Category: crime fiction

Review: Lawrence Block, Getting Off

New York writer Lawrence Block is best-known these days as a master of hardboiled crime fiction, with a diverse collection of noir series characters, including alcoholic gumshoe Matt Scudder, charming thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and lonely but terminally professional hit man Keller. In his early career, though, he also wrote under a plethora of pseudonyms, including Jill Emerson, credited with seven novels of steamy lesbian erotica. He was young, he needed the work, but he wasn’t ashamed—in fact, he later republished at least one of the Emersons under his real name. Block picks up the Emerson identity again—sort of, anyway, since his own name is far larger on the cover—for Getting Off, the first hardcover published by stylish indie imprint Hard Case Crime, which specializes in classic reprints and new (but hardly virginal) works of gleefully sleazy old-school paperback pulp fiction.

Getting Off covers the same unabashedly tawdry territory as Emerson’s older oeuvre, with a twist worthy of Jim Thompson: The nymphomaniacal, blonde protagonist is also a sociopathic serial killer who drifts from town to town murdering her many men, motivated by lingering rage and abandonment issues left over from father/daughter incest that spilled over into patricide. Deceptively innocent, Kit Tolliver isn’t just a sex maniac (and remorseless knife-wielding maniac), she’s a pathological liar who changes her name and life story with unnerