About Me

My photo
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, June 29, 2013

Mike Hammer is Big, Tough and Violent. But is He Still Relevant?

By Mickey Spillane

File Size: 611 KB

Print Length: 176 pages
Original publisher: Signet (June 1, 1950)
Penguin Publishing


Is Mickey Spillane still worth reading, and if so, why?
I found myself pondering that question recently after working my way through My Gun is Quick, a 1950 book that is one of Spillane's earlier novels, and watching the film that was made from it a few years later.
The relatively simple story line follows an arc familiar to those who have read any of Spillane's other stories. A chance meeting in a grimy cafe with a streetwalker named Red kicks off the action. When a hoodlum named Feeney Last enters the joint and demands she come with him, Hammer slaps the thug down and draws on him as he reaches for his gun.

Private Eye Mike Hammer admires Streetwalker Red's
manicure  at the beginning of My Gun is Quick.

Hammer smacks Berin-Grotin's henchman 
 Feeney Last  for having such a terrible name. Last's name was so bad,
in fact, that he was renamed "Louie" for the film.

"Just touch that rod you got and I'll blow your damned greasy head off," the private eye snarls in a line reminiscent of Sudden Impact's "Dirty Harry" Callahan. "Go ahead, just make one lousy move toward it."
Hammer disarms the goon and turns him over to some uniformed cops; then, in an uncharacteristic act of altruism, he gives Red money enough to buy a decent outfit and make a new start. The next morning, however, the prostitute turns up dead, the supposed victim of a hit-run driver.
The private eye investigates, initially hoping only to identify the dead girl, but later seeking revenge when it turns out she was murdered. While tracking down her killer and the reason for her death, he encounters prostitutes, thugs and a vice ring protected by crooked police.
As he works his way toward the novel's conclusion, Hammer leaves a trail of unconscious villains and dead bodies. He dispatches the chief bad guy with gleefully sadistic brutality on the last page of the book, just above the words, "The End."
In other words, My Gun is Quick is vintage Hammer -- and not terribly different from the rest of Spillane's novels.
The book was written in 1950, five years after V-J day and during the onset of the second great American Red Scare. It was a period in which things seemed to be going to hell in ways nobody could remedy: the Korean War was just getting started and U.S. "advisers" had just landed in Vietnam. 
Parkland Pictures, a quickie independent production company in Hollywood that optioned four of Spillane's books and hired him to work on screen adaptations, made a film very loosely based on the novel seven years later.

The 1957 film differs from Spillane's novel in a number of significant ways.

Even though the quality of Spillane's writing is inconsistent and most of his characters are flat and lifeless, the novel is considerably superior to the movie. It offers as good an introduction to the formula Spillane followed through his literary life as a reader is likely to find.
The film suffers because of a number of changes that were made in the plot line and incidental details of the story. To a certain extent, the protagonist of the book and the movie are two different people: the Hammer in the novel is a brute who pounds one villain's face into mush with his fists. The one in the movie is just another not-very-bright gumshoe trying to figure out a mystery, more likely to be beaten up by the bad guys than to do any beating himself.
In the film, it is only obliquely suggested that Red (Jan Chaney) is a prostitute. When Hammer (Robert Bray) investigates her death, he traces it to a ring dealing in a cache of European jewels stolen by Nazis and "liberated" by Colonel Holloway (Donald Randolph), an allied officer who has been imprisoned for stealing the missing gems since the end of the war. The fact that Red sold sexual favors for a living is not material to the bigger mystery of her death, and is essentially glossed over.
Red's profession is more critical in the novel where Hammer links her murder to a prostitution ring headed by Arthur Berin-Grotin, a wealthy New York society figure who is protected by corrupt police.
Stolen jewels were made the McGuffin in the movie  because prostitution was a topic off-limits to filmmakers during the period. While the switch is understandable, it has the effect of turning the film into a feeble imitation of The Maltese Falcon. And an imitation it most definitely is: during his confrontation with Nancy Williams (Whitney Blake), the film's primary villain, Hammer even paraphrases Sam Spade's comment to Brigit O'Shaughnessy -- that if she really loves him, he'll be waiting for her when she gets out of prison.
In addition, the plot change eliminates the final confrontation between Hammer and the primary villains, Berin-Grotin and his henchman, Last -- an ending that underscores Hammer's reputation as a sadistic vigilante who delights in imposing his own form of violent justice.
Because the plot has been "sanitized" for consumption by a motion picture audience, the film seems watered down. Hammer's gun may, indeed, be quick, but it is only fired during a confrontation with the jewel smugglers at the end -- a confrontation that seems less motivated by a vigilante's desire for vengeance than it is by self-defense.
That summarizes the major plot change. However, the incidental differences between the book and film are just as striking.
In all Spillane's Mike Hammer books, the private eye's office is located in Manhattan, a massive metropolitan center overpopulated by eight million residents crammed into a claustrophobically small territory cut off on all sides by water.
In the film, however, his shop is in Los Angeles, some 3,000 miles to the south and west. This is due largely to the fact that this movie -- like Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), and I, The Jury (1953) -- was a low-budget programmer ground out by a Poverty Row production company. Like most indie producers, Parklane Pictures pinched every penny it could; it was simply cheaper to relocate the plot to the West Coast than to recreate Manhattan on sound stages or traipse across the country and film in New York City.
Unfortunately, the geographical shift is problematic.
Los Angeles is getaway territory that runs for miles across a flat, desert-like plain, and a two-hour drive will put you in another state or even another country. The warm waters of the Pacific Ocean crowding up against L.A.'s  western flank were a lawless zone controlled by gangsters  and used for gambling, prostitution and smuggling up until the second war. The wide-open spaces of the ocean represent freedom, not a barrier. The border is as porous as a colander, and barely slows the traffic in drugs and human beings that constitute a major part of California's underworld economy.
In My Gun is Quick, the California sunlight in practically every exterior shot undercuts the hard-boiled character of the original Spillane story, which begs for a noirish, claustrophobic  atmosphere, deep shadows and chiaroscuro lighting.
(For Kiss Me, Deadly, which was made four years earlier and starred Ralph Meeker as Hammer, director Robert Aldrich had the sense to set as much of the action as possible indoors or at night, eliminating the Southern California glare and the sense of unbroken space. Other tough guy crime pictures (for example, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Roman Polanski's Chinatown) have been filmed in bright daylight, but there were cinematic reasons for doing so. In My Gun is Quick, it is simply a convenience for the producer, who didn't need to hire lighting technicians for many of the scenes.)
If the locale to which the story has been moved is problematic, even more so is the casting of Spillane's iconic hero: Most of Meeker's career was spent playing villains and anti-heroes. His sadistic smirk worked against him in more heroic parts but helps to establish Hammer's brutality in Kiss Me, Deadly.
Bray, who specialized in westerns and played a ranger on the TV series Lassie, is too bland and impassive to project the violent and brutal Hammer. He has the size and bulk to be Spillane's hard guy, but his boy scout's mien makes him sound more jocose than menacing when he utters lines such as this warning to Shorty, the diner operator who is holding out on him: "It's not easy to talk when you've just choked on your own teeth."

