One Night Stands

Manhunt Dec 1958

Mired in relentlessly humid nineties for days, I headed out for what was supposed to be a quick Saturday AM trip to run errands, anxious to be home before morning warmed into another tropical afternoon. ‘Quick’ turned into three hours, with impatient weekend warriors fighting over parking spaces at each stop, my last a nightmarish trek through a crowded big box store. But a regional chain used bookstore beckoned from across the parking lot afterwards, like a well earned treat for getting those chores done. The last thing I need is more books piling up on my end table right now, but I walked out with a few treasures anyway.

One Night Stands

I know I had Lawrence Block’s One Night Stands And Lost Weekends, a 2008 Harper trade pb collecting some of the Grand Master’s short crime fiction and suspense novelettes from 1958 to 1966, with dates and credits for each in the back. Perhaps my original copy was reluctantly sold to a used bookstore to make room (bookshelf space is generous but not limitless here). Or I lent it to someone and forgot to get it back. But this nifty book is back on shelf now where it belongs, in a surprisingly clean, crisp copy I’m nearly done with already.

When I brought it and another book to the register, the cashier was nice enough to ask if I’d seen the Lawrence Block hardcover short fiction omnibus there as well. I hadn’t, so he dragged me over (it was out of order on shelf, as it turned out), so I also left with a like-new 2002 first edition hardcover of Enough Rope (previously published in the UK as The Collected Mysteries Stories), a nearly 900-page door-stopper of a collection with more than 80 Lawrence Block short stories. If there’s a duplicate between the two books (I spotted one right away), who cares? My only complaint: Eighty-plus gems, and the publisher couldn’t spring for an appendix or permissions section at the back to provide original publication dates at least, if not publication titles too? Well, no whining when you snag a treasure for eight bucks.

enough rope

Enough Rope is on my nightstand, that book spanning more years of Block’s career and including a bounty of detective/crime fiction short stories, with nine Matthew Scudder pieces, so it’d be worth buying for those alone. One Night Stands And Lost Weekends is in my car so I can knock off a shortie before and after work or chilling in a parking lot before a meeting during the week.

Three ‘lost’ Ed London – Private Eye novelettes conclude that book. I read the last one, “Twin Call Girls” and still need to finish “The Naked And The Deadly” and “Stag Party Girl”. Block’s three page 2001 introduction to his long-lost Ed London stories is as interesting as the stories themselves…no kidding. So, with only a few stories left to read, I’ve spent some quality time with a lot of delightfully unsavory people, visited dreary small towns, knocked back shots and draft shorties in their dismal cocktail lounges, then bedded down in their dingy hotel rooms, achingly alone or rolling ‘round a worn out mattress with any of a long string of curvy blondes squeezed into snug sweaters and tight skirts, on the make or ripe for a glib stranger’s line. In “Man With A Passion” from Sure-Fire in 1958, freelance photographer (and scheming blackmailer) Jacob Falch breezes into a jerkwater town with ten grand in his suitcase, recently paid by the mayor of the last jerkwater town to conceal some skillfully composited photographs of the mayor’s wife in very compromising positions. “The room was drab and colorless,” we’re told. “There was a bed, a straight-backed chair that looked as though it would buckle if he sat on it, and a dull brown dresser studded with cigarette burns. In short, Falch reflected, it was a crummy room in a cheap hotel. But it would do for the time being.” Cheery, huh?

You have to keep the time, the publications and their readership in mind, just like you do when reading pre-WWII crime and spicy pulp stories. The women are reduced to hair color, the shape of their figures and the cut of their clothes, all of them cunning femmes fatales when they’re not nameless trophies to be ‘had’ (with no one quibbling about the ethics of how that comes about). Assault masquerades as seduction in these overwhelmingly grim stories of adulterers, hit men and swindlers. Culled mostly from 1958 – 1961 issues of Manhunt, Guilty and Trapped magazines, some feel hastily written (and they often were, per the author’s own introduction), are glaringly dated, simple and sometimes shallow…

And utterly sublime.

See, the thing about Lawrence Block short stories is that, for me, they function on three levels.

