Thursday, November 28, 2013

David/Day Keene: The Queens of Death?

I bought this old Finnish paperback (published in 1947) with three short stories in it several months ago, mainly because it has a Zorro story in it. If I'm right, this is the only real Zorro story by Johnston McCulley published in Finnish. It's probably one of the later Zorro stories that were published in pulp magazines, such as West. I believe these stories have never been reprinted.

I didn't read the Zorro story in the book, but I read the two preceding stories. The first one that also gives the book its title is written by "David Keene". The title reads as "The Queens of Death". Now, there's no David Keene who has written any kind of crime novels or stories that I can find. I can't find any trace of a story called "The Queens of Death". Of course it's possible that this story was published in a pulp magazine no one has ever indexed, but somehow I don't think that's right. I got to thinking it might be possible this is really by Day Keene. The Finnish publisher may have thought that "Day" is not a right name for an author and changed him to "David". These things happen. And Day Keene happens to have a pulp story called "Three Queens of the Mayhem", published in Detective Tales in February 1946, so it's entirely possible that this story found its way to Finland and got published as part of a three-story anthology.

There are three old women in David Keene's story. They are old ladies living together. They were once famous singers called The Beverly Sisters, but getting caught in a murder case ruined their career. Now one of the sisters asks private eye called Tom Doyle to try to find a girl one of the sisters was forced to give away to an orphanage. The story is fun, mildly parodist in tone and plot. It's written strictly in the zany school of hardboiled writing, reminiscent of Robert Bellem, Richard S. Prather and others. So, is it "Three Queens of Mayhem"? Anyone? Or is it some other story by Day Keene? Or is there a David Keene?

There's also another short story to stir up interest. It's called "Kadonnut sävel", which means "The Lost Tune" or some such. The hero of the story is troubleshooter of some sort called Hannibal Smith. He's a former sports coach, but now makes his living selling used stuff, giving loans and doing services to people. Hannibal Smith is a fat man, but he's also resourceful and intelligent and quick with his mouth. Now, there's a Hannibal Smith story called "Down Among the Dead Men" published in Dime Detective in 1945, written by C. William Harrison, who's best known for his paperback westerns. (I've read one, it was pretty good.) I'm pretty sure this story is by the same C. William Harrison. Can anyone confirm? The story is funny as Hannibal Smith is asked to take a photo of a cow somewhere in the fields. He does exactly that, but fast he realizes he maybe shouldn't have, since he's being suspected of a murder...

The great Finnish cover is by Poika Vesanto. Probably - I can't find his signature in the cover.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Moscow – Cassiopea (1974)

This is a Soviet science fiction film in which six teenagers - three boys, three girls - are sent in a spaceship to Cassiopea to investigate who's sending out radio code. The film is a first of the two, the sequel is called Teens in the Universe! In Finland, the sequel's been called "The Robots of Cassiopea".

This is a fun movie. It's goofy for sure, but it's also very sincere and not badly made at all. There are actually some very nice scenes in space, and the futuristic design of the spaceship itself is pretty good. There are also some surrealistic or hallucinogenic scenes in which the teens use the virtual reality provided by the spaceship to entertain themselves during the long trip. The film is also played as a comedy and a love movie between some of the kids.

I'm not sure if this is available in the English-speaking countries, but you can watch it in YouTube with Russian titles:

There's also this, using footage from the sequel (which I have yet to see):

More Overlooked Films here. At least pretty soon, I hope.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Book: Frank Struan: Murder's So Unpleasant (1954)

In my on-going, but sporadic study of British paperback crime fiction, I read, almost in a jiffy, a short booklet by Frank Struan, called Murder's So Unpleasant. The Finnish title translates literally as Murhat ovat epämiellyttäviä. It was published here in a cheapo paperback series called Max Strong.

