SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST: YOU’LL GET YOURS BY WILLIAM ARD

William Ard is an author mainly known to only the most avid genre followers. Dead from cancer by age thirty-seven in 1961, he wrote over forty books in the last ten years of his life. The fact that many of them were under pen names doomed him to further obscurity. Recently Stark House reprinted one of them, You’ll Get Yours in the Black Gat line. It may have originally been under the name Thomas Wills, but the story is pure Ard.

You'll Get Yours Cover ImageIt was the first of two books he wrote about New York private eye, Barney Glines. A publicity agent hires Barney to be the go between to return some stolen jewels from his clients, starlet Kyle Shannon. Barney soon discovers that this is the cover for a blackmail plot and as he gets in deeper he is framed for the murder of a burlesque dancer. There are few people he can trust , including the the ones who hired him.

Barney Glines is very much a detective in the Ard vein. Unlike many writers chasing the popularity of Mike Hammer in the fifties, Ard, like some of his contemporaries, Thomas B Dewey and Ross MacDonald, created a sensitive and more socially aware detective. He could still handle his own in the streets, but he carried sympathy for many he met on them. This liberal empathy allowed the author to tap into the melancholy tone of the genre at a perfect pitch.

His view of women is also more sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of women. Much of what drives the plot is Barney’s love for Kyle and the need to rescue her from the men exploiting her. He also shows a great depth of understanding for the life of the murdered burlesque lady as well. This aspect of his work allows for a heart-breaker of an ending.

You’ll Get Yours is a great way to discover William Ard. I hope Stark House finds a way to publish the other Barney Glines book, Mine To Avenge. Both author and detective prove you can be hard boiled and have heart.

 

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST- UNDERSTUDY FOR DEATH BY CHARLES WILLEFORD

Charles Willeford pushed the boundaries of what we define as crime fiction. Many of his books just skirted with a crime, but his portrayal of characters you had to take on their own terms, examination of life in both quiet and loud desperation, and frank depictions of sex that were rarely romantic placed him as a stalwart of the genre. Recently Hard Case Crime brought back a book that is indicative of Willeford’s style that has been out of print for over half a century, Understudy For Death.

Understudy for Death Cover ImageThe story is driven by Marion Huneker, an upper middle class woman who shoots her two sleeping children, then pulls the trigger on herself. The book opens with the news story in the local paper that even prints the suicide note she left that explains little more than her seeing this place as a cruel world. The editor would like to use the incident for a several issue exposé on suicide and puts his night man Richard Hudson on it.

Hudson reluctantly takes the piece. For one, he is not one of those driven reporters out for the truth and a scoop. He dreams of quitting his job to be a famous Broadway playwright even though he has been working on the same unfinished script for years. He also has no sympathy for a woman who killed her two children.

He interviews several people who knew Huneker. A bartender at her club, a girlfriend, who he has a fling with, and her husband give murky puzzle pieces to her life. Her creative writing teacher, a hack short story man for the magazines, proves the most insightful to the woman as well as probably conveying Willeford’s thoughts on the writing business at the time. Hudson becomes much like the reporter in Citizen Kane, peeling each layer of the woman’s life through the people that knew her, but there is no Rosebud.

In fact, the more Hudson digs, the story becomes more about marriage than suicide. He and his wife Beryl, are in a stale part of their relationship and he chafes at matrimony’s constraints. As the secrets of both the late Mrs. Huneker and Beryl are revealed to him, he ties the suicide to happiness (or lack there of) in being a wife and mother.

Willeford captures the surrealness of a group that lost someone to suicide. He avoids any pat answers and delivers a subtle mood to portray the void that now hangs over everything. As someone who lost a co-worker to suicide the day between finishing the book and writing this review, I can attest to its emotional accuracy.

He also gives us an unconventional point of view to take it all in with Richard Hudson. The reporter is self involved, petty, and commits a handful of misogynistic acts. We mainly follow him because of his worldview and possibly identify with him in ways we would rather not. He embodies a perfect example of suburban ennui. He would love to be a rebel, but he lacks the courage, so he simply holds things in contempt. At the end, we are not entirely sure if he completely learned the lesson or learned it right.

Understudy For Death is elusive in its themes as it is in the reason for Marion Huneker’s suicide. It is the study of a fresh void and the life around it. Like many of Willeford’s novels, it portrays death as that unavoidable thing and the way we deal with it in our lives. Willeford held up a mirror to the reader and didn’t care if you liked what you saw.

SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST – BACKFLASH BY RICHARD STARK

Backflash is the second outing of Richard Stark’s tough as nails robber Parker after his twenty year hiatus. After the few slightly more involved books before it, we get a bare bones, down and dirty heist novel. The simplicity proves refreshing.

