About Me

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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. . .

Friday, September 10, 2010

Damage Control

By William E. Wallace

               “What can I bring you tonight?”

               The waitress was cool, a redhead: she seemed friendly enough in that distant sort of way people in the service industries often are, but her eyes let me know that her smile was strictly professional. That was okay with me;  I would rather have indifference than the phony intimacy a lot of people who sling drinks and food think passes for good service. 

               I had been planning to order a glass of chardonnay, practically the only thing on the drinks menu I could actually afford but I decided for no good reason to indulge myself.

               “Bring me a Stolichnaya, over,” I said. “No – make it a double. With lime, please.”

               When she left, I surveyed the crowd. Even though it wasn’t quite five o’clock, the joint was already full; mostly young people, drinking cocktails with names I could only guess at.

               You get parochial when you do most of your drinking in shot-and-a-beer places.  There’s something to be said for wanting an alcoholic beverage that’s carefully thought through and lovingly crafted. It shows a degree of sophistication, a cosmopolitan attitude.

               Me? I just want a drink that gives me a good hard right in the solar plexus and then starts clouding everything up a half hour later. That’s why I drink in bars where most everybody is looking for brand-name hooch with a piss-poor but intoxicating back like Pabst Blue Ribbon.

               The waitress came back with my Stoli, solo, on her tray.  She put it on the table and cleared her throat quietly, waiting for me to pay.

               I couldn’t pretend I didn’t notice her, not and pick up the drink, anyway. “Can I start a tab?” I asked. “I’m waiting for two . . . business associates.  They should get here in a minute or so.”

               I didn’t really like calling Spilf and Carmody “business associates,” though I suppose the term fit them as well as anything else would. The term suggested that they were friends of mine, which they weren’t.  “Business antagonists” might have been a better fit, though I wasn’t actually in a business where they could antagonize me anymore.

                She had apparently spotted me for a deadbeat from the jump, however, and she wasn’t inclined to test her judgment by trusting me.

               “I can start a tab, but I need a card to give the bartender,” she said, so coolly that she frosted my eyelashes. “Do you have a card?”

               She didn’t pose the question in an accusing way, but she gave it enough of an edge to let me know she was serious.

               “Tell you what?” I said smiling and putting a Jackson in her tray. “I expect to spend some time with these gentlemen talking about a business arrangement.  I’ll let them give you a card, later, while we’re chatting.  For now, I’ll pay my own way.”

               She gave me a smile as thin as orphanage gruel and disappeared with the bill.  I sighed. Until my unemployment insurance arrived at the end of the week, that twenty and three others with Washington’s mug on them were all I had in my billfold. I hoped she would bring me some change.

               When she returned, she had a five and two ones on her tray and I groaned inwardly. I was going to have to make it through Thursday and Friday with only ten dollars.  I could barely afford two Happy Meals.

               Fortunately, Carmody and Spilf chose that moment to show up and the first thing Spilf told the waitress was “keep the liquor coming and bring us a bar menu, honey.”

               She looked at him warily. “Do you have a card?” she asked with obvious skepticism.

               He tossed one onto the tray with a smile that seemed to say he could hardly wait for her to ask.  It was an Amex platinum.   


               “So Cyrus,” Carmody said, settling into a chair. “How’s retirement?”

               I gave him a sneer. “I didn’t retire,” I said. “I got canned along with 35 other people, almost all of whom were making at least a hundred a week more than Guild scale.  When you retire, they give you a watch and a speech.  We just got the shaft.”

               “Found anything new since you left the paper?”

               I shrugged. “Not really,” I said. “I get a nibble here, a nibble there, but nothing seems to gel.”

               “How’s your money situation?” Spilf asked.

               My exasperated expression should have told him all he needed to know but just in case he didn’t get the hint, I added, “It sucks.”

               He and Carmody exchanged glances that looked like they had been practicing them all day long.  I could almost imagine them working it out in that columbarium Carmody occupied at City Hall.

