Thursday, July 31, 2014

A STAB IN THE DARK by Lawrence Block


*Book 4 of the Matthew Scudder series*

It's going to get harder and harder writing fresh reviews for these Lawrence Block novels. Once again he has written a solid piece of detective mystery fiction in this latest installment in his Matthew Scudder series, about an ex-cop who lives a lonely life in a hotel room in Manhattan and does "favors" for people as an unlicensed private investigator. In this novel, Scudder takes on a nine-year old cold case after a serial killer is finally caught, and confesses to all of his suspected killings except for one. Now that dead girl's father can't rest until he finds out the truth behind her murder, which is now nearly a decade old. 

I'm four novels into the Scudder series and I've yet to be disappointed. It has another compelling mystery, layers of Matt's character continues to be laid, and the writing continues to be solid. It's impressive how consistent Block has been so far. I love how throughout the series you start to slowly realize, along with Matthew himself, how serious his drinking problem really is, although he continues to deny it. If this series gets even better than this, Lawrence Block might become one of my favorites!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammet


This is the one that started it all. Dashiell Hammet's novel basically popularized the hard-boiled detective story. Hammet's detective Sam Spade paved the way for Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer Matthew Scudder, and Easy Rawlins. The classic story follows private dick Spade after he learns that his partner has been murdered working a case. In trying to figure out who did it, he gets entangled with a bunch of low-life criminals who are all after an ugly black bird statue that supposedly worth tons of money.

There's not much you can say about this one that hasn't already been said. Although it failed to blow me away due to the fact that the plot is so familiar in this day and age, it's an indisputable classic, and undoubtedly essential reading for any lover of crime fiction.

Great hard-boiled dialogue:
“He said: 'I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you." He cleared his throat. "If they hang you I'll always remember you.'"

Friday, July 25, 2014

PICK-UP by Charles Willeford


Man, that was depressing! A bleak and nihilistic look at a destructive relationship and the negative effects of alcoholism. I imagine that if David Goodis and Jim Thompson teamed up to write the screenplay for the movie Days of Wine and Roses, they would've churned out this novel!

Failed painter and alcoholic Harry Jordan meets a pretty blonde lush named Helen in the bar and grill where he works. They almost instantly fall head over heels for each other, but anyone with common sense can tell that their relationship is doomed and will be mutually destructive, feeding off of one another's depression and their unhealthy need for alcohol and each other. They soon start down a dangerous path of self-destruction.

The synopsis reads like a standard hard-boiled noir novel but Willeford puts his own spin on it. The femme fatale is as tragic as the protagonist she "seduces",  and Willeford treats the plot elegantly and with little melodrama. The book is carefully crafted, with the author doling out exposition and back-story about Harry just when it's necessary.

And then there's the, that ending! I won't spoil it here, but I'll say that one moment, I'm finishing up an already well-written noir about alcoholism and doomed love, and the next, I read the last two lines and it drops a bomb, changing the entire way I viewed the story, making me want to read it again. Some people may see it as a cheap gimmick but I disagree, while a gimmick ending like the one in the movie The Usual Suspects negates the entire rest of the movie, I think that this book can still work without it, and it acts as a cherry on top, forcing you to consider the story from a whole new angle!

This is my first book by Charles Willeford. I've heard that in most of his novels he takes interesting new looks at the hard-boiled noir genre. If any of them are even close to being as awesome as Pick-up, I can't wait to read them!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

VALDEZ IS COMING by Elmore Leonard


Quiet, part-time town constable Roberto Valdez is called in when a mob has tracked down a black man who is accused by Tanner, a rich businessman in town, of being an Army deserter and murderer. Roberto tries to diffuse the situation and is forced to shoot the man, who was holed up in a house with his pregnant girlfriend and turned out to be totally innocent. When Valdez goes to Tanner to ask for reparations for the man's wife, Tanner's crew beats Roberto and tries to crucify him, leaving him for dead. They should have made sure they finished the job. Because everyone in town underestimated him. And only a few remember that Bob Valdez used to be a real badass back in the day, and when he comes for you, he comes strong. He's already tried to talk to them as civilized men but they wouldn't listen. But this time, maybe they'll listen to bullets.

