One Good Deed

One Good Deed

We’ve been here before. If you’re a fan of postwar paperback originals, you’ve been probably here quite a few times, in fact. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be here all over again if a talented writer can make it worth the trip.

A stranger arrives in a made-up big town/small city, typically in some vaguely Midwest or southwest locale, only to wind up in trouble with the local law, corrupt power brokers and – inevitably – the resident femme fatale. It’s been a standalone mystery/crime fiction novel staple since the 1940’s. Paw through musty paperbacks in a used bookstore and you’re bound to come up with one or more. Familiarity (even occasional redundancy) doesn’t undermine this viable noir-ish story setup, any more than seascapes, still life’s and figure studies would be invalidated simply because painters frequently explore them like an artistic right of passage. Two examples of this type of story that immediately come to mind are Ross MacDonald’s Blue City from 1947 and The Long Wait, a rare non-Mike Hammer novel from Mickey Spillane in 1951. And I bet you could name some others.

Blue City MontageThe Long Wait Montage

So, there’s nothing surprising about David Baldacci giving this time-honored theme a go in his current One Good Deed, other than the fact that this NYT bestseller already knocked out nearly 40 novels (his first novel, Absolute Power, adapted to a successful film as well) before contemplating his first retro postwar setting. Based on some online reviews I’ve spotted, it caught a few of his loyal fans off-guard. Well, they better get used to it, since it sounds like One Good Deed is the first in a new series Baldacci has planned.

In 1949, Aloysius Archer steps off the bus in Poca City in ill-fitting clothes, a measly few dollars in his pocket and a three day stay prepaid at the only hotel. He’s due to meet his parole officer, find a job and start over after a three-year prison stint on trumped-up charges. But Archer (which is the handle he prefers) endured far worse as a decorated infantryman in WWII’s Italian campaign, and is a man to reckon with.

An ill-advised but understandable urge for a forbidden drink and some barroom banter with a local lounge looker are among his first mistakes. Followed by a bigger lapse in judgement when he agrees to collect a debt for Poca City’s big shot, Hank Pittleman, who owns the local bank, the town’s only industry (a hog slaughterhouse), the hotel Archer’s staying in…hell, even the cocktail lounge they’re drinking in. And the girl who’s got Archer’s head spinning. As will happen in such tales, Archer winds up in bed with Pittleman’s seductive mistress…the same night Pittleman’s murdered, his throat slit ear-to-ear. All of which finds Archer in one hell of a lot of trouble with the local law, the State Police homicide investigator who takes over, and Archer’s own parole officer…who just happens to be an intriguing woman with a mysterious past and is every bit as alluring as the Poca City bad girl he’s already mixed up with.

There’s enough small-town drama and family secrets to fill both a Grace Metalious novel and a Tennessee Williams drama here, mixed in with a puzzling murder mystery (and a few other dustups and deaths along the way), all capped off with a climactic courtroom scene, which may sound like a bit much for any one book, but then Baldacci’s a real pro and more than up to the task. I’d never read one of his novels before, but knowing he plans more Archer novels after One Good Deed, I’ll be watching for the next one. The fact is, when I stumble across some musty old paperback by a long-gone writer in a used bookstore with some other loner stepping off the bus in a made-up town’s Main Street, I’ll probably give it a try too, no matter how many times I’ve been there already.

More From Bertil Hegland

Bertil Hegland 1

A few more examples of Swedish artist Bertil Hegland’s mystery/crime fiction cover art, the illustrator’s career tragically cut short at age 42 when an accident caused him to lose the use of his hand. Look for the preceding post for more examples of Hegland’s work.

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A Career Cut Short: Bertil Hegland

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Bertil Hegland (1925 – 2002) was a Swedish illustrator known in the Scandinavian market for popular children and teen book series covers — including the Nancy Drew series (apparently called “Kitty”) — as well as hard-boiled mystery and crime fiction covers. Initially an advertising illustrator, Hegland migrated more and more to publishing. By the late 40’s and still only in his mid-twenties, his main clients were book, digest and magazine publishers.

Bertil Hegland 10

But at only 42, Hegland was the victim of an unfortunate car battery accident that severely injured his hand, to the point that he could no longer draw. Apparently, he gave up art altogether at that point. Whether his hand was crushed by a battery (they can be pretty heavy) or it exploded (which we’re often warned about) isn’t clear.

