REVIEW: “THIEVES FALL OUT”

Thieves Fall OutI never much cared for Gore Vidal. He always came off as pompous, insufferably elitist, and wore a perpetual sneer directed at all those around him. Bouncing around between novels, essays, plays, and movie scripts, his writing never seemed to gain focus and never appealed to me. So you can imagine my surprise when I received a copy of Thieves Fall Out (from Hard Case Crime, no less!), written by Vidal in 1953 under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay.

Turns out one of Vidal’s earlier novels overflowed with homosexuality, enraging a New York Times book reviewer to the point where he declared he would never review one of Vidal’s novels again, and would encourage other reviewers to join his boycott. Enter Cameron Kay and Thieves Fall Out.

The story is a good one, centering around Peter Wells, an American who wakes up in a Cairo whorehouse after having been drugged and rolled for his money and traveler’s cheques (remember those?). He’s lucky to escape the whorehouse alive, and heads for the US Consulate, where he receives no help at all. Broke and disheveled, he goes to Shepheard’s Hotel, the place “where the biggest operators live” and “where almost anything might happen”.

Well, he meets up with a Brit known only as “Hastings”, who buddies up to him. A few drinks later, Hastings introduces him to a French Countess who offers him the opportunity to make a big score. Just go to Luxor and await further instructions.

This sets the stage for a guy-in-way-over-his-head story which held my attention throughout. Vidal takes us through the Egypt of the early 1950s, the days of King Farouk, before oil held absolute sway over that part of the world. Danger lurks around every corner, alluring women abound, and there’s even the requisite police inspector (named Mohammed Ali !!). The deeper Wells gets into this scheme, the less he knows and the fewer people he can trust, until … well, you’ll just have to read it.

This novel checks all the boxes and adds up to a finely-crafted story, contained behind a seductive cover painting by Glenn Orbik. I didn’t know Vidal had it in him to write such a noirish tale and to do it so well.

Recommendation: buy it. Don’t let any predisposition toward Vidal get in your way. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

“SETUP ON FRONT STREET”

a novel by Mike DennisNow seems like a pretty good time to have another look at Setup On Front Street, the first novel in my Key West Nocturnes series. A pretty good noir tale, if I do say so myself. It happens to be available as an ebook, paperback, and audiobook. Go here to check it out.

Here’s the opening: (WARNING TO THE EASILY-OFFENDED!! Contains profanity and racial slurs. Better ask your Mommy.)

March, 1991

I got back to Key West on the day Aldo Ray died.

This kid sitting next to me on the bus had one of those old transistor radios, and the news crackled out of it somewhere south of Miami. The big C got him, it said.

Ray was one of my favorite Hollywood tough guys. Like myself, he was powerfully built, with a harsh, scratchy voice, cutting a bearish figure on the big screen. But he had a well-hidden, squishy-soft center, which usually meant big trouble for the characters he portrayed.

As the Greyhound made its way down the Keys that morning, I gazed out at the hot, lazy island hamlets, thinking about Ray and about what I had to do.

And there could be no room for squishiness.

≈≈≈

We lumbered into the downtown Key West terminal. I stepped off the air-cooled bus into the steamy embrace of the thick humidity I remembered from long ago. I started sweating right away. As I took a full stretch, my bones creaked and cracked, and I frowned.

Three days on a bus gives you the creaky bones.

Three years in the joint gives you the frown.

The passengers stood around: an odds-and-ends collection of smelly backpackers, Jap tourists here on the cheap, plus a couple of scowling Miami jigs — low-grade street types draped in gold, probably down here to make a dope drop.

As soon as the driver pulled the bags out of the belly of the bus, I snatched mine and headed across the small parking lot for a little rooming house nearby on Angela Street. It wasn’t even a two-minute walk, but by the time I got there, splotches of sweat had stained the front and back of my guayabera.

Welcome home, pal.

Inside, I signed the register, then paid the deposit. I paused for just a moment, looking at my signature. “Don Roy Doyle,” it read. That was the first time in a long time that I’d written my name for anything other than prison shit.

