Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Portrait in Smoke by Bill Ballinger (1950)

Bill Ballinger is one of those writers who slipped through the cracks. Not good enough to remain perpetually in print, not hip enough for cult rediscovery, he nonetheless churned out a surprising number of excellent noir novels that beat the tar out of many of his far-more-celebrated contemporaries. Portrait in Smoke, the basis for the 1956 British noir Wicked as the Come, is a case in point. Ballinger uses his trademark clever plotting and multiple-point of view narrative to paint a suspenseful portrait of a femme fatal guaranteed to get a rise out of even the jaded.

It all sounds pretty Laura. Danny April is a cheap little collection agent working Chicago's crummier neighborhoods who stumbles across a 10-year old photo of Krassy Almauniski winning the Stockyard Weekly News beauty contest. Instantly smitten, he sets out to run her down. He's so obsessed at one point he calls up 367 moving companies looking for the one with blue trucks with a white stripe. Ultimately, he traces her from the stockyards through secretarial school, stints as ad agency secretary, executive mistress, war hero widow, and ultimately runs her down as the very bored wife of a very old, very wealthy banker.

But the kicker is that the story of Danny's search alternates with sections telling Krassy's real story. The scrappy little striver of Danny's delusion is a hardboiled schemer climbing the socioeconomic ladder on her back, legs spread, teeth gritted, and claws fully extended. Her first fiancee found himself bankrupt and almost indicted as Krassy siphoned off his life's savings. From the ad executive, she extracted a 45 G settlement. And Danny stumbles into her life just when she needs a fall guy for her ultimate scheme.

No fool, Danny poses as a white shoe bookie to worm his way into Krassy's life (and bed!). But the joke turns out to be on him when she shoots her Daddy Browning and leaves Danny holding the bag (figuratively) and the gun (literally). Danny's no dope, and he does get away, but he now knows the score. Krassy's cavorting on the French Rivera while he waits for the cops to knock on his door.

Wicked as They Come screens Saturday, January 24th at the Castro Theater with Arlene Dahl (who played you-know-who) in person.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Noir City #3: Clocked!

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing (1946)

No quibbles about this one. Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock is a fixture on 100 best-noir novel lists, and is perhaps the perfect man-hunting-for-himself novel. It's the only book worth remembering poet-turned-novelist Fearing for, but it is one hell of a good reason. Everything about this book (pardon me) meshes.

Protaganist George Stroud is a "smug, self-satisfied, smart alecky... rubber stamp executive" for Janoth Enterprises, publishers of a Newsways, a Time-like newsweekly. How smug? Stroud is sleeping with Pauline Delos, megalomaniac publisher Earl Janoth's bi-sexual mistress. How self-satisfied? Stroud keeps an overnight bag and a bottle of scotch at a nearby residential hotel for those frequent "late nights at the office" when he can't make it home to the wife and kid.

The inevitable shit-storm, however, is not the usual shit-storm. One night, Stroud and Janoth see each other near Delos's place. Janoth doesn't recognize Stroud, but upstairs he mocks Delos for this one at least being a man. Delos responds by calling the mighty publisher "a carbon copy of a fairy gorilla" and claiming Janoth's right-hand man, Steve Hagen, yearns for him in a most unconventional way. Janoth retaliates by "accidentally" hitting her over the head with a decanter. Five times.

Janoth and Hagen put their heads together and quickly figure out that the "mystery man" is the only thing tying Janoth to Delos's murder. They mobilize the resources of Janoth Enterprises to "neutralize" this threat. Guess who's the lucky underling tapped to spearhead this no-expenses barred effort?

Stroud is more than up for scheming to avoid being ground up by what he calls "The Big Clock," the novel's symbol for fate and the system that inevitably grinds up all. (I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Fearing is a former Time staffer.) But the suspense mounts as the investigation's momentum smashes through his subterfuges. Tension peaks with minions excitedly informing Stroud that a witness has spotted the "mystery man" going into the Janoth building, and all exits are guarded. Fighting/brown nosing to the end, Stroud announces he won't leave the building until they run their man down. The floor-by-floor search begins, and ends with The Big Clock tolling, not for Stroud, but for Janoth. Stroud is saved--and goes back to being the same bastard he was before. Now that's noir!

