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 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.