Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Neon Jungle by John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is one of the titans of American noir fiction. He’s best known for his famous Travis McGee books, but he wrote an astonishing number of superior stand alone suspense novels, and The Neon Jungle is an entertaining, breathless page turner.

The book starts with a vignette about “The Neighborhood,” part of the fictional town of Johnston, where the reader is introduced to Varaki Quality Market—the residents and employees of which form the nucleus of the plot. That’s followed by the story of the courtship of Henry Varaki and Bonny. Henry is in the army and on a month’s leave before heading to Korea, and Bonny is detoxing from a bender, during which she was brutally beaten by— well, some guy. She’s suffering from “[m]alnutrition, alcoholism, pneumonia, anemia, and possible internal injuries from the beating [she] took,” and says of herself “I’m just one big smell of stale bedroom and warm gin.” Henry spends the entirety of his leave nursing her back to health, and marries her just before leaving again for Korea (giving up his time with his family to save her). Henry sends her to Johnston, to his father’s market, to work. A few months later, Henry is killed in action. Henry’s father, an immigrant called Gus, keeps Bonny on. Lucky her! Bonny spends most of the book struggling with her pain and her feelings that she doesn’t deserve to ever be happy, and isn’t capable of feeling happiness even if she did deserve it.

As it turns out, she fits right in at the Varaki Quality Market and the Varaki family. Also living in the building are Gus’s oldest son Walter, a weak-willed weaselly drip of a man who dreams of running off with Bonny while, significantly (?) reading a Mike Hammer novel and imagining himself as the main character. He’s married to a harridan called Doris, who is, unhappily, eight months pregnant and really, really annoyed about it. Despite the impending birth, both firmly believe their better days are behind them. Then there’s Gus’s youngest child, his daughter Teena who was once a good student with a bright future, but when her brother Henry died she became hopeless, skipping and failing classes, taking drugs, and hanging out with a terrible group of people who at one point set her up to prostitute herself with a fat, balding man. Then there’s Rick Stussen, the market’s dimwitted and sexless butcher. Finally there’s Vern Lockter, who got a job at the market when he was on parole but has stayed on, even though he has big plans of making it as a bigshot smalltime crook. He horribly manipulates several of the building’s residents, wreaking terrible destruction as he goes. He does it all with a manipulative smile. His sinister machinations are what propel the book, as he attempts to work his way up through the local criminal/drug dealing organization— and to save his own skin when things start going terribly wrong.

Outside the house there’s the idealistic parole officer Paul Darmond, who was Vern’s parole officer and got him the job at Varaki’s Quality, and who later places a new parolee, Jimmy, at the market. His attitude toward parolees earns him the derisive nickname “Preacher” from Officer Andy Rowell. Where Paul believes that criminals can be saved if not redeemed, Rowell essentially thinks that humans are venal and once you’re bad, you’re bad. Rowell doesn’t believe that Vern has much good in him, while it’s Paul who introduces Vern into the Varaki Quality Market.

So what is MacDonald saying about idealism? Rowell is nasty and cruel, but he’s at least as right about the world as Paul is (at least until MacDonald’s epilogue). No, I’m not being entirely fair. There’s plenty of poison in the Varaki house independent of Vern Lockter—Walter is involved in some highly shady and venal activities himself. But it’s hard to argue with Rowell when he says this to Paul in Chapter Fifteen:

”I don’t like you putting a mess of bad eggs in one of my baskets. A tramp and two one-time losers and a junkie in one household. I don’t like it. It means trouble. I don’t like that Lockter. He’s too smooth. He’s working some kind of an angle. I can smell it. If he’s working an angle, Preach, putting that new kid in there is just giving him an assistant so he can work the angle a little better, whatever it is.”

It’s clear that Paul is meant to be the sympathetic one (Rowell is brutal and nasty at various points in the book), but Rowell is right that his methods are putting too much strain on the Varaki household and market.

I just realized that I forgot to mention Gus’s much younger second wife, Jana. This is at least partly because she drifts into the background over the course of the story—you could go entire chapters forgetting about her existence. Jana blazes into prominence in the second half of the book. Her horrible abuse at Vern’s hands, and her subsequent rationalization, a major piece of the plot.

Also, I forgot to mention Anna, who is barely there at all. She cleans the house.

Sorry. Anyway, inexorably, inevitably, sadly, it all builds to a horrifying, gruesomely violent climax (the New York Times blurb on the cover of the third printing says it “Culminates in one of the most explosive murder scenes in recent fiction,” which is a hell of thing to put on the cover of a book— I kept anticipating it with a mixture of dread and menace. And boy does it deliver!) Hubert Selby, Jr. probably read this book and thought, “My gosh, lighten up man!”

But MacDonald cheats with the ending, at least a little bit. And I for one was glad that he did. While it’s impossible to “spoil” a great work of art (we all know that King Lear reconciles with his family and they all buy a farm together at the end, but that doesn’t stop us from re-reading and re-watching the play over and over again), I will in the following paragraph reveal at least part of the “explosive murder scene,” so if you haven’t yet read the book and don’t want to know what happens, skip ahead.


At the end of the book, Vern manipulates Gus into hacking Rick to death with a cleaver. Gus has a heart attack. Vern then uses the cleaver to hack Jana to death. Of the three who die in that scene, only Gus has emerged as a fully formed “character.” Rick and Jana are only briefly sketched out. And really, Jana is hardly much of a presence at all (her defining trait is her “sturdy peasant body,” as mentioned in Chapter Sixteen). This is a relief— the impact of, say, Bonny getting hacked to death would be almost too much for the reader to bear. It would be too much for me to bear, anyway. Seriously, if Bonny and/or Paul had gotten it, I probably would have fallen into a never-ending depression spiral and spent the next six weeks gorging on birthday cake and ice cream.


