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...

Monday 12 December 2011

.44 by H.A. DeRosso (Lion 129) (1953)

Dan Harland is a 27 year-old hired killer. He doesn't like the job, but it's all he's good for. One day, he tracks down the man he has been paid to kill, but when the man draws his gun first and then refuses to fire Dan shoots him down. Puzzled as to why the man wouldn't take his shot, Dan tends to his victim but although the man lingers awhile before dying, he takes his secret to the grave.

So, Dan sets out on a trail to discover why he was sent to kill the man, who paid him and how the man came to be marked for death. It is a trail that leads him back to the man's hometown where he meets a cast of characters who each seem to be concealing part of the mystery, and whose secrets may put Dan in Boot Hill.

I love Western movies, but have never had the same affection for the novel form. However, this is a curious and effective hybrid, being a Western novel that adopts many of the tropes of film noir. The self-loathing anti-hero here is not trapped within the concrete canyons of an unfeeling metropolis, but instead finds himself assailed on all sides beneath some very real canyons in world of space and desolation. As the narrative unfolds and ensnares Dan, he finds himself at the mercy of criminal kingpins, an explanation that always remains marginally beyond his grasp and which, in part, even eludes the reader in the case of the McGuffin that propels the action.

And yes, there's even a femme fatale.

There's also some surprisingly brutal violence, sharp psychological insights (for example, Dan remarks 'It isn't the killings that you detest that are bad. It's the ones that you enjoy'), enough lost souls to populate several film noirs, and a pitilessly bleak ending that wouldn't seem out of place in the type of paperback originals Jim Thompson penned for Lion around the time of this novel's publication.

Overall, and in spite of some occasionally pedestrian writing, this is a genuine find, a Western novel for those who love the form as well as one for those like me who generally take their crime, noir and hardboiled straight up.

VERDICT: Bullseye!

AFTERWORD: Little seems to be known about author H.A. De Rosso, whose output in novel form is rather limited. Based on this gem, it seems like his other fiction will be well worth tracking down, and this one was reprinted as recently as 1998 so copies should not be too hard to find.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The Big Bite by Charles Williams (Pan G342) (1960)

When John Harlan's pro football career is ended by a car crash that leaves the other driver dead, he needs to find an alternative source of income. An unlikely opportunity presents itself a few months later when a man called Purvis, who claims to be an investigator working for the dead driver's insurance company, pays him a visit. Purvis suggests to Harlan that the car crash which ended his career may not have been an accident and points him in the direction of the dead driver's widow. She turns out to be a seemingly cool and definitely attractive young woman who may well have something to hide, and Harlan discovers that whilst one career has ended, another career as a shakedown artist may be beckoning. However, Harlan also subsequently discovers several obstacles in his way, obstacles far more threatening than those he previously encountered on the football field...

Charles Williams' Wikipedia entry notes that 'He is regarded by critics as one of the finest suspense novelists of the 1950s and 1960s' and I'd certainly agree with this statement.

This 1956 novel is often relegated to the second division of his works, possibly due to a payoff that isn't quite consistent with what has come before it (although I find its bleakly fatalist sting supremely satisfying). However, this is still a beautifully paced, taut and well-written piece of work that draws the reader in from the first page and doesn't loosen its grip until the end.

Williams was first and foremost a great writer. His ability to nail a character in one pithy sentence is exemplified by this description of the rumpled and seedy Purvis: 'His clothes looked as if he dressed by jumping into them from the top of a stepladder', but he also possesses a keen eye for social observation and a similarly keen ear for dialogue that both defines character, keeps the plot running at a rapid clip and adds a little twist or nuance to keep the characters from falling into stereotype or caricature. This, in turn, imparts a greater psychological depth further distinguishes him from many of his less sophisticated thick-ear generic imitators who plied their trade at the time (although I have also been known to be partial to more traditional thick-ear generic fare from time to time).

The sense of time and place, from the seedy locations inhabited by the lowlife chancers to the upscale residences occupied by the seemingly respectable characters is also similarly well-evoked, so that the end result is a satisfying slab of prime-cut 50s fiction and one that is highly recommended.

VERDICT: Toothsome!