Tough guy lines like his exchange with diner counterman Shorty
sound silly coming from the Boy Scoutish
Robert Bray, star of My Gun is  Quick.

 The plot alteration, change of venue and casting problems are not deal-breakers for the movie made from My Gun is Quick, but they do interfere with the mood of the film and reflect a Hammer that is less violent, thuggish and stereotypical than the one in Spillane's books.
The novel the film is based on, My Gun is Quick, has its own shortcomings, but they are symptomatic of Spillane's writing style, first-person point of view and reliance on his hero's cathartic sadism for plot resolution.   
The rap on Spillane is that he was a bad writer: barely literate and inclined to rely on violence when he ran out of legitimate ideas; his critics disparage him as a woman-hater whose prose was steeped in misogyny.

The old Mickster, sans lo-cal beer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Spillane was better known as a brew pitchman than writer of hard-boiled crime novels.

Typical was Raymond Chandler, no stranger to pulp magazines himself, having cranked out numerous stories for publications such as Black Mask. Phillip Marlowe's creator once said of Spillane's novels, "pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff."
With all due respect, Chandler's denigration seems wildly overstated.
Spillane's style is unquestionably crude though it improved over the years and was closing in on a Jim Thompson level of quality at the end of his most productive period. Most of what cripples his narrative style is the breakneck speed with which he laid down his copy (he reportedly cranked out his seminal I, The Jury in three weeks to raise $1,000 for a real estate purchase) and his steadfast refusal to rewrite anything but a sloppy endorsement on a paycheck.
He is given to repeating himself, sometimes even using the same word more than once in a single sentence. When Hammer is discussing Red's death with his cop chum, Pat Chambers, for example, Spillane inserts the words "kid" or "kids" twice in one paragraph, giving the entire passage a yawn-inducing dullness.
Spillane also has a ham-handed way of using slang that can be like fingernails on a blackboard. When Pat comments on Hammer's irritability, the private eye replies, "Aw, I'm sorry Pat. [The death's] kind of got me loused up."  
The last time I looked, "loused up" was a transitive verbal construction that required a direct object (e.g.: this book is loused up, the evidence was all loused up). It is not a psychological state or irritability.
A little later, Hammer reminds Chambers that they have always told each other the truth in the past: "Sure we've crossed once or twice, but you always have the bull on me before we start," he says. This comment had me rolling my eyes in confusion, wondering exactly what it was they had crossed (swords? stars? their eyes?), and what "bull" was supposed to mean in this context. The sentence is flatly incoherent and should have been revised to make some sort of sense.
Spillane is never worse than when he attempts something "writerly," like a literary allusion that unmasks him as hopelessly lame. When his private eye blows smoke at Chambers during a conversation in mid-novel, Hammer  comments, apropos of nothing, "The smoke it encircled his head like a wreath."
Chambers, bewildered, says "What?"
"Excerpt from the 'Night Before Christmas,' " Hammer replies. "You probably can't go back that far."
That's it. The allusion is not picked up again and there is no explanation why it occurred to Hammer or how it found its way onto the page.  It just sits there like a two-day old mackerel, attracting houseflies.
On the other hand, Spillane is occasionally capable of sharp, memorable writing. At one point early in My Gun is Quick, Hammer says of his secretary Velda, "I didn't figure she'd turn out to be so smart. Good-looking ones seldom are. She's big, she's beautiful and she's got a brain that can figure angles while mine only figures the curves."
In a couple of sentences here, Spillane gives you significant information about Velda's attractiveness and intelligence and his own personality -- that he tends to only notice an attractive woman's physical attributes, but that he recognizes this shortcoming. He notes it by making a self-deprecating joke: "she's got a brain that can figure angles while mine only figures the curves."
The brief passage shows that Hammer is brighter -- or at least shrewder -- that he appears to be. It also shows a Bakhtinian facility with dialog on Spillane's part: a manner of blending traditional speech, jargon and common slang that identifies the character culturally, places him precisely in terms of time, place, social class, education and background, and makes his occupation as a professional tough guy clear.
And while metaphor is not Spillane's strongest point as a writer, he is capable of relatively sophisticated word play and shows some facility with metaphorical constructions. For example, while pursuing a villain toward the end of My Gun is Quick, Hammer observes:
"I knew where he was heading . . . knew he wanted to make the West Side Highway where he could make a run for it without traffic hazard, thinking he might lose me with speed. . . [but] he couldn't lose me now or ever. I was the guy with the cowl and the scythe. I had a hundred and forty black horses under me and an hourglass in my hand, laughing like crazy until the tears rolled down my cheeks. . ." 
The grim reaper allusion in this passage is gold, hardly the metaphor that a semi-literate thug would use. Yet it fits the character because it is clearly how Hammer sees himself. And the switch from the plebeian setup ("I knew where he was heading") to the reaper reference ("I was the guy with the cowl") commands attention. It is a shift from the informal ("guy") to a symbolic representation of death that conjures the reaper.
It is almost as if Spillane has adopted a straightforward, first-person delivery as the baseline of his prose. But, like his character Hammer, every once in a while he slaps the reader in the face, just to hold onto his attention.
Either that, or it means Spillane was a much better writer than he appears to be and simply was too lazy to sharpen his material and make it sing.
Which brings me, indirectly, back to my original question: if his plots are programmatic, the villains uni-dimensional and his writing erratic, what's the point of reading Spillane's stuff or seeing the films made from it?
Perhaps the best reason for picking up a Spillane thriller is the need to understand their place in popular culture -- the historical fact that they reflect the beginning of a sea-change in American social attitudes in the post-war period. Though despised by critics, Mike Hammer is the modern lone gunman, the vigilante whose muscle-bound sense of morality forces him to oppose wrongdoing, and whose blind good fortune always leads him to the real criminals, regardless of how much the evidence may point to somebody else.
Spillane -- who honed his skills writing for comic books, a literary form that is often dependent on individual heroes who act outside the law -- damned near created the modern vigilante genre. With their programmatic violence, stunted emotions and suggestion that shadowy forces are working maliciously behind the scenes, the Hammer books made the paranoid thrillers that followed them possible. Spillane's violent and sadistic private eye represents the alienated anti-hero that had such influence over genre literature during the Korean War era, Red Scare and the beginning of the conflict in Vietnam. An argument could be made that he is the first, fully-formed example of the species.
In Spillane novels like My Gun is Quick, the system has broken down beyond repair: police are impotent or corrupt, rich men benefit from organized crime, bad people get away with evil and the judges that are supposed to administer our laws belong to the same social clubs as those who break them. 
Mike Hammer outwardly seems cynical about this societal breakdown, but inwardly he takes it as a personal affront. For example, when he learns that a thug is licensed to carry a firearm because he is working as a rich man's bodyguard, Hammer responds, "I whistled through my teeth and hung up. Now they were giving out licenses to guys who wanted to kill people. Oh great. Just fine."
Hammer picks up his gun because the legal authorities are hamstrung by rules designed to protect evil-doers. He takes vengeance on hoodlums and their bosses because nobody else will.
Even an honest cop like his friend, Pat Chambers, lacks the authority and gumption to do the right thing. Chambers, though likeable, is impeded by red tape and bureaucratic rules. His actions are controlled by people upstairs who have no interest in justice -- and, in this case, "upstairs" symbolically signifies the ruling class which uses its wealth and legal minions to skirt the law.
This is why Feeney Last, the knife-wielding, neck-breaking thug directly responsible for much of the mayhem in My Gun is Quick, is only a secondary villain.  If you want to know who is really behind the novel's evil, look to Berin-Grotin, the wealthy socialite: in a world in which property is theft, the rich man is always the bad guy; the self-directed anarchist who cannot be controlled but insists on fighting the power, no matter what happens, is his worst nightmare.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Tim Stevens' Second John Purkiss Thriller Really Delivers

By Tim Stevens
Print Length: 240 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English

Does anybody else remember MK Ultra, the CIA's covert program that used drugs and behavioral intercession as an intelligence-collecting mechanism? Ultra was the literally mind-bending scheme in which unwitting subjects were pumped full of LSD and other consciousness-altering chemicals, then subjected to various stimuli to gauge their reactions.