Backflash (Parker Novels) Cover ImageWhat makes the story unique is the target. We begin in vintage mid-action Stark fashion with Parker and his cohort Howell going off the road and crashing down a hill during a police chase. Parker goes against his cold blooded nature and leaves Howell pinned in the car for the police, instead of rubbing him out so he doesn’t talk. He hears of his death, but soon gets a message from Howell, telling him to meet a man named Catham. Catham in a state bureaucrat with inside knowledge of a gambling boat that travels down the Hudson. He can give all the details about the boat for ten percent of the score. For Parker a travelling boat is a “cell”, something hard to get in and out with the money and the small amount Catham is asking for makes him suspicious, yet he’s compelled to bring in some folks from previous jobs and a river rat who knows the Hudson and pull off an elegant plan. A few surprises and some hardened bikers prove to get in the way.

Some readers found Backflash too formulaic, but that was part of the enjoyment for me. It took me back to the earlier books when Stark had just invented the formula. Watching Parker pull off a job like this is like watching a trained athlete pull of a feat with a high degree of difficulty, dealing with both foreseen and unseen circumstances. By sticking to the tried and true, the book moves smooth and fast.

Backflash may not be anything new under the sun, but it still shines bright. Even to this day, no one puts a thief through their paces like Richard Stark. Every bad man (fictional) should be so lucky.

Shotgun Blast from the Past: CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

9781944520199Lionel White is one of those classic hard-boiled authors more people should know about. He was the master of the caper. Well-planned heists, robberies, and kidnappings and the place of fate (or more often human emotion) that unravels the best-laid plans were his specialty. His novel Clean Break is a prime example.

Clean Break concerns the planning, execution, and aftermath of a race track robbery of close to two million dollars. Almost every perpetrator is a “normal citizen” acting as an inside man. Aside from the fresh-from-prison master mind, Johnny Clay, they only know their particular part of the job. One of the men’s wives is seeing a hood on the side, and the two of them hatch a plan to rob the robbers.

The heist is the major character. The planning and execution is shown down to the detail. White uses an innovative technique in rewinding time to follow each participant in their part of the job. Critics often give credit for clarity to Stanley Kubrick in his film adaptation, The Killing, yet White’s clean and lean style allows him to tell a complex tale without the reader without ever being lost. The execution is so sharp, the inevitable unraveling hits you in the gut.

That’s not to say the characters aren’t indelible – Johnny Clay is a stick-up man with ambition. This is his first big-time score, a factor that creates suspense by keeping us in the shadows as to if he can pull it off. Other than his attachment to contacts in the underworld and his honor-among-thieves morality, he makes Stark’s Parker look like Mr. Personality and probably sizes everyone he meets as a partner or a victim. Even the “normal citizens,” including a cop with mafia connections and a degenerate gambler-turned-track-bartender, are morally compromised. Clay says they all have a little larceny in them. Not only did White not bother to make his criminals sympathetic, he offered very little to understand them. He knows you don’t read heist novels for heroes.

i was happy to discover that publisher Stark House has recently brought Clean Break back into print. Clean Break is available in an omnibus edition with White’s novel The Snatcher that also includes a great introduction by crime fiction writer and historian Rick Ollerman. The Snatcher is a kidnapping story with such a detailed crime, a French desperado was able to use the plot to execute a successful kidnapping of his own. Both show White’s expertise in criminal operations. It makes you wonder if Lionel White did something on the side to supplement his writing income.

You can find copies of Clean Break/The Snatcher on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

Shotgun Blast from the Past: Two from Simenon

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

 

Simenon is my favorite writer to capture post-war European malaise (when he wasn’t banging away at his numerous and utterly charming Inspector Maigret novels), and the contrast between his pre-war and post-war work shows the same loss of innocence and sense of amorality verging into guilt that defined much of European literature in the 1950s and 60s.

I recently picked up Simenon’s The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue) after it had been abandoned by a browsing customer. I felt compelled by this sleazy tale of cheating and betrayal from the very first sentence, as one lover asks another, “Did I hurt you?” The answer may be “no” to start with, but as we dive further into this sordid tale of cheating husbands and wives, it’s hard to believe the answer will remain “no” for much longer.

After a lovers’ chat in a hotel room ends abruptly with the unexpected return of the woman’s husband, the narrative veers back and forth between an ongoing affair between two married people and police interrogations of the cheating husband (as unreliable a narrator as can be). The affair began after a chance meeting by the side of the road, as a man stops to help a woman change a tire, only to realize that when the two were together at school, she had a crush on him the whole time.

At first put off by her statuesque beauty, describing her as seemingly made of stone, the man takes the woman up on her offer to finally kiss him and discovers an unbridled sensuality that both appeals to him and frightens him. Not a first-time cheater, but a first time participant in a long-term affair, the man feels no guilt, only fear. He worries that this time, his dutiful, meek wife will discover his extramarital affairs and put an end to what seems to him to be a perfect life. As we read further into the novel, the police ask him disquieting questions about the nature of his marriage and the details of his affairs, as he reveals all while protesting involvement in an as-yet-unspecified crime.

The Blue Room is as explicit and as menacing as many of the NYRB releases from Simenon, despite its publication as part of Penguin Classics’ reissues (which have tended to concentrate on the Maigret series). It has the feel of a Patrica Highsmith novel; The Blue Room exudes dark sensuality while it pillories the hypocrisy of the 1950s successful, obsessed with the appearance of success while continuing to embrace their darkest desires in secret.

