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. . .

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

I find all three authors' definitions only partly satisfactory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Goodis

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

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Uncle Dust

Uncle Dust
By Rob Pierce
314 pages
All Due Respect Books; Jan. 15, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1507503962
ISBN-13: 978-1507503966

Uncle Dust – short for Dustin -- is nobody’s uncle. That’s just what he’s called by Jeremy, his girlfriend Theresa’s kid.

Dustin could be a house painter or a drywall nailer or a paper-hanger or a mechanic. He’s a ham-and-egger: a lunch bucket kind of guy who drinks too much and gets along poorly with the women in his life – when he gets along with them at all.

On the surface, Dust is just your average blue collar worker who enjoys kicking back with a beer and a shot of scotch when he’s not on the job.

But underneath the working class fa├žade, Dustin’s lifestyle isn’t that straightforward. As he tells Theresa, the woman he’s living with, “You and me, we ain’t even complicated and we’re complicated.”

You see, Uncle Dust, the remarkable character that Swill magazine editor Rob Pierce has used as the lynchpin of his excellent first novel, is a bank robber.

Rob Pierce: His novel Uncle Dust is reminiscent
of the work of David Goodis or Cornell Woolrich

Unlike Donald Westlake’s fictional heist specialist, Parker, Dust doesn’t do complicated robberies. He doesn’t need a crew that includes a specialist in disconnecting alarms, an expert in blowing vaults or a brace of heavily armed "hooligans" to hold a roomful of victims at gunpoint while the stick-up goes down. 

Dust works solo. He is less likely to get double-crossed or ratted out that way.

His technique for sticking up a bank is simplicity itself: he walks in, hands a note to a teller ordering her to empty the till into his carryall, and then exits with the swag. No muss, no fuss, no bother.

While Dustin’s crimes may be simple, his home life is as twisted as cheap garden hose. At the beginning of the book, he is shacked up with Theresa, a woman he describes as having “gorgeous green eyes and a sense of humor and a mid-length skirt showing off legs that looked like they’d kill me if I went any higher. And man, I was ready to die.” Theresa is in love with him, but love is a complication Dust doesn’t want or need.

Another complication is Jeremy, Theresa’s ten-year-old son. Jeremy is a gamer and nerd who is easy pickings for the bullies at his school. Dustin teaches the boy how to defend himself from the older kids in ways the Marquess of Queensbury never dreamed. He takes a liking to the kid, which puts him at odds with Theresa’s ex, a guy named Davis who has some sort of link to a gaming parlor Jeremy frequents.

Because Dust checks out banks very carefully before he pulls a job, he runs out of cash from his last robbery and is forced to break legs for a loan shark who runs a local sports book.  This throws him back together with his old partner Rico, and raises his stress level until it’s hard to think clearly about bank heists, let alone plan one.

Meanwhile Dust is diddling Olivia, a cocktail waitress at a local gin mill where he hangs out between assignments.

As if two women aren’t enough, Dust has an ex-girlfriend, Val, whose life has taken a tragic turn: she was brutally raped by a petty criminal who killed her children. While Dustin’s relationship with Val is not romantic, it is deep – when Dustin was doing time at the state pen, he killed the man who raped her and murdered her kids. Since he was released he keeps an eye on her and helps her out any way he can.

The connection is part pity, part regret, part guilt. As he says to her at one point, “You’re strong, Val. But how you carry this… it’s gonna kill you one way or the other.”

She wearily replies, “Sometimes I wish it would. I wish I could pick the way.”

No -- the crimes are simple. It’s Dustin’s life that’s all fucked up. What makes things worse is the fact that he can’t talk honestly with any of the women in his life about what he does for a living. They know he’s in the life, but none are sure exactly how.  It’s tough to build a relationship with a woman when you can’t even tell her how you earn your cash.

Dustin is on the road to disaster. One of his heists goes disastrously sour. He finds himself dreaming of doing a major crime to get out from under his loan shark boss. Meanwhile, his relationship with all three women goes steadily downhill. The frosting on the cake? He becomes involved in a death that could put him behind bars again for keeps.

Things get bad and things get worse and Dustin begins making poor choices that look like they may end up being lethal. He spends an increasing amount of time drunk, which makes it even harder for him to make the clear-headed decisions he needs to stay alive.