It takes more than a few cute camera angles for a movie to live up to this book. We'll find out how the 1948 version of The Big Clock fares when it screens Thursday, January 29th at the Castro Theater.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007 by Robert M. Gorman & David Weeks (MacFarland, 2008)

It's books like this that make me realise that yes, it really is a wonderful world. Extensive, exhaustive, obsessive and authoritative without being dull, boring or pedantic, this is my kind of reference book. Messrs. Gorman and Weeks are university librarians and card-carrying SABR members who have combined their passion with their profession to uncover as many baseball-related fatality as possible, from Carl May's fatal beaning of Ray Chapman to a toddler getting hit by a thrown bat at the playground.

A must for the coffee tables of the sardonic, they classify the deaths into 13 broad categories such as beanings, on field collisions, and "Fan Fatalities From Falls, Risky Behavior, and Violence." Each category is broken down according to level (majors, minors, amateurs). In all, almost 1,000 deaths are covered. Although the longest write-ups are reserved for the small number of major league incidents, the minor-leaguers merit a page or so each, and even the sandlot players get a few lines. Although the writing is neutral in the reference book tradition, it's pleasantly readable and informative. Sometimes, you just gotta let the facts speak for themselves, especially when you're writing about the surprising number of guys killed by their own foul tips.

As long-time Murder Can Be Fun readers know, sports deaths is a particular passion of mine. Over the years, I've amassed a fairly thick file on the subject. But in going through my notes, I can find but six minor league fatalities. They found 16: 9 beanings, one chest pitch, one other thrown ball, three on-field collisions, and one lightning strike! Best trivia: two of the beanings took place at Winnipeg's Sherburn Park!

However, comprehensive is not a synonym for completel. I do have two significant cases that aren't in the book. Frankly, I'm surprised they missed the 1964 incident at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, where a bunch of Little Leaguers were chewed up by the escalator, one fatally so. (see MCBF #18 for full details). The other is a little more obscure. On June 21, 1904, Grove Thomas, catcher of the Babcock Baseball Club of Johnstown, PA took a foul tip in the chest that killed him almost instantly in game with the Indiana Normal (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) nine. My source, Baseball's Greatest Tragedy by Bob McGarigle, claims it was the first actual on-field death, although DatBP clearly disproves this.

But this isn't even a quibble, just a few minor details that will undoubtedly make it into the next edition. As if anyone who reads this blog is going to wait. As is, this book is essential.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The Ususpected by Charlotte Armstrong (1945)

Judging strictly by the cover art, I've always pigeonholed Charlotte Armstrong in the Had-I-But-Known school--Mignon Eberhart plus a few IQ points, perhaps, or Mary Roberts Rinehart minus the brooding mansion. Hardly the stuff of which noir is made.

And judging from The Unsuspected, the eponymous basis for the 1947 Michael Curitz film, I haven't been missing much.

The premise, albeit uninspiring, is not without hope. Rosaleen Wright, secretary to Luther "Grandy" Grandison, a noirish stage/screen director, has committed suicide under suspicious circumstances: hanging herself at her desk in the middle of the workday! Her cousin Jane and fiancee Francis smell a rat. Her "suicide note" was copied from a book of old Scottish trials. They suspect Rosaleen stumbled on Grandy's scheme to bilk to fortune of Mathilda, one of his two wards. In search of evidence, they infiltrate the Grandison compound: Jane as secretary, Francis as the conveniently missing-at-sea Mathilda's "secret husband." If this all sounds familiar, you've been reading your Woolrich!

Alas, unlike Mr. W., Ms. Armstrong's gift is for taking bad melodrama and making it worse. Mathilda quickly re-enters the picture (apparently she couldn't be bothered to radio the news of her dramatic rescue) but only makes a muted fuss over her "husband." Meanwhile, Grandy manipulates his wards as he continues his evil plot. Unfortunately, his other ward Althea (the one without $$) tells Francis that one detail that implicates him. Grandy quickly arranges an "accident" for her and attempts to have Francis tossed into a municipal garbage incinerator. Unfortunately for cynics, Mathilda plunges into the garbage pit and forestalls this most dramatic of ends. And yes, one character tells Francis that they needn't have gone through all this fuss "...if only you'd known."

