Sunday, January 10, 2010


The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett (1949)

One of my pet theories is that nothing beats a good movie for solidifying an author's reputation. Would Hammett be so revered if they'd only made The Maltese Falcon twice? Would Chandler be, well, Chandler without a string of memorable screen Marlowes? And where would Mario Puzo be without Francis Ford Coppola?

W.R. Brunett pretty much torpedoes this theory. One critic noted, "More good movies have been made from W.R. Burnett's novels than Fydor Dostoyevsky's." Burnett's first novel, Little Caesar, became the seminal gangster movie that made Edward G. Robinson a star. High Sierra was memorably filmed with Bogart. And The Asphalt Jungle was not only filmed by Huston, starred Sterling Hayden, and launched the career of certain big-titted blond, it was also the first modern caper movie.

Three big movies and pfft. All this cinematic credibility hasn't meant jack in publishing royalties for the Burnett estate; the last edition of The Asphalt Jungle was in 2002. Which is too bad. Burnett was the "Boswell of Noir City," the premier chronicler of the intersection between the underworld and ostensibly respectable society in urban America during the mid-20th century. His writing was terse, low key, and subtly minimalistic. There may not be a lot of shooting or psychodrama in his books, but I defy you to put one down.

The Asphalt Jungle is a bonafide noir classic. It is an early, if not the first modern caper novel, a seldom-surpassed depiction of a carefully assembled gang of criminals acting in unison to take down a large institution. At the center is "Professor" Erwin Riemenschneider, a master thief recently released from prison. He has a plan to take a local jewelry store for $500,000. But while his plan may be foolproof, it's no match for chance, venality and human fallibility.

His hand-picked team are more than up to the job: Bellini, the safe-cracker turned family man, and Dix, the job muscle who dreams of going back home. Unfortunately Emmerich, the hot-shot shady lawyer who's supposed to arrange to fence the jewels, has blown his wad and then some on some fancy red-head. He has no fence, just an utterly half-baked plan to run off with all the jewels.

The job goes off as planned, but the jewels are barely out of the safe before fate intervenes. A chance encounter with a night watchman and an accidentally discharged gun fatally injures Bellini. Emmerich's attempt to grab the jewels fails, but he does manage to wing Dix in the process. This little scuffle gets the cops on his tail. He later kills himself when his little redhead realizes that being his alibi could get her in trouble.

After lying low a few days, Dix and the Professor go their separate ways. The Professor manages to find a cabbie who will drive him to Cleveland and safety. Unfortunately, he is done in by a personal weakness that "...caught him in a trap as a cheese catches a mouse." At a meal break at a roadside diner, he is distracted by his personal passion: a young girl. As he dawdles around flirting with her, he is spotted by a few motor cops and immediately arrested.

Dix is the only one to make it...sorta. His pathetically devoted chippy girlfriend Doll manages to drive him back to the family homestead down south. But things are going pretty bad on the old homestead; in fact, his family's had to sell the family farm and move into some dump in town. But by then, Dix is so delirious for his wounds he can't quite grasp this, and he dies before fully understanding that you can't go home again.

I'm betting no one's going to be getting away with any jewels either when The Asphalt Jungle screens at the Castro on January 24th.

Thursday, December 31, 2009


He Ran All the Way by Sam Ross (1947)

Someone once described the classic noir plot as a man gradually realizing that he's fucked. Well, He Ran All the Way's Nick Robey is way ahead on this game. The novel opens with him having a full-on expressionistic nightmare of him playing himself in craps--and losing.

Yes, Nick is filled with a sense of foreboding. He convinced the stick-up he's planning with his pal Al is doomed And it is. It winds up with a cop dead, Al in jail (singing the tune "Nick did it!") and Nick himself on the run.

As long as Nick is in motion, the novel has a pleasantly sweaty kinetic energy emphasized by Ross's staccato style. "He couldn't afford to make a mistake. He couldn't afford to take chances." Unfortunately, rather than careening about Chicago like the hottest pinball in town, things grind to a screeching halt out of The Desperate Hours.

Realizing "...he had no way of getting anywhere and he had no place to go," Nick picks up 19-yr. old Peg Dobbs at the beach and convinces her to take him home. Oddly enough, her pathologically post war nuclear family raise nary an eyebrow over their daughter bringing home an obviously agitated and armed lunatic. But even though they seem quite amenable to letting him hang around the house for a few days with the housing shortage and all, he panics, pulls his gun and takes the whole lot of them hostage.

