The Big Blowdown

The Big Blowdown - Richie Fahey Cover art

There’s a long list of George Pelecanos’ projects that I adore: Novels, short stories, television scripts.

But my favorite remains The Big Blowdown, his 1999 tale of two Washington DC friends (including Nick Stefanos, the Pelecanos character who’s crossed-over into more than one project) set in a post-WWII world of realistically drawn blue-collar Greek neighborhoods filled with rich renderings of everyday people who live and work alongside the small-time mobsters who really run things. Some have compared Pelecanos’ early novels to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, and I won’t argue. They share a spare yet darkly poetic writing style and focus on a specific time, place and cast of characters. How he continues to create excellent books while concurrently working as a writer/producer for high-visibility projects like The Wire, The Pacific and The Deuce among others is beyond me. A person can only do so much. Somehow, Pelecanos does still more.

For me, this particular novel has been a kind of tutorial on how a master wordsmith handles an ethnic milieu, something I’m working with (different ethnicity, but still) in my own projects. Obviously, Pelecanos does it better than many, and better than anything I could ever hope for.

The Big Blowdown will get a careful re-read someday. I’ll just need to give it some time so I can forget the specifics and discover it all anew. As an aside, the nifty Richie Fahey cover art on my well-worn trade pb edition shown above doesn’t hurt.

Into The Night

Into The Night - Woolrich - Block

As I understand it, Into The Night was an unfinished Cornell Woolrich novel manuscript, not only missing an ending, but the opening and some passages in the middle (which doesn’t leave very much, if you think about it). It fell to Lawrence Block to complete the novel. I know I have this book somewhere (if you ever saw my bookshelves, you’d understand) but had to rely on a search engine image for the picture above.

Time for candor, even if it gets me in trouble: I’m not the biggest Woolrich fan, and I know that’s sacrilegious in noir and crime fiction circles.

It’s been a while, so if I get the plot mixed up a little, I’ll beg your forgiveness now. In Into The Night, a woman’s failed suicide attempt goes awry, though she’s actually relieved that her gun jammed. But when she drops the weapon, it accidentally goes off anyway, the bullet shooting right through the window where it finds an unintended target, another woman merely passing by.

That’s an interesting if perhaps implausible premise. From what I’ve read, some readers didn’t care for Lawrence Block’s upbeat ending, preferring something more Woolrich-ish…i.e. dreary and downbeat. Still, this one can be an entertaining read for hardcore Woolrich buffs, if only to try to pinpoint the original manuscript’s portions and Block’s rewrites/additions.

White Butterfly

White Butterfly 1992

White Butterfly (1992) was the third entry in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, though actually the second one that I read. I confess: I’d heard of Mosley but knew little about him or his work, and saw the 1995 film adaptation of Mosley’s first published novel, Devil With A Blue Dress with Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals on TV or a rental at some point. Before I read the book, that is. I literally raced out to get it then, was completely enthralled when I read it, and hungered for more Mosley once done. I have two independent bookstores nearby, one close to home, one close to work, both charming operations, but both allocating just a little too much floor space to trinkets and knickknacks instead of books. So I walked out of one with White Butterfly, the third in the Easy Rawlins series, but the second I ended up reading, it being the only Walter Mosely novel on shelf at that time. For some reason, I’ve ended up working through more of Walter Mosley’s books in much the same way: totally out of sequence.

No matter. I adored White Butterfly, with Easy Rawlins settled into domestic life but keeping secrets from his spouse. A girl’s murder in the Los Angeles ghetto doesn’t have the cops in arms. Another murder – this time a white girl, so now they’re interested – finds the police blackmailing Easy to assist them, or his old pal Mouse (who turns out to be something less than a pal) who’s in jail may never get out of the clink.

