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 November 2012

The Sweat Of Fear by Robert C. Dennis (Arrow Books) (1975)

One night, successful architect Paul Reeder sees a terrified girl running for her life in a quiet suburb. The problem is, he wasn't there at the time. Paul has only seen the crime after receiving images from a compact mirror he picked up after it was dropped by a woman in the foyer of his office building. And this fortunate - or unfortunate - intervention leads Paul to discover that he is psychic. However, his new gift - or affliction - involves him in a recent unsolved murder and a cast of characters including the members of a hippy cult that doesn't appear to practice peace and love, a reluctant witness and a killer (or killers) who resent the appearance of an amateur detective with a seemingly other-wordly gift.

This early 70s murder mystery whodunit promises much but delivers little. The psychic aspect of the plot is never explained and is apparently randomly acquired. So, instead of adding an exciting extra dimension to the narrative this merely results in Paul attempting to get his hands on some trinket or other in order to receive a psychic charge and advance the stuttering plot. This means the novel is repetitive and pedestrian and also becomes progressively less interesting given the similarity of these narrative building blocks.

It's possible this might not matter as much if the characters were quirky, vivid and leapt off the page - or if the author worked hard at evoking a time and place in which to immerse the reader. Unfortunately, the characters are cardboard, and location and incident bland to the point of tedium. So, in spite of a neat and rather cynical twist in the tail - which was a not uncommon narrative device at the time - there is little to engross or entertain and even less of a charge (psychic or otherwise) to convince the reader that there is more to this formulaic whodunit with a fantasy twist than meets the eye.

AFTERWORD: I was previously unaware of author Robert C. Dennis, but some amateur online sleuthing - unaided by any psychic insights - reveals that his literary career was far eclipsed by his screenwriting career. This was both lengthy and prolific, lasted from the early 50s until his death in 1983, and predominantly involved TV series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Outer Limits, Hawaii Five-O,  Kojak, Charlie's Angels and T.J. Hooker.

Unfortunately, this novel exhibits the worst aspects of stolid and stereotypical TV genre writing of the day and the author's predominant employment in TV scriptwriting suggests that this was his strength. This UK paperback edition (there was an earlier UK Gollancz hardcover) was acquired for pennies rather than pounds along with a batch of 60s and 70s UK horror paperback fiction at a sadly since closed local charity shop. It boasts evocative - if slightly cheesy - uncredited artwork which suggests the book is a stalk and slash horror novel rather than this disappointing and forgettable whodunit.

Saturday 27 October 2012

The Cult Of Killers by Donald MacIvers (Leisure Books 364DK) (1976)

Donald MacIvers (or 'Mac', as he is known to his friends) is scared. A Harvard drop-out hooked on drugs, booze and sex, Mac has been indoctrinated into a murderous cult influenced by Charles Manson. This cult of killers murder  at will and at random in 'a war to the death, a fight to the finish' fuelled by the deranged belief that this will initiate an anarchic free for all from which they will emerge triumphant and omnipotent. Led by the diminutive Crazy Mary and assisted by her her murderously adept sidekick Esmerelda, the cult have pushed Mac to the end of his tether and a point at which he will no longer participate in their murderous plans. So, seizing on the chance to flee, Mac makes a run for it. However, he soon finds that the cult's tentacles stretch far and wide, and that not even help from such unlikely sources as a wealthy gay pick-up, an amenable young prostitute or even organised crime can seem to shake his former associates from their vengeful path...

An exploitative, sleazy 70s urban chase thriller scribbled in the shadow of symbol of the 60s meltdown. This dubious effort is a grimy, melodramatic and fast-paced 'X'-rated race through a nightmarish night-world that occasionally releases a seemingly authentic 42nd Street Grindhouse odour reminiscent of the celluloid revenge epic The Exterminator (1980). Ludicrously pitched to an almost hysterical - and often hysterically reactionary - level of heightened realism, this evocation of society's squalid underbelly is undoubtedly effective and the novel is undeniably a page-turner. However, it is also ludicrously implausible with the pursuing cult members inexplicably able to repeatedly reach their tentacles into Mac's most obscure hiding places without any plausible explanation, beyond the fact that Manson himself may be supernaturally divining Mac's whereabouts and telepathically communicating them to his deranged acolytes from his San Quentin prison cell.

The sexual politics of the book are hardwired to the times it was written, and the grisly fate of a knife-wielding female cult member who is shot by Mac several inches lower than her knife hand tells the reader all one needs to know about the ideologically soundness of the narrative set-up in which its female characters are at worst psychotic nymphomaniacs and at best helpful hookers. However, this determinedly downbeat tale actually plays out like a more graphically violent, sexually explicit and overtly misogynist update on a 50s Gold Medal original template spliced with The Fugitive.

