Saturday, April 17, 2010

It's Tragic


I think a deep love of story is what initially drew me to the world of hardboiled/noir fiction. Of all the literary genres, this is the one with the best stories. Why is that? Because they are the closest in spirit to the earliest stories we know of, the Greek dramas.
The best noir stories are our modern day version of those tragedies. The parallels are obvious: they are usually plot-driven, involving characters who make bad decisions and by doing so set in motion the machinations of their own destruction.
The plot becomes a clockwork mechanism and the protagonist becomes entangled in the gears of it, struggling to get free. Every action he takes succeeds only in hastening the machine. He may get free in the end, but it’s unlikely.
The differences between, say, the works of Sophocles and Ken Bruen are a matter of costume and set design, togas and trench-coats. The overlying theme is the same: free will is an illusion, and once the game is in play there’s no leaving the table. You gotta pay the piper.
Oh, and also, there’s no chorus in a noir. Usually.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Punisher MAX


I’m a fanatic for the Punisher. For a few years now, the stories of Frank Castle and his never-ending mission of vengeance have been the most compelling thing going in comics, especially in the wake left by the end of 100 Bullets. Describing the character of the Punisher is tough—to call him an “anti-hero” isn’t exactly right, because there’s nothing heroic about what he does. In many ways, he’s every bit as villainous as the mobsters, rapists, terrorists, dealers and pimps he slaughters; that, of course, is what makes him so damn interesting.
A few months ago, Marvel re-launched the Punisher for the umpteenth time, putting Jason Aarons behind the wheel as writer and the legendary Steve Dillon riding shotgun as artist. They had a tough act to follow. Garth Ennis had revitalized the Punisher some years earlier, and no one else had been able to live up to the Ennis standard.
I’m happy to say that Aarons is off to a great goddamn start.
The first story arc of Punisher MAX*, “Kingpin”, is chock-full of exploding heads, popping eyeballs, gratuitous use of the f-bomb, and even naked old ladies (if you’re into that sort of thing…). The story: after thirty years of getting slaughtered by Frank Castle, the heads of a bunch of crime families get together and hatch a scheme—since Castle usually works from the top down, simply create a fictional Kingpin to keep him occupied. But the mobsters have no idea that their enforcer, Wilson Fisk, plans to turn the charade into a reality. Right under his bosses’ noses, he begins steps to take over the entire criminal empire.
The Punisher has his work cut out for him just trying to figure out if the Kingpin is even real. Things get much, much worse when the mobsters sic a monstrously tough killer called the Mennonite on him, and we become witness to the most brutal fight I’ve seen in a comic in a long time. Broken hands, broken noses, broken ribs. Sledgehammers, knifes, chains… even a horse-drawn carriage becomes a weapon.
So the big fun of Punisher MAX is the unbelievable carnage and bloodshed. It’s the sleazy bosses, homicidal maniacs, black humor. But mostly it’s the unrepentant cold-bloodedness and single-mindedness of the Punisher himself. Aarons gets it, just the way Ennis did.
BTW, if you pick these books up, be sure to get the right ones. Marvel has two Punisher titles on-going currently—this one, and another simply called “The Punisher” that takes place in the Marvel Universe. They’ve just turned Castle into a patchwork Frankenstein monster in that one. Good luck to them, I guess… I’ll stick with Punisher MAX.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Best from Manhunt


If you’re at all into this stuff, you’re probably familiar with Manhunt, a digest-size magazine from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s that featured some of the greatest writers ever to work in the field of crime fiction. It was a sort of descendant of the earlier pulps, like Black Mask or Dime Detective, but the roster of talent that surfaced regularly in Manhunt was far superior to those earlier mags.
Issues of Manhunt are hard to come by now; just as scarce is Best from Manhunt, a slim paperback that showcased some of the magazine’s best stuff. It came out in 1958, toward the end of what critics consider Manhunt’s best period. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy via Ebay, pretty cheap. Here’s a brief overview of the contents:
“On the Sidewalk Bleeding”, by Evan Hunter is a dire warning against the dangers of juvenile delinquency, ‘50’s-style. A young gang member has been knifed in an alley and, as his life bleeds out, he ponders the choices he made, and wants only to be remembered as who he is, not as a gang member. A decent story, but not Hunter’s best.
“Mugger Murder”, by Richard Denning. A clever number, about a guy who figures out the perfect way to commit murder: just lure someone into mugging you, then kill him in self-defense. What a rush, eh?
“Decision”, by Helen Nielson. Decent-hearted Ruth has had enough of her abusive and controlling father and makes the “decision” to end his life once and for all. But her attempt at murder may tie her to the old man even more. One of the better stories in this volume.
“The Collector Comes After Payday”, by Fletcher Flora. Meek, unlucky Frankie finally snaps and kills his monstrous Pop, and suddenly his whole life starts coming up roses. In no time at all, he’s a success in love and money—but when he turns heel the ghosts of his bad luck return. Flora is way overdue to be rediscovered.
“Try It My Way”, by Jack Ritchie. A tense story of three cons holding a guard hostage and trying to negotiate their way out of prison. But tempers flare, someone winds up dead, and there’s no way in hell they’re getting’ out… Great story.
“Movie Night”, by Robert Turner. Another J.D. story, as a night out at the drive-in for two couples turns ugly. A gang of J.D.’s irk one of the husbands, who refuses to back down—which has bigger repercussions than anyone could have guessed.
“In Memory of Judith Courtright”, by Erskine Caldwell. A young teacher becomes an object of infatuation for a student, until the student catches her in a compromising situation… which leads, of course, to at least one dead person. Caldwell’s usual melodrama, but you know, I never mind that so much with him.
“Day’s Work”, by Jonathon Lord. A short, snappy tale about two fellas who witness a horrible accident… and are only briefly distracted from their own equally ugly work.
“The Scrapbook”, by Jonathon Craig. A Robert Bloch-like story about an old guy who likes to spend his vacations killing pretty girls and then talking about the “gruesome murders” when he gets back to work. Except this time, everyone at work is too distracted by a deadly fire to think much of the sex crime. Much to our killer’s frustration. Another high point in the book.
“Quiet Day in the County Jail”, by Craig Rice. A gorgeous redhead is being held in the jail for her own protection against bad guys who want to keep her from testifying against them. She’s not too convinced they can keep her safe, though. Like the title implies, this is a quiet little story, nicely open-ended.
“The Set-Up”, by Stanley Colbert. A reporter needs some cash to keep his girl happy. Fortunately, a husband kills his wife and the reporter is first on the scene. Guess what? There’s some cash. But did the husband actually get the job done? Another short, tight story.
“The Double Take”, by Richard S. Prather. A Shell Scott story, and the longest one in the book. Seems someone’s been using our boy Shell’s name and office to pose as him and bilk innocent people out of their money. That doesn’t sit well with Shell. He aims to shut them down—but that won’t stop him from ogling the ladies along the way.
“The Man Who Found the Money”, by James E. Cronin. Probably my favorite. A hapless guy vacationing in Vegas finds a ton of money and after some soul searching contacts the police about it. He lives to regret his honesty, though, when the owner of the cash turns out to be a mobster—and some of the money is missing.
In the introduction, the editors insinuate that they’d planned several more volumes of “Best of’s”, but it seems it wasn’t to be. Shame, that. Thirteen stories barely scratch the surface. But in lieu of the actual magazines, it did very nicely.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Devil may care, but Robert Mitchum sure doesn't


