Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Radio and The Threat of Nostalgia
With The Threat of Nostalgia and Other Stories (Ramble House), I wanted to accomplish two things: gather some of my magazine stories that hadn’t been anthologized or appeared in any of my three previous collections, and dedicate a book to radio expert Dave Amaral, whose broadcast versions of Edward D. Hoch’s Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories occasionally appear in the Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine podcast series (themysteryplace.com). Thus I looked first for stories with a radio background.
Radio has always loomed large in my life. I’m old enough to remember a time when network radio still ruled, with a full slate of comedies, mysteries, variety shows, soap operas, big band remotes, plus flamboyant newscasters, mellow-voiced storytellers of the Housewives’ Protective League, and the Hartz Mountain singing canaries—not girl singers, real canaries.
My father loved and accumulated radios, with one in every room and every moving conveyance. I only found out after he died that he had done some broadcasts of sermons back in the 1930s while he was a divinity student at the University of Chicago. Though he knew I was contemplating a radio career during my college years, I guess it never came up. I broadcast basketball and baseball on the student radio station. You’ll have to take my word for it I was good, but I decided I didn’t have the voice or the aggressiveness for that cutthroat business.
Oddly enough (or maybe, when you read the stories, not so oddly), my radio-related tales, apart from a couple that concerned play-by-play sportscasters, didn’t sell very readily. Only the first four stories in The Threat of Nostalgia are directly centered on radio. Two of them appeared in very obscure markets, another in the long-lived but low-paying Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and the fourth never sold at all when written in the late 1960s and appears in the book for the first time.
The title story dates to 1980 and first appeared in the semi-pro magazine Skullduggery. The radio announcer protagonist, whose teenage nephew collects old programs on tape, looks back thirty years to the last broadcast of the Beldon and Mahaffey variety show. I’ve always found comedy teams with dysfunctional relationships interesting, and B&M were as dysfunctional as they come. I returned to another such team twenty years later in my Ellery Queen pastiche, “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” also included in the book.
“The Old Radio Puzzle,” from a 1982 issue of the short-lived Canadian periodical Black Cat, also has a soured nostalgia theme, as the cast of the radio sitcom Career Girl Sally is reunited and murder follows. This story introduced my movie critic detective Stephen Fenbush, whose second case, “The Missing Elevator Puzzle,” came along a mere quarter century later. The latter case is much better, though the first one (as Ed Hoch told me) is “not great but not bad.”
“The World’s Champion Lovers” (MSMM, July 1983) doesn’t have an explicit radio background but concerns the competition that might ensue to be mentioned on-air by the National Commentator (based on Paul Harvey) as the day’s longest-married couple. The two main characters were written with the voices of Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly) in my ear.
The last of the radio stories, “Death of a Deejay,” draws to a small degree on my experience working as a night switchboard operator at KMPC in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. It was my effort to create a hardboiled private eye, a figure that was somewhat unfashionable at the time but would come back strong in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s a period piece, not to be taken too seriously but maybe worth a delayed debut.
The rest of the stories in the book aren’t explicitly about radio, but at least a couple have a radio inspiration: “A Quiet Death,” which I can imagine as a segment of Suspense or another mystery anthology series; and “Spirit Recording,” involving a type of occult phenomenon that often turned up on late-night radio talk shows. Conan Doyle would have loved it. (The phenomenon, not the story.)
Monday, April 28, 2014
Gil Brewer’s Glands
by David Rachels
He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Nude on Thin Ice (1960) and Memory of Passion (1962) rank among Gil Brewer’s best novels, but they are not among his most read. In the main, this is because copies have been scarce. These novels have never been reprinted (until now), and used first editions have been priced for collectors, not for those of us who want to remove them from their mylar bags and actually read them. Many lesser Brewer novels are better known, buoyed by their initial popularity and subsequent availability in the secondhand marketplace. Before the recent flurry of Brewer reprints, the million-selling 13 French Street (1951) was the Brewer novel that noir fans were most likely to have read, simply because cheap used copies were fairly easy to find. Unfortunately, 13 French Street is not one of Brewer’s better books. The novel’s sex-driven plot may have thrilled readers in 1951, but today the book feels badly dated.