You can point out that Mickey Spillane, James Hadley Chase, Peter Chaney and other writers’ work was packaged in more handsome cover art in the U.S., UK and elsewhere, and I won’t argue. Publishers in smaller markets deal with substantially shorter press runs and surely looked for proportionately smaller fixed upfront costs. Many encouraged illustrators to freely ‘adapt’ U.S./UK covers, and you can see that at work here with some of Hegland’s illustrations.

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Biographical info is spotty at best on Bertil Hegland, and most of that in Swedish, which I can confirm translates pretty poorly in standard online translation. Check the next post tomorrow for additional examples of Hegland’s work.

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Love, Libel And Murder

Invasion Of Privacy

“He was head over heel – in love and libel and murder…”

Illustration by Joe Bowler for Harry Kurnitz’ “Invasion Of Privacy” from Collier’s magazine, 1955.

1955 joe bowler

And I Haven’t Read A Single Story Yet.

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It’s over a month ago that I reserved a copy of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book Of Reel Murders – Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films, warned at the time that it might not arrive till mid-November. In fact, I got it almost two weeks ago and have been burrowing through this nearly 1,200-page monster of a book since.

And yet – so far, I haven’t actually read a single story.

The Big Book Of Reel Murders

Each of the 61 stories by writers like Robert Bloch, Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Sinclair Lewis, Daphne du Maurier, W. Somerset Maugham, Budd Schulberg, Cornell Woolrich and others was the basis of a mystery/crime/noir film. Some you’d know, of course. Some, perhaps not. (I’d never heard of a few!) The movies inspired by the anthology’s tales include Woman In The Dark (1934), The Big Steal (1949), Fear In The Night (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), Tip On A Dead Jockey (1957), Mr. Dynamite (1951) and many others — some stills, publicity shots and posters for those shown here with this post.

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Many anthologies seem to be hastily put together, with little more than a brief genre celebrity preface, editor intro and — if the reader’s lucky — author bio’s. Not this book. Each of the 60+ stories are preceded by a two or three-page introduction providing author, story or publication background info, plus details and anecdotes about the film inspired by that story. Add it up: These intro’s almost form a book on their own, with the insights into familiar films being informative treats, the others being prompts to hunt up the movies as yet unseen.

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Oh, I’ll go back and read the stories, of course. The Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie tales I already have elsewhere and have read more than once might be skipped, but there’s some choice material in this big book. And though it might seem a little weird, some of the choicest content is actually the story introductions, as much as the stories themselves.

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Just Ignore The Witch.

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Snowing again this morning, looking more like December than October for the second day in a row, but a great big Happy Halloween to you too…

I’ve bought most of the Hard Case Crime line’s titles, from before and after their Titan acquisition. I may have a soft spot for the earlier releases reintroducing us modern readers to forgotten postwar paperback original crime classics, and for having the why-didn’t-someone-think-of-this-before bright idea to package them just like the rack sized pocketbooks they emulated…right down to the cover art.

Daniel Kraus’ Blood Sugar is still on order from my local bookseller and not in yet, whether because it’s sold so well that it’s already out of stock, or the early October publication date wasn’t met…or maybe the counter clerk’s just fibbing to me. Who knows? Clearly it won’t arrive before Halloween, though I did want it for a holiday read.

Apparently, Paul Mann’s fun cover art is a fooler, though. The line is called Hard Case Crime. But Blood Sugar isn’t a retro-pulpy mystery with a fetching witch up to some kind of criminal or even supernatural hijinks. Look closer and you’ll note that the illustration only depicts a calendar’s October pinup. The story actually deals with that most familiar Halloween urban myth (or is it just a myth?): A twisted recluse, aided by three outcast kids, seeks revenge on the neighborhood children with trick-or-treat candy boobytrapped with razor blades, broken glass, drugs and poison.

Chicago author Kraus is the cowriter, along with Guilermo del Toro, of the Oscar winning The Shape of Water. Let’s hope no quirky oddballs get any ideas this year after reading Blood Sugar. Which, it seems, everyone else might do before me.

Pulpy Vampire Noir

PNElrod 1

Happy All Hallows-Eve-Eve. Doesn’t quite look like Halloween hereabouts today. More like Xmas-Eve, with the snow falling this morning.

