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. . .

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lost for Three Decades, Cain's "Cocktail Waitress" is Worth the Wait


James M. Cain
Hard Case Crime, September 2012

ISBN: 978-1-78116-0329

In Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel, the title character is obsessed with money and status and tries to use her success as a businesswoman to buy the affection of her avaricious, self-centered daughter, Veda; she even embezzles from her own company to shower Veda with gifts.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s character Cora Papadakis engineers the death of her husband so she can take over his business. And in Double Indemnity, Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of an oil man, secretly takes out an accidental death insurance policy so she can profit from murdering him.

The pattern is clear: Cain’s femmes fatale are consumed by their desire for wealth and will commit crimes  – even murder – to obtain it.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Joan Medford, the newly single protagonist of Cain’s last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, wears his acquisitive femme fatale archetype as snugly as the short shorts she dons to peddle drinks after her abusive alcoholic husband dies in a car crash some think she deliberately arranged.

Joan is more like Mildred than Cora or Phyllis in the reason she wants the loot. Like Pierce, to Joan it’s a family affair: she needs money to get permanent custody of her son, who is temporarily in the care of her sister-in-law, Ethel, one of the main proponents of the theory Joan bumped off her husband, and she is determined to wrest control of the child from his mother.

But that’s where the parallel ends. Unlike Pierce, Joan is, to quote one minor character, “a goddamn good-looking gold digger” who uses her sexual allure to win the financial stability she needs to be together with her son.

What’s more, Joan is the only one of Cain’s women who speaks directly to readers without a narrative intermediary. Mildred Pierce’s sad tale of unrequited mother love unreels in classic narrative style, through the eyes of an unnamed omniscient third person observer. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Nirdlinger’s duplicity and viciousness is revealed through the first person account of her insurance broker accomplice, Walter Huff. And Cora Papadakis’s maneuverings in Postman are related in first person by the drifter who becomes her paramour and crime partner, Frank Chambers.

Joan Medford makes it clear to readers in the very first chapter that she is telling her story to them in her own words “in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slanders against me . . . All I know to do is tell it and tell it all, including some things no woman would willingly tell.”

Complicating Joan’s story is the fact that the impoverished widow has two rivals competing for her hand almost before her dead husband is underground: Tom Barclay, a lustful but penniless stud who is equally full of testosterone and misdirected ambition, and Earl K. White III, a wealthy stockbroker with a bum ticker that will need more than an application of tape if he manages to work his way between Joan’s well-shaped thighs.

 You can easily guess which one Joan targets.

As soon as White pops the question, Joan makes it clear to the reader where she is going:
“What I really felt . . . was pure exultation, that I’d put it over at last, this gigantic plan I’d had, that would give my [son] to me, on a lawn that he could play on, in a house we both could live in, as part of a world that we could be proud of.”

From the perspective of middle-class morality, Joan is unquestionably a hustler well worthy of her sister-in-law’s contempt: she is open – at least with her closest friend – about her reasons for trying to snare the wealthy but infirm White, and equally open about her lust for the youthful but feckless Barclay. As she tells the reader on several occasions, she has a short fuse and is quick to violence when crossed. We even see an example of her barely concealed rage when Barclay, who has been drinking heavily, puts his hand on her leg while she is waiting on his party at the bar. She furiously attacks him and hammers him to the floor before she is dragged off by others.

But nobody is without blame in this bleak noir; almost without exception, the characters that appear in The Cocktail Waitress are amoral and twisted: Joan’s best friend, Liz, is little more than a hooker who uses her waitressing job to line up sexual “dates” for money; her lover, Tom Barclay not only sexually assaults Joan on two separate occasions, but also inadvertently steers her into offering her house as surety for a politician pal who has been arrested for corruption; Barclay’s chum immediately jumps bail, putting one of Joan’s few assets at risk.

And the elderly White, despite his initially saintly demeanor, turns out to be obsessed with getting into Joan’s skin-tight pants, even at the risk of triggering an angina attack that would make an orgasm fatal.  Despite his illness and advanced years, White, too, attempts to take Joan by force – and, when he is foiled, he turns to prostitutes in an effort to satisfy his libido.