It's actually a lot worse than it sounds. Armstrong leaves out huge chunks of interesting stuff like how Francis ingratiates himself into Grandy's home. Hell, she doesn't even include the text of the "suicide note." Although Grandy does have the makings of an interesting noir heavy and the garbage pit has its cinematic possibilities, this is one case where the movie can't help but to be better than the book.

"The Unsuspected" screens at the Castro Theater on Friday, January 30.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein (Dell, 1953)

The basis for Fitz Lang's 1956 film While the City Sleeps, Einstein's The Bloody Spur has a small reputation for being one of the first serial killer novels. Alas, the serial killer plays second fiddle to a bunch of typically larger-than-life characters battling for corporate glory written with more than a casual eye towards the bestseller list.

The action starts with the death of the Executive Director of the Kyne Newspaper publishing empire. The donnybrook between his potential successors (the flagship paper's editor, the photo service head, the feature syndicate director, and the wire service chief) over the job starts at the funeral and doesn't let up over 250 pages of corporate infighting, journalistic scheming, sexual shenanigans, and metaphorical throat-cutting. Only two things save this from being an ink-stained rehash of Executive Suite: the vividly realized mid-century newspaper office background, and the occasional chapter from the point of view of the William Heirens-style "Lipstick Killer" who's terrorizing the city to the great joy of the Kyne circulation department.

The "Lipstick Killer" is Robert Manners, a 20-year old college student with severe Oedipal issues as only a character in a 1953 novel can have. He has graduated from breaking into women's apartments to steal their soiled handkerchiefs and used panties and defecate on their floors to strangling and stabbing them. On the wall of one victim, he ensures his immortality by scrawling in lipstick "Help me for God's sake." A handful of delightfully noirish chapters follow Manners about his rounds: stalking his victims, going on bad dates, having an excruciating discussion with his mother about her handkerchiefs and underwear, and most memorably, his finally flight from pursuers through a subway tunnel. He looks down at his feet and sees a fragment of newspaper headline: "Stalks Killer." Most cinematic!

Sadly, Manners barely appears in the last quarter of the book as the little matter of corporate succession is not-so memorably settled. The book works out to 90% corporate and 10% killer, but I'm betting the film is going to come in at a 50/50 split.

While the City Sleep screens at Noir City on January 28th.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Each year, I spend part of my vacation at Noir City, San Francisco's annual orgy of all things dark and cinematic. The 2009 festival is scheduled at the Castro Theater for January 23 through February 1 and will feature 23 films, none of which will end happily. I fully expect to emerge from the theater on the 1st with a good start on a case of noir-induced color blindness.

The schedule for the 2009 festival doesn't appear to have been officially released yet. But, thanks to a well-place bribe, I have obtained an advance copy. And while I am not about to divulge the details (those Film Noir Foundation guys can play rough!), the theme is newspapers, there are plenty of 'B' flicks, and it's given me a start for my next project. .

Of the 23 films in the festival, at least 11 are adapted from published short stories and novels.
A few are well known, but many are familiar only to the habitues of Kayo Books. And some come from the pens of authors that, to put it mildly, are not normally associated with anything noir. .

I've always been obsessed with novels-into-noir. So in the coming weeks, I will be blogging about as many of the books of Noir City 7 as I can. I already have a line on nine of them. With any luck at all, I should be able to nail all eleven before the New Year, giving us plenty of time to cogitate before the dark cinematic pool engulfs us all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


James Crumley, one of the great ones, died a few days ago. I was introduced to him at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore by the old owner who knew exactly what to recommend to "those lunatics who read Jim Thompson." He handed me a copy of The Wrong Case opened to page 5. The narrator describes witnessing a purse snatching from his office window that ended with the thief struck by one car and dragged a half block by another. "I had never realized purse snatching was such a dangerous crime..." Sold!