As Theresa tells him at one point, “You’re always halfway out the door or halfway in the bag. Some part of you’s never here.”

In classic noir fashion, Dustin has become snared in his own trap and there are no good ways out.

Uncle Dust is something of a throwback – a straightforward tale in which the criminals are portrayed as working stiffs whose only saleable skills are robbing banks or collecting on usurious loans.  It reminds me of the work of Cornell Woolrich or David Goodis. Pierce’s characters are fully realized and entirely believable. His dialog is tight and remarkably straightforward for noir, a genre in which duplicity is normal and characters often lie – even to themselves – or speak at cross purposes.

If you are looking for maximum body count, this is probably not the book for you: there are only two deaths in the entire 372 page novel. Mostly what Pierce gives you is a clean, simple tale told in language as terse as a rap sheet about a tough guy in a situation where being tough not only doesn’t help, but actually makes things worse.

The book is full of sharp observation served up in laconic prose. Unlike some hardboiled writers, Pierce doesn’t overdo the criminal argot or wise-ass gibes. The words he puts into his characters’ mouths ring with authenticity and have that twist of graveyard humor you often encounter in men who find themselves living just this side of desperation.

For example, Dust tells us his long-time friend and “business” associate Rico avoids classy watering holes because “the drinks cost more, and the women all say no.”

At one dive, Dust says, “the bartender was a surly old guy with a pocked face, blond hair, and a Hawaiian shirt. I guess the surfing career didn’t pan out.”

He describes that bar, Sparks, as the kind of place frequented by serious drinkers who don’t waste their time picking tunes off the jukebox or tossing darts at a target while their Guinness goes flat: “I hadn’t been to Sparks in months, but it was exactly how I remembered it. Grunt workers straight off eight- or ten-hour shifts sitting near the door, like they couldn’t make it any farther, putting down everything they could as fast as they could and if a fight came their way they wouldn’t mind it.”

“I’d never seen a fight in Sparks, though,” he continues. “Unless you wanted one there was no reason to talk to those guys, and they only talked to each other. I was looking down the bar at the grunts, and I turned back to look at Rico and he must have been looking down there too. We both grinned. If we wanted we could clear that end of the room in a couple of seconds. So dumb, thinking about shit we didn’t even want to do. We both laughed, and I waved to the surly surfer for another round.”

For criminals of this class, alcohol is a staple and bars like Sparks are a place to hatch schemes, split the swag and shoot the shit. The problem for careerist drinkers, Dust notes, is the price they pay the following day. But, he goes on, “A man who can’t work with a hangover shouldn’t have a job.”

Pierce’s protagonist is even able to find a sepulchral laugh in the face of disaster. During one bank job, Dust gets shot and barely escapes. As he is leaving, a peevish customer who was behind him in line when he grabbed the cash says, “What is this, hurry up and wait? Hurry up and wait? I’ve been here all day and he’s taking all the money!”

At the beginning of the novel, it seems that Dust knows what he’s about. But as the book continues, the reader begins to realize Dust is out of control

“I’m just a man with work to do.” He tells Rico toward the denouement.

“And pussy to fuck.” Rico sat back laughing. “Don’t forget that part. That’s what you’re working for.”

I laughed with him but he had it wrong. Pussy was pussy. I worked for something else, and I wasn’t even sure what that was.

Around 300 pages in, after Dust gets mugged like any other square, the reader realizes that the central character in this story is in way over his head.

Olivia asks him, “They get a lotta money?”

“‘That doesn’t matter. I got beat. That’s all,’ ” Dust replies. “I tried to say it like I was shrugging it off, like it was a little thing. But when I said it was all, I meant it was everything. This whole damn game is king of the hill.”

Another clue is offered the reader when Dust is reminiscing about the abrasive relationship between his father and mother.

He recalls his father telling him, “You couldn’t get her to say yes to anything. I take her to the market, she says maybe someone wants some apricots. I say you want apricots, we get apricots. She says well maybe someone would like them. I say, you want them? And it goes in circles. Then she leaves me because I don’t give her what she wants. Jesus. Fucking apricots.”

