Peter Rabe certainly is a original voice in noir. Rabe may have moved on to other planes of existence or none whatsoever, depending on your viewpoint, but his voice is still here with us, thank God or the Devil, whomever deserves the credit. Actually, that would be Stark House Press, with the totally awesome Stark House Noir Classics line. Stark House is a master of the twofer, so with this volume the reader is rewarded - and richly - with a pair of Rabe books to peruse. Both are excellent and both exhibit Rabe’s ability to write thoroughly noir noir while still making up his own rules. This is neither the Hammett/Chandler/Spillane school of daring detective exploits nor the Cain/Thompson hard cases collect their karma brand of hard boiled crime. These are distinctive criminal exploits which defy analogous juxtapositioning against classic crime story templates. Not that there is nothing familiar here. Far from it. I told you, this is vintage noir, noir as it gets. But the stories - both of ‘em - unfold in completely unpredictable ways. The only way to know what’s happening next is to read on rather than consulting the memory’s storage facility of story skeletons. What’s more, the characters are fresh, even these many years after the original publication of these novels. Take, for example, the central figure of KILL THE BOSS GOOD-BY, Mr. Fell, the boss in question. Fell has run his neck of the mob woods well, managing his rackets, turning a profit and keeping the legal wheels greased with payoff money. Then he goes away for a month, leaving henchman Pander in charge in Fell’s absence. Thing is, once Fell is no longer absent, Pander still likes the in charge part. And he might just pull it off. Fell has been missing for (minor spoiler but nothing too bad) a month due to in-patient psychiatric treatment. He has a serious brain disorder. So questions abound: Can Fell keep the job? Not if Pander has his way. Fell is a unique main character for noir fiction, a sympathetic mob boss with a brain problem. His sidekick, arguably the central character if it’s not Fell, is a devoted man named Cripp who also earns our sympathies for his strength and loyalty. Pander is as despicable as they come. MISSION FOR VENGEANCE is more unique than the somewhat generic title suggests. Here, there is mystery in the crime, but not for a P.I. to suss out. In fact, it is the hellbound-for-vengeance antagonist of the novel who slowly pieces together the truth of how he was double-crossed in a long-ago caper gone wrong. The distinctive, fleshed-out characters motivate this story as much as the claustrophobic closing-in walls of vengeance sought. Rabe was both a master plotter and king of creating believable characters who are likable - or hate-worthy - and vividly so. His prose is also securely his own, rich but lean, descriptive but not cumbersome. Rabe was as much a master of noir as all those guys you’ve heard of.
Trade paperback, 292 pp.
Johnson Potter appears during an interview in the 1990s.
By Ann Snuggs
By Ann Snuggs
LynDee Walker used her own background in reporting to create Nichelle Clarke, crime reporter for the Richmond Telegraph. One can only hope that her own journalistic career did not put her in some of the hazard-pay situations in which Nichelle finds herself in the third book of the Headlines in High Heels series, Small Town Spin, to be released this week.
Nicelle just wanted to take a day off to medicate the sinus infection that had her reeling. It wasn’t to be. Called by her friend Parker with a heads up and the offer of an exclusive on a story yet to be broken, she drags her flagging body back into the car and starts for the small town of Mathews on Gwynn’s Island on the Virginia coastline.
This is not going to be a fun assignment. In fact, it’s a heartbreaker. The son of Tony Okerson, retired, big-name NFL star and longtime friend of Grant Parker, has committed suicide. Parker has gotten Nichelle the exclusive family interview with a request that she try to spin the media circus sure to follow the announcement in the least painful direction possible.
The interview not only tugs at Nichelle’s heartstrings but also puzzles her mind. Her gut instinct tells her something is badly wrong with this suicide report. No note. No solid evidence. This boy had everything to live for and suicidal male teens rarely go the overdose route. So – is this a sad teen ending or is it something more sinister? As in murder.
In her heart she knows the pieces just don’t fit. And she is not about to accept the obvious scenario thrown at her. The path may be dangerous (it is) but Nichelle is a woman of principle and has no intention of quitting before she knows what really happened to TJ Okerson.
Now Nichelle is fighting her illness, a couple of hostile co-workers, a small town sheriff who thinks the simple solution is usually the right answer and the stigma of being a big-city reporter in a place where everyone knows everyone else. That’s if they are not related. On the personal scene she’s juggling two hot males. She’s attracted to each one for his own unique appeal.