MacDonald wasn’t shy about dropping sly commentary into his work, but in The Neon Jungle that commentary grounds the work. It’s a testament to his superior writing skills that, for instance, Teena doesn’t feel like just another delinquent with a heroin problem—she’s a fully realized, authentic-feeling person, whose trauma informs her character. MacDonald handles the presentation with surprising subtlety and conviction. At least superficially, The Neon Jungle reads like one of those social commentary/juvenile delinquency novels that became so scandalously popular following the success of Irving Shulman’s The Amboy Dukes (Harlan Ellison’s Web of the City, Hal Ellson’s Duke, etc.). In Chapter Ten for instance, Wentle, the principal at Teena’s school, lays out the challenges today’s youth face:

"Great God, Paul, it isn’t enough that the lasses are jammed, teachers hard to get. Five thousand and more students now. Just enough funds to handle bare maintenance. That charming time of life, adolescence. We want to give them ousted activities. Teachers willing to supervise are damn rare. They don’t get paid for it. My God, it’s a hideous time of life when they run loose. Stuff that would sicken you. We found them using the auditorium, a bunch of them, as a big bedroom when they cut classes. That knifing two weeks ago. Running off pornography on the school mimeograph machine. They come from decent homes and get thrown into this millrace, and they think they have to conform. If they don’t, they’re labeled chicken…”

MacDonald borrows elements and tropes from the juvenile deliquency genre, but at no point do they ever overwhelm what turns out to be a terrific noir thriller. This book is so well written that it will make you feel terrible. That’s a recommendation!

For a much more in-depth examination of The Neon Jungle, check out The Trap of Solid Gold!

Here's EVERYTHING that's coming to Netflix streaming in December 2016

This is the exhaustive list of literally every single new Netflix streaming option for December 2016. There are no other new streaming options for December, aside from these. Seriously, this is it:

Dieter (2013) 10 episodes

This highly acclaimed series from a country where all the signs have O’s with slashes through them begins with the discovery of a horrifically murdered young girl. Then Dieter, a very, very, very, very troubled detective with serious trauma and alcoholic issues begins an investigation. For eight episodes you learn all kinds of horrible stuff about a political conspiracy and some stuff about immigrants being exploited, then at the end it turns out that the girl was killed by the uncle of the third man that the victim had sex with the night she was killed. Dark, dreary, and very bingeable!

People Sleeping (2010) 43 mins

The classic returns for the holiday season! This one is like that video of the burning fireplace that you play to just sort of have something playing on TV (I think it’s supposed to be soothing), except that this features shots of various people sleeping, filmed through windows that didn’t have their blinds drawn. You’ll relax yourself wondering just what those people were dreaming about (one guy drools on his pillow! It’s classic!).

Cheetah Girls Keepin’ It REEL! (2003) 1 hr 27 mins

Remember when the Cheetah Girls were popular? Well, now you can relive a simpler time, in this now-classic movie that follows the musical and comedic adventures of the Cheetah Girls! Watch as they enter a fishing contest and get more than they bargained for. Will the main Cheetah Girl find true love, or will he be “the one who got away”? Will they be able to catch a fish big enough to prevent the evil land developer from buying the orphanage lakefront property and kicking out all the kids? If you can’t guess the answers, then this movie is definitely for you!

Chaalis Ekk Ekk Paan Love Night Gali Patsam Kyaa Boolu Palir (2014) 2 hrs 58 mins

This modern Bollywood classic is a thriller comedy musical drama that features a totally comprehensible story about a pair of mismatched roommates with a talking dog who are being stalked by a singing serial killer. While they’re being chased they meet a magical talking doll who gives them superpowers. One of them falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a lesbian, but that subplot doesn’t really go anywhere (the lesbian turns out to be a reporter investigating the talking dog, but she gets killed by the serial killer I think). Then the roommates find out that they’re actually half cousins (something to do with their mothers or something). A secret agent recruits them to fight the serial killer, but then the secret agent turns out to be an operative for the serial killer and not the government! Now that I’ve told you about the first thirty minutes I feel exhausted.

I think this scene appears in Chaalis Ekk Ekk Paan Love Night Gali Patsam Kyaa Boolu Palir, but I might have dreamed it.

Doesn’t Matter (2016) 1 hr 22 mins

This mumblecore drama stars Sally Weatherald and Kimber Newton, two actresses you've never heard of and probably aren't actually actresses anyway, as two aimless, bored young women living in a hip, trendy, expensive New York neighborhood with no visible means of support. They wander around talking to an ethnically mixed group of residents for about five hours. Occasionally one of them says something comprehensible. Then after a while their elderly neighbor loses her cat so they go looking for it for a while. For some reason, one of them (the vegetarian) gets an abortion. Then at the end they find the cat. A darling of the festival circuit, this movie was purchased by the specialty releasing arm of one of the major movie studios for over $3 million, was released to theaters for two days where it earned $73, and now you can watch here, on Netflix!

I think one of the women in Doesn't Matter falls in love with this guy, but she thinks he's too aggressive in his veganism (she's a vegetarian, although she does occasionally eat pork).

The Rotten Tomatoes Story (2016) color and B&W, 1 hr 4 mins

This new documentary from Alex Gibney and Nick Broomfield chronicles the rise of the website that actually quantifies critical movie consensus, turning opinions into pure irrefutable facts. Featuring interviews with some of the site’s top commenters, including the guy who called Armond White a “stupid bald f*ggot” because he didn’t like “Toy Story 3,” and the guy who said that he was glad Roger Ebert got cancer because he didn’t like “Kick Ass”! Also featured are some of the people who have lost friendships for going against the all-knowing “Tomatometer.” Eye-opening!

RTB: RottenTomatoBot makes a special appearance in The Rotten Tomatoes Story.

Killer in Two-Toned Shoes (1953) B&W 1 hr 3 mins

This “classic” is so great when it slipped into the public domain in 1978, no one made any attempt at all to reclaim it. Paul St. George stars as Simon Murray, a man with a haunted past. When mysterious femme fatale Lola Martin (Iris Denise Corsault) shows up with an ultimatum, Simon is forced to ask his ex-convict cousin Michael Stone (Stone Michaels) for help dealing with Ralph Goodman (Dennis Irisault). Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Dill Pickleton (Pinkerton Briggs) is busy dredging up Simon’s past, as a horrifying murder trial being prosecuted by Justin MacMire (MacMillan Humbert) threatens to reveal even more dark secrets. It sounds exciting, but it’s dull and confusing as hell. Just being  honest!