In Delivering Caliban, Tim Stevens has his counterspy, the "ratcatcher" John Purkiss, search for a renegade MI6 agent, Darius Pope, and stumble into an even more secret psychological warfare  operation. And while he is on the trail of his murderous quarry, Purkiss uncovers a nest of corrupt CIA agents who have been assigned to keep the program secret, engages in the requisite shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat with the various baddies, and is faced with a plot to bomb an office building in downtown Manhattan that could be as traumatic for the U.S. as the al Qaeda attack in 2001.

All this while globetrotting locations in Europe, America and the Caribbean!

Delivering Caliban is another fine offering in the espionage genre by Stevens, who introduced his hero John Purkiss in the novel Ratcatcher last year. Caliban has plenty of action, a plethora of betrayals and some fancy footwork on the part of Steven's counterspy as he avoids the police, U.S. spies and the FBI while hunting for his British opponent, a spy who is seeking revenge for a past wrong and who proves himself almost as deft and devious as the book's hero.

It turns on a plot that is believable, and depicts both the protagonist and his opponent making just enough missteps to seem credible and human.

Author Tim Stevens shows no signs of flagging yet!

It is hard not to like a thriller in which the villain is portrayed as a human being and not a two-dimensional master criminal out to take over the world. Pope's motivation is credible and he is treated sympathetically by Stevens, to the point where the reader actually finds himself cheering on the bad guy at times. The target that Stevens has selected for his malefactor makes perfect sense in the context of the novel, and a secondary character who is critical to the plot but could have been inserted haphazardly in the story is actually given a complete backstory that helps to move the story alone.

Stevens will probably run out of gas on Purkiss as a hero eventually: no protagonist this outstanding can continue to inspire high quality thrillers indefinitely.  But the author hasn't shown any signs of foundering so far, and I am looking forward to his next Purkiss adventure with anticipation.

Five nooses.

Johnny Hallyday Shares a Recipe for Revenge

Directed by Johnnie To
Starring Johnny Hallyday, Simon Yam, Siu-Fai Cheung, Felix Wong, Ting Yip Ng

Long-time Hong Kong producer/director Johnny To is known for violent films that depict the brutal Chinese underworld, and Vengeance, a 2009 action programmer, fits the stereotype perfectly except for one thing: it doesn’t feature one of To’s regular company of Chinese action stars as its hero; in fact, the protagonist isn’t even Chinese: he is French rock and roller Johnny Hallyday, who has appeared in crime movies before (Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective may be the best known), but never in a Triad shoot-‘em-up like this one.

The set-up is simple: Francis Costello (Hallyday) is a chef and restaurateur from Paris whose French daughter (Sylvie Testud)  lives with her Chinese husband in Macao. At the beginning of the film, a trio of hitmen invade the daughter’s apartment to kill her husband. In the process, they critically wound the daughter and kill both her children to keep them from identifying the assassins to the police.

Costello travels to Macao to take charge and promises his daughter he will find the killers and make them pay. It is a promise more easily made than kept: Costello is past his prime, old enough to qualify for the easy seats on the bus and a two dollar break on movie tickets. It is easier to imagine him sitting in the park feeding pigeons day-old bread than to visualize him shooting somebody in cold blood.

But fate hands Costello a break: as he is checking into his room, he happens upon three gangsters, Kwai, Chu and Fat Lok (To favorite Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Ka Tung Lam and Suet Lam) who have just killed their boss’s unfaithful wife and lover. 

Instead of identifying the gunmen to police, he tracks them down and offers them all his money and the ownership of his restaurant in return for their help in finding the men who have devastated his family.

Costello accidentally runs into three hit-men and persuades them to help him obtain revenge.
That concludes the simple part of the story. The complication is that Costello has a violent past himself, though it has been 20 years since he killed a man. During a prior killing, he took a bullet in his head. The slug is still in there, and the injury sometimes robs him of his memory.

To insure he will be able to remember the men he has hired, he takes Polaroid photos of them and writes their names on their backs.  Thus equipped, the four head out to track down the men who attacked Costello’s family, engaging in a number of bloody gunfights in the process.

That this is a violent film should surprise no one. But it is no John Woo special with highly choreographed gunplay and lingering slow-motion depictions of men dying: The shootings are grisly, fast and chaotic, with victims going down in sprays of blood.

Of course, at a key moment, Costello loses his memory. He can’t remember why he is in Macao or why he has hired the three gunmen he is traveling with. The Triad killers are faced with a difficult decision: continue to try to help Costello achieve his vengeance or abandon him to an almost certain death at the hands of the gang members he has sworn to kill.

His memory gone, Costello is forced to rely on his Polaroids to identify his allies -- and enemies.
This is where the second complication arises: it turns out that Costello’s son-in-law and grandchildren were killed by three assassins for crime boss George Fung (Simon Yam), and that the three gunmen Costello has hired to help him get revenge are Fung’s employee’s as well.