When Brewer died in 1983, his noir novels had all been out of print for more than fifteen years. The first reprint came in 1988, when Simon & Schuster packaged 13 French Street with a much better Brewer book, The Red Scarf (1955). In fact, The Red Scarf has long had the reputation of being Brewer’s best work, in part because it was anointed as such by legendary New York Times mystery critic Anthony Boucher.
Remove a few of the details specific to The Red Scarf, and you have the template for many great noir novels: an ordinary man sees a chance to cut himself in on some money, turns sharpie, and destroys himself in the process.
But The Red Scarf, however archetypal its plot may be, lacks the central element of a typical Brewer narrative: sex. Sex was Brewer’s artistic obsession, yet The Red Scarf is almost sex free. Brewer constructs the novel’s ordinary man, Roy Nichols, to be as sympathetic as possible. Desperate to keep his struggling motel afloat, Roy grabs the Syndicate money and takes great risks to keep it. Though he crosses paths with a gangster’s moll, he does not fall into bed with her. He remains true to his wife, Bess. If Roy loses his readers’ sympathy, he does so because his desperation for the money puts Bess in great danger.
Taken together, 13 French Street and The Red Scarf might leave us with the impression that, although Brewer used sex to sell a million books, he did his best writing when he left sex out of the picture. Nude on Thin Ice and Memory of Passion, however, leave us with a very different conclusion…
Sunday, April 27, 2014
FORGOTTEN BOOKS: THE JUGGER BY RICHARD STARK
How this for an opener? I'm about to review the worst book Donald E. Westlake ever wrote. Don't take my word for it. Here's Westlake himself speaking.
"I spoiled a book by having him do something he wouldn’t do. The sixth book in the series is called The Jugger, and that book is one of the worst failures I’ve ever had. The problem with it is, in the beginning of the book this guy calls him and says “I’m in trouble out here and these guys are leaning on me and I need help,” and Parker goes to help him. I mean, he wouldn’t do that, and in fact, the guy wouldn’t even think to call him! (laughs)"
I found this quote on The Violent World of Parker website, a goodie. More" Westlake has more than once cited The Jugger as a failure, and although I’ve never seen it straight from the horse’s mouth, I’ve heard he considers it the worst book he’s ever written. Well, Mr. Westlake, if this is the worst you can do after cranking out more books than I can count, I am in great envy of your abilities.
"Mr. Westlake is wrong about Parker acting out of character in The Jugger. He seems to have forgotten the details, which is perfectly understandable, as the book was written in 1965 and he probably has not had much reason to revisit it if he doesn’t care for it that much."
Me again: I frequently find myself liking books most other people don't and vice-versa. The Jugger's a good example. No it's not a great Parker adventure but it's got a lot of early Sixties atmosphere, a cast of truly despicable characters and a constantly shifting plot.
What we have here is a kind of psychodrama. We have a dumb but crafty Sheriff, a smart but unlucky FBI man, a dumb but uncrafty lady friend of a pathetic dead guy who'd been trying to find an imaginary sum of money hidden by Joe Sheer.
It goes like this. Parker and Sheer worked together sometimes and then Sheer got old and all he did was serve as a way station for Parker. If you wanted to talk to the big man you had to call Sheer who'd screen you. But when Parter got a nervous communication from Sheer he got concerned that maybe the old man was coming apart and would blow Parker's cover. He had to go to the small Midwestern city and make sure that didn't happen.
But when he got there Sheer was dead. And the (imaginary) enormous amount of stolen money was nowhere to be found--yes there;s money but it's modest compared to what others think. So Parker proceeds to deal with both problems. Under the name of Willis.
