Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind”

You don’t get very far as a reader of hard-boiled literature without hearing how “great” Chandler’s “Red Wind” is. The first paragraph gets all the attention and is, I think, the highlight of the story. It reads:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Chandler maintains the wind motif throughout the story. The wind is always banging against window, kicking up dust in the streets. You get the sense that such a condition is really a detriment to the city and its inhabitants. Throughout the mayhem Philip Marlowe (or whoever the original detective was, my version has Marlowe’s name in it) solves a murder and tries to track down some missing pearls.

My copy of “Red Wind” comes from the “Trouble is My Business” collection; I also have it in the Everyman’s Library edition which contains every short story Chandler wrote (an excellent volume; if you don’t have it, you should, it’s a great way to see how Chandler developed as a writer). Overall, I think Chandler wrote better short stories than “Red Wind”; after the hook of the first paragraph, you'll find the rest of the story a by-the-numbers caper. Chandler’s characterizations are terrific (the cop, Copernik, for example, always combing his unruly hair and behaving like a corrupt punk), but Chandler always excelled in making you see his supporting characters, probably better than we can see Marlowe.

You have to give a guy some slack while he’s learning and finding his voice, and by “Red Wind” Chandler didn’t totally have it. Jump over to the first Marlowe novel, and you can see how much he learned and improved over time. Read through the short stories Chandler used to partially construct that first novel, and you can see even more improvement, but for a good murder mystery and a good pulp story and a great slice of life in Southern California when those hot winds are blowing, “Red Wind” is as good a read as you can find.

I have also listened to the radio versions of "Red Wind", both with Van Heflin and Gerald Mohr playing Marlowe, and it doesn't translate very well. The Heflin version is quite boring. Gerald Mohr excelled as Philip Marlowe and his appearance in the rest of the Marlowe radio series is a treat. He sounds like Marlowe should sound, but he’s the young Marlowe, and not the man we later meet in The Long Good-bye. But don't get me started on The Long Good-bye. We'll be here all night.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mickey Spillane Favorites

The Blackstone Audio Mike Hammer plays showed up in the stocking Friday, and listening to the stories put me on a Mickey Kick like I haven’t been on in several years. Hammer was the first hard-boiled P.I. I read about back in the day, so when I started writing my own private eye stories, of course the hero vaguely resembled Hammer. I read anything I could get my hands on that had Spillane’s name on the cover—still do—but in the last few years I’ve moved on to other authors and Mickey has fallen by the wayside; with the posthumous Spillane material Max Allan Collins is working on, that won’t be the case for long.

The audio plays made me think of the two last Hammer books Spillane wrote before he died, 1989’s “The Killing Man” and 1996’s “Black Alley”. “The Killing Man” is my favorite of the two, so that’s what I’ll start with. That’s also, incidentally, the order in which they were published, in case you didn’t realize.

When we meet Hammer in “The Killing Man” not much has changed since the novel that preceded it ten years earlier, “Survival…Zero” (one of the best Hammer books, by the way—what an ending!). He’s on his way to the office, a rare Saturday appointment, and when he gets there he finds his secretary Velda on the floor, wounded from a blow to the head and near death, and a dead man in his office chair with a note staked on his chest that reads YOU DIE FOR KILLING ME.

Hammer proceeds to beat the tar out of bad guys; verbally spar with politicians, federal men, and a feisty district attorney; and dishes out some .45-caliber punishment as he tracks down the man who nearly killed Velda.

I think the first chapter should be memorized by anybody who writes and wants a lesson on how to create tension. That first chapter is nothing but tension and Spillane carries the mood through the rest of the book. The first time I read it, I thought, “Wow, what a great book!” After reading it the third time, flaws started popping out. Hammer doesn’t really do much other than talk to sources who provide information and argues with members of law enforcement who think they know more about crime busting than he does. He really doesn't do any real detective work. The solution comes out of thin air and I don’t think is properly set-up, but it’s a decent ending as endings go. We learn that the killer wants to murder Hammer for something Hammer did to the killer’s family, and it’s the last bit of righteous firepower Hammer dishes out since when we see him again in “Black Alley” he barely does any shooting. “Black Alley” is not my favorite book; I hated it so much, I read it three times. It’s a good book but it’s not a real Mike Hammer book. (And that concludes my comments on “Black Alley”.)

