Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sheldon Lord: Kept

As you've noticed, I've been reading Lawrence Block's old sleaze novels lately. The quality hasn't been as good as Block's reputation would indicate, but as I'm writing an article about the reprint boom of old sleaze paperbacks, I wanted to try another one: Kept, as by Sheldon Lord (Midwood, 1960). Lord was a pseudonym Block used in his novels (such as Pads Are For Passion, reprinted as A Diet of Treacle), but then again this website says Kept was actually written by Donald Westlake.

I couldn't tell. Kept could be by either one as the prose is smooth and very readable, just as both Westlake and Block can deliver. I read the book in Finnish translation (it was published as Maksettu rakastaja in the mid-sixties by Finnbooks in their short-lived series called Domino) and for all I know, it could be abridged or altered in any other way.

I was rather disappointed in Kept, because I went in looking for a criminous content, but there was none! This could've been a romance paperback, save for the fact that there are some candid sex scenes (candid for their own time, mind you) and that the lead character is a man. The book starts off promisingly, a bit like Postman Always Rings Twice, with a beautiful, young woman picking up a hobo man off the side of the road. But in the end nothing much happens: the boy gets the girl and that's about it. There's some fascinating Mad Men territory being covered here, though: penthouse luxury, new hi-fi stuff, well-cut suits, bossing women around at the office, drinks consumed almost at all times, all that.

But all in all, I'm not sure if I share the Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks conviction this should be reprinted. (But take this with a grain of salt, since I read the translation.)

The great original cover is by Paul Rader.

By the way, here's a link to the Finnish Domino series. Any comments on the books published in it?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lawrence Block: A Diet of Treacle

This is one of the old Lawrence Block sleaze titles Hard Case Crime has been reprinting. Killing Castro was somewhat disappointing, and so was this. A Diet of Treacle is a ménage à trois between two beatnik guys (one a loser, other a criminal) and a girl who'd like to be a beatnik. The book is not really a crime novel, it's more a novel with a crime. The actual plot starts only after the middle part, but Block writes so smoothly it's not a huge problem. The problem lies with the fact that the plot is too thin after all - and that there's too much of the beatnik slang, with everything being cool, solid or hip. The ending is good, though, real noir stuff.

The book was first published as Pads Are For Passion (Beacon, in the early sixties), but A Diet of Treacle (name snatched from Lewis Carroll) was Block's original title. This kind of information is something I'd really like Hard Case Crime would tell at their website. The book was first published under the Sheldon Lord by-line and I already started reading Sheldon Lord's Kept that was written also by Block. Seems pretty solid (sic) by the first 50 pages.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Thrill Kill Books: Getting Off and Bad Thoughts

 I finished two books last weekend that shared the same theme: the thrill of a good kill. Both dealt the theme very differently, the other one was very humorous and free-wheeling and the other one developed some real horror out of it.

The latter was Dave Zeltserman's Bad Thoughts that was first published in hardcover by Five Star, but is now available as an e-book. Zeltserman sure knows how to spin a dark tale, as has been witnessed by his earlier books (of which I think Killer is the best - at least of those I've read). And boy oh boy, is Bad Thoughts dark! The killer in Bad Thoughts has a dubious gift of being able to work in the dreams of the people he wants to hurt and seems like there's no escape out of the situation. There are some moments that ask for the suspension of disbelief, but Zeltserman brings the thing to a well-balanced conclusion and does it with verve, through a simple-looking style that maintains the hardboiled noir style that's so familiar to Zeltserman's readers. In the hands of a mediocre serial killer writer, this would merely be a thriller. Now it's something else entirely.

Lawrence Block's hardcover Hard Case Crime outing Getting Off makes the same thing very differently. It tells about a young and attractive woman who kills men to revenge the abuse her father inflicted upon her and does it with great pleasure, first having sex with the men. Block pulls no punches in this tale that develops into a parody of serial killer novels. He turns the clichés upside down: there's nothing inherently bad in getting your joy out of killing people. The book's highly erotic at the same time and it's no wonder Block has used his early Jill Emerson pseudonym in this (though this is much seedier stuff than anything by "Jill Emerson"). There are some moments in the book that feel forced, as a couple of details in the lesbian romance, but I can see Block chuckling to himself while writing those scenes.

The books are very different in depicting the reasons for the thrill kill violence: Zeltserman says there's no reason, the guy was just born broken and it was a pity no one made anything to stop him, Block claims the abuse of the young girl made her what she is today. Seems like the Zeltserman explanation is more fashionable now, as the psychoanalytic-tinged theory of traumatized sexual behaviour has faded out of academic fashion.

