Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Tana French: The Witch Elm

As almost everyone who's ever read my blog (that sadly seems defunct most of the time nowadays) knows I love American crime fiction. But when I read this interview with Irish writer (okay, she was born in the US) Tana French, I knew immediately I'd have to read something by her. I settled on her newest novel and read it during the holidays.

The Witch Elm is a devilishly brilliant novel, with a unreliable narrator who has a reason for his unreliability: he has been knocked out and beaten by some burglars, and due to the concussion he can't remember everything he's said or done. He's not your everyday sociopath that now people almost every crime novel, and he's not a devious criminal. He's just a guy with bad luck - or is he..? 

The Witch Elm is pitch-perfect satire on art world, and furthermore it's full of true notions of the middle-aged lives and the interactions between brothers and sisters. Violence is very scarce, but this is no cozy.

It took me almost a week to read The Witch Elm, but it was very rewarding. It's not usual to read a crime novel that is so well executed, even though the book is quite long (over 600 pages). Yet there's nothing in it in vain. I wouldn't take anything out of the book. It hooks you almost like nothing else. There aren't any of your usual narrative tricks, but the book still grabs you and holds you down. It's truly a wonder Tana French hasn't been translated in Finnish, though seems like they are publishing only books that are sure to sell, namely Scandinavian serial killer thrillers. Blah, say I!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Friday's Forgotten Book: Donald E. Westlake: Brothers Keepers

I've always been more interested in Donald Westlake's darker and more hardboiled stories than his humorous crime fiction, but I was still delighted to read the rather recent reprint from Hard Case Crime, Brothers Keepers. There's originality to the plot and the characters (it's about monks trying to protect their obscure monastery from the developers), and the prose flows smoothly. Still I would've liked some more fist fights.

Hard Case Crime say on their website that the book has been out of print for 30 years. It was originally published by Lippincott in 1975, but there was a Mysterious Press reprint in 1993, so technically it hasn't been out of print for 30 years.

This was one of the few books I managed to read during my Summer holiday that wasn't work-related. I'll try to get something said about the other books as well. Sorry to keep this so short, but I think it might be fun to get back to blogging (once again!).
The first edition from 1975

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Ed Wood's sex stories coming your way!?

Ed Wood's erotic prose is getting a collection. Find out more about it here!

I never got around to reading Wood's earlier horror and crime collection Blood Spatters Quickly, though I was tempted, but this intrigues me even more.

EDIT: deleting spam comments I managed to delete also Todd Mason's comment which, for some reason or another, I hadn't noticed before.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Jordan Harper: She Rides Shotgun

I'm late joining the crowd praising Jordan Harper's first novel, She Rides Shotgun. It came out already in 2017 (okay, less than two years ago, which to my mind means it's a new book), but I managed to get it only last Christmas (it was a present from me to me). True, I read it very fast once I started it. She Rides Shotgun is an excellent crime novel, which really deserved the Edgar for the best debut it got.

She Rides Shotgun has been compared to Charles Portis's True Grit, a marvellous anti-Western Western from the late 1960's. True, Portis's novel is narrated by the 14-year female lead herself, and She Rides Shotgun is divided between chapters in which the main focalizer (and not the narrator) is either 11-year old Polly McClusky or his ex-con father  Park, who is out to save her ass from the neo-nazis that already killed her mother.

The premise is already intriguing. Add to that Harper's narrative skills and his lines of occasional poetry, and you have a winner. Add to that a copious amount of shuddering violence, and you have a double-winner. And mind you, there's never a hint of sexual abuse toward Polly, though lesser writers might have veered into that direction. I didn't know if the prelude with the bad sheriff of a Hicksville was necessary, but it got the fear of him into my heart.

You've all probably read about Dan Mallory already. I have his Woman in the Window as by A. J. Finn sitting on a shelf, but I can forget it and read She Rides Shotgun again instead. (But really, the New Yorker piece on Mallory is amazing.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Jason Starr: Fugitive Red

I bought three new crime novels for Christmas presents for myself, and I managed to read two of them during the holidays (Tana French's The Witch Elm will have to wait, as I had to get back to work). Both were very good.

Jason Starr's Fugitive Red I read in a day. I started it late at night, but couldn't wait to get back to it the next day, and then I stayed up till two. This is vintage Starr, up there with some of his best work, trimmed, exciting, bursting with suspense and despair, with an ambivalent ending.

Fugitive Red is about a real estate broker who starts to flirt with a woman he meets online on a dating site. This leads to a nightmare he couldn't imagine and one he can't get out of. Starr writes about relatable characters - at least I felt I could relate to this guy, who keeps telling himself he can lose some weight if he wants to and who thinks there's a reward for him, if he just keeps on doing his thing. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes, though. Starr is the perfect embodiment of the noir sensibility of the fourties and fifties, but he doesn't retort to old clichés of hardboiled school, and the use of online social media is very believably mixed into the narrative. (Which is something you don't often see - not long ago I read a newish Finnish horror novel, and I thought it was set in the past, possibly in the early-to-mid-nineties, since no one used a smartphone!)

There's a bit of a news about Jason Starr I want to share, but you'll have to wait. (Someone might remember what I'm talking about, if he's been reading my blog for long enough. )

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sam Hawken: Missing

I really liked Hawken's earlier novel, Juaréz Dance, in all its minimalism. During the last Christmas holiday, I read his later novel, Missing, which is also set in Texan-Mexican milieu. I have heard that his critical view of Mexico is not necessarily true or honest, but it makes for a gripping read. Missing is about a former Marine, who leads a pretty quiet life in Laredo, Texas. Things get sour, when his half-Mexican daughter and her Mexican friend disappear after a concert. The book starts slowly, develops slowly and builds into a violent, shattering climax that leaves you gasping for air. What's more important is that the book is also believable, with relatable characters.