Undeclared Freaks (2016) 8 episodes

The wait is finally over! The Netflix original revival of the classic late-90s network show is back! It got cancelled too soon, after only four episodes, but its reputation has only grown, as the fifteen people who watched it back then all started blogs and raved about it, then started online petitions that they pestered their friends into signing, and now suddenly everyone thinks they remember this being THE GREATEST SHOW OF ALL TIME OMG!!!! And can you believe it, the entire cast is returning! Even Riley Rae, who’s really, really famous now (she appears in the third episode for about four minutes). Get ready to relive the good times, and find out what your favorite characters are up to (they’re failures, stuck in the past, they can’t move forward)!

Sharknami (2015) 1 hr 37 mins

A tsunami of sharks! Actually, this is a lower-quality knock off of Sharknado, made on a smaller budget with a less recognizable cast. Not even when you’re stoned is it worth watching.

Hipster picture source.
Bollywood picture source.
RTB: RottenTomatoBot picture source.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Some Fake News about Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko, dreaming of being left alone by smug, pompous "journalists."

Earlier this month, Vulture ran a sleazy, facile article titled “The Creator of Doctor Strange Will Not See You Now.” The subtitle states, “Marvel Comics legend Steve Ditko wants his work to stand for itself. If only it were that easy.”

What follows is an article proving that the reason why it’s not “that easy” is because snarky, semiliterate “journalists” won’t let it.

In the first paragraph, the author calls Mr. Ditko a “recluse,” then states that the location and phone number of his Manhattan studio can readily be found, “if you ask within the comics community.” He then concludes the paragraph with, “It’s putting that contact information to good use that’s difficult.”

Answering questions from a dimwit who’s done perhaps a day’s worth of research (Blake Bell’s excellent Strange and Stranger is a fairly quick read, and then there’s the Jonathan Ross special, about which more in a moment) is “good use,” at least in the author’s eyes.

The first five paragraphs are all about the author, detailing his nine-block journey from the theater showing a screening of the Doctor Strange movie (being an important journalist, the author got to see an advance screening in late October!) to the building in which Mr. Ditko’s studio is located. He also throws in some virtue-signaling, unfeeling critiques of Mr. Ditko’s “spite-filled, didactic, and often baffling comics and essays that evangelize the philosophy of Ayn Rand.”

Steve Ditko commenting on the process of creating a comics character. Hopefully the author of the Vulture article didn't find this too "baffling."

There then follows a sketch of Mr. Ditko’s career that tells us nothing we don’t already know, and tells it all poorly. (There’s no mention of Mr. Ditko’s later masterpieces The Mocker, Static, and The Safest Place in the World, for instance, but the author makes sure to mention that The Question inspired Rorschach from Watchmen— did you know that?)

Then there’s the sleazy and completely unprofessional printing of innuendo. In the building where Mr. Ditko has his office, the author meets with one of the other tenants, who tells him what he assures us is an “intriguing story.”

“One time, about ten years ago, I accidentally got a piece of his mail,” she said, her eyebrows rising scandalously. “I opened it and then realized it wasn’t mine because that check had too many zeroes.” My body jerked up with shock — that contradicted Ditko’s claim that he doesn’t get a cut. I asked for more details. She said it was from a movie studio, and that when she gave it back to him, he just took it and said nothing. “That’s probably why he can work in that little office,” she said, and laughed. “He’s doing all right.”

One person from the building tells him a story about Mr. Ditko getting a check of some kind, and the author assumes first of all that the other tenant is telling him the unvarnished, clear-eyed truth about it (ten years is a long time— plenty of time in which to add a few “zeroes” to a memory, or even turn a query letter into a check for crying out loud) and second of all that Mr. Ditko would have kept an unsolicited check even if they did somehow manage to get him one. The author then practices serious journalism by asking her for more details, and he gets them all right— it was from a movie studio, and Mr. Ditko said nothing to her when he took it.

Does this qualify as Fake News?

This exchange takes place while the author is waiting outside Mr. Ditko’s office. He knows (everyone knows, for crying out loud!) that Mr. Ditko doesn’t want visitors, he doesn’t do interviews, he wants to be left alone. Yet there he is, “putting that contact information to good use,” because by gosh there are some hipster millennials out there who want to read what this author has to say, and they’re sure as hell not going to look up any of the other, better material on Mr. Ditko. They’re most certainly not going to seek out Mr. Ditko’s Avenging World or any of the Packages, or The Ditko Public Service Package.

They won’t even bother to look up that Jonathan Ross BBC special “In Search of Steve Ditko,” which covers exactly the same ground as this worthless article, mixing pomposity and empathy, and features commentary from the likes of, well, Alan Moore for one (and by the way, did you know that Rorschach was based on The Question? It’s true!) who claims that Mr. Ditko has a “moral draw of integrity.”

Here’s another look at Mr. Ditko and Jonathan Ross’s BBC special, from Douglas Ernst Blog.

One of the greatest pages in the history of superhero comics, from Amazing Spider-Man issue 33. Because I wanted to end on a high note!

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart

 There was a dark and gloomy era before the advent of radio, film, television, VCRs, laser discs, the internet, DVDs, blu rays, and streaming video. In that age, people read. Serialized dramas took the form of printed documents called “books,” “dime novels,” “fiction weeklies,” etc. From the end of World   War I through end of the 1940s, roughly four million pulp magazine titles had appeared on the newsstand, having published more than a septrillion stories and novels.*

*These statistics are made up, and I don’t even think “septrillion” is a real word. But if it were to turn out that these statistics were true, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. A LOT of pulp magazines appeared, some of which lasted only one or two issues, and they published A LOT of stories, often paying minuscule rates—if they paid at all.

Not to brag, but I’ve experienced the joys of writing crime fiction for little or no money. As a result, I feel a special kinship with the pulp writers of that bygone era, and I love reading the breathless, action-packed stories they produced. But with so many stories produced it’s very difficult to find the cream of the crop. As Theodore Sturgeon once said, “90% of everything is crap” (at least, he said something like that anyway); that goes double for pulp fiction.

Since their first appearances in print in the 1920s and 1930s, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have been acknowledged as influential masters of hardboiled detective fiction. But neither of them invented the form—they only perfected it, creating their own unique influential styles that every single subsequent author would emulate. And there were many writers from that era who, while perhaps not as talented as these two, were at least as entertaining.

