Last Dance.

I’m not sure if two books constitute a series, but it’s still customary to start with the first novel, nonetheless. In my case, I didn’t realize that Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Last Dance (2020 Blackstone hardcover) was a follow-up to his My Detective from 2019, which introduced Los Angeles police detective Sam Carver. 

If Carver feels a bit like a 2020 version of Philip Marlowe – his keen observations, introspection and (via Fleishmann) way with words, in particular – it works, and fits perfectly with the environment he operates in. But Carver’s a troubled soul when Last Dance opens, just back from an extended leave of absence following on-the-job capture and near-death at the hand of Dylan Cross, Carver’s still on-the-loose nemesis from that first novel, a rape victim turned vengeance seeking murderer.  Carver’s first assignment once he’s back: a famous (but just past her prime) Russian ballerina is found dead, her spartan loft littered with vodka bottles and drugs. Accidental OD? Suicide? Murder? Hard to say, since the dancer’s body is promptly stolen from the morgue before it can even be autopsied. 

Last Dance is, on one hand, pure L.A. Neo-Noir, and quite perfectly so. But Fleishmann, a long-time foreign correspondent before he was a novelist, can’t resist pushing things beyond the Hollywood Hills as the mystery takes on global implications, soon brushing up against the F.B.I., Russian spies and even the 2016 election (and more). The cast of characters is long enough to require a score card, though uniformed cop Lily Hernandez stands out as a possible future partner for lone wolf Sam Carver in an upcoming novel. The mystery of the ballerina’s death (and her body’s disappearance) is smartly and patiently parceled out with more than its share of twists and revelations. Never particularly good at solving mystery/crime fiction novels’ puzzles before the end, I failed miserably here as well. But I’ll pat myself on the back for spotting the eerie presence of Carver’s real antagonist — serial killer Dylan Cross – hovering nearby. 

Jeffrey Fleishmann crafted a literate piece of contemporary crime fiction with Last Dance. Noir poetry like this takes a bit of work to create, to be sure, so it’s only fair that the author insists that readers put in some work to fully enjoy the book. No skimming to the next clue or action sequence is allowed. It’s not that kind of novel, and there’s too much to be missed if you tried. Once you’ve gotten comfy with the writer’s style, you really want to savor the countless lyrical scene-setting descriptions, painting quick but artful pictures of every locale and each character, even the mere walk-ons. It’s a lot to digest, but well worth the effort. 

So, although I met Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Sam Carver in his second appearance, that’s easily remedied. My Detective has already been ordered for my next haul of in-store pickups. And Fleishmann better have a third outing planned for Sam Carver’s neon-neo-noirish Los Angeles. 

Retrowood.

From Mike Vosburg’s fun Retrowood from 2013, a ‘sorta-kinda’ mid-twentieth century Hollywood (but not really) hard-boiled noir with private eye J. Parker Wrighte mixed up in mystery and murder among the decadent tinsel town’s stand-ins most devious (and pervy) denizens. The story is dark but goofy fun, and the art’s almost sedate for Vosburg, while still indulging the figurative master’s flair for lovely — albeit lethal — ladies.

From East Of A To Apartment Five.

Coincidentally, a few weeks back I pulled Russell Atwood’s 1999 novel East of A off the shelf for an overdue re-read, recalling that I enjoyed the book enough the first time around to earn a spot as a keeper in the writing lair’s over-stuffed bookcases. But there were other new arrivals on the to-be-read pile, and Atwood’s novel eased back into place.

But not this time. East Of A will get its re-read, so I can revisit NYC private eye Payton Sherwood, a man with more than his own share of backstory, who tries to help a teenage runaway, only to end up taking a beating from some street thugs and having the girl run off with his Rolodex. Call it noir, neo-noir, post-modern noir or whatever the hell you like – this one was damn good. Normally novels that feel like travelogues and spend too much time taking the reader on a tour of their setting can leave me wanting. Not East Of A and its gloriously gritty romp through after-hours clubs, drug dens and the underbelly of New York City, neatly conducting its guided tour by way of the storytelling. It left me wanting more.