Crumley's probably best known for The Last Good Kiss and its immortal opening line:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
And things only get better when the aforesaid Mr. Trahearne happily finds himself in a car "'...wandering around America with an alcoholic bulldog, a seedy private dick, and a working quart of Wild Turkey.'" How can anyone resist?

Sadly, Crumley only wrote a handfull of books. They all slide down well and pack a whallop, but like fine whiskey, deserve to be slowly and carefully savored.

Monday, July 28, 2008


  • Blood Lust #1: Irresistible by Michael Bates (Bantam, 1994)

    I've been hooked on the Blood Lust series of sex & shock young adult horror novels since reading a post on "What YAs shouldn't Read" back in the glory days of Usenet. Well, Publisher's Weekly "Gleefully recommends this slick combination of macabre softcore porn and whiny schadenfreude..." and so do I.

    Irresistible is as good a place to start as any. "Irresistible" is a perfume clandestinely distributed to the popular set by the inevitable revenge-crazed nerd. Alas for the recipients, this product works far to well. A few drops triggers a bodice-ripping, restraining-order inspiring passion. A whole bottle, well, the cheerleader that tried that wound up partially devoured by her "bad boy" date.

    And that's just the start of the fun. The just as inevitable nice girl finds the boy of her dreams so hopelessly devoted to her he Hitchcocks a cheerleader in the shower (25 times!) for saying something mean about her and then breaks another rah-rah's neck for good measure. The double funeral is marred by an passionate couple sneaking behind a monument! To quote our heroine's thoughts, it's "...totally twisted to be having fun while two of your friends were being buried!"

    The scent
    -crazed youngsters stop at nothing, not even necrophilia, right up to the pleasingly unresolved ending. Subsequent volumes (seven, I believe) mine similar suburban horrors with equally surreal results. Kids today just have it way too easy....

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercial Recreation and City Life by Paul Cressey (University of Chicago Press, 1932. 2008 reprint)

This is perhaps my Ur book, a combination guaranteed to satisfy both my Cornell Woolrich induced taxi-dance hall obsession and my jones for gritty ethnography. I pre-ordered it over a year ago. And it was worth every minute of the wait.

The Taxi-Dance Hall is the gem of the “Sociology Noir” sub-genre centered at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1935. For the uninitiated, taxi-dance halls were common in large cities between the world wars. Men paid women dance hall employees a dime for the pleasure of a 90-second dance, with the hall and the hostess splitting the take. For various legal and public relations reasons, the halls advertised themselves as “dance academies” and called the dancers “instructors.” However, little instruction was expected or given. As one dancer said, “You don’t have to know how to dance anyway.”

Although Cressey is a bit of a blue-nose who finds his subject “demoralizing,” he doesn’t let this keep him from presenting an unflinching, keenly observed portrait of the Chicago taxi-dance hall circa 1928. Via extensive case studies, interviews, and even historical, economic and geographic analysis, he captures the personality of the customers and dancers and the atmosphere of their norish milieu.

The customers as a rag-tag mix of immigrants (especially Filipinos) out to meet “immodest” American women, slummers checking out the other half, young bucks learning how to kick up their heels, older men and “the dwarfed, maimed, and pockmarked.” Surprisingly, many were just looking for dancing or companionship and attention from young woman. As one middle-aged man said, “Who wants to dance with an old woman? [it] makes me tired before I start.” But others were out for a whole lot more. No serious taxi-dancer lacked for after-work “dates,” where they matched wits with “the fish” in what Cressey calls “the sex game.”

The dancers themselves tended to be native born locals from broken or instable homes. Cressey divides them into four groups: “nice girls,” who were well-behaved or simply inexperienced; “smart girls,” who worked their dates with expertise; “never-miss girls,” who were really part time prostitutes; and, “sensual dancers” whose dance floor antics (vertical lapdancing?) “functions as a utility for her patrons.” Yes, there was plenty of exploitation in the taxi-dance hall scene, but as Cressey makes clear, it was a two way street.