               “I’m sure it breaks what you two have that passes for hearts to hear how well I’m doing,” I said. “So are you finished gloating over how I got screwed? Have you got something to propose or did you just arrange this meeting so you could catch me at my low point?”

               Spilf looked at Carmody with mock surprise.  “Do we look like the kind of guys who would kick a guy when he’s down, Cy?” he asked. “I mean, come on now. Really.”

               “Yeah, Cyrus,” Carmody tossed in with a perfectly straight face. “I thought we were just three old acquaintances getting together for a drink or two.”

               “Can the bullshit, guys,” I said. “The last time I had contact with you two assholes, you were trying to spin your way out of the laundered campaign contributions your guy Petrovsky got from the garbage company in the mayor’s election. That was nearly four years ago. We aren’t exactly big buddy fuckers, are we?”

               My story had cut Petrovsky’s lead by nearly 20 percent, but he won anyway, primarily because he was running against a field of opponents who couldn’t find their way out of a pay toilet with a road map and a compass.

               “The only reason you would want to meet with me is if you thought I could do something for you,” I said. “But I don’t have a paper any more and I don’t have a job.  So there must be something else you think you can get out of me.”

               Spilf looked at Carmody with a grin. “He’s not as stupid as you always said he was, Bob,” he told his partner with a chuckle. Turning back to me, he continued: “Yeah – we have a job to offer you, and its right up your alley.  Let’s have drinks, steaks and a bottle of wine or two while we line things out for you and see whether you are interested. You get drunk and eat well whether you say yes or no, okay?”

               I smiled for the first time since they had appeared. “I’m here to listen boys,” I told them. “Can you throw me a little raw meat right now though.  Are you going to ask me to do something illegal?”

               Carmody laughed. “No,” he said. “It’s legal. Mostly anyway. What we want you to do is real simple and basically on the level.”

               I waited for it.

               Spilf had the zinger: “You know the guy running against Petrovsky this time? We want you to destroy his reputation.”


Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Serious Over-Reacher

Jack Reacher

Paramount, 2012

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Screenplay by McQuarrie based on a novel by Lee Child

Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog and Robert Duvall

If you put a welterweight into the ring with a light heavyweight, the chances are, he is going to get his ass kicked. Yet supersleuth Jack Reacher (as portrayed by all 5’ 7” and 147 pounds of actor Tom Cruise) beats down five goons outside a bar without breaking a sweat in the film Jack Reacher (based on the novel One Shot by Jim Grant, writing under the pen-name, Lee Child). 

A short time afterward, the unarmed Reacher takes out a pair of heavyweights equipped with a crow bar and an aluminum baseball bat while searching a run-down Pittsburgh house – even though the thugs get in the first lick, a shot to Reacher’s head with the bat that is solid enough to draw blood. He then disarms a third man who gets the drop on him with a semiautomatic pistol. 

Toward the end of the film, he takes on an entire construction crew packing fully automatic assault weapons with nothing more than a large rock.

You may be starting to see the main problem I had with the movie: the diminutive Cruise is simply not tall enough, heavy enough or muscular enough to do the kind of physical damage that Reacher does to the thugs in this film.

Aside from his stature, Cruise makes a pretty fair Reacher.  He doesn’t waste a lot of words, gets off some cracks that had me laughing out loud (probably to the annoyance of the handful of other viewers sitting in the nearly empty theater where I saw the movie) and is fairly convincing as a street-smart investigator who spots clues missed by the cops in an apparently open-and-shut mass murder case.

And the film is certifiably entertaining. It is fast-paced,  well photographed and edited, with sharp, classy intercutting – and none of the cheap shaky-cam effects that have become so popular in action movies. The plot is developed nicely and only a couple of the characters are superficial enough to be dismissed as stereotypical.

Here is the set-up: five people are killed in broad daylight by a sniper in Pittsburgh. A suspect is apprehended quickly after police turn up a sizeable body of evidence that points directly to his guilt.   

The suspect, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), a former U.S. Army sniper, is confronted by the lead homicide investigator (David Oyelowo) and the DA (the obiquitous Richard Jenkins) and offered a choice: life in prison or the death penalty.

