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

Bertil Hegland 2

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.

Bertil Hegland 5

You Have Killed Me.

You Have Killed Me Cover

Cold and windy under nonstop pouring rain, last Saturday would’ve been a good day to stay indoors. But I ventured out to pick up a current events book reserved at the library (there being a current event or two to keep tabs on these days). The local public library’s a bit lean on actual books, but is well appointed with comfy reading nooks, plush seating and even a fireplace. Almost ready to check out, Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones’ You Have Killed Me caught my eye on the graphic novel section’s endcap. I have it, of course, being an ardent Jones fan. Still, I paused to flip through the 2018 trade pb edition of this 2009 graphic novel anyway. Before I knew it, I’d dropped into one of those fireside chairs to reread this yummy bit of retro noir fun from cover to cover before dashing back out into the rain.

You Have Killed Me Art

Some will holler cliché. Me? I see nothing but classic noir and hard-boiled genre tropes lovingly celebrated in Rich’s story, a smooth flowing piece of work that reads like a period-perfect screenplay for a 1940’s-50’s noir. As for Joelle Jones art? Fans might be surprised to see some softer lines and curvier faces here and there, but it’s still Joelle Jones’ brilliant, stylized draftsmanship throughout, and an excellent chance to see where she was ten years ago. The pair make an excellent team (as seen since on Lady Killer, for example) in this tale of hard luck P.I. Antonio Mercer, hired by wealthy and beautiful Jessica Roman to locate her sister Julie, who’s gone missing on the eve of her society wedding…the missing Julie also Mercer’s one-time lover. But family dramas and messy love affairs are the least of Mercer’s problems once he begins to tangle with gamblers, gangsters and hard-assed cops in jazz clubs, racetracks and roadhouses. Any savvy noir fan will smell a rat – or at least an untrustworthy femme fatale – early on, but even the savviest may not be ready for what really happened to the missing sister. Trust me: This one’s a treat.

Sure, I got soaked on my way back to my car. But I did get the political rant hardcover I’d reserved a week earlier (just to drive myself nuts) and had a good time savoring Jamie Rich’s wordsmithing and ogling Joelle Jones art, both every bit as tasty today as ten years ago when the book came out.

 

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.

TV Noir With A Mancini Soundtrack

Peter Gunn 1

I can’t keep track of all the oddball cable channels I can access. FETV? Never heard of it, but apparently it’s one of far too many syndicated rerun channels cluttering the cable landscape, and definitely wasn’t marked as a favorite. That is, until I discovered that FETV was running three back-to-back episodes of Peter Gunn, the 1958 – 1961 ABC detective series created by Blake Edwards and starring Craig Stevens as the titular private eye with Lola Albright as his jazz chanteuse girlfriend, Edie Hart.

Peter Gunn 2

Set in an unnamed waterfront city that could hug either coast (but is actually far-too-familiar Universal and later MGM backlot streets), suave and perpetually cool Peter Gunn uses quirky jazz club Mother’s as his unofficial office, drives a car-phone equipped big-finned two-tone ’58 DeSoto and typically gets a cool grand for his jobs. Always nattily attired, Gunn’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is good with his fists in a tussle with thugs and, in keeping with his name, ready with his gun when needed. Creator Blake Edwards aimed for a cool, hip tone with this series. The look is visibly ‘noir-ish’, most scenes set at night, the redundantly re-used sets kept dark and shadowy, often filmed in jarring camera angles, and all enhanced by Henry Mancini’s jazzy score. In fact, the “Peter Gunn Theme”, which you’d recognize right away if you heard it, was nominated for an Emmy and two Grammys.

Peter Gunn 4

Not to overpraise. This is still crank-em-out late ‘50’s-early 60’s era TV, and there are some genuinely silly episodes, either formulaic whodunits or misguided attempts at lighthearted humor. The urbane P.I. in a wild west ghost town? Peter Gunn babysitting a seal? Well, skip those and focus on the good ones, and there are a bunch, at least from those I’ve seen so far. Dark, moody and then suddenly erupting with unexpected violence, the best episodes of Peter Gunn are as good as many film noirs and neo-noirs, just compressed into a half hour time slot.