Mickey Spillane will always be a favorite, and forever an inspiration, but I think he was at his best with his original seven books. The stuff he wrote post-The Deep doesn't have the same impact; one or two are good, the rest are formulaic. My absolute favorite of the latter-day efforts is The Delta Factor, it’s just a rip-roaring adventure, and I’ll write about that soon, and meanwhile hope that one day we see the rumored sequel to Morgan the Raider’s first adventure (any word on that, Max?). Then again, The Delta Factor has some competition, and that book would be The Erection Set. And anybody who admits that they enjoy The Erection Set is a Spillane fan indeed.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Whirlwind Stops + Erle Stanley Gardner

Well, friends, I am happy to report that my new spy novel, now entitled The Eagle Intercept, is complete at 70,000 words. For those of you just joining us, this manuscript started out as my NaNoWriMo project and almost didn't get finished (I had a hard time with the first draft) and when it was finished, was far too short (about 40,000 words). The first read-through and subsequent revision netted a ton of material I hadn't realized was there to tap, and as spy thrillers go I think it's pretty good. I do not like being out of my preferred crime fiction arena, and as long as I don't get type-cast as the next Vince Flynn I suppose we'll be okay. After all, how many different subjects has Dan Simmons written about? Or, as Donald Westlake might have said, that's why we have pen names.

I wanted at least three chapters ready to mail out by January and I have more than met that goal; after the next read-through this coming week, the whole thing will be ready. Now I just need a bloody synopsis. Hate those things.

We will now resume regularly scheduled blogging since this site was never supposed to be about my own scribbling, but since nobody seemed to get upset by the detour, detoured I did. Thank you for your indulgence.

I've written before that I'm a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, but not all of his books turn me on. I'm not crazy about Perry Mason. I like the character, but by the time he was doing Mason, Gardner seemed to be phoning it in and I've never seen as much effort put into the Mason books as there was in the Ed Jenkins series, and that's just one example, and an appropriate one since this note is about Jenkins.

I like the Phantom Crook. He's totally on his own. No gal Fridays, no side-kicks (except for his dog, maybe), and everybody from other crooks to the cops is somehow out to get him. But he always comes through in the end, and you have to dig that. The stories are fast an exciting and really carry you along. I have one collection of Jenkins material, Dead Men's Letters and Other Stories, and had the second collection, The Blonde in Lower Six, but the second book was stolen when some dastard broke into my shed at one of those pay-to-store-your-crap places. Oh, well. That's what ABE is for.

Back when Gardner was doing Jenkins stories for the pulps, he was often critizised for having his gun battles end as soon as the very last round was fired from the hero's gun. Gardner commented that when a writer only gets paid a penny a word, he's a fool to leave four-cents worth of ammunition in the hero's gun. I cannot disagree with that statement, hacked as much as it is because I don't have the actual quote handy. But gunfighting is not the only place where Gardner stretched out his word count.

Has anybody ever noticed, not only in Gardner stories but in those of Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly, that the Big Bad Guy or Other Character of Note in their stories (often lawyers) were often referred to by their first, middle, and last name? I thought it was just a joke between then, since, allegedly, they all knew each other, but now I see it as a conspiracy of sorts to get even more money out of various editors, and one wonders why said editors allowed the conspiracy to exist. Somebody call Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone. This one's bigger than JFK and would probably be told just as truthfully.

Anyway, Gardner never fails to entertain with the old pulp stories. And Mason is entertaining, too, but Gardner's writing is far too anorexic for me to be a real Mason fan. That's why I'm glad that there is so much pre-Mason material available, not just Ed Jenkins but also Ken Corning (of whom more later will be written) and many, many others....

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Road to Paradise by Max Allan Collins

Over the last ten years or so, work, life in general, and work has required me to move around a lot, and sometimes, as you can imagine, things get lost in the shuffle. One of those things was a book I bought in 2005 and only recently discovered that I had never read. That book was the third in the "Road" series by Max Allan Collins, one of the prose sequels to the "Road to Perdition" saga that began with the famous graphic novel of the same name.

So I set aside other reading material and dug into "Road to Paradise", and five days later I finished. This (for now) concluding episode in the "Road" saga is a heck of a read and packs the usual Collins punch, though some might say it's the most predictable book he has produced. There are only one or two ways to get the action going in a story like this, and the ending is already set in stone for those who read the graphic novel, so predictability can be forgiven because the result is very, very satisfying.

There is one gripe I have, however. This is probably the first book Collins has written that does not contain a graphic sex scene. What the heck else does anybody read Collins for, I ask? Certainly it's not the thrilling stories and punchy plot twists. There is an off-stage sexual encounter between the hero's high school-aged daughter and her boyfriend, and methinks that was indeed best left off-stage, but I will raise holy hell if the upcoming Nate Heller book and maybe even the forthcoming Mike Hammer novels do not include two or three extra graphic sex scenes to make up for the lack of same in the final "Road" book.

I kid, of course.

What I like the most about "Paradise" is that the story takes place not only within my lifetime but in places I have actually been. It's always neat to read stories like that (which is why I like Hammet's Continental Op tales so much; San Francisco was once a stomping ground of mine), and Collins provides the added benefit of historical background, some of which I had not known.