Cryptically, Barr scribbles a note that says “Get Jack Reacher,” before he is attacked by other inmates and beaten comatose while being moved to detention before trial.

The authorities believe that Reacher is Barr’s friend; but it turns out he is actually the military police investigator who put together a similar spree murder case against Barr in Iraq that never came to trial because the victims were all covert U.S. agents engaged in wrongdoing themselves. Reacher makes it clear he considers Barr a psychotic killer and is convinced he committed the Pittsburgh shootings.

Despite this, Reacher is hired to make sure by Barr’s defense attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), whose father conveniently happens to be the district attorney, setting up an intergenerational father/daughter conflict to sweeten the plot. As he looks into the case, he begins to notice that the evidence against Barr is not just good – it’s too damned good.

He begins to believe somebody else is really behind the mass shooting and becomes more convinced when he discovers he is being tailed and becomes embroiled in a series of confrontations that are clearly designed to take him off the case.

He figures out who the real killers are and the actual motive for the multiple shootings about ten minutes before the film’s end, clearing the path for a violent denouement in which the body count reaches James Bondian levels and he gets an opportunity to show off his unique approach toward meting out justice.

While Cruise as Reacher may be miscast from a physical standpoint, the Reacher character he portrays is scarcely more believable.

He has a photographic memory so sharp that he can recall every detail of all the evidence he has examined in a criminal case – including the serial number of the murder weapon – without taking or reviewing any notes.  He is a world-class target shooter who can put three shots inside a bullseye, one after another, with an unfamiliar rifle from 700 yards.  He appears to be an expert far beyond the black belt level in mixed martial arts.

So armed with this skill set, what does Reacher do for a living? Apparently, as hit man Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction would say, he is like Cain in the old Kung Fu TV series: “he walks the earth . . .  walking from place to place, meet[ing] people and get[ting] in adventures.”

As we learn in the movie, Reacher abruptly left the Army and has been living off the grid for a number of years without leaving any traces whatsoever, subsisting solely on his retirement, which is direct deposited into a bank and drawn on by means of electronic fund transfers. 

Nobody knows where he lives or how to get in touch with him. The reason for his isolated existence is never really made clear; instead it is shuffled away in this snatch of dialoq:

Look out the window.Tell me what you see. You see the same things that you see everyday. Well, imagine you've never seen it. Imagine you spent your whole life in other parts of the world, being told everyday that you're defending freedom. Then you finally decide you've had enough. Time to see what you've given up your whole life for, everything. Get some of that ‘freedom’ for yourself.”

An investigator who could do any of the Reacher does would have an exceptional advantage over the average cop or prosecutor, not to mention the run-of-the-mill crook. Reacher’s abilities put him on a fantasy plane with Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Steig Larsson’s Millenium triology.
In fact, what I would like to see is the computer-hacking, kickboxing Salander face off with the bruising, eidetic Reacher in an epic detectathon, going after some truly worthy opponent – like, for example, Professor Moriarity or Hannibal Lechter. Or the people who stole everybody in the country’s retirement plans during the directives Ponzi scheme of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Instead, Reacher is up against Zek Chelovek (played by Werner Herzog), a Russian gangster of some sort who has engineered this entire scheme for what seem to me to be essentially pedestrian reasons. In other words, just another crook, albeit a particularly vicious one who is scarred as the result of extended internment in a particularly brutal Russian gulag.

What a dreadful waste.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Intensive Care

By William E. Wallace
(An excerpt from a story in progress)

Red came to in a room that was white-on-white: all tile, enameled walls and stainless steel fittings. He was lying in a hospital bed with the upper end elevated slightly and he had more wires and tubes in him than the big Motorola radio he listened to as a kid.

He must have been loaded with morphine because he was barely conscious of being gut shot more than once and taking a slug in his chest as well. His right wrist was handcuffed to a reinforced steel bar welded to the side of the bed, so there was no way he could walk out without taking the damned thing with him. The handcuffs didn’t matter though: as drifty and weak as he was, he wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.