Which is good, since J. Kingston Pierce’s 10.24.20 edition of The Rap Sheet Blog happened to be one of those long lists of newsworthy mystery/crime fiction miscellany (that post called “A Basket of Oddments”), including a mention of Atwood’s Payton Sherwood mysteries (East of A from 1999 and Losers Live Longer from ten years later), and the news that there’s some new Atwood work available, though not a Payton Sherwood crime novel this time. I suppose I’ll get Atwood’s new Apartment Five Is Alive a little late for Halloween, but I’ll still be in the mood for a haunted house (make that apartment) book.

In addition to being a writer, Atwood runs Blue Umbrella Books in his Westfield, Massachusetts hometown, which like many indie booksellers already had a tough enough time of making a go of things, and has taken a beating during the pandemic and its shut-downs. Apartment Five Is Alive can hopefully put some coin in the kitty. Hey, I’m in. 

For more (with links) about Russell Atwood and his books, head to The Rap Sheet blog, which if you don’t already, you really ought to. Link below…

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2020/08/the-book-you-have-to-read-east-of-by.html

Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary.

A couple posts back I mentioned Susan Shapiro’s article “Genre Fluidity” from the September/October issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. That’s genre, not gender, and while the piece largely dealt with rethinking in-progress projects for altogether different genres, the genre bending notion was top of mind while I concurrently wrapped up Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, The Book Of Lamps And Banners, a 2020 Mulholland Books hardcover, and a textbook example of “genre fluidity”.

I don’t recall if I bought Hand’s first Cass Neary novel, Generation Loss (2008), as soon as it came out or discovered it sometime later. All I remember is how completely surprised and utterly enthralled I was by the author’s addictive mix of (what might seem at first like) indulgent literary fiction with mystery/crime fiction…all dosed with an unexpected bit of dark fantasy. 

Or not. 

If you’ve read Hand’s Cass Neary novels, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…well, you just have to plunge in and see for yourself. 

To begin with, Cass Neary herself is a memorable mix, like those Just Kids Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe merged into one person, with a decadent and dangerous dash of Nan Goldin and Chrissie Hynde stirred in. Briefly a gallery scene darling for her stark and daring photos of New York’s new wave scene and the Big Apple’s rotten core, Soho salon sales and a now-collectible coffee table monograph’s money promptly went right up her nose and into her veins. After an extended stay in rehab, Cass emerged as a has-been, reduced to working in the Strand Bookstore in order to hold onto her rent-controlled apartment. Working the Strand’s stock room, that is, following some ‘incidents’ with customers.

Still fueled by a flirtation with any available substance and ever on a doomed quest to reunite with her soulmate, Quinn, the remnants of Cass’ reputation (or notoriety) drag her into mysterious situations and ever deepening danger from coastal Maine to Europe. Seemingly innocent assignments and chance meetings inevitably go bad and leave behind a frightening body count. By the second novel, she’s a person of interest to the U.S. authorities following the deadly aftermath of her brief stay in Maine. In the opening pages of The Book Of Lamps And Banners, Cass is skulking through London with a thousand stolen Euros and a fake passport, evading Interpol. Another ‘chance meeting’ (or is it?) finds her tagging along with an old stateside acquaintance, now a rare book dealer delivering a rare and priceless book of ancient dark magic. No surprise, the handoff doesn’t go down as planned, the buyer is murdered, and before the night is out, Cass is mixed up with a troubled young app developer, white supremacists, Nordic mysticists and murderers.  Like each of the Cass Neary novels, the line between reality and something ‘other’ is indistinct here, much of it filtered through her beloved Konica’s lens onto increasingly hard-to-come by Tri-X film. Though Cass Neary’s a flesh and blood person with all too-human foibles and addictions, photography is something nearly mystical for her, which may be why she winds up with weird earth goddess worshippers, Neo-Nazi ritualists and murderous madmen hunting for dark grimoires. 