As always, Max Allan Collins provides an action-packed thrill ride that makes you eager for his next effort.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Coming Up for Air....

I haven't posted much the last few days because I've been frantically scribbling the final pages of the new manuscript, typing them, and getting the first draft out of the computer. Today I edited and did some revision on the first 50 pages, and the excitement I'm feeling over these pages is coming out my ears.

I don't care for my title, but I can fix that later. I'm trying to a Ludlum-style "The [noun] [proper noun]" style, but it's tough. Right now I have "The Lassen Agenda" which refers to the villain's plan. I do not want a generic title that makes the book sound like the usual bookstore cannon fodder. Anyway that's for the future. Right now it's fun to play in the world I just created and see how this comes together. I want 50 pages in shape to start submitting in January.

I've been reading some good books lately so I plan to post on those soon. One of the books has been sitting on my shelf, unread, since 2005, and when I realized that I started reading right away and it's been a thrill, the last of the "Road" books by Max Allan Collins. Details to follow, but as usual Collins has done quite well.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, or: Here Comes Another Thompson Revival

I just learned that in 2010 we will see a new film adaptation of Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me". I have several reactions. One, an anticipation to see the final product; two, a fear that the final product will be sludge; three, boy, I sure love that book.

I first read "Killer" back in 1998 when I had decided to abandon spy fiction (reading and writing, only to return to writing it recently) and take a whirl-wind tour through hard-boiled literature. What a great place to start! "Killer" is a love-it-or-hate-it novel but you can't argue with how authentic Thompson wrote the interior character of Lou Ford, giving us the ability to watch this man break down in a way that is almost like watching a house fall apart from neglect. And the twist at the end always makes me smile. Lou thinks he's pulling a fast one on everybody but not so fast. His "prayer" at the end, as I think Ed Gorman once mentioned, is moving and tragic at the same time, and speaks for a lot of us who feel like we started life with our own crooked cue (or were handed the crooked cue later in life).

I know nothing about the movie other than that Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba star. I'm not sure Casey Affleck is the best choice, but I didn't think Daniel Craig would make a good James Bond, either; now, I think Craig is a terrific Bond. Thompson described Lou Ford in such a specific way, though, that it's hard to see anybody step into that mental picture. I hear Stacey Keach played the role once, and if anybody could do it, he sure could, but having not scene the Keach film I cannot comment further.

Thompson is one of my favorites but I never did get around to reading all of the books when Black Lizard/Vintage Crime reprinted them twenty years ago. I have a few on the shelf along with "Killer", though. As for my second favorite Thompson, it's really a tie between "The Grifters" and "A Hell of a Woman" and "The Nothing Man" and I'll be hanged if I can decide which one belongs in the second slot. Oddly enough, I don't care much for "The Getaway" probably because the movie, I think, ruined the book; Thompson's writing wasn't terribly coherent, at least when I read it the first time; and his choice for an ending always leaves me scratching my head. If you have a comment on that ending, and I'm sure you do because how could you not, I'd appreciate your opinion. I think now that it's been a few years I can read the book again and not see Steve McQueen as Doc (forget that other version), but we'll see. Once my TBR stack gets lower, maybe I'll go back to it.

In the meantime I wish the participants in the new "Killer" movie the best and hope it brings Thompson more attention and puts his books back in stores so I can snatch 'em up. He's a writer who should be rediscovered every few years.

If you're interested in reading more about the new movie, here's the link on the IMDB.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Wisdom of Ian Fleming, or: The Best Writing Advice EVER

As I said in the previous post, I have finished the first draft of my spy novel, the working title of which is "The Lassen Agenda". I'm trying for a Ludlum-style title, but, frankly, I think my title bites and sucks rocks, but nothing else has come to mind other than a two- or three-word generic title like "Dead On Target" or "High Risk" which also don't do anything for me. But the title is not my concern right now.

With the first draft done, my mind is free to generate more material to flesh out the manuscript. I'm pleased with what's come to mind so far and a practice outline has proven that the new stuff works well with what's already in place, but the bad side to being done with a first draft is also coming into play, where I doubt every single word on the page. At times like this, I reach for the strongest bottle of rum I can find.... kidding! Actually, I pick up "Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond" by Andrew Lycett. On page 216 (of the hardcover version) there is a passage that I think all writers, at whatever stage of their career, should memorize and recall often, and I am grateful to Lycett for including it in the book:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint...Never mind about the brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don't be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do. Try and remember the weather and smells and sensations and pile in every kind of contemporary detail. Don't let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don't allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don't worry about what you put in, it can always be cut out on re-reading....

This advice is righteous. With that in mind, to quote Harry Whittington again, I persist.