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, December 27, 2013

The Pulphack is Taking a Winter Break

Pulp Hack Confessions is taking this week and the next one off to complete my new novel, The Jade Bone Jar.

When we get back on Saturday, Jan. 11, we will have fresh material, including a review of Martin Cruz Smith's latest Arkady Renko adventure, Tatiana, and a look at Siege by Simon Kernick, a nail biter about terrorists taking over a London hotel. 

We also will have the first of several excerpts from The Jade Bone Jar, detective yarn set in Oakland, California immediately after World War II that features a new character: ex-Marine and Honolulu cop Kevin O'Conor. If you like stories that feature war profiteers, inept FBI agents, international criminals and the theft of personal property from interned Japanese-American citizens, you will want to read this one.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Rifleman's Stalking the Sick and the Lame in Tim Stevens' Latest John Purkiss Thriller

(John Purkiss Series)
By Tim Stevens
250 pages
(Nov. 13, 2013; Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

John Purkiss, the "Ratcatcher" of Tim Stevens' eponymously named debut novel, is back on the job in Stevens'  excellent sequel. Those who would threaten British security had best be at the top of their game if they plan to escape his relentless gaze.

Purkiss, as you may recall from my earlier reviews of Ratcatcher and Delivering Calaban, is an ex-spy who works "off the books" of the British intelligence services, tracking down moles and traitors. He gets his assignments from another idiosyncratic intelligence professional: an older veteran of British espionage named Quentin Vale who, as a black man in the service, is something of an oddity.

Purkiss collects the evidence necessary to put the baddies in prison for long sentences. When necessary, he kills them outright, though with more regret and circumspection than his fictional counterpart, James Bond, the superspy created by the late Ian Fleming.

In Jokerman, he ends up on the case from a slightly different angle: he is asked to find the title character, a top-level traitor at MI5, the larger and better funded of Britain's two espionage agencies. And his warrant for the job comes from Five's deputy director, a woman named Maureen Kasabian.

Initially Purkiss declines to hunt Jokerman, pleading that anything he finds will be viewed with suspicion within English intelligence circles because he is a former member of MI6, the smaller of the two agencies and its ferocious rival.

But when a sniper attempts an assassination at Purkiss' home, in the process critically wounding a Purkiss associate named Kendrick during a chess game, the Ratcatcher is determined to ferret out the person behind the attack.

(Incidentally, it is the assassin's use of a rifle that gives the book -- and Purkiss's investigation -- the Jokerman name. The title is a reference to the Bob Dylan song, which contains the lyrics:

(Well, the rifleman's stalking the sick and the lame
Preacherman seeks the same, who'll get there first is uncertain 
Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain
False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time 'til the night comes stepping in.)

Make no mistake, Jokerman is a classic page-turner, the kind of book that will have you reading through the night to find out what happens next.  

The action is slam-bang, starting with the initial assassination and proceeding through a series of shootings, bombings and hand-to-hand engagements that put Purkiss at risk of death. In one brief section only a few pages long, four people are killed and Purkiss ends up in a struggle for survival with one of the villains.

The paranoia is heaped on by the dump truck load, with menace provided by a private security company that operates in the Mideast, a group of former British paratroopers, and a coterie of untrustworthy spies who come under suspicion by Purkiss as the plot zig-zags.

Author Tim Stevens dots every "i" and crosses every "t" in his terrific new novel, Jokerman. (Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

Stevens dots every "i" and crosses every "t" in the process, generating some writing that made me smile at its stylishness, originality and clarity. For example, the following description sets up a confrontation between the Ratcatcher and a group of Middle Eastern thugs in London:

"At the top of a narrow flight of stairs that doubled back upon itself, he found a door with an opaque glass panel, like the entrance to a private eye's office in a noir film. Cheap lettering had been scratched off the panel, leaving a ghostly trace. Beyond, dark and blurred shapes shifted."

There doesn't seem to be an unnecessary word in this passage, which nicely establishes a note of mystery with its "ghostly trace" of scratched-off letters (what did they once say?), its "dark and blurred shapes" behind a frosted door "like the entrance to a private eye's office in a noir film," and the touch of onomatopoeia in the words "shapes shifted." In three sentences -- a mere 53 words -- he excellently manages to put the reader in the proper mood for the brutal clash that occurs a few sentences later.