Tully was sitting in a chair alongside, still wearing his hat, his feet propped up on the rails and his hands folded across his stomach.

“Hullo, Red,” he said with a slight smile.

“Hullo, Inspector,” Red said, licking lips that were dry and cracked. He was surprised at how hard it was to speak.  “Where am I?”

“You’re in the county hospital, intensive care unit of the detainee ward. How do you feel?”

“Like something the dog wouldn’t bother to drag home. So this is the ICU, huh? I thought nobody was allowed in those but nurses and doctors. If they let you in to talk to me, I must be in pretty bad shape.”

Tully nodded. “The only way you could be in worse shape is if you already had a tag on your big toe.”

Red thought about that. 

“I could really use a cigarette,” he said, finally.

Tully shook his head. “Not unless you planned to burn the hospital down,” he said. “This place is full of pure oxygen. That’s what’s coming out of that tube stuck in your nose. If you lit up, first thing you’d do is burn your nose off. Then you’d set the bed on fire. Then the rest of the place. I’m surprised they’re not pumping it into you with a mask.”


“You’re operating on less than a lung, my friend. The one the bullet went through is flat. No way it’s gonna hold air again – the slug hit a rib and the bone chunks ripped the sonofabitch all to hell.”

“What about the holes in my belly?”

Tully shook his head again. “You’d probably recover from the stomach wound, but those shots took out most of your liver and one of your kidneys.”  He gave Red a thin smile. “You’re a mess, Red. I’m surprised you’re able to talk.”

“How did Quincy make out,” Red said. “When the shooting started, he went down first.”

Tully heaved a sigh. “Your brother didn’t make it, Red. He didn’t get hit as many times as you, but one bullet was all that was needed.”

Red closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “Those fucking Colby twins,” he said bitterly, his voice barely a whisper. 


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Down and Out in David Goodis' Philadelphia

Shoot the Piano Player (Down There)
By David Goodis

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (October 3, 1990)
  • (Originally Published 1956)
  • Language: English

(Read: Nov. 20, 2012-Jan.4, 2013)

If you are a follower of film noir, you hear a lot about Shoot the Piano Player, arguably one of Truffaut's best-known films following his breakthrough, The 400 Blows.

But I hate to admit that until my friend and former journalism student Steve Pham pulled my coat, I had never heard of Down There, the terse noir novel it is based on, or its author, David Goodis, even though Goodis had written the book Dark Passage on which one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart films was based.

I read the Black Lizard paperback edition of Down There, which has been renamed Shoot the Piano Player. The book is noir fiction in a nutshell, hitting on just about every note the genre is known for.  It has an alienated protagonist, the hopelessness of his attempt to steer clear of trouble, the frustration of his inability to make basic relationships work, and a completely understated aura of violence that makes the entire thing work.

In brief, the book and the movie are both about a man named Eddie, a renowned concert pianist who dropped out after his wife commits suicide because of her shame at being trapped into an unwilling sexual liaison with Eddie's agent.

Now Eddie lives in a run-down flat, scraping by playing honkey-tonk for drunks in the Hut, a Philadelphia gin joint. He is withdrawn, cool and without affect. His dealings with people are at arm's length. His only desire is to avoid involvement.

Unfortunately, Eddie's past comes back to haunt him: his brothers, petty crooks who have been working as hired muscle for a Mafia-style crime syndicate, have robbed their employer and are being sought by a pair of  mob hit-men.

One of the brothers chances across Eddie in the Hut. Eddie intervenes  when the killers catch up to his sibling, but the hit-men immediately turn their attention to Eddie, realizing that he can lead them to his brothers and the missing swag. 

Lena, a waitress in the Hut, is attracted to Eddie and has figured out his past as a concert musician. Eddie finds himself falling in love with her, despite his desire to remain aloof and unattached. The romance is  complicated by the fact that the Hut's bouncer wants Lena, too.