So what could have been a simple revenger turns out to be partly a story about how the trio of shooters react to this discovery and who they end up siding with in the clash between Fung and Costello. To a great extent, Vengeance is about loyalty – how it is earned and how it can persuade people to “do the right thing,” even when that action involves going against their own interests.

After showing his hired muscle the apartment where his family was  victimized,
Costello seals the deal by cooking a meal for them.

Can Costello’s memory be restored long enough for him to achieve his goal? Will Fung find a way to neutralize his former henchmen and force Costello to face him alone? Is the aging killer with a bullet in his brain still capable of defeating the army of assassins protecting Triad boss Fung?

Like Francis Costello, Vengeance has something unexpected inside its head. It is definitely worth a look. I give it four and a half nooses.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

John Purkiss Tracks an Illicit Gunrunner in the Middle of the Baddie's Haven. . .

By Tim Stevens

Print Length: 35 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English

If you are looking for an espionage short that is completely engrossing but just long enough to last through your commute, Haven is a good bet. 

It is another of Tim Stevens' yarns about John Purkiss (Ratcatcher, Delivering Calaban), the lone wolf counterintelligence agent whose job is finding British spies who have decided to augment their pay packets by selling their information or their services to the other side.

Tim Stevens,  writer of first-rate thrillers.
In this quickie, Purkiss is on holiday in Malta when he spots Oleksander Motruk, a former Ukrainian secret policeman turned weapons trafficker that is still on MI6's most-wanted list.  Purkiss follows the baddie and gets a line on where he can be found, then reports what he has learned to the local Secret Intelligence Service agents, figuring to go back to his vacation once he has alerted them.

But Purkiss finds little welcome at the local SIS detachment. And when he later spots one of the British agents meeting with Motruk, he launches his own investigation. What he finds are Sicilian gangsters, an illicit arms shipment and a double-double-cross.

Unlike Stevens' Purkiss novels -- or his book about the exploits of Martin Calvary, Severance Kill -- Haven is short and relatively uncomplicated. Stevens manages to deftly sketch the locations where the action takes place and conjures a quick vision of each of the major characters without deploying excessive descriptive prose, opting instead to pack the most action possible into this relatively short novelette.

In doing so, Stevens shows himself a student of the pulp masters by  following Raymond Chandler's famous advice, "when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Each short section ends with a cliffhanger of some sort, with the effect that the pages seem to just fly by.

This is fortunate, indeed, since it makes Haven a lively yarn that is brief enough to give a Purkiss fan his or her fix without requiring the time commitment needed for Stevens' longer works.

Five nooses.

An Early "Kiss" from Stanley Kubrick

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Jamie Smith, Irene Kane and Frank Silvera.
(1955, Black and White)

This nifty little 67-minute long film noir set in an unnamed East Coast city is one of Kubrick's earliest films, reportedly shot with a borrowed camera while the director was on public assistance. 

Unlike most flicks of the type, it features a (spoiler alert) more-or-less happy ending, but don't let that stop you from checking it out: it has an underlying bleakness as bitter as a two-timer's lies and the framing of many scenes suggests what Kubrick would achieve as a filmmaker later in his career.

In the film, Davy Gordon (Smith) is a boxer and used to be agood one before time and other fighters got the better of him. Hoping for a big payday and a comeback of sorts, he takes on Rodriguez, a younger, faster welterweight, and ends up down for the count.

On his way to the deck, Davy takes one of many
punches thrown by his rival, Rodriguez.
After talking with relatives back in the Pacific Northwest, Davy decides to pack it in and return home. What complicates matters is the fact that he has met a girl, Gloria Price (Kane), who works in a dime a dance joint owned by petty gangster Vince Rapallo (Silvera). When Rapallo, who is crazy about Gloria, forces himself on her, Davy comes to her rescue. 

This simple action brings the boxer and the dance hall girl together -- and  puts Rapallo in the mood for vengeance.

From our vantage point in an era in which explicit sex has become the rule, it seems hard to believe how quickly can suggest a romance in a film that would be rated GP these days only because of the violence in the last half. Kubrick does it here with nothing more than a kiss. After the smack in question, Davy says, "Something's happened."

Gloria responds, "Yes, I know . . .You kissed me."

Gloria (Irene Kane) is the love interest
that sparks the action in Killer's Kiss.
"Is that all?" he asks, bewildered, to which Gloria responds "That's all I saw, and I was watching all the time."

As the pair pack to leave town, Rapallo decides to take Gloria back from her new boyfriend. His goons kill a friend of Davy's by mistake, however, and they kidnap the girl and rendezvous with Rapallo, setting up the final confrontation.

Davy forces Rapallo to take him to Gloria.
Though Kubrick made Killer's Kiss on a budget so small you could easily miss it with a microscope, with a cast of unknowns so obscure their pictures belong on milk cartons, he delivers an amazingly satisfying film.

Silvera, who was in the cast of Viva Zapata, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre and The Greatest Story Ever Told, but who did most of his work as heavies on series television, is one of the greasiest villains I have ever seen in a movie. He seems to sweat through every scene he is in, leaving a glistening trail behind him like a 160-pound slug.