The preceding post looked at the “blurred lines” between horror and noir, as addressed by Zach Vasquez in a 10.29.19 Crime Reads article. Crime and horror often go hand in hand, with some ‘suspense’ novels more accurately billed as horror and some horror novels devoid of anything remotely supernatural but chock full of grisly stuff being done by sadistic crazed criminals. ‘Noir’ and horror can intersect, sharing hopeless quests, battles between indistinct shades of good and evil, shadowy figures in long cape-like coats emerging from the fog and evil seductresses tricking fools into (figuratively, at least) selling their souls.

Within the horror genre, vampires seem to be cyclical, dominating bookshelves and movie screens for a stretch, only to crawl back into their coffins to lay low till agents, editors and readers crave them once again after overdosing on the traditional castles-capes-n-fangs crowd, twinkling puppy-love teens, undead zombie style ghouls and various (and seemingly countless, at least in the E-book and self-published scene) sex-crazed vampiresses who prefer to do their imbibing in bed. Naked. Or, gussied up in period lingerie inevitably described in infinitely minute detail.

Oh yeah, and usually with another woman. (Don’t blame Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, blame those 1970’s Hammer movies.)

If “The Stiletto Gumshoe” is a home for quirky noir culture, there’s also a fondness here for most things retro-pulpy, so let’s peek at P.N. Elrod’s (Patricia Nead Elrod) The Vampire Files series, where hard-boiled meets horror, with vampires, no less. Elrod, a writer with a truly prodigious output in horror, fantasy, gaming tie-ins and more, wrote an even dozen titles in this series, I believe, the first published nearly thirty years ago. No, make that twelve and a half – I spotted a self-published version of The Devil You Know from Elrod’s own Vampwriter Press.

The Vampire Files novels are set in 1930’s Chicago (in the beginning), where ace newspaperman Jack Fleming must solve a murder in the first book, having awoken as a vampire after a gangland slaying. As in, his own. Ultimately, Fleming becomes a kind of undead hard-boiled private investigator (later a nightclub proprietor) aided by human pals and his new girlfriend Bobbi as they grapple with various mysteries, mobsters and supernatural villains, with a crew of determined vampire hunters always on his tail.

I no longer have any of Elrod’s books on my shelves, but if I recall, I had two or even three of The Vampire Files books at one time, including the first. Ace published new editions in 2010-2012 or thereabouts, with five volumes combining multiple novels from the original series in each. As I write this, I’m making a mental note to either track down some used bookstore originals or to order up the re-issued versions. As I recall, they were fun reads, with a good mix of supernatural vampiric-ness and retro-pulp style hard-boiled crime fiction, all punctuated with bits of wry humor.

Vampire detectives have been done by others, of course, particularly on television. Canada’s Forever Knight starring Geraint Wyn Davies ran from 1992 through 1996, based on a dropped 1989 CBS pilot starring Rick Springfield, and had a late-night cable run in the U.S. before going into syndication. I’m sure I’ve seen episodes on one of the many cable rerun channels (there are a few of those, aren’t there?). Blood Ties (2007 – 2008) originated in Canada as well, airing on Lifetime in the U.S., based on Tanya Huff’s Blood Books series and starring Christina Cox as a former Toronto cop turned P.I. who’s teamed up with a vampire. Moonlight (2007 – 2008) was a CBS prime time series starring Alex O’Loughlin as a private eye turned into a vampire. I’m sure there are more, and more vampire-as-investigator books and book series that I’m not mentioning here. P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files deserved being singled out, its familiar retro crime fiction turf a good fit for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s world.

Now, get back to work on your Halloween costume.

PNElrod 6

 

 

Nobody Move.

nobody move

We’ve been here before with writers and filmmakers like Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino (quotes from both of whom lead off this novel). But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth another trip through So-Cal Neo-Noir, especially when we’re in the hands of a talented storyteller, and based on this debut novel (or so I assume it to be), that’s precisely what Philip Elliott is.