Ron Goulart is an historian, editor, and writer of great taste, wit, and skill. In 1965 he produced an invaluable introduction to hardboiled detective fiction outside that of Hammett and Chandler, called The Hardboiled Dicks. While not as exhaustive as Otto Penzler’s 2007 Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, you can actually hold it in your hands and read it without causing permanent injury to your first dorsal interossei.

Goulart’s introduction provides helpful historical context and gives a brief overview of the period. He also explains the book’s raison d'être:

“This book is an attempt to reduce at least a few of the hardboiled detectives from oblivion. Several thousand pulp detective stories were printed. The work of Hammett, Chandler and a handful of others has been preserved and made available. It is hoped that The Hardboiled Dicks will fill in some more of the gaps. And give you an idea of what the pulps were like.”

Then, in the very next paragraph, Goulart states that the stories were “Taken from the best of the detective pulps, Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly.” Which means that the book will actually give the reader an IDEALIZED idea of what the pulps were like. Seriously, you’ll come away from this book thinking that the pulps published nothing but pure gold. But who would want to buy a collection of “the worst pulp detective stories”? Actually, that might be a funny idea for an anthology, with commentary a la Bill Pronzini’s in the classic Gun in Cheek.

Anyway, The Hardboiled Dicks starts out with a real winner from one of my favorite writers of the era, Norbert Davis. “Don’t Give Your Right Name” features wise cracking Max Latin in a story that starts out with a man who claims to be an “autograph collector” who specializes “in celebrities who aren’t in the theater or on radio or in the movies or like that.” In other words, he specializes in celebrities who aren’t really celebrities, by which I mean he’s not an “autograph collector” at all— he’s a private eye trying to get a signature on documents. He winds up dead in the alley behind the restaurant that Latin either owns or doesn’t, but in which he keeps office hours. Meanwhile, a very, very minor celebrity asks Latin to spread the word that some of her jewels have been stolen, for publicity. From there become ever more complicated, strange, and funny.

The next story, “The Saint in Silver,” features a taxi driver/gumshoe called Steve Midnight. The author John K. Butler, does a good job setting the scene with authentic descriptions of Los Angeles circa 1941 (I know because I was there—okay, his writing feel AUTHENTIC, within hardboiled crime parameters). The story starts with Midnight picking up a fare— a “determined blonde” who walked “rapidly and aggressively on high spiked heels.” Her boyfriend, she explains, is “too tight to drive.” He is in fact so drunk that he can’t even move on his own, and Midnight and the blonde have to carry him from his car and deposit him in the cab. The two are participants in a treasure (scavenger) hunt for bored, wealthy high society types, and their latest clue leads them to a crypt in a cemetery. Midnight breaks into the crypt where he’s attacked and beaten by someone holding an ax handle. Midnight regains consciousness and picks up the next clue, but by the time he makes it out, the blonde and her boyfriend have left. Midnight goes back to work because he can’t afford to take any time off, despite the fact he’s bleeding and probably has a concussion. He’s ready to let it go, but it turns out the drunk has been killed at the freight yards near the cemetery, which means that, obviously, Midnight feels compelled to find out who killed him and why. Plus, they owe him thirty bucks. The story is packed with murder, adultery, religious fundamentalism, and drug dealing.

“Winter Kill” by Frederick Nebel features police detective MacBride and Kennedy of the Free Press, investigating the death of a drunk called Parcell, whose body is found underneath a pile of plowed snow. MacBride is a real hardass about it, at one point saying, “You got admit Parcell was a heel. There ought to be some distinction between when you kill a heel and when you kill a good guy.”

The next story, “China Man,” is by Raoul Whitfield and features his Filipino detective Jo Gar (“the Island detective”). Early in the story Gar goes back to his office to meet a client, where he’s met by a stranger who throws a knife at him and runs off. As Gar observes, “He had thrown like a Filipino would shoot, missing at even a short distance.” Whitfield does a good job of sketching out the locations with only a few words, setting his scenes quickly and moving right into the action. There’s so much action, in fact, that the last few pages are taken up with a lot of explication of the smuggling/murder plot.

“Death on Eagle’s Crag” features Frank Gruber’s Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia. Quade is an almost lovable know-it-all, who’s read the encyclopedias he sells multiple times, and retained the information. That information gets him out of jams. He ends up on Eagle’s Crag attempting to sell an encyclopedia set to the proprietor of the vacation lodge, or perhaps some of the lodge’s guests. Unfortunately there’s been a murder at the lodge— the body is discovered while Quade is going through his sales spiel. Then, a group of escaped convicts show up looking to hide out from the police, and find the money that one of the guests stole and has apparently hidden somewhere on Eagle’s Crag. As you can probably tell from this description, the story is crammed to bursting and is a lot of fun besides.

“A Nose for News” by Richard Sale features his character “Daffy” Dill a reporter with the New York Chronicle whose professional rivalry with “Harry Lyons, the rat of our sheet, who had been sore at me since I got his job” leads to serious professional and personal problems. One of Dill’s stories features a typo in which a chef at a high-class restaurant is described as having once been known as one of the “most famous of all the crooks of Vienna.” You see, it should have read “cooks of Vienna.” Dill loses his job over the libel, but he makes a deal with a “gel” called Claire Gordon— if he can get the owner of an illegal gambling den to tear up her brother’s $5,000 I.O.U., she’ll help him get his job back with a sensational story. She wants to stage her own kidnapping. Dill gets the I.O.U. forgiven, but he rightly calls foul on the cockamamie phony kidnapping job. Unfortunately and not all that surprisingly, Claire is actually kidnapped, and Dill finds himself in even worse shape than before— out of a job and arrested.

Next is “Angelfish” by Lester Dent. The story begins with detective Oscar Sail helping a woman named Nan Moberly stage a fake robbery/attack, in an attempt to put an end to an ongoing harassment campaign against her. Moberly works for an oil company, and has photos that show the possibility of an oil strike somewhere off the coast of Miami. She is the only person who knows where the photos were taken, and as such has been targeted by investigators working for a rival company. As things get complicated for Sail and Moberly a hurricane is bearing down on the coast. Sail is forced to take his boat out on the churning water, with disastrous results.