Oleaginous villain Vince Rapallo (Frank Silvera)
casts a greasy pall over the film.
Like Silvera, Smith mostly did TV parts, but his low-key performance as the hero of this short thriller adds immensely to the film's gritty verisimilitude.

And Kane, who had only the briefest of acting careers (she is better known as a journalist under the byline Chris Chase), is a treat as a woman who has burned by so many men she's been forced to invest in asbestos lingerie.  She is no conventional beauty, is convincing as the kind of arms-length woman who could drive a small-time mobster wild with desire and earn his enmity with an ill-timed insult.

"That's all I saw, and I was watching all the time,"
Gloria tells Davy after they kiss.
Don't look for high-speed auto stunts or manic shootouts in Killer's Kiss: you won't see them. The action is confined to a rooftop foot chase between Rapallo and Gordon, one ring-boxing sequence and a violent struggle between the hero and villain in one of the creepiest settings in all moviedom --  a manikin factory. 

It's definitely a film worth seeing. I give it four nooses.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

To Catch a Rat!

By Tim Stevens

Kindle Edition, 2012

I have to admit, when it comes to reading pulp-type fiction, I am a sucker for a good series. There is something so comfortable about slipping into a yarn with familiar characters. I have always been that way; when I was a kid, I warped my mind permanently by reading everything in the public library by Andre Norton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Howard. (At least this shows that my predilection for pulp series isn't associated with a slide into age-onset senility!)

So it was with pleasure that I picked up the John Purkiss novels written by Tim Stevens, a physician in England who cranks out just about as good a spy tale as anybody in the racket. 

I first learned of Stevens when I read and reviewed his most recent novel, Severance Kill, for my other blog, Lurid Tales. It featured a neatly drawn and fully-rounded hero named Martin Calvary who is a professional assassin tasked with eliminating the bad actors of the British secret services: moles, double-agents and other unsavory types. At the time, I described Calvary as "the most secret kind of secret agent that exists in spy fiction: a guy who works for a British agency, The Chapel, that is so obscure even the people in British intelligence have never heard of it."
I liked the book inordinately and learned from Dead Drop, Stevens' blog, that he had written two earlier novels featuring another counter-intelligence agent named John Purkiss. As I said at the time, I looked forward to reading them, too.

Ratcatcher author Tim Stevens is the Real Deal -- read his stuff!

But life gets in the way and I never got around to looking at the two earlier books -- until this month, when I found myself ripping through a Purkiss short story and two novels during a 60-hour reading jag that didn't end until I had consumed the last page of the second book.

I will review all three over the next couple of weeks, but let me start with Purkiss Number One, a tasty little confection called Ratcatcher that introduces the character and lays out part of his back story for readers.

Purkiss is a "ratcatcher," a sort of super Internal Affairs officer for British Intelligence. He works "off the books" -- the Queen pays the bills and drafts the checks that cover his salary, but his official records in England show only that he formerly worked for the Special Intelligence Services; his counter-intelligence  position is not officially affiliated with MI5 or MI6 or any other British intelligence agencies.

His job is simple, at least from a superficial point of view: he is charged with tracking down corrupt members of the secret services, getting the evidence necessary to prove their guilt, and taking them out of circulation so they can be tried and imprisoned.

In Ratcatcher, Purkiss is sent to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to look for a former colleague who murdered another intelligence agent but was inexplicably released from prison after serving only a tiny part of his sentence. The supposition is that the baddie is engaged in some heinous plot, and the evidence early on is strong that it involves the disruption of a ceremonial meeting between the presidents of Russia and Estonia to announce a rapprochement and cooperative agreement between the two countries.

What complicates the situation is that the spy Purkiss is chasing is a former friend -- and that the agent he killed was Purkiss's fiancé. In addition, British intelligence already has a team already working in Tallinn that seems likely to get in Purkiss's way, and he is also countered by a secret militia of former Soviet military who appear to be pursuing their own plot to disrupt the meeting.

Like any good espionage thriller, the book piles triple crosses on double crosses and nobody appears to be who they say they are.  Bad guys can be unmasked as good guys and even the people least likely to be twisted can turn out to be traitors. Until the final pages, everybody but Purkiss could conceivably be a villain out to wreck the ceremony, assassinate one or both of the statesmen present and kill John Purkiss in the process.

Stevens has a sure hand for the cliffhanger and is deft at keeping the reading flipping those pages. Unlike some other thriller writers, his stuff is harder to fit into one of the subgenres that tend to dominate the field (see the essay below).  His agents frequently engage in hand-to-hand combat, but he doesn't lard his books with a lot of martial arts terminology or drift into "Gray's Anatomy" style discussions of the effect of each blow or shot. 

Descriptions of military technology -- and a humdinger is featured in Ratcatcher -- are kept mercifully short and succinct. I'm no expert of spy equipment but the surveillance techniques he has his agents use are basic and authentic, and his understanding of gadgets such as GPS tracking and night vision seems to this amateur to be either accurate or at least plausible.

