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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.

NEW AUDIO VERSION OF “SETUP ON FRONT STREET”

a novel by Mike DennisAt long last, a new, improved audiobook version of Setup On Front Street is now available. The old version, much as I hate to admit it, didn’t sound very good, mostly because I was still struggling with my recording equipment, trying to coax the best possible sound out of it.

Well, it wasn’t working, so I invested in a few pieces of better equipment, and re-recorded this novel. The difference is striking, and if you bought the earlier, inferior version, I do believe you can exchange it for the improved version at no cost. Just contact Audible.com.

Setup On Front Street, in case you don’t already know, is the first installment in my Key West Nocturnes series of crime/noir novels, all set in Key West. These books will take the reader (or listener) behind the margaritas and the sunshine, into the noir underbelly of this island city.

In the meanwhile, go here and check out the new sample. I think you’ll like it. And who knows? You might just feel the urge to buy it!

REVIEW: “BRAINQUAKE”

BrainquakeI wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, 2014) to the first page. And then I read the opening line: Sixty seconds before the baby shot the father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park. Hook goes in mouth.

Paul Page is sitting on a bench in Central Park, watching (or stalking, depending on your point of view) a beautiful woman he knows only as Ivory Face. He’ll soon learn her real name is Michelle Troy. She’s pushing her baby carriage while strolling with her husband when the explosion of a gunshot rips through the air. The husband falls to the ground, mortally wounded, and Michelle, along with everyone else in the vicinity, goes into panic mode. Paul attempts to leap from the bench to assist Michelle, but finds he’s frozen in place. His brain suddenly feels as though it is being crushed. Cacophonous flutes roar through his head. Everything around him is washed in red and pink. The pain and the noise is almost too much to bear.

He’s having a brainquake.

He has these every so often. They’ve been part of his life since boyhood. They don’t last too long, but each one feels like an eternity.

Come to find out, Page is a bagman for the New York mob. Bagmen are notoriously laconic, hardened loners, whose sense of loyalty runs deep. They’re expected to live alone, have no friends, deliver the money on schedule, and kill “pirates”, those who would wrongfully relieve them of said money. Page, who is as noir as they come, fits the job description perfectly. Except for one thing: he doesn’t dare tell his ruthless bosses about his brainquakes. It would seal his own death.

Through some nice plotting, Page becomes embroiled in the Central Park shooting and eventually links up with Michelle Troy and her baby. Helen Zara, a black NYPD detective who stands over six feet tall, is brought in to sort through the case, and we’re off and running.

Fuller, more widely known as an iconoclastic filmmaker and screenwriter, never really registered with me as a novelist. His films, such as Pickup On South Street, The Big Red One, and The Naked Kiss, have been logged as the work of a true auteur of the cinema, and I had seen most of them. But a novelist? News to me.

Turns out he’d written several novels along the path of his long career, none of which made much of a splash. But if they’re anything as noirish as Brainquake, I want to read them all.

Recommendation: Buy it here. This is an unexpected gift of high-caliber noir fiction from Sam Fuller. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

 

 

REVIEW: “DRAWING DEAD”

DRAWING DEAD by JJ Deceglie (2011) Review by Mike Dennis DRAWING DEAD

“I wasn’t always an asshole.”

That’s Jack Andrelli talking in the opening line of JJ Deceglie’s Drawing Dead, and then he takes the rest of this riveting noir novella trying to convince you of exactly the opposite.

Andrelli is a down-and-out private investigator in Perth, Western Australia, with virtually no redeeming qualities, and he appears determined to assist in his own death any way he can. He’s a degenerate gambler, he owes big money to small gangsters, and he consumes every drop of alcohol he can get his hands on as quickly as possible. He’s a wiseass, profane noir character, to be sure, making big mistakes every step of the way, utterly without regard for the consequences. You get to the point where you want to reach into the page and slap the shit out of him to make him act a little more rationally, but of course, that’s when you realize Deceglie has you right where he wants you.

Amid all his grim prospects, Andrelli actually manages to get a client, a gorgeous brunette (“a vixen, a kitten, a demon”) who, in almost any other private eye novel, would be a mawkish cliché. In Drawing Dead, however, she’s a good fit, giving Andrelli an outlet for his bizarre sexual fantasies, as well as making a sturdy contribution to the plot. It seems she can enable him to get his hands on a lot of money, money he needs to pay back the gangsters who are by now considering ways to end his life.

With blinding neon prose, the author places the reader squarely at his protagonist’s side, and through all the boozing and the beatings, you find yourself actually rooting for the guy. I found the unconventional style, which includes no quote marks around dialogue, few commas, and block paragraphs, to be off-putting at first, but I quickly adjusted and let the style close in over my head for a much more satisfying reading experience.

Deceglie has taken the notoriously inflexible private eye format and busted it wide open, cutting this novella loose from the genre’s stifling chains. Drawing Dead breaks new ground.

(I wrote this review a couple of years ago, and I recently got to thinking about Drawing Dead again. I noticed it was buried in Amazon’s rankings and has few reviews. In an attempt to bring this book to light, I’m re-running this review, hoping to bring more people and more attention to JJ Deceglie’s startlingly original style.)