Small Town Spin is an absorbing read – hard to put down. The mystery doesn’t unravel until the last pages and even this cynical, seasoned, I-knew-it-from-halfway reader did not figure out the ending until it unfolded. Humor, romance, danger and mystery are nicely balanced. This book could turn into a must-have for summer 2014 beach reads.
Just a note for fans of dark, rough crime stories: This is not noir nor hardboiled crime. It’s more chick lit crime – highly enjoyable for this reviewer’s expansive and rather eclectic tastes but perhaps not for those into heavy, more brutal dark crime tales.
Trade paper $15.95
Call it what you will - beatnik noir, beat crime, hard boiled beat - John Trinian’s singular crime drama is a defiant mingling of subgenres that captures the spirit of both the San Francisco Beat culture and the edgy crime fiction called hard boiled still popular at the time (published 1960). Conventional noir it’s not. It follows the directionless life of Erin and her bohemian friends and their lives full of booze, sex, discontent and sarcasm. The closest thing Erin has to normalcy is a grandmother and her servant Hibbert, like an uncle to Erin. Trouble is she feels no connection with her past. Nostalgia is a lost concept. Not that she doesn’t express concern for her grandmother and show signs of a conscience, despite her cynical, aloof attitude. Which begs the question, who … But to even ask the question would be to give something away. For a significant chunk of the novel’s page count, the story is that of a young woman adrift in the counter culture. It’s a character-rich and character-driven story propelled by the interactions of these flesh-and-blood, if not exactly likeable, people. But when awfulness occurs, say, roughly two thirds of the way through the book, more questions arise than a bunch of beatniks could snap at. (Just picking; this is really about beats, not beatniks, if you suss out the distinction I’m making.) A mystery encroaches. Who among her friends is sincere and who has something to hide, that something a critical connection to the awfulness. John Trinian’s hard boiled melodrama is truly set apart among both of its major genre influences. As beat fiction, besides a penetrating look into the disenfranchised eddies of pre-hippy bohemian/beat lifestyle, the reader gets a surprise, grim turn of events that represents a shift in tone from dark to darker, said turn of events further enhancing the themes of the preceding character drama. As hard boiled crime fic, NORTH BEACH GIRL is not the typical dig through the trenches of humanity. It’s a plowing through a whole other strand of humanity, which some would consider a trench of its own. Bums, no-account youths up to no good, with no focus, no goals, no direction, all that jazz. The badness that happens isn’t the point exactly but instead the ugly fruit of the aforementioned disenfranchisement. But what … ? SCANDAL ON THE SAND is equally singular. Not so much Beat but still hard boiled. And it’s a crime story centered around a beached whale! This novella will surprise you. In its short length there is a truly eclectic batch of humanity thrown together in one place, by a beached but still breathing whale. The characters range the spectrum from criminal to law and all sorts of civilianism in between. Noir’s protagonistic shades are in effect. While there is no protagonist way out in front (though one character comes closer than others), there is the flip-flopping found in protagonistic stories versus hero stories. Here, for example, the most despicable character is a cop, while a gangster at the scene is likeable and draws reader sympathy. And these are just two of the characters. There’s also Karen, out walking the early morning beach with her hateful date. There’s Riley, the tow vehicle driver who butts heads with the crummy cop. There’s a photographer and his models. And more. You wonder just how in the hell a crime story is going to unfold credibly from this scenario but once you’re through and you see how Trinian worked it out - well, you’re gonna be knocked as flat on your bum as I was, I hope. Trinian - a man as interesting as his books - was an incredible writing talent, his lean prose creating organic stories and believable characters. The truths of human nature apparent in his works mark Trinian as an insightful talent, able to transform crime storytelling into philosophical fiction without sacrificing readability. Features an introduction for each book, plus a memoir afterward by Trinian’s daughter.