Before my frown dissolved at this liberating thought, I remembered what got me sent up in the first place.

The clerk pushed me the key. I headed upstairs with more than a little snap in my step. Slipping the key into the lock, I gave it a turn. Then I stepped back just a shade.

I cracked the door a couple of inches, but I didn’t push it all the way in. Instead, I closed it again, then reopened it. Opening my own door. With my own key. How long had it been?

The room was boiling. I flipped the AC on high, then peeled off my clothes. With nobody around.

By normal standards, I’m sure it was just an average-sized room, but compared to my Nevada cell, it seemed gigantic. It was a lot more space and a far better view than I’d been used to, and it was all mine.

Smiling, I turned the light on and off a few times, watching the bulb react to my switch-clicking. Then I moved to the center of the room where I stretched my arms out as far as they would go. I turned a couple of complete three-sixties without touching anything.

With those luxuries under my belt, I checked out the rack. It was huge, compared to the little slab I’d slept on for years. I hadn’t had my feet up in three days and sweet sleep was calling me.

I didn’t even pull back the covers.

≈≈≈ 

I came to at twilight. The humming AC cooled the room to perfection. I felt rested for the first time since I left Nevada. I took a long, warm shower in wonderful solitude, without worrying about anyone trying to fuck with me.

Afterward, I pulled a fresh guayabera and a clean pair of cotton pants out of my bag. I could wear what I wanted now, so I took my own sweet time getting dressed.

With my brushed-back hair still wet, I headed down the stairs, out into the warm night. Man, I felt great.

And now, it was showtime.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Let’s make 2015 the best year yet!

Dachshunds New Year

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE

Merry Christmas

LET’S REVISIT “BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE EYES”

BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE EYES 6This 2012 short story is a nifty little slice of Las Vegas noir, a variation on a familiar theme. I reread it this morning and I have to say I think it’s a damned good story, if I do say so myself. Here’s the opening. See what you think.

Oh, they were a deep blue, all right. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. They were the color of the clear desert sky in those first brief moments before the onset of dusk, right when the blue begins to darken, to veer into violet. Somewhere right after periwinkle, that’s where her eyes were.

If only I’d never noticed them.

≈≈≈

She came up to my table one summer night at the Flamingo, setting about two thousand in chips in front of her. Business had been slow all over Las Vegas the whole week and that night was particularly dead, even for the graveyard shift. Outside, it had cooled off to the low nineties, the arid, ovenlike heat causing people to itch deep beneath their clothing where they didn’t want to scratch. Inside, the usual racket of the slots was down by quite a few steps. Here in the pit, dice action had narrowed to one table, and even those players were restrained. The roulette tables were empty, wheels stilled beneath thick canvas covers. A couple of other blackjack tables struggled to stay alive.

There was only one other player in my game, a collegiate-looking type in a sweatshirt at first base. He was playing five and ten bucks a hand, stuck about three hundred.

She asked, “What do you pay for blackjack?”

“Three to two,” I replied. I didn’t raise my eyes at first, but when I did look at her, I blinked and swallowed at the same time.

Plenty of reddish-brown hair framed her face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth, nose, cheekbones, neck … hell, I don’t know. I didn’t even catch the clothes. After the hair, I only saw the eyes. They were beckoning, shrewd, sexy, and … and vile. Swimming in large chalky pools, daring you to dive in.

Shit, she could’ve been the bride of Frankenstein and I wouldn’t’ve noticed.

She placed two green twenty-five-dollar chips over the line. Joe College bet another single red fin.

I dealt the cards. He busted, she hit blackjack. I slid three green chips toward her.

“Wow! That was pretty easy.”She sounded like she meant it. She upped her bet to a hundred.

Here come the cards. Joe College busts again, she catches two face cards, and I bust. I pushed her a hundred.

“Ooh, I love it,” she said. But she wasn’t the only one.

Reaching onto her stack in front of her, she counted out five hundred, then shoved it over the line. “Let’s live dangerously, okay?”

I looked right at her, which I shouldn’t’ve done. But hell, I never know what’s good for me.