As a thriller writer myself, I bookmarked this passage for future study. I admit that I am jealous of Stevens' ability to come up with descriptive passages like this, not to mention believable characters, plausible plots and credible dialog; that he seems to be able to do so time after time drives me half mad with envy.

As the hunt for the Jokerman proceeds, Stevens manages to double-cross his readers using red herrings to hide the identities of two villains so effectively that I literally gasped when they were revealed. To me this is a rare treat: most thriller writers handle this type of plot twist in a clumsy manner, telegraphing the actual baddie so obviously that only a dolt falls for the fakes. Not Stevens. 

Some readers may feel Stevens takes up too much time and space in Jokerman explaining the rivalry between the two British intelligence services. (Suffice to say that the clash between the two is not only bureaucratic but also cultural; the closest thing we have to it in the U.S. is the tenuous and unfriendly relationship between the FBI and the CIA).

But the rivalry serves a critical function in the plot of the novel by clearly establishing that the agencies are constitutionally incapable -- and unwilling -- to engage in the close cooperation finding and stopping a high-ranking traitor would otherwise receive.

I consider Stevens one of the best writers of spy thrillers working today. The previous two Purkiss novels are right up there at the top of a genre that boasts more than a few of the greatest authors who have ever strung together a declarative sentence, including John Le Carre, Graham Green and Adam Hall.

Jokerman follows them into the canon. I simply can't recommend Tim Stevens' stuff enough!

(Note: Stevens has new material coming out soon, so keep an eye on this space. Or check his blog, "Dead Drop" for advance notice.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

From Figurative 97-pound Weakling to Tough Private Eye, Raymond Chandler Overcame a Middle-Class Upbringing to Pioneer the Hard Boiled Crime Novel

A Mysterious Something 
In the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler 
By Tom Williams
396 pages
ISBN: 161374840X
(Chicago Review Press, Sept. 1, 2013)
(Kindle edition sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

Critics regard Raymond Chandler as one of the authors who transformed American crime fiction from a pot-boiler genre to a literary form. He, along with James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, dropped the intricate mental puzzles turning on timetables, exotic poisons and complicated motivations in favor of psychological dramas that featured realistic characters, a more pessimistic attitude about the human spirit and plots driven by lust and greed. 

Those who have heard of Chandler know him primarily as the author of The Big Sleep, a novel that was made into films twice, once starring Humphrey Bogart as Chandler's wise-cracking but chivalrous detective, Philip Marlowe, and an inferior, updated version with another well-known movie tough guy, Robert Mitchum, playing the part.

They may also know that Chandler, who was never particularly prolific as an author, ran into a dry spot toward the end of his career and left his last book, Poodle Springs, unfinished (it was later completed by Robert Parker, but the finished product appears to be more Parker than Chandler). Those familiar with Chandler's life may even know that he was an alcoholic who could become an abusive, combative drunk when he was on a toot.

Raymond Chandler strikes an authoresque pose in this photo from the Guardian.

In his fine biography of Chandler, A Mysterious Something in the Light, writer, literary agent and editor Tom Williams goes beyond the author's public persona, piecing together Chandler's family history, private relationships and key episodes from his childhood that give us a clearer understanding of why the novelist became an exemplar of the hard-boiled school of writing. 

Williams' book, published less than three months ago, builds on his earlier biography of the writer, Raymond Chandler, and helps the reader understand what led him to create Philip Marlowe and inspire a host of other writers, including Ross MacDonald (The Zebra Striped Hearse, The Underground Man).

Chandler biographer Tom Williams (courtesy of www.tomwilliamsonline.com)

In fact, one of the biography's chief virtues is the way in which Williams relates specific event in Chandler's life to his fiction, and shows how the style and substance of his novels were greatly influenced by the grimly dark corruption of Los Angeles, a city where he spent critical years as an oil company executive before he began writing crime stories.

Chandler was born in Chicago in July 23, 1888, but moved to Nebraska as a small child. His father was a railroad construction manager and his mother an Englishwoman who was raised in a rather arid family in the old country. The couple had a fractious relationship that eventually ended in divorce. As Williams explains it, the split drove little Raymond closer to his mother, who took him to England where he was raised and educated. 

His father's absence from his life affected Chandler deeply, and Williams says it appears to have been at the root of the difficulty he had building relationships with men during his adult life.