Action-filled stories like Nobody Move’s plot are hard to summarize, but I’ll give it a try: What ought to be a routine collection call by a couple of low-level enforcers goes bad, resulting in a pervy narcotics distributor and his innocent wrong-place-wrong-time mistress shot dead, their bodies none too well hidden (and promptly discovered) in the hills. And that results in the dead man’s much-more-dangerous brother arriving from Texas and out for vengeance, and a world-weary single mother homicide detective assigned to the case. Meanwhile, an enigmatic young woman shows up, hunting for the half-sister gone missing from their South Dakota Oglala Reservation home (who was the murdered mistress, of course), and the crime lord who initiated the whole affair is determined to silence everyone involved…permanently. Bottom line: Everyone’s looking for Eddie, the inept crook who stupidly pulled the trigger and set things in motion. Colorfully quirky characters provide ample cannon fodder for the sudden bursts of explosive violence that erupt on cue in Elliott’s (thankfully) straightforward linear narrative: A retired gay porn star (now pre-op trans) turning traitor, a sleazy lawyer, a strip club dancer, a Puerto Rican hitman and other assorted thugs among them. The characters’ multiple paths converge, sometimes violently, sometimes humorously, and ultimately in a harrowing daylight bank robbery and then a major shoot-out. If this is Elliott’s debut novel, then he handles a complex multi-character plot handily and keeps everything moving along at a fast-paced clip. People toss the term ‘page turner’ around a lot (myself included) but this one really was, at least for me.

If you give Nobody Move a try, I challenge you to not picture your own dream cast for each character’s role, or to constantly visualize Elliott’s well laid out scenes in the quirky, jump-cut violence-filled big screen version it ought to be. Philip Elliott is the editor in chief of the print and online literary magazine, Into The Void, and this novel is from their small press publishing operation. That suggests no literary agent was involved, but I sure hope the author has someone working overtime to drop this novel onto appropriate Hollywood producers’ desks.

Chicago 1946 – 1957

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Late 1950’s Chicago wasn’t much on my radar back in 2000 when Steve Monroe’s ’57 Chicago came out. I’ve probably seen it on shelf in used bookstores, even recently when I’ve been laser focused on 1959 Chicago for my own projects (as in, The Stiletto Gumshoe). Even if I have spotted Monroe’s debut novel, I probably decided to pass, not being much of a fan of the boxing scene, which is the what that novel deals with.

But, it’s on order through my local bookseller now, in the newer 2015 trade pb edition. I requested it along with some other books when I was barely 20 pages deep into Monroe’s second novel, ’46 Chicago from 2002, which I recently bought at a used bookstore. Boxing scene or not, if Monroe’s debut is even half as good as his follow-up, I know it’ll be good.

’46 Chicago deals with semi-rogue cop Gus Carson, recently returned to the force after a harrowing time in the Pacific war, only to find himself suspended over an off-duty shooting in a whorehouse. Where he was a patron at the time. So, let’s be clear: Gus is no angel. Tempted by five hundred easy but obviously suspicious dollars from a Chicago bigwig endorsed by the police brass, Gus is tasked with locating the man behind the numbers game on the south side…who’s been kidnapped. Or, may be dead already. Who’s behind it? The cops? Rivals? The mob? Gus’ search drags him down through the underbelly of the city and up to the sprawling estates of the North Shore’s millionaire power brokers, forced to confront his own violent and less than honest past along the way. He may solve this mystery, but there’s no redemption for Gus Carson at its end. It’s all loosely based on the Chicago mob’s real-life takeover of the south side numbers/policy racket, engineered by Sam Giancana under Tony Arccado’s leadership.

57 chicago

Monroe’s novel is truly harder than hard-boiled, darker than the most noir-ish of noirs, utterly grim and gritty throughout. I just finished ’46 Chicago after work tonight (Tuesday), and now I’m itching for ’57 Chicago to arrive, so I can dive in to that one, fight scene and boxers or not. But only three of the five books I’d ordered have come in so far (those picked up today), ’57 Chicago still en route. Steve Monroe did one more novel in 2015, Pursuit, in what looks like a contemporary setting. According to his website (stevemonroebooks.com) there are a couple more languishing in a file cabinet, including a sequel to ‘46 Chicago. I don’t know if Monroe’s retired (he is or was a successful real estate broker) or if the current publishing/bookselling marketplace conditions have those projects permanently stuck in limbo, but I hope they see the light of day. Some day.

Side note: I did buy ’46 Chicago at a used bookstore, my copy a like-new hardcover with a perfectly clean dustjacket. Only a little way in, what should tumble out from between the pages? The author’s own day-job business card, which may well have been hiding in there since the book’s release in 2002. (The company’s since been absorbed by another in a mega-merger.) And based on the card and his title at the time, I don’t think Mr. Monroe’s hurting for a tight-fisted publisher’s advance minus agent’s commission. Just guessing.

 

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