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Doak Miller’s done his twenty-five years with the NYPD. Pensioned off, he wants a quieter life, so he moves to Gallatin County, hidden away in the big bend of Florida. He gets his private investigator’s license, hoping to pick up a little off-the-books work on the side. It’s been three years now, time enough to have developed a working relationship with Gallatin Sheriff Bill Radburn. The Sheriff has a little job for him. Shouldn’t be any problem. No problem at all. And so begins Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes (Hard Case Crime, TitanBooks, 2015).
Well, wait a minute. It begins there, but it flashes back almost immediately to his arrival in Florida and his purchase of a house. Before you can say “James M Cain”, Miller is in bed with the realtor — Barb, “like a fishhook” — and is performing vividly-described sex acts upon her. This scene is jarring — occurring so close to the beginning — but the reader soon learns how well it fits Miller’s persona.
Block smoothly segues back into the present, where Miller is meeting with Sheriff Radburn. Seems the Sheriff has received a tip that a local woman wants someone to kill her wealthy husband so she can grab his vast fortune. Miller, not as well-known around town as Radburn’s deputies, is the ideal candidate to pose as a hitman applying for the job.
Complications ensue and Miller eventually reveals himself as a true noir character, incapable of keeping his head above water or making the right choices at vital forks in the road. He keeps seeing Double Indemnity and other film noir classics play endlessly through his mind, and a fatalistic tone slowly envelops the entire novel. His secrets and dark desires — and don’t we all have them? — gnaw away at his psyche right up to his final ironic choice.
In crafting Miller’s character, Block allows the reader to experience Miller’s downward spiral in real time; that is, by the time you realize things are going south, it’s already way too late. This is the best way to read noir fiction — total immersion in the life of a well-drawn central character. The atmospheric, small-town setting adds to the proceedings, since everyone knows everyone and you have to be very careful if you step out of line. Someone is likely to notice.
Hard Case Crime has served up yet another worthy addition to their crime/noir catalog with yet another knockout cover. This one features an image by artist Glenn Orbik. It turned out to be his final work before he passed away very recently. The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes is scheduled for publication in September, 2015.
Recommendation: Pre-order it from Amazon. The story draws you in like the aroma of bacon frying, and doesn’t let go. Block shows he hasn’t lost a step after all these years. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.
Let me say this right up front: Alex Garland’s dazzling film EX_MACHINA is, in its own way, as mind-blowing as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I insert the qualification “in its own way” because Kubrick’s tableau was the enormity of the universe and all of human history, while Garland has chosen a far more claustrophobic and time-limiting setting.
It opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a tech geek for a Silicon Valley search engine giant, winning an in-company contest in which the grand prize is a week one-on-one with Nathan, his reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain home. Nathan is one of the world’s smartest people, yet he goes out of his way to be a regular guy, welcoming Caleb to his high-tech palace. He’s all T-shirts and swilling beer, constantly calling Caleb “Dude”, but after Caleb gets settled in, reality begins to unfold.
Nathan has been working on a supersecret artificial intelligence and had in fact pre-selected Caleb to “win” the contest so he could put Caleb to the Turing Test, an exercise in which a person must determine if a machine can exhibit human speech and behavior to the point where a human cannot tell if he is talking to a machine or to another human. Caleb is skeptical, but agrees to take the test, so he is introduced to Ava.
Ava (Alicia Vikander in a properly spooky performance) is Nathan’s AI creation and Caleb meets with her every day. They speak through a glass partition and are constantly monitored by Nathan’s cameras. Apart from the wiring visible in her stomach, Ava seems human enough and Caleb gradually gets comfortable with her. But eventually, it all comes down to ulterior motives, and you find yourself asking exactly who is manipulating who.
That’s not the only dilemma this film poses, however. Not by a long shot. It asks the same type of big, big questions Kubrick asked in 2001. No answers are offered, but your mind gets pried open whether you want it or not, and the questions haunt you long after the final credits have rolled. At one point, Caleb and Nathan are discussing the Turing Test and a chess computer is mentioned. Caleb asks, “Does the computer know it’s playing chess?” rather than merely reacting to the human’s moves on the board. He then says, “Does it even know what chess is?” The application of this broader concept to Ava, along with its consequences, are shattering.
Garland, who also wrote the incisive screenplay, does not back down from any of this. Nor does he settle for a Hollywood ending. In addition, he wisely defuses the script from the potential quicksand of indecipherable tech talk by explaining the science in breezily accessible terminology, keeping viewers’ attention riveted to the screen and their brains in high gear.
You don’t see a film like EX_MACHINA come along too often. In this case, once in 47 years, since the opening of 2001. I didn’t know anything about it when I went to see it, and so it revealed itself to me exactly as Garland had intended.