 

Are you hooked yet? Can’t wait to see what happens? Well, trot on over to Amazon, specifically this page on Amazon, and buy this story. It’s only 99¢! How can you not???

REVIEW: “PERFIDIA”

PerfidiaIf James Ellroy had never existed, someone would have to invent him. Otherwise, where would we get all these great big, uncompromising novels, allowing us our fix of voyeuristic peeks inside the bowels of historical sacred cows? No one else out there is doing anything even remotely similar.

I met Ellroy a few years ago when he was touring to promote Blood’s A Rover, the final installment in his Underworld USA Trilogy. Since this trilogy seemed to wrap up the 1946-72 era he exposed in those three novels and the LA Quartet of novels which preceded them, I asked him what he had planned next. Without missing a beat, he said, “A romance novel.”

Well, I guess Perfidia (Knopf) is as close as Ellroy is ever going to get to a romance novel (about as close as David Goodis got to a happy ending when he polished off Cassidy’s Girl). You could say there are romantic elements to it, but don’t let that fool you. This isn’t going to win any RWA awards. Beyond the romance undertones, what you get is vintage Ellroy: rogue cops, seamy Hollywood types, LA in turmoil … oh, and Japs. Plenty of Japs. In fact, Part 1 of the book is titled “The Japs”.

Perfidia opens in LA on December 6, 1941, and when the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor occurs the next day, Los Angeles goes into (or tries to go into) lockdown mode, but frenzy and racial paranoia prevail. Japs are rounded up, a few are killed here and there, and eventually, the whole city slides into uncontrollable chaos.

This book is the first installment in a new quartet of novels that will span the years 1941-46, a sort of prequel to the LA Quartet, giving Ellroy a total of eleven novels which, taken as a whole, blow apart virtually every preconceived notion of American history during the era of 1941-72. The reader is aware that if any of Perfidia‘s characters had acted even slightly differently at any single moment, all of history which followed would have been very different, so intertwined were their actions.

As with all of the other novels in this group, Perfidia is far too ambitious to be held together by a single central character. This time out, there are four: Power-hungry LAPD captain William H Parker, who is grooming himself to step up to the position of Chief; Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese-American on the LAPD and one of their top forensic specialists; Kay Lake, idealistic pinko and the object of several men’s affections; and LAPD sergeant Dudley Smith, Irish immigrant tough guy with a Bette Davis fixation, and who has justified in his own mind the execution of any inconvenient individuals who may get in his way.

The book is filled with familiar characters, big and small, real and fictional, whom Ellroy readers may recognize from their appearances in one or more of the other Quartet/Trilogy novels. In fact, the author includes a reference list in the rear of the novel explaining who the characters are, whether or not they are fictional, and in which novel(s) they previously appeared. A nice little touch, if I do say so myself.

To a certain degree, Ellroy has reined in his rat-a-tat-tat narrative style which reached its zenith in Blood’s A Rover. Readers will find a few more complete sentences than they might expect, making for a somewhat less-jarring experience. This self-imposed restraint, however, does not diminish the power of his prose or of his story.

For a novel as sprawling as Perfidia, its timeline surprisingly occupies only about three weeks in December, 1941. Ellroy has the unique ability to pack action and provocative dialogue into virtually every minute of time. But make no mistake, this book is unquestionably setting the stage for a behemoth World War II-era storyline that will usher the reader into 1946 and the beginnings of The Black Dahlia, the first of the LA Quartet.

Recommendation: Buy it. Perfidia is a triumph in every sense of the word. Besides, any book where Bette Davis murmurs “Kill a Jap for me” has got to be worth reading.

THANK YOU TO ALL OUR VETERANS

Veterans Day

AT LAST, I MADE IT TO NOIRCON

NoirCon logoEvery two years, the intrepid Lou Boxer assembles a wild cast of characters in a little community playhouse in Philadelphia and calls it NoirCon. For several days every other autumn, Philly becomes the epicenter of all things noir. Lou is a major David Goodis enthusiast, and since both he and Goodis are natives of Philadelphia, where else could this event be held?