AFTERWORD: Almost all the Charles Williams novels I've read have been well-written and rewarding reads and he's one writer whom I wish had written more before his untimely death by his own hand in 1975. Some prefer his novels set at sea to his land-based works, whilst others prefer his earthier backwoods tales. Either way, try any of his novels and I defy you not to be hooked enough to come back for more. And, for me, that's the mark of a great writer.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Hollywood Gothic by Thomas Gifford (Hamish Hamilton) (1980)

Hollywood scriptwriter Toby Challis is in a bind. Having been convicted of beating his nymphomaniac wife Goldie to death with an Oscar (he was discovered holding the murder weapon in his hand), Toby gets the kind of lucky break his scriptwriter's pen could have granted him when the plane taking him to jail crashes in a freak blizzard and he walks away from the crash as its only survivor. Through a number of fortuitous twists, Toby arrives at the isolated Hollywood hillside house of beautiful Morgan Dyer who not only believes his claims that he was framed for murder, but who also agrees to help him find the real killer. So, Toby and Morgan - who is also tangentially connected to the movie business and who helps Toby radically alter his appearance - begin their investigations amongst a cast of potential killers as Toby attempts to clear his name and solve a mystery that is not of his own making.

Thomas Gifford's knowing, jokey, pacey and noirish late 70s thriller is as hugely enjoyable as it is highly implausible. Packed with movie and mystery fiction in-jokes (Morgan runs a mystery bookstore) and roman a clef touches as characters weave real Hollywood characters into their recollections, there's also a tougher and more cynical core at the heart of this tale based around a locale where illusion and deception is commonplace.

Coming across as part Richard Neely (the noirish protagonist, often rather broad-brush characterisations and a clever twist ending), part Ross MacDonald (the origins and solutions being inextricably linked to a corrupt and dysfunctional family who both grow out of and initiate the corruption, deceit and decay), this is the type of satisfying popular genre fiction that is rarely written these days, but which is an entertaining, gripping and recommended read.

VERDICT: Hooray for Hollywood Gothic!

AFTERWORD: I knew very little about Thomas Gifford before finding this UK hardcover edition in a London charity shop, although I recall seeing some of his earlier novels, including The Wind Chill Factor and The Glendower Legacy, on the shelves of my local lending library in the early 1980s. Some rudimentary research on Wikipedia reveals that he had sixteen books published under his real name and two pseudonyms, Thomas Maxwell and Dana Clarins, between 1975 and 1986, he passed away in October 2000 and his second novel, The Cavanaugh Quest was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977. Currently, Gifford doesn't appear to be particularly collectable, little seems to have been written about him or his work and, consequently, his titles appear to be both plentiful and cheap. Based on this book, I'm inclined to give his other titles a read if they fall into my hands cheaply, as his prose style and plotting reminds me of Richard Neely, who is one of my favourite genre writers from the 70s.

Sunday 30 January 2011

The Looters by John Reese (Pyramid T-2142) (1970)

Tres Cruces is a quiet little town in California. One day, a gang led by hardened ex-con Charley Varrick pull off an audacious daylight robbery that leaves two people, a bank security guard and a gang member, dead and Charley's common-law wife (also a drug addict and part-time prostitute) badly injured. However, the loot runs to hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of the smaller sum expected. And when it turns out that this little bank was a repository for mob money, Charley and his cowardly, less experienced sidekick Harman Sullivan are soon being pursued by the local police and FBI as well as various organised crime figures who want to simultaneously recover the loot and cover their tracks.

This crime novel is the basis for Don Siegel's memorable 1973 movie adaptation Charley Varrick that featured doleful Walter Matthau cast against type as the smarter than the average crook and which differs considerably from the source novel - a book that drew praise from 'locked-room' mystery author specialist John Dickson Carr who described it as 'a good thriller which is also a first-rate novel of character'.

For one thing, the book's chapters each follow a different character whose involvement in the robbery, psychology and individual motivations will all play a part in resolving the narrative, rather than reading most of the action through the eyes of its anti-hero Varrick and consequently often feels more like Peyton Place than a conventional crime novel. The novel's Charley Varrick is also less the brainy operator of the film and more a conniving and hardboiled con who is a good deal less smarter than some of those who are soon on his tail, particularly a sadistic Southern hit-man with the unlikely name of Molly; and who was memorably portrayed on screen by Joe Don Baker.

The writing style is generally sharp, lean and to the point, with the author swiftly sketching a number of distinct and different characters in economical yet vivid brushstrokes. However, the occasional digressions into the inners working of the Mafia and the country's financial system (including a prophetic prediction almost a half-century before it came to pass that physical money is destined to be abolished in favour of electronic transactions that would make Varrick and his ilk obsolete) can impede the action at times.

Therefore, the book is more cluttered with character and incident and, most notably, features plot developments that differ significantly from the cinematic adaptation. However, in spite of this and the occasional longueurs, this is a solid and generally brisk read for fans of hardboiled crime, as well as providing an interesting comparison to the film it inspired.

