press, that terrific publisher of crime classics and crime originals, has a new mass-market crime line called Black Gat Books. The imprint's first three offerings include work by suck authors and photographers as Harry Whittington, Leigh Brackett, Charlie Stella, and me.

Yep, I shot the cover for Black Gat's edition of Stella's novel Eddie's World, and I could not be more chuffed. Stella is one of my favorite crime writers, a hell of a guy, a loyal family man and sports fan, and a passionate, entertaining social commentator whose only flaw is that he wouldn't know a good bagel if it bit him on his Buffalo Bills-loving rear end. Here's what I wrote about Stella in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"Much of a crime novel's texture comes from the bits between the main action, and no one writes those bits better than New Jersey's Charlie Stella. If you like Elmore Leonard, you'll love this guy and his funny, unsparing yet sympathetic looks at mid-, high-, and low-level mobsters, hangers-on, and cops."
Judge the book by its cover, or the cover by its book. In this case, it really is all good.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wake Up to Murder, Peter Rabe, sticking it to Florida, and a question for readers

If Day Keene's Wake Up to Murder had appeared this century rather than in the middle of the last one, someone would have turned protagonist Jim Charters quest to remember where he picked up the mysterious $10,000 into an interactive video game.

2) Gil Brewer knew what to say to hot-weather chauvinists who lord it over the friends in the Northeastern United States in wintertime. Here's Lew Brookbank,protagonist of Wild to Possess:
"He took a short quick one. snapping off the neck. and turned to stare at the wall of Florida jungle growth beyond the road shoulder. 
"Florida, he thought. Why can't I get away from it?  Shove it--every last flat, wet, stinking acre."
3) I was not crazy about the first Peter Rabe novel I tried to read, but The Box is different, a slightly darker, slightly funnier version of that familiar theme of non-natives stranded in North Africa with nothing to do but wait ... Highsmith, Casablanca, Camus ... Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia apparently exercised considerable influence over makers of crime novels and movies in the middle of the last century, even before the wars that ended French colonial rule there. Why, readers, was this the case?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Titles That Screamed, or how did paperback originals get their names?

The last eight novels I've read are A Night for Screaming, A Ticket to Hell, Any Woman He Wanted, The Body Beautiful, Brute in Brass, Nothing in Her Way, The Diamond Bikini, and A Touch of Death, in the last of which a character wakes up screaming.

Aside from making me a confirmed fan of Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, and Bill S. Ballinger, the books got me wondering how paperback originals got their titles. Of the eight novels above, five and maybe six have generic titles. As evocative as those titles are, they could easily have been swapped among the books without any loss of effect, or something just as chill-inducing substituted for any one of them. (The two exceptions, with titles that either get directly and specifically at the novel's core or else highlight a recurrent and unusual motif, are Williams' Nothing in Her Way and The Diamond Bikini.)

Today one thinks of a title as personal to the author (or publisher) and specific to the book. Back then, it seems, things were more generic. One could easily imagine a Whittington or a Williams beginning with a title, and writing a book to match. (It may be significant that a number of paperback originals appeared under more than one title. Williams' A Touch of Death, for instance, was also published as Mix Yourself a Redhead, which refers to a minor incident in the book, but which would have made a much better title for one of Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott novels. Could the title have been an attempt to capitalize on Prather's popularity?)

So, readers, especially those familiar with paperback originals and their history, How did these books get their titles? Did their authors take titles as seriously as we take titles today?  Did publishers assign the titles? And which came first, the title or the book?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Charles Williams' Diamond Bikini and a question about versatility

I chose that cover of Charles Williams' The Diamond Bikini (1956) to illustrate this post because a blurb from the man who created Shell Scott is no small deal.

I'm not sure The Diamond Bikini is as good as Williams' Nothing In Her Way (1953), which I read last week, or A Touch of Death (1954), which I'm reading now. But in its way, it offers even more persuasive evidence of Williams' talent. That's because Williams shows in this book that he could write things funny, rather than just write funny things. That is, the characters can say and do funny things without appearing to know they are doing so.  My one complaint about this cover, in fact, is that it's more farcical and yuck-it-up than the story that follows.  The novel, in fact, is more Huckleberry Finn than Hee Haw.  Here's one entertaining example, spoken by the book's seven-year-old narrator in the first chapter"
"I still had my baloney sandwich in my pocket because we’d just got to the track when the Pinkertons drafted Pop and I remembered it was wrapped in a sheet of yesterday’s racing form. I hauled it out and took a bite of the baloney while I showed ’em,