This early Elmore Leonard western showcases the same lean and witty prose that eventually made his later crime novels so popular. Sparse and direct writing work so well with Western fiction, and Leonard was one of the best writers in the genre. There are not many wasted pages in the book and I love the classic tale of a man who has shelved his violent past, but must bring it back in order to right a major wrong. A fast and enjoyable read.

Thursday, July 17, 2014



After reading the fierce first chapter, I was totally surprised to discover that this book was written in 1938! The novel is just as dark, violent, and explicit as anything written today, and I enjoyed every page of it! I can see why the book was such a hit and such a controversy at the same time when it was released. It wasn't until after I finished the first chapter, that I realized that I was reading a revised version of the novel, "updated" by the author for more modern audiences in the mid-60's. After skimming through passages from the original text, I was shocked to find out that the language and some of the content was softened tremendously! When I read hard-boiled noir, I don't want it soft, I want it as hard as can be! So I paused my reading to track down the only edition that I could find with the original text, and that was this one

Described as a "shocking tale of vile, ruthless, gangsterism," it tells the story of the kidnapping and ransoming of the beautiful, innocent, unnamed daughter of millionaire John Blandish. The girl ends up in the hands of the infamous old lady Ma Grissom, and her gang of thieves and killers, including her psychotic son and knife-man Slim Grissom. Months later, the girl has still not been found and her father hires private dick Dave Fenner to find out what happened to her. Her father partly hopes she is dead, because if she isn't, one can only imagine what the Grissom gang has been doing to poor Miss Blandish.

The novel is well-plotted, fast-paced and never boring, with raw and lurid details and vivid characters in the villainous gangsters.  My jaw definitely dropped a few times at the horror of the story and the situation that Miss Blandish was in, being a rich girl that has always been protected by the terrors of the world, being suddenly thrust into something that might ruin her innocence completely. And that ending? Jeez...stuck in my head for days...

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

OF TENDER SIN by David Goodis

"It began with a shattered dream"
This awesome opening line sets the tone for this brooding, melancholy, fever-dream of a novel, par
for the course for a David Goodis book. The book is a bit more bizarre than anything else I've read by Goodis, and it follows normal, working square Alvin Darby, who, in bed one night, has a nervous breakdown and begins to be haunted by and obsessed with platinum blonde hair. The cause of this might be his recurring memory of the blonde hair of his older sister, who he was obsessed with when he was a child. This naturally affects his relationship with his brunette wife Vivian, who can't seem to understand why for weeks, Alvin has been unable to get it up and make love to her. After his breakdown, things get worse after Alvin overhears Vivian on the phone with another man, and he journeys out, with incestual memories and murder on his mind, onto the snowy streets of Philly's Skid Row; streets filled with alcohol, cocaine, flophouses, blackmailers, and gold-digging tramps with platinum blonde hair.
“Winter was gray and mean upon the city and every night was a package of cold bleak hours, like the hours in a cell that had no door.”
If this sounds to you like a real downer of a book, then you're right, it is. But that's what you should expect from the poet of despair, David Goodis. But as usual his writing is so poetic and evocative, you can't help but he riveted, and eager to follow the main character as he falls deeper into darkness. If you read a Goodis book expecting a standard noir, you'll be pleasantly surprised or terribly disappointed. His novels never have standard villains like crime bosses or serial killers, but most of the antagonizing comes from the inner demons of the protagonists themselves. The action and suspense in Of Tender Sin is more emotional and psychological, with the main character struggling to confront his paranoia, fetishes, sexual insecurities, and feelings of helplessness. In this way, the book reminded me a lot of my favorite Stanley Kubrick movie, Eyes Wide Shut, that dealt with a very similar journey for the main character. This book feels like it was written in a few nights of inspired, manic writing sessions, where I can imagine Goodis typing away in the late hours, binging on wine, whiskey, and cigarettes. This quality makes the plotting feel a bit rushed and uneven but it also gives the book a very earnest, energized feel. The book probably has the very best prose that I've read so far in a Goodis novel, with passages just pulsing with mood and imagery.
"Under the blanket the outline of her body was slender and displayed a certain innocence, a precious quality far more significant than the elegance of her form. She seemed to radiate kindness and essential goodness, and Darby, trying to measure the value of her, told himself it was immeasurable."