On the positive side, his period in England gave Chandler a fascination for literature. He aspired to become a poet, though his work in the field was mediocre and derivative. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to obtain a real foothold in British literary circles and found himself looking for a more mundane way to make a living.

Chandler saw himself as a sort of minor classics-quoting English nobleman, affecting a silver headed cane and elegant style of dress, but his posh appearance was simply a disguise: although he tried his hand at a number of jobs, he was uniformly ill-adapted for each of them and became increasingly desperate to find some calling that would give him the genteel prestige he sought. Repeatedly frustrated in his efforts, he and his mother eventually decamped for the United States.

As Williams recounts, Chandler finally managed to find the niche he sought as a middle-level executive in the oil industry in Los Angeles. It not only provided him and his mother with a degree of financial security, but also introduced him to Southern California's bohemian set and gave him his first close look at corruption and the venality of American capitalism. Both eventually would become major influences on his literary career.

For Los Angeles in those days was a crime-ridden sinkhole dominated by a syndicate of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant racketeers known as "The System." Police were as crooked as city politicians, and the city's business leaders operated under an "anything goes" philosophy that condoned gambling, prostitution and a variety of crimes.

It was a perfect milieu in which Chandler could absorb gritty atmosphere and meet characters like those who would later appear in his pulp fiction.

"Business was inherently corrupt in Ray's eyes," Williams writes. "It did not make much sense and he always believed that 'big business left to itself will always be crooked.' . . .[he believed] the institutions built to protect the citizenry were not up to scratch."

Or, as Chandler put it himself, "The typical racketeer is only very slightly different from the business man in many of the more tricky kinds of business such as oil, real estate, sports promotion, theatrical ventures, nightclubs and hotels and restaurants."

This is the philosophy of "red noir," the anti-capitalist theme I have mentioned repeatedly in other essays, which forms the underpinning for much hard-boiled detective fiction.  Briefly stated, crime is not a form of evil unto itself; it is the inevitable product of our economic system.

As Williams puts it, "the detective remains pure. He is one of the little people, doing his job, but up against the might of the political and criminal forces that run the city."

Williams says that many of Chandler's early pulp stories reflect this notion, not in a flagrant, obvious way, but through the dialog he uses to establish his characters and motivation.  Chandler, a wannabe toff with a decidedly ruling class point of view, writes red noir not because he is a leftist ideologue, but because it reflects the real world he observed while living and working in Los Angeles.

It was also in L.A. that Chandler met Cissy, the woman who would become his wife. The relationship was probably not a healthy one: Cissy, a divorce√©,  was a contemporary of his mother (his fascination for the older woman infuriated his mother and drove a wedge between them). Chandler and Cissy lived together for years as lovers and eventually wed after Chandler's mother died. But the marriage was not a happy one: Cissy had apparently been less than forthcoming about her actual age: Chandler apparently was angry when he discovered she was some 18 years his senior, and took steps to cover up the age differential later.

The depression sank the oil company Chandler worked for, but Chandler had already been sacked for his alcoholism and erratic behavior. The firing ended his career as an executive. It was difficult for a middle-aged man to find a new job after the stock market tanked in 1929, wiping out his holdings. Well into middle age, during a trip with Cissy, Chandler picked up a copy of a pulp detective magazine for amusement and realized that the pulps would pay him to write while he polished his craft as a short story author and novelist.

The slam-bam action and crudity of the pulps was nothing like the poetry he had been trying to write -- rhymes full of chivalric heroes and pure, untouched women who seemed to reflect his rather naive view of his mother -- but if he could break into the market, he would at least become the professional writer he had long aspired to be.

He took a correspondence course on how to write fiction and set to work on his first story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot."  It took him nearly a year to write it, and in retrospect, it is a collection of scenes that are glued together into a story that is not particularly coherent.  Nonetheless, it made the cut at one of the leading pulps, Black Mask, which published it. Although Chandler was paid a mere penny a word for the piece, he was at last a professional writer.

Once he broke into the pulp magazines, Chandler produced a series of noteworthy short stories and novels that cemented his reputation as a creator of the hard-boiled detective character and a founding member of the noir school of mystery. All but one of this major works formed the basis of hit motion pictures that featured some of the top stars of the era: The Big Sleep; The Lady in the Lake; Murder, My Sweet (published and refilmed in 1975 as Farewell, My Lovely); The Long Goodbye; and The Brasher Doubloon.