The Cocktail Waitress is peopled with as black-hearted a group of villains as Cain has ever created. And front and center among them is our “heroine,” Joan Medford.

Before the 254-page novel is done, Joan is not only suspected of killing her first husband, but also of slaying two other men. And in a twist ending befitting our twisted protagonist, Cain sets her up for a  particularly horrific type of cosmic justice. No spoilers here, except to say that the way Joan begins to relieve her stress late in the book foreshadows a development that isn’t even hinted at until the very last page of the novel – with a deliciously ironic conclusion that I, for one, found remarkably effective.

Cain started The Cocktail Waitress in 1975 and worked on it until his death in 1977 without ever quite polishing the manuscript sufficiently for publication. He showed versions to acquaintances and his agent, but never managed to pull together a final, comprehensive draft. It was kicking around in a variety of more-or-less finished versions for years, but didn’t come together in publishable form until long-time Cain enthusiast Charles Ardai (Little Girl Lost, Fifty-to-One) pieced it together from Cain’s extensive notes and the various fragments he tracked down.

Last September, a final version of the book edited by Ardai finally saw publication under his Hard Case Crime imprint, and the finished product is simply sensational:  The Cocktail Waitress boasts the Cain  universe’s signature blend of figures from high and low society: the priggish and the sex-obsessed. It also features the violent undercurrent of passion that seems to throb like a runaway pulse just under the surface of most of Cain’s novels.

I have always loved Cain for his use of language – not the poetic phrasing of a Keats or Shelly, but the terse, hard-boiled argot of the petty grifter, the criminal, the hustler on the make. Here you will find exactly that deft use of dialog, in which the high-born and low-born each have their own unique diction and vocabularies, but the words they use can’t mask the base nature of their motivation. The Cocktail Waitress is true to this fundamental Cain tradition, in which bourgeois manners shroud greed, vanity and sexual desire with only the sheerest veil of civilization.

As Cain himself put it in the notes that Ardai consulted while editing the novel: “[The] whole book should turn on the hot, close, sweaty female smell of the cocktail bar . . . Joan’s setting the theme – her walk, her attachments, the contours of her legs, her smell . . .”

For a novel that has been in limbo nearly 36 years, the novel is as sweet a read today as if Cain had finished it last week. In every respect, The Cocktail Waitress is a five-noose keeper!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Back-up Man

By William E. Wallace

(An excerpt from a work in progress)

Pete Garner was the number two, watching the floor, keeping an eye open for the unexpected and giving me some cover. That was the way it was supposed to work, anyway, and it would have worked that way with anybody else.

But Pete was a pothead who only did jobs so he could score at the Medical Marijuana dispensary across town. That meant Pete was almost always loaded, so if he working with you, chances are good he was only partly there.

Which would have been okay if he had been behind the wheel, maybe, driving the crash car, or sitting a mile away in the switch, ready to go when we ditched the getaway: despite what you see on TV or in movies, you drive slowly and carefully when you leave a place you’ve robbed. Even a doped-up pothead can handle it.

But being wasted made Pete useless as a number two because he couldn’t focus. He was always letting his attention drift: watching the CCTV monitor over the cashier to see if some chick was outside, fiddling with his gun, thinking about what he was going to do with his cut of the take.

True to form, the dumb bastard had showed up for this job so baked he couldn’t see across the street. He must have been smoking the stuff for hours because the reek of pot hanging in his clothes and hair made him smell like a urinal for polecats.

If I had been the number two, it would have been different. Unlike Pete, I don’t screw up, at least not during an armed robbery. But I was the number one on this job -- the guy who calls the shots, collects the cash and does the talking -- so I was watching the old man with the beard and turban pop open the convenience store safe while Pete was supposed to be taking care of everything else.

