Friday, January 28, 2011

Cormac McCarthy: No Country For Old Men

It is rather dubious to write something about you've read a month ago, right? But I'm still doing it. I read Cormac McCarthy's great novel No Country For Old Men during the Christmas holidays, but the book still lingers in my mind, so I thought I'd try to get away with it. (And I know, I know, this is a very bad and not very intriguing way to start a blog post...)

As everyone reading this blog knows, the Coen brothers' equally great movie was made from McCarthy's novel. I can't think of many other examples where the mastery of cinema is as evident as in this film. Every scene, every cut, every camera move is necessary. Nothing is wasted, nothing is there for vain.

Same goes for McCarthy's narration and prose style. It's very clipped, without the quotation marks and parentheses. It works miraculously well, even though it's very elliptical at times. (There's one scene in which I think I caught McCarthy for using unnecessary words and commenting what the person in the scene was doing as an omniscient narrator.) This is what "hardboiled" was invented to mean.

Yet, McCarthy is one the of the US Nobel prize candidates. He writes dirty, mean and lean books about criminals and what havoc they bring on the world. Why doesn't Elmore Leonard can't be the candidate for the Nobel as well?

I'm not saying that there are no hidden depths in Leonard's books, but in McCarthy there sure are. I remember talking with my dad about the Coens' film and he said he couldn't find anything to say about it, even though he thought the film was very well made. It's very easy to say that the film - and the book - are about the disappearing world in which people still respected each other. This is brought out by the sheriff's monologues throughout the book and the film. It's also easy to believe this is the view McCarthy himself has. But I don't believe this is correct. McCarthy asks us to look into our easy nostalgia and ask ourselves if things really were better in the past. There are not many hints into this theme, but - as a liberal European, of course - one of those things was that the sheriff talks against abortion. He thinks it's degrading, but to my mind it's a sign of useless clinging to the past.

You might want to compare what the sheriff is saying to the charismatic killer's speeches he keeps just before he kills his victims. He's eloquent and says beautiful things about how people waste their life. In fact he's not saying anything. It's just bubbles, something a salesman or a consult might say to a customer he's never met before. He lures us to think he's got something meaningful to say. The killer is just one of those self-help demagogues that fill the bookshops with an endless row of books about - nothing. In this way, he's a prophet of the coming times and as such even scarier than he is as a killer. (Even though Chigurh is one of the scariest motherfuckers in the pages of any book.)

In the end of the book, the sheriff sees a dream about his father, himself also a sheriff. In the dream, the father rides on a horse to shine a light to a distant darkness. It's not easy to see what McCarthy has in mind in this scene, but it probably has to do with this notion: whatever we do, we must not lose hope. Someone has to cast a light in the darkness that's also called life. It's just that we have to put our hope also in the hands of those whose values we don't share. The life is scary and we can't do anything about that.

PS. It's said that the Coens' film is very faithful to the book. Yet I couldn't find the scene from the film in which  Josh Brolin shoots a dog chasing him in the book. Can anyone confirm it's not in the book? 

PPS. I'm posting this on Friday, but this is not a part of the Friday's Forgotten Book series, hosted this week on this blog.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Where's my Michael Koryta?

I ordered some books recently from the web. One of them was A Welcome Grave by Michael Koryta about whom I've read good things. The book is one of his Lincoln Perry PI novels. I thought it was good - at least the first hundred pages. The premise was very interesting: Perry is asked by her former girlfriend to locate the lost son of her husband, who's recently been brutally slaughtered. Perry finds the guy, but then something weird happens.

Then I lost the book. I don't know where it is. I can't find it anywhere at our place. I've asked all the libraries and shops if they've seen it.

I guess I'll have to order a new copy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Murder Maze

Todd Mason will start hosting a series of blog posts from around the world profiling forgotten and overlooked films. I was going to say something about a movie I found recently cheap on VHS anyway, so I thought I'd take part.

City of Angels was a short-lived private eye show in 1976, which I'd never seen, but the moment I noticed the VHS cassette in a thrift store titled Murhasokkelo/The Murder Maze I knew it was bound to be interesting. I guess this movie, made from two episodes of the TV series, was never aired in the US, as it's not mentioned anywhere in IMDb nor in the Thrilling Detective listing for the series (see the link above). I notice from the Finnish Elonet database that this was released as late as 1988 (and also in 1991).

The original TV series, with Wayne Rogers as private eye Jake Axminster in the 1930's Los Angeles, was created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, who usually knew what they were doing, but for some reason or another the series never caught on. I believe this movie was made to cash in on some money from foreign rental markets. Kevin Burton Smith says in his Thrilling Detective entry for City of Angels that Wayne Rogers never felt like a real PI, as he was better known as one of the M*A*S*H* jokers. He also says Rogers never liked the show himself.

