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...

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Kiss And Kill by Richard Deming (Zenith Books ZB-36) (1960)

Experienced confidence trickster Sam Carter meets young would-be grifter Mavis Train at the Beverly-Wilshire hotel. Rapidly realising that the inexperienced woman is just who he needs to con an older woman, he takes her under his wing for a series of cons. However, Sam is a spendthrift who rapidly burns through the money he makes and realises he needs to make bigger scores. So, after marrying Mavis, he sets his sights on lonely women in search of marriage and plans to relieve them of their funds and leave no trace behind. The cons now involve Mavis posing as Sam's sister, but they also turn deadly as they also involve murdering the hapless women who fall for Sam's charms, with the killings staged as accidents to allay suspicion. Repeatedly changing their identities and moving around the country, the couple soon have a murderous template established, but have they been careful enough?...

Clearly based on the case of the real-life "Lonely Hearts Killers" Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck - who were also the subject of the films The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson - this is a fast-paced and gripping read; albeit one with a sting in the tail that I saw coming several pages from the end. Hard-bitten and hard-boiled, the 160 pages turn rapidly as the dark tale unfolds, with characters, situation and place economically evoked as the story barrels along in a manner reminiscent of the best of Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer. This is the type of paperback original with barely a word wasted that epitomises an almost vanished narrative style, and is one that a lot of overwritten and overwrought contemporary genre fiction could learn from. Therefore, it is highly recommended to fans of period hardboiled paperback originals; as this is what they were all about at their best.
 

AFTERWORD: Most of what I know about author Richard Deming, I know from the fantastic reference guide Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers Of The Paperback Era by Brian Ritt (Stark House Press, 2013). Although I was previously aware of his series character Manville "Manny" Moon, a private detective who occasionally featured in the pages of the crime digests like Manhunt, and the Mike Shayne and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, and I also own some other Deming books I have yet to read (I own a LOT of books I have yet to read!), I was not previously aware of his many pseudonyms and short stories. Based on the entry in Paperback Confidential, it appears that Deming may be better known today (if at all) for the many TV tie-in paperbacks written under his own name and the pseudonym Max Franklin for such shows as Starsky And Hutch, Charlie's Angels and Vegas. However, based on this wonderfully entertaining literary jab to the solar plexus, I should get started on the other Deming books I own; and you should certainly get started with this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed and, based on a current internet search, there are a few reasonably priced copies of this one - and other Deming titles - available; although the UK Digit Books edition of Kiss and Kill (R438) shown above, and from the same publication year, seems to be a tougher edition to find.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Wild by Gil Brewer (Crest Book 229) (1958)

Lee Baron is an inexperienced Florida private detective who swiftly finds himself immersed in an increasingly complex and violent series of events after he is visited by an old flame called Ivor Hendrix. It appears that Ivor wants Lee to smooth things over between her and her husband Carl after he has caught her in a compromising position with another man. However, when Lee arrives at the Hendrix residence, he finds a man's armless corpse with its face caved in, as well as some evidence that suggests the victim was involved in a recent unsolved bank heist. From here, the incidents pile up in fast and furious fashion as the corpse vanishes, potential suspects arrive on the scene - including Ivor's voracious sister Asa Crafford - and Lee finds himself dodging the bullets whilst barely suppressed romantic yearnings for Ivor re-emerge and things get progressively murkier, as well as murderous...