It’s a telling moment because this short anecdote tells you succinctly why Dustin’s relationships go awry and his life is a mess. He may be as brutal as his father was, but in other ways he’s a lot like his mother, arguing aimlessly over apricots.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Chris Rhatigan is Holding Two Pair!

(Short stories by Chris Rhatigan)
  • 114 pages
  • (BEAT to a PULP; 1st edition,; Sept. 7, 2014)
  • eBook by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • ASIN: B00NEB74RE

(Novellas by Rhatigan and Ryan Sayles)
  • 80 pages
  • ISBN: 1503084337
  • (All Due Respect Books; Nov. 15, 2014)
  • eBook by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • ASIN: B00POLK05A

  • The more I read by Chris Rhatigan, the better I like him -- and the more I want to read. These two books are good examples of the reasons why.

Wake Up is an antho that contains a dozen of Chris's stories, many of which have been published elsewhere but are gathered together here for the first time. Each is a gem, well worth the cost of the entire book: sharp dialog, finely drawn characters and as many twists as a Slinky factory.

The anthology contains the stories of both incidental and accidental criminals: convenience store till tappers, small time thieves, even a wannabe hit man. None of them are the sort that Batman would waste his time on -- not even the hit man.

Some stories are classic Grand Guignol. In "Creator/Destroyer," for example, a paranoid masterpiece, a murderer who takes over his victim's life becomes so anxious about his neighbors doing the same thing to him that he accidentally destroys the new family he has adopted. 

The nightmarish "What is Your Emergency?" is the tale of a school teacher who finds herself trapped after hours with a corpse but can't reach a human operator when she calls Nine One One.

Rhatigan even manages to make a toy's murder spree seem bone-chilling and soaked with gore in one of the weirdest tales in the book, "Furby's Revenge."

The protagonist in every story seems to be out of touch with what is going on around him or her, like a person unable to hear clearly because of acute tinnitus. Consider the fuzzy grasp on reality his would-be contact killer demonstrates in "What I Need to be a Hitman:"

"It is time for a change," I say. I look around. Everyone remains in their cubicles. They must not have heard me. Or they do not care that I am making a change. Now I must select a new career. The first career I consider is super hero. I have never read an entire comic book, but those guys seem cool. They are all primary colors and kicking ass and saving generic people from certain death. . . 

"But, upon further review, I'm not the right person for the job. I don't have the pectorals or the biceps or the quadriceps or the abdominals. Also, to gain super powers, I would have to expose myself to radiation poisoning, chemical baths, bites from venomous creatures, experimental serums, dying only to be brought back to life to complete a hero's journey, or something. All those things sound dangerous."

Or the reluctant thief who drives the action in Rhatigan's tale, "In the Hard Nowhere:" as hopeless a figure as ever felt bad after mugging a man for a paltry $47.

"She was in the shower—what was her name? Sarah? Melissa? Joan?—and I was on her bed thinking about how her sheets were at least 300-thread count. She had a lot of nice shit. Laptop. Leather couch. Fancy watch. Cell phone capable of killing a man or fixing a Denver omelet. No style, but a lot of nice shit."

The thief steals Sarah-Melissa-Joan's stuff and then regrets it afterwards. Looking for another score, he decides on a mugging. Again, however, the crime fills him with regret.

If there is an underlying theme in these stories it is aimlessness -- what social psychologists call anomie. Rhatigan's characters don't seem to fit into their world. Worse yet, they all recognize this.  

Sometimes Rhatigan simply taps into the bizarre, as in the "Hit Man" yarn or his title piece, "Wake Up, Time to Die." In the latter, his protagonist is a newsman in a media organization populated by bizarre individuals, working on stories that are even stranger. 

"On my fourth cigarette, I chose what I would write about for the day. It would be a tale of a hometown girl done good, of old-fashioned class mobility, of hard work paying off. Her name was Spunky Talisman. She grew up in an aluminum foil hovel with a single mom, but through sheer perseverance, an ancient set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and an empty social life due to her cartoonishly hideous face, she gave herself a first-rate education and evolved into a premier plastic surgeon. She first shocked the world when she performed surgery on herself, molding a train wreck of jagged teeth, dusty crevices, and eyes that bled pus, into a prototype of teenage blonde celebrity wet dream. And all without a drop of anesthesia."

