Thursday, April 17, 2014

John Wainwright: four crime novels

As I mentioned earlier, I read four novels by British writer John Wainwright to be mentioned in my forth-coming book on British crime paperbackers. I've been at it for over ten years and I thought it would finally come out next Summer, but we'll have to see about that, as I still have loads of work to do. But now John Wainwright has finally been done with.

Wainwright is best known - if known at all today - for his police procedurals. He wrote some dozens of them saying he got his inspiration from Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct series and that clearly shows. The settings are realistic and Wainwright shows some critical insight into the society he writes about. There are lots of characters, all colourful. The police are a mixed bunch, some of them are almost crooks themselves, taking law into their own hands, some of them just look on from the side and realize there's no use getting mixed with their colleagues' doings. The actual crooks are very much crooks: sleazy low-life scum. This is one of the weakest things in Wainwright's police novels. He shows real contempt when he writes about the lower class people and their inhabitats. In Wainwright's novels there's also lots of dialogue. One can imagine being in a police station amidst all the nervous talk and shouting.

I read The Big Tickle (1969; Kurja päivä kuolla in Finnish) and Talent for Murder (1967; Huhtikuun murhat in Finnish) and liked the latter more, even though the former is more clearly set in the reality of the streets. The novel suffers from bad Finnish translation though.

Wainwright also wrote some middle-class tragedies. I read two of them, The Distaff Factor (1982; Tuomion jälkeen in Finnish) and Cul-de-sac (1984; Umpikuja in Finnish). Georges Simenon spoke highly of the latter, and it is indeed the better of the two in its depiction of a sad marriage that ends in the death of the wife. It's already declared an accident, when an eye-witness comes forward saying it was a murder, done by the woman's husband. Cul-de-sac is a dense book with a pleasing climax. I hope I'm not giving anything away saying Wainwright uses the same technique that made Gillian Flynn famous with her Gone Girl.

The Distaff Factor starts with a promising idea: the husband of a middle-class woman is declared guilty of maiming and killing three prostitutes. This one also has a twist in the middle and yet another in the end, but I wasn't entirely satisfied. The book drags somewhat in the middle and the end climax is both misogynistic and somewhat implausible. Yet it also shows Wainwright could really write tragedy.

Wainwright wasn't a paperback in his native land, but his books came out as paperback here in Finland, that's why I'm including him in my book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Finnish film noir: some worthy specimens

The Warsaw Song, Chris Paischeff in the middle
Some weeks (or months?) ago I wrote a review of John Grant's A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir and listed some Finnish specimens of film noir. I mentioned I'd be seeing some of them on big screen, since there was a festival of Finnish cinema here in Turku where I live and one of the themes of the festival was - ta-ta! - Finnish film noir. Here's a lowdown of the films I managed to see.

Varsovan laulu (The Warsaw Song, 1953, director: Matti Kassila): hardboiled and cynical tale of two booze smugglers, who struggle with love and lust. Very noirish with a downbeat ending and some quite seedy love triangle in the middle of the film. Chris Paischeff makes a very nice femme fatale in the lead. Suffers from the director's indecisiveness: there are two plotlines that don't mix easily. Suffers also from laughably props in the scenes set overseas.

Pikajuna pohjoiseen (Express to North, 1947, director: Roland af Hällström): I'm not sure whether this really qualifies as a film noir, but it has a very downbeat ending. The film seams almost effortlessly into a tragedy after being a thriller with comic overtones. Possibly one of the best Finnish feature films ever, reminiscent of English thrillers of the thirties and especially French films of the thirties and fourties. Set almost entirely on a train. Suffers from overacting at various points.

Silmät hämärässä (Eyes in the Mist, 1952, director: Veikko Itkonen): a very peculiar film about a writer who's down on his luck and drifts into a hotel room seeing four desperate-looking men in a room across the street. The writer imagines what has brought the men together. Their fictional story is told in a flashback (that has some flashbacks seamed in it), and in the end it's revealed the men's story forms the writer's new short story. Quite intricate with some good scenes throughout, but a bit contrived and not very plausible, but still possibly the most noir of the Finnish film noirs.