Boasting two femme fatales and fast and furious action, Gil Brewer's Florida noir private eye novel should be more exciting and gripping than it is. Although the events barrel along at a rapid clip, they progressively loosen their grip on the reader's interest due to formulaic plotting and disappointingly one-dimensional characters who present more as types than people. Lee is a cliched lone wolf private eye of a kind that must have seemed derivative even in the late 50s when Mike Hammer knock-offs were plentiful in both hardcover and paperback original genre novels. The pair of femme fatales are similarly generic archetypes (and for British readers their masculine-sounding first names can be rather jarring and distracting), and supporting characters generally lack both depth and shading. The twists and turns of the plot just about maintain interest and there is a rather clever twist in the tail - albeit one reliant on some criminal types failing to case a residence thoroughly enough - and the occasional brutality and hard-edged violence add a much-needed air of menace to the proceedings. However, Brewer seems to be on autopilot for much of the novel, deploying often clunky metaphors amidst some surprisingly flat patches of writing. Overall, this is a rather mechanical, one-dimensional disappointment from an author who was clearly capable of delivering far better hardboiled or noir novels, most of which were paperback originals that epitomise the best of the breed. Newcomers are best advised to begin their Brewer browsing elsewhere (13 French Street, A Killer Is Loose or The Red Scarf are my preferred starting points), as there is plenty of good stuff to uncover from an author who, when he was writing at his peak, was amongst the best of his kind.

AFTERWORD: Gil Brewer is one of my favourite hardboiled crime writers of the 50s and 60s, although his earlier books generally eclipse much of his later work when his powers were clearly waning. However, Wild presumably sold well enough at the time to justify the mid-60s Gold Medal printing shown above, even though it may have seemed rather dated even only seven years after its appearance as a paperback original (and I'm not just referring to a Marilyn Monroe reference) as private eye novels were by then being refined by the likes of Ross and John D. MacDonald. Brewer's decline was almost certainly due to his well-documented increasing dependence on alcohol and possibly related bouts of depression (his final books included pseudonymous porn novels written when the markets had changed and left him short of paid work that seemingly didn't pay him enough to provide a secure and stable living); although there are still some diamonds to be found in the rough of his later output. At their best, his books are capable of immersing his readers in an often bleak world view, predominantly one fuelled by characters' sexual obsessions that define their destiny (happiness is generally a commodity in short supply). Brewer also wrote some wonderful crime short stories that resemble short, sharp literary jabs rather than the relentless pummelling that his novels often deliver. As many of these, some of which were written pseudonymously, were previously uncollected and often only available in increasingly expensive crime fiction digests (for example, Guilty, Hunted, Manhunt and Pursuit Detective Story Magazine, amongst many others), I can highly recommend Redheads Die Quickly (University Press Of Florida, 2012), which is edited by David Rachels. This collection of many of the best of Brewer's short stories, includes a bibliography of his short fiction and an introduction by Rachels to Brewer's life and work that explains why his writing is essential reading for all fans of classic hardboiled crime and noir fiction.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Rain Of Terror by Malcolm Douglas (Gold Medal 539) (1955)

Jake Abbott is an impoverished journalist in trouble in post-War Italy. Desperate to extricate himself from an art forgery scam he is involved in, Jake escapes his larcenous employer Turrido by beating him up, simultaneously humiliating him into the bargain. Now, with Turrido's youthful protege Angelo on his tail and eager to prove himself to his employer, Jake is flung out of the frying pan and into the fire when his editor Ralph Ellison sends him to a small town called Piscoli which is threatened by a raging flood. However, the story isn't the only thing waiting there for Jake. Pursued by Angelo, who is eager to make a name for himself, Jake is surprised to find Ellison's wife Grace - with whom he has been having an adulterous relationship and who has worked her passage to Piscoli by offering assistance to a man called Leverett who has been sent by the Italian-American Assistance Committee to supervise aid - as an unwelcome companion. Accompanied by his photographer friend Harry Myers, Jake arrives in the small town of Asceno on the way to Piscoli, but here the raging floodwaters deny the group the chance to reach their intended destination. And, when Jake becomes further embroiled in some of the town's guilty secrets, which included a valuable lost stash of jewellery and rare paintings that are uncovered by the floodwaters, this unlikely knight in tarnished armour finds himself trapped both by a natural disaster and a series of mortal foes, any of which could bring his life to a violent and premature end.