Collectively, his non-Maigret novels are known as “romans durs,” or hard novels, most of which Simenon wrote during the war while holed up with his wife and mistress, and immediately after the war, while still living quite happily with both women. One wonders if he was able to have a reasonably functional relationship with not one, but two women (and any number of others) because he poured out his more sadistic images of sexuality into the pages of these novels. Anyone who watches enough horror films will agree that lust, obsession, and violence, inextricably entwined, make for very good entertainment. I encourage the readers of this blog to embrace the voyeurism inherent in the crime genre and check out The Blue Room, and Simenon’s other sultry, sordid tales.

Chief among Simenon’s romans durs, for me anyway, is my favorite of his wartime novels, Dirty Snow. This novel also happens to be one of the only works I’ve finished in French. Simenon’s deceptively simple sentence structure and oh-so-disturbing themes make his works perfect for practicing one’s language skills, although I am grateful to Penguin and NYRB for their superb translations of his work. In Dirty Snow, or La Neige Etait Sale, the snow isn’t the only thing turned to grey miserable slush – each character was morally ambiguous even before the war began, and in their lives under the occupation, they descend to new levels of compromising behavior.

Dirty Snow follows Frank Friedmeier, son of a brothel owner catering to Nazi officers, after he kills a German soldier late at night and wanders aimlessly through the streets of Brussels, unsure of the meaning of his act but ready to say the literary equivalent of “f*** you” to anyone who tries to stop him. He is the ultimate antihero, and like his mother’s assistant (a former prostitute suffering from long-term injuries caused by a sadistic German) the reader can’t help but find him attractive, even while full of disgust for both the character and his actions. His only saving grace is his behavior after his sudden and unexpected arrest by the occupying forces. He refuses to cooperate, and his belligerent behavior, ruthless and dastardly when it comes to his mother’s workers, turns into something resembling nobility when directed at occupying Nazis.

Most antiheroes are tempered by their love for at least one other person in their lives. Holden Caulfield had his brother, Dallas Winston had Johnny, Dexter Morgan had his adoptive family, and so one. Frank Friedmeier is more along the lines of a Thomas Ripley, or a Pinkie Brown (of Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock) if suddenly in the midst of their schemes and sprees they had been placed in a scenario wherein continuing the same behavior suddenly made their actions honorable.

Frank taps into a vicious part of ourselves that values honesty over morality. He sees his world as it is, not some version of what it could be, and his ability to survive for a time in occupied Brussels makes for interesting fodder in discussing sociopathic behavior in wartime. One has the sense that for Frank, life is filth and always has been, and the Nazi takeover of his nation only confirms what he already suspects the world to be.

Dirty Snow is light-years ahead of the same conclusion’s arrival at the cinemas in the French film Lacombe, Lucien. The film recounts the story of an amoral teen from the countryside who, after he is deemed too young to join the French Resistance, joins the Gestapo instead. Lacombe, Lucien explores the uncomfortable nature of impulsive choices made outside any moral parameters. The screenplay, recently reissued by Other Press, was written by Patrick Modiano, a crime writer and Nobel Prize winner whose father survived the war through collaboration.

No one likes a hypocrite, yet anyone with a strong concept of morality is almost invariably a hypocrite – if we stuck to all of our own rules, we’d live miserable lives full of second-guessing and free of compassion and compromise. Every once in a while, though, I find it refreshing to read the story of a badly behaved character who stays consistent to his lack of morality for the whole ride. The characters in Simenon’s Romans Durs  never change – they merely enter into increasingly bad situations, where inevitable consequences put an end to their bad behavior once and for all.

You can find copies of many of Simenon’s works on our shelves or via bookpeople.com. 

Shotgun Blast From the Past: THE LONG HAUL by A.I. Bezzerides

9788293326663

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

A.I. Bezzerides’ The Long Haul is a minor classic that should be considered a major one. It owes its status to the fact that the novel can be hard to define. Only technically does it fit the definition of a crime novel. When it comes to working class heroes, terse tone and style, and tight storytelling, The Long Haul gives the best of noir and hard boiled a rune for its money with a jaundiced view of depression-era capitalism.

“If you’re up for it, take this hard trip down a heartless highway.”

Read More »

Shotgun Blast from the Past: THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE by Don Winslow and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM by Chester Himes

Today we bring you a special double Shotgun Blast from the Past, profiling two classic hardboiled crime novels – The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow, first published in 2006, and Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes, first published in 1965. 

The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow

9780307277664Frank Machianno is an upstanding member of the community on the San Diego pier. To those who can remember far back, like Dave White, the cop buddy he surfs with, he was Frankie Machine, an enforcer during the Mafia’s last heyday. Through a very bad day for Frankie that reflects on a violent life, Don Winslow shows how you can’t put that past past behind you, in his character driven mob novel The Winter Of Frankie Machine.

Read More »