Ultimately, Cressey concludes that the taxi-dance hall is not a cause, but a symptom. Its patrons are “a panorama of the maladjustments of urban life.” The halls themselves are “testimony to the inadequacies of present day life for its patrons” that nonetheless meets a need, however imperfectly. He calls for regulation and reform, not repression, an attitude that didn’t play too well back in those days. The disreputable nature of this book (originally submitted as his thesis) cut off his academic career at the knees. But I bet it’s this disreputable nature that has this book back in print more than 75 years after the fact, while its more respectable cousins are left to the ironists. This is the real noir.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


The Big Decision: The Story of Matt Cevetic, Counterspy by Matt Cvetic (self published circa 1959)

Matt Cevetic was the "I" in the "I Was a Communist For the FBI" franchise of the '50s which went from a series of "as told to" articles in The Saturday Evening Post to a film (nominated for the documentary Oscar despite the fact it was a narrative film starring Frank Lovejoy!) and a radio show starring Dana Andrews. A mild mannered civil servent, Cvetic was recruited by the FBI in the early '40s to keep tabs on CPUSA's Pittsburgh franchise. They canned him in 1950 for his alleged erratic, alcohol-fueled behavior. He nonetheless spent the next several years as a successful "professional witness" for the HUAC and related concerns until the fad ran its course.

Little of this appears in The Big Decision, the self-published memior by an apparently embittred former media darling. As Cvetic tells it, all he really wanted to do was join Army Intelligence. But the FBI played on his fear of THE RED KNOCK--the dreaded sound of Red fists pounding on the door of every loyal American the morning after the Big Takeover (!). He knew it meant sacrifices. Not only would he not go on the FBI payroll until he was a full-fledged Party member, he couldn't tell a soul--he would risk "savage Communist reprisals in the form of brain washing (?), torture, or even death at the hands of vicious Red inquisitors," no doubt in a secret torture chamber in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh.

He drove his friends away with his regular spouting of the ever-changing Party Line. His wife left him: "I'm not going to have people point at me and say: There goes a Commie's wife." His father stopped talking to him. His brothers hated him. Only his long suffering, albeit bewildered mother continued to accept him. Even love eluded him--a promising relationship with a waitress at the local beanery ended when her father told him "I'd rather see my daughter 6 feet under than married to a Communist skunk like you." And naturally, Cvetic was too American to engage in any immoral dalliance with an of his fairer Party Comrades. "Those scheming Reds with their loose morals sickened me." You'd think the FBI would prefer unattached recruits for this kind of work.

As Cvetic tells it, life in the Party is no piece of cake. The Party may not have a monopoly on paranoia, but don't tell them that. Accusing one another of being an FBI informant is a standard past time. Leaving was frowned upon--Cvetic is always alluding to the suspicious "suicides" of former members and suspected informants. And the things the "Red lice" say, like "when the Communist Revolution starts... I'm sure as hell going to enjoy torturing and butchering the clergy and tossing their bodies in the Ohio River"--it's enough to make any good, loyal American like counterspy Cvetic puke! (Luckily, he doesn't) Even the Soviets weren't to happy with their stateside vanguard. One Russian Red confided in Cvetic that 90% of the American Communists would need to be liquidated after the revolution--"If their own country can't trust them how can we?" So much for getting in on the ground floor

It's pretty hard to take Cvetic seriously. For someone infiltrating a supposedly ruthless, violent organization, stunts like living in a hotel under an assumed name near party HQ or sneaking off to take Communion seem like the recipe for a short career. And Cvetic never quite explains what horrible crimes and vital intelligence he's uncovering. It's not like he's in some secret cell--he has an office in Party HQ in downtown Pittsburgh! But to listen to him tell it, his testimony sent dozens of Reds to jail, making our lives safe for apple pie and the installment plan.