The final story is “Bird in the Hand,” by Erle Stanley Gardner, featuring the gentleman thief Lester Leith. It’s a complicated, absurd, and ultimately hilarious “impossible crime” type story in which Leith helps the police discover how the contents of a large trunk made their way out of a hotel without anyone finding out. As Goulart says in his introduction to this story, “In the Lester Leith stories there is a fusion of hardboiled writing and the Raffles tradition, with maybe a touch of Rube Goldberg.” That’s a pretty decent description of what happens here.

Each story has a brief introduction with a few details about each writer and the characters. There’s also an “informal reading list” at the end, with suggestions for further reading. Many of the books suggested were out of print in 1965 and, it seems, remained out of print. Some others are back, though. This volume, apparently, is out of print today. However, the stories do appear in collections that are currently in print. For instance, you can get all the Max Latin stories in one volume. The same is true of the Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia stories. I recommend that you do!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Who is the better mayor—Green Arrow or Penguin?

That’s a trick question, obviously. Star City and Gotham City are two very different places. Gotham City has a much smaller manufacturing base, for instance. But there is one category in which the two cities are comparable. Both have experienced unprecedented upticks in crime rates. From earthquake devices leveling entire areas of the city to mass medical experiment mutant escapes, it’s clear that city leaders have their work cut out for them. You’d have to be absolutely insane to want the job of running such a place.

One would think that the average, middle-class family would want to get out, if only for basic self-preservation. So what does it say about those who would willingly remain in such places? That they’re ungovernable? On Gotham, Edward Nygma insisted that Oswald Cobblepot NOT bribe anyone into rigging the election for him. When Oswald wins he becomes mopey and teary-eyed thinking about how the citizens of Gotham actually LIKE him, without bothering to consider the general depravity and hopelessness of the Gotham voting public.

Penguin's mayoral tenure started promisingly, but has been filled with tragedy.

Since taking office, Cobblepot AKA Penguin has attended two parties which have been crashed by terrorists, visited a library, had Nygma’s girlfriend killed, had his portrait painted, and seen the statue of his mother decapitated by Red Hood Gang knockoffs led by his former right hand man, Butch.

Oliver Queen's mayoral tenure started promisingly, but has filled with tragedy.

Speaking of statues, over in Arrow's Star City, Oliver Queen was attacked and kidnapped during the dedication of his Black Canary statue. (Statues—solid reminders of our aspirational best—are very important in crime-ridden towns. Criminal masterminds will always target them to ensure the populace has nothing to look up to.) He’s also had to deal with an attack at a new medical facility which was just a front for gun-running or something, the Stardust drug and a powerful/destructive drug dealer, and a reporter who insists on reporting the news. But then, the same reporter agrees to give Mayor Queen a month to “prove himself,” or something, before she’ll actually start reporting on stuff. (So I guess Oliver Queen is a Democrat, and I’m looking forward to the WikiLeaks releases showing the emails in which she runs stories by him before running them.)

 Yes, Green Arrow made some decent points. But he made them with smug didacticism. 

In the comics, Green Arrow was liberal even to the point of being a leftist. In the infamous “Hard Travelin’ Heroes” stories by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams he was a hectoring, lecturing blowhard. Mike Grell’s run on Green Arrow in the mid-80s and 90s was a lot more subtle, but Oliver Queen was very much a liberal, and often directly took on federal government agencies that were engaging in no-goodism. I’m not exactly sure how political the Penguin was in the comics. I don’t remember ever reading any stories in which he took a particular stand on any issue— he was primarily concerned with his enjoyment of wacky umbrella-themed crime capers. But in the Lorenzo Semple, Jr. - William Dozier TV series, Penguin ran for mayor (against Batman!) in two classic episodes. Penguin attempted to present himself as a sort of law-and-order candidate, owing to the fact that he had spent so much of his life and career in the company of the police, while Batman was constantly surrounded by criminals.

Today a man who wore a monocle and top hat, used a cigarette holder, and carried an open umbrella indoors would have a tough time getting elected outside of a few blue states (the cigarette holder would have to have a vaping mechanism).

So who is the better comic book TV show mayor? I’m going to have to go with Penguin over Oliver Queen because Gotham is by far the superior show. Somehow it manages to strike a weird balance between dark and light that works really well. And it’s kind of crazed. Moreover, Penguin was actually elected by the people, whereas I think Oliver Queen was merely appointed interim mayor, right? I’ve only been half paying attention to the show lately, although season five has been a lot better than season four was. Felicity has still completely lost her way, though.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trouble Man by Ed Gorman

Former gunfighter (“gunny”) Ray Coyle has put his own gunfighting past behind him, having worked in a Wild West traveling show for the past ten years. His eighteen year-old son Mike, however, hasn’t. At least, not until he’s killed in a gunfight in Coopersville.

Ray carries a lot of guilt over the fact that he taught his son to be a gunny, just before abandoning him and his mother to join the Wild West show. Ray arrives in Coopersville to retrieve his son’s body and to learn the circumstances of his death. He died in a gunfight with Bob Trevor, the son of a wealthy landowner named Ralph Trevor. According to Bob and the only other witness, Bob’s friend Jimmy Clinton, it was a fair fight. The sheriff, Jim Graham, has no choice but to believe the story, but the presence of a deep gash on the right side of Mike’s forehead suggests that there might be more to the story.

Arriving in town on the same train is Harry Winston, “prison-pale and prison-wary,” having just gotten out after serving eight years for a train robbery. His accomplice got away with the money, and Harry never told anyone who it was. But now that Harry’s out he expects his partner—who just happens to be Bob Trevor—to make amends. But Harry also wants to spend time with the daughter he barely knows, so he visits his now re-married ex-wife in the hopes of getting to spend time with his daughter.

We also meet Bob’s sister Cass. She struggles with her anger toward her layabout, screwup brother— and they all struggle with the loss of the oldest Trevor sibling, Don, who drowned in a fishing hole. She also struggles with romantic feelings toward Ray.