The next 200 pages of the parents freaking, Peg sympathizing, and Junior smart-assing are pretty dull. You want to scream at Nick, "Move, man, move!!!!" There's even a Flitcraft sequence where for no real reason Mr. Dobbs tells Nick that a man's dreams shouldn't come true because when they do, "you feel a little more hollow inside."

This doesn't stop Nick from ultimately tossing the seven-out of his dreams. He gets a screwball idea for Peg to buy a car and drive him to the coast. She comes through with the car, but faced with his increasingly irrational behavior, she embraces him--and fatally stabs him in the back with a handy kitchen knife.

Ultimately, the novel is done in by by the lengthy hostage sequence. However, the prospect of having a screen presence like John Garfield ranting and raving and screaming at the elder Dobbs, smacking Junior, fondling Peg (a young Shelly Winters? Mmmm...) and sweating over the tastefully-furnished Dobbs home does have enormous cinematic potential.

We'll see if this potential is realized on January 26th when He Ran All the Way screens at the Castro.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Yes, it's almost January, which can only mean one thing around here: Noir City! From January 22 through the 31st, when the lights go down in San Francisco's Castro theater, the theater will be enveloped by our favorite shade of black: Film Noir! This year's festival features 24 films (15 not available on DVD!) on the theme of "Lust and Larceny." Each double bill (and in Noir City, every bill is a double bill) will feature one film with the theme of lust, one with the theme of larceny. Who says you can't have it both ways?

As always, I will attempt to review/discuss all the books the films are based on. There are 10 in the line-up this year, ranging from The Postman Always Rings Twice to A Place in the Sun , which had its genesis in Dreiser's An American Tragedy. And I guarantee I'm not going to let the 700+ pages of the latter deter me.

Coming soon: Sam Ross's He Ran All the Way.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction by Bradley Mengel (McFarland, 2009)

Ever since reading the cover blurb of The Destroyer #23: Child's Play ("Who would think of booby-trapping a frisbee?"), I've been fascinated by what I call Men's Action/Adventure paperback series of the '70s (MAA70 for short): The Executioner, The Destroyer, The Death Merchant, The Butcher, and their many violent imitators. Not that I actually read the damn things; most are dull, if not downright unreadable. It's the peculiar package: the neatly number titles, the bizarrely-named protagonists, the blazing violent covers, and the mind boggling body counts. I just love having them lined up neatly on my shelves.

I have been waiting for a book like Serial Vigilantes for 30 years. MAA70 are the male analog of romance novels. Critics ignore them. Respectable bookstores don't carry them. Information of any sort about them is almost impossible to come by.

As a bibliography alone, Serial Vigilantes fills a gaping void. It has the scoop on more than 130 series from Able Team to Z-Comm. Each entry describes the series hero and premise, gives a complete list of titles through 2008, and unmasks many of the writers lurking behind pen names like "Stuart Jason" and "Nick Carter." It's decently written, nicely organized, neatly presented, and seems pretty comprehensive. It's earned a spot on my reference book shelf. To think, all those years I thought Michael Avallone wrote the early Butchers...I'm sorry, Mike

But I can and must kvetch about details. First, the term "serial vigilantes." I hate it. Although it accurately describes guys like the early Executioner, the Lone Wolf, and a whole passel of Death Wish-like gun-toting goofballs, just as many of the subgenre's so-called "vigilantes," including mainstays like Nick Carter and my beloved Destroyer are agents clandestinely working for the government. What self-respecting vigilante takes orders, much less pulls down a civil service paycheck? Me, I'm sticking with MAA70, with "action" being a code word for one of the sub-genre's most prominent features: excessive gratuitous violence.

Mengel's history of the sub-genre is also pretty sketchy. I will spare you my lengthy rant about the pre-history of the sub-genre. Just let me say that I see a lot more Tarzan, James Bond, and Mickey Spillane and a lot less Doc Savage than Mengel does. He also makes no comment about how or why the sub-genre seemed to take a strong martial turn around 1980, with mercenary vs. terrorist supplanting man vs. Mafia as the conflict of choice. Since I frankly don't care about these later series, it's no big deal. But I do wonder.