The hoods make a move on Eddie and Lena but the pair slip through their fingers. Lena figures out that the bouncer has told the two gunmen where to find Eddie and, when they return to the Hut, she confronts him. A brawl ensues and Eddie unintentionally kills the bouncer with a knife.

Now a fugitive from the law who also is wanted by the mob, Eddie has Lena drive him to his family homestead in South New Jersey, then tells her to go away, fearing for her safety if she is drawn into his brothers' criminal lifestyle. She leaves but returns and the two gunmen shadow her to South Jersey where the tragic denouement of the novel takes place.

I watched Truffaut's film before reading Goodis' book and I have to say the novel is quite superior to the movie. Truffaut slips a number of false notes into his film and adds a younger brother who does not appear in the novel, unnecessarily complicating the plot and making the two mob killers more bungling and buffoonish than they are in the novel.

The novel also is more effective at developing Eddie's back story, and explaining why it is so easy for him to slip into unthinking violence. In my opinion, the novel is also better at conjuring a pervasive atmosphere of doom.

Primary characters are sharply drawn in Goodis' novel and even minor players are rendered in a memorable fashion. The descriptive passages, are first rate at creating an aura of doom and alienation:

"Three years, and aside from the music he made, [Eddie's] presence at the Hut meant nothing. It was almost as though he wasn't there and the piano was playing all by itself. Regardless of the action at the tables or the bar, the piano man was out of it, not even an observer. He had his back turned and his eyes on the keyboard, content to draw his pauper's wages and wear pauper's rags."

The dialog is terse and realistic, free of the frequent wise cracks that are so common to other noir specialists such as Raymond Chandler, but better for it, because Goodis is trying to create a world of people who are down, desperateand unable to see much humor in the bleak world they inhabit, let alone joke about it.

The violence, though understated, is brutal -- which is appropriate because the lives of the main characters is brutal, too.

Whether it is under the imprint of Shoot the Piano Player or Down There, this bleak little novel is well worth reading.

Monday, September 6, 2010

This is the city. . . Los Angeles, California. . .

L.A. Noir
by John Buntin
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Broadway;  first edition April 6, 2010
ISBN-10: 0307352080
ISBN-13: 978-0307352088
(Read from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, 2012)

If you are a noir fan, this book serves up nearly three-quarters of a century of the history of the Los Angeles underworld, spelling out the background behind the Zoot Suit riots, the "Bloody Christmas" melee that forms the centerpiece of L.A. Confidential, and the gambling and prostitution rackets that are the treacherous undercurrent running through most of James Ellroy's novels. 

Many of the real-life characters whose stories are explored in this non-fiction offering pop up undisguised in books such as Clandestine and The Black Dahlia, while thinly disguised versions of others can be found in The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.

Buntin does an excellent job of contrasting the stories of the "dapper little gent," Mickey Cohen and Police Chief William Parker, Cohen's nemesis and the man who built the Los Angeles Police Department into one of the best-known law enforcement agencies in the world. 

He explores Cohen's role in the changing face of organized crime in the Southland and chronicles Parker's battle against corruption in his own department and the influence of such rivals as J. Edgar Hoover, who saw Parker as a threat to his position as director of the FBI.

The book is populated with colorful characters on both sides of the law, including LA Mayors Frank Shaw, Fletcher Bowron, Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley, President John F. Kennedy, playright and Cohen confidante Ben Hecht, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown and gangsters Louis and Jack Dragna, Frank Costello, Bugsy Siegel and Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno. 

It is well worth a read for anyone who wants to know the seamy Los Angeles that helped to shape the hard-boiled thriller before and after World War II.

I rate LA Noir a whopping five nooses!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

All The King's Horses. . .

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
by Philip K. Dick 
Hardcover: 352 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books 
(Originally published 1986; 
Second edition 2007)
ISBN-13:  9780765316905
Read Aug. 15-19, 2012

To the average reader, Philip K. Dick is a science fiction writer, the celebrated creator of the books on which the popular films Blade RunnerTotal Recall and Minority Report were basedNever mind that all those films bear only a passing resemblance to the Dick novels that supposedly inspired them; suffice to say that Dick has probably been credited with more film plots that he had nothing to do with than just about any other author, living or dead.