Joel Rinne gets mad in The Price for One Night
Yhden yön hinta (The Price for One Night, 1952, director: Edvin Laine): an attempt to bring the neorealistic formula of the films such as The Naked City to Finland. Succeeds at times, but is also unintentionally funny, especially in the scenes with criminals. On the other hand, Joel Rinne as the criminal mastermind gets into a Dennis Hopper craze as he twists his lady friend's head violently back and shouts: "Kiss Me! Kiss Me!" The film is fast-moving, though, and never really boring.

Olemme kaikki syyllisiä (We Are All Guilty, 1954, director: Aarne Tarkas): director-writer Aarne Tarkas was very interested in American film and film noir (and in American popular culture altogether, he picked his last name from ERB's Mars books!) and that shows in his comedies and crime films. This is a serious attempt to depict a doomed love story between a young man who suffers from mania and fits of rage and an innocent young woman who loves him first, but betrays him in the end. Quite believable and suspenseful to the end. I believe Tarkas himself suffered from ADHD that was left unattended, and I got to thinking this film might be something of a self portrait.

Tulio's The Criminal Woman
The film noirs I didn't manage to see:

Kultainen kynttilänjalka (The Golden Candelabra, 1946, director: Edvin Laine): crime film with gothic and comedy overtones. Never seen it, so can't comment. From what I've heard veers into camp.

Rikollinen nainen (The Criminal Woman, 1952, director: Teuvo Tulio): I've seen this earlier, a story of a woman who's driven mad by a jealous and abusive husband. I've written about Tulio earlier here.

These are of course not all the film noirs made in the Finnish studio system, I'm sure there's at least a dozen more. And of course there are some fringe examples, crime films that have lots of comic element in them, spy films made in the appropriate era, psychological thrillers that are devoid of the noir feel, pessimistic domestic dramas with downbeat endings etc.

I'm sure some of the films I mentioned above could be shown at a noir festival like, say, Noir City that has had British and Spanish film noirs during the past years. Paging Eddie Muller!

See also my posts on Finnish western films, part one here and part two here. And since this probably qualifies as an Overlooked Film post, go to Todd Mason's blog here to check the other overlooked films out!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Rapture, The Sniper, John Wainwright et al.

In the midst of life I find my hands full with work. So, here's only a quick update:

Michael Tolkin: Rapture: challenging film about religious hystery, seems quite underrated and somewhat ahead of its time ****
Edward Dmytryk: The Sniper: also ahead of its time in its depiction of a sexually frustrated serial killer, who kills young women with his rifle, but slightly muddled by some naïvety and too many policemen on screen! ***½
Robert Altman: McCabe and Mrs. Miller: has yet to be seen properly on big screen, but still convincing in its depiction of a frontier town, probably one of the very few really realistic westerns there are ****

I've also been reading - amidst the Finnish war stuff and some Tolkien (work-related both) - police and other crime novels by British John Wainwright, whose books are quite good, despite Wainwright's tendency to overwrite his rants about the slums and the people therein. Will get back to them later on.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Private Hell 36

Don Siegel was once one of the Hollywood's best paid directors, but his star seems to be fading. Does anyone anymore remember any other film by him than Dirty Harry? Yet he directed some thirty films, some very good (Charley Varrick, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, Flaming Star, The Beguiled, The Shootist and others), some quite good, all quite capable. 

Private Hell 36 (1954) is one of his lesser-known films, yet it's a very capable, at times a very good film noir with cynical characters and a downbeat ending. It was produced by Ida Lupino's and Collier Young's indie outfit called Filmakers (no Filmmakers!) and Siegel was brought in at a late date. Collier Young scripted the film originally for his wife, Lupino, but Lupino had already divorced Young and married Howard Duff, who plays the other lead in the film. The other lead is Steve Cochran, who's very good at playing a sleazy cop who wants to get some extra money and start all over with Lupino with whom he's fallen in love. 

Some of the scenes last too long (something that mars also Siegel's The Killers), but all in all this is a pretty effective low-key drama. I'd hope there was more action, as Siegel really knows how to edit fight and chase scenes. I'm not complaining, though. There's also some naivety in the outcome, especially Howard Duff gets out a bit too nicely. 