Recommendation: Drop everything and go see it. This is easily the most intelligent film in decades and the best film of 2015. Alex Garland has fashioned a masterpiece.
I got to thinking it’s time to revisit this five-year-old review of an outstanding example of noir fiction. So here it is one more time!
STREET 8 by Douglas Fairbairn
Review by Mike Dennis, 2010
“Nobody wants to come downtown anymore. They tell you it’s like coming to a foreign country.”
That’s the sentiment expressed by a Miami native in Street 8, a hot-blooded 1977 noir novel by Douglas Fairbairn.
The title street, an English translation of Calle Ocho, the main drag of Miami’s Little Havana, is the site of Bobby Mead’s used car lot. Out of habit, Bobby still calls it by its original name, Southwest 8th Street, and from the office window of his lot, he’s seen Miami transformed from a sleepy, one-season tourist town into a vibrant Latin city.
The Cubans are everywhere. They’re even buying cars from him, so for the first time, he hires a Cuban salesman, Oscar Pérez, to accommodate them. Oscar, however, soon becomes embroiled in the hornets’ nest of exile politics, and the trouble begins.
The problem with Miami’s exile community in 1977 is that, while they’re committed to eliminating Fidel Castro, they also want to wipe out his sympathizers and spies who have infiltrated their organizations. But exactly who is who?
Told entirely from Bobby Mead’s point of view, Street 8 allows him no letup. His world is contracting around him, threatening to choke him, and not even his ratty South Beach hotel room offers him any sanctuary. He has a teenage daughter, but his incredibly twisted relationship with her only serves to further cut him off from the city he once loved.
Fairbairn deftly ushers the reader through the dark fringes of the byzantine world of Miami Cubans. These were the pre-cocaine-cowboy and pre-Miami-Vice days, and we eventually learn that some of them are more interested in acquiring power in Miami itself than they are in retaking their homeland to the south.
Fairbairn’s literary output was small, but well worth looking into. He routinely turns up on Florida crime fiction authors’ “most influential” lists.
Recommendation: Hunt it down and buy it. This little-known novel is an excellent noir tale, highly recommended, as it offers an uncompromising look at one man caught up in a city’s convulsive transition.
Just before Mickey Spillane passed away in 2006 at the age of 88, he alerted his wife to the presence of unfinished manuscripts in his office. He told her to “Give them to Max. He’ll know what to do.”
“Max” was Max Allan Collins, veteran crime fiction writer of scores of novels and several successful series. Collins and Spillane had been friends for years, to the extent that Spillane would posthumously entrust the future of the Mike Hammer franchise to Collins. Pretty big stuff, if you ask me.
Turns out there were quite a few unfinished Mike Hammer works, along with copious notes, in Spillane’s home office. Collins got them all and vowed to complete every one of them. Well, he’s kept his word. Kill Me, Darling (Titan Books) is the latest collaboration, due out later this month.
The novel’s opening is eerily similar to that of 1962’s The Girl Hunters, which boasts one of the greatest opening lines in literary history: They found me in the gutter. Mike Hammer has descended into the world of booze and dereliction following the disappearance of Velda, his girl Friday and not-so-secret crush. Life just doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore after she walked out on him, so he crawls inside of a bottle, hoping never to crawl out. His friend, NYPD Captain Pat Chambers pulls him back from the brink with the news that Velda has been located in Miami, where she is engaging in, shall we say, questionable activities with an unsavory character. Hammer pulls himself together for an all-out effort to find her and bring her back — if she wants to be brought back.
Based on Collins’ knowledge of the Mike Hammer story arc, he has placed Kill Me, Darling around the year 1954. He wisely stuck with Spillane’s original intent and set the story in that year, and thanks to his exhaustive research, vividly recreates 1954 Miami. He does this while keeping the spirit of Spillane’s writing alive to the extent that it’s impossible to figure out where Spillane leaves off and Collins begins. This is very difficult to pull off, especially when working with an iconic writer such as Spillane, whose style was not only ground-breaking, but readily identifiable.
Spillane fans will spot all the usual mileposts: slimy villains, no-necked goons, hot babes, and lots of Mike Hammer attitude. One highlight is where Hammer solemnly promises one of the characters not to hurt a particular villain. He then reveals to the reader he will merely kill the villain without putting a lot of hurt on him, thereby keeping his promise. I don’t know if this was written by Spillane or Collins, but you know, what’s the difference? It’s Mike Hammer, baby!
Recommendation: A must-read for Spillane fans. And for those who like solid hardboiled crime fiction, you can’t go wrong. Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins make a great team.