A lengthier post to follow, on Jason Starr and Jordan Harper - or two posts.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Time of the Heathen (1962)

Okay, this is not an overlooked film, it's forgotten to the point of being almost non-existent. I saw the movie on 35 mm film in the screening of the Finnish Film Archive, and I bet my money it's one of the very few remaining prints of the film in all the world, since there are no signs of the film having been shown anywhere in decades. Yet it's a very interesting and occasionally a very good movie.

Time of the Heathen (Ruoho nousee jälleen in Finnish, meaning "Grass Will Rise Again") is the sole film directed by Peter Kass. The film had its premiere in 1962. Kass wasn't a nobody: he was already a director in Broadway, and later on he became known as a trainer of actors. But his film is a total obscurity. To this day, I would know nothing about the film unless it were for the Finnish film critic Tapani Maskula who has mentioned the film to me from time to time. He said he was the only critic in Finland in the mid-sixties who wrote a review of the film.

The film was shown for some 40 people on Monday night here in Turku, where I live, and the film proved to be very exciting and intriguing. It's a very short film, some 75 minutes long, shot probably on 16 mm and widened to 35 mm for distribution. It's black and white, same sort of high-contrast and stark material that Night of the Living Dead and other indie films of the sixties were shot on. (Didn't Romero also shoot on 16 mm?) Time of the Heathen was probably a university project, since the music, composed by Lejaren Hiller, was performed by the Illinois University students' orchestra. Most of the actors are amateur and they don't have any other films to their credit, except for John Heffernan who's in the lead, and Ethel Ayler who has a small but significant role as a African-American servant. Then again she didn't perform in cinema again for ten years (then she was seen in Come Back Charleston Blue).

Heffernan plays a lone man called Gaunt, who's walking somewhere on the countryside, looking and acting strange and citing the Bible, when the sheriff stops him (hence the title, from the Book of Hezekiel). Gaunt comes across an African-American boy, and together they witness a rape attempt by a young white man that leads to the death of the servant. The racist and violent father of the rapist is going to accuse Gaunt of killing the woman, but Gaunt and the young boy flee to the woods.

The story is very simple, but there are enough twists to keep this interesting for the first 30 or 40 minutes. Then the story takes a turn and becomes even more simpler, reducing the story to a minimalist level, and then comes a flashback scene that's almost a complete experimental movie inside the film! It's in colour and at times very striking. It reveals Gaunt's traumatic past during the World War II (won't give it away, though) and broadens the film's thematic scope to greater levels. This is no mere man-on-the-run story.

The experimental scene was done by Ed Emshwiller, who also produced, shot and edited the movie. Emshwiller or Emsh is better known as a science fiction illustrator, but he also did lots of experimental shorts and other films (and a friend of mine recognized artist George Dumpson in a small role - Emshwiller has made a documentary on Sampson's art!). The experimental colour scene comes accompanied by computer-generated (or electronic, it as yet unclear*) music composed and performed by Lejaren Hiller, who's probably best known for his collaboration with John Cage. This is quite an early film to use electronic music. The scene works very well inside the film, because it's made clearly for Time of the Heathen and not as a separate piece of art that's just attached to the film.

Hope this is enough to convince you Time of the Heathen is an interesting film. It has neo-noir touches here and there, and as my friend pointed out, it's actually one long chase scene, so there's also action if you're into that sort of thing. There are some clumsy scenes from time to time, and I thought the script had some inconsistencies, but I'm willing to forget them. Amateur actors perform quite well, which is no miracle, given that Kass was a director on Broadway. The harsh country milieu (the film was probably shot in Illinois, though I'm not sure - it was said in the ending credits, but I forgot already) adds very refreshing scenery to the film, and this almost feels like a precursor to movies like Winter's Bone. Tapani Maskula who hadn't seen the film over 50 years was there in the screening, and he said after the film that it could be shot even today. The themes are still there: war, racism, hatred.

The problem is only that you can't see this film. It has never been released on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. It was shown on Finnish TV in 1968, but I don't know of any other screenings. If you know a film or video print exists, keep noise about it. Demand it be shown and eventually digitized. Ask John Heffernan (who's still alive and active) to be guest at your film festival. (Sadly, Peter Kass and Emsh are dead. The film was mentioned in Kass's obituaries, but it was clear not one of the writers had seen it.) Here's hoping this blog post starts the Time of the Heathen renaissance!

* There's indeed unclarity as to what kind of music was used in the film. I think the opening credits say Hiller did "computer-generated music" (or sounds) for this, but when another friend of mine got interested in this and wrote the University of Illinois about it, he received this answer:

"Hiller, like many early Electronic Music composers, was rather practical. He used sounds in compositions that were originally written for inclusion in other pieces. He composed a tape loop of percussive concrete sounds for the film, "Time of the Heathen." These sounds were never used in the film, though Hiller did include them as an optional third cue in the suite from "Time of the Heathen." (...) First, I believe the music created for the film "Time of the Heathen" was created by Hiller in 1961 within the Experimental Music Studio at Stiven House, and was realized with electronic sounds (from analog waveform generators) and possibly some musique concrète sources (of which Hiller was fond of using), not computer generated."