Frank Struan's real name was Graham Fisher, and all I know about him is that he was born in 1920. I don't know if he's still alive; probably not. He used the Frank Struan pseudonym in a series of stories that were published in the legendary British magazine called Tid-Bits in the early fifties. I've never seen these, but I believe one story filled out an entire magazine. If I'm mistaken, do correct me. Fisher wrote some thrillers still in the seventies, but that's all on him.

Murder's So Unpleasant is a mock-American hardboiled crime novel with a private eye hero called Johnny July. If he's a series character, he should be included in the Thrilling Detective listing. I don't know that yet, but I'll check it out. In this outing, Johnny July is hired to guard a wealthy business man, but he dies - in a closed room! - before July gets a chance to make out just from whom the man's supposed to be guarded from. There are two beautiful women involved in the case, the young bride of the deceased and her sister who seems to be after the man's inheritance. Or some such. I wasn't actually paying much attention and it's been already days since I read the booklet.

And this is what this book was really about. It's an one-hour entertainment, nothing more. There are notable gaps in the plot and Johnny July isn't a very interesting character, but I didn't really mind as the stuff went on with some speed. There are many references to Chandler. The city of the story is Bay City, Chandler's fictional city, and Johnny July is mugged and taken to a mental institute to be held there just like Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely.

I'm not sure how easily one could obtain stuff like this. The Finnish translation is easily found and cheap, though. The Finnish edition's cover art is by Spanish Portada Noiquet.

More Forgotten Books here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)

I saw earlier today a 35 mm print of Czech animation wizard Karel Zeman's Baron Prásil, also known with the title of the subject line. In Finnish, it's been called Parooni Münchhausenin uskomattomat seikkailut. I don't know what's with the Baron Prásil thing, but that's not very important here.

I wrote earlier (three years ago!) about Zeman's other film (see here) and said that his films resemble the silent cinema. It's like we're seeing everything for the first time. It's a cinema of marvels and rare beauty. It's also the cinema of laughter and joy. And it fits Zeman made his film about Münchhausen whose adventures have brought us laughter and joy for many decades.

Zeman's technique - the mixing of live actors with animated backgrounds - works very well here. Everything is very exotic and strange and beautiful. This is also cinema of optimism, even though there's a healthy strand of satire as well.

Zeman's film is also an important precursor to steampunk, mixing modern heroes and inventions with steamboats, air balloons, flying horses and such. It's no wonder Terry Gilliam was impressed by the film.

This is a trailer someone made to commemmorate Zeman's film. More Overlooked Films here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ridley Scott & Cormac McCarthy: The Counselor

Damn, I wanted to like this film so much! I'm not a fan of Ridley Scott's work, but I know he can do some good stuff, but given that this was scripted by Cormac McCarthy and the genre is trashy hardboiled crime I was more than thrilled when I walked in the movie theater.

Damn, it sucked.

The Counselor has lots of good moments and some nice action scenes, but there are also lots of problems. First, the plot. Mind you, I'm a fan of ellipsis. I can love the way how not everything is explained or is explained a lot later after the incident has already taken place. McCarthy as the sole writer of the film - what, no script doctors here? should've been! - uses the ellipsis clumsily and makes the film seem more awkward than it really is.

Second, the dialogue. McCarthy's dialogue works very well on paper. It works well on big screen, if it's been rewritten by real screenwriters. Take a look at No Country for Old Men or The Road. The Counselor tries to tread the same ground, but gets stuck in long monologues that have no meaning plot-wise or stupid repeating of small phrases like "What?" or "Huh?" Some of the scenes are better in this sense, however, for example the first meeting of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender.

Third, McCarthy writes women like shit. The character of Penélope Cruz is totally meaningless. She's an empty pawn with nothing to do. Cameron Diaz is somewhat better, but she's also over-written to the extent she becomes, like Cruz, a pawn. She has no life of her own, even though that purports to be the film's focus. The men of the film are more convincing.

Fourth, how can someone like McCarthy be so demure? He writes convincingly about killing, slaying, maiming, torturing and exploiting other people, but talking about sex and giving us good sex scenes between two people - or even people talking about sex - seems to be overwhelming for him. Probably he shouldn't try it anymore and stick with killing.

