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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ross MacDonald With a Drawl

Love You to a Pulp
By C.S. DeWildt
128 pages
ISBN: 1508483817
(All Due Respect Books; February 13, 2015)
Ebook Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

A peek into a lurid underworld of crooked cops,
unethical lawyers, psychopathic 
shitkickers and backwoods succubae

Neil Chase is one of the most unique characters to inhabit a recent crime novel: a hillbilly private eye equally at home huffing glue or sipping shine, he exists in a nightmarish Southern Gothic milieu in which he finds it easy to make “two enemies for every client he served.”

As Chase’s creator, C.S. DeWildt, puts it, the people in the peeper’s home town, Brownsville, Kentucky, “weren’t swimming in cash and most of them found Neil’s services could be done themselves for the price of a six pack, a baseball bat and a shadow.”

Despite the scarcity of clients, Chase gets by, spending roughly 22 of every 24 hours snooping in the affairs of his shitkicker neighbors and struggling to come to terms with a life shaped by his abusive father, violent upbringing and long-dead sweetheart.

In Love You to a Pulp, Chase is hired by a local pharmacist who deals illicit OxyContin on the side. His assignment: finding the druggist’s daughter, who has taken up with a local redneck. 

The redneck ends up dead – a not very convincing suicide – and the daughter disappears, leading Neil into a lurid underworld of crooked cops, unethical lawyers, psychopathic shitkickers and backwoods succubae, all seeking dirty money – and often following a twisted fantasy of revenge.

The path is violent, amoral and claustrophobic – literally, since at one point, Chase is trapped with a pair of dead bodies in a riverside cave populated by crickets, crawdads and other crawly critters.

“Neil woke in his bed and realized it was still made of rock. He’d lost time, found only space and blackness. He began to hum for some noise. He pushed hard against rock and his chest ached. He focused all energy into the floor. If he could break it further, give him a few inches, just two, he would be free. Free to what? Free to be lost in the blackness.”

In the fashion of good noir, the characters in this story are doomed by their own greed, lust and lack of ethical underpinnings, even Neil, whose backstory, in the form of flashbacks, is skillfully woven into the narrative of his search for the missing girl.  The book plays out like Ross MacDonald with a drawl:  key characters have intertwining histories and illicit connections; sex is as much a weapon as a shotgun or a Army model Colt automatic, and forced prostitution, incest and backwoods perversion are offered as substitutes for love.

C.S.DeWildt: Every dollar you ever hold has blood in its very printing.
Just not everybody gets a posse for their trouble.

In some passages, DeWildt, author of Candy and Cigarettes and a contributor to such e-pulp publications as Out of the Gutter and All Due Respect, emulates the hallucinatory nature of a huffer’s high, spinning out scenes that seem to be experienced through a glue-sniffer’s eyes and ears.

In others, he achieves a lyricism rarely seen in genre fiction. At one point, for example, Neil is listening to a radio while he and his father, Lester, wait for a client to finish having commercial sex with Neil’s mother, a local prostitute.

“The radio was broken and trapped in AM mode. Stuck in the cassette deck was a dubbed copy of Dark Side of the Moon, magnetic tape snapped long ago after hundreds of plays. Neil spun the dial, caught bits of fire and brimstone, oldies crackling with static, farm reports. Finally his daddy turned off the radio without a word and the two sat in silence, eyes on the brick fa├žade and the dim window on the third floor.”

DeWildt evokes one of the young Neil’s hunting rambles with a handful of well-chosen words:

“It was almost spite that kept Lester in the woods, and Neil with him, following the tiny tracks in the mud and letting Jessup the broken mutt flush them out of whatever patch of brush or cane they were hiding in, back to the river where Lester would pop off shots with the twenty-two until the water had sprung a red leak.”

“ ‘Vermin,’ Lester would say. ‘They’d kill you if they had the sense. Don’t feel nothin’ for them.’ ”

Similarly, in another passage, DeWildt conjures the solitary Neil’s wait for his father to return to the shotgun shack they share:

“Neil would sit in the garage with Jessup and pick the ticks from the dog’s ears and neck and legs, crushing each of the flattened suckers and trying to be the killer he wanted to be, while at the same time feeling a spiritual prod, the need to offer up the ticks in sacrificial tribute to the animals his daddy had killed. He lit a small fire in a coffee can and dropped the ticks into the flame one after the other. They popped like corn kernels as their insides boiled to steam heat that cracked their hard, shining skeletons.”