"‘Now, here,’ I says, pointing to it with my finger. ‘Look at this.
Barnyard Gate (M) 105* ch.g.3, by Barnaby—Gates Ajar, by Frangi-Pangi. Dec. 5, TrP, 6f, 1:13 sy, 17, 111* 11 15, 13, 89, Str’gf’l’wG AlwM, Wo’b’g’n 119, C’r’l’ss H’s’y 112, Tr’c’le M’ff’n 114. You see? And now take a look at this workout. Fly 2 Aqu ½ft: 48 3/5 bg. A morning-glory and a dog, and if you ever put ten cents on his nose even in a two thousand claimer you got rocks in your head. He’s a front runner and a choker and even Arcaro couldn’t rate him off the pace and he always dies at the eighth pole.’

"They stopped me then, and there was hell to pay. They just wouldn’t believe I was reading it. I told ’em it was all right there, as plain as the nose on their face, that Barnyard Gate was a three-year-old chestnut gelding and had never won a race, and that he was by Barnaby out of Gates Ajar, by Frangi-Pangi, and that the last time he’d run he’d gone off at about 17-to-1 in a six-furlong Maiden Allowance at Tropical Park on December 5th with George Stringfellow up and carrying 111 pounds with the apprentice allowance claimed. The track was sloppy and the winner’s time was 1 minute and 13 seconds, and Barnyard Gate led at the start, at the half, and going into the stretch, and then had folded and come in eighth by nine lengths, and that the first three horses had been Woebegone, Careless Hussy, and Treacle Muffin. I told ’em they was the ones didn’t know how to read, and they said, ‘Well, I never!’

"That did it. They said a boy that the only thing he could read was the racing form was a disgrace to the American way of life and they was going to court and have me taken away from Pop and put in a Home. I didn’t like it, of course, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it and I just had to wait for Pop to get out of the draft.".
The Diamond Bikini shows Williams could write comedy, just as Nothing in Her Way showed he could write a beautifully convoluted con-artist story. What's especially impressive is that neither is typical of Williams' more frequent stories of a down-at-the-heels man who tries to better his lot, but only gets himself in ever deeper trouble. And that versatility suggests to me that, by God, Williams could write.  Who else is that versatile? Who among your favorite crime writers excelled at more than one kind of crime story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, February 16, 2015

End of story, or what ever happened to plot? (With questions for readers)

It's no secret that plot has less cachet than character, setting, and atmosphere in harder-boiled crime writing, and probably at the cozier end of the spectrum as well.

Why is this? Why are character especially, but also atmosphere, considered more literarily prestigious than a brilliantly crafted plot?  When was the last time you read critical praise for a hard-boiled novel's plot? (I haven't read Gone Girl, but that's the only recent example that comes to mind. Well, that and anything by the brilliant Alan Glynn. But I suspect that even Glynn's thrilling chillers are likelier to find their way into book discussions for their larger themes of paranoia and government and corporate control than for the mechanisms by which Glynn tells his stories.)  Can you recall the plot of any Stieg Larsson novels? Probably not, but you sure as hell do know who and what Lisbeth Salander is.  Character is for serious writers. Plot? Why, that's something for trashy airport best sellers.

I don't mean that hard-boiled and noir novels have bad plots, but commentators (and, I'm guessing, readers and even authors) regard plot, if they think about it all, as a serviceable armature on which to hang ideas about men or women or the city or despair or economic deprivation or greed or violence or heroism or depravity, or just to give their characters something to do.  I've read two brilliantly plotted hard-boiled crime novels recently, one published in 1953, the other in 1961, and the third novel in my new holy trinity of crime fiction plotting appeared in 1959. (The books are, in order, Nothing in Her Way, by Charles Williams; Any Woman He Wanted, by Harry Whittington; and The Galton Case, by Ross MacDonald, whose story is so brilliantly worked out that one can almost overlook Macdonald's wince-making amateur Freudianism and badly dated jabs at suburbs.) In none of the books is plot a mere mechanism to activate the characters. Plot reveals character and is inseparable from it. The books reveal the shallowness of expressions like plot-driven and character-driven.

