Sunday, August 30, 2009

Black Pudding by David Goodis; or, “Go on, Oscar, give him the knife.”


That’s the first word that comes to mind after reading “Black Pudding”, a short story by David Goodis, a writer who should need no introduction in this forum. Wow, what a sucker punch of a story, and a simple story, too. But in the simplicity is a level of understanding about the human condition that cannot be ignored.

Ken Rockland is back in Philly after doing nine years in San Quentin. His gang put him there. During a job his boss, Riker, conked him over the head, leaving him for dead, because Riker wanted Ken’s wife. He got her, too. Ken did his time and never named names and when they let him out he went back home to Philly so he could start over. But it isn’t much of a re-start. He’s on the fringes of Skid Row and when we meet him he’s staring at the front window of a restaurant that offers egg-foo-yung at eighty cents an order but he only has thirty-one cents in his pocket.

Such is life for Ken. Soon it gets worse. The old gang heard he was out and they’ve come to Philly to kill him before he can find them and kill them. Two of the hoods corner him at the restaurant. But Ken isn’t interested in killing anybody and he runs away only to hide in the blacked-out cellar of a condemned building. He’s not alone in the cellar. Another down-and-outer named Tilly is already there, and they forge a connection. She’s hiding from the world and taking solace in opium; there’s a scar on her face from forehead to upper lip because her now-dead husband once tossed her out the third floor window. After Ken tells his story, she tells him he needs to finish them off. Get even. “Revenge is like black pudding.” But he wants to put the past behind him.

The scene between Ken and Tilly in that blacked-out cellar is amazing. The dialogue is fairly pedestrian, but the mood, man, the mood is amazing. They sit in near total darkness with only a candle for illumination, and the image you get in your head is something Hollywood will never duplicate. Wow, man, just wow. This guy is good.

Then a realization hits Ken that turns Black Pudding from a typical crime story into literature. Goodis writes:

There’s only two kinds of people in this world, the ones who get kicked around and the ones who do the kicking.

What is so powerful about that statement is the truth behind it. At first your mind recoils from it; you don’t want to admit it’s true, but it is, and before you can identify which one you are the story starts moving so fast you can’t keep up.

A gear has changed in Ken’s mind. We’re not really told what it is, but we’re lead to believe it’s the sight of Tilly smoking her opium and living in her pity-party world. She could get her face fixed, but she doesn’t want to. Her scar keeps men away and that’s fine for her but Ken sees somebody beautiful and thinks it’s a tragedy she keeps herself locked away. Maybe he thinks it too bad, too, that he’s taken the easy way out, but the realization that he’s doing so makes him want to move from someone who’s been kicked to someone who won’t be kicked anymore.

The action that follows is also fairly pedestrian but wow, man, just wow. What a blow to the head. When Ken gets even he really gets even and when he walks away you know things are going to be better for him and Tilly.

And after you have closed the book, you can wonder if you’re the kind that gets kicked or does the kicking.

What you decide after that is your own business.

Black Pudding by David Goodis is featured in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Fiction edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian.

Go get it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Whenever a writer has a new story published, the event brings a sense of excitement and anticipation not unlike that of an expectant father. Such is the case with me. The folks at the terrific webzine “Beat to a Pulp” are going to publish a story of mine called The Red Ruby Kill during the last week of September. It will be the first story to appear under the “Brian Drake” name, and that makes it doubly special for me. I’ve used many names on stories over the years, including my real one, but “Drake” is what I’ve settled on. I like one-syllable names (like Bond and Pitt and Holmes) that are punchy and contain sharp sounds. Say it a few times and maybe you’ll see what I mean. Plus, on bookstore shelves, the “D” authors are at eye-level so we’re easy to see.