As Neil’s search continues, the bodies pile up like cords of firewood alongside a cabin in the forest. 

The trail, torturous and brutal, always seems to lead back to the same things: jealousy, greed – and dirty money, cash as toxic and addictive as the illicit drugs sold by the crooked pharmacist.

DeWildt doesn’t tell us this. He doesn’t have to. Neil’s father underscores the point by telling him the story of Henry McGrath, a figure from Brownsville’s past who traded his wife to other men in payment for some unnamed illegal activity.  The woman was forced to service the men sexually while her son, still at breast, looked on.

“Now I don’t know,” Daddy said, “what caused McGrath to be the way he was, the kind of man he was. But it ain’t worth debating the natural versus unnatural. What is in nature is of nature. . .”

“What happened to the boy?” Neil said. 

Lester crushed the cigarette between thumb and finger with a calloused hiss. He dropped the remainder in to his shirt pocket. “Died,” the man said. “Swept away down the river. His mama too.”

“And the men?”

“Dead. Shot by the law. For thieving.”

“That’s where the money came from? They stole it?”

“It’s all stolen from somewhere,” Lester tells him. “Every dollar you ever hold has blood in its very printing. Just not everybody gets a posse for their trouble.”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sayle’s Antho Offers An Entire Pocketful of Surprises!

By Ryan Sayles
(Zelmer Pulp; 2013)
Amazon eBook, 2013

Ryan Sayles, an editor at Zelmer Pulp, the independent imprint that publishes noir, horror, sci-fi and western stories, is full of surprises. In fact, his anthology, That Escalated Quickly! has one in almost every story.

Each of them will put a smile on your face. “Damn!” you’ll think. “I should have seen that one coming.”

But you never do. That’s what makes them surprises.

The book came out in December 2013, but I only learned of Ryan’s existence through Facebook last year.  Afterward I started looking for his stuff in All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, the Gutter Book/Zelmer antho Trouble in the Heartland,  Dark Corners Pulp and the Zelmer noir collection, Maybe I Should Just Shoot You in the Face.

I really wanted to check out his novel, The Subtle Art of Brutality (Snubnose; 2012), but the damned thing is only out in paperback and I haven’t been able to locate a copy.

Ryan Sayles, editor at Zelmer Pulp, novelist and short story writer

Doesn’t matter – That Escalated Quickly will hold me until Brutality turns up someplace for sale.

The 22 stories in this collection run the gamut from “Formula and Meth,” a simple yarn about a lap-dancer in a gyp-joint who runs headlong into massive karma when her night is done, to “Douche,” a story about a guy with a dead body on his hands that turns out to be not quite as dead as he thought.

In “Squeezing,” the very first yarn in the book, a man is pinned down by gunfire on a college campus when a sniper attacks, randomly shooting passersby. Sayles captures the panicky atmosphere perfectly:

“I taste adrenaline like that sour mash from a bad handover. My heart pummeling like a death metal drummer. Everything tunes up. . . One minute you’re on a college campus struggling for a passing grade in Calculus, the next minute some dude pulls out a rifle and goes ape shit.”

The story unfolds in quick bites that are jump-cut together like a rock music video. He gives you just enough information – highlighting the confusion by serving it up in tiny chunks – to keep you as far off balance as the first-person narrator, trying to figure out what’s going on and why.

When you find out, your jaw clanks so far open that it bounces off your instep.

“Damn,” you think. “I should have seen that one coming.”

And then there’s “Oh, Amanda. How I Will Reclaim Thee,” a little tale about a man who has waited long to connect with the woman he adores, only to finally get the chance when her husband, Paul, has an adulterous fling and divorces her for a younger woman.

You know from the lover’s internal conversation with himself that his lustful feelings have gone unrequited for many years, and it is quickly made clear that his obsession with the woman is unhealthy:

“I figure the first thing we will do when we tie the knot is burn down the house she and Paul lived in. Obvious enough, it seems. It represents too much to me to leave it standing. For a long time I figured the same fate would befall the church that married them also, but now, thinking with a much clearer head and better perspective, I think if that same church married us it would even out. Makes sense. Of course I’d make sure every last trace of Paul was inside the inferno as it goes up. We can make our own home, our own memories at our own home. But I will not fill our house with evidence of him. Why start off on a leg that bad?”

