28 July 2010

The new Hard Case is here, the new Hard Case is here!

I've spent a bit of time on this blog talking about Hard Case Crime. No. 66 showed up in the mail today: Murder is My Business by Brett Halliday. It is from 1945 and features private eye Mike Shayne. The cover is by one of the most recognizable of illustrators, Robert McGinnis. You know his work from movie posters like Barbarella and Thunderball. He obviously has a thing for deathly pale, freakishly long-limbed women, as we see one on nine of his ten covers for the line. (I'm a Glenn Orbik man, myself.) As much as I've enjoyed reading and collecting the series, I must admit that the quality has been disappointing. Many of the reprints, even the modern ones, were dull and dated reads. Contemporary novelists like Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Christa Faust, and Allan Guthrie all produced good stuff, and old-schoolers Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake were always worth a look, but overall the set is a bit of a letdown. I'd like to see more new writers and more 21st-century noir. The reprints are a nice history lesson, but there are too many. The cover art has been a lot of fun--I've half a wall devoted to it in my parlor and it looks damn good. (The lineup can be seen in thumbnail here.) Here's what came today:

19 July 2010

Bloom's fantasy--not quite half way

I'm still tackling Ulysses. Alas, I'm not even halfway through! The most recent episode took place on Sandymount strand, where Leopold Bloom sees a pretty girl--Gerty McDowell--who flirts with him from afar. Most of the scene is told from her perspective in the ornate and overheated style of 19th-century romance novels. She daydreams rhapsodically about love while sitting on the beach with her friends. When they are distracted, she contorts her body in order to reveal her legs and underthings to Bloom. He eyes her from behind a rock and masturbates as she becomes more emboldened. A fireworks show is in progress, and Bloom's climax occurs as they burst overhead. Here's a sample:
 And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely! O so soft, sweet, soft!
The rest of the section is told mostly via Bloom's stream-of-consciousness. He ruminates on his actions, thinking that he was a cad and behaved like a brute, but he also rationalizes, telling himself that she enjoyed his attention and that all women appreciate being reminded of their sexual hold over men. He also fantasizes about seeing her again:
O! Exhausted that female has me. Not so young now. Will she come here tomorrow? Wait for her somewhere for ever. Must come back. Murderers do. Will I?
It's a strange book, and a difficult one, but as I mentioned before I find it oddly compelling. I have a feeling that I'll be coming back to it--like a murderer to his crime scene--after I finally finish.

16 July 2010

Idiots in Sacramento

Lots of people don't know that asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral. It is often mined from serpentine rocks. Serpentine is the State Rock of California. You have probably seen road cuts containing this lovely grey-green stuff in your travels throughout the state. The rock is intimately associated with the unique flora of California, as many species are endemic due to the presence of serpentine soils. Serpentines are also associated with gold-bearing rocks, and we all know how important gold is to the history and culture of the Golden State. (Gold is the State Mineral.)

It seems State Senator Gloria Romero has a problem with this. She's sponsoring a bill that would strip serpentine of its State Rock status. Apparently serpentine is bad because asbestos comes from it. Never mind that EVERY SINGLE INDUSTRIAL MATERIAL WE USE COMES FROM ROCKS. I guess ground is bad, too, because oil comes out of it. Substances are not good or bad. They are what they are. Oil isn't bad. Neither is aluminum, or copper, or chromium, or clay, or gypsum, or quartz, or talc, or asbestos. How we choose, as a society, to extract, use, and dispose of these things is what makes them a benefit or a danger. Most things, in the real world, are a little of both, aren't they? Didn't we learn this stuff in school? We're grownups now, aren't we? You'd think our "leaders" in Sacramento would have better things to do, like fund our schools, fix our roads, balance our budget--you know, actual work.

You, madam, are an idiot.

15 July 2010

Old school noir

David Goodis is one of the finest writers you never heard of. You may be familiar with the Francois Truffaut film Shoot the Piano Player--that was an adaptation of Goodis' 1956 novel Down There. Goodis also wrote the screenplay for the 1947 Bogart & Bacall vehicle Dark Passage, which was based on Goodis' novel of the same name. In 1965, Goodis sued United Artists and ABC-TV for copyright infringement, claiming that the hit show The Fugitive was plagiarized from that book. The case was ultimately settled in Goodis' favor in 1972, but he had died by then. Wikipedia claims "the case is still regarded as a landmark decision in intellectual property rights and copyright law." (Details here.) Despite the fact that you probably never heard of David Goodis, you have encountered his work or his legacy. What you ought to do is pick up one of his novels. I blogged earlier about the superb The Wounded and the Slain, recently re-issued by Hard Case Crime. I just finished Night Squad (1961), and Cassidy's Girl (1951) awaits me on the shelf. I found them at Moe's Books in Berkeley, and both are 1990s Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions. Night Squad is the story of Corey Bradford, a disgraced ex-cop who goes to work for a gangster. At the same time, he's recruited for undercover work by a special "black ops" police outfit--the Night Squad--charged with taking down the crime bosses. Bradford has his own reasons for playing both sides against middle, and the book is really the story of him figuring out who and what he's loyal to. It's set in "the Swamp," the squalid ghetto of an unnamed city where street violence, drug abuse, prostitution, and corruption are the norm. Goodis uses the crime novel form to explore larger themes like betrayal and reconciliation, and to look at people in an unadorned, brutally frank way. He's not judgmental, in fact, he's sympathetic to even the most hardened and vicious of his characters. The tone and mood of his work is bleak, but surprisingly, is never hopeless. It's a tough balancing act, something it takes a master to pull off. Even if crime fiction isn't your bag, you can't help but notice the lucidity and vividness of Goodis' prose, and you can't help but be moved by his empathy for the down-and-out, the distressed, and the desperate. I think you ought to put David Goodis on your reading list so he'll be one of the finest writers you have heard of.

13 July 2010

Football noir

The Jook is the story of an ex-NFL superstar named Zelmont Raines who has partied away his fortune and is reduced to playing American football in Europe. When the league creates a new franchise in his hometown of LA, "Zee" gives it one last shot and tries out for the team, hoping to make a comeback. Burdened by debt, legal hassles, and an insatiable appetite for pussy and crack cocaine, Raines is the classic doomed noir protagonist. When he gets involved with a cunning and ruthless femme fatale and her absurd heist scheme, it's only a matter of time before his world comes crashing down. Los Angeles writer Gary Phillips puts us right in the middle of the Southland's mean streets, peopling the novel with local hoods, imported gangsters, and big money wheeler-dealers. You can't have an LA story without dreamers and wannabes, as that city, more than any other, sells glitz, glamor, and the high life to countless hopefuls. No matter how many faded stars and failed big shots litter the streets, there are ten to take their place in the great, grasping swarm of climbers that give the city its most distinctive characteristic. Mr. Phillips lays bare not only the moral hypocrisy and phoniness of professional sports, but makes us think about the corrosive effect these million-dollar TV fantasies have on communities and their youngsters in particular. It's a hot, trashy read, with foul mouths and sordid sex, and it's a smart, gripping tale of survival and redemption as well. The Jook is part of PM Press' Switchblade crime fiction imprint. "Jook" is an alternate spelling of "juke," which means not only to dance and party ("juke joint", "jukebox"), but to cut and maneuver on the football field in order to get past a defender and make a play. WordMan™ thought it was a pretty clever title.

12 July 2010

Summer noir

I-5: A Novel of Transport, Crime and Sex is one of the 2009 releases from Oakland's PM Press in their Switchblade hardboiled fiction line. Berkeley writer Summer Brenner tackles the dark and tragic subject of international human trafficking with the story of Anya, a Russian peasant girl who is lured to America with promises of jobs and freedom, but finds herself instead a captive and a prostitute. Ms. Brenner writes Anya's story mostly in the present tense and in a plain, unadorned style that pulls the reader in and creates empathy with the girl's terrible fate. The story is set in California, mostly along the long, gray ribbon of road that bisects the state and joins its major population centers. The highway is always, metaphorically, an artery, a path for the lifeblood of the organism. We've all jockeyed for space on "the Five" with the endless number of tractor-trailer rigs, tankers, and freight trucks that carry our household goods and our industrial materials--the very stuff of our society's existence. How many of us thought that those big diesels might be shipping a human cargo? Brenner puts us right in the middle of that sordid enterprise, with its suave operators and elaborate deception schemes, but also manages to tell a brisk crime tale as well, with oddballs, sympathetic losers, creeps, and thugs. Good noir fiction puts you deep into the underbelly of everyday life, and opens your eyes to the damned and the doomed that are all around us. I-5 manages to be an exposé as well as a novel, and works brilliantly on both levels. Brenner concentrates on the human element, allowing the story to unfold and tell itself, and one can't help but be disturbed by a world that allows for disposable people.