So, for those who wish to be transported back to the world of seamy 70s paperback originals, this undoubtedly provides a couple of hours of rough hair-chested macho thrills; and is certainly the type of generic throwback which wouldn't stand a chance of getting published in these more politically correct times.

AFTERWORD: This is a curious package insofar as the cover blurb ('The horrifying revelations of a fiendish, sadistic murderer') and artwork featuring a well-drawn and convincing likeness of Charles Manson lording it over a poorly rendered sacrificial rite that may have been produced by a different artist suggests that this may be another non-fiction cash-in on the notorious real-life crimes associated with Charles Manson and his 'Family'.

The back cover also suggests that the novel may be derived from real events ('The author, formerly a member of the group, now in hiding, has revealed that the worst fears of the police were true. This is the whole sordid story'), although it also refers to the cult 'killing the female actress in a S&M flick'; an incident which does not even feature in the book.

Given this misdirection and the fact that I have been unable to ascertain anything about author Donald MacIvers beyond the fact that he is accredited with an introduction to a 1973 Leisure Books title Kothar - Barbarian Swordsman by Gardner F. Fox, this curious tangential addition to post-Manson literature is best enjoyed less for its tenuous links to that subgenre and more for its grubby generic thrills.  

Friday 31 August 2012

Killing Cousins by Fletcher Flora (Four Square Books 1786) (2nd printing, 1967)

Mrs. Willie Hogan is a bored resident of Ouichita Road, Quivera. Her seemingly rather dull husband Howard is wealthy enough to enable her to live comfortably, but she responds by taking a series of lovers to alleviate the small-town tedium. However, after being goaded one night by an exasperated Howard, Willie shoots and kills him. Now, she has to turn to Howard's cousin, the similarly bored but far smarter Quincy - with whom she has also been dallying - in order to get rid of her husband's corpse and provide a plausible explanation for his sudden disappearance. However, the apparently perfect plan swiftly begins to fall apart as the flaws and foibles of the small-town cast of characters are peeled away.

Fletcher Flora's 1961 novel is a short, sharp and punchy tale exposing the hypocrisies of affluent post-War America. Set amongst an often amoral middle-class milieu of louche country-club types for whom every hour seems to be cocktail hour, Flora subverts many generic expectations. For one thing, Willie is far from the conniving femme fatale one first suspects her to be and is instead rather dense and unable to plot herself out of her predicament. Her apparent salvation - or partner in crime - is far from being the strapping everyman type and is instead a rather dissipated seducer with a sharp understanding of human psychology. He and all the other male characters are also similarly flawed in being so taken with Willie's child-woman beauty that their moral compasses are all, to a degree, tilted out of whack and bear directly on Willie's ultimate fate; seemingly even beyond the final page of the novel.

Therefore, although ostensibly a hard-boiled crime novel with more than its fair share of twists and turns and characters emerging from the woodwork to seemingly thwart the protagonists' larcenous ambitions, the primary jabs here are often more satirical than generic with the author laying bare the often seemingly broadly drawn characters' flaws with a keen sense of moral disgust.

Overall, this is an impressive and well-written novel that rather ambushes the reader with its concealed intent, as well as being one with a cynical wrap-up that marks a shift from the generally re-established moral order of the 1950s crime novel to the more questioning decade that lay ahead.

VERDICT: Relatively wonderful.

AFTERWORD: This is the first novel I have read by an author I was previously more familiar with through reading his short stories in various crime digests of the '50s and '60s (e.g. Manhunt, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine). On the basis of this one, he's certainly a canny stylist whose other novels - which seem to be none too tough to find online - warrant further investigation.

Friday 3 August 2012

Thieves Fall Out by Cameron Kay (Gold Medal 311) (1953)

Pete Wells is an American in a tight spot in post-war Cairo. Relieved of his wallet and bereft of cash after a night on the town, he willingly falls in with a dissolute Englishman called Hastings and Helene, Comtesse de Rastignac, a larcenous pair who offer him a means of financial resolution from his imperilled situation. They persuade Pete to act as a courier for a valuable relic which he must collect from Luxor and return to them in Cairo, from where it can be spirited out of the country. However, a persistent and seemingly corrupt local police officer is following Pete, who soon discovers that obtaining the valuable relic and returning it to his current employers may be more difficult and dangerous than he could have imagined; especially after he falls for a beautiful blonde German singer called Anna whose connections to the country's ruler could precipitate even greater uproar and bloodshed.