The VHS compiles together the episodes "A Lonely Way to Die", written and directed by veteran Douglas Heyes, and "The Losers", written by Roy Huggins himself and directed by Across 110th Street alumni Barry Shear. The joints are very well hidden, the plots are made to intersect and interweave, they just don't follow each other, like they usually in these kind of films do. The story gets close to the complexity of Chinatown, which was obviously the model for City of Angels. The setting is the same - obnoxious private eye, bullying cops, family secrets - and the mood is the same - the perverse 1930's, glamorous Los Angeles and Hollywood. The dialogue is good, getting close to the snappy remarks of a Chandler, even using "Be missing" that Chandler wrote in one of his letters he prefers to "Get out".

There's just the fact that the plots don't really click - as the story unfolds, we are disappointed that the two storylines don't connect with each other. And Heyes and Shear have two different directorial styles, I believe it's Shear who goes for more early seventies' type of stuff, with some New Wavish ideas, scenes getting on top of each other, dialogue overlapping and all. Heyes goes for more traditional narration. Some of the characters are also not very well introduced, as they are recurring characters from the show - it took me some time to realize the purpose of Jake Axminster's secretary. I should believe, though, that these two are some of the better episodes in the original series.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Zane Grey Western Magazine, August 1970

When I was sick last week, I read a couple of stories from an old mag a friend of mine had sent me. It was an August, 1970 issue of Zane Grey Western Magazine, a magazine I'd never seen (mainly because these don't often travel to Finland) and I was curious about it. I thought maybe reading a Western short story or two might be manageable even on my sick bed.

The lead story of the issue was by "Romer Zane Grey", who was supposed to be Zane Grey's son, but was actually Tom Curry. At least according to the Fictionmags Index; I'd earlier thought that Bill Pronzini and Jeffrey Wallmann used the pseudonym, at least in the two or three paperbacks that came out of the pages of Zane Grey Western Magazine. The Romer Zane Grey story in the issue is called "Last Stand at Indigo Flats" and it's basically a standard Western yarn, full of six-gun action. The lead character is Zane Grey's Laramie Nelson, but he could be any Western hero, just give him a different name and you have a different story. On its own, "Last Stand" can stand comparison to any pulp story: it is full of action and full of tension, with quite many intersecting plots and twists going on at the same time. Whoever wrote this, Tom Curry, Bill Pronzini or Jeffrey Wallmann, he knew how to do his stuff. Not all of the plots are handled with equal depth - one of them is actually resolved pretty badly - but I can live with that.

The other story I read from the issue was a sequel to Bret Harte's classic story, "Luck of Roaring Camp". The new story, "Reunion at Roaring Camp" was said to have been written by "Robert Hart Davis", which was of course a house name. The sequel is said to start a new series, called "Bret Harte Country", i.e. stories about mining life. I don't know how many stories appeared in this series. "Reunion at Roaring Camp" is an amusing little tale, nothing more, but nothing less; I think this should be reprinted in some massive Western anthology, collecting various and ephemeral pieces of literary history.

The other writers in the issue are James Hines (a reprint from a 1955 Action-Packed Western), Gladwell Richardson, Glenn Shirley, Doris Curda (her only story according to the FM Index), William Heuman and R. Brennin Ward (his only story). Heuman is the only name I recognize.

More forgotten books at Patti Abbott's blog.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)

As the last treat of their great film noir series, the Finnish Broadcasting Association showed a Felix E. Feist double bill: first his best-known film, Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and then his lesser-seen atomic bomb thriller, The Threat (1949). I'd never seen both (and realized only afterwards that Donovan's Brain I've seen over a decade ago was directed by the same Feist) and I was very intrigued especially about the aforementioned film.

It's a very solid B-thriller about Lawrence Tierney, a ruthless killer who hitchhikes his way away from the cops and ends up in the car of an amiable young guy, who's driving back to see his fiancée. Two women down on their luck and life ride along with them. That's basically the plot - more tension comes out of whether anyone else realizes that Tierney is a sociopath and a killer. Seemingly not, and here lies the main problem with the film: you'd think Tierney would rather kill anyone than watch those jerks ruin his getaway trip. Well, maybe it's the neo-noir buff in me that's talking, but I thought the film lacked plausibility in this matter. Otherwise Tierney makes a great villain and the film moved along in a breakneck pace. This is based on a novel by Bob Du Soe - how come the novel's not in print? (The cover of the late fourties paperback reprint from Avon seen above.)

The Threat wasn't as good as Devil Thumbs a Ride, but interesting nevertheless in its story about a criminals waiting for the getaway plane at the atomic bomb test site. Charles McGraw is good as the head criminal wanting revenge on those who put him in jail.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Donald Westlake's The Hook

A series of short posts starts from here, just in order to catch up with what's happened and what's going on. I promised to write something about Donald Westlake's crime novel The Hook which I read already during the early days of Christmas (why does that feel like it was already a long ago?). It's a very good novel, in the black humour mold of Westlake, even though not anywhere near the hilarity or the slapstick of the Dortmunders.