Hard-boiled and classic mystery fans beware: There are no gumshoes here. No retired cops attending AA meetings in between solving crimes, no suburban caterers or chefs stumbling over dead bodies and definitely no kitty cats sniffing out crooks. Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary novels are unrelentingly dark and gritty, whether cruising rain-soaked London streets or stomping through eerie Swedish forests. Is she an investigator? Well, a reluctant – albeit determined – one, yes. But Cass Neary has more in common with Lou Reed than Lew Archer.

Elizabeth Hand’s The Book Of Lamps And Banners can deservedly be shelved in any bookstore’s Fiction & Literature section. It certainly should be cross-merchandised in the Mystery section. And some renegade booksellers will put it in their SF/Fantasy/Horror sections, and I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong. Hand blurs genre lines with a skill that mirrors her Cass Neary’s deft touch with the camera shutter. If I sound a little too fannish here, I’m not ashamed. For me, The Book Of Lamps And Banners was a literate neo-noir masterpiece, as each of the prior Cass Neary novels has been, and it’ll be a long, long wait for the next one, presuming that Elizabeth Hand will grace us with another. 

The Phineas Poe Trilogy.

Don’t let a noir protagonist’s quirky name fool you. Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe is not Auguste Dupin or Hercule Poirot. Hell, he’s not even Mike Hammer or Jessica Jones. The mean streets of Manhattan or L.A. have nothing on Phineas Poe’s darkest nightmares. If you want to read something uplifting – or at least reassuring – move on. The closest familiar comparison I can offer you to Baer’s three Phineas Poe novels would be Peter Medak’s unrelentingly dark (and almost surreal) 1993 neo-noir thriller Romeo Is Bleeding, scripted by Hilary Henkin.   

Baer’s Phineas Poe is a former cop and drug addict fresh from the psych ward and promptly mixed up with Jude, a classic noir femme fatale who abandons him (and I won’t tell you precisely what he discovers has occurred when he awakes to find her gone), and his tortuous, violence filled quest to find her – to reunite, to rescue her or to seek revenge – takes Poe on a dark journey through drug induced dreams and violent episodes populated by two-bit crooks, Goths, hackers, sociopaths and killers. It all plays out in a nightmare landscape that may be Denver, Colorado and desert-noir Texas, but is more like Dante’s nine circles of hell. Sound like fun?

It is. Oh, it really, really is. 

There are three Phineas Poe novels: Kiss me, Judas (1998), Hell’s Half Acre (2000) and Penny Dreadful (2004), each readily available individually both new and used and also conveniently offered in three-novel omnibus editions. The reader may take a while to adjust to Baer’s writing style, its rapid-paced yet surreal language and almost bratty taunting with ‘normal’ structure, punctuation and grammar. But a few pages in, Baer’s dark poetry will have you hooked, and structural norms largely forgotten. 

I was shocked to discover Baer’s Phineas Poe books (individual editions and one omnibus…I’m not a collector but always acquisitive) missing from the writing lair’s too-many and overstuffed bookcases, presumably squeezed out by new additions at some point in recent years. Shame on me. But that’s a mistake that’s easily rectified. I have Greg Levin’s Criminal Element article “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” (see the preceding post) to thank for prompting me to look for my Baer books and to order new ones right away. There’ll be other new books ahead of Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy, but now I can’t wait to get really weirded out all over again.

Dark, Dangerous And Crazy-Good.

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable looked ready to topple over by late August, mystery/crime fiction titles strangely absent in the imposing stack. Though I expected late Summer to be short on reading time (due to day job and daily life stuff rudely intruding) I’ve managed to work through most of the heap, from a depressing list of current events/politics titles to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste – The Origins Of Our Discontents, and winding up with a real change of pace for me, Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger’s new anthology Weird Women – Classic Supernatural Fiction By Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852 – 1923. But even while I whittled the pile down, I’d phoned in over a dozen new books to the local indie for curbside pickups, ordered a few more direct from their specialty press publishers, and still more – ‘pre-owned’ books and POD-only editions – from the Seattle behemoth. Some of these are showing up quicker than expected, the to-be-read pile re-growing quickly. 