It's all great kitsch in the J. Edgar Hoover tradition of breathless exposes of Commies In Your Back Yard. But it would be nice to know the real story.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case, 2006)
Slide by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case, 2007)

Jason Starr has long been my pick of the younger-than-me noir crowd for his rare ability to bring classic noir sensibilities to unabashedly modern settings. Hard Case Crime is currently my favorite paperback publisher. Nor were my high expectations for this fortuitous combo disappointed. In Bust, Starr takes that hoary old plot of husband killing wife to run off with secretary to previously unexplored levels of perversity. Wife Diedre is so appalling you hope the plot succeeds; husband Max is so odiously upscale you hope he gets caught. And enhanced secretary Angela, who’s only in it for the money, ensures comedy of the darkest variety when she refers Max to a “hitman:” her too-psycho-for-the-IRA paddywhacking boyfriend. A series of completely unexpected (albeit predictably bloody plot twists) set the stage for the sequel Slide. Max reinvents himself as “The M.A.X.,” the lamest crack dealer ever! Angela imports an even bigger Irish psycho who dreams of eclipsing Ted Bundy! The only thing piling up faster than the bodies are the noir-shout outs. I’m sure I missed plenty, but Willeford is all over the place, and if I’m not mistaken, that’s co-author Ken Bruen (now high on my to-be read list) reflexively falling victim to an abortive Rolling Stones kidnapping plot. I can hardly wait for the next sequel, Max, to hit the shelves of Kayo Books.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Screw: A Guard's View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan (South End Press, 1981)

Frederick Wiseman's Titicutt Follies is the only film in American history banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security. A 1967 verite documentary chronicling the less than stellar conditions prevailing at a Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally insane, a judge put the kibosh on it ostensibly on the grounds that it invaded the inmate's privacy.

As a Wiseman fan since seeing High School in high school, I rushed out to see TF when the ban finally expired in 1992. It was a great film, but the hospital didn't come across as the snake pit I'd expected from the press clippings. Perhaps I'm jaded. For the real horrorshow, you'll have to turn to Screw.
Ryan was a psychology student working with Bridgewater inmates who took the job in 1974 to check up on the abuse stories he was hearing. And neither he (nor I!) was disappointed. The picture he paints of Bridgewater is of a combined human warehouse and open sewer. His fellow "COs" were the flowers of Dorchester and South Boston manhood. They cheered the hospital's modern therapeutic methods ("...a lobotomy. That what should be done to all these maggots") and criticized its failings ("Counselors, hah! It's do-gooders that wreck this place"). So socially conscious were these guardians of the sick that some spent their off hours drilling with a chapter of the Minutemen. Patients were locked in cells without toilets or sinks. Doctors were virtually nonexistent; drugs were dispensed by nurses. Beatings were common, and not of the COs. Ryan himself got in trouble with his comrades for refusing to join in on a 10-1 affair. So much for camaraderie.
Needless to say, patients failed to thrive in this environment. One ripped open his cheeks. Another, mocked by the guards, plucked out one of his eyes. A few days later, he plucked out the other . And then he plucked out his glass eyes! Ryan admits that things got better when the old hospital closed and they moved to a new facility. But not that much. Ryan ended his correctional career after 18 months and one witnessed beating too many.
It's something to consider whenever someone rants about "getting off" via the insanity defense.

Monday, May 5, 2008


The Big Love by Florence Aadland with Tedd Thomey (Lancer, 1961)

"There's one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn." This line opens The Big Love, the true story of the then 48-year old Errol Flynn's affair with 15-year old Beverly Aadland as told by her mother Florence. Imagine Day of the Locust as told by a "Mommie Dearest;" it’s the ultimate testament to stage mothering run amok.

Of course, Florence denies being one of those Hollywood mothers, even though she had little Beverly modeling at six months and taking singing and dancing lessons at two. Fortunately for mother and daughter alike, Beverley had looks and talent. She was on the cover of Collier's before she was five, and made her first movie in first grade. And Florence proudly noted, "For the first 15 years of her life, I kept that girl in a cellophane bag."

Then Errol Flynn noticed the new leggy blonde the Universal lot. Before you could say "Robin Hood," the aging swashbuckler had the underage ingenue up at his lodge to "read for a part in a play." Florence wistfully wrote, "It must have been quite a scene...in front of the fireplace, the two of them alone together." And, pray tell, how did dearest Mama know? Florence gushingly points out that Beverly "...told me everything she did with Errol Flynn. And in detail, because she and I love details and get a kick out of things like that."