The Hook is almost a serious meditation on the state of writing and publishing in the early 2000's America. The famous and best-selling writer meets a midlist writer who was once famous, but has never risen to his ranks. They talk shop and wonder what's become of them: the bestselling one has a writer's block, the midselling one is still an able writer, but can't sell aggressively enough. Westlakes pokes bitter fun at how the bookstores decide what to sell and what not. I guess this is him talking here, though he's never been as low as these guys: the bestselling writer asks the other guy to give his novel to him, to be published under his name, and kill his wife. If he does that, he'll get 50% of the advance and the royalties of the coming novel.

Westlake actually shows how these two men start to resemble each other. It becomes a sort of an identity play, a bit like Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle (a historical novel by a Turkish Nobel winner, you should read it, if you haven't). Westlake sure can keep the reader glued to his seat, even though there's not much happening here. The outcome is bitterly ironic. Strongly recommended.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The best crime novels of 2010

In lieu of a better post (I've been sick and now gotta catch up my work) here's the link to the Spinetingler Magazine's lists of the best crime novels of 2010. Damn, where can I get more time to read all this fascinating stuff?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

My 2010

I can't compete with James Reasoner when it comes to profilicity: he wrote over 6000 pages of fiction last year. That amounts to over 16 books.

I published three books last year. One of them was a self-publication, one of them was only compiled by me and I didn't even get the credit for it, and the third one was an anthology edited by me. But I've got four books coming out next Spring: a collection of articles on the discussion over copyright, a reference book on historical novelists, collections of old outdoor stories and vampire stories. That's not bad, huh?

I'm also rapidly working on a new sleaze novel, since the first one, Lausteen himokämppä/The Lust Cabin of Lauste was so popular. It has actually been one of the most talked about books I've ever done, which might put some of my more serious work to shame. The next one will be called Mynämäen motellin munamällit, which is pretty hard to translate to English. (If you're a native speaker of English, don't try to pronounce the title. You might get hurt.)

My three books last year:

Lausteen himokämppä.

Kari Suomalainen: Tarkastaja Wilson ja muita dekkareita.

Sherlock Holmes Suomessa.

That's not bad for one year, but I'm not really sure why some of my books were so much delayed. I'll have to get a grip and start really working. (Especially as I should get the architectural guide to the city of Turku finished by March. What am I thinking?) (I'm not sure if I've mentioned the project here earlier, but it's actually bogging me down a bit and I'm having terrible dreams relating to it. Last night I had to replace the solo guitarist of Mötley Crüe.)

Monday, January 03, 2011

And now for something completely different...

Here's a link to the very stylish latex underwear and lingerie show by the Atsuko Kudo label held recently. I think this stuff is very sexy and pretty and so much reminiscent of the fourties and early fifties style that I thought it might merit posting here - these babes could perform in a classic noir film!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Jason Starr's Tough Luck

As I said in an earlier post, I was going to write about Jason Starr's Tough Luck. As you probably know by now, I'm a stout admirer of Starr's work. He writes in deceptively simple sentences, but creates the looming atmosphere or paranoia, loneliness and utter despair in just a few lines. The greatest examples of his work are, I think, still two of his earlier novels, Fake I.D. (coming in Finnish under the title Väärä rooli, with a great cover by Ossi Hiekkala) and Nothing Personal. I hadn't read Tough Luck for some reason, but it's almost as good as those two books. Well, it could easily be just as good as them.

Tough Luck is not about a sociopath, like Fake I.D. or Nothing Personal are; the main characther, Michael, is a basically normal young guy (barely in his twenties), who's just had a bad luck all his life: his mother has died, his father is suffering from Altzheimer and was an asshole to begin with, his few friends are losers and bullies, his future is totally unclear, he's working at a fish store and he smells like fish all the time. His demise starts with a Mob guy coming in to the fish store and asking Michael to place some sports bets for him. The Mob guy loses every time, but he just won't pay and Michael has to dig out the money himself. So go his savings and probably his studentship at the college. And then comes Rhonda, the woman of Michael's dreams.

Starr doesn't write your basic noir thrillers. Rhonda is no utter babe with big boobs and a vicious attitude, and there are almost no guns in sight, except in two crucial, but pretty short scenes. There's actually very little violence in Tough Luck and the relieving humour is largely absent. Starr also makes no knowing winces to the noir aficionados. Yet there's always the feeling for the underdog, the depressed, those hungry for love and acceptance, which they, in Starr's world, will never get. The last lines in Tough Luck, after everything's seemingly alright again, are a tour de force of ambiguity. We just know Michael didn't lear anything from his troubles, but we sympathize and empathize with him just because of that.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

I'm being a bit of a bore here, but this is just a post to tell you that I'll be writing about these things later on: Donald Westlake's The Hook, Jason Starr's Tough Luck (a Starr I hadn't read before; I'm only halfway through, but seems excellent so far) and Felix Feist's B-film Devil Thumbs a Ride.