VERDICT: Bankable!

AFTERWORD: Pyramid Books' 1970 US paperback edition sells the book as more of a 'mob' novel than a crime caper with both the front and back cover blurbs emphasising the organised crime aspect over the bank robbery aspects. This is not altogether surprising given the success of Mario Puzo's The Godfather a year earlier (the title is also prominently name-checked on the front cover). In fact, reading the front and back cover give the misleading impression that this is a 'novel of the mafia', and unless you flick the pages to the chapter two heading, you would be unaware that this is the basis of the film Charley Varrick.  Author John Reese began writing for the pulps in the 1930s and subsequently mainly wrote Western novels and short stories (another novel Pity Us All appears to be his only other foray into crime fiction). Both this first paperback edition and any other editions (particularly the UK movie tie-in) seem to be rather uncommon these days for 1970s paperbacks, but it's a recommended read and one that deserves wider attention.

Sunday 9 January 2011

The Ridgway Women by Richard Neely (Keyhole Crime 57) (1982)

Wealthy thirty-eight year-old Diane Ridgway killed her abusive alcoholic industrialist husband during a drunken brawl many years ago and now spends her widowhood as an artist who paints representations of the Californian coastline. One day, she meets retired Colonel Christopher Warren after being introduced to him as the mystery buyer of a number of her paintings. Friendship blossoms into romance and, finally, marriage, and the couple subsequently move into her former marital home.

However, her grown-up daughter Jennifer - who resents her mother for apparently murdering her beloved father - re-enters her life with her current boyfriend Paul, a former New York stockbroker whom she met after he moved to the West Coast and the pair are invited to stay in Diane's house. Although tension remains between mother and daughter, Diane's life seems idyllic until an overheard telephone conversation threatens her security and sets in train a series of narrative twists and turns.

Richard Neely's 1975 novel is a twisty and satisfying thriller in which little is as it initially seems. The upscale 70s West Coast settings and characters are convincingly portrayed and Neely skillfully ratchets up the suspense and thrills in the second half once the action begins. This is most effectively achieved by using alternate chapter first-person narration by Diane and Jennifer to disorientate the reader and amplify the sense of a plot overwhelming the protagonists.

Neely is also adept at writing from the point of view of his initially vulnerable-seeming female characters, which is a trait shared with noir master (and Mr. Hardboiled favourite) Cornell Woolrich and makes a refreshing change from reading the patter of the usual square-jawed heroes in this type of crime fiction.

Admittedly, there are one or two contrivances and at least one obvious twist late on that experienced readers should pick up on, but this still maintains the interest until the final page - particularly as the reveal and wrap-up involves quite a bit of flashing back and re-evaluating previous events. Overall, this is a smooth and polished page-turner and a recommended read.

VERDICT: Neely really good!

AFTERWORD: Richard Neely is a genre writer who deserves to be better known and more widely read by thriller fans. The author Ed Gorman certainly rates him - particularly his period suspense novel The Walter Syndrome whose voice he likens to that of Fredric Brown (and this is high praise indeed) - and it has been noted that his books were packaged more as conventional novels than thrills and that this may have impeded awareness amongst genre fans. A couple of his books have even been filmed (The Damned Innocents by Claude Chabrol as Innocents With Dirty Hands and The Plastic Nightmare by Wolfgang Petersen as Shattered), so he is not exactly a 'lost' or unknown novelist. Instead, he is an undeservedly underrated writer whose sense of narrative control and penchant for twists and narrative switchbacks means that his books are almost all good reads - and some are even in the front rank.

Friday 7 January 2011

52 Pick-Up (1986) (MGM DVD, 2004) 106 mins.

'One dumb move and these animals rush in', observes blue-collar guy turned successful industrialist Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider) as he contemplates how his life has been turned upside down after he has an affair with a stripper called Cini (Kelly Preston) and is subsequently blackmailed by a trio of Los Angeles lowlives, Alan Raimy (John Glover), Leo Franks (Robert Trebor) and Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III). These criminals have filmed footage showing Harry in compromising situations with Cini and want a six-figure sum for the videotape (this is the 80s).

However, Harry - who intended ending the affair at the same time as his wife Barbara (Ann-Margret) is selected to run for political office - won't pay and can't go to the police for fear of derailing Barbara's political ambitions. He also realises that once he starts paying the men, they will probably keep coming back for more. So, when Harry repeatedly refuses to pay, the blackmailers raise the stakes considerably when they murder Cini and cleverly frame Harry for the crime. Harry must either pay up or bring his military experience, street smarts and skills into play as he attempts to turn the tables on the men who have turned his life upside down.