In fact descriptions of all sort are tight and forced to carry their weight in the narrative. This works fine, because Stevens can sketch a scene better in a sentence or two than other writers can with an entire chapter.

On top of his skill at turning out a solid technical spy yarn, Stevens has something you can't get by sitting in the military reading room at the library and studying Jane's Infantry or Naval Weapons: excellent timing. His stories zip right along at a clip spritely enough to keep the reader's mind from wandering in a search for weak plot points, characterization flaws, physically impossible action and other roadbumps that can show up on the road to the last page.

And while many page-turners depend on plot or a quirky protagonist to hold a reader's interest, Stevens does us the old-fashioned favor of putting some damn nice writing in his stories. The first chapter of Ratcatcher provides an excellent example.  It opens with the phrase "His world turned on its head for the second time at precisely ten eighteen p.m.," then dives immediately into his arrest while working undercover in Croatia and on his way to a meeting with a crooked arms dealer in Croatia.

To avoid spoilers, suffice to say Stevens returns to the world-turning event in the last few paragraphs of the chapter, closing the distance between the beginning and end of the section neatly and propelling the reader into the second chapter in the process.  It's a technique he manages to bring off time and again in this book, and it not only increases a reader's engagement in the story, but also keeps the plot unfolding smoothly and quickly.  

And watch the last three paragraphs when you get there.  Stevens has left the careful reader an Easter egg of sorts in a passage that ties directly back to the title of the novel.

Tim Stevens is the real deal. I can't recommend Ratcatcher and his other John Purkiss thrillers strongly enough.

Dilberts, Mechanics and Scouts, Oh my!

The General Subgenres of the 
Espionage Thriller 
(An Essay)

When it comes to suspense fiction, many of the most famous espionage thrillers don't fit into any particular category: Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Graham Greene's The Quiet American and The Third Man, Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate are originals that helped establish the style and a considerable amount of the substance of the contemporary spy novel.

However, just about any list of popular spy yarns shows clearly that many practitioners of the genre work almost exclusively in a handful of categories, and most of the secondary authors in the field line up behind them, essentially writing the same sorts of books.
For example, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels -- and the mediocre knock-offs by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Raymond Benson -- fall into a fantasy subgenre that could be called the "Mickey Spillane" school of spy thriller. In these tales, the emphasis is on action and gunplay, not the collection and analysis of intelligence -- or even intrigue.

Like Spillane's hero, Mike Hammer, Bond is more likely to pummel information out of a villain or simply kill him than to set up a surveillance, service a dead drop, massage a double agent for classified documents or corrupt a rival from a foreign secret service. Spies like Bond can easily donate their cerebral matter to worthy recipients when they die because they use them so little in their work. "Unfortunately I misjudged you," Bond villain Dr. No says as he prepare to feed Commander Bond to the most numerous residents of Crab Key. "You are just a stupid policeman whose luck has run out."

Stupid maybe, but a crack shot and in remarkable physical  condition for a man who bangs down vodka like soda pop, smokes bespoke cigarettes compulsively and seems to get most of his exercise by diving between the thighs of nubile young women.

The Bond novels are simply the glitziest example of this school. Other exemplars include such direct-to-paperback potboiler series as The Executioner, Nick Carter-Killmaster, The Deathmaster, Phoenix Force and others of their ilk.

On the opposite pole from the Bond novels are the cerebral novels of John Le Carre, who began as the undisputed master of the "Boy's Life" espionage subgenre. 

The "Boy's Life" thriller, like the scouting magazine of that name, concerns itself at length with the tradecraft used by intelligence agents. Only instead of being organized around lessons on how to build a fire, pitch a tent or help a little old lady cross the street, Le Carre's "Boy's Life" spy novels (such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or The Looking Glass War) detail how spies compromise each other, infiltrate enemy services and push little old ladies from the research desk of MI6 under the wheels of passing omnibuses.
With the two-part George Smiley series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, Le Carre took a step away from the "Boy's Life" subset and into what could be called the "Pyramid Builder" school of espionage tale. The "Pyramid Builder" moniker is derived from Vance Packard's study of the acquisitive and competitive behavior of top executives in the 1950s. Novels in this subgenre concentrate on the interior sociology and politics of spy agencies and the infighting that characterizes many of them.

In recent years, the diminution of the Cold War has forced Le Carre to look elsewhere for inspiration, so the vicious and heartless spies of the Soviet Union who later became vicious and heartless terrorists are now vicious and heartless agents of multi-national corporations, drug cartels or dealers in armaments.

I don't point out the general lines followed by these two authors to suggest some sort of rampant plagiarism or failure of imagination among writers of espionage fiction. It is more of an observation that a lot of us who write popular fiction follow certain fictional conventions, and at times those conventions become a specific subcategory of fiction all by themselves.

The best most of us can do is avoid following these subgenres too closely, and to mix them up as much as possible There are a variety of different types of espionage-and-intrigue thrillers out there in the suspense genre and certain writers are associated with each one. Here is a far from complete list of those subgenres. See how well the spy novel you have sitting on your bedside table corresponds to these coarse categories:

Popular Mechanics

Tom Clancy is heavily identified with the "Popular Mechanics" school, which concentrates on the technology involved in a story --guns, military hardware, eavesdropping gear, surveillance equipment etc. -- in an almost fetishistic way.