‘Course, that doesn’t mean I can’t always make room for more…

Linked via Crime Reads, Greg Levin’s 9.9.20 “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” at Criminal Element (link below) was just what I needed to help with the replenishing. Levin looks at a dozen edgy contemporary noir writers, like Sara Gran, one of my faves, though as much as I love her Claire DeWitt series, her third novel Dope (2006) eclipses even those for me and remains one of my all-time beloved books. Craig Clevenger, Lindsay Hunter, Holly Goddard Jones and others have spent time on that same to-be-read pile in the past, and Levin’s article prompted me to add a couple of them to my current book ordering frenzy (have to get ready for Autumn, don’t I?) even if they’ll be re-reads. But in particular, Levin prompted me to look at Will Christopher Baer, maybe the darkest on his neo-noir list, and for me, way overdue for a re-read. More about Baer’s magnificent Phineas Poe novels in the next post…

O’Neill’s Neo-Noir Style.

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Self-taught painter Peter O’Neill grabbed a Greyhound bus at New York City’s Port Authority in 1996 and never looked back, bound for Florida, where I believe he’s made his home since. In fact, many of his paintings seem to evoke that same South Florida sultriness lifted from a steamy neo-noir like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Body Heat.  More of O’Neill’s work follows in the next post…

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Three Out Of Five Ain’t Bad: Lansdale’s More Better Deals.

More Better Deals

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable was five books-high when my first two choices turned out to be real stinkers, one a painfully indulgent bit of rambling and plotless literary fiction, the other presumably mis-shelved in a bookstore’s mystery section, revealing itself as a pretty distasteful bit of crime-free erotica (I swear, the cover art made it look like a neo-noir thriller).

But, as the post’s title says, three out of five ain’t bad, particularly when those three were welcome treats after back-to-back (but un-named here) disappointments. First up:

Think of a James M. Cain novel seething with adultery and deceit, but filtered through someone like Orrie Hitt. Then think of that being fully reimagined by expert storyteller and wordsmith Joe R. Lansdale, and that’s what his More Better Deals (2020 Mulholland/Hatchette) is. Oh sure, you’ve been down this road before. But, always remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

In a vaguely early 1960’s nameless East Texas locale, Ed Edwards unloads overpriced junkers at Smiling Dave’s used car lot, his boss, customers – everyone in town, actually – unaware he’s the light-skinned son of a long-gone African-American father and a white trailer-trash alcoholic mother. Half-heartedly trying to help his similarly light-skinned younger sister while pointlessly daydreaming about something better than his own humdrum life, Ed meets trouble in a short black dress and heels — aiming a twelve gauge his way — when he attempts to repossess her boorish and abusive husband’s Cadillac.

Mrs. Nancy Craig’s a classic femme fatale fashioned from the long literary and cinematic history of desirable but deadly women who’ve manipulated foolish men with sex and the promise of money to share, so it’s no surprise when Ed Edwards is soon in deep: Plotting murder ala Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, reluctantly turned into a kidnapper when murder fails to pay off, and even stirring up trouble that puts years of ‘passing’ at risk.

Taking advantage of a slow Summer workday, I left the day job early this past Friday, started More Better Deals ‘round mid-afternoon and continued to devour this novel straight through dinner and deep into the wee hours, unable to put it down.  ‘It’s a real page-turner’ and all that…oh, that it is. With frustrating memories of that plotless bit of literary fiction still fresh in my head, it was pure joy to dive into a novel that took me by the hand right from page one and introduced engaging (if downright awful) characters descending deeper and deeper into a cesspool of lust laced with suspicion, double-dealing that leads to death. That Lansdale accomplishes this with an economy of words (yet never failing to paint a fully rendered picture of each locale) merely testifies to his skill. I challenge a reader to point out any paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that could be dispensed with. It’s the kind of writing I might aspire to but simply lack the talent to match (but I can keep on hoping…right?).