Sadly, Errol died just weeks after announcing the engagement at Beverly's 17th birthday. Cut-off from the Flynn estate, the Aadlands's life quickly degenerated into chaos that ended with Florence convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and losing custody of Beverly. But regrets? Florence had none. She wouldn't have deprived her "baby" of those two precious years with Errol for anything. The Big Love ends with Florence proud of her daughter's new nightclub act and confident of a successful appeal of her conviction and ultimate victory over the scandal mongers.

Sadly, it wasn't to be. Beverly ultimately left Hollywood for a quiet suburban life as a wife and mother. But Florence only spiraled further out of control. A hopeless alcoholic, she died of alcohol poisoning six years later. Her end came as a surprise no one, least of all those who have read The Big Love.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Like most of you, I was first exposed to Sinclair Lewis via a forced reading of Main Street. (OK, maybe for you it was Babbitt) in high school. Unlike Ethan Frome, various plays, The Grapes of Wrath, and other force-fed works, I really liked it. I have voluntarily been working my way down the hierarchy of Lewis's novels with pleasure ever since. Not even Bethel Merriday has put me off on my quest. Where to next? World So Wide? Cass Timberlane?

Dodsworth was #5 on my list. Either the greatest of his lesser novels or the least of his great novels (behind Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry). it's a personal favorite. The title character is Zenith automobile manufacturer Samuel Dodsworth who sells his plant to take an extended tour of Europe with his wife Fran. Surprisingly, it's the go-getting Dodsworth that is the good guy; Lewis aims most of his barbs as Fran's mid-life crisis and pathetic tempts to re-invent herself as a expatriate ingenue.

But my favorite part is the travel stuff. I truly believe that travel is among the most overrated of human activities, and Lewis has has many delightfully unkind things to say about this odd obsession. To wit:

Actually, most of those afflicted with the habit of travelling merely lie about its pleasures and profits. They do not travel to see anything, but to get away from themselves, which the never do... They travel to escape thinking, to have something to do, just as they might play solitaire, work crossword puzzles, look at the cinema, or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity. These things the Dodsworths discovered though, like most of the world, they never admitted to them.
And my favorite:

If travel were so inspiring and informing a business...then the wisest men in the world would be deck hands on tramp steamers, Pullman porters, and Mormon missionaries.

So, where are you planning to go on your summer vacation?

Monday, March 24, 2008


The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage, 2007)

One of the first things you learn as a writer is to write for your intended audience, especially if you're getting paid for it. Thus, when I reviewed The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps here a few months ago, I felt the need to assume I was advising naifs for whom John Travolta epitomizes pulp fiction.

Now I don't.

The Big Book is not a great anthology--it's a great package. It's so god damned big (1,100+ pages), authentic (the stories, cover art, and interior illustrations all from real pulps!) and, like the pulps themselves, cheap (only $25!), it's hard not to get your money's worth.

But I do need to bitch about the editing. Otto Penzler may be Mr. Mysterious Press, but he's pretty far down on my list of potential pulp anthology editors. (I bet he doesn't even trail bits of pulp paper behind him when he walks.) Despite the 1,100 pages, there a surprising lack of variety on the contributor's list. While plenty of big names are missing, several authors are represented by two stories, and Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Erle Stanley Gardner have three each! And not one by Robert Leslie Bellem? It's just not right.

My biggest gripe, however, is the inclusion of an entire damned novel by Carroll John Daly. As Penzler points out, you can't not include Daly in this sort of anthology. He literally wrote the first hardboiled detective story, and was as big as Hammett back in the day. But the years have not been kind to him. His stuff is virtually unreadable today. (Not surprisingly, his biggest fan was the equally talented Mickey Spillane.) A short story (and yes, he wrote many) would have been painful enough. A full novel is not only sadistic, it takes up space that could have been enjoyably devoted to any one of a dozen writers.

But even after you skip the Chandler stories you already read, skim the second-rate Hammett stuff, and carefully avoid soiling yourself with the Daly novel, you're still left with more than 700 pages of some pretty good pulp fiction. If my copy hadn't been free, I would have bought one.