The Red Ruby Kill has an interesting story behind it. First, it’s a recycled title from another story with a similar stolen gems motif; second, it started as an experiment. I wanted to see if I could tell a story in 3000 words or less, not for any grand purpose, just to see if I could work in such a short amount of space. The story ended at 3200 words, so I consider that a success. I also wanted a hero that wasn’t necessarily good or bad, but definitely somebody who would act in the interest of a friend and not just for himself, and I think you’ll find that Jack Dillon offers a surprise or two, the least of which is his Irish background that may or may not be linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland, which may or may not play into future Dillon adventures.

Right now the story is being prepped for publication, my bio and picture have been submitted, and we eagerly await the end of September.

In the meantime, the gang at “Beat to a Pulp” has an archive of exciting stories waiting for you, where you’ll find work ranging from crime to mystery to what they call “WTF”. Give ‘em a whirl and tell ‘em Brian Drake sent you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ten Things About Me

I found this over at James Reasoner’s "Rough Edges" blog and couldn’t resist adding my own spin to it. It's a list of ten things about me and this will allow you to, in James's words, see how odd I am. Thanks, James!

1. I have existed since college on a variety of jobs that have let me survive but made me no money; the trend shows no sign of changing soon. My father fears for my future.

2. When I was a little kid, I had wallpaper with airplanes on it. World War I jobs complete with labels. I was ticked off that in the corner where my bed was placed I could see only German planes; I wanted to see American planes! So I scribbled over the Germans with a marker. Mom got mad. She didn’t understand I was only doing my part for the war.

3. It's hard going into a bookstore and not spend two hours just flipping through stuff.

4. I have moved so much and lived in so many places that sometimes I wake up and don’t know where I am.

5. I have a sick fascination with high performance sports cars, yet when I had the chance to buy a Corvette, I bought a lesser sports car instead. I hope the Corvette gods will forgive me.

6. I can write a book in three months. Whether or not it’s any good is another story.

7. I spend too much time on the Internet. Usually researching old and new sports cars.

8. I’ll be 34 this year and I still laugh out loud when watching the Road Runner & Coyote cartoon. My mother fears for my sanity.

9. I like to type the first drafts of my novels on a 1942 Royal that my grandfather used in his accounting business. He died before I was born so this is the closest connection we have.

10. When I was a kid, I was out with Dad one night when the car broke down near a freeway onramp. It was noisy and scary for my eight-year-old self. Dad told me not to worry because when the U.S.S. Enterprise broke down, Mr. Scott never complained. Somehow that made me feel better.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ian Fleming's Casino Royale: The Spy Story to End All Spy Stories

I am probably one of the world’s biggest James Bond fans, but it’ll surprise you to know I’m more a fan of the books than the movies. It’s Fleming’s fault that I decided to write my own books, and he still teaches and inspires me as a writer today. The Bond books are overlooked pieces of art in a flooded espionage genre, a genre that gets no respect, but maybe that’s okay as a lot of the espionage genre is as disposable as yesterday’s trash. Not so the Bond books. As an example, take the first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale”. It's a spy story, yes, but there is much more beneath the surface.

The book introduces James Bond as a sharp British secret agent assigned to take on a Russian agent in a card game and clean him out. There are the expected details of high living and beautiful women; assassination attempts, gadgets, action; and a bit of philosophy that will throw you for a loop.

I’m talking about Chapter 20--The Nature of Evil. James Bond is in the hospital, recovering from torture received at the hands of the villain. He is having a crisis of confidence. And he’s been doing some thinking. He tells a compatriot, a French agent named Mathis, about how easily the young distinguish between good and evil. We’re given “fairy stories” about the Devil from parents and schoolmasters, Bond says, but those stories mean nothing to somebody like him who has witnessed evil up close.

He decides that he himself has behaved in an evil way in order to fight evil, while the evil, to oppose the perceived evil of the good, respond in their own way to the threat. Each side thinks he’s on the side of the angels. Basically, Bond (and Fleming) is saying that whether a person is good or evil depends on their point of view. (Get your head around that!) It's not a black-and-white picture Fleming paints; he presents a complex moral question. However, it's a question that must be answered, and in the end, Bond discovers his answer. If he's the evil that opposes a greater evil, so be it, he's ready and willing to take on that role, and the OO7 we know and love is born.