REVIEW: “DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES / 3-D”

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_ApesSo far, most of the reviews of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes have been pretty good, but there have been more bad reviews than I would’ve expected. Memo to bad reviewers: Get over it. This is Planet Of The Apes, not Citizen Kane. You have to take the movie on its own terms.

Now that I think about it, though, this could well be the Citizen Kane of the Apes series. This is the eighth installment, and Michael Seresin’s fearless style of cinematography sets it apart from all the rest. Seresin blends odd angles with relentlessly dark colors to create a moody, unstable environment for the plot, which begins some eight years after the end of 2011′s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. His off-balance shots of dozens of apes swinging through trees at an alarming pace makes the viewer very uncomfortable, in much the same way as Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland did during their unorthodox filming of Kane. Even the 3-D effects, which in many films get in the way of the story, are used somewhat sparingly and to good effect in Dawn.

Director Matt Reeves, to his everlasting credit, takes the material seriously and sees to it that every cast and crew member does the same. The result is an intelligent tale of a world wracked by simian flu, killing off most humans, and allowing the apes to develop a well-organized society, complete with family units, schools, the beginnings of a written language, and weapons. When a small colony of humans is discovered (they were “genetically immune” to the flu, it is explained) in what used to be nearby San Francisco, tensions mount.

Caesar, who has ruled his band of apes for the eight years since the end of Rise, is respected and loved by his followers. He wants peace with the humans, who seek to reopen a hydroelectric plant at a dam near the ape colony. However, his right-hand man, Koba, has different ideas. Unlike Caesar, who was raised by humans and has learned the love they are capable of, Koba was raised in a lab, where he was tortured and disfigured for experimental purposes. He sees weakness in the humans, knowing they cannot survive without the power the dam will provide, so he advocates war, regardless of the cost to the apes.

Andy Serkis, who played Caesar in Rise, gives a tour de force this time around. He is clearly the star of the movie and achieves an emotional trajectory I would not have thought possible for someone wearing such heavy layers of ape makeup. He gives real dimension to Caesar’s wisdom, yet stands up to Koba when necessary in a very believable way.

The action, ironically, slows down when the humans take over the screen. This may be intentional, though, so we don’t forget the apes are the real focus of the story. Even when the power comes back on, and little stores open up in San Francisco and music plays through speakers, Reeves and Seresin keep the viewer at a distance.

Needless to say, the ending leaves the door wide, wide open for another sequel, one of ape-human armageddon, which is already in the works. It’s scheduled for release in 2016.

Recommendation:  *** 1/2 (out of 4)    Go see it before it leaves, and see it in 3-D. This is easily the most outstanding entry in the Planet Of The Apes series.

THE “LOST” SHORT STORIES OF JD SALINGER

THREE EARLY STORIES

I’m very pleased to announce my latest audiobook narration, Three Early Stories, has just gone live. It’s a collection of three “lost” short stories by JD Salinger. I was thrilled to have been chosen to narrate this book, and I thank the publisher (DeVault-Graves) for selecting me.

These stories were among the first material Salinger ever published. They appeared in obscure publications in the early 1940s and have not been seen since. In fact, this book is the first legitimate publication of ANY Salinger work in 50 years. As with so much of Salinger’s writing, these stories offer a sly, subtle look at human relationships.

Now the best part. It’s only $3.95, which, believe it or not, is considerably cheaper than either the print version or the digital version. So catch up to the unfolding of history and go to Audible.com. Check out the audio sample here and then spring for the $3.95 and buy it. You won’t be sorry.

 

 

REVIEW: “BORDERLINE”

BORDERLINEImagine several cars plowing full speed ahead from all different directions toward a common intersection. Only now imagine that, instead of going in straight lines toward the center, their routes are long and curvy, allowing some of them to pass each other like ships in the night. In some cases, they even ride two abreast for a while. But their destination is never in doubt. Because this is noir, baby!

In fact, this is Borderline (Hard Case Crime/Titan Books), a 1962 effort by Lawrence Block, and it’s as steamy a tale as you’ll ever read. Block was writing erotic crime fiction in those days, and while this would never be confused with pornography today, in 1962, it was pretty hot stuff. Beyond that, though, is a solid plot involving people moving, for their own troubling reasons, back and forth across the Rio Grande between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

Marty Granger is a professional poker player who lives on the Texas side and plays in the lucrative games in Juárez. One day, while walking in a park on the Mexican side, he meets Meg Rector, newly-minted divorcée from Chicago, who’s looking for kicks. And so it begins.

Throw in a teenage runaway and one of the most frightening and despicable serial killers ever to walk onto a printed page, and you have the makings of a delicious noir brew. Noir characters traditionally allow themselves to be consumed by extraordinary emotions, and when faced with their subsequent choices, they always choose wrong. Block has seen to it that his characters do not disappoint.

Hard Case Crime has toiled in these vineyards for years, re-releasing pulp and noir classics from days gone by. Several of Block’s early novels are in their catalog, as are many from lesser-known writers. All of these books, however, have spent decades in the forgotten swamps beyond literature’s fringe, awaiting reclamation. And HCC has succeeded in introducing them to new generations of readers.

Recommendation: Buy it here. Print or digital. Audiobook available here. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

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