Eric Beetner’s short novel of hard-boiled debauchery is a masterpiece of the genre, rightfully claiming space on the same crooked shelf as Thompson, Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Hinkson, Risley … do I need to go on? I could, but I won’t. I’ll spare you. But you spare yourself the grief of having missed out on a brief but bountiful bouquet of foetid fumes from the pungent hearts of man, rotten to the core. DIG TWO GRAVES is a searing neo-noir that thrusts upon us as our protagonist a man freed from prison, embroiled in no time in a bank robbery scheme with a lover (from the inside) and betrayed by said lover. Our protag, Val, is having a “Brokeback Mountain” kinda thing happening, not really gay, but gay contextually, i.e. in prison. This doesn’t put him in good stead with some of the criminal underworld though we progressive book nerds embrace his diversity while interpreting as his behind-the-steering-wheel shadow-psyche the traits of criminality and hardness. But homophobia in the underworld is the least of his problems. Women - he’s straight as an arrow on the outside - are at the crux of his problems after he escapes from jail no sooner than they’ve fingerprinted him and left him to twiddle the fingers of his cuffed hands while attached via police bracelet to a bored rookie or career loser in blue left to babysit him. Who is his rescuer and why does this person draw the startling reaction from Val. No matter; he makes his break - and it’s a violent one. And now he’s on the lookout for his jail lover, the man who betrayed him. But there are obstacles - like a pricey bounty on his head from an unexpected source. Two women, multiple plot threads, tons of thugs, plenty of scheming and lots of down and dirty action, topped off with bleak sense of humor that is as vital to the work as any component. The prose is tough and lean and packs a punch. The characters are robust, the action bloody, the boundaries battered down. DIG TWO GRAVES is top notch, take no prisoners crime fiction that puts the hard in hard-boiled. Highly recommended.
Aunt Doreen had no idea when she started an auction to raise money to save local land from money-hungry resort interests that someone would make a successful bid for her life. But they did, and a successful bid it was, leaving her niece Sophie to find a body in the storage unit when she shows up to help. She was expecting to find her aunt ready to work on inventorying items donated for the auction; she was not expecting to find her aunt dead. Nevertheless, she decides to forge ahead, hoping to accomplish what her aunt was stopped from doing. But do Sophie’s aunt’s efforts at ecological heroism have anything to do with her death? Not only is Doreen’s dead body in the storage unit with the auction items, but those items have been gone through roughly, some broken and damaged by a plainly angry murderer. Was it land or loot that triggered the chain of events into which Sophie finds herself headlong? Sophie has already gotten more than she bargained for by finding the only person left on the planet she loves … no longer alive. But there ends up being even more outside her anticipated bargaining parameters when she meets the local police chief, Daniel. He’s out to crack the case of dead Doreen but also ends up interested in cracking open the shell around Sophie’s heart. The romantic aspects of this romance mystery thriller are about what you’d expect. As a dude, I’m not strictly the target audience; I’m in it for the thriller aspect. But the romantic bits are solidly written with a minimum of obnoxious behaviors and thought patterns sometimes found in the besotted by love but also conflicted by love characters of romantic fiction. Johnson handles things smartly and tastefully. The mystery is intriguing and sets up any number of potential killers, keeping one hooked on finding out who did it and why. The only down side is that the revelation of the killer is slightly anticlimactic. I’d written off the character who turned out to be responsible as too obvious and was awaiting a left-field reveal. Nevertheless, there are multiple “too obvious” potential villains, so even my saying this doesn’t spoil anything. Things like Johnson’s fast pacing, friendly prose and believable characterrs. Fans of mysteries, romantic or otherwise, will have fun.
Stark House, besides purveying modern noir fiction, is also in the business of bringing to the fore vintage noir that maybe you haven’t had the chance to read. Sure, you’ve read Hammett, Spillane and Chandler, et. al., but have you read, say, Wade Miller? It’s appropriate for this review of a two-fer that this author was a two-fer. By which I mean Wade Miller was actually Bob Wade and Bill Miller, a crime-writing - as opposed to crime-fighting - dynamic duo that turned out a bevy of respected noir fic, including the novel basis for Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” starring Welles and Charlton Heston (the latter cast, inexplicably, as a Mexican?!?!). I’m not reviewing that novel here, but I thought you might like to know. Even if you’ve not heard of Miller, he - make that they - nevertheless have a claim to fame. Miller’s tales have a way of ending up miles away - sometimes literally, sometimes otherwise - from where they started. KITTEN WITH A WHIP spends most of its page count laying out a taut thriller that could be presented as a one-set play. Then it veers, and not just as a matter of distance. Surprises abound behind the door, so maybe be careful answering it. And some surprises let themselves in … As for KISS HER GOODBYE, the reader spends much of the perilous page count, short but snappy, as with most good noir, keeping one wondering if the main characters will bail on their smalltown hideaway or dig in for the long haul. Can it end well either way? Noir stories typically don’t end well and while I will say the dark denouements of these two novels won’t startle any genre fans with their downbeat endings, they might just surprise readers with something else. While this pair of books represents two tunnels to darkness, each - in its own pyrrhic way - has a light at the end of the tunnel. In addition, the protagonists of each book, while morally flawed in the tenebrous old tradition of the noir, possess a skewed sense of nobility, each in his own way. Both books deal with a classic noir theme, too, the downfall of a man by way of the wiles of womanhood. But the downfall-inducing women in these two tales are miles away from each other.