But Dick didn't just write science fiction stories that Hollywood doesn't understand. He also wrote a handful of mainstream literary novels that had limited success and appear to have been as obscure to traditional publishers as his science fiction stories were to Hollywood.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is one of these. The novel, which appears to be in part based on A Time for George Stavros, an earlier Dick manuscript that has been lost, reads like a Jim Thompson Black Lizard tale crossed with a reminiscence by Charlie Bukowski. 

The main characters are Jim Fergessen, the elderly owner of an Oakland automobile garage whose heart ailments have led him to sell his business and retire. Fergessen's immanent retirement threatens Al Miller, a young, unsuccessful mechanic who rents shop space from him and will be left with no place to run his shoestring business once the garage closes. 

Miller is a young hapless schmuck who, despite pressure from his wife to make something of himself, is going nowhere fast. On the other hand, Fergessen, too, is a hapless schmuck, only older. Although the garage owner is basically unhappy, he has managed to convince himself that he is doing very well.

In an effort to get out of his money jam, Miller takes a stab at blackmail, but hasn't the moxie to follow through. His criminal scheme falls short in part because the man he attempts to extort, Chris Harman, a shadowy record producer who deals in pornographic recordings, is himself a master scammer. 

Harman, a character on the periphery of the main story line, would probably be the central figure in a real Jim Thompson novel. Here, however, he is injected into the plot primarily to torment the two protagonists. 

Miller's half-hearted attempt to scam Harman, though unsuccessful, eventually comes back to haunt him. In the process, the deep strain of paranoia that infects much of Dick's work comes into play. Has Miller been set up from the start? Is he the target of a complex conspiracy? Is his wife a co-conspirator? 

In typical Dickian fashion, various characters seem to transform and mutate as the story proceeds, and the reader is left wondering whether Miller and Fergessen were really the victims of a complicated plot or whether much of what has happened is simply a twisted fantasy on Miller's part.

What gives the book the Thompson feel is the fact that everybody in it is on the make and greed seems to be the engine that drives the story. 

What I liked best about Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, however, was the bleak portrayal of the East Bay's biggest city in the late 1950s. Since Oakland is the setting for some of my own fiction, I love seeing San Francisco's poor relation across  the Bay get the limelight for a change.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is quite different from most of Dick's novels and short stories, though it includes some of the basic philosophical and psychological underpinnings of his best know work. 

The book is a downer that doesn't quite jell in some ways. Perhaps its biggest weakness is Dick's inability to maintain the authenticity of his characters' voices: his dialog is fine when non-ethnic characters are talking, but he is slightly off-target when he has a black character in the story speak, or renders the dialog of Fergessen's Greek-born wife. Dick seems to realize these people have a slightly twisted syntax, but his ear isn't good enough to render it with verisimilitude.

By the same token, there isn't much in the way of action in the story, and the confrontations between the main characters are enervating rather than exciting.

Nonetheless, this novel has a gritty noirish atmosphere I found enjoyable. And the aimless, out-of-control quality of the narrative seemed oddly appropriate to me, and gave the book part of its charm.

If you are looking for a traditional crime novel that concludes with the loose ends wrapped up and good triumphant over evil, I'd advise you to skip this book. 

But if you like Phil Dick -- and I do -- give Humpty Dumpty in Oakland a try. I give it four nooses.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Too Cool for Reform School

By Chester Himes

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Vintage (November 28, 1988)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0679720391
ISBN-13: 978-0679720393
Read on Nov. 10, 2012

Somebody with a razor sharp knife tries to kill respectable white businessman Ulysses Galen while he is slumming at a Harlem nightclub. When Galen flees down the street, running for his very ­­life, somebody else ends it with a bullet in the back of his head.

Enter Chester Himes’ remarkable detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. They arrest the man they think is responsible for the murder, but in a melee with a youthful gang of Harlem toughs called the Real Cool Moslems, the suspect escapes.

