Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Friday 31 December 2010

Seconds by David Ely (Four Square 1290) (1965)

New York. Dissatisfied and bored wealthy middle-aged banker Wilson acts on a telephone call from an old college friend and visits an organisation based at an address written on a scrap of paper in the hope of gaining an apparent second chance at life. A random gesture from a rude young man on the street outside the building seems to propel him through the doors and once inside, he is cruelly duped into acquiescing to their services. So, the weary overweight man who enters is replaced by a youthful alter-ego who emerges. A life which seemingly seemed beyond WIlson's reach is now within his grasp, including the availability of compliant young women. However, has Wilson's second chance at life allowed him to enter a Garden of Eden or a Circle of Hell?

David Ely's 1963 novel about rebirth and identity was highly praised at the time by eminent thriller writers Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming (whose favourable quote appears on the cover of this UK paperback edition) and was famously subsequently filmed by director John Frankenheimer. The film was a dark, dystopian science-fiction tale whose stark black and white images, often distorted by fish-eye camera lenses, presented the story more as a horror film with its star Rock Hudson cast against type as the dissatisfied protagonist upon whom it gradually dawns that the grass isn't necessarily greener in the other man's garden.

The novel works more as a dark satire, with its shadowy organisation peopled by ground-down salarymen and run by those with an eye to the bottom line similar to the world that Wilson has left for a seemingly better life.

Concealing its horrors and leaving Wilson's ultimate fate to be discovered by the man himself, the book is in its own way just as chilling as the film adaptation. By locating of its horror in the banal, mundane and everyday, and featuring characters whose voices barely rise above the conversational and whose manners are generally unfailingly polite, the novel conveys a genuine frisson of terror and features a final despairing line that subtly twists its message home like a knife in the guts. Recommended reading, even to those who have seen the film and therefore know the outcome.

VERDICT: First - rather than second(s) - class!

AFTERWORD: Unfortunately, my seemingly elusive copy of the UK paperback edition will not be experiencing the rebirth of the novel's characters as the age-darkened pages have almost all fluttered free from the dried-out spine - which seems rather appropriate. Based on this novel, author David Ely's other novels should be well-worth tracking down. At the time of writing he is seemingly still alive and his latest novel, A Journal Of The Flood Year, was published in 2009.

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Juvies by Harlan Ellison (Ace D-513)

A strong collection of JD short stories culled from increasingly elusive 1950s magazines or crime digests like Trapped, Terror, Guilty and Web Detective Stories, with the introduction, Ten Weeks In Hell, being the only original writing.

All nine of the stories deal with the 50s sociological phenomenon of the juvenile delinquent, male or female (such individuals had previously existed, but this was the decade they were first labelled as such). All of the stories are stark and realistic in their depictions of blighted social backdrops, ritualistic gang violence and bleak moral outlooks. The gang violence, with its reliance on switchblades, home-made zip-guns or bricks is conveyed with a verisimilitude that places you in the heart of the action, something that Ellison's punchy prose has already drawn you into.

The story Matinee Idyll (which originally appeared as Rock And Roll - And Murder in Trapped Detective Story Magazine in December 1958) is essentially a dry run for Ellison's later Gold Medal original novel Rockabilly and features the same protagonist, but most of the tales will only be familiar to collectors of the increasingly obscure and tough to come by digests in which they first appeared. All of them are recommended both to the author's fans and JD fiction fans alike, although this edition is seemingly as elusive as some of  the original publications in which the stories first appeared.

VERDICT: Gangtastic!

AFTERWORD: I wish I'd reviewed each story rather than just written this seemingly hasty overview. However, this means I'm more tempted to go back and read the stories again, and this shouldn't be too much of a chore as I clearly enjoyed them first time around. Since I wrote this review several years ago, this collection has been reprinted as Children of the Streets (London: Severn House, 2004). Cheap used copies of the Severn House reprint are currently readily available from the likes of Amazon and other sellers at the time of writing, and they will certainly be far cheaper than any copies of the still somewhat elusive paperback original.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

No House Limit by Steve Fisher (Bantam A2190)

Joe Martin's Rainbow's End is the only Las Vegas casino that isn't mob-run and is now the location for a marathon crap game lasting three days and nights. Literally challenged in his own backyard, Joe finds himself faced with Bello, a professional gambler purported to be the best in the world and a man who the mob have now sent to clean Joe out. With Bello on a hot streak, can Joe trust a seemingly  innocent schoolteacher called Sunny Guido to get him out of a jam, or will the Syndicate finally secure the last of the the independents?

Steve Fisher graduated from the pulps to write some gripping and evocative hardboiled and noir novels, the most famous of which is his Hollywood-set I Wake Up Screaming, as well as a vast number of film and, latterly, TV scripts. Here, he keeps the action fast and furious and the intensity at a consistently high level given that the characters are often literally gambling their futures on the throw of a dice. Their mental and physical exhaustion is also effectively conveyed in what is for the most part an immersive experience, with the pace only flagging when the action moves beyond the claustrophobic casino setting as various subplots are played out.