Comes highly recommended by me, even though this is no means perfect. 

I saw the film at the Finnish Film Archive's screening. Before the film, the film critic Tapani Maskula offered a half-hour lecture on how he met Siegel in Finland in the late seventies (you know, Telefon was filmed partly in Finland) and discussed Siegel's fifties' films. Siegel told for example that while filming Private Hell 36 the lead actors were often suffering from hangover. There's a scene with Ida Lupino in which she's sitting on a bumper of a truck. Lupino had said to Siegel that he'd better shoot the scene quick, since she's about to throw up. And you can see it in the scene. It works miracles. Lupino has never looked so vulnerable, tired, bored and broken. 

More Overlooked Films here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bibliographic puzzle: Ronald Wills/Hans Vogel: What Comes Next?

I've dealt in my research with some bibliographic problems before, but this one is a real puzzle. I don't even know where to start.

Okay, there's a paperback published in Finnish in 1955 called Hän ei tullut kotiin. It translates back as "He Never Came Home" or some such. It's a private eye novel about kidnapping of rich kids. Now, there's no book under this title (or actually there almost is, but it's not this one). The Finnish translation is credited as by Ronald Wills. There really was a writer called Ronald Wills. His real name was Ronald Wills Thomas. He lived from 1910 to 1969 (or possibly 1955) and wrote crime novels starting from 1950, ending in the early sixties. He used pseudonyms, such as Jeff Bogar (a house name) and James Cadell.

As Ronald Wills he published four crime novels in the early fifties, but they all seem to have something to do with fishes and fishing, and this here novel doesn't, so it's not any of them. What is it then?

The Finnish translation - at least my copy doesn't - doesn't give away the original title, but the bibliography of crime fiction published in Finnish and the Finnish National Library database both say it's What Comes Next? Now, that is a real novel, published in 1953 by the paperback house Scion. It was published under the house pseudonym Hans Vogel. And sure enough, the Finnish book has Hans Vogel as the hero. (Can you think of a more un-American name for a private eye?) But this isn't over yet. The British pulp and paperback scholar Steve Holland says in his blog that What Comes Next? features one Scud Keddell as the hero. And "He Never Came Home" doesn't have anyone called Scud Keddell. (And furthermore What Comes Next? isn't supposed to be written by Ronald Wills. Actually Ronald Wills doesn't seem to have written anything under the Hans Vogel house name.)

So, what gives here? Is this written by someone else entirely than Ronald Wills? Is this something entirely else written under a pseudonym by Ronald Wills, but published in Finland for some reason under his real name? Anything written as by Jeff Bogar doesn't even remotely sound like the book at hand. Or is this something that's been published only in Finland? As you might remember, while doing my first book, Pulpografia (on American crime paperbackers), I found out there were some dozen American books that were never published in the US, but published in Finland and/or Scandinavia.

different book published as by Hans Vogel
What's the book about? Oh, that's a different issue altogether. The book is a sorry mess, but somehow intriguing. Hans Vogel is a private eye working for the FBI (which, by the way, is spelled as FIB in the Finnish book), he handles very special cases. Now, there's a gang kidnapping small children of rich families and Vogel is hired to investigate the matter. He uses some strange methods that don't seem very professional. We never believe that this is a real private eye. Also we never believe this really takes place in the US, which is quite common for the early British crime paperbacks.

There are some truly odd moments throughout the book. Hans Vogel is for example tortured by boiling his feet in hot water. His skin peels off, but somehow he manages to still walk and drive a car. Okay, he admits he feels pain. There's also an odd perversion for talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne all the time - or actually "Nat", as Hans Vogel calls him. In the end Hans Vogel gets the kidnappers with the help of some 13-year old kids who are out playing Wild West with real-looking guns. The book is filled with erotic scenes, but nothing happens in them, they are just Vogel's descriptions of good-looking ladies in erotic costumes, such as silky night gowns. And this is what drove writers and publishers to jail?!