The rest of Killers, the second in Himes’ Harlem Cycle of hard-boiled detective thrillers, is spent with the detectives trying to track down the fugitive and the street gang members who helped him escape. Johnson is removed from action by suspension for most of the book, so Digger has to try to break the case as a solo.

While corpses pile up around him like cordwood, Gravedigger’s efforts lead him to a multi-racial house of ill-repute, a bar that doubles as a den for a sadomasochist and a tenement apartment that serves as headquarters for the Real Cool Moslems, a group of juvenile delinquents whose clowning, wise-cracking ways mask a violent disregard for human life.

During his investigation, Jones encounters the usual coterie of low-life criminals, whose antics are sketched with Himes’ customary acid-edged wit. Digger also uncovers the secret lives that several of the key characters have been living – including murder victim Galen, who turns out to be less respectable than he first appeared.

The chase ends in a wicked twist, with the storm of violence we have come to expect from a classic Himes tale.

Though The Real Cool Killers does not meet the same high standard as Cotton Comes to Harlem, it grabs the reader’s attention from the Joe Turner lyrics on the opening page and holds it to the conclusion. I rate it four out of five nooses.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Seek Gold in An Unlikely Place

By Chester Himes
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
May 1, 2011
ISBN-10: 0141196440
ISBN-13: 978-0141196442
Read from Oct. 24 to 26, 2012

Chester Himes’ recurring characters, black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, are two of the most memorable cops in the pulp realm.

And Himes’ Harlem Cycle novels – including Rage in Harlem -- is like Ed McBain on cocaine.

Rage has the detectives searching for a trunk-full of fool’s gold used to hook suckers into investing in a phony mine. The duo stump through the streets of New York City, bullying, bludgeoning and occasionally shooting holes in its lower order denizens until they figure everything out.

On the way, their search for the facts brings them across a love-struck hearse driver who has filched a wad of money from his mortician boss, the driver’s larcenous girlfriend, a group of transvestite scammers who are running a religious hustle and the violent gang behind the gold fraud. 

The stakes are high because two of the gangsters are real desperadoes who committed a murder in the south -- although, as Himes lets us know, they only killed a black man, which isn’t actually a crime below the Mason-Dixon line.

These Himes thrillers are detective yarns, but that’s where the similarity to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories ends. It would be wrong to call Himes’ novels police procedurals, because procedure is a matter of formality, the following of steps in a fixed manner. The only thing fixed about Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are the gunsights on their long-barreled nickel-plated pistols and the way one shouts out "count off" when the other one orders a crowd – whether of criminals or bystanders – to "straighten up!"

Rage in Harlem is not nearly as marvelous as Cotton Comes to Harlem, but that doesn't keep it from being a terrific read. Himes is like Walter Mosley, only with a New York accent: his prose is violent, cynical and extremely funny, and when it comes to the telling detail, he is a dead-eye shot . . .

I can't believe I lived to be nearly 65 before I discovered this guy. Now I have to make up for lost time. . .

I rate Rage in Harlem four out of a possible five nooses.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

You May Cotton to This. . .

Cotton Comes to Harlem
By Chester Himes
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition November 28, 1988
ISBN-10: 0394759990
ISBN-13: 978-0394759999

This is a slick entry in Chester Himes' Harlem cycle. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones investigate the theft of $87,000 from a "Back-to-Africa" organization and discover white racists, black hustlers, a murderous gun moll and her lesbian squeeze, and all the other types of high-living lowlifes we've come to expect from this master of noir in the darkest shade of black.

Himes' characters hop off the page (and into your lap in a couple of cases) and his dialog is tough, believable and laced with larcenous humor. No doubt Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are by-the-book detectives -- how else would they have become the aces of the Harlem precinct? -- but the book they go by has some pretty loose rules. But forget the book they go by and go buy this one: it has a surprise ending that will leave you grinning.

My recommendation? If you like tough detectives, murderous punks and even tougher women, grab a copy of Cotton Comes to Harlem, sit back, "straighten up and count off." I give this book a whopping five out of five nooses!