Dave Zeltserman's Bad Thoughts has also the distinction of being the first e-book I've read. I loaded the free Kindle Reader on my portable and I've been snatching some free e-books whenever they've been available. As a reading experience I thought it was okay, but something I'd think should be done with the real device. But as of yet, I don't own one. As more and more interesting noir and hardboiled books are coming out only as e-books, getting a Kindle or a Nook or something similar seems something I need to do. Just too pity e-books are so expensive here in Finland.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Blazing Magnum

This is an outrageous Italian crime flick with an insane plot about a police lieutenant's sister who gets killed in a party and some pretty interesting secrets start to unravel. Directed by veteran Alberto De Martino, this boasts some hilariously ridiculous scenes, such as Stuart Whitman beating up three transvetites. The long car chase in the middle of the film is one of the best and one of the stupidest I've seen - yes, at the same time.

If you enjoy stupid films that aren't bad, this is especially for you.

More Overlooked Films at Todd Mason's blog here. (Seems like they are not up yet, as the Americans are not up yet.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Hard Case Crime cover for James M. Cain

And what a cover it is! Take a look at the never-before-published The Cocktail Waitress here. There's also a chapter to read for a taste.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lawrence Block: Grifter's Game

I've never actually read much Lawrence Block. I once read one of his later Matt Scudder novels and I really didn't care for it. I'll have to try one of them again. I've liked two of his Tanner novels, even though they are very light. A Bernie Rhodenbarr I had to quit in the middle. And then I've read Killing Castro.

I finally got around to reading the first book Hard Case Crime put out, Block's Grifter's Game that was originally published as Mona (Fawcett Gold Medal 1961). It really shows Block was a good writer even when he was very young (he was 23 when this was published, and I think this is his first, at least under his own name), the text is fluent and very readable. Block's dialogue is paced well and crispy. It's too bad there's so little of it in the middle parts - the narrative turns pretty much into the protagonist's monology. The protagonist is a con man in his late twenties. He's quite sympathetic, though he's a heel of the worst kind, seducing women to to live on their money for days or for months and then dropping them. There are no good people in the world of Grifter's Game, which, combined with the pretty nasty ending, makes this a worthwhile noir novel.

Next off I'll be reading Block's Getting Off and Lucky at Cards. Why? I'm working on an article for a Finnish journal about sex and sleaze paperbacks. And because it's about time I start reading Lawrence Block.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Anthology of men's adventure magazine stories

Bob Deis who organizes a very nice Facebook group called Men's Adventure Magazines and maintains a blog about the same issue, is compiling an anthology of the stories from men's adventure mags, take a look here. The list of writers includes Larry Block, Walter Wager, Harlan Ellison, Bruce Jay Friedman and Mario Puzo.

Fidel Castro assassinated

Hard Case Crime has put out some very interesting reprints and obscurities. Lawrence Block's Killing Castro is probably of the latter kind. It's entertaining, but I'm not sure whether I could call it a forgotten classic. It's a story about five Americanos trying to kill Fidel Castro and trying to get 20,000 dollars as a reward. Some of them are professionals, some of them are idealists, some of them are just waiting around to die and trying to do something useful while dying.

Unlike another blogger said, I didn't find this tightly knit or narrated. It's more like a loose narrative, with just episodes following each other. Some of the episodes are more entertaining than others and Block creates some pretty good characters through dialogue and action. The fate of some of the characters was also entertaining and not something I anticipated.

In a weird narrative technique Block also interweaves the story with the history of real-life Castro and his rise to power. Without those parts the book would be one third shorter and I guess Block just typed them up to fill up the standard book-length. Block's view of Castro and Cuba before him seems pretty solid, though, and even if those bits irritated me, they provided some new information! 

The book is one of Block's rarest early pseudonymous efforts, published as "Lee Duncan" under the title Fidel Castro Assassinated. The publisher was Monarch, the year is 1961, and I think in this case the new cover is much better than the original! 

Friday, April 06, 2012

Orrie Hitt's two-fer

As I've said earlier, the momentum of old sleaze and sex paperbacks has arrived. There are numerous reprints and I think there will be even more of them, which is just great, if the books are as good as the ones in the Robert Silverberg double and in the Orrie Hitt double Stark House Press published last year.

Orrie Hitt was pretty much deemed to obscurity in the 1980's and 1990's, but there were some mentions of his name here and there, for example in Lee Server's book on old paperbacks. It seems his star is on the rise - has actually been awhile -, mainly due to the blogs dedicated to the pulp school of writing and vintage sleaze. Stark House did recently a great double volume of his work, with two long-lost titles The Cheaters and Dial "M" for Man. It's a great read and I recommend it highly.