My biggest gripe, however, is personal. For many years I have been on a quest for the worst MAA70 series. Is it The Hitman? Gannon? The Lone Wolf? Alas, Serial Vigilantes is utterly uncritical. It treats these abuses of the reader's endurance with every bit as much respect as the excellent Destroyer, the Ur-Executioner, and the always-good Revenger. I suppose neutrality is good in a reference book. But I did have my hopes.

At least I know I only have 100 more series to check out!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

Until recently, Patrick Hamilton was a mainstay of "forgotten novelists" lists, touted by a distinguished group including J.B. Priestly, Doris Lessing, and Nick Hornby. Many of his best books have finally slipped back in print over the last few years, only to be marketed to the minor British novelist crowd. In noir circles, he's best known for the plays that were the basis for the films Rope and Gaslight.

Which is too bad, because Hangover Square is truly one of the great noir novels. The grim setting--a London neighborhood of dank rooming houses, cheap hotels, greasy coffee shops and, above all, seedy pubs on the very eve of World War Two--oozes with dark atmosphere. It was a world Hamilton knew intimately. A life long hard drinker (one of his bios was entitled Through a Glass Darkly), he was a Boswell of the barroom, unsurpassed at capturing the boredom, loneliness and above all, the hopelessness of the habitual public drinker.

At the center of Hangover Square is George Harvey Bone, a large, weak, and amiable man in his mid-30s. He is desperately in love with Netta Longdon. Alas, not only is his love unrequited, Netta is a femme fatale of a sort that gives the rest of the subspecies a bad name. Vicious, cruel, and utterly self-absorbed, she is described as looking " a Byron beauty, but inside, she was a fish." She is at a center of a crowd that even George recognizes to be a "Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant pub crawling cheap lot of swine." Yet George can't bear to tear himself away, putting up with an endless stream of humiliations in the forlorn hope that maybe somehow, someday, Netta would care. Not that she ever will. She only tosses George an occasional bone of civil treatment because he does have his uses: an ever-handy stooge, a reliable source of small loans, the possessor of tenuous connections that may further her "acting" career.

There is no shortage of darkness and desperation in George's plight, and doom is just around the corner. But Hangover Square is more than a beer-sodden take on Of Human Bondage. Periodically and without warning, a loud "Crack!" sounds in George's head. He snaps into a "dead mood," a fugue-like state (that is completely unrelated to schizophrenia) where he continues to act more or less normally. But when he snaps out of it, he has no idea what he's been up to. It just happens that during these "dead moods," he's planning to kill Netta Longdon. In the true noir tradition, every time things are looking up for George--he's cutting down on the drink, he's not hanging around with Netta, he's breaking free of his dead-end life--Crack!

Any list of best noir novels that doesn't include Hangover Square is merely joking.

Monday, September 7, 2009


True Crime Detective Magazines 1924-1969 by Eric Godtland, edited by Dian Hansen (Taschen, 2008)

A a long time lover of True Detective magazine and its many imitators (and one of the few to notice its passing), I've been waiting for years for an even half-assed history of the genre. And, with the publication of True Crime Detective Magazines, I'm still waiting.

Not that there isn't a whole lot to love about this lavish volume. For Taschen books, pictures are the thing. And there is no shortage of eye candy here. The book is loaded with some 400+ drool worthy reproductions of detective magazine covers. It begs for coffee table display.

The text, however, is another matter. Granted, the image-heavy format and Taschen's policy of printing the text in English, French, and German doesn't give the writers much to work with. But even allowing for these tight constraints, the "history" presented herein is sketchy, scatter shot, and from what I can tell, frequently inaccurate. The authors seem to have been so distracted by the chapters on bondage covers and "girls smoking" covers (??) they appear to have spent little time actually reading the damn things. As painful an experience as this may be, sometimes a writer's gotta take one for his audience.

An even bigger gripe is 1969 cut-off. Why, my god, why? This is when things were getting really interesting ironically. The wave of sleaze they describe as engulfing the magazines in the 1960s didn't really hit until the 1970s. During the disco decade, every cover was a tasteless tableau of a woman about to come to a painful, violent, and frequently sexually sadistic end. Blurbs promised to reveal the truth about the "Mutilation Murder of Palm Beach's Millionaire Homo" of "When You're Done, Stack Her With the Others." They were truly documents of a nation seemingly going insane.