However, this is still gripping stuff, convincingly written, peopled with hard-boiled archetypes and topped off with a sprinkling of violent action. Fisher's pulp origins are evident in the punchy, direct prose style that doesn't waste words and pitches the reader into the heart of the action in a brisk, exciting and well-told tale.

VERDICT: An odds-on winner!

AFTERWORD: Steve Fisher seems to be one of the genre's unsung and unfairly neglected authors. Many of his novels have been out of print for years and remain elusive and/or expensive on the second-hand market, particularly his earlier ones or the Popular Library editions featuring colourful and pulpy Rudolph Belarski covers. Since I read it, No House Limit has been handsomely reprinted by Hard Case Crime so copies should be easier to obtain. I recommend many of his earlier efforts too, and may post further reviews as drafting this one has rekindled my interest in the unread Fisher titles on my shelves.

Monday 6 December 2010

Kiss The Killer by Joseph Shallit (Avon 528)

Dan Morrison runs a South Philadelphia youth center and is surprised when a local pharmacist called Paul Sardona - who is also a member of the center's Board of Trustees - shows him a reefer that he claims was peddled to his son Vincent by the son of another Board member.

Wishing to avoid a scandal, Dan, assisted by psychology student and part time center employee Linda, decides to track down and apprehend the peddler. Linda soon decides that this case could provide source material for her forthcoming thesis, and discovers more than may be safe for the pair, particularly when the case takes a murderous turn. And as the pair's investigations continue, the skin of respectability is gradually peeled back to reveal some unsavory and unpalatable truths.

The first person flashback narrative initially promises a more noirish tale than this rather routine hardboiled thick-ear effort delivers. The marijuana scare stuff almost certainly tapped into genuine early 50s post-war fears about youth running wild, but now reads more as shrill and alarmist; particularly given the lack of pharmacological accuracy.

Overall, then, this is strictly formulaic stuff featuring cardboard characters who spend much of their time batting chunks of plot back and forth in an exposition-heavy style that kills the pace. There's never any doubt that the implausibly jut-jawed hero will crack the case and win the girl, but it's all accomplished in perfunctory fashion - one or two plot twists notwithstanding - and is more of a soft-boiled than hard-boiled experience.

VERDICT: Dope-y!

AFTERWORD: After reading this review which was scribbled several years ago, I have to admit that it has failed to prompt any recall as I still remember nothing about this book. Nada, zero, zilch. I still have this author's rather wonderfully titled Avon paperback Lady, Don't Die On My Doorstep, which also features Dan Morrison as well as a great front cover quote ('I wanted to grab, rip and mangle the punk who did this to Dotty') and cover art showing Morrison standing over a decorously posed female corpse and may well give it a go one day in spite of Kiss The Killer's underwhelming nature. Oh, and sorry about starting with one of the negative reviews. It's the first one I shook out of the pile.

Sunday 5 December 2010

What this is ... and what it isn't ...

I read. You read. I watch. You watch. That's what we're doing here.

I've been reading crime, noir, hardboiled, vintage, and anything and everything really for years. Same goes for my movie-watching habits.

Eclectic is the word.

To my mind, indiscriminate reading can be the best education you can give yourself, and even if it doesn't turn out that way it can still sure as hell give you a good time. Same goes for indiscriminate movie-watching.

About ten years ago, I decided to scribble down some reviews of what I was reading. Partly to relive some of the thrills and sheer enjoyment and partly to act as a memory-jogger for my seemingly increasingly failing faculties.

I've hauled down the file containing these jottings and the it seems my faculties have failed more rapidly than I may have envisaged at the time. Flicking through these musings, I seriously cannot remember even reading many of the books in question - let alone recall style, plot points, charatcerisations and all the elements that made them worth reading (or not).

There are over thirty of these reviews. Most were written at least a decade ago. None of them rise to the level of quality 'criticism' because many of them were written in fevered bursts as I tried to nail down what it was I'd liked about them. At best, they are basic reviews, and at worst they're random jottings. They're closest to the type of thing published in those xeroxed 1980s fanzines (some of which were quite wonderful and are greatly missed).

So, think of them as tip-sheets, pointing you in the direction of things I liked - or didn't (although I'll try and keep things positive as I find I don't really have the energy or enthusiasm to publicly dump on books or films I don't like).

I'll probably start with blogging the book reviews and will try to add some film reviews later to spice up the mix. Some of these reviews will be more recent so, hopefully, they will be better written and have a greater grasp on the narrative details (as I seem to have spent more time on the review than the synopsis of some of the earlier works).

It's just me adding to the sum total of knowledge and, hopefully, pointing you towards some of the often neglected books and films that I've enjoyed and which I think you might too.

As many of you have probably discovered, there are some great blogs by some great writers covering similar subjects and I'll try to point you in their direction, too.

As I said, I have no pretensions to writing classic criticism and have nothing against those that do. There are people out there who have forgotten far more than I'll ever know about my chosen subject, and all hail to them!

Also, I won't make any promises regarding the regularity of these blogs. I'll write them when I get the time and hope you enjoy what I write.

Please let me know if you do - or don't.

Now, let's get started...