All the Way by Charles Williams (Dell, 1958)

Books have always come first with me. Much of the film portion of my media diet consists of movies adapted from favored books. No matter how many print silk purses I’ve seen rendered as cinematic sows’ ears, I can’t resist reading the book and seeing the movie.

Thus, when I saw The Third Voice on the schedule for last January’s Noir City Festival, I immediately brushed off my copy of the book it was based on, Charles William’s All the Way. For those yet to be initiated into the dusty world of mid-20th century paperback originals, Williams was one of the big names, penning a an excellent series of tough, literate suspense novels (mostly set in south Florida) that ultimately made it into hard covers. If he’d had a series character he could have been John D. MacDonald; if he’d gone crazy, he could have been Jim Thompson. Instead, he’s forever doomed to be on the verge of “rediscovery.”

All the Way is vintage Williams. Secretary Marian Forsyth built her boss/lover Harris Chapman into a big shot. Unfortunately, once he’s in the chips, Chapman signs his death warrant by throwing her over for a younger “professional virgin.” Forsyth goes shopping for an accomplice and winds up with the narrator, Jerry Forbes. But unlike every other “woman scorned” noir you’ve read, she’s ready, even eager to do the big job herself. Forbes’s part is to pose as Chapman. He’s supposed to drain the bank and brokerage accounts and make it look like Chapman had gone nuts and taken a one way rowboat trip with a concrete flamingo (metaphor alert!) and a dead call girl. And it works! They get away with the money, not that they live happily ever after, but heck, that’s noir for you.

It plays equally well on the big screen. The only black & white Cinescope movie I’ve ever seen, The Third Voice is great movie and an amazingly faithful adaptation—up to a point. For the 77 minutes, it’s All the Way on the screen. The action’s been relocated from south Florida to Mexico and some sub-plots and scenes steam-lined out, but it’s essentially the same. Even a lot of the dialog originated at William’s typewriter, not the screenwriter’s. Unfortunately, it’s a 79-minute film. It slams you over the head with a hackneyed ending that comes up so suddenly it’s like they ran out of film.

Hell. At least they got it 95% right.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


An Assassin's Diary by Arthur Bremer (Harpers, 1973)

On November 9th of last year, Arthur Bremer was released from prison. He had been serving a 53-year sentence for shooting and paralyzing George Wallace as he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination at a Maryland shopping mall in 1972.

What better time to re-visit Mr. Bremer's magnum opus?

An Assassin's Diary is a delightful relic from those wonderfully tasteless days before Son of Sam laws and civil suits killed the commercial potential of would-be-writings of would-be killers. It reprints the portion of Bremer's diary found after his arrest: 13 entries over a six-week period prior to the shooting. (The first 148 pages were reportedly found in 1980 but remain unpublished.) It's dreary, garbled, and poorly written, and only breaks the 100-page barrier courtesy of a layout really heavy on the white space. And of course, it's utterly essential.

Bremer was the apocryphal "lone nut" of the '60s who turned assassin strictly for the publicity. His diary chronicles his wanderings through New York, Ottawa, and Michigan, at first in pursuit of Nixon before tight security forced him to switch to Wallace. (He frets over the lesser newsworthiness of his back-up target.) For the most part, it's a dreary record of cheap motels and crummy restaurants, sparked occasional gems like "The [maid] doesn't like me because I left my toe nails on the run at the foot of my bed." The New York City sequences are especially Travis Bickle-ian; he makes a point of mentioning how he never leaves his room without his gun. Small wonder that his story reportedly was part of the inspiration for "Taxi Driver."

The highlight of the diary is his trip to a massage parlor in New York. In an excruciatingly painful scene, the "masseuse" attempts (unsuccessfully) to relieve him manually as Bremer pathetically attempts to get a whole lot more for his $48. She explains they have rules against that sort of thing. He later notes, "The first person I held a conversation with in three months was a near-naked girl rubbing my erect penis and she wouldn't let me put it through her."

Mr. Bremer is now living in a halfway house. Let us wish him more satisfactory conclusions in all his future endeavors.