Every so often you get a film whose title and tag lines promise a certain type of story and draw you into the theater, only to find out those promises had little to do with the movie itself. A Most Violent Year is just such a film. The trailer emphasized its setting in the New York of 1981, purportedly the worst year for crime in that city’s history. Lots of badass-looking guys walking around in topcoats, hot babes, 70s and 80s cars, references to high-level gangsters … it all spilled out of the trailer. I went to the theater thinking I might be in for an atmospheric mob movie, maybe even a solid “sleeper” of a film, set in a desperate city on the skids.
What I got instead was a riveting film centering around the importance of personal honor and principles. There were only brief flashes of violence, gangsters were only alluded to (except for one quick scene in a “social club”, where shadowy mob types sat around a table not saying much of anything), and the story in no way related specifically to 1981. It could’ve easily happened yesterday.
Abel Morales (played with great intensity by Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna own a heating oil company in Brooklyn. Their business is dog-eat-dog, and Morales has an unquenchable thirst to grow his business by encroaching on his competitors’ territories. Problem is, his trucks are being hijacked at gunpoint on a regular basis. Not only that, the local heating oil business, which has long engaged in questionable practices, is being investigated by an ambitious District Attorney, portrayed in a smooth performance by David Oyelowo, fresh off his triumphant turn as Martin Luther King in Selma. Morales’ company may or may not have violated the law, but he certainly acts like it has, and the zealous DA smells blood in the water.
Anna, played perfectly by Jessica Chastain, is not only her husband’s partner in the business, but also the daughter of an unnamed mob kingpin, whose services are apparently available to make all these problems go away. Morales, however, refuses to stoop to that level, opting instead to risk it all and stay on the high road.
The stakes are very high, and the viewer is reeled into this utterly personal drama by AC Chandor’s outstanding direction and deft use of locations. New York has never looked filthier, and this serves the story well. But the real star is Isaac, whose layered performance captures the dynamic of his complex character, torn between what he knows to be right and what is expedient. He makes the viewer feel his pain as the conflict closes in on him and his options narrow.
Recommendation: Go see it before it leaves. A Most Violent Year is much, much better than what the misleading title and trailer imply.
Looking out the window at a gray, windy day here in Key West, I was reminded of an earlier short story of mine, a little opus titled Fully Loaded. It’s a slice of Southern noir, and since I just got done reading and reviewing Quarry’s Choice, a very noirish novel by Max Allan Collins which, like my short story, is set in Biloxi, Mississippi, I thought now would be an ideal time to revisit this little gem of a tale. Here’s a brief description:
It’s 1984 and Biloxi has seen better days. Sherry Lamar, used car saleswoman extraordinaire, is feeling the pinch. Then one day, a stranger walks onto her small car lot and ushers her into a world of steamy sex and murder.
And here’s a little taste of the beginning:
The rain finally stopped. It was the middle of the afternoon, nearly three, and it had been coming down since nine this morning.
Thank God for small favors, Sherry thought. At least there were a few hours left to try to make some money.
Because nobody, but nobody, went shopping for a used car in the pouring rain.
Through the window of the sales trailer, she saw slivers of sunlight cutting through the gray clouds. Out on the lot, the water beaded up on all the freshly-waxed cars. Nothing made a vehicle look better than that. Dings and dents always faded away under the silvery droplets, as did any evidence of body work, and even the back line cars looked good.
She looked down at the ashtray in front of her. Her cigarette burned itself out. She thought about lighting another one.
Quitting smoking would save her around two hundred a month. These days, she needed every penny she could lay her hands on.
It wasn’t always that way.
Up until a couple of years ago, if you were talking used car sales along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the name of Sherry Lamar was always at, or very near, the top of the page. You had to look pretty hard to find anyone between New Orleans and Mobile with better numbers.
These days told a different story.
Tourism in the area had been slipping for years now, taking the convention business down with it. Weekend visitors from New Orleans, spring breakers, they were all staying away. Even people from upstate were selling their long-cherished vacation homes down here at bargain prices. That worn-at-the-heels look had set in like grape juice on white linen, and the Coast was now a faded remnant of its earlier, swinging self.
Because of all this, not much money was circulating, so the hard-goods businesses felt it. Oh, there was some loose talk floating around about legalizing gambling, but that was a pipe-dream if ever there was one. Mississippi had about as much chance of getting legal gambling as Mondale had of beating Reagan in next week’s election.
She was seriously debating whether or not to light another cigarette when she saw a customer wander onto the lot.
Kenny was up. She called to him in the bathroom.
“Kenny. You got a customer.”
“Go ahead and take him, Sherry,” he replied from behind the closed door. “I’ll get the next one.”
As she stepped out of the trailer, the sun finished shoving the clouds aside. A slight breeze began drifting in from the Gulf, trying to sweeten the sticky air. It didn’t do the job.
He stood near the front line, by the blue ’81 Cutlass.
“Hi,” she said. “Looking for something special today?”
“Hey,” he replied, turning his attention from the car to her. “About time this rain stopped.”
