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. . .

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Tough but Funny Novel about Money, Murder -- and Daughters, Both Wanted and Unwanted

Gunning for Angels
(The Fallen Angels series)
By C. Mack Lewis
382 pages
(Cathleen A McCarthy; First edition July 29, 2014)
ISBN-10: 0990610802
ISBN-13: 978-0990610809

Private eye Jack Fox has a problem. He just can’t seem to keep his business end inside his pants, and winds up flopping into the sack with just about every female he meets.

But his overactive libido isn’t Jack’s real challenge. The thing that is turning his life inside out is the fact that Enid, the daughter that resulted from one of those one-night stands sixteen years earlier, has run away from her alcoholic mother and taken the Greyhound to Phoenix looking for the father she only recently learned she had.

For his part, Jack didn't even know Enid existed.

This is the situation at the beginning of Gunning for Angels, a fast-moving detective yarn by Lewis, a New Jersey native transplanted to Scottsdale, Arizona, who deftly juggles plot twists, humor and mayhem in this enjoyable debut novel.
The story involves unwanted children and a few that are wanted far too much for comfort.

Author C. Mack Lewis has written a private eye novel that is both tough and funny.

Lewis's character, Jack Fox, is a solo operator working out of a hole-in-the-wall office staffed only by his secretary receptionist. 

A Lothario from the get-go, Fox is described by Lewis as "not handsome enough for Hollywood but too handsome for his own good." Practically the only women in the story he doesn't get between his sheets are his daughter and the receptionist.

This lust-struck peeper is between clients when Enid, the result of his blast in the past, walks into his office, coat-tailing on a woman who wants to hire him to identify her birth mom.

The wannabe client thinks Enid is with Jack; Jack thinks she is with the client. In the confusion that results from this first meeting of father and daughter, Enid quarrels with Jack and ends up biting a hole in his arm before dashing off.

Eventually the two enter into an uneasy alliance. Jack, who was rejected by his own birth father, a cop and bigamist, can’t seem to work past his guilt at having a teenage daughter he’s never met. Enid, who is used to cleaning up her drunken mother’s messes, is distraught by her abandonment. 

Despite their mutual distrust and fear, they join forces and struggle to come to grips with what seems to be a simple parental abandonment case but turns out to involve trafficking in child prostitutes, pedophilia and fraud.

Oh, yes: and murder; lots of murder.

If this basic story line rings somewhat familiar, there’s a good reason: Ross MacDonald, author of the Lew Archer novels (The Chill, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Drowning Pool) made a career of writing books in which the mistakes of the past come come crashing up against the present in nasty and often lethal ways. 

MacDonald set his tales in Southern California; Lewis places them in Arizona. But like MacDonald’s The Moving Target, The Wycherly Woman and The Far Side of the Dollar, Lewis's novel, Gunning for Angels follows the time-honored rule of noir fiction: if you’ve done evil in the past, you can’t correct the problem or conceal it by doing more in the present.

The basic plot of Lewis’s book is pretty grim stuff, but she manages to serve it up with dashes of wit that leaven the violent and gruesome nature of the story. Just when you are beginning to think that Fox is a competent investigator and all-around cool guy, he hits a banana peel and does a pratfall – usually with his newly-acquired daughter looking on.

Case in point: in one scene Jack is boffing a client while Enid who has managed to sneak into the bedroom before him, hides in the closet, trying to keep from blowing her lunch. Good times!

And unlike the female partners in many detective yarns, Enid doesn’t exist just to be menaced by the villains. She is manhandled, abused and subjected to violence in the novel, but manages to escape on her own. In fact, she does at least as much to solve the mystery and obtain justice as her gumshoe dad does.

The characters in the book are all colorful and neatly rendered, particularly Jack and Enid. The action is plausible and the detective work described by the author seems reasonable – probably due to Lewis’s own past employment as a skip tracer, tracking down debtors who had fallen behind in their payments.

If I had to cite a negative, it would be that the relationship between the chief police detective in the novel and his rather shrewish wife seems a bit overdrawn; on the other hand, I have known couples who had some of the same types of disputes as this pair does – they simply were quieter about it.

Like many novels these days, there is also a tendency toward repetition in some passages. For example, at the beginning of the book, a death scene is described in which a “baby’s fist spasmodically beat[s] against the dead woman’s face, splattering rips and reams of blood in every direction of the tiny kitchen.”

Nearly three quarters of the way through the book, Jack finds the corpse described in the initial passage and picks up the infant, whose “tiny fists beat against him, splattering rips and reams of blood across his face as she wailed at full volume.”
I like the phrasing, but that’s a few too many rips and reams of blood being splattered for my comfort.

These are minor points, however. Offsetting them is the fact that Lewis has laced her novel with really fine writing that shows her eye for the telling detail and a facility for original language. It would have been easy to sketch the plot in a series of clich├ęs, using tired metaphors hundreds of other authors have used before. Instead, Lewis opted for originality and flare.