To provide more detail will spoil a wonderful book, but if you’ve seen the recent movie version, you know the basics. It’s a shame that the filmmakers left out this conversation between Bond and Mathis, but it’s indeed better read than viewed as the reader may want to go over it a few times to make sure they’re reading what they seem to be reading. This sort of conversation isn’t what you normally associate with James Bond.

That’s the genius of Fleming. He’s never been given enough credit as a writer. The Bond books are solid pieces of storytelling. Fleming dipped his pen in fantasy, no question, and some parts of James Bond’s adventures come off more cartoonish than others, but Fleming reached the right balance between comic-book fantasy and fictional realism. Fleming’s gift was characterization and Bond, in his everyday behavior, is fascinating to watch.

When he wrote “Casino Royale” Fleming said he wanted to write the spy story to end all spy stories. If he had stopped with “Casino Royale” and gone on to write other non-series books, we wouldn’t have the James Bond we have today, but we’d have a novel that addresses the dichotomy between good and evil like nothing else in the genre. That alone would give Fleming a place in the halls of literature.

James Bond is not out of place in a blog dedicated to hardboiled literature. His inclusion is debatable, but there's enough hardboiled action in the Bond canon to make the case. I think I’ve read “Casino Royale” five or six times and it never gets boring. I often discover new aspects to the story that I missed in previous readings. That’s the sign of a good book.

That’s what makes good literature.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fast One & Seven Slayers by Paul Cain