Like much of the very best in noir fiction and film, Rawlins’ novels give us a hero with his share of flaws who is sucked into a maelstrom of darkness and danger where temptation abounds, and is forced to combat powerful forces, be they unscrupulous cops, syndicate gangsters or crooked politicians…everything dialed up a few notches in Easy Rawlins’ world of rampant racism. I’m not going to say that Walter Mosley effectively captures the postwar Los Angeles African American milieu, only because I’m not African American, not from Los Angeles and wasn’t around then. I will say that he conveys the time, place, people and culture, does it with power and with a richness that tumbles off every page without ever feeling like a travelogue or history lesson. Not one Walter Mosley novel has ever disappointed me, and his Easy Rawlins books are among my favorites.

Devils In Blue Dresses

Devil In A Blue Dress 1st

Maybe one way to judge the importance of a book is by the number of editions. A continually popular book, an important book – and Walter Mosley’s first published novel and the first in the Easy Rawlins series, Devil In A Blue Dress from 1990, has never been out of print to my knowledge – is available in multiple countries (rightly so), print and audio, and has been re-issued in various editions. Up top is what I believe is the original first edition (which I don’t have, my copy only a lowly paperback re-issue). Below, a sampling of other editions. Mind you, these aren’t all, by any means, just the first few I screen-grabbed out of curiosity in a quick search. Mighty impressive.

Devil In A Blue Dress - Multiple

This Body’s Not Big Enough For The Both Of Us.

this bodys not big enough

Bestselling author Edgar Cantero has written one heck of an unusual novel with This Body’s Not Big Enough For The Both Of Us. It’s ‘the worst case of sibling rivalry’, as the inside flap teases.

The office door says ‘A. Kimrean & Z. Kimrean, Private Eyes’. But the pair aren’t husband and wife, father and son or mother and daughter. In fact, there’s only one desk inside with one chair behind it, and that’s for the scrawny, androgynous gumshoe who goes by A.Z. – twin brother and sister Adrian and Zooey, genetic chimeras who inhabit the very same body.

A 30+ page opening that plays with the hard-boiled crime novel cliché of a fetching femme fatale type showing up to enlist A.Z.’s assistance is a bit of challenge to adapt to, surely enough to put off fans of a traditionally plotted and written story. But get past that portion, and a rollicking good time awaits. Oh, there’s a ‘mystery’, and there’s crime, enough of both to satisfy any mystery/crime fiction fan, provided they aren’t looking for a straightforward whodunit. Cantero, from Barcelona Spain but residing these days in Brooklyn, toys with narrative conventions, honors and rips apart genre tropes and pokes fun at clichés. The tone is smart-assed and insouciant right from page one – right from the opening lines, in fact — and never really lets up.

And a nod to designer Michael J. Windsor’s for the striking dustjacket design, which lists images sourced from no less than eight photographers, reworked into a truly eye-catching bit of vector art and graphic design. This Body’s Not Big Enough For The Both Of Us is a bit different, no question, but a lot of fun.

this bodys not big enough back cover

Winter Reading Plans

three readers

Five days into the new year, and I just finished Meghan Scott Molin’s The Frame-Up (more about that one later), am deep into The Annotated Big Sleep for at-home reading and just picked up Sara Gran’s The Infinite Blacktop – A Claire DeWitt Novel to keep in the car for daytime-downtime reading. (I usually have more than one book going at a time, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.)

I normally have a folder handy on my desktop to screen-cap or download any interesting books I spot so I won’t forget to look for them, particularly since it may take a while to get around to it. Sometimes I feel foolish for letting so many books collect there, as if I could ever hope to read them all (not that it’d stop me from buying them). And at this time of year, when every blog and e-newsletter touts yet another ‘Best Of 2018’ or ‘Must-Read In 2019’ list, I feel doomed. When I skimmed J. Kingston Pierce’s Rap Sheet (therapsheet.blogspot.com) 1.3.19 post “Early Rivals For Our Reading Attention”, I was overwhelmed at first, then I didn’t feel quite so bad. It lists 325 US and UK new releases, and just for the first quarter of the year. If anyone can actually get through all those, they’re a speed-reader, unemployed…or nuts. And likely to be out about six grand.

the rap sheet screen cap

My own ‘watch-for’ list is much smaller right now. Forgive me for further cluttering feeds and inboxes with yet another book list. It’s a mixed bag of noir-ish fiction, mystery, hard-boiled crime, non-fiction, YA/comics-related titles and at least one genuinely goofy item: Murder-A-Go-Go’s – Crime Fiction Inspired By The Music Of The Go-Go’s. I mean, seriously…how can you not want to see what that’ll be about?