Peter Gunn 5

Blake Edwards also wrote and directed a number of the episodes, and several years later took another whack at his Peter Gunn creation, directing a feature film (co-written with William Peter Blatty of The Exorcist fame) released by paramount and starring TV’s Craig Stevens. There’ve been further attempts to revive the character in 1989, 2001 and as recently as 2013 by TNT, but nothing’s come of them. A DVD boxed set exists, and if I stumble across it at a reasonable price, I’d go for it.

Peter Gunn 3

Chicago 1946 – 1957

46 chicago

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.

 

“Cigarette Girls”: Smoke And Guns

Smoke And Guns

Her bio says that Oakland librarian Kirsten Baldock actually worked as a cigarette girl during her first year in San Francisco. I didn’t realize that even was a job during our lifetimes. But let’s assume her cigarette girl gig was slightly less dangerous than the one she imagined for her urban noir graphic novel Smoke And Guns (AIT/Planet Lar, 2005 trade pb). Drawn by Brazilian artist Fabio Moon, Smoke And Guns imagines a Sin City style urban nightmare divvied up into districts serviced by licensed gangs of cigarette girls like The Chinatown Dolls and The Grand Avenue Belles. They may look, act and sound like ‘working girls’, (very well-armed working girls, that is) but they sell cigarettes, not sex, and when Scarlett breaks the fragile peace by selling smokes on another gang’s turf, all hell breaks loose.

Smoke And Guns Page -

Baldock’s idea’s an imaginative one, and her dialog is a treat, while Moon’s straightforward black and white brushwork-style draftsmanship is a good example of comic art pages being ready-to-shoot storyboards for a film. This may be an oldie, but it’s a goodie that I still see on some comic shops’ graphic novel shelves. If you spot it, check it out.

Smoe And Guns Page

L.A. Noir Gets No Darker

Dead Extra

Contemporary or retro, a lot of “L.A. Noir” stories, novels and films claim they’ll take you on a tour of the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra (Prospect Park Books, 2019) drags you into the worst, and then rubs your nose in it…in a good way.

I already forgot where I spotted Carswell’s new book. Crime Reads? Thrilling Detective? The Rap Sheet? Bottom line: I follow or subscribe to a few too many mystery/crime fiction sites/blogs, so it’s hard to keep track. But one of them recommended Dead Extra and I’m glad I asked the local bookstore to get me a copy (small press titles so rarely found on-shelf anywhere but in specialty shops).

Presumed to be killed in action, WWII U.S. Airman (and former LAPD uniformed cop) Jack Chesley has finally returned to Los Angeles after a two-year stint in a Nazi POW camp, only to discover that both his father and his wife, Wilma, are dead. The wife’s demise was ruled an accident, but her twin sister Gertie knows better. Wilma was murdered, and at that only after enduring a couple years of exploitation and abuse at the hands of silver screen big shots bankrolling sleazy prostitution and blackmail rackets.

The story unfolds in alternating points of view, one chapter for Jack in the 1946 present day as he begins to investigate Wilma’s death, and one for Wilma in 1943 and 1944, telling her horribly degrading story: Going off the deep end after getting that telegram from Uncle Sam, committed to a sanitarium, tricked into performing for a no-tell motel’s striptease sex club in order to escape, and then on the run from a murderous gang of pimps and blue movie blackmailers.

There’s nothing titillating about this seamy underworld, and while vengeful Jack Chesley’s investigation covers familiarly gripping hard-boiled ground, it’s really Wilma’s story (as well as her twin sister Gertie’s in the ‘present day’) that will ensnare the reader. I’d have been content with a book that let Wilma tell her own tale…it’s a novel in itself.

Cozy mystery fans would surely faint a few chapters into Dead Extra, but retro crime fiction fans – especially those enjoying period hard-boiled So-Cal material ala Chandler to Ellroy – will probably find themselves comfortably at home here. It’s rough stuff in many places, but I’ll assume that’s only because the author decided not to pull any punches. And the novel has its share of punches and gunshots to go along with the 1940’s era sleaze. Do look for Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra. And let’s prod Sean Carswell into taking a whack at a novel that tells the story of another ‘Wilma’ or ‘Gertie’…he did it well here and I’d love to see more.

 

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