Luckily, there is something more than pretty pictures. Almost as an afterthought, they include "I Was a True Detective Editor" by Marc Gerald, wherein Mr. Gerald describes his memorable first job out of college in 1989. This article about the almost-final days of the crime magazines is worth the price of admission alone.

It's sad that even Canada's really crappy crime magazines have gotten a real book (True Crime, True North) while the land that invented the damn things (all praise St. Bernarr MacFadden!) has to make do with this. But it does look so nice on my coffee table....

Thursday, August 6, 2009


The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd by Jana Bommersbach (Simon & Shuster, 1992)

Megan Abbot's next book, Bury Me Deep, is loosely based on the 1931 Winne Ruth Judd "Trunk Murders" (not, as one or two pinheads suggested, the Brighton Trunk Murders.) Naturally, this sent me scurrying to my library to do a little background reading.

The first book on the case, 1973's Winnie Ruth Judd: The Trunk Murders, is little more than as assemblage of newspaper clippings tediously re-written into narrative form. Definitely not worth the bother. Bommersbach's book is definitely the one to get, and as a read it goes done painlessly. But accurately? That remains to be seen.

First, the facts. Winnie Ruth Judd was a 26-yr old medical typist trying to may a go of it in Phoenix in 1931. For friends, she had x-ray tech Agnes LeRoi and TB patient Hedwig Samuelson. For fun, she had big-wheel lumberman Jack Halloran. And she did have a husband, but he was conveniently out-of-state looking for work and played no role in subsequent events.

On the night of October 26th, Judd visited her pals. There was an altercation caused, Judd later claimed, by her introducing Halloran to a woman with a arrested case of syphilis. Two days later, her erstwhile friends were found in a pair of leaky trunks in the checkroom at Los Angeles's Union Station; Samuelson's body had been cut into four pieces to fit. Judd was quickly arrested. In a trial that can only be described as "unusual," she was convicted of LeRoi's murder and sentenced to death. She was ultimately found insane and remanded to a state mental hospital. She would escaped seven times over the next 30 years (once staying AWOL for seven years) before being finally paroled in 1971

Bommersbach makes a good case for the investigation being flawed, the trial unfair, and the whole process skewed by official efforts to protect Halloran. But to protect him from scandal, or prosecution? Bommersbach has her explanations; in fact, she has two. Unfortunately, her solutions are as problematical as the prosecution's. To run them down, they are:
  • Single Woman Theory: Acting entirely alone, Winne Ruth Judd shot her two friends, did her own chopping and stuffing, and then put a bullet in her hand to make it look like self defense. This is the official prosecution theory.
  • That Nasty Man: Jumped by her two friends, Judd somehow wrested the gun away after sustaining a bullet wound in the hand and proceeded to kill them in "self defense." She summoned loverboy Halloran, who arranged to have the bodies loaded in trunks. This is Judd's personal story.
  • The Second Gunman: There was another gunman who shot one, or possibly both, of the women, leaving Judd entirely innocent.

All are flawed. Although it isn't as hard to chop up a body as Bommersbach makes out, she does make a good case that Judd's hand was injured before the bodies went in the trunks. Dissecting assistance is probable. But Judd's self-defense claim flys in the face of physical evidence. LeRoi was killed by a single shot to the head fired at extremely close range. But would Halloran, a businessman with ready access to trucks that could easily transport the bodies out into the desert, bring in a second witness to chop up Samuelson and then send the injured and no doubt thoroughly rattled Judd on a lengthy, idiotically conceived trip with no clear plan to get rid of the evidence?

The second gunman theory is simply silly. Not only does this beg why Judd would spend the rest of her life screaming self defense, the only basis is the early news stories that had the women being killed by different guns. Where Bommersbach sees evidence of a sinister conspiracy protecting important men, I see another screw-up by know-it-all newshounds.

My theory is that Judd sneaked into the house, shot LeRoi and then brawled a bit with Samuelson before shooting her. If she did have some post-mortem help, I think it was a third party that lacked access to more convenient methods of body disposal. But who... and why?

It is with keen anticipation that I await Ms. Abbott's novelization (and hopefully, rationalization) of these events.