What appears to be a formulaic if colourful and adventuresome Gold Medal paperback original is lent added spice by the fact that 'Cameron Kay' was a pseudonym for Gore Vidal. This means that the writing is both smoother and more polished, but also less gritty and hardboiled, than many of the publisher's usual offerings and lends the book greater interest than its rather routine subject matter might otherwise suggest.

Unsurprisingly, given his subsequent novels, the young Vidal seems to have more interest in the psychology, corruption and occasional lustful inclinations of the supporting cast than in the plotting or pace, with many of characters seeming more the kind of archetypes readily found in films of the day like Casablanca and Sirocco (for example, in terms of appearance and character Hastings appears to have been strongly based on Sydney Greenstreet). Wells himself is essentially a two-fisted caricature stumbling and fighting his way through a narrative of double-crosses and deceit and the third person narrative means that there is little sense of getting inside his head or, indeed, the story.

So, although this moves at a rapid clip and features some often interesting incidental detail - particularly sexual (as well a climax involving a revolt in Cairo that unwittingly possesses greater contemporary resonance), were it not for the interesting provenance this would otherwise be a competent if throwaway example of its publisher's prodigious and often more impressive output.


AFTERWORD: Apparently, Gore Vidal refused to sanction any reprints of this book. This means that this is the only US edition and, along with its even more uncommon UK Red Seal edition (No.58, 1956), is seemingly tough to find - especially in shape. Consequently, given its scarcity and desirability, it commands rather high prices from online dealers who are aware of the identity of the author hiding behind the pseudonym.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

How Awful About Allan by Henry Farrell (Four Square Books 1479) (1966)

Allan Colleigh has been partially blind for several months following the death of his father in a house fire and he now suffers from 'hysterical blindness', a possibly temporary condition directly linked to the trauma and one that could possibly be reversed by a similar shocking incident. He lives with his sister Katherine in an old Gothic house near to the university campus where his father lectured and also receives occasionally care and attention from their neighbour Olive. Allan is troubled by a number of occurrences that appear linked to the arrival of a barely glimpsed male student lodger who appears to keep irregular hours, and this triggers his increasing paranoia as he begins to suspect that someone - or something - intends leading him to his doom.

The reader shares Allan's increasing apprehension and growing terror through the first person narration which effectively maintains the level of uncertainty until the final twists. Author Henry Farrell's best known novel - and the one which the cover blurb reminds us of - was Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and this novel similarly features two female characters who may hold the key to unlock the narrative resolution. The blindness metaphor blurs the sense of illusion and reality and similarly obscures the truth from the reader, and the tension is also generally kept at a high level as the author makes the cold, creepy and creaking house with its dark recesses and hidden secrets a forbidden character that seems to possess a life of its own.

Less satisfying is the twist in the tail which relies on aspects of character and appearance not being revealed to Allan throughout the novel. It also includes a lazy plot device involving an inscribed book that is neither satisfactorily nor credibly handled.

Overall, this is a well-written psychodrama, albeit one that would have benefited from some tighter plotting.

VERDICT: Not awful, just average.

AFTERWORD: The author subsequently adapted the novel into a 1970 teleplay which was directed by Curtis Harrington (see Games below) and starred Anthony Perkins as Allan, Julie Harris as Katherine and Joan Hackett as Olive. Given that it jettisons most of the first person perspective save for some blurry scenes where Allan is menaced by person or persons unknown, the narrative takes a far more conventional path. Much of the claustrophobia and chilly tension is dissipated and the brief running time also means it never really works up a head of steam so as to function as an effective psychodrama. However, it is well-played by a surprisingly strong principal cast, although it still can't resolve the unsatisfactory inscribed book plot device. The film appears to be widely available on various budget DVD labels.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Games (1967) (Universal Vault Series) 100 mins.

Paul and Jennifer Montgomery (James Caan and Katharine Ross) are wealthy socialites who live on New York's East Side in a house decorated with pop art paintings and sculptures and Victorian paraphernalia. The keep themselves amused by staging quirky soirees and playing games, and soon involve an enigmatic older woman Lisa Schindler (Simone Signoret) in the latter when she is taken ill in their house and invited to stay. However, the games escalate from practical jokes and take an apparently deadly turn. But who is playing for keeps?...

Finally released on DVD in the US, albeit as a movie-on-demand DVD-R, this twisty 1967 thriller is an enjoyable, effective and suspenseful thriller. Much of the film takes place in the Paul and Jennifer's house, which lends the film a claustrophobic air but also occasionally feels studio-bound and rather stagey. That said, there are some effective twists (well, they worked for me, anyway) and although the presence of Simone Signoret as the mysterious Lisa intentionally evokes her ambiguous role in the earlier superior Les Diaboliques (The Fiends) and she is given less to do than her top billing suggests, a youthful James Caan and Katharine Ross effectively convey the sense of louche moneyed boredom that underpins the couple's desire for excitement and adventure.