I learned of it in 2010, and paid my registration fee for that year’s conference. I also purchased a plane ticket. I did the same in 2012 — registered and paid my airfare — and in neither year did I actually attend NoirCon. I won’t go into the reasons, but I vowed that nothing would keep me from being there this year. And nothing did.

Apart from miserable weather (hey, it’s Philadelphia, right?), the conference was a winner. My first event was a screening of the 1950 film noir gem, The Prowler, starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes. It’s a little-known film for which only one print exists, and that’s the one we saw. That print was also aired on TCM a few months ago during their first showing of the film.

The screening was followed by an interview with Eddie Muller, the widely-recognized Czar of Noir, who shed a lot of light on not only this film, but also his attempts at rescuing these old films from deterioration and destruction. Eddie’s done a lot of work in this area and has been responsible for the restoration and salvaging of dozens of films which we would otherwise not have today. During the Saturday night NoirCon banquet, he received an award for his tireless work.

Several panels were held at the Society Hill Playhouse, a small community theater venue on the rim of downtown. It had a great vibe to it, and the panels were rewarding, to say the least. One informative event was a talk given by Steve Hodel, former LAPD homicide detective, who has concluded, after years of investigation and amassing mountains of solid evidence, that his father had murdered Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, in 1947.

The bookstore, set up in the Playhouse, was a noir fiction lover’s wet dream, containing books from just about everyone you could imagine, including recent re-releases of every Jim Thompson novel.

One night during the conference, we were treated to a special screening of Get Carter (1971), compliments of Soho Press, who have worked hard to put international crime fiction into the hands of noir lovers worldwide. I bought the Ted Lewis novel on which the movie was based, as well as its prequel, Jack Carter’s Law.

A major highlight for me was winning a raffle held at the conference banquet, where my prize was a fabulous black & white photograph, hand-colored, the work of Richie Fahey. It’s called A Stone For Billie Madley. Google it. It’s a great piece. And valuable, too.

I saw many old friends there, and made some new ones as well. I never got a count on how many people attended the conference, but the number easily eclipsed 100, and may have gone over 150. Regardless, it’s growing every time out, and I’m sure 2016 will be even more successful. Lou Boxer will see to it.

“DETOUR”, THE NOVEL

DETOUR white smallIf you’re familiar with the 1945 film noir classic, DETOUR, check out the novel on which it was based. Written by Martin M Goldsmith in 1939, the novel is every bit as good as the film. There are several editions of this book on Amazon right now, but the others are poorly edited and formatted. Also, this one is unique in that it comes with a foreword written by crime fiction legend Lawrence Block. Here’s a brief description:

1938. Alexander Roth is hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles, hoping to reconnect with his self-absorbed, cutesy-poo girlfriend. A car stops to pick him up and he is soon plunged into a nightmare from which there may be no escape.

This fatalistic novel is a forgotten noir masterpiece that has languished for decades in the swamps of neglected crime fiction. In 1945, film director Edgar G Ulmer cranked out the movie version in a couple of weeks on a microscopic budget, and it is now widely recognized as one of the greatest gems in film noir history. The novel is its equal in every way, exploring the very darkest corners of the human condition.

Right now, this little classic is live on Amazon as an ebook and paperback, and for you audio fans, the audiobook is now available on Audible.com.

FADING HOPE FOR THE MUSIC BUSINESS

I saw this quote from Joni Mitchell on Facebook today:

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to cooperate is what is necessary to be an artist — not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corporation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music. That’s why I spend my time now painting.”

She’s 100% right, of course, but something twanged inside me when I read this, jarring a distant memory. “A certain look and a willingness to cooperate” were the criteria the business used when they were looking for rock stars in the years 1959-63.