The Cheaters (Midwood 1960) tells about a young man, pretty much down on his luck, taking a job as a bartender in a seedy bar. The guy falls in love with the gorgeous wife of the bar's fat and obnoxious owner, who wants the guy to take over the bar. Dial "M" for Man (Beacon 1962) is about a TV repair man running his own business in a small town. He also falls in love with the gorgeous wife of the town's big man who in his turn tries to run the TV man down in every way he can.

Both books, published originally as cheap and cheap-looking paperbacks, are about ordinary men in bad situations. They just end up in them, even though they try to shy away from bad stuff. It just happens. They fall in love and start to scheme killing a man, albeit rather reluctantly. This is classic noir stuff, exemplified by this quote from Dial "M" for Man: "Here I was, just a little guy with everything to lose - everything that I had not already lost, that is." You care for these guys, that's why these two little books (Dial "M" for Man is just over 100 pages) have stayed alive.

The other reason for their vitality is Hitt's narrative drive. Even though nothing much happens and the prose isn't very refined or stylish, Hitt really knows how to keep the story moving. You keep flipping the pages, though, as I said, nothing much happens. In this Hitt reminds me of Jason Starr, one of my favourite new noir writers, who also writes about ordinary people and in whose books nothing much happens. Especially in Dial "M" for Man Hitt really keeps the shit piling up on his protagonist.

The endings in both books are bad, though, like Hitt didn't really know how to keep up the dark pessimism of the earlier pages.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

New Hammett in the works

Snatched from the Rara-Avis e-mail list earlier today:

Otto Penzler has announced a new book coming from The Mysterious Press: "The Return of the Thin Man" by Dashiell Hammett. It will include Hammett's 1935 original story that became the movie "After the Thin Man," his 1938 story for "Another Thin Man" (based on his Continental Op story "The Farewell Murder"), and the brief parody treatment he wrote in 1938 for a fourth Thin Man movie.

The "After the Thin Man" story was previously published issues 5 and 6 of the paperback magazine "The New Black Mask" in 1986 and in the 1987 U.K. paperback anthology "Crime Wave" published by Robinson and edited by Richard Layman and Matt Bruccoli. The other two stories have never been published anywhere.

The book will also include notes by Hammett scholar Layman and Hammett's granddaughter Julie Rivett. Penzler didn't announce an exact publication date, just "late fall."

Lots of overlooked movies

I was going to do this on Tuesday, but I just haven't had time for this kind of thing lately as I've been teaching at the university (creative writing? what do I know about that?) and it seems to take away the energy and everything. So, the thing was that I spent weekend at the cabin with six friends of mine watching movies all the time and drinking booze and not much else. Here's the list of the film we watched, with my starred reviews and Wikipedia and other links. Any of these could be a contender for Todd Mason's Overlooked Movies blog meme!

William Witney: Master of the World (1961) **½ (Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, Jules Verne and Richard Matheson, but still pretty dated)
Allen Baron: Blast of Silence (1961) ***½ (here's my earlier blog post about the film)
Jack Sholder: Alone in the Dark (1982) ** (could've benefited from sticking to the weirdness it starts out with)
Eli Craig: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010) *** (quite funny at times)
Mario Bava: Rabid Dogs (1974) *** (pretty suspenseful and nasty [see the photo], stays cinematic even though set inside one car for about 80 % of the running time)
William Klein: Mr. Freedom (1969) ***½ (very funny political oddity, very outrageous and purposefully stupid and in-your-face)
Peter Bogdanovich: Targets (1968) **** (pretty effective and well made early portrait of a mass killer, Boris Karloff is great in this)
Narciso Ibanez Serrador: House that Screamed (1969) *** (slow-moving but effective piece of erotic Euro-horror)
Neil LaBute: Wicker Man *½ (might've been something if Nicholas Cage didn't chew up the scenery so (in)famously, still - or because of that? - very funny)
Elliot Silverstein: The Car ** (always wanted to see this, but isn't actually much, the titular car is quite good)
Antonio Margheriti: Cannibal Apocalypse ** (sounds great, but doesn't amount to much of anything, the beginning in Vietnam is good, though)
Tommy Wiseau: The Room * or ***** (unbelievable narcissistic crap, poorly done, weirdly written and very strangely acted, very, very, very funny almost all the time)

We also started Manos, the Hands of Fate, but it was so goddamn awful we had to stop 15 minutes in. Plus we watched several short subjects, like Jacques Drouin's animations and Tex Avery and episodes of  Family Guy etc. So, you can pretty much gather we had a good time!