For instance, only a couple of sentences into her novel she gives us:

“Eyes full of empty stared upward as she lay sprawled out like some grotesque pin-up girl. An all-American beauty served up on cheap linoleum, a Jackson Pollock canvas of bullet holes and blood spatter.”

“Eyes full of empty;” “A Jackson Pollock canvas of bullet holes and blood splatter;” Now that’s writing. An author capable of turning two phrases like that in a single paragraph knows what she’s doing. What’s more, Lewis does it over and over again in spinning out her story.

She’s on top of things from the very beginning. I’m looking forward to her next novel already.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dale Berry's "Moonlight Cutter" Is As Edgy as a Zhanmadao

  • Tales of the Moonlight 
  • By Dale Berry, et. al.
  • Volumes 1-4 plus a special edition based largely on Berry's original stories and art
  • (Myriad Publications; copyright 2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2012)
    • ISBN-10: 0977322203 
    • ISBN-13: 978-0977322206

Having now read the entire series, Tales of the Moonlight Cutter, volumes 1-5, let me make this clear: if you like graphic novels and want a satisfying read that features solid adventure yarns as well as excellent art, this entire series is for you.

"Tales of the Moonlight Cutter" features intriguing plots, lots of Song Dynasty atmosphere and great martial arts graphics. As a kid I cut my teeth on the grisly morality tales in the old EC comix published by Bill Gaines, Al Feldman and Harvey Kurtz; "Cutter" is very much in the same jugular vein: well-written and -drawn stories that feature ghosts, demons, double-dealing mortals and a sword-slinging gumshoe who tracks down evil spirits and sends them to hell with a magic sword.

A life-long Asian film buff, Berry's articles and reviews have appeared in The Hong Kong Movie Database and in Oriental Cinema magazine. His interest in martial arts comes naturally, considering that he studied European swordwork over 26 years and once was a fencing instructor at California State University Bakersfield.

He began as a cartoonist in 1986, publishing Ninja Funnies after stints as a carnival barker, film inspector, stage technician and scenic designer.
From 1988 to 1989, he worked with Daerick Gross Studios, creating the Moonlight Cutter series for Tales of the Kung Fu Warriors magazine. 

Berry's spare, Asian-inspired artwork is reminiscent of the chiaroscuro graphics of Aubrey Beardsley, the Edwardian English artist who illustrated Oscar Wilde's manuscript of Salome and worked extensively in a style related to the Japanese shunga style of erotic art.

Volume One has Shen intervening with a demon -- one that has invaded the soul of an exorcist who was trying to banish it. 

Volume Two involves Shen's struggle to overcome the Dragon's Blood Spear, a piece of cutlery that is controlled by dark forces.

Volume Three pits the Moonlight Cutter against a demon that threatens the Emperor of China's own son.

Volume Four sees Shen take on the doyen of a bandit clan who intends to unleash an unstoppable vampire demon that will suck the life from every living being on earth.

And Volume Five contains several stories, including one in which the Moonlight Cutter, weary of his constant encounters with the ghost world, has become a dissolute drunkard. Will an encounter with a tender-hearted prostitute return him to his former rectitude?

I picked up the last two Cutters at Left Coast Crime this month (March 2015) and was fortunate enough to join author Berry on one of the conference panels. Besides being a terrific story-teller and excellent artist, Dale is a hell of a nice guy to engage in conversation.

If you like Chinese kung fu action films, you are going to love what Dale has done with the Wuxia genre and his character, Shen Hua Yen, who comes across as a cross between the Song Dynasty martial arts hero, Qiao Feng, and Lankester Merrin, the exorcist of William Peter Blatty's book.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Cyber Pulp Renaissance

Electronic Publishing Has 
Brought Pulp Fiction Back from the Brink; 
The Only Question is, 
How Far Can It Go?

“The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.”
-- Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962)

Topic A at this year’s Left Coast Crime conference in Portland, Oregon earlier this month was, to me, pretty much the focus of last year’s conference in Monterey, California: the renaissance in pulp as a genre within the literary category of crime fiction.

At least three panels at the conference – including the one that I was on – dealt specifically with the resurgence of pulp stories. Several others had speakers that were pulp specialists, including those on the reappearance of novellas and a well-staffed panel on writing short stories.

The general attitude was that pulp as a literary style – including its subgenres of crime writing, adventure, westerns, romance, sci-fi and horror – is alive and well, and finding new followers with each passing day.

 So what is pulp literature?

Pulp is working class literature that traditionally was produced cheaply enough to satisfy people riding street cars and buses on the way to and from their jobs. Think newspapers, only filled with stories that were completely made up (instead of only partly fictional like the content of the broadsheets and tabloids published by people like Hearst and Pulitzer in the late nineteenth century).

But cheap paper wasn’t the only thing that set pulp publications apart from slicks. There was its entire manner of presentation -- and the fantastical nature of its characters.