Trouble Man builds plot and emotional tension by switching back and forth between characters, as they move inexorably toward their climax. Complications arise as much from characters’ inability to deal with their emotions as from greed or anger or hatred. It’s an unpredictable story, well-told.

As with most of Ed’s work, each character is subject to their own troubles, the product of their own difficult backgrounds and upbringing. There are some deeply painful character descriptions. In Part 3 Chapter Seven, after Jimmy’s girlfriend, a prostitute named Barbara, tells Ray that Jimmy had some good qualities, the narrator muses:

He thought of Mike. He wished he’d known Mike well enough o make the same sort of comments. Mike was his son, but Mike was also a stranger. Coyle hadn’t taken the time to know him as a boy; and Mike hadn’t taken the time be around once he’d become a man.

And from Part 3 Chapter Two, there’s this about Bob:

Then there was silence again, the echoes of his words still in his ears. He felt embarrassed now by his little fantasy of surprising Harry. That was the only way he’d ever achieved anything in his life—by dreaming about it.

In its way, Trouble Man is full of dreaming losers.

In his introduction to The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, Ed wrote about the first pulp crime novel he ever bought, Death Takes the Bus by Lionel White. Ed was hooked. He explained what attracted him to White’s work:

But ultimately it was White’s people that made me start roaming the second-hand stores for more of his books. None of his innocents were quite innocent and none of his hoods were entirely bad. And none of them had many answers. Life was a curse, White seemed to be saying, and no matter what you did, you never got out with much of anything resembling dignity or meaning.

It’s easy to see why Ed would have responded to White’s work—the sentences above could just as easily be applied to his own work. Here’s a few more lines from Trouble Man, from Part 3 Chapter Ten:

That’s the hell of it with life. The older you get, you realize there aren’t any easy answers. About the time you’re thirty-five, all the easy answers start to sound real stupid.

Ed wrote Trouble Man in a conversational style—the narrator is basically a slightly more cynical version of Ed himself. Occasionally, Ed’s sarcastic voice comes through loud and clear, though. In Chapter Two we get this paragraph:

Colonel Haversham’s All-Purpose Tonic. The very same stuff the Dalton Brothers always drank. And Billy the Kid. And Bat Masterson. Yessir, the very same stuff. A man like Ray Coyle, he wouldn’t lie to you, would he? Of course he wouldn’t. Gimme three bottles of that stuff, Mr. Midget. Or, hell, make it four.

When I read that I smiled. That is pretty much the way Ed talked, in a dry, self-deprecating cadence.

I still can't believe Ed's gone.

Here's another nice review of Trouble Man at Gravetapping.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Trust Me On This by Donald E. Westlake

Trust Me On This is a satirical novel with a murder mystery grafted onto it. It works because Westlake is one of the all-time great popular fiction writers, and he writes with an engaging voice that keeps you interested in both sides of the story.


The book was originally published in 1988, and what was I’m sure biting satire back then seems absolutely quaint in the age of WikiLeaks and collusion between network news and the Democrat party. Having a journalist pretend to be one half of 100 year-old twins while the actual twin’s corpse is lying in its bed in its air conditioned room so that a tabloid can get photos of a birthday party doesn’t quite have the power it probably had almost thirty years ago. Neither does the by-land-by-sea-by-air pursuit of photos of the wedding of a TV star, or the race for “the body in the box,” a photo of a dead celebrity in a casket.

On her way to her first day of work at the Weekly Galaxy tabloid, Sara Joslyn finds a dead body lying half-in and half-out of a car by the side of the highway used almost exclusively by the Galaxy staff. The man had been shot just above his left eye and apparently just left there. Sara gets back in her car and reports the dead man to the guard at the Galaxy security gate.

Then she goes to work, expecting that once the guard reports it, at some point the police will contact her about the body.

Learning the ins and outs of tabloid office politics and journalism takes precedence, and her interest in the body fades into the background for a while. The Weekly Galaxy offices are eccentric: For instance, office walls are represented by tape on the floor, and the journalists, editors, and secretaries all dutifully walk at angles around the tape, careful not to pass into anyone’s “squaricle” without permission. Because there are so many phones and so many calls being placed and returned the ringers are set on mute, with buttons lighting when a call comes through. The publisher, Bruno DiMassi (known around the office as “Massa”), has his office in a large elevator, allowing him to pop between floors at random intervals, ensuring his staff remains on their toes.

Sara Joslyn begins the story as an innocent, or relatively so, anyway. She’s moved to Florida to accept the Weekly Galaxy position at about triple the salary she was making at the dying New England paper where she previously worked. The principles that guided her in her career up to this point are quickly shown to be of little use to her in her new job. I got the feeling while reading that we were supposed to be slightly appalled by the way the journalists operate, but their do-anything-to-get-the-story attitude feels admirable, and I spent some time wondering just how exactly Sara was doing her job back at the dying paper— and maybe the fact that the Weekly Galaxy sold five million copies a week should tell her something.

But Westlake is more subtle than that, and he actually deals with the issues that I was thinking about as the reader. In Chapter Seven of the “Felicia” section, Sara has a confrontation with her roommate Phyllis, another Galaxy employee. Phyllis says pompously, “The very existence of gutter journalism like that is a threat to decent news media everywhere.” Toward the end of their argument Sara tells her, “What it comes down to is, you want to do the same kind of muckraking we do, but you want to feel holy while you’re having your fun.” It’s actually a powerful moment.

The book also deals with the incestuous relationship between “gutter journalism” and the celebrities they cover. While trying to get photos of the wedding of a popular TV star, Sara has almost fully assimilated the lessons of working at the Galaxy. In a discussion (Chapter Five of the “The Wedding” section) with another particularly unsavory Galaxy employee, Ida, she says,

“What do people like John Michael Mercer have, except their celebrity?”

“That’s right,” Ida said, staring at Sara in aggressive solidarity.

“And where do they get their celebrity?” Sara demanded.

“From US!” Ida snapped.

“That’s right!” Sara cried, in full voice. “When they want publicity, we give it to them. And when WE want, they've got to give!”