Raymond Chandler and The Annotated Big Sleep will keep me occupied for a few more nights. January is peculiarly balmy at the moment here, but it won’t be long before that changes, which means ideal at-home evening reading conditions. Indoors. Where it’s warm. And Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt will go down nicely with the dashboard heater blowing and a large coffee in the cup holder while waiting for an appointment or before work. Hopefully these other titles will show up at my local bookstore promptly.

2019 books 1

  • A Bloody Business by Dylan Struzan, with illustrations by Drew Struzan
  • American Heroin by Melissa Scrivner Love
  • Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs by Aimee Hix
  • Metropolis by Philip Kerr, the last Bernie Gunther novel before the author’s sad demise

2019 books 2

  • Murder, My Love by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (A Mike Hammer novel)
  • The Lost Girls Of Paris by Pam Jenoff
  • The Only Woman In The Room by Marie Benedict
  • The Jean Harlow Bombshell by Mollie Cox Bryan

2019 book 3

  • Bad by Chloe Esposito
  • The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
  • Murder-A-Go-Go’s – Crime Fiction Inspired By The Music Of The Go-Go’s edited by Holly West
  • Under The Moon – A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle

http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2019/01/early-rivals-for-our-reading-attention.html

Reader Photos by Jessica Castro, Daria Shevtsova and Kate Williams

No Business For A Lady

No Business For A LAdy copy

James L. Rubel’s No Business For A Lady (1950) is a frustrating novel. While the book’s front and back covers tease with “Meet Eli Donovan, lady detective and easily the most beautiful shamus living”, and “Most detectives have angles, but here’s one that has curves”, we’d expect postwar paperbacks to pitch a female private detective that way. What’s frustrating is 1) that a genuinely interesting female P.I. character that preceded G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz couldn’t garner her own series, and 2) that a well-conceived character could be dropped into a plot that relies on an utterly implausible crime, albeit in an otherwise well-told tale.

Rubel’s Eli Donovan is a licensed L.A. private investigator earning a comfortable living on routine cases like background checks and debt collections. Nothing glamorous or exciting, but it’s enough to pay for a nice wardrobe, a sporty coupe, a handsome apartment and to indulge her weakness for hats – the fancier and frillier the better (this is still the era when men and women alike wore hats darn near everywhere). Actually, based on the novel’s description, neither woman depicted on the book covers shown here resemble her at all.

Now, don’t be fooled: Eli’s no daffodil. She’s a former Marine, former cop and, oddly enough, a former chorus girl (briefly). She packs a Walther automatic and can take care of herself. A war widow, Eli Donovan fell in love with a fellow Marine who went missing on Tarawa, was finally declared dead and supposedly buried there according to the Corps. She didn’t make it through WWII unscathed herself, and was seriously injured in a Jeep accident, requiring plastic surgery. With her appearance changed, she also switched from a “mousey brunette” to a blonde to start fresh after the war (and so, she doesn’t resemble either of the women depicted on the books’ covers).

Early in the novel, Eli has a chance to earn a bigger than usual fee from a wealthy but stern and unattractive businesswoman (“with a face that looked like it was sired by a horse”) who admits to being insanely jealous over her handsome cad of a husband, who she suspects of being unfaithful. Well, so far, so good. The setup could lead to delicious vintage mystery/crime fiction fun: adultery, murder…all the good stuff.