The old-time pulps featured lurid stories with titillating characters and contained lots of action. Sometimes that action made sense, sometimes not. The main thing was to keep it coming, hot and heavy. That helped paper over plot holes and disguise flaws in characterization.

As Raymond Chandler put it in his 
monograph, The Simple Art of Murder (1950), “Undoubtedly the stories about [hard-boiled detectives] had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, nor to so close-knit a group of people, nor within so narrow a frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Most people who are familiar with the genre think of it as the kind of stuff that appeared in Black Mask, which started out publishing fast-paced stories in a variety of subtypes including those mentioned above or Argosy, which tended toward adventure tales set in exotic climes and featuring bizarre characters.

It was published in cheap "pulp paper" magazines, stories characterized by their fast pace, grotesque villains and lurid and titillating plots.

But the Black Mask style pulp magazine didn’t appear until the 1920s and 1930s. It was predated by the nickel- and dime-novels of the late 19th century, much as they had been preceded by the penny dreadfuls of the 1800s.

For example, the stories of August Dupin, Edgar Allen Poe's amateur gumshoe who investigates "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter," and "The Mystery of Marie Roget," originally appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. Nick Carter, a fictional detective penned by a bullpen of writers over more than a century, first appeared in Street and Smith’s New York Weekly pulp magazine in 1886.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886, his second in Lippincott’s Magazine four years later and some of his short stories about the detective were published by the Strand Magazine.

Each featured a lone wolf detective, grisly crimes and lurid solutions, much like their pulp magazine counterparts in the jazz age.

That form of pulp magazine continued to exist until the late 1950s and early 1960s, but during its history it broke down into the subcategories mentioned a few paragraphs ago. The fantasy and science fiction stories wound up in their own journals – Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories for example, or John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction.

While pulp stories initially ran the gamut from romantic tales to space opera, the magazines themselves began to splinter into subgenres by the mid-20th century.

The crime yarns became the specialty of publications such as The Saint, Ellery Queen, Michael Shayne, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and several others. The western stories had their own platforms (Max Brand Western Magazine, Dime Western and Thrilling Western), as did the horror journals (Weird Tales, Terror Tales). The romance pulps, aimed largely at a female audience – though in many cases written by men – also ultimately appeared under their own imprints (True Romances, Ideal Love,).

But by  the 1970s pulp magazines were becoming too expensive to publish for a mass, working class audience and the cheap "men's adventure" paperbacks that to an extent displaced them – the Destroyer and Executioner series are two of the better known examples – only remained in vogue until the early 1990s. To be fair, “slick” magazines were having trouble, too; magazines not only burned up an immense amount of paper and ink, pushing up the overhead of producing them and reducing their profitability, but the cost of distributing both pulp and slick magazines steadily increased. Just as many slicks bit the dust as their more lurid pulp counterparts.

In addition, gasoline prices increased nearly ten-fold from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, the result of massive hikes caused by market manipulation and discord in the prime oil-producing nations; what’s more, dealerships that sold mags were pushed out of business by urban renewal programs that wiped out entire neighborhoods where property values were low enough that newsstands and cigar stores could afford them. The local pharmacies that once stocked pulp literature were gobbled up by national chains located in strip malls that dumped magazines to make space for more lucrative products.

Ironically, the rapacious capitalism so often caricatured in the pulp journals had the last laugh: changing market conditions cut the profitability of the genre and appeared to be consigning it to the dustbin of history. Pulp magazines looked as doomed as the characters in a David Goodis novel.

Then came the personal computer and the commercialization of the Internet. The computer revolution in publishing has created a new category that some call neo-pulp substituting the really cheap and fast publication possible using electronic magazines for the pulp paper of the past. Distribution costs became largely clerical: you don’t need drivers, trucks or gasoline to deliver ebooks to readers. Ebooks and eZines are maintained on servers, not stored in warehouses, so there is no need for inventory or storage.

Then Amazon introduced the Kindle reader, a piece of technology that changed the publishing industry forever by making it easy to download and read an entire library at a fraction of the cost that traditional publishing organizations were asking for hardcovers or even paperbacks.

Starting at the turn of the 21st century, new publishing houses that specialized in electronic books began to pop up.

Not only did dozens of genre magazines begin to appear, but a market emerged for fictional forms such as short stories and novellas that traditional publishing houses had been reluctant to handle. 

Anthologies – a means of packaging short fiction most publishing houses had abjured, claiming it was too costly to produce and too difficult to sell – began to flood the market.
It was a happy accident of timing that these changes occurred when people had less time to spend reading traditional novels. The shorter, more easily digested output of flash fiction, short stories, novellas and novelettes began to catch on – as did the pulpy melodramatic style of fiction associated with the old pulp magazines.

The new stories remain pulp because they parallel the style, content, lurid plots and grotesque characters of the old paper pulp magazines.  And they seem to be generating an entire generation of new fans.

(This is the first in a series of essays referring to topics that came up during this week's Left Coast Crime Conference in Portland, OR. Next time: my life in the pulps).