He was dressed in a nice shirt and pants, and was maybe a little older than she was, around thirty-five, but that was all she noticed. She never got past his dark brown eyes. They held her still in the middle of the hot, sunlit lot.
“Is … is there … something particular I can help you with?”
Now he smiled. She liked that, too.
“Well, if I wanted to buy a car, I’d certainly want to buy it from you, lovely lady.”
She accepted the compliment gracefully. “What can I show you, then?”
“You can show me the manager. I’m looking for a job.”
“A — a job?”
“Yes. A job. Selling.”
“Well … I don’t think we have any openings. Things have been —”
“What’s your name, anyway?”
She absently brushed back a dangling shock of hair from her forehead. “My name? I thought you were looking for a job.”
“Mine’s Marty. What’s yours?”
A little laugh, then, “Okay, you win. I’m Sherry.”
He took her hand, kissed it. “I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Sherry. Now if you could show me the way to the manager’s office so I could — whoa, wait a minute. Unless you’re the honcho around here. Tell me, your highness, is this your empire?” He gestured around with his arm, sweeping the small lot.
She laughed again. “No, it’s not mine. Not by a long shot. You want to see Al. But I can tell you that he’s not looking for —”
“I know, I know. It’s been slow. But I’d be very much obliged if you’d introduce me to him anyway, so he could tell me. You know, kind of make it official. Tie a ribbon around it, so to speak.”
He smiled again. Boy, did she like it.
Sure, she’d bring him in. Hell, she’d hire him herself if she could.
Inside, the air conditioning tried its best to cool things down, but couldn’t quite get there. The door past the bathroom said “Manager”. She opened it and stuck her head through.
“Al, there’s someone here to see you.”
“Who is it?”
“He’s look —”
He slid in front of Sherry, then stood in the doorway.
“The name’s Moran, sir. Marty Moran from Miami.”
He stepped up to Al’s desk, extending his hand. Al took it.
“Well, Marty Moran from Miami, what can I do for you?”
The afternoon sun beat through the window directly into the office, backlighting Al, landing right in Marty’s face. He tried not to squint.
“I’m looking for a job. I’m a salesman.”
“Hnh. You sure picked the wrong time to come lookin’,” Al said, shaking his head. “We got all the sales force we can accommodate right now.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s what Sherry here was telling me. Things have been slow around here.” He stole a quick, sidelong glance at her. She caught it. “But I’m a damn good salesman and I really wish you’d think about it. I just got into town and I need a job.”
“Where’ve you worked before?”
“Miami mostly. A couple of note lots, the used car department of Anthony Abraham — he’s a big Chevy dealer — and I even did some work for a wholesaler. Before that I was in Fort Lauderdale for a couple of years. Same type of thing.”
Al eyed him carefully. He could spot the nickel-dimers and the weak sisters every time.
Thirty-five years in this highly competitive business can give a man that kind of insight, and Al had it. Very little got by him. Eye contact, body language, voice inflections … so many tells on a person, and he knew them all.
“What brings you up here to the Coast?”
Marty replied, “The last place I worked went out of business.” He realized that wasn’t enough of a reason, so he added, “And I, uh — wanted to leave the area.”
His eyes briefly flicked down toward the floor. Al spotted it. The first crack in the armor.
“Well, I … I had ex-wife problems. I wanted to get away.”
Al chuckled. “Hnh! Is that all? Shoot, I expect every man who’s ever had an ex-old lady has had some kinda problems with her. That’s the way o’ the world, son.”
He lifted his bulk out of the chair, then walked around to the front of the desk.
“I still can’t put you on. But if you’ll give me a number where I can reach you, I’ll let you know if something comes up.”
“I’m at the Hotel Gulfport. Room ten.”
Al jotted it down. “Like I said, I’ll let you know.”
They shook hands, and Sherry escorted Marty to the door.
She walked with him through the lot. The Gulf breeze hadn’t done much for the humidity. Colored streamers flapped lazily overhead. Black clouds formed off to the south, promising more rain.
Streetside, she said, “Marty, he likes you. He wasn’t just giving you a line of crap in there.”
“I know,” he said. “But what about you? Do you like me?”
He looked at her for a second, then he said through his smile, “I’m sorry, darlin’, I don’t mean to put you on the spot. It’s just that I feel like … well … I tell you what. You want to have a drink with me when you get through tonight?”
Those eyes again. She’d go anywhere just to stare into them. To have them looking back at her.
His build was only average, kind of wiry, you know, not at all muscular — she never went for those weight-lifter types, anyway — but still, somehow, Marty dripped with masculinity. The hot flash of desire jabbed at her insides, then jabbed again.
She agreed to meet him at seven-thirty.
The whole story is available on Amazon right now, and it’s only 99¢! Come on, you know you want to read the rest of it. Don’t let me down.