This is full-tilt action-adventure melodrama, and one that has the reader tearing through its pages like the flood raging through the town. The excitement barely lets up throughout the 144 pages, the plot twisting and turning in imitation of the the raging torrent of the title, barely allowing one time to ponder the inevitable implausibilities (not the least of which being a seemingly indestructible hero who takes repeated brutal beatings at the hands and feet of various adversaries, but who seems to suffer few lasting ill-effects). This is almost a quintessential paperback original of its time, featuring swift, sharp descriptions establishing time and place, thumbnail character sketches telling you all you need to know about motives and morals and effectively concealing its mystery until the hero figures it out in the final chapter. Of course this isn't great literature, but it's brisk, well-crafted and solid entertainment that delivers the requisite square-jawed, two-fisted action and hardboiled murderous criminality in a two-hour jolt; as well as one that doesn't waste its words or its readers' time in doing so.

AFTERWORD: Malcolm Douglas was a pseudonym for Douglas Sanderson and is the subject of an excellent and thorough article "Douglas Sanderson: Pure Sweet Hell" by Gregory Shepard which features in Paperback Parade Issue 84 (and if you don't subscribe to editor Gary Lovisi's excellent and essential publication, I recommend you head over to http://www.gryphonbooks.com/Paperback_Parade/Paperback%20Parade%20Back%20Issues.htm and take out a subscription). This book had previously languished unread in my ever-increasing "To Be Read"pile for several years since I bought it, and the aforementioned article compelled me to crack open its covers and rectify this omission. I was glad I did and now intend to read more of the author's work. At the time of writing, there are a few copies available online at reasonable prices (there is also a UK Gold Medal edition from 1960 that seems to be rather more uncommon than the US paperback originals), so I recommend you pick one up and let this "Rain" wash over you.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Murderer by Simenon (Penguin Books 1223) (1963, reprint)

Dr. Hans Kuperus is well-respected in the small town of Sneek. His life is well-ordered, he has a seemingly happy marriage and lives prosperously in a well-appointed house. However, he has received a letter informing him of his wife's affair with a local dignitary. So, Kuperus buys a gun and kills his wife and her lover, returns home feeling liberated from his cuckolded status and takes his maid as his mistress. The townspeople's initial sympathy towards Kuperus gradually turns to suspicion and, finally, to outright hostility as they suspect Kuperus murdered both his wife and her lover after the bodies are discovered in the canal. However, Kuperus has covered his tracks well but is now beset with fear of discovery, particularly as the sender of the letter also knows of his wife's infidelity and may now know he is the murderer. But who sent the letter, and what do they intend to do with their knowledge?

Georges Simenon's 1937 psychological mystery still feels surprisingly fresh and modern due to the accuracy of its observations (human nature has not seemingly changed that much) and the economy of its prose style as neither a word is wasted nor a scene superfluous to the narrative. It's essentially a tale of small-town moral inquiry of the type frequently filmed by Claude Chabrol (e.g. Le Boucher, Juste Avant La Nuit), and is one where the murderer's identity and motives are clear from the start. The source of tension and mystery are the external and, ultimately, internal forces that are beyond the control of Kuperus as the novel addresses issues of guilt, identity, personality and small-town hypocrisy where a watchful or disapproving look can be more devastating than an act of violence. The writing is crisply evocative of both place and character, and is particularly effective in describing the claustrophobic sense of the darkness gathering and closing in as a man who believed he has found freedom instead finds himself trapped in his own circle of Hell. There's some surprising humour too, albeit often of a dark variety, and also a strong sense of a satire on conformity and of a particular type of middle-class small-mindedness - that of the curtain-twitchers and suburban passive aggressive personalities who know just how to needle, cajole and threaten in covert fashion in a town where the appearance of respectability is everything. Effectively building sympathy for an unsympathetic character - a murderer, in fact - this is a highly recommended, short, sharp jab to the psyche by an author who knew how to twist the knife in, slowly and without recourse to flamboyant or florid prose.