Those novels appeared more than 50 years ago, and here are your questions: Were the 1950s and early 1960s a high point for plot in hard-boiled writing? If so, when did plot lose its prestige, and why? What are the more brilliantly plotted crime novels you have read?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Bill S. Ballinger and hard-boiled writing in the 1940s, with a question for readers

1949 was an in-between time in mass-market hard-boiled crime fiction, at least the variety written by men. Black Mask was nearly dead, and Manhunt had not yet appeared. Raymond Chandler was almost done writing, and Mickey Spillane was one book into his career.

Into the breach stepped The Body Beautiful by Bill S. Ballinger, who liked the letter b. (The novel's predecessor is The Body in the Bed, and their protagonist is a private investigator named Barr Breed.)

Photo by your humble
blogkeeper of a kind of
sign Bill S. Ballinger
might well have seen in
Appearing as it did in between two well-defined eras, The Body Beautiful looks like a pastiche of trends, motifs, and narrative techniques from the 1920s through the 1950s. Breed is a tough dick who clashes with the cops, one of whom is a friend. The Body Beautiful contains at least one passage as chilling as anything Jim Thompson wrote, but the story takes place in and around a theater, decidedly a nod to an earlier era.

At the resolution, the dick gathers all the suspects at the theater, and he relates in detail how he had solved the crime, like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. But the crime and its rational solution are more in the manner of a traditional mystery.

Breed and occasionally other characters say "coulda" and "woulda" and "gotta" and "lotta" and "kinda" and "outa" and "musta;" you know Ballinger and audience shared a common grounding in the tough-talking 1920s and '30s. The novel is also shot through with the yearning romanticism of the 1950s David Goodis sort.

And I like to think Barr Breed might have had
 drink here. This one's also by your humble
Ballinger does almost all of this well. (My only complaint concerns the climactic revelation scene, where we know tension is high because Breed/Ballinger keep telling us tension is high.) Ballinger could plot well; the mystery was nicely laid out and would have kept me turning the pages had I not been reading an e-book. Ballinger also knew his way around a theater or else did a convincing job persuading me that he did. The backstage details made for terrific color and background.

OK, now you know Bill S. Ballinger. Your next job is this: Sum up 1940s hard-boiled crime writing in just a few words.
The Body Beautiful is part of a useful, exciting list published by 280 Steps. The catalogue includes new books, older ones both neglected and not, and critical works. I've been reading their editions of Harry Whittington, and I have a few more of their titles lines up.
© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brian Williams, Jon Stewart, and the society of the spectacle

All photos by your humble
blog keeper/spectacle
maker, Peter Rozovsky
It is fitting that Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle should be available free of charge online; I would hardly expect such a text to adhere to the bourgeois concept of property rights.  I thought of Debord's work, and decided to consult it for the first time, because of the outpouring of social media agony over Jon Stewart's decision to leave The Daily Show. ("... sometimes it's more important to step back and reconfigure a conversation than continue the same conversation because you know how to do it," Stewart was quoted as saying. Reconfigure a conversation. Jesus. I prefer one commenter's speculation that Stewart might have been pissed he did not get David Letterman's job.)

The mourning for Stewart naturally included hosannas and lamentations for Stephen Colbert as not just a satirist, but an essential alternative voice, a position not easy to reconcile with his having left Comedy Central to take what I suspect is an eight-figure job with a vast media conglomerate. And then there's that other entertainer, Brian Williams, whose garbled recollections of Iraq, whether deliberate or not, gave rise to predictable public airings of ethical concern and inquiries into the workings of human memory — serious stuff.

I don't know if I'll be able to accept Debord's explanation for the weird ritual/spectacle aspect of so much public life; phrases like modern conditions of production make my cheek muscles go slack and my eyelids get heavy. But Debord was surely right that in a society where those conditions prevail, "life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles."
There is no contradiction in being attracted to the spectacle aspect of Debord's Situationist thought even if one is dubious of his Marxist rhetoric. At least there was no such contradiction for Jean-Patrick Manchette.

Over at Dietrich Kalteis' Off the Cuff, Dietrich, Martin J. Frankson, and David Swinson make spectacles of themselves talking about good guys and keeping them just bad enough to hold a reader's interest. Once again, Dietrich illustrates the chat with one of my photos, this time of the noose-like apparition you'll see here at top right. Shadows play weird tricks where I live.