Before 1959, rock & roll had been developed by a breed of sex-crazed artists, mostly from the rural South, who had risen more or less independently of each other, testing this new, previously unplayed music in the roadhouses and honky-tonks of that region. When it broke big, around 1955, the airwaves — and eventually, the TV screens — were alive with swaggering, hip-shaking country boys whose sneering presence caused swooning and fainting among teenage girls and envy and guitar lessons among teenage boys. The lyrics were sexual in every respect, because — as Joni Mitchell pointed out — they were unwilling to cooperate. They tore through their songs and their tours with no adult supervision, often causing riots wherever they appeared, and by the time 1958 rolled around, the country was reeling from the rock & roll invasion.ElvisJerry Lee LewisCarl Perkins

All during those early years, calls rose up to ban the music, to protect “decent” kids from alien “jungle rhythms”, to save our republic from being swallowed up in a flash flood of juvenile delinquency. Ministers and moralizers ranted almost daily to compliant media, insisting on the eradication of this plague they call “music”. Willing DJs, looking for a boost in ratings, broke rock & roll records on the air. Public spectacles in the town square were common as records were thrown into flaming pyres to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers. Even scientists got into the act, calling the music a “communicable disease”. Rock & roll was in real danger of disappearing altogether.

And then, in 1958, Elvis Presley went into the Army. Also, that year, Jerry Lee Lewis returned from a career-shattering trip to England with his 13-year-old wife, who was also his first cousin. And in February of 1959, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash on “the day the music died”.

With Presley, Lewis, and Holly out of the way, the record business saw an opening. There was a vacuum at the top of the rock & roll heap. In less than a year, the music had been decapitated, bringing things to a virtual halt. The record companies sensed the moment was at hand where they could put manufactured “stars” into the shoes of the great artists who were no longer on the scene.

They sent out a call for people “with a certain look and a willingness to cooperate”. At the same time, they put the word out to the Brill Building (aka Tin Pan Alley), where professional songwriters had gathered in offices every day for decades to crank out hit tunes for singers and sheet music publishers. The record companies said they wanted songs scrubbed clean of sexuality and “filthy” innuendo. In other words, no more phrases like “great balls of fire”.

Then, they sent people out to the streets to look for “stars”. Talent was unimportant. Looks and pliability were everything. Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Freddy Cannon, Shelley Fabares … the list goes on. Girl groups also broke through during this time. The Shirelles, the Crystals, the Angels, and many others, most of whom have long ago slipped back into obscurity. But for a few fleeting years, as long as they did what they were told, they would become rich and famous and be the envy of the old neighborhood.

But of course, in November of 1963, John Kennedy was assassinated and I Want To Hold Your Hand was released.

Will there be another Beatles? And by that, I mean it in the larger sense: will there be a “savior moment” when we are all rescued from the soundalike crap that is being cranked out by the “music” business?

I’m not so sure. I would like to think so, but things are a little different this time around. First and foremost, pop music today is no longer about the music. It’s about the artist who records the music and the spectacle they put on during their “live” shows.  And I put “live” in quotes because so many of them don’t even sing during their shows these days, relegating the song to lip-synching while they skip around surrounded by slickly-choreographed dancers and dazzling lights. More importantly, people who buy this music today don’t buy it for the song, or even for the music. Because they’re not music fans. They’re pop culture fans. So they buy the music because it dovetails with their place in today’s pop culture.

At least in the early 1960s, you had great songs like Will You Love Me Tomorrow, despite the dreadful arrangement that covered up any traces of adulthood in the incisive Carole King lyrics. Today, we have Justin Bieber singing “Ooh, baby baby, I’m like, ooh, baby baby, I’m like, ooh baby baby …”

A world-changing band like the Beatles doesn’t have anywhere to get their act together these days. The Beatles had Hamburg, with their punishing schedule of seven nights a week, six hours a night (believe me, you play those places long enough, you get good and tight). They had their circuit of clubs in Liverpool, where they could build their sound and develop a loyal fan base. And most importantly, they eventually had George Martin, who steered them in the right direction in the recording studio, AND who insisted they shed themselves of Pete Best and get a new drummer. Enter Ringo Starr, and the Beatles immediately shoot into the stratosphere. They go from Love Me Do to Eleanor Rigby in four years, and to All You Need Is Love, with its 7/4 passages, one year later.

Eradicating this bullshit that passes for music today is going to be very tough, and I’m not sure it’s even possible anymore, but I still have hope.

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