First, and naturally enough, they’re just plain entertaining, downright fun to read (in a peculiarly grim sort of way) and rarely disappoint.

Second (and this applies particularly to the oldies), they carry me back to a bygone era I can only imagine (and probably romanticize more than I should) when talented, hard-working (and lucky) writers willing to pound the keys diligently enough could, theoretically, actually make a living at this writing game. Just like his writing how-to books, Block’s usually good for some conversational background about those early days when he started out, which both books’ introductions covered and which I love to read. Styles and tastes have evolved considerably since the 50’s-60’s waning pulp days and the PBO era. Some of the outlandish premises and gotcha endings might no longer fly with editors or readers. And just like most 1930’s – 1960’s crime pulps, spicy’s and ‘adventure’ magazines, the stories are brimming with squirm-worthy situations and borderline offensive dialog. And just like those mid-twentieth century pulps, I simply can’t help but enjoy the storytelling and straightforward writing.

Third and finally, I often feel like I’m cheating a bit when I read Lawrence Block, and suppose many writers would. Why? Because in addition to reading simply for enjoyment, I’m also getting a value-added (if unintended) tutorial on how to do it and how to do it right. Plot, action, setting and characters are all managed with such an economy of words. I plow through one story and immediately want to revisit the last pages I wrote in my own projects to prune, edit and tweak. Knowing that many of these stories were knocked out in a single evening is maddening to someone less skilled.

You’ll excuse me now. I’m setting the way-back machine to 1959, heading to a hot-sheet hotel on Chicago’s SW side so I can add some cigarette burns to one of their dreary room’s dresser tops. The ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself probably left one of her Viceroys smoldering there once things heated up on the rickety old bed. Like I said, when I read some vintage Lawrence Block, I want to revisit my own stuff immediately. Cigarette burns. Yeah, that’s what I need…

Magazine images include: Guilty March 1958, July 1958 and September 1958; Manhunt December 1956; Trapped June 1958, October 1958 and April 1959.

8 (Not ‘Eight’) Million Ways To Die

8 Million Ways To Die Poster

(See the preceding post about Lawrence Block and John K. Snyder III’s excellent graphic novel of Eight Million Ways To Die.)

The way to look at 8 Million Ways To Die, Hal Ashby’s 1986 film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s hard-boiled Matthew Scudder novel Eight Million Ways To Die, is simply to forget that the movie has anything at all to do with Block’s novel. Which is pretty easy to do, since so little of the book was retained. The Oliver Stone script (with an assist by Robert Towne) transplants an ode to 1980’s New York to Los Angeles. Oh, some character names are retained, former cop Scudder struggles with his drinking, and there is still a prostitute who comes to the unlicensed P.I. to help her escape the life, yet winds up dead. But that’s about where it ends. As Lawrence Block has noted in interviews, he did cash the check, and film studio dollars can pay mortgages the same as publisher’s royalty checks. All writers can learn from Block’s experience, and he’s not the only big name to offer wise counsel about the perils and pluses of dealing with Hollywood.

Montage

8 Million Ways to Die can be lumped together with a whole series of neon-lit and sun-drenched So-Cal neo-noir-ish action and crime thrillers, like To Live And Die In L.A., Tequila Sunrise and others from the 1980’s-90’s. The film was done by top-notch talent, and featured excellent actors, including Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia in his first major role. Block’s dark and brooding murder mystery is gone, as are the shadowy Manhattan streets, dingy bars and grimy walkups.

Rosanna Arquette

Still, Garcia is delightfully slimy (his little pony tail a constant visual treat), no one does troubled-but-stoic like Jeff Bridges, and Rosanna Arquette…well, lets just say there’s kind of a crush there. A good movie? Apparently reviewers didn’t think so, nor did movie-goers, since it was a box office flop. That said, if it popped up unexpectedly late at night during a final once-around-the-channels with the cable remote, I’d stay up and watch it again.

Eight (Not ‘8’) Million Ways To Die

Eight Million Ways To Die

You’ll hear it said by novelists time and again, whether from relative unknowns or the frequent bestseller list residents: When the rights are sold to Hollywood for a project, just cash the check and forget about it.

Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block knows that all too well, and can point to the 1986 film adaptation of his 1982 hard-boiled Matthew Scudder detective series novel Eight Million Ways To Die as a prime example, right down to the film’s inexplicable title change to “8 Million Ways To Die”, as if audiences needed the numeral instead of the word for some strange reason. There are understandable pragmatic reasons studios modify novels for the big screen, length and location costs the most common. Sometimes it’s merely a screenwriter’s or director’s whim or conceit. And sometimes it’s just who-the-hell-knows-why?

Now, to be clear: Unlike many, I don’t hate the Hal Ashby 1986 film starring Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and a young Andy Garcia in his first leading role. It garnered some pretty bad reviews and wasn’t a box office success, though not for lack of trying with then-popular stars, a script by no less than Oliver Stone and Robert Towne, some thrilling sequences and no shortage of retro-eighties style sexy violence, sexy voyeurism…and just sex. I’ll admit that I’ve always like Bridges’ many brooding and cynical performances, and happen to consider Arquette one of the 1980’s – 1990’s under-rated talents. But the minute you see palm trees and the sun-drenched Pacific beaches on the screen, you have to wonder what the hell the studio was thinking.

John K Snyder III Matthew Scudder

Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways To Die, the 5th Matthew Scudder novel, takes its title from the Oscar winning 1948 film noir The Naked City and the 1958 – 1963 ABC television series of the same name, it’s concluding narration one of the mystery/noir genre’s many memorable lines: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Eight Million ways To Die MontageNo one would ever accuse prolific writer Lawrence Block of being lazy. Since pounding out paperback originals in the 1950’s under various pen names, he’s earned shelves full of awards and launched multiple series, the Matthew Scudder hard-boiled detective series nearing twenty novels as of 2019. The Scudder books are New York books, and Eight Million Ways To Die is 1980’s New York in every way. Just as we stereotype the 50’s as bobby sox and poodle skirts, the 60’s with either mods or flower children and the 70’s with John Travolta in a white polyester suit on a lighted dance floor, we tend to see the 80’s through a filter of VHS taped clichés from teen sex comedies and neon lit erotic thrillers, all dressed up in fuchsia spandex and over-moussed mall hair. But Block’s novel is the real New York of the 1980’s…Ed Koch’s New York, teeming with Wall Street white-collar embezzlers and pimps and dealers working the streets beneath the elevated tracks. It’s dark, wet, grimy, dirty and dangerous. And it’s a hell of a place for a struggling alcoholic with a gun and no P.I.’s license.

John K Snyder III Eight Million Ways To Die 2

Hollywood took Block’s novel and didn’t even bother keep the name intact, much less the plot or setting. But John K. Snyder III honored this book in one of the most impressive graphic novel’s I’ve ever read, rivaling the very best of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ work, and for me that’s saying a lot.

Eight Million Ways To Die - Noir City Article

The IDW Publishing 140 page+ hardcover is a work of art from front to back, sticking painstakingly close to Block’s novel, lifting text and dialog direct from the book, and rendering it all in an utterly sumptuous painterly style that’s incredibly moody and relentlessly dark, like the source material itself. I’d read about this graphic novel at Crime Reads and the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine (screen grabs from its article shown here), couldn’t wait for its release, and wasn’t disappointed. And, in a weird way, I’m pleased as could be for writer Lawrence Block, not that someone of his stature needs this unknown blogger and writer-wannabe’s well wishes. But his iconic P.I. character and one of the series’ very best books finally got its long-overdue treatment. Not in a movie, but in a graphic novel that could serve as a ready-to-shoot storyboard for a properly done film.

John K Snyder III Eight Million Ways To Die

If you’ve read Block’s book, you’ll still enjoy this graphic novel. If you haven’t read the novel and want an intro to Block’s Matthew Scudder character, this is just as good a place to start before you pick up one of the Scudder series books. So, enjoy Block and Snyder’s graphic novel, but still…go get a Matthew Scudder novel too.

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