Paul Cain’s Fast One is the literary equivalent of an ice cream headache. After your head stops hurting, you know you’ll go back for more.
Such was the case with me. I’ve given Cain’s only novel more chances than any other book. Normally, if I can’t follow a plot or the writing’s unreadable or the book is just another potboiler, I toss it – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Lawrence Block and Mickey Spillane are some of the giants I’ve abandoned.
So what is it about Paul Cain that makes him one of my top three favorite writers and keeps Fast One on my bookshelf?
Fast OneLet’s start with the book itself. Originally published in 1932 after first appearing as a set of connected novelettes in Black Mask Magazine, Fast One follows the story of Gerry Kells, a gunman/gambler/playboy from the East, who is perfectly happy cooling it in Los Angeles until the crime bosses in the city go to war. Kells won’t take sides, maintaining social connections with both gangs. But one of the crime bosses, Jack Rose, decides Kells’ stance makes him a threat, and tries to get rid of him. The action prompts Kells’ decision to take over the LA underworld himself. What follows is a roller coaster of action involving more cut-throat alliances than an episode of Survivor, and more violence than any other hard-boiled novel of the period (though, it should be noted, the violence isn’t gory or overly descriptive). When it becomes obvious that Kells has bitten off more than he can chew, and his plans begin to backfire… well, get ready for one of the most explosive kill-or-be-killed climaxes ever.
If you get that far. Some people can’t seem to get past page five.
What makes Fast One such a talked about book, I think, is the fact that it’s so hard to find. My paperback copy is a Black Lizard edition from 1987, and I had to look high and low to get a copy. I have never seen another anywhere. Prior to finally reading it, I heard only about how great it was, what an example of extreme hard-boiled style Cain had crafted. But my first reading was an utter disappointment, with the words, "What the heck is going on?" uttered every few pages. The book made no sense, and the writing was so choppy as to be almost unreadable.
Here’s an example:
Another gun roared and Kells felt the shoulder of his coat lift, tear; felt a hot stab in the muscle of his upper arm. Rose was running toward the other end of the room, zigzagging a little, swiftly. Kells started after him, stumbled, almost fell. He jerked the big automatic out of his pocket, swung it toward Rose. Then the door beyond Rose opened and someone came in. Kells couldn't see who it was; he staggered on after Rose, stopped suddenly as Rose stopped…..
Kells' gun roared… Rose's hands were together high in the air. He spun as though suspended by his hands from the ceiling, fell down to his knees, bent slowly forward.
Kells went to him swiftly and put the muzzle of the automatic against the back of his head and fired three times.
He grunted, "Compliments Flo Beery," straightened and watched Rose topple forward, crush his dead face against the floor.
He turned to look toward the rear of the room and in that instant the two big lights went out, it was entirely black.
Not exactly free-flowing prose; the book is full of passages like that. The starts and stops caused by the commas in place of conjunctions jarred me at first – I had never seen this kind of writing before.
Despite its overly favorable praise, Fast One is not the best or even the ultimate hard-boiled novel – there are many others that are much, much better.
So did Cain really write a good book? Ultimately, the answer is yes. Fast One requires very careful reading. It’s a different kind of book. The choppy, pared down style is an example of how to say more with less (contemporary authors, please note). Everything the reader needs is there. You just have to pay attention, and not stay away from the book for too long. Fast One is like a movie: you learn what’s happening only by what the characters do and say and notice. Relationships are never explained, thoughts never communicated – it’s all dialogue, action. Miss one little detail, and you might be lost.
A discussion of Fast One is incomplete without mentioning Cain’s only other book-length work, Seven Slayers, a collection of short stories (and the only follow-up to the novel). Those short stories really made me appreciate Cain’s style, his nuances. He’s excellent in short form, and it’s probably a good idea to start with Slayers first when looking at Cain’s work.
In Seven Slayers, Cain crafted a set of short stories about gangster life during Prohibition better than anybody I’ve ever read, even Hammett. While Hammett may defiantly have been the better craftsman, Cain seemed to know the underworld in all its so-called glory far better than his contemporaries and showed us what he knew without any excuses. His best characters, if not outright criminals, were outsiders who mixed with crooks and found themselves caught up in various scrapes requiring more than a gun to escape from. (I like to call them "Han Solo types" but that’s just me.)
One story in particular, "Red 71," stands out because of the understated humor in one scene, rare for Cain, where the hero, a shadowy character named Shane, tries to get some good booze and information in a speakeasy:
There were seven or eight men at the bar, two white−aproned men behind it: a squat and swarthy Italian and a heavily built Irishman.
Shane went to the far end of the room, leaned on the bar and spoke to the Italian: "What've you got that's best?"
The Italian put a bottle of brandy and a glass on the bar in front of him; Shane took a handkerchief out of his breast pocket, held the glass up to the light, wiped it carefully. He poured a drink, tasted it.
He said: "That's lousy——give me a glass of beer."
The Italian picked up the glass of brandy, drank it, put the bottle away and drew a glass of beer. He skimmed off the foam, put the tall glass on the bar.
He said: "Seventy−five cents."
Shane put a dollar bill on the bar, asked: "Kenny around?"
The Italian shook his head.
Shane said: "Where's the phone?"
The Italian inclined his head towards a narrow door back of Shane. Shane went into the booth and called the Valmouth, asked for Miss Johnson. When the connection had been made, he said: "Hello, Lorain——what room are you in? . . . All right, stay there until I get back——don't go out for anything——anybody. . . . I'm down at Jack Kenny's. . . . Tell you when I see you. . . . Uh−huh. . . . G'bye. . . ." He hung up and went back to the bar.
The Italian and the Irishman were talking together. The Irishman came down to Shane and said: "Jack's upstairs, asleep. Wha'd you want to see him about?"
"You'd better wake him up——I want to tell him how to keep out of the can." Shane tasted the beer, said: "That's lousy——give me a glass of water."
The Irishman looked at him suspiciously for a minute, put a glass of water on the bar, went to the door at the end of the room. He said: "Who'll I say it is?"
The Irishman disappeared through the door.
I like that scene.
Seven SlayersAs a whole, the stories in Seven Slayers make Fast Oneseem inferior. While the same careful attention is required when reading, the shorter pieces make following such details much easier than in the novel, where a detail on page 28 is forgotten when it reappears on page 45.
Regardless, the stories in Seven Slayers stand as some of the best examples of ‘30’s pulp fiction. Period. If Cain had decided to continue with crime writing instead of running off to Hollywood, he would have been a major contender, probably a strong rival to Hammett.
Which is why it’s a shame that Paul Cain remains in obscurity.
Paul Cain should be read not only by pulp fiction buffs and up-and-coming crime writers looking to shape their own voices, but by those interested in the aspects of Prohibition they don’t write about in history books.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett is a big deal for me. Back in 1999 I went on a whirlwind tour through modern hard-boiled literature in an attempt to learn about the subject prior to writing about it. Up until then, I had been writing a bunch of James Bond copycat stories which I eventually found unsatisfying. With hard-boiled, I discovered I could write about the world I actually lived in, featuring people and places I knew. Hammett was one of the last writers I checked out, and he provided a revelation.