A couple of Clancy's books play out almost exclusively as catalogs of munitions and war materiel. The Hunt for Red October, which revolves around the defection of a Soviet hunter-killer submarine and its crew, is one of these, as is Red Storm Rising, the Clancy programmer that turns on war between NATO and the USSR.

In them, Clancy's pornographic obsession with military hardware and its capabilities are a substitute for  characterization and a sense of time and place. Clancy and and his team of researchers, ghost writers and co-authors seem to create his stories, novels and screenplays in the stacks of a reference library filled with back copies of Jane's, the catalog of military hardware.

Paranoid Thrillers

Robert Ludlum is the master of the "Paranoid" school, in which the spy is essentially a lone wolf targeted by everyone else in his circle, including his bosses in his own intelligence service. The Bourne novels are the gold standard for this type of spy yarn; in a Ludlum novel, the hero can trust no one -- when the villain is finally exposed, he or she is just as likely to be a high-ranking member of the hero's own outfit as the bearded head of a mideast terrorist organization or coldblooded chieftain of an enemy nation's secret service.

Other practitioners of this subgenre include Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed), Ken Follett (Capricorn One) and Frederick Forsyth (The Odessa File, The Boys from Brazil, The Fourth Protocol).

Gray's Anatomy

The "Gray's Anatomy" school of thriller closely resembles  the "Popular Mechanics" school, except that the author of a "Gray's"-style suspense novel tends to be morbidly fascinated by human bodies and how their grisly bits respond to physical violence.

The books of Lee Child are often members of this subset. In them each shot, kick and karate chop is described in obsessive detail, tracing its impact on the victim's internal organs and nervous system as he goes down, waiting for the coup de grace.

Sections of stories written by practitioners of this subgenre can read like autopsy reports, and the details about how a character dies frequently takes a back seat to the development of his or her character or the ingenuity of the plot. 

In Die Trying, his second Jack Reacher novel, for example, Child takes two paragraphs to describe the physical effect of a sniper rifle round:

"Reacher's bullet hit Borken in the head a full second and a third after he fired it. It entered the front of his forehead and was out of the back of his skull three ten-thousands of a second later. In and out without really slowing much more at all, because Borken's skull and brains were nothing to a two-ounce lead projectile with a needle point and polished copper jacket. The bullet was well on over the endless forest beyond before the pressure wave built up in Borken's skull and exploded it."

"The effect is mathematical and concerns kinetic energy. The way it had been explained to Reacher, long ago, was all about equivalents. The bullet weighed only two ounces but it was fast. Equivalent to something heavy, but slow. Two ounces moving at a thousand miles an hour was maybe similar to something weighing ten pounds moving at three miles an hour. Maybe something like a sledgehammer swinging hard in a man's hand. That was pretty much the effect. Reacher was watching it through the scope. Heart in his mouth. A full second and a third is a long time to wait.  He watched Borken's skull explode like it had been burst from the inside with a sledgehammer. It came apart like a diagram. Reacher saw curved shards of bone bursting outward and red mist blooming."

As can be seen in this two-paragraph passage, because the mayhem in Child's Reacher books frequently involves gunplay, Child's stories also sometimes draw heavily on the "Popular Mechanics" school of spy writing.

Dilbert and Working Class Hero

The "Dilbert" subtype -- and its cousin, the "Working Class Hero" -- have protagonists who work for agencies that almost invariably make the wrong call, forcing the agent to ignore the instructions he has been given by his supervisors.  In these novels, the protagonist spends almost as much time working against his own corrupt and incompetent masters as against his actual opponents, and his triumphs are rarely acknowledged. 

The novels featuring the British agent Quiller (The Quiller Memorandum, The Ninth Directive) by Adam Hall (a pseudonym for Elleston Trevor) are exemplars, though they sometimes seem a cross with the "Gray's Anatomy" subgenre: Agent Quiller works alone and never uses a firearm, so when he is forced to kill or incapacitate a foe, there is usually a detailed description of what household item he uses as a weapon and how it inflicts the mortal (or at least crippling) injury.

(This genre is sometimes referred to as the "Peter Principle" subcategory when the author spends more time demonstrating the ineptitude of the protagonist's intelligence agency than he does developing the intrigue that is supposedly driving the story. 

Lawrence Peters coined the term in the early 1970s to describe the often-noted fact that people tend to rise through an organization until they reach their point of maximum incompetence, at which time further promotions cease. 

These days Peter's term is generally used in connection with the workings of large financial businesses.)The "Working Class Hero" subset's most perfect examples are Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, etc.). 

If you take the bureaucratically challenged Quiller of Adam Hall's espionage novels and give him a working class background (and in Palmer's case, uninterrupted carping about how little he is paid) and you have the essential formula for this form, which is sometimes called the "Shop Steward" genre, depending on how much the central figure bitches about his masters' tight-fistedness.