If I had been doing his job, it probably wouldn’t have gone down the way it did.  But by the time I realized Pete wasn’t really the right guy to run security, it was too late. Too late for Pete, too late for me, too late for the old man with the turban, and too damned late for the kid who suddenly came out of the back room, panic-firing the nickel-plated revolver in his hand.

He emptied that Saturday night special at us, six shots, bang, bang, bang. But only one of the damned bullets hit anything: it drilled a hole right through Pete’s midsection, hitting a big vein or artery on its way.  The way blood gushed out of that little bitty hole, you didn’t need to be Dr. Oz to know Pete wasn’t going to make it.

I didn’t have any choice. I put two slugs in the kid with the revolver and one in the old man with the turban. I had to kill the kid because, who knows? he might have had another gun to empty stashed somewhere close to hand; and I had to kill the old man because he’d seen me whack the kid.

It was a poor end to what was supposed to be a simple mom-and-pop stickup: two dead guys on the floor and a sorry-assed pot-head crime partner who would be joining them, either in heaven or hell, before the evening was over. And for what? The safe I emptied held a little bit more than two grand and there was about $500 more in the till. That’s barely enough to make robbing the place worthwhile; it damn sure wasn’t enough to be worth the bullet in Pete’s belly.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Conner's Elderly Newsman Gets the Last Word

Dying Words
By K. Patrick Conner
  • Length: 298 pages
  • Publisher: NaCl Press; first edition 
  • (September 9, 2012)
  • via Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Read: Dec. 1, 2012-January 8, 2013

In 37 years as a reporter, nearly 27 of them at the late, great SF Chronicle, I have written a few obituaries. Some people I “buried” were famous, like blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield or jazz great Earl Fatha Hines; some were obscure, like Ed Penaat, the SFPD beat cop who joined the Army in WWII, worked his way up to the rank of major general, then quietly went back to walking a beat in the city when the war was over.

The toughest assignments were the society wives who never seemed to have done anything noteworthy but marry some big shot. Scraping together enough material on them to fill a dozen paragraphs was tough but necessary -- particularly if they happened to be married to somebody who was a friend of the DeYoung or Theiriot families who owned the paper.

Nonetheless, every single obit I wrote was fascinating -- not because I was such a hot-shit writer, but because people – particularly in this part of California -- live the most interesting lives, and a news obituary gives you the privilege and challenge of capsulizing it for readers.

In his novel, “Dying Words,” K. Patrick Conner introduces us to Graydon Hubbell, a fictional 76-year-old former investigative reporter who does just that for a living.

Let’s make this clear from the jump: this is not a review of a crime novel, although there is at least one wanted fugitive involved in the plot. Nor is it a classic roman policier, despite the fact that there are passing references to police misconduct and two cops make brief appearances in it.

So what is this review doing in a blog that mostly deals with crimes stories and other types of pulp fiction?

The short answer is, the author is a friend of mine, and since I read and liked his book and consider this blog and its companion my personal creations, I will review anything in them I damn well please.
In Conner’s novel, reporter Hubbell has been relegated to the paper’s “dead page” – the section of the paper that contains paid death notices and staff-written bios of the recently deceased – as an antiquated relic. Hubbell writes obituaries for the Voice of the West. In fact, as the paper’s lead and only  obituary writer, he does nothing else.

Hubbell's knees are shot, to borrow a metaphor from the sports beat; he can no longer cut it as a newsman for a paper that has replaced its seasoned veterans with recent J-school grads willing to accept the niggardly wages and benefits the Chronicle's penurious parent, the Hearst Corporation, is willing to pay them.

He, like his chums who infest the area of the Chronicle newsroom known as "Section 8," has only one real value: he is another warm body who can be sacrificed to the perpetual buyouts and layoffs the newspaper is using in a desperate effort to remain alive.

“Dying Words” recounts Hubbell’s short-lived triumphs and ultimate humiliation during his last days at the Chronicle, a publication that, like its obituary writer, is in terminal decline, reduced to a shadow of its former greatness, hemorrhaging readers by the bucketful and gushing enough red ink to fill Lake Merced. Conner knows his subject well: he was an editor at the Chronicle for many years and left during one of the paper’s many staff reductions.