The Psychodrama: The Sheriff is a dope but a brutal one and Parker has to string him along in order to learn what he needs to. Watching Parter mislead him is a game worth watching. The Sheriff is a human pit bull. He's capable of killing Parker at any moment. But then Parker is more than willing to strike first. On the other hand the FBI man is slick and political. Mitt Romney could play him. Quoting Norman Mailer on a writer he didn't like: "He's as full of shit as a Thanksgiving turkey." But he suspects that this guy Willis is really a big catch under another name. He's already signing a book contract and learning to wave in parades.
So The Jugger ain't perfect and ain't gonna win none of them NYC awards but I don't care. I just enjoyed this particular take on Parker's world. I read it in two dazzled sittings.
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Let’s see. Sharp Practice by John Farris is a slasher novel. And it’s also a police procedural of a very British kind (though written by an American). A love story (the long-suffering wife of a cheating husband; the brother and sister who just can’t keep their hands off each other; numerous people lonely and neurotic in very modern ways). A gentle spoof of the hierarchy of academia. A look at the frustrations of a writer trying come up with another novel And of course a look at one of the most savage murderers in modern suspense fiction, though Farris is wise enough not to give us an autopsy. He’s Hithcockian in his belief that less is more. Praise the Lord.
And that’s just a partial list of the novel's elements.
It is also one of the most sophisticated, elegantly told and perverse novels of terror ever written. The surprises are so stunning that two or three times I had to put the book aside and take a little rest. There are three twists in this novel that are so cunningly wrought they will shock even the most jaded reader.
That’s all I’m going to say about Sharp Practice. Read it and you’ll see that I’ve understated my enthusiasm for its suave brilliance.
So instead of a book report I’d like to turn to Mr. Farris himself.
Here's a quote from Steve Lewis that introduces Farris very well:
"It has just occurred to me that John Farris has one of the longest careers of any mystery writer still active. His first novel, The Corpse Next Door, was published by Graphic Books, a small but solid line of mostly paperback originals, in 1956. Farris was born in 1936, so if the book wasn’t published until he was 20, the odds are the most of it was written when he was still nineteen.
"He switched to the pen name of Steve Brackeen for his next few books, typical Gold Medal thrillers, except that Gold Medal didn’t do them. One of them, Baby Moll (Crest, 1958), will be reprinted by Hard Case Crime later this year under his own name, a mere 50 years later.
" Farris eventually became the author of the “Harrison High” books, which sold in the millions, and he became an even bigger seller once he started writing horror fiction that was invariably tinged with the supernatural. Books like The Fury (1976) and All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes (1977) are as close to classics in the field as you’re going to get, and yet … even though Farris has averaged close to a book a year since those two books, unlike Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz and mystery-wise, Ed McBain, who came along about the same time he did, it is as if no one’s ever heard of him. Nobody knows his name."
If you were a reader in the early 1960s it was impossible not to know the name of John Farris. Harrison High, the novel Lewis refers to, was popular for two reasons. First because it was a fine true novel about high school life. The aspects that were judged scandalous by some critics were in fact the truest parts of the book.
What set it apart from all the other high school novels was that it was very much like the literary novels of the time, especially those of the unjustly forgotten Calder Willingham. Harrison High remains rich in dealing with its era (the late 1950s), its people (generally middle-class whites) and its social problems (back alley abortions were still common). But with all that it's the characters I've kept with me. And having gone back to the novel several times over the years I'm aware of how carefully and honestly Farris drew them.
The second reason for the book's popularity was that it was written by an ambitious young man who wasn't long out of high school himself. The Dell paperback edtion (much like Peyton Place just before it) seemed to be everywhere. Farris' photo on the back cover depicted a thoughtful man who might have played football at one time or another.
John Farris went on to write many more novels, a number of them true and lasting masterpieces. But for people my age that thick Dell paperback version of Harrison High was an especially important novel.