Once he had achieved critical success as a writer, he was tapped to do screenplays, transforming a number of other author's works into material suitable for use in motion pictures, including Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train and The Blue Dahlia.

Chandler, whose private eye Marlowe, served as one of the prototypes for the tough-talking, wise-cracking private eye that became a default setting for American mysteries, eventually attained literary success, though it came late in his life. As Williams' excellent bio makes clear, it was an irony worthy of one of his novels that the man who helped create the hard-as-nails private eye stereotype was himself a superannuated mama's boy and a failed poet who was uncomfortable in dealing with either men or women.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mob City Looks and Sounds Good, but Fails to Hold Viewer Interest

TNT 2013
Director: Frank Darabont (“The Walking Dead”)
Written by Darabont and John Buntin.
Starring: Jon Berthal, Milo Ventimiglia, Edward Burns, Alexa Davalos.

As a fan of noir, I was really looking forward to Mob City. The trailers and the advance flack made it sound like it could be the best crime drama since Private Eye (Andrew Yerkovich, 1987-1988) or Crime Story (Michael Mann, 1986) -- a sort of television version of L.A. Confidential, the dark and steamy 1997 film directed by Curtis Hanson that starred Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger and Guy Pearce.

The program was supposed to be based on the non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin, an excellent primer on the development of the underworld in Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when racketeering was controlled by WASP opportunists and the city was billed as a purely white haven for Easterners and Midwesterners eager to escape the teeming ethnic enclaves of cities like Boston, New York and Chicago.

L.A. Noir author John Buntin (courtesy of johnbuntin.com)

The pre-release buzz was that Buntin had his fingerprints all over the show. He is even credited as co-writer of the first six episodes.

To me, that was very good news indeed: Buntin’s book, which was previously reviewed here, plays off the decades-long battle between Mickey Cohen, who came to be the public face of L.A.-area gangsterism, and Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who made his goal the elimination of all mob activity in the city.

Not that Los Angeles was ever the crime-free paradise conjured in the alcohol-fevered mind of Bill Parker or portrayed in advertisements and magazine spreads by developers and promoters, or: the city had more than its share of crime, much of it as highly organized as that controlled by any Mob family in New York or Philadelphia.

The main difference between the City of the Angels and its counterparts in the East and Midwest was that the rackets – gambling, prostitution and drugs -- were all run by White Anglo Saxon Protestant boosters.  Parker was simply trying to drive out the Jews and Italians so the old guard could resume control.

Parker brought a variety of methods to bear on this campaign, not all of which – including wiretaps that showed mob attempts to manipulate city elections and an underworld plan to divide the city up into gang-controlled markets – were strictly legal. In response, Cohen suborned a major part of the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s departments, using cops as errand boys for his criminal enterprises, a protection service for his rackets and a pipeline for information from City Hall.

I figured that with interesting villains like Cohen (Jeremy Luke) and Bugsy Siegel (Edward Burns) and a flawed hero like Parker (Neal McDonough), who was an alcoholic and suffered life-long marital problems, all the program had to do was stay within the framework of Buntin’s book to be a supremely entertaining drama.

Edward Burns as gang boss Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (photo courtesy of Mob City/TNT

Unfortunately, based on the two episodes that kicked off the new program on December 4, Darabont, who co-authored most of the first season’s scripts with Buntin, has no intention of sticking strictly to the facts.  The first two hours of the program are largely spent introducing a host of characters who appear to be mostly fictional, and concentrate on a Los Angeles detective, Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal), who appears to be working with Siegel’s organized crime group through its crooked attorney, Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia.)

LAPD Officer Joe Teague (right) chews the fat with Mob lawyer Milo Ventimiglia (courtesy Mob City/TNT)

Teague is hired by a comedian with mob ties, Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg in a special guest appearance), to provide protection for him in a blackmail scheme. Nash has the negatives of photographs that are either embarrassing or incriminating to somebody in Siegel’s organization.  In a meeting attended by Teague and Nash, two of Siegel’s goons, Ace Cooper (Yorgo Constantine) and Syd Rothman (Robert Knepper) swap $50,000 for the negatives. After they leave, Nash is gunned down by Teague for reasons that are not disclosed until the second episode.