AFTERWORD: Belgian writer Georges Simenon was a prolific author who wrote around two hundred novels and many short stories, with his most famous creation being detective Jules Maigret, who featured in films and a famous UK TV series. Many of Simenon's novels have been reprinted in the last few years, and second-hand copies are generally freely available on the internet, second-hand bookshops, charity shops and elsewhere. They seem particularly plentiful in the UK where they were extremely popular in the 1950s and 60s due to the Maigret TV series raising the author's profile. My copy of this book was one of several I recently acquired in a local sewing shop whose elderly owner has acquired a Kindle and was selling off her collection cheaply (she seems to have bought many of them in various outlets of the late lamented Popular Book Centres which used to trade in London until the late 1980s as their stamp appears inside most of them). So, there is no excuse for not stocking up on Simenon, which is something I highly recommend as I can't wait to get started on the next one.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Someone Is Bleeding by Richard Matheson (Lion Books 137) (1953)

One day, writer David Newton meets Peggy Lister on a deserted Los Angeles beach and is instantly smitten. However, Peggy seems somewhat remote and troubled - as well as being a self-confessed man-hater - and also appears to have something to hide. She reveals little to David about her past, except for snippets about her seemingly dysfunctional home life, but David is still keen enough to start dating her. When she invites him to a party, David is surprised to discover that the host is a former college acquaintance called Jim, who is now a successful lawyer and less than happy to see David as he too has designs on Peggy, even though he is still married. After David and Peggy are attacked by an unseen assailant during one of their dates at an amusement park and her landlord - whom Peggy suspects of the seemingly sexually motivated assault on her - is found dead at her rooming house after being stabbed through the brain with an icepick, David finds himself embroiled in an ever-deepening mystery. It is a mystery that seemingly has its roots in Peggy's past, but who is the killer, is he or she also responsible for a further slaying, and will David become another victim?

Richard Matheson's debut novel, published when he was twenty-six years old, is a fast-paced noirish mystery, with strong elements of both the whodunit mystery novel and psychological drama. This novel is not perfect by any means as some of the characters, particularly the protagonist, present more as types than flesh and blood characters. However, the narrative whips along at speed (possibly, a welcome legacy of the author's pulp magazine origins), particularly towards the end, which means that the flaws are more forgivable and less noticeable than they would be in a novel that features excessive narrative digressions or pace-killing exposition that impede the narrative flow. Some scenes, particularly a thrilling extended night-time chase towards the end, really stir the blood and the novel's final page wrap-up and chilling last line leave the reader enveloped by darkness rather than a sense of emerging into the light (just like the best 50s paperback originals). Overall, this is an impressive first effort, and one whose implausibilities of plot and situation (for example, David seems to sober up remarkably quickly after an extended drinking binge that would put most people on their backs) are less important than its swift storytelling and atmospheric evocations of a threatening world where nothing and no one are quite as they seem. Therefore, this is a recommended introduction to an author who improved with each novel and whose influence continues to be felt in genre literature to this day.

AFTERWORD: Your best bet to find a reasonably priced edition of this title would be to search for the 2005 Forge omnibus edition which includes the author's later novels Fury On Sunday and Ride The Nightmare. The reason for this steer is that the paperback original is a difficult book to find, and even more difficult to find in nice shape as it appears that many of what were already fragile copies were read and possibly passed around until they fell apart (and don't even think about trying to find the UK Banner edition as I've only seen one in the last twenty-five years and it was snatched from under my nose at a UK book fair as soon as my eyes lit upon it). My edition cost me more than I would usually spend on a worn paperback, but its pedigree meant I had to have it when I saw it at one of Gary Lovisi's New York Paperback Expos several years ago. The back cover text is also interesting, as it is clear that Lion Books knew they had a special telent on their hands; so I am reproducing it here as it proved to be remarkably prescient. It reads "You are looking at a first novel. Never published before, Someone Is Bleeding represents the first full-length achievement of a brilliant new master of the macabre. We think this is an exciting book. We think Richard Matheson is an exciting discovery. We hope you agree.". How right they were and millions of readers down the years concurred. So, if you haven't sampled the late Richard Matheson's wonderful work - much of it in the fantasy genre and which includes the better known (and, if truth be told, better novels) I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, A Stir Of Echoes and Bid Time Return (aka Somewhere In Time) as well as many others and some equally good SF, Horror and Western short stories - then get reading. I am sure you won't be disappointed once you crack open the covers of any stories written by one of the most influential, gifted and often chilling genre authors of all time.


Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Fiend Who Walked The West (Le Tueur Au Visage D'Ange) (Sidonis Calysta) 96 mins. 42 secs.

Daniel Hardy (Hugh O'Brian) is desperate to secure a financial future for his growing family, so he joins a group of bank robbers. However, the robbery fails to run to plan when Daniel is locked in the safe and arrested, and Daniel's life plans go further awry when he is jailed for ten years rather than the expected shorter prison term he expected as a first-time offender. Things go from bad to worse when his fellow gang members - whom he has refused to name - fail to provide his family with his expected share of the loot and as he gradually discovers that his young cellmate Felix Griffin (Robert Evans) is an unstable psychopath who exacts a fearful revenge on those who lay their hands on him. However, Felix has plans of his own and, after he discovers the identity of Daniel's gang leader, he decides to secure the loot for himself following his release from jail; which he proceeds to do in murderous fashion. With Daniel on the inside and Felix raising hell on the outside, a plan is hatched by the authorities to ensure that Felix pays for his crime. It's a plan that involves Daniel and his family in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

It's Kiss of Death out West as this first remake of the 1947 film noir classic rides the range (there is also a 1995 version starring Nicolas Cage in a scenery-chewing performance as the psychopath whilst David Caruso portrays the similarly slightly tarnished hero). And it's a far more interesting film than it's lowly reputation leads one to believe (a reputation probably due in no small part to a highly misleading advertising campaign from title through poster and trailer that predominantly sell the film as a Western / Horror film hybrid, and which is also cued up by the film's opening titles theme that segues from traditional Western to seemingly supernatural). Often broodingly shot by experienced DOP Joseph MacDonald, who had previously worked on both Westerns and noirs like My Darling Clementine, Call Northside 777 and Panic In The Streets, and solidly directed by experienced director Gordon (Them!) Douglas from a Harry Brown / Philip Yordan script derived in part from Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's 1947 script for Kiss of Death (which was itself based on a novel by Eleazar Lipsky), the film is actually a surprisingly successful blending of the style of more adult 1950s psychological Westerns like 3:10 To Yuma and Jubal and the noirish crime cycle that began in the previous decade as the forces of law and order deploy unconventional methods to stop a dangerous criminal in his tracks.

For those aware of the film's derivation, there's a neat and intentional misdirected Kiss Of Death homage in a scene where Griffin encounters the criminal gang-leader's larcenously-inclined wheelchair-bound mother, although the pay-off here reflects the different genre, and, particularly, in Evans' performance in which he occasionally seems to be channelling Richard Widmark's performance in what are often some of the film's least successful moments. It's worth noting that Evans' performance - which the man himself has negatively commented on in his entertaining, if rather self-serving, memoir The Kid Stays In The Picture (both the book and the film adaptation) - is nowhere near as bad as either he, the trailer (in which he gibbers and snarls like a hopped-up 50s juvenile delinquent in scenes that do not feature in the film) or the film's reputation might lead one to believe. True, the occasional eye-rolling and snarling close-ups contain far less credible menace than Widmark's seminal Tommy Udo. But, in the film's quieter moments and also where his psychotic behaviour is implied rather than played out on screen (the fate of a chain-gang convict who has foolishly previously crossed his path as well as that of a docile and seemingly traumatised female companion who has undoubtedly been subjected to unseen brutality are chilling for what is suggested rather than shown) and where he toys with O'Brian's square-jawed and more instinctive traditional Western hero show that he was a far more accomplished actor than either he or critics within and outside the industry (many of whom resented his seemingly smooth accession to lead actor ranks over others who had toiled for longer and with less success) have been prepared to admit. The film also balances Evans' more showy moments with solid supporting performances from O'Brian (who was better known at the time for playing Wyatt Earp in the long-running TV series The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp), Stephen McNally, Dolores Michaels (who subsequently starred in the unusual and little-seen Alan Ladd revenge Western One Foot In Hell), Linda Cristal (as O'Brian's wife and who achieved more notable success in a similar role in TV Western series The High Chaparral), snarling stalwart Emile Meyer ('fat cop' Harry Kello from Sweet Smell Of Success) and future TV Tarzan Ron Ely as a Deputy with a hair-trigger temper.