If you want to have some crime fiction about Mexican drug trafficking, try Don Winslow's Savages and The Power of the Dog. Or Sam Hawken's quiet and hypnotic Juaréz Dance.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Don Winslow: The Power of the Dog

I just finished this huge novel by Don Winslow, who's one of the foremost new hardboiled crime writers in the USA. I've liked what he's done, especially Savages (and I even liked the film, which most people seemed to hate), but there's something about him I can't quite grasp. He leaves me a bit cold. 

Winslow belongs firmly to the James Ellroy school of crime writing - at least when it comes to The Power of the Dog -, but he's different from Ellroy in two aspects: first, he writes about true stuff, things that have happened and are happening; second, he's not maniacal about his writing. His characters are not wacky psychos, like with Ellroy, and his language and narration are not clipped nightmares of White Jazz or The Cold Six Thousand. Winslow writes very curtly, with very short sentences, but his sentences are not feverish. They seem more like he's writing a story treatment for a film or a TV series. The same immediacy - we see only action, not the motives behind them, we are never offered glimpses of inside people's minds - is prevalent also in Winslow's other books, especially Savages, in which the narration at times transforms into fragments of a screenplay. 

So, when Winslow writes about the tragedy of war against drugs and the drug cartels of Mexico and Columbia that are in control in those countries, mostly with back-up from CIA and DEA, we know it's real stuff. He's that convincing. He shows in The Power of the Dog that the war against drugs should be stopped immediately, but he doesn't say that out loud. It's up to us to realize that ourselves. It helps Winslow's characters are not loonies. 

But maybe it's the reason the book left me colder than I really expected. Still, it's a great read, with many explosive action scenes and some very suspenseful chase scenes. It would work great as a TV series by HBO. 

The book came just out in Finnish from Like under the title Kuolleiden päivät/The Day of the Dead

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Attack of the Robots (1966)

Jess Franco was a Spanish director who has probably made more feature-length films than any other director. His filmography has about 200 films. Many of them are erotic horror, some of them are more mundane action and sex flicks. His reputation has never been too high and I've gathered many of his films indeed are of poor quality, but some of them have redeeming qualities about them, such as hallucinatory sequences and imaginative camera work.

I just managed to see two of his films, which I believe were the first for me. I saw both on 35 mm on big screen. The first one of the two was much better than the latter one, and I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the screenwriter. Cartes sur table AKA Attack of the Robots (1966) was written by Jean-Claude Carrière, one of the best-known and most revered French screenwriters of the last 40 years. He's written lots of stuff for directors like Buñuel, Godard, Peter Brook, Philip Kaufman... and Jess Franco.

Cartes sur table is an enjoyable spy romp with many parodical touches. The film is full of silliness and it's almost always in the right tone, so it's not overdone or unintentional. There are some light touches of sadomasochism and fetishism, which both show in Carrière's and Franco's later films. Cartes sur table is also a reminiscent of Godard's Alphaville which was done a year earlier, so it's possible Carrière and Franco wanted to parody the better-known film. Both star Eddie Constantine as a hardboiled hero (though he seems silly and clumsy in Franco's film), both have Paul Misraki's music, and both have a huge central computer that speaks incoherently in the end.

Cartes sur table is one of those cheap spy flicks the French made in abundance in the sixties (remember the Lemmy Cautions and Nick Carters Constantine starred in?), but it's also a lightweight New Wave film in its self-reflectiveness which is never too loud. Comes recommended by me - if you can catch it, as it seems like there's no decent DVD publication.

And then I saw Franco's later Count Dracula with a stellar cast of Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski, but this was only boring. Nothing else. Sorry. Nothing to see here.

Franco died earlier this year, having directed his last film in 2012. Its main character is called Al Pereira, just like Constantine in Cartes sur table.

More Overlooked Films here at Todd Mason's blog (after a hiatus).