This is in no way a good crime novel, let alone a good novel, but there's something fascinating about the badness and weirdness of it. But the main thing here is the bibliographic puzzle. Can anyone help? I'd really love to solve this, but I don't know where else to look.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Basil Copper's Mike Faraday

In my on-going research into British pulp and paperback crime writing, I read the two novels by Basil Copper translated in Finnish. Both have Copper's private eye Mike Faraday as the hero, and both are pretty basic old-fashioned hardboiled private eye stuff.

Flip Side (1980, translated as Kuoleman kääntöpuoli/"The Flip-Side of Death") puts Faraday delve into the international jewel trade. Snow Job (1986, Älä huoli huomisesta/"Don't Worry About Tomorrow", meaningless title if there ever was one) has Faraday look into the drug trade, even though he doesn't know that from the start. Copper knows his business: in the end Faraday is investigating another case than he's originally hired to investigate. He runs into corpses and beautiful, but deceitful ladies, heavies with guns in their hands, all that stuff that's been known since Black Mask and Dime Detective made the cliches popular. The books were entertaining enough and Copper keeps the story moving, but there's still one problem: I've almost forgotten what happened in them.

Basil Copper also wrote some high-regarded horror stuff which I haven't read. He also wrote the Solar Pons stories after August Derleth died. I think I've read some of Derleth's Solar Pons stories, but none of the Copper ones.

The books in the picture above. The right one has the cover illo by Kari T. Leppänen, who's best known for his work in the Phantom magazine for the Swedish publisher. It's quite nicely done, but it's also pretty static for a hardboiled private eye novel.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Väinö Linna: The Unknown Soldier (1954)

Due to a book project I've been working on, I started to read Väinö Linna's classic war novel Tuntematon sotilas/The Unknown Soldier for the first time in my life. I'd earlier avoided the novel, mainly because I've always been a bit irritated at the notion of books one has to read for reasons larger than life (i.e. patriotism or the Fatherland or some such nonsense), but I was very glad to note I liked the book, was even thrilled by it.

The Unknown Soldier tells about the so called Continuation War in which Finland and the Soviet Union fought against each other. The war started in 1941 and ended in 1944. One of the biggest questions in Finnish history is whether Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany or whether it had its own war with the Soviets. The book is one of those realistic war novels, with the eye sight fixed on the everyday of the battling soldiers, their camaraderie, their fears, frustrations, hopes and anger. There are no heroes in this novel. The war is ugly, chaotic and violent. No one knows why they're fighting - only the higher officers have some idea and even that is filled with stupid notions of Greater Finland.

The Unknown Soldier has dated somewhat and we've had more realistic war novels since, but what keeps the book fresh is that it's polyphonic. There's not a single truth in the novel, there are only multiple narrators (or, actually, narratees) that present their variations of the situation. Linna writes warmly and empathetically of each and everyone of them, even the most obnoxious officers. And his battle scenes are quite good. He really captures the chaotic essence of war - well, as well he should, since he was himself at the war.

The book is available in English. The English translation came out from Putnam in the US and Collins in the UK in 1957, and I believe it was the same translation. For some reason or another, the translator's name isn't mentioned anywhere in the book. The translation is abridged (the reports on how heavily differ), and it's also clumsy with the Finnish idioms (which the book is full of). It's a miracle the translation should be so bad, since it's reported to be the work of one Alex Matson, a Finnish literary essayist, who spent many years in the 1920s living abroad and travelling the world seas. (Thanks for this tip to Ossi Kokko!)

However, it's the only English translation, and it's been used repeatedly even by Väinö Linna's Finnish publisher, WSOY (see the photo above for their edition). They've published several editions of the English translation - still with no translator's name attached. Seems like you could manage to buy the book via Amazon.

There's also the Ace edition from 1958, which is seemingly scarce (see above). The cover illustration is made by someone famous, but I forget who. The illustration was used in Finland in some entirely other paperback, but I forget even that one!

Edit: there's a small news item from 2012 saying that Penguin has bought the rights for Linna's novel and they are putting the new translation out in the near future. Liesl Yamaguchi is the translator.