But it isn’t until the last hundred words or so that realize how unhealthy his obsession is -- or why.

Once again you’ll think, “Damn. I should have seen that one coming.”

When you finish reading each of these tales, you will find yourself shaking your head gently and smiling like Bill Murray does in “Tootsie” when Dustin Hoffman pulls off his wig on nationwide TV and ad libs a finale to his stint as a female soap star.

Only you won’t say, “That’s one nutty hospital,” like Murray did. No way.

You’ll say, “Damn. I should have seen that one coming, too.”

My advice: when you see That Escalated Quickly coming, grab a copy for yourself. You'll find yourself surprised time and again.

The one thing that won’t surprise you is how good these stories are.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Despite the Name, When it Comes to Noir, Things Aren't Simply Black or White

I sometimes am amazed at the nit-picking that takes place among serious genre readers and the quarrels they become involved in over the terminology used in their specialties.

For example, there is a group page in Facebook about a particular fiction genre in which one member incessantly lectures other members about vagaries of what can be called "pulp." To this individual, pulp has not existed since magazines that used cheap paper went out of business several decades ago. Pulpy as they may have been, the paperback books that featured such heroes as Remo Williams and Mack Boland don't fit into his definition.

Similarly, in a Goodreads group I belong to, the same sort of nit-picking dispute loomed until the moderator dumped the member who insisted his pedantic definition of noir was the only possible one. To this fellow, noir was a form that only existed until around 1959. A detective story couldn't be noir. Neither could a police procedural. He even nit-picked films that were advertised as noir: if it was in color, it couldn't be noir.

I was talking with C.T. McNeely, one of my friends and editors (Dark Corners Pulp, Double Life Press), some time ago about the difference between literature that is properly called noir and that which is known as hardboiled and he referred to Eddie Muller's characterization of noir as "working class tragedy," picking up on Dennis Lehane's comment that "In Greek tragedy, they fall from great heights . . . In noir, they fall from the curb."

These cross-cutting definitions are in an essay at the end of The Wrong Goodbye, one of Chris Holms' marvelous Collector novels. But Holms goes on to say,"For my money, noir boils down to bleak humanism – or, to put it more plainly: shit options, bad decisions, and dire consequences. The difference between Greek tragedy and noir ain't the height of the fall, but the reason: those who fall in Greek tragedy do so because they're destined to; those who fall in noir choose to. . . In short, free will's a bitch."

I find all three authors' definitions only partly satisfactory.

Dennis Lehane
To me, what makes a story noir is, first of all, the interplay between free will, the unintended or unforseen consequences of its exercise and something that Muller, Lehane and Holm ignore in these quotes: fate. In noir, the plot is a machine that is designed to grind out sausage. And the machine is going to grind out whatever sort of sausage it has been set up to make, not the ribeye steaks that the characters of the story hope for.

The machine is inexorable. The machine can't be stopped, slowed or diverted. It is going to do what it does regardless of what the protagonist or protagonists want it to do. This creates a nightmarish atmosphere where those unintended consequences not only play out in front of our major characters, but can't be prevented or ameliorated.

In other words, the characters in noir are doomed in the classic sense of the term: they have free will, but they are forced to exercise it within a fixed framework they can't control. That's fate.

The characters actions damn them to certain consequences almost from the beginning. This is why Chinatown actually IS noir, regardless of the fact that the film is in color, was made after 1959, and has a detective as its central focus. 

It doesn't matter what people may think of it: Mrs. Mulwray is trapped in her situation, as is her daughter; Private Eye Jake Gittes starts the machine, consequences be damned, and finds himself being crushed by it. The machine -- in this case, the combine dominated by Noah Cross -- rolls over him, just as it rolls over Evelyn Mulwray, her daughter/sister Katharine, her husband, Hollis.

Literary noir has the same characteristics as cinematic noir. Look at Down There, the David Goodis novel on which the film "Shoot the Piano Player" is based: the protagonist is a man who has bungled his big chance at happiness and lost the love of his life. His response has been to withdraw from the world. 

But his sordid family connections and his attraction to a woman who is an innocent, draws him back into involvement. 

David Goodis

Once the machine is in gear, the unintended consequences occur and the innocent woman is killed as a result. The protagonist, like Gittes, thought he could beat the system. He was wrong.

The house always wins in this type of gambling; that's the nature of noir.