Overall, it's a film undeserving of its consignment to date to a critical backwater and, hopefully, this sharp French DVD 2:35:1 transfer that maintains the original Cinemascope ratio (and which is English language with forced French subtitles) may herald a US or UK release, possibly with a subtitled version of the two add-ons, one of which features French director Bertrand Tavernier who - based on my limited understanding  of the French language - appears to be providing some long-deserved critical rebalancing. It's certainly no masterpiece, but there's much to recommend it, and far more than the laughably conceived trailer that also features on the disc.

AFTERWORD: Now that you've seen what is probably one of the reasons why the film is generally held in such low regard, please check out the film. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

End Play (1975) (Umbrella Entertainment) (108 mins.)

Someone is killing female hitchhikers on a lonely stretch of road outside a small Australian town. Although the victims are all neatly stabbed below the breast bone, the murder weapon is unknown and the victims have so far been dumped on the police station tempts to taunt the local force. However, the latest victim (Delvene Delaney) is not left in the usual place and is instead dumped in a local cinema during an afternoon screening. Suspicion soon falls on two brothers, paraplegic Robert Gifford (George Mallaby) and his able-bodied brother Mark (John Waters, who is NOT the well-known film director) who has recently returned home from one of his frequent stints in the merchant navy. The brothers have a close relationship but, as suspicious Superintendent Cheadle (Ken Goodlet) begins his investigations, cracks start to appear as the persistent and diligent officer seemingly gets closer to the truth at the heart of the serial slayings...

Director Tim Burstall's 1975 Australian serial killer thriller, released in its native country on 1st January 1976, adapted from a novel by Russell Braddon (The Naked Island and The Year Of The Angry Rabbit, which was filmed as Night Of The Lepus) and which relocates the action from an English country house to an Antipodean setting, is a taut if rather overlong thriller that plays out mostly in broad daylight and predominantly in the Gifford's home; which lends the film a claustrophobic two-hander chamber piece feel for much of its running time. Opening with a tense and atmospheric killing on a lonely road, Burstall winds the tension tight, aided by some fine performances from the two leads whose relationship remains the beating heart of the movie even as the plot bends over backwards to maintain the uncertainty as to the killer's identity (which, if truth be told, is not really that much of a mystery). And it's the brothers' often unlikely bond throughout the film that makes the film memorable as blood really is thicker than water in what is admittedly rather protracted, if tense, fare. The film even manages to excuse itself one or two plot contrivances or unresolved aspects (most notably, a bit of business with a letter that is only written to provide a necessary flashback and whose existence is never followed through in the narrative). Overall, this is a worthwhile watch and a generally fine re-release package in a clean print and in its original aspect ratio (although the soundtrack is a bit iffy at times, particularly during the mournful and plaintive love theme sung over the opening credits). The film, which was seemingly Australian cinema's first foray into serial killer whodunit territory and a box-office hit in its native country, deserves to be better known and is highly recommended.

AFTERWORD: This standalone Australian DVD release is a more affordable and accessible release than its original inclusion as part of a long-deleted and almost impossible to find boxed set. I first saw the film several decades ago as part of a UK BBC2 TV season on Australian cinema back in the 1970s (Those were the days!) and was surprised how much of the film stuck in my mind over the years. Although British-born director Tim Burstall was better known as one of the pioneers of Australian cinema's 1970s breakout to global success through some often rough and ready sex comedies (e.g. Stork, Alvin Purple and Petersen), this films shows that he was no slouch in the thriller stakes and it's something of a pity that he never made much of a name for himself in this genre. The special features on the disc include interviews with star John Waters, cinematographer Dan Copping and Burstall's son Dan, who was the camera operator (and whose inclusion is not mentioned on the DVD sleeve), as well as an effective and rather extended trailer and stills gallery backed by the theme song, with both of the latter elements revealing rather too much of the film's plot to be recommended viewing prior to watching the film itself.