As Sid Hudgens, the blackmailing tabloid publisher in L.A. Confidential would say, "Seriously Strange-O!" Check it out.


Chris Rhatigan: random anomie 
in a twisted, alienated world.

Two Bullets Solve Everything is a bit different. For one thing, Wake Up is a solo venture, twelve stories from one pen. Two Bullets contains a first-rate novella by Rhatigan, "A Pack of Lies," but it is paired with a solid, no-bullshit tale by Ryan Sayles, "Disco Rumble Fish."

The Rhatigan half of the package is a story about a crooked newsman who unsuccessfully tries to shake down a developer for a favorable story about his project. The alternative, says reporter Lionel Kasper, is to have Kasper's newspaper stir up NIMBYs in the development's backyard, complicating the project, making it more expensive and possibly pulling the pin on it entirely.

Kasper is a nasty piece of work. We learn that he has made a regular business of extorting news subjects, to the point where he has local superintendent of schools in his pocket for a $500 a month payoff and has attracted the attention of his superiors at the newspaper.

Like Lou Bloom, the TV news stringer in the movie, Nightcrawler, Kasper is a sociopath with little regard for his fellow humans. He manufactures a story about the new development that is aimed at punishing the project's builder for blowing off his extortion bid. As the developer is moving toward filing a defamation lawsuit, another of Kasper's blackmail victims, a coach at the local high school, is busted for diddling one of his students. Kasper finds out about it from the superintendent, who has been covering up for the coach.

Up to his neck in trouble, Kasper begins piling one bad decision on top of another until he both out of his depth and over his head. 

Kasper is a great character, one who conceals his fear under a facade of cynicism.  We first run into him at a local city council meeting:

"I was the only person in the city council meeting audience. Concerned citizen and all-around old crank Joe Prisco went up to the podium for his weekly screaming session, also known as the 'public hearing' portion of the meeting. Prisco’s spit graced the microphone as he garbled on about twenty years of tax hikes and school construction and how come we can put a man on the moon but we can’t pave Sherman Street. 

"Yeah, ’cause the city council funded the moon expedition."

The newsman smart mouths and annoys everyone he meets, alienating those around him to the point where he doesn't have a single friend. This is bad, because he finally puts himself into a situation that won't just result in him being sacked or sued, but spending hard time behind bars. A friend would be a handy thing to have.

It's noir and a half, perfect for those who have a bleak view of human nature.

As I said earlier, Two Bullets Solve Everything is a two-fer that contains Rhatigan's slick yarn and "Disco Rumble Fish," a splendid shoot-'em-up by Ryan Sayles, author of The Subtle Art of Brutality (Snubnose Press, 2012). 

Ryan Sayles: "Disco Rumble Fish" is a splendid shoot-'em-up!

In "Disco," a squad of SWAT officers go to war when a gangster awaiting trial kills a cop while escaping from the county courthouse. 

The novella reads shorter than it actually is: the action is pulp-perfect, with developments banging out like a Buddy Rich solo and tension as tight as the  first string on a Les Paul model Gibson.

It's tight and tough, with the language and feel of a bunch of veteran cops spinning tales around coffee and donuts.

In a brief bit of back story, for example, Sayles lets the reader know the captain in charge of the SWAT unit is a nincompoop: "Once you get to captain, the brass can see your mistakes," he writes. "(Captain) Vandross has spent his time digging himself a hole and is lucky to still have a job with daylight hours. Once the brass get real tired of him, he’ll get transferred to midnights at the stolen auto bureau and he’ll pass quietly into the grave from there."

In this passage, he describes the hot-sheets hotel where the SWAT shooters follow the bad guy:

"Whore rendezvous," Sayles writes. "The best setting for a good cop raid. They must all shop from the same supply catalog because they’ve all got the same door to kick in. I know right where to hit it, just how it’s going to splinter, all that. 

"And this door, it don’t splinter. It doesn’t do any of that. Must be a different catalog."

Sayles' yarn, like Rhatigan's "A Pack of Lies," is easily worth the two dollar asking price all by itself. When you get a pair of stories as fine as this for two bucks, you are in Fat City, my friend. 

See you there!