Although Conner has fictionalized the Chronicle for his novel, it is clearly recognizable to former staffers. His brief description of its cannibalization after the Hearst Corporation bought it from the Theiriot family in 2000 has the ring of truth: I was there until 2006, myself, so I have more than a passing acquaintanceship with those facts.

(Full disclosure: I worked closely with Conner until I left and considered him one of the best editors I had at the paper. He was boundlessly enthusiastic for the stories his crew worked on and quick to defend them from critics both inside and outside the newspaper.)

Conner’s novel is strictly a slice of life.  Unlike “State of Play” or “Call Northside 777,” there is no ingenious plot line, no journalistic heroism, no exposé of dark doings at City Hall, correction of a grave injustices, or exoneration of an innocent wrongly accused. 

It also is no “Front Page.” While humorous incidents are sprinkled throughout “Dying Words,” there is little laugh-out-loud hilarity; by and large, the novel has a sober tone that is appropriate for a story about a man in a dying industry who has essentially run out his string as a professional.

What the book does have are some memorable characters, well-turned dialog and a gentle narrative arc that I think most readers will find engaging.

Not that the book has no flaws: the employee diversity committee Hubbell is summoned before is cartoonish and stereotypical, undercutting Conner’s serious point that daily newspapers like the Chronicle are dying in part because the aging, upper middle-class, largely white audience they once served is becoming extinct.

And an obituary of a long-time fugitive from the law that Hubbell writes late in the book turns out to be a fake that would have been uncovered with a single phone call to the sheriff’s office in Montana where the fugitive supposedly died in an auto wreck.  “Dying Words” never explains why Hubbell didn’t make that call immediately after being told the fugitive had been killed in a collision.

More to the point, even a newspaper that has fallen on hard times like the Chronicle would never run a page one obituary on a fugitive who evaded police for more than forty years without a whole package of sidebars and companion pieces, including a chronology or “tick tock” on the dead man’s final hours. Probably half the newsroom would be assigned to put the package together.  And once all those other reporters were unleashed on the story, does it really seem likely that nobody would call the sheriff for a detailed account of the accident that supposedly took the man’s life?

But picking apart discrepancies like these is missing the point of the book. “Dying Words” is a paean to a disappearing breed – the legendary hat-wearing, hard-drinking newspaperman; it is also a farewell kiss to a lowly form of literature that once informed and amused most of the residents of America’s urban centers: the metropolitan daily newspaper.

What Conner has given us is a fine obituary of both, marked “hold for release” when the decedent is finally ready for burial. And, like his protagonist, Graydon Hubbell, Conner makes this obit sing.

I give "Dying Words" a full five nooses.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Characters Spend Much of the Second Chapter Blowing Chunks; So Will You!

By Mike Pettit
Publisher: MIKE PETTIT; Dec. 19, 2012
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
English, 190 pages

Just because a carpenter is reasonably competent at swinging a hammer, you wouldn’t necessarily expect him to build a house that looks like one of the arts and crafts classics designed by Bernard Maybeck or Julia Morgan. 

A liveable house with the minimum of leaks in the roof, and doors that open and close without sticking? Maybe, yes; Possibly even a modest cottage with real charm.

But a showcase of international design?  Probably not.

On the other hand, somebody who can’t saw a straight line or hit a nail on the head more than once in five swings wouldn’t be able to do much with the most brilliant blueprint by Maybeck or Morgan.  The product of his efforts would far more likely be a tumbledown sharecropper’s dwelling than an example of arts and crafts architecture.

The same is true of writing: a competent author doesn’t necessarily have to be F. Scott Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe to keep me turning pages; all he has to do is tell a decent story without egregiously misspelling words, fluffing basic grammar or putting lame dialog in the mouths of his characters.

Unfortunately, Key West Drop by Mike Pettit manages to make all the mistakes listed above, and it does them so often and so obnoxiously that I quickly lost interest in the book’s characters, not to mention a story line involving human trafficking.  Believe me, getting me to close a book on that subject is no easy task: I have written about the topic extensively myself as an investigative reporter, and I have friends who are federal prosecutors and ICE agents who actually specialize in busting traffickers.