Of all the cool guys ever to grace the flickering black and white landscape of a movie screen, none ever tilted the cool meter the way Robert Mitchum did. This is a fact. You watch a Mitchum movie and, if you have any sense at all, you marvel at the nonchalance, the wry, cynical poise, the sheer wicked-coolness of his persona. His Kind of Woman, Out of the Past, Crossfire… even when he played a baddie, like in Cape Fear or Night of the Hunter, he radiated the kind of laid-back charm that squares like you and me can only dream of.
But don’t feel bad. With a little practice, you too can Be Like Mitch—or at least come passingly close.
Here are three quick examples of Mitch-ness, and how you can emulate them:
In the early ‘50’s, Mitch was arrested for possession of marijuana. In those squeaky clean public image-obsessed days in Hollywood, a drug bust would’ve spelled the end of an acting career… but not so for our Mitch. There’s a great photo of him doing his time in prison, wearing the grays and pushing a mop around, that laconic smile still firmly in place. And of course America couldn’t stay mad at him after that photo. He apologized to the public for his “immoral behavior” but if the photo was any indication he didn’t feel particularly torn up about it. And to judge by the fact that his career didn’t lose even half a step afterwards America didn’t mind either.
So, Be Like Mitch lesson one: if you make a bad move and everyone finds out about it, so freaking what? Smile and shrug and get on with things.
Catch-phrases. Hollywood loves ‘em. Ah-nold had “I’ll be back”, Eastwood had “Make my day”. But the phrase most associated with Mitch, uttered with casual aplomb in His Kind of Woman, was much cooler: “Baby, I don’t care.”
Be Like Mitch lesson too, then: Don’t be overly-concerned with what the hell anyone else thinks. Let them all pose and poster and spout off in their self-involved ego trips. None of it has to touch you.
In his later years, Mitch did a movie with a young actor who told the story of how, on set one day, he witnessed Mitch going through his script and marking ninety percent of the pages with the initials N.A.R. The young actor asked him what N.A.R. meant. Mitch grinned and said, “It means No Acting Required, kid.”
And that’s Be Like Mitch lesson three: don’t waste energy or effort when you don’t need to. Banging your head against the wall and putting more into a project than it requires is for suckers. Mitch-types save their energy for things that are worthy of it.
So that’s it. Follow those three simple rules, keep that laconic half-smile on your face, and don’t let the posers and squares touch that inner, cool core of yours. Mitch never did, right? And the world would be much better if we would all just Be Like Mitch!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Slammer, by Allan Guthrie


There aren't too many things better than discovering a writer who blows you away, and then finding out said writer has several books available to keep you hooked. Over the last few months, I've been reading a lot of modern noir writers, and while many of them have impressed me only two or three have absolutely thrown me for a loop and made me re-think my game. Allan Guthrie is one of those writers.
The book is Slammer, which is appropriate considering what the book does to your brain.
The story:
Glass is a deeply disturbed young prison guard, harassed by inmates and fellow guards alike. When he agrees under duress to do a favor for a con, he quickly falls under the con’s control and his life begins an ugly downward spiral; his deep-seated psychosis rages to life and it isn’t long before the boundaries between reality and fantasy become hopelessly lost.
Slammer is an intense novel, not so much the story of Glass’ slow descent into madness as his sudden, breathtaking plummet into insanity. The stakes get continually higher and higher, and all the while the reader is sickeningly aware that Glass is doomed—not just by external forces but by the twisted thing inside him. Superior psycho-noir.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to find more Guthrie. I think I could become addicted to being slammed like that...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

What to do with Paypal

I got paid via Paypal recently, so it left me no choice but to buy a stack of Richard Stark's Parker novels on Ebay...life is so hard! Ha!
Coming soon, an overview of the Parker saga... in the meantime, check out the great website 'The Violent World of Parker'-- link over there to the right. Great stuff!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Last Week of Your Life

Shaping up to be a damn good week, writing-wise. The new ChiZine is up today, featuring my story It Will All Be Carried Away. Check it here: http://www.chizine.com/
And yesterday, I finally finished the first draft of City Of Heretics. It's a strange feeling being done with something that you've been involved in on and off for two years...
But the timing couldn't have been better. I got the call-back to work today. As of Monday, I'm back on the rack and taking orders from someone else again... it's been six months, which is kinda crazy...