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

More info on the Brian McDermott mystery

I was in contact with the archive of the Otava publishing house, who put out the book that left me astounded some days back: Brian McDermott's The Battles, called Tuntematon tilaa näytännön in Finnish. Here's the original post on the subject.

So, the Otava publishing house still has the contract made with Brian McDermott. Unfortunately the contract didn't tell if McDermott's book was already published in book form in English, but the contract retained the possibility that the Finnish publisher could also use it as a serial in a film magazine. And a friend of mine happened to have the said magazines at hand, and - ta-taa! - Brian McDermott's story was indeed published as a serial in a magazine called Elokuva-aitta (Film Storehouse or some such in translation) in 1966-1967. This leaves the question: was McDermott's story published as a serial also in English? I don't seem to be able to find any trace on this possibility, though, but it's still a viable explanation.

However, there's also a possibility that McDermott wrote the story exclusively for the Finnish audience. It was said in the magazine that McDermott was a popular figure in Finnish television due to the BBC language program called Walter and Connie in which he performed. It was also said that the characters in the novel resemble the Walter and Connie of the show, so it's possible McDermott based his characters on them. (I still haven't had the chance to read the book, so can't comment on that.)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Q&A with Sarah Weinman on domestic suspense

I've been reading Sarah Weinman's anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives that focuses on domestic suspense short stories and novellettes written by female authors from the 1940s to the 1970s. It's a very good book, not a bad story in sight, and the subject of the book is very interesting. It's also something I've written about earlier myself, both in Finnish and in English here at Pulpetti. I've called the genre "female noir", but I'm not sure if it's really fitting. These writers are almost always not hardboiled or cynical, nor do the stories take place in alienated big cities, yet there's hard-edged grittiness to the stories that might merit the use of word "noir".

I interviewed Sarah Weinman via e-mail for the Finnish Whodunit Society's magazine, and I got also her permission to use her answers in the blog as well. See also her website (the link above), it has great additional info.

How did this book come to be? 
Troubled Daughters emerged from an essay I wrote for the literary magazine Tin House. I’d been approached by an editor there to write something for their themed “The Mysterious” issue, and I’d long contemplated why it seemed that a fair number of female crime writers working around or after World War II through the mid-1970s weren’t really part of the larger critical conversation. They weren’t hard boiled per se, but they weren’t out-and-out cozy, either. Hammett and Chandler and Cain, yes; but why not Marie Belloc Lowndes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Vera Caspary? Why Ross Macdonald but not his wife, Margaret Millar, who published books before he did and garnered critical and commercial acclaim first? I knew after writing the essay that I wasn't done with the subject, and when I had lunch with an editor at Penguin on an unrelated matter and started going on, rather enthusiastically, about this widespread neglect, he said, “sounds like there’s an anthology in this. Why don’t you send me a proposal?” It took a while to organize, but eventually I did, and Penguin bought the anthology. Publishing being what it is, it took a less than two years from acquisition to release date.

How would you describe "domestic suspense"? 
Here's what I say on my website: "To my mind, it’s a genre of books published between World War II and the height of the Cold War, written by women primarily about the concerns and fears of women of the day. These novels and stories operate on the ground level, peer into marriages whose hairline fractures will crack wide open, turn ordinary household chores into potential for terror, and transform fears about motherhood into horrifying reality. They deal with class and race, sexism and economic disparity, but they have little need to show off that breadth. Instead, they turn our most deep-seated worries into narrative gold, delving into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. They are about ordinary, everyday life, and that’s what makes these novels of domestic suspense so frightening. The nerves they hit are really fault lines."

Is it a women's genre or are there any male writers who would fit the description? 
Two of the most successful practitioners of contemporary domestic suspense are Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay. Their books absolutely fit the description. I'm harder pressed to think of male writers from the 1940-1970s whose work falls into domestic suspense territory aside from Ira Levin, though going back earlier than that, Francis Iles' MALICE AFORETHOUGHT (1931) or C.S. Forester's THE PURSUED could be categorized as domestic suspense.