KITTEN WITH A WHIP opens with David awaking in his nice house. It’s the weekend. The wife is away. What could be better? Some men would be happy to find out their home had been invaded by a voluptuous bit of jailbait. Not, David, though. He’s hooked on his suburban stability - the house, the family, all that. There’s even a weird sense of loyalty to wife and child within that paradigm. The titular kitten’s hold over David is one of sex, but not in the way one might imagine. She doesn’t control David through his libido, but rather through the assumptions others might arrive at if they knew about his impromptu houseguest. It’s a fear that strikes at the heart of his dream, a dream so tangible it’s already got pricey wall-to-wall carpet and a lovely child and a high end job. Yet this kitten, Jody, threatens to bring it all down. Yes, kitty can scratch. She’s escaped from a juvie facility and promptly takes David hostage in his own house. What follows is an uncomfortable game of cat and mouse between a girl who flaunts her sexuality while vacillating between sweetness and viciousness, and a man horrified by the sweeping away of his cherished normnality. Much of the first two thirds of the book is spent with just these two mismatched people, with minor interference from side characters. The tipping point comes when Jody ratchets up her control of David through means that wrest control from all involved, leaving them at the whim of dark destiny, chance and the ill-fated desires of humanity.
KISS HER GOODBYE involves Ed and a lovely lady known as Emily. They stick together and, as this book gets rolling, they grab up a cabin in a small town motel. The reader knows they are on the run. That we learn early on. But from what? Emily is at the center of it. While she may be sexually desirable, her mind is that of a girl. Add to it a heart condition and you’ve got a delicate lady. Or maybe not so much. The reason for running has everything to do with Emily, plus Ed’s well-meaning but ill-advised over-protectiveness. She has blackouts. Sometimes bad things happen. But what kind of bad things? But those things don’t matter. Life is looking good. Ed settles right in, makes friends with the motel manager and lands a good job. Ironically, it is as much his own actions that bring about the inevitable undoing as it is Emily. His aggressive fending off of anybody he remotely construes as being a would-be suitor threatens to bring down the encroachment on his and Emily’s private life. He means the best for her but goes about it the wrong way. Not only does he threaten to alienate the people around him, some of whom might just retaliate by trying even harder to know Emily, Ed’s behavior is slowly but surely pushing his own sister away. Kept constantly cloistered by Ed’s paranoia, Emily is more and more inclined to act out, to seek freedom, a life outside the narrow confines of her new motel home and her relationship with the protective but controlling Ed. As with KITTEN, there is more than a little philosophical underpinning here, though it’s more blatant in KISS. KITTEN’s subtle existentialism gives way to out and out ruminations as voiced by a pair of characters in KISS. Of course, the best noir pulses with grim musings, implied or otherwise.
Both of these tales reveal the Wade Miller team’s brilliant knack for characters. They created flesh and blood figures with real thoughts and real personalities and real struggles with motivation and circumstances outside their control (not to mention the failure to control what could have been controlled). It is the tension between these characters that really drives these books. Not to dis the plot because I’m not. But the sly plottings of this masterful creative team hinge fully upon the meaty characters with which they populate their tales. The prose is deceptively swift, the books deceptively short. The page count may be under 300 for both of these books combined, and the words may fly like a freight train across the page, but there is tremendous substance here.
And top shelf hard-boiled storytelling.
trade paperback, 278 pp.