Director Curtis Harrington handles the suspense effectively, with a body that won't stop bleeding as it rises and then gets stuck in an elevator being a notable Hitchcockian highlight. There's little here beyond an oddball opening party, the occasional modish pop art trappings and some playing around with mirrors and the notion of reflections to remind one of his avant-garde underground origins as this is by and large a slick studio thriller; albeit one with an ending that foreshadows cynical 70s film-making rather than seeming of a piece with 60s genre filmmaking. Nevertheless, it's a reminder that Harrington was one of the more underused talents of the times and one whose other cult films (e.g. Night Tide, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, What's The Matter With Helen?, The Killing Kind and Ruby) are well-worth seeking out.

VERDICT: Worth playing.

AFTERWORD: $20 or thereabouts for this movie-on-demand DVD-R is a high price which is just about worth paying for this bare bones catalogue title that would probably otherwise not be seen as worth releasing (although an off-air recording from, say, TCM would yield a similar product for far less outlay). There's also a seemingly common movie tie-in paperback by acclaimed 50s juvenile delinquency specialist Hal Ellson (see cover scan above) - although I have yet to read the book.

Monday 9 July 2012

Shoot It Again by Ed Lacy (Paperback Library 63-134) (1969) Formerly Titled: The Sex Castle

Clayton Biner is a would-be artist in his late 30s slumming it on the Mediterranean Riviera until one day he attempts to cash a cheque (or check as they say in the US) and discovers that the passport he presents to confirm his identity is not his own. This draws him into the first of his adventures in this book, and one that ends violently when he manages to rescue a heroin addict and extricate himself from a nightmarish scenario. As if this is not enough (we are only fifty pages in when this storyline is apparently resolved), the almost penniless Biner is subsequently persuaded to traffic a large quantity of heroin into the US. When his attempt to sell the heroin to his contact ends simialrly violently, Biner finds himself on the run from the Syndicate and has to forge a risky alliance with a female junkie as he attempts to make a score that will set him up for life.

Biner is an often amoral and generally dislikable anti-hero who narrates the tale in flashback with a jaundiced and cynical air. His contempt for humanity is, of course, a shield to attempt to protect himself from his own self-loathing, so that what emerges occasionally echoes Jim Thompson in its 'plague on all your houses' pitilessness and fatalistic narrative arc. The action is swift and the tale barrels along in clipped sentences, occasionally segueing into a stream of consciousness as we gradually discover what has transpired. The occasional burst of violence are also often graphic, seemingly foreshadowing the levels of realism that were soon to enter the cinematic mainstream (the book was written in 1963). And there's also atmosphere aplenty, from the seamier side of the Riviera settings in the opening section when various lost and jaded characters wash up to the seedy and sweaty desperate urban mileu of drinking dens and apartments inhabited by similar lost souls often hooked on narcotics that accelerate their spiral into despair.

Ed Lacy was a prolific author who had around thirty novels of mostly crime fiction published over a period of eighteen years before dying from a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1968. Born Leonard S. Zinberg, he is most often noted as the white creator of what is probably the first realistic and believable African-American private detective series character in Room To Swing (1957). As I own a copy of every novel he wrote, I really should have read more of them and aim to put that right very soon. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended to fans of pacy hardboiled crime fiction.

VERDICT: A real shot in the arm!

AFTERWORD: This retitled reprint must have one of the blandest and most misleading covers of all time. More closely resembling a James Bond cover with its smartly suited and booted executive type taking aim at the reader as a scantily-clad blonde clutching a fur coat drapes herself over his shoulder, the artwork could not be further away from the reality of the tale within if it tried (although I suppose a cover sporting a dissipated failure with a heroin addict woman in tow may not have shifted many copies in the eyes of its publisher). The original 1963 publication as The Sex Castle is not much better as the shapely redhead with the strategically-placed towel taking a phone call on a rather old-fashioned looking device on the cover - and who does not resemble any of the book's female characters - and a back cover that inaccurately sells the would-be reader a world of 'swimming pools in California, haciendas in Mexico' indicates the same publisher was similarly uncertain of what they were selling or who they intended to sell it to. six years earlier.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Trap For Cinderella by Sebastien Japrisot (Corgi Books GC7444) (1966)

I'll briefly summarise this one by paraphrasing Julian Symons' Sunday Times review that appears in part on the back cover, as to go into further detail risks giving away too much of the plot. 'The girl has been burned in a house on the French Riviera. Her companion, a girl of the same age died in the fire. Is the survivor Mi, the heiress, or Do, her adoring platonically lesbian companion?'