What writers and which books are the forerunners of domestic suspense?
Everyone included in my anthology! (And many not included.) If you mean earlier -- Marie Belloc Lowndes, especially her 1914 novel THE LODGER.

Don't Bother to Knock
Can you name some examples also in cinema?
I'm not a cinema-phile, so my expertise is really limited to books. But I think it's safe to say that if it was adapted from a domestic suspense novel, then the film, too, would be categorized that way (i.e. Charlotte Armstrong's 1951 novel MISCHIEF adapted into DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK, Marilyn Monroe's first big role.)

Who are the most memorable practitioners of this genre now?
Contemporary domestic suspense is thriving, to my mind. Gillian Flynn for sure; also Laura Lippman (standalones), Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke (standalone), A.S.A Harrison's THE SILENT WIFE, Hallie Ephron, Koethi Zan's THE NEVER LIST, Kimberly McCreight's RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA...and many more I'm forgetting at the moment. 

What are the fears and wishes of women the stories in the book reveal? What historical changes in the women's life does this book represent? 
Untold changes! The first stories were from the end of World War II, when women were conscripted to work while their husbands, sons, brothers, fathers were fighting overseas. Then the men came back -- those who survived -- and women were expected to revert to domestic roles, which caused a lot of cultural chafing. Then came second-wave feminism, Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem (and Helen Gurley Brown, too) and financial and social equality was possible, not a pipe dream. It's no wonder domestic suspense tales fell out of fashion in the 1970s; but in a way, it's equally understandable why they would be popular now, with so much anxiety, culturally and economically, at the moment.

Is domestic suspense a feminist genre? 
I think so, even if many of the writers may not have seen themselves that way! But the very idea that, in fiction, women trapped in bad marriages or crippling cultural norms had some agency to fight back and assert themselves is a distinctly feminist thing.

What are some of your favourite stories in the book?
My answer changes almost every day, but I've been pleased to see readers respond well to Joyce Harrington's "The Purple Shroud" and Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady". [And they are very good stories! - JN]

The book is dominated by American writers, but there's one British writer, Celia Fremlin. Is this kind of story something typically American?
No, that was an accident. Fremlin's THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN is a prototypical domestic suspense novel in my mind that it was critical she be included. But I can think of so many other British writers -- Celia Dale, Joan Fleming, Ruth Rendell in her early years -- who could be included in a hypothetical sequel.

Why are these writers so forgotten today?
My theory is that because they had no influential champion as did their male counterparts. These women aren't canonized in the Library of America. They aren't taught in schools at the undergraduate or graduate level. If TROUBLED DAUGHTERS redresses that balance in even a small way, I've done my job. Who would you pick up to be reprinted in a larger scale? All of them, probably...? Dorothy B. Hughes was already beginning to get new notice thanks to the recent reissue, by NYRB Classics, of her final novel, THE EXPENDABLE MAN, and much of the remainder of her backlist was just reissued in ebook format by Open Road Media (they also reissued many books by Charlotte Armstrong, and I believe one or two others from my anthology are in the works.) Shirley Jackson is in midst-revival, too, with a major biography due out in 2016. I'd love to see more attention lavished upon Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Joyce Harrington, and Nedra Tyre, as they wrote excellent novels. But really, everybody in TROUBLED DAUGHTERS should be celebrated with reprints!

Will there be a sequel?*
I'd love for there to be one, but only if a great many readers buy TROUBLED DAUGHTERS and spread the word!

* I couldn't help but include my own list in my e-mail: "I can think of at least some writers not in this book, like Doris Miles Disney, Kate Wilhelm ("Murderer’s Apprentice", Double-Action Detective and Mystery Stories, May 1959), Shelley Smith, Ursula Curtiss, Dolores Hitchens, Dorothy Dunn, Margaret St. Clair, Leigh Brackett..." Though Hitchens and Brackett come off more as hardboiled crime writers.