I won't go into Hammett's background here; biographical information is available in many areas. He's a big deal to me because his crisp and economical style of writing taught me to "keep it simple" and not get too bogged down in descriptions of places. He excelled at was his descriptions of people. In "Red Harvest", he painted the picture of a lady, Dinah Brand, wanted by every man in town, but her make-up was always a little off, her clothes askew, wrinkled, holey. She obviously didn't take care of herself. The description is so vivid she stays in your mind long after you've finished the book; in fact, she's more memorable than Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon".

One thing about Hammett's background I will mention is that as the years went on, he wanted to write less and less about detectives and criminals. The reasons why are explained elsewhere (yes, I know this blog says I "explain it all" but that's just a cute title). Ultimately he didn't think a "good guy" could win the fight against the "bad guys", and that attitude shows in his last novel, "The Thin Man".

I didn't read "The Thin Man" for a long time because it was Hammett's last; I wanted to save it. Plus, I knew the mood and tone of the book, considering Hammett's attitude at the time, would be much darker than the other novels. Indeed it was, despite the movie version which paints the story as a comedy. He didn't intend "Thin" to be his last, but it almost reads that way. There's a sadness and touch of despair that follows the narrative. Nick Charles, the hero, a retired detective who wants nothing more to do with crime busting, is indeed going to solve the crime despite his verbal statements that he doesn't care who killed the titular thin man, but he knows revealing the murderer won't amount to much. He just wants another drink.

"The Thin Man" lingers for the wrong reasons. It's almost a suicide note. It's the end. Hammett would try and try but would write no more novels after "The Thin Man". (He helped his lover, Lillian Hellman, with her plays, and she would write nothing more after his death, but that doesn't count.) After five books and many, many short stories, Hammet had said everything he was able to say.

You cannot overlook "The Thin Man". It's brilliantly written. The lines are thin, like the victim in the story. You won't find much description or hoopdedoodle and you won't know anything more than Nick Charles wants you to know. He doesn't tell you his thoughts, and his words contradict his actions. That's the magic of the book. You're told one thing while seeing something else, and it's hard to look away, because you want the hero to save the day and set the wrong things right. But in the end, the hero doesn't care. When Sam Spade, in "The Maltese Falcon", busted the killer of his partner Miles, a man he didn't really like very much, he did it because when a man's partner is killed he has to do something about it, and it doesn't matter what your personal feelings for the killer are, you gotta hand 'em over. Spade was on a quest. Nick Charles is the opposite. He would say that sometimes you do things because you must, but you don't have to like it, and if you can get it over with quickly and get on with your life, so much the better.

"The Thin Man" lingers for the wrong reasons. That's why I like "Red Harvest" and "The Maltese Falcon" better. But Hammett was a true wordsmith who became better and better the more he wrote, and "The Thin Man" shows him at the top of the mountain. With that in mind, maybe it's not so bad he didn't write any more books.

He'll always be at the top of the mountain.