Sebastian Japrisot is a pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossi, and this pseudonym is an anagram of the author's real name. The writing is stylish and witty, and even though the events in the novel are certainly far-fetched, they remain just this side of credible. The well-realised backdrops - particularly those set amongst the idle rich and which recall the French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) - suggest a familiarity with the disdainful and morally compromised that gives the reader a strong sense of whom to root for, even though the payoff may leave a sour taste (and for those who think they have it figured out early on, there are a couple of surprises to catch you off-guard).

Riviera noir set predominantly amidst a sun-dappled locale, and recommended for those on the lookout for some continental 60s-set suspense.

VERDICT: In-Cind-iary!

AFTERWORD: As with many 60s noir and hardboiled titles, this Corgi paperback edition seems to be rather elusive these days (although I keep forgetting that books of this vintage are over forty years old, so there's no reason why they should still be plentiful). Some of the reprint editions also seem to be priced on the high side (the 1990 No Exit Press edition appears to be the most common and cheapest), but an English language film adaptation directed by Iain Softley is due to be released in late 2012, so a movie tie-in edition may be in the offing (NB There was an earlier 1965 French language adaptation that does not appear to have been released on video or DVD or translated into English).

Fifty Roads To Town by Frederick Nebel (Jonathan Cape, 1936)

The Outpost Hotel in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, is the staging post for several lost souls who converge during a snowstorm. Reluctant fire extinguisher salesman Edwin Henry stops off during one of his occasional visits and subsequently becomes trapped on an impassable road. Seeking refuge in a log cabin, he is reluctantly welcomed inside by Peter Nostrand, a man whom Henry had previously encountered, first on the road travelling to the Outpost Hotel and later at the hotel where he had signed the register as Thomas Layton. Nostrand has good reason to be hiding out incognito, as he had been caught in flagrante with Irene Prior by her husband Philip, who had shot and wounded him and who subsequently swore to kill him. With a heavy snowstorm marooning Edwin at the log cabin, and without a phone to tell his wife Edna of his whereabouts, a manhunt is soon in full swing. And as other stragglers from the storm arrive at the Outpost Hotel, they are joined by the vengeful Philip Prior and a frantic Edna, whilst Edwin begins to suspect that Peter Nostrand is not who he seems to be.

This is the third novel by one of the unofficial founder members of the 'Hardboiled' school, a man who already had around two hundred published short stories to his name and whom Black Mask editor Joseph T. Shaw apparently considered to be the equal of Chandler or Hammett. This is more of a melodrama than a hardboiled thriller, and one which essentially turns on the idea, latterly expressed in the novel that 'It is the unforeseen signpost that makes or breaks a man'. With a highly readable, tight and pared-down prose style honed in the pulps, Nebel moves the tale along at a brisk clip, rapidly building the tale through the motives and actions of the disparate characters.

Underpinning the tale is a strong sense that it is the inability of human beings to connect that determines their outcomes, even when - or perhaps particularly - when they are flung together in an intense melting pot where they are forced to depend on each other. In this sense, it is a rather bleak tale (as well as one that makes me curious to see the 1937 film loosely based on it and which, according to IMDB, is a comedy about a man - presumably Nostrand - who 'hides out in the country to avoid testifying in his friends' divorce' and who is mistaken for a gangster by various people), and one which interestingly does not resolve itself neatly as there are some neat twists in the tale which doesn't end happily for many of the characters.

Given the rather bleak psychological undertone and often dark tonal shadings - particularly in the final pages when the tragic climax plays out - this appears more modern than one might expect from a text originally set down in 1936 (notwithstanding the presence of some stock 30s stereotypes including a wisecracking tough cookie torch singer, a hardboiled newshawk, and a slow-witted hotel employee whose physical ticks seem to have been created with an eye on his cinematic comedy potential).

Highly recommended if you can find it at a reasonable price (and apologies for the rather grotty front cover, but this is the cheapest copy I could find - as well as the only UK edition I've ever seen offered for sale).

VERDICT: Roadworthy

AFTERWORD: I have no idea why this title - or Nebel's other full-length novels - are almost impossible to find or, more importantly, have never been reprinted (although the highly obscure Century Mystery Weekend to Kill - originally issued as a double with Hugh Pentecost's Secret Corridors - has been reprinted by Wildside Press). He was a key hardboiled author of his day who remains generally unsung and virtually unknown outside a small core of genre enthusiasts and who, on the basis of this novel, is certainly worth reading and championing.