Jack’s boss-turned-lover Jack Ingersoll watches Sara’s transformation with a mixture of apprehension and admiration. He’s unable to decide whether he wants Sara to become a cutthroat practitioner of “gutter journalism,” or whether he wants her to affect a distance from it all, the way he has. The choice becomes more clear to him after a surprise revelation. Jack tells Sara why he wasn’t able to see what was really happening, right under his nose. In Chapter Twelve of the “The Body in the Box” section, he explains, “I never wanted to look too closely at that particular piece of good luck. I never wanted to be sure.” That’s a stinging indictment of journalistic blinders.

The book ends with the mystery of the body solved and an ironic but hopeful scenario in which Sara and Jack will take what they’ve learned at the Galaxy and apply it to “decent news media.” This makes perfect sense: Journalists should have an adversarial relationship with their subjects. They work for the public, not those in power. They should be covering those stories the mainstream media might classify as “gutter journalism.” That’s an arbitrary distinction created as much to protect politicians and business executives and others in positions of power, and excuse journalistic laziness.

Even before WikiLeaks provided us with irrefutable evidence of collusion between “journalists” and the Democrat party, there has been a yearly White House Correspondent’s Dinner, where powerful elites get together to crack wise and congratulate themselves on their arrogance. Clinton operative George Stephanopoulos is the face of ABC news. The brother of the fantasist who concocted the “narrative” of the Iran nuclear deal is the president of CBS News. There is a revolving door between government—business—media that has compromised every bit of information we receive.

"Gutter journalism" today. A sycophantic press reporting Democrat talking points as fact.

And all the while, what passes for “satire” these days— The Onion, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, Real Time— is in fact just propaganda designed to protect established (Democrat) power. Smug mugging and f-bombs implying passionate disapproval, as perfected by Jon Stewart, takes the place of insight and commentary.

I found myself wondering what Westlake would have done with that. We need more “gutter journalism”!

I wrote two satirical mystery novels myself: The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks, and The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot. They're both brilliant.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Unreliable Editor-- Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

It is impossible to “spoil” great art. We all know that Romeo and Juliet get married and have four children at the end of Shakespeare’s famous play, but that doesn’t stop us from re-reading it and re-watching performances and films of the story. That said, this post reveals detailed plot information about Agatha Christie’s book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. If you don’t want to know who did what to whom, don’t read no further.

Mystery novels employ misdirection by definition. Clues and evidence have to be carefully arranged within the story and revealed in such as way that they’re not too conspicuous— and planted among strategically placed red herrings. I think I just mixed a metaphor; my point is that mysteries feature a layer of casual, friendly dishonesty between the author and reader that, in other genres, would not be tolerated.

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the most shamelessly dishonest novel ever written.

Technically, it’s probably the greatest work of mystery fiction of all time. A few years ago, England’s Crime Writer’s Association named it the greatest crime novel ever, and it’s hard to argue against that. It’s also a great work of literary post-modern decadent recursive fiction, taking its place alongside Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Huysmans’s À Rebours, and Bushmiller’s Nancy. In many ways it’s better than any of those works because you really only have to read it one and a half times to “get it” (once you know the twist you really only need to go back and re-read a handful of chapters), but if you want to think of it as a literary puzzle on top of a crime puzzle, you can spend as many hours as you like dissecting away.

Very early in my reading the book I concluded that Caroline Sheppard was the murderer of Roger Ackroyd. And, despite what the infernal villain Hercule Poirot would have you believe, I’m more convinced than ever that I’m right, and that Poirot has perpetrated a horrible crime all in an effort to make himself appear lovable and brilliant.

Dr. Sheppard, Caroline’s brother, is the quintessential “unreliable narrator.” In fact, he’s even good enough to actually CALL ATTENTION TO HIS LIES. In the final chapter he says:

“I am rather pleased with myself as a writer. What could be neater, for instance, than, the following [here he recounts a passage from an earlier chapter]… All true, you see. But suppose I had put a row of stars after the first sentence! Would somebody have wondered what exactly happened in that blank ten minutes?”

He could be bragging. Then again, he could be protecting someone. Then again, maybe he didn’t even write the final chapter at all.

In the story, as allegedly recounted by Dr. Sheppard, Roger Ackroyd is murdered after confiding in Dr. Sheppard that Mrs. Ferrars, whom Ackroyd hoped to marry, was being blackmailed right before she died, apparently by suicide. Mrs. Ferrars confided this to Ackroyd but did not tell him the name of the blackmailer. This information she waited to reveal in a letter that Ackroyd received that day. Dr. Sheppard is with Ackroyd when he gets this letter, but Ackroyd asks Dr. Sheppard to leave the room before he will read the letter. Dr. Sheppard leaves, returns home, and about an hour later Dr. Sheppard receives a phone call, supposedly from Ackroyd’s butler Parker saying that Ackroyd has been murdered.

I won’t go over the entire plot of the novel. You can— and should!— read it yourself. Let’s talk about the killer— Caroline Sheppard. She is the busybody gossip queen of King’s Abbot. Early in the first chapter, the narrator says of her,

“Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don’t know how she manages it, but there it is. I suspect that the servants and the tradesmen constitute her Intelligence Corps.”

He then adds— as if to cover something:

“When she goes out, it is not to gather information, but to spread it. At that, too, she is amazingly expert.”

So we discover that Caroline has an almost supernatural ability to uncover secrets. Oh and by the way— she also spreads those secrets; she DOES NOT keep them to herself. So says the narrator. Then, in chapter sixteen, during a game of Mah Jong at which several characters are gathered (and gossiping), Caroline says this:

“I’ve got an idea of my own about Ralph Paton… But I’m keeping it to myself for the present.”

So she says she can keep a secret. Or at least a theory. But later in that same chapter, she reveals her “idea”:

“You know that big map of the county we have in the hall?… As M. Poirot was going out the other day, he stopped and looked at it, and he made some remark… Something about Cranchester being the only big town anywhere near us… But after he had gone it came to me suddenly… Of course Ralph is in Cranchester.”

Upon hearing his sister’s “theory” about the whereabouts of Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, the narrator says,

“It was at that moment that I knocked down the rack that held my pieces.”