And it does. Well…sort of. Because the main plot device here is that the unfaithful (and very flirtatious) hubby is a dead ringer for Eli Donovan’s dead husband. In fact, it turns out that he actually is her husband, who really wasn’t killed on Tarawa after all. Yet for a good 50 – 75 pages, he apparently doesn’t recognize Eli as his former wife. And she’s not sure he’s her husband…she only suspects he might be. Now don’t you suppose you could instantly recognize your spouse, even after a 5-6 year absence? And I don’t mean from a distance, or in a brief encounter, but in multiple meetings, over drinks, dinner and romantic one-on-ones? The whole business comes off kind of silly, and torpedoes this otherwise well done novel.

That nonsense aside, the story is well told with interesting secondary characters, some twists and turns, and most of all, an otherwise credible and well-drawn heroine. The novel’s conclusion feels open ended enough to lead to a sequel and a series. At the very end, Eli and her police chief pal go over details of the case when he asks if she still has feelings for her ex, now a felon wanted not only by the police, but the Marine Corps. Eli assures him she’s over him.

“Then find yourself a nice guy and settle down to raising a family,” he suggested. “This is no business for a lady.” I shook my head and smiled at him. He was a swell friend and I liked him. But he hadn’t analyzed me correctly. I liked men. I loved the way they whistled when they saw me. I was still young and I had a lot of years ahead of me before my hair turned gray, my face got lined and the whistling stopped. I couldn’t picture myself living in semi-poverty surrounded by wet diapers and screaming infants. Maybe someday I’d be lucky enough to meet the right man. Until I did…? I said, “Sorry, Bill. But I’m not a lady.

 (Scan of my pretty solid 1950 edition at top, the 1965 edition below (that one’s not mine.)

No Business for a Lady 1965

Gale Gallagher

Chord In Crimsons

“Gale Gallagher” is both the author and the private eye character herself in two late 1940’s novels, I Found Him Deadand Chord In Crimson. The books are written as if the private investigator herself is detailing authentic case histories in response (or even rebuttal) to the glut of hard-boiled detective novels so popular at the time. In fact the first book’s rear dust jacket purports to show the author/detective herself. Actually, the character — and pen name — was the real-life husband and wife writing team of Margaret Scott and William Oursler.

Private investigator Gallagher is the daughter of a widower New York cop, raised like a boy and groomed for a career in law enforcement. But she abandoned the police academy to open her own agency, the Acme Investigating Bureau. Gale’s licensed to carry (but rarely does). She’s smart, sarcastic, an elegant dresser, frequents Manhattan’s nightclubs and dates (or at least flirts with) her share of men.

I FOund Him Dead Front & Back

Rooting around in the dusty history of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ can be a little frustrating.  Intriguing characters like Scott and Oursler’s Gale Gallagher vanished, while ‘blonde bombshells’ like G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz flourished in multiple titles and editions. In a way, Gale Gallagher marks a transition point between the relatively demure amateur female sleuths from the 1930’s pulps and drawing room mysteries to the ‘saucier’ 50s/60s/70s series, and owes more to the familiar male hard-boiled private eye series of the time.

Easy Innocence

Easy Innocence 2008 ed

Easy Innocence was the first first Libby Fischer Hellmann novel I read, later reading Toxic City (a prequel, if I recall), An Eye For Murder and still eager to dig deeper into her dozen other books. Hellmann’s a Washington DC transplant to Chicago, but depicts both the city and the ‘burbs like she was born here. Novels that feel like they’re set in Anytown, USA sometimes can disappoint. Hellmann does an artful job of creating a sense of place here. In fact, the disconnect between the city and the tony North Shore lakefront suburbs plays a key part in Easy Innocence’s plot, where privileged ‘mean girls’ let an easy mark take the fall for the brutal murder of one their own, which will eventually reveal more than just unexpected violence among the mansions, manicured lawns and snooty prep school crowd, but something even more surprisingly sleazy and sinister. This was the first in the Hellmann’s Georgi Davis series, Davis a former cop turned private investigator. It was a great read…look for it.

Easy Innocence 2002 limited edition

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