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, February 09, 2015

The non-human factor

Some of my best friends are Homo sapiens sapiens, but one grows weary of one's own genus. That's why I visited the National Zoo in Washington on Sunday (though in the company of a human friend). I saw elephants there, but no donkeys. You may choose to believe that was a coincidence.

The little menagerie presented here even has a bit of crime fiction ambience; one of the animals looks like a small-time hood in a 1950s film noir who knows there's no way out.
(All photos by your humble animal lover/blogkeeper, Peter Rozovsky.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Harry Whittington was a cool cat

My recent introduction to Harry Whittington has included A Night for Screaming, A Ticket to Hell, and, best and most recently, Any Woman He Wanted.

Others have done what Whittington did in that book, but Whittington did it better. His embittered good guy is more embittered and more good. The revenge his protagonist exacts is more chilling.

The stock scene where the hero finds a naked or barely clothed woman in his room? Whittington does that better than anyone else, in part because I don't know anyone who could write dangerous, sordid sex scenes as well as Whittington does here, and the characters keep most of their clothes on.

But Any Woman He Wanted is more than just atmosphere. Whittington could plot, and some of the twists here surprised me.  I don't know where this novel ranks with hardcore Whittingtonians. Its odd ending might keep some from ranking it near the top. But Whittington integrates the ending smoothly into what had gone before, and what went before was enough to make the novel the best I've read in this young year.

(Read Woody Haut's Whittington retrospective.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Westlake, Kalteis, Frankson, Morganti and me, plus a question for readers

Dietrich Kalteis and Martin J, Frankson are back with another Off the Cuff discussion, this time with Canadian novelist Charlotte Morganti, hashing out a matter dear to my heart: setting as character in crime fiction. Once again, Dietrich illustrates the discussion with one of my nourish photos (left), whose setting is right here in South Philadelphia.

Elsewhere, here's Donald Westlake, interviewed by Al Nussbaum in 1974, from the Westlake nonfiction collection The Getaway Car:
"I have felt for some time, with growing conviction. that there weren't any stories around to be written. I haven't been able to do a Richard Stark novel in a year and a half, the comedy caper is dead, story lines are drying up like African cattle.  Storylines reflect, refer to and attempt to deal with their period of history, and that's why they become old and obsolete and used up. Another reason is that the same story gets done and done and done and done, and suddenly one day nobody wants to read or hear that story again."
1974 marked the beginning of Westlake's 23-year hiatus from the Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark. It was also the year of Jimmy the Kid, the worst of his comic caper Dortmunder books, Westlake's writing of which began to grow more sporadic around the same time. Instead, he concentrated on standalone novels for the next few years, though he eventually returned to both Parker and Dortmunder. So 1974 obviously marked a kind of crisis for Westlake. Now here's your question: Was Westlake's crisis merely personally, or was 1974 indeed a crisis year for crime fiction? Was his gloomy pronouncement accurate?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Monday, February 02, 2015

Is Detectives Beyond Borders turning into a Dickhead? plus another question for readers

I've never had much patience for science fiction, fantasy, or alternative history, and the few books in those fields that I've tried include some highly regarded titles. I generally find that once I get the (exceedingly) high concept early on, I keep waiting for the concept to turn into a story, and it never does.

But I have a feeling I may like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle better. Its concept is high, and therefore simple: The Axis powers have won the Second World War, and Japan and Germany have divided up the former United States, ruling them as puppet territories. But already in the first chapter, Dick begins to have sly, subversive fun with the concept: An American named Robert Childan sells American antiques, offered as ethnic exotica much as Asian art is peddled to non-Asians in the real world.

Childan speaks in clipped cadences, something like the way Asian characters stereotypically do in mid-century American popular fiction. (The Man in the High Castle appeared in 1962.) He even bows obsequiously a time or two. And, most daring of all, Dick reverses in one paragraph every social, racial, and power stereotype you can think of about about sexual dynamics between men and women in which one partner is of Western descent and the other from the East:
“But it was known,” thinks Childan, “relations between Japanese and yanks, although generally it was between a Japanese man and yank woman. This . . . he quailed at the idea. And she was married. He whipped his mind away from the pageant of his involuntary thoughts and began busily opening the morning’s mail.”
I’ve read just chapter, but Dick has already demonstrated that he can go beyond the concept and explore what that concept means for his characters. It’s a hell of a start.

Now, your turn: What are your favorite fantasy, science fiction, or alternate-history novels and stories, especially if that is not your usual reading? Why do you like those novels for stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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