This is a dark, tense, gritty and rewarding adaptation of a 1974 Elmore Leonard crime novel, partly adapted by Leonard himself, directed with an eye for the convincingly low-life milieu by John Frankenheimer and is a film that hasn't received its dues down the years and remains almost forgotten a quarter of a century after its original theatrical release. A possible explanation for this is that the film thoroughly immerses itself in the sleazy porno netherworld inhabited by its villainous trio (Raimy owns a porno theatre and appears to have ambitions to make it as an adult film-maker, Leo manages a strip club and Bobby appears to be a pimp).

The depiction of this involves frequent and often prolonged female nudity - particularly from Kelly Preston during a hard to watch filmed 'snuff movie- style slaying and 80s pop star Vanity, some strong sexualised violence and occasional walk-ons by 80s porn performers like Ron Jeremy (who even receives thanks in the end credits), Jamie Gillis and Amber Lynn - often in various states of undress - that lend the film a genuinely convincing seedy ambience that may have scared some critics away from endorsing it (even though it was well-received at the time by US critics Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin from The New York Times) and may also have been a turn-off for mainstream audiences.

Scheider is his usual reliable self as the somewhat tarnished and not particularly likeable hero (actually, there aren't many likeable characters populating the film), but it's the villains who really steal the film from under him. John Glover in particular as the weaselly, cowardly but persuasive ringleader of the blackmailing trio who thinks himself smarter than he is steals every scene he appears in, Robert Trebor convincingly sweats and squirms the deeper he is reluctantly drawn into a scheme that spirals out of control whilst Clarence Williams III lumbers around as the dangerous and possibly psychopathic cocaine-snorting 'muscle' with a hair-trigger temper.

The plot satisfyingly twists and turns its table-turning course and holds the interest throughout as Harry cleverly exploits the criminals' paranoia, fear and greed by gradually turning them against each other and, overall, this is an often gripping, occasionally unpleasant and sordid Leonard adaptation that deserves to be more highly regarded and widely seen.

VERDICT: Pick up!

AFTERWORD: At the time of writing, this is available on DVD in the US and UK. Interestingly, the same production company, Cannon Films, also produced an earlier adaptation of the novel as The Ambassador, which was directed by J. Lee Thompson two years earlier, and relocated the action to the Middle East. This earlier adaptation currently remains unavailable on DVD even though it boasts a strong cast, which includes Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson (in his final screen appearance), Donald Pleasence and Ellen Burstyn.

Monday 3 January 2011

Crashout (1955) (Republic Pictures Home Video, 1988) 88 mins.

Six tough convicts - five of whom are serving time for murder - break out of jail and are pursued across country by the police, with the promise of loot stashed by ruthless wounded group leader Van (William Bendix) keeping the group together as they flee. However, character flaws lead to their number being depleted as they hold up a roadhouse, catch a train and hole up in an isolated farmhouse occupied by an unwed mother (Beverly Michaels), her aged mother and young son before a final reckoning on a snowy mountainside...

A brisk and exciting hardboiled convicts on the run melodrama, featuring a stalwart cast of 50s B-Movie actors (in addition to William Bendix and Beverly Michaels, the group of escaped convicts led by Bendix is augmented by William Talman, Luther Adler, Gene Evans, Marshall Thompson and Arthur Kennedy as the only non-murderer in the group and Gloria Talbott also features in a memorable cameo as a train passenger who briefly offers one of the escaped prisoners the chance of a normal life beyond the prison walls). Given the time the film was made, a downbeat fate for the protagonists is assured, although this lends the film an air of fatalism that undercuts the hopes, desires and expectations of the central characters.

The pacing only lets up towards the end when a brief romance threatens to derail the convicts' plans, but the film remains a taut and tense experience overall, with some surprisingly gritty violence for the time including a vivid burning to death maintaining the excitement level. The characters are all well-drawn and effectively played by a cast that mostly consists of character actors and director Lewis R. Foster also keeps the pot boiling nicely throughout with the latent aggression, jealousies and petty hatreds meaning that it occasionally bubbles over.

All of which adds up to a punchy crime melodrama that seems to have been neglected and relatively unseen in recent years.

VERDICT: Con-vincing!

AFTERWORD: At the time of writing, this film remains unreleased on DVD. A now almost impossible to find 1986 UK video release was followed by a more easily obtainable 1988 US Republic Pictures Home Video release (new and used copies of this version are regularly listed on Amazon and, occasionally, on Ebay). It remains to be seen whether a rare theatrical screening at the 2011 Noir City Film Festival creates enough interest for a subsequent DVD release.