The blackmail scheme puts Teague into contact with Jasmine (Alexa Davalos) who is Hecky’s girlfriend – or was; this point is left unresolved at the end of the second episode. She is a camera girl at Cohen’s nightspot, the Clover Club, and snapped the photographs Nash used in his extortion plot. She appears to have more pictures that will play a role in a later episode of the program.

There is plenty of gun play and violence in the first two-hour chunk of the show, but at the end of the second episode, surprisingly little has actually happened. Part of this is the fault of demon backstory – introducing the main characters takes time that could have been used to flesh out the various people who populate the cast or advance the plot.

The slow pace is only part of the problem. In addition, the characters around whom the plot revolves are as lifeless as the zombies in Darabont’s other hit TV show, The Walking Dead.
Some of them are fictitious, like Teague, Nash, Jasmine and Syd Rothman, who appears to be an amalgam of Harry “Hooky” Rothman, an actual Cohen lieutenant, and some unnamed member of Siegel’s “Murder Incorporated” gang from New York. Others, like Cohen, Siegel and Parker, are actual historical figures who have been dressed up a bit for the show.

There are lots of pained looks, sneers and bittersweet smiles  from these characters, but there seems to be little inside them. This is supposed to be set in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, but the witty dialogue you would find in a Philip Marlowe story is largely absent here.

Occasionally a character gets off a good line, such as Jasmine’s response when police investigating his death  tell her they are surprised she doesn’t seem to be more distraught. “Maybe you should put him in a coffin and wheel him in here so I can throw myself on it and cry over him,” she replies coldly. “Would that play better for you?”

Jasmine waits for Hecky Nash at her apartment (Mob City/TNT)
But for the most part, the lines are as flat and one-dimensional as the characters. Just before trading the negatives for cash, Nash tells Teague: “This city. So damn beautiful. But only from a distance. Up close, it's all gutter.”

Here’s a man engaging in a criminal act – extortion – and he is complaining about how rotten Los Angeles is under its glitzy surface. It’s an ironic thought, but it isn’t delivered with a hint of irony. Instead it is put over in a dull and declarative fashion that makes the character, an associate of criminals, sound like a prude. Here it really isn’t the writing that sabotages the program – it is the witless direction. Someone besides Darabont might have been able to get Pegg to read the lines in a way that at least made him sound aware that his character was contributing to the moral decay he decries, but Darabont apparently hadn’t the vision or the chops to shade the character this way. He’s spent too much time with the walking dead, I guess.

The consequence is, Nash sounds unhip and whiney, like someone who legitimately believes their problems are caused by somebody else.  Why bother to get a guest star of Pegg’s caliber if you are going to throw him or her away on a part so badly drawn?

Despite the weak characterizations and the do-nothing storyline boasted by the show’s first two hours,  there is plenty to look at and listen to in Mob City.

The program is beautifully filmed in a way that takes advantage of a wealth of period detail: the hand-painted neckties are as garish and unsophisticated as the ones that hung in my dad’s closet; the cars are beautiful and don’t have a scratch to mar their period paint  jobs; the alpha males have just enough five o’clock shadow to look tough and mean, and the streets are constantly slicked with rain – so much so that by the end of the second episode, the viewer begins to wonder why Los Angeles is located in the middle of the desert instead of a tropical jungle.

The show also makes splendid use of neon tube art. Almost every scene seems to occur at night, and every frame of film is illuminated by the colorful signs of night clubs or dazzling reflections in pools of still rainwater.

Another terrific touch is the soundtrack, which includes such period jazz standards as “Night in Tunisia” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It is worth watching the program for the visuals and the tunes alone.

But its good looks and attractive music aside, Mob City is no replacement for Private Eye, which managed stylish visuals and a solid period soundtrack, but managed to weave them together with intriguing plots, nicely drawn characters and witty dialogue worthy of a Chandler or his successors, Ross MacDonald or James Ellroy.  

Crack L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere or The Zebra-Striped Hearse if you are looking to kill a couple hours with stylish and satisfying noir; you will find them a lot more interesting and fun than Mob City.

Or just pick up a copy of Buntin’s book. Not only is it better than the TV series it inspired, you learn some actual recent history while you are reading it.