Call it “desert noir” or “rural noir” if you like, but More Better Deals is “Noir” at its purest, gifting readers with sizzle and violence, but ultimately grappling with much sadder, darker and woefully inevitable doom.

So, if I haven’t made my point yet, go get the damn book and read it.

(BTW: I’ve scanned my hardcover twice now, but it keeps showing up in red. The book’s really a two-color hot orange and brown design, in case you’re looking for it.) 

Love Is A Weapon.

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It’s said that director Phil Karlson joked, “we took The Maltese Falcon and we did The Maltese Falcon…in our own way”.

That might be stretching it a bit, but if you get a chance to see Paramount’s Hell’s Island (originally titled Love Is A Weapon, a much better and more accurate title, I think), you’ll see what Karlson meant. Shot in Technicolor and Vista-Vision, Hell’s Island is one of several mid-1950’s crime and romantic suspense films that seem to point the way – visually, at least – to what would become neo-noir years later…specifically, how to capture film noir’s ominous and foreboding darkness in richly saturated hues. It’d be nice to watch a crisp and clean version of this movie, but aside from an incompatible format European DVD, all I’ve come up with are the online versions. Even so, it’s well worth viewing.

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The opening credits roll over a violent shootout and cut to late-era noir stalwart John Payne on the operating table about to get a bullet dug out of his shoulder. A police detective squeezes in between the surgeon and nurses to light a cigarette for Payne (who’s apparently not under anesthesia…and allowed to smoke in the operating room). In classic film noir fashion, Payne launches into a voice-over narration about how he wound up there.

He’s Mike Cormack, who lost it all just a year earlier when his lifelong love Janie Erskine concluded that marriage to a dashing Caribbean pilot had more appeal than life with a struggling Los Angeles assistant D.A. Seven months spent drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze didn’t help Cormack get over being jilted, but it did cost him his career, and now he’s a glorified Las Vegas casino bouncer. There he meets a Sydney Greenstreet/Kaspar Gutman clone played by Francis L. Sullivan in one of his last roles, an unsavory wheelchair bound manipulator with a borderline illegal proposition: A grand upfront and four more to follow if Cormack will go to Puerto Rosario to look for a precious carved Madonna ruby, stolen from the local museum and presumed lost when the smugglers’ plane crashed on takeoff. Why Cormack for this peculiar mission? Because the pilot was none other than the glamorous flyboy who stole Cormack’s girl.

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To say too much about the twists and turns that peel off one after another once Cormack makes it to Puerto Rosario would be cheating. Just know that Cormack and Janie do meet up, the silver screen could just about melt once they do, and soon enough the bodies start piling up…culminating in the climactic shootout with Cormack lighting one cigarette after another on the operating table. And Janie being led away by the law into a waiting police van.

Not everyone’s a John Payne fan, but I like him just fine in this and similar roles. Mind you, if Paramount had snagged Robert Mitchum for this role instead, I wouldn’t complain. But the real revelation here is Mary Murphy as Janie Erskine (now Jane Martin). Known more for ingenue, pioneer woman and small-town girl roles, Murphy’s Janie deploys both vulnerability and duplicity wrapped in a steamy allure in order to get what she wants, and when that fails, is ready with a loaded automatic to seal the deal. There’ve been much bigger stars, more memorable heroines and evil villainesses in film noir, but only a few who can match this character’s cold bloodedness. Hell’s Island is worth looking for just to watch Murphy at work.

“Sometimes, love is a weapon,” John Payne’s Mike Cormack is told near the end of the film as he finally begins to realize that he’s been played right from the beginning. Indeed it is, particularly when it’s wielded by someone like Mary Murphy’s memorably dangerous dame.

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