He was nervous— because his sister, by relaying this “theory” of hers, was in fact fishing for information. She was using her incredible information-extracting skills to find Paton, who represented a lose end in her master criminal plan. The one lose-end. Remember that she is one who overhears the conversation between Paton and parlormaid Ursula Bourne, so she knows that Paton has a motive for murder (she claims— or the narrator claims that she claims— not to have seen who Paton was speaking to at The Three Boars Inn).

Ralph Paton’s whereabouts are crucial in this. We learn in chapter twenty-four that after Ackroyd is killed, Dr. Sheppard uses his position as a doctor to send Paton— whose secret marriage to Ursula made his potential inheritance from Ackroyd doubtful— to stay in a nursing home.

Dr. Sheppard doesn’t kill Paton. He sends him to stay in “a home for the mentally unfit.”

Poirot, enamored of his “tiny grey cells,” spends much of the book straining to hear the applause of his audience. In fact, on two occasions in the book he calls suspects together so they can watch him work. This is a little man with a flair for the dramatic and confidence in his abilities. At the second gathering, he informs the suspects that he has received a telegram from a steamer on its way to the United States. This telegram contains information which allegedly points to the identity of the killer. He then says that he will give this information to Inspector Raglan, who is the official in charge of the investigation, UNLESS THE KILLER CONFESSES THEIR CRIME. In chapter twenty-four, Poirot phrases this strangely. First he says,

“You see what I mean? No? Just this— to save Captain Paton the real criminal must confess.”

That assumes that a blackmailer and murderer can have a conscience to which he could appeal. YOU WOULDN’T WANT THIS INNOCENT PERSON TO HANG FOR YOUR CRIMES, WOULD YOU?

Later, the narrator writes this:

‘He leaned forward, and suddenly his voice and his whole personality changed. He suddenly became dangerous.

“I who speak to you—I know the murderer of Mr. Ackroyd is in this room now. It is to the murderer I speak. Tomorrow the truth goes to Inspector Rgalan. You understand?”’

No doubt, the egomaniac Poirot would be flattered to be described as “dangerous,” but he’s probably too narcissistic to understand exactly what Dr. Sheppard meant. Which was why Poirot didn’t edit that sentence before publishing it. What Poirot has done is to directly threaten someone, while also, for some reason, making an appeal to conscience. This is a bizarre and contradictory tactic— unless you’ve got no offing idea what the hell you’re talking about.

Regardless, Dr. Sheppard apparently doesn’t want to take the chance.

Maybe he knows Caroline is guilty of the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Maybe he witnessed it himself. Maybe he saw her, covered in blood, and helped her to clean it off. Maybe when he left Ackroyd’s home he arranged for someone to call him from King’s Abbot Station, setting the whole thing in motion. We don’t know. We do know that Dr. Sheppard is pressured to confess to the crimes. We also know that everything that Dr. Sheppard knew could be known by his gossipy sister. He also knew that mad Poirot, renowned for his deductive skills and a friend to the Inspector, first became suspicious of Dr. Sheppard based on an incredibly flimsy piece of deduction, from chapter twenty-six (laughably titled “And Nothing But the Truth”):

“It was a chilly night— not an evening a man would be inclined to dawdle; why had you taken ten minutes to do a five minutes’ walk?”

From there, Poirot builds layers of terrifying suppositions and innuendo to impugn Dr. Sheppard. And then Poirot directly threatens Dr. Sheppard:

“Remember what I said— the truth goes to Inspector Raglan in the morning. But, for the sake of your good sister, I am willing to give you the chance of another way out. There might be, for instance, an overdose of sleeping draught. You comprehend me? But Captain Ralph Paton must be cleared… I should suggest that you finish that very interesting manuscript of yours— but abandoning your former reticence.”

Poirot tells Dr. Sheppard not to confess, but to KILL HIMSELF; otherwise his sister will be smeared and slandered. He then says that before he does that, he needs to finish the manuscript that he was working on— the manuscript in which Dr. Sheppard was chronicling his exploits as Poirot’s investigative partner. What a fantastically horrifying thing to do! Poirot wants no loose ends— no one who might survive to contradict his interpretation of events. Moreover, the egomaniac wants the condemned man to produce a monument to his killer, in the form of the manuscript that Poirot knows Dr. Sheppard has been working on.

In the final chapter, Dr. Sheppard gives in, apparently writing a confession that just happens to perfectly conform to Poirot’s theory, then killing himself with poison. He does this to spare Caroline, as Poirot himself has suggested. The narrator writes:

“My greatest fear all through has been Caroline. I have fancied she might guess. Curious the way she spoke that day of my ‘strain of weakness.’

Well, she will never know the truth. There is, as Poirot said, one way out…

I can trust him. He and Inspector Raglan will manage it between them. I should not like Caroline to know. She is fond of me, and then, too, she is proud… My death will be a grief to her, but grief passes…

When I have finished writing, I shall enclose this whole manuscript in an envelope and address it to Poirot.”

Poirot tricks Dr. Sheppard into killing himself— eliminating the one person who might contradict Poirot’s nutty theory. Dr. Sheppard, who went out of his way to protect Ralph Paton is supposedly a dastardly blackmailer and murderer, and it’s all wrapped up in a convenient manuscript. And to top it all off, Dr. Sheppard kills himself in part to ensure his sister never has to learn of his “crimes.” Yet the manuscript has been published! WE HAVE READ THE MANUSCRIPT! Not only that, but Dr. Sheppard says that he IS GOING TO SEND THE MANUSCRIPT TO POIROT AFTER HE KILLS HIMSELF. Meaning that Poirot had all the time he needed to “edit” the manuscript in whatever way he wanted— to ensure that he and his “tiny grey cells” were represented by the "narrator" in the most favorable light possible. And detailing exactly how he was able to trick an innocent man into confessing to and suiciding himself for crimes committed by another.

Hercule Poirot is the unreliable editor. He is infernal. He is a fantastically egotistical villain, and he’s guilty of the murder of Dr. James Sheppard.

Quick review: The Poirot Murder of Roger Ackroyd TV adaptation is laughably bad. 
If you like Agatha Christie, you'll love my mystery novels, The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks and The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot, both of which are available for Kindle and in trade paperback. They're just as good as anything Christie ever wrote! 
I also wrote my own "unreliable editor" novel, Whimsical Doctor Shoe. You'll love it!