08 July 2010

The World Cup

I'm only a mildly-interested football--er, soccer--fan, but I've watched quite a bit of the action from South Africa this year. That's mostly due to the new DishTV I had installed so I could watch my favorite baseball club, and the fact that the early-morning broadcasts fit my summer schedule nicely. I watched both group stage and knockout stage action, though I did miss the most of the U.S.-Ghana match. My rooting interest was simple: I wanted to see a new champion. I wanted the finals to involve teams that had never hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy. That's worked out rather nicely, with Spain facing Holland, don't you think? I admit I was rooting for Germany--three-time champion--to beat Spain, but only because I like teams that score lots of goals, and Germany had soundly thrashed England and Argentina, scoring four goals in each match. Four goals is almost unprecedented in a competition where 1-0 is not only the most common score, but is also considered a decisive result. I'll admit, the dearth of goals is the main reason I can't get too excited by international football. They lads are certainly terrific athletes, and the steady flow and rhythm of passing and probing, passing and probing, can be entertaining. But goddammit, kick the fecking ball towards the net, will you? The game--at this level, is just too damn tactical and defensive. I think a team ought to feel that they can score, at the very least, one goal per half. That would make, for the most part, 3-2 and 2-1 results common rather than out of the ordinary. And don't get me started on the silliness of penalty kicks deciding championship games. I mean, should the World Series be decided by a home-run derby? Ye gods, that would be hideous. Being an American, I still have a hard time with "draws" as well. If FIFA restructured the group stages so that zero points were awarded for draws, just like for losses, you'd see a much more aggressive and attacking style of play as teams would have to go for the win. Spain, who certainly were the better club versus Germany, and deserved to win, has won its last three matches 1-0. Booooooooooring!!!! I have a feeling the final with Holland will end 1-0 as well, which would take some of the luster off the championship, at least for me. I also expect it will be Spain 1, Holland 0, as the Spanish team looks even more disciplined about possession and ball control than the Dutch team. We'll see, of course, it could be 90 minutes of cracking good football and end 4-3! But that would be a shocker. Perhaps the best thing about soccer is it requires so little time investment. The whole thing is over pretty quickly, what with the running clock and the short halftime. I can agree with fans that it is a beautiful game, but I cannot accept the notion that it is THE beautiful game. Sorry, that's a crock of snooty bullshit. Nor can I buy the idea that these guys are the "best" athletes in the world. Any sport played at an international level requires great athletes. I wonder how these fellows would do in ice hockey, where you have to skate like Michelle Kwan, crack heads like Ronnie Lott, and dribble, pass, and shoot like Kobe Bryant. With a stick, fer chrissakes! Trying to bully people into believing that one particular sport is the best with pronouncements like that makes me want to gag. Sure, I'll buy that it is the most popular sport in the world, but that is certainly not much of an argument. After all, Titanic is the most popular movie ever--does that make it the best? I don't think so.

That's my take on the World Cup. Congratulations to Spain and Holland for their success, and may the best squad take home the honors. And score some bloody goals, will ya?

05 July 2010


My dad's first cousin lives in Sligo, Ireland. He was a wonderful host when we visited that country, hauling us around, introducing us everywhere, giving us insight and opinion on all things Irish. When he talked about someone he didn't like, he invariably referred to them as a "bleedin' gobshite." Of course I though it was the most marvelous insult ever. The Irish version of the Queen's English is full of peculiarities and lovely bits, and I can't get enough of it. Pronouns are particularly fun. You hear the reflexive a lot: "Is it just yourself today?" Or the use of the personal for the possessive: "I reached for me drink." Another of my favorites is "your man" or "your man there," used to refer to some other person. In formal study, the dialect is called Hiberno-English, from the old Latin name of Ireland, Hibernia. There's enough unusual syntax, curious idioms, and colorful vocabulary there to keep WordMan™ happy for the rest of his days. Alas, like all things old, Hiberno-English is dying out. The younger generations have become more and more Americanised (as the Irish would spell it) and the country more global and multi-cultural. TV, the internet, mobiles (Irish for cell phones), and a flood of euros will do that.

Fortunately, there's Irish novelist Ken Bruen and his fictional creation PI Jack Taylor. Jack is "old school" Galway, a keeper of the Celtic flame, and he rails (mostly futilely) against the creeping modernization of his beloved country. We are always meeting old Galwegians who still use the old expressions and follow the old traditions. Cross is the latest I've read--having come across Priest last year--and Sanctuary awaits me on the shelf. The hard-boiled Taylor is rude, rough, lonely, and cynical, like a good noir protagonist ought to be. Despite the fact that the rather straightforward stories are premised on some shockingly savage violence, they are surprisingly funny, and even tender in spots, as our battered hero muses on his life and his many misdeeds. No matter how bad it gets, Jack Taylor manages to gain some measure of redemption and self-respect, at least enough to carry on. And all the while he's a treasure chest of Irish thought, history, and language. I don't know if Mr. Bruen set out to be a guardian of Irish culture, but through the voice of his angry PI, he is, and he manages to do it without pedantry or whingeing.