Key West Drop author Mike Pettit: The characters spend much of the second chapter vomiting; you will too. . . 

I counted nineteen significant errors in the first 26 pages of the book, ranging from simple typos like leaving out the apostrophes in possessives all the way to misspelling “Baghdad,” a place where the book’s hero, Jack Marsh, supposedly cut his teeth in combat as a U.S. Marine.

The dialog's not much better. Marsh and his colleague Lamont Jackson share a tortured syntax, and the only thing that makes them sound different from each other is the way Pettit occasionally slips some bit of African-American jargon into Jackson’s comments.  

Here's an example (to paraphrase Stan Mack, all dialog -- regardless of how awful -- is guaranteed verbatim):

"That's for sure, trouble is y'alls middle name. I ain't never seen two guys with such bad juu-juu. I ain't surprised y'all ain't dead."

See what I mean? Leaden -- and the last sentence actually means precisely the opposite of what the author intends to have the character say.

The narrative flow is clunked up by back story speed bumps that could have been left out or inserted more artfully elsewhere. And instead of taking the time and effort to make each character a unique individual, Pettit presents them as collections of tics who walk around, recite speeches and do things.

Even when a book is tres bad, I tend to stick it out in the hope that the author will eventually get his or her feet planted solidly and tell me a story.  In the case of Key West Drop, I literally gave up after completing only about a seventh of Pettit’s novel.  This is one of those cases where you are better off finding something else to read. I rate it only one single, lonely noose.

Killer With a Gaping Plot Hole

By Jim Thompson

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; 1st edition
  • (March 13, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679733973
  • (Read: Dec. 24-27, 2013)

Lou Ford is a sheriff's deputy in a small West Texas Town. To

 those who know him best, he seems a simple fellow -- even 

simple-minded, in a way. He is slow-witted enough to spend a 

half-hour talking about a glass of water, his conversation 

consists primarily of cliches and he doesn't seem to have a 

mean bone in his body.

But Ford has a secret: beneath his bumpkinesque facade he is a twisted murderer and sadist who plays the part of a simpleton in order to conceal the fact he is much smarter than most of the people around him. His masquerade as a rustic rube has enabled him to win him the trust of the sheriff and the county prosecutor, the friendship and admiration of most of his village's citizens, and the heart of one of the most eligible young women in town.

In his secret life, however, Ford is regularly banging a sado-masochistic prostitute, plotting to scam a sizable sum from the son of the richest man in town, and barely able to hold his appetite for murder in check. 

Ford is the villain/protagonist of "The Killer Inside Me," Jim Thompson's case study of psychopathy. The young deputy commits four cold-blooded murders -- one of which is described in a particularly raw and brutal fashion -- and engineers the death of two additional victims before it the book is done.

I wanted to like this book, and Thompson gives readers a lot to work with. The dialog is good, the author's eye for detail and original turns of phrase are in top form, and his characters are sharply drawn. 

The only problem is the novel's plot: it has a hole in it big enough to serve as the hangar for Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose."

I won't give it away here because it would undermine much of the book's suspense. Suffice to say, Thompson doesn't play fair with his readers, and deliberately misleads them about a critical piece of evidence that emerges at the end of the book in a clumsy deus ex machina conclusion.

This is particularly disappointing because it violates the basic tenet of the crime novel: if you are going to use a trick ending, do it through misdirection, not by establishing a set of facts at one point in the book only to abandon them at the denouement. It is the figurative equivalent of getting to the end of the book only to find out that everything that took place before was simply a dream.

This book, which is considered one of Thompson's masterpieces, has inspired two different motion picture versions. Unfortunately, the sloppy ending gives the impression that Thompson simply got tired of plotting "The Killer Inside Me" and slapped together a conclusion so he could get the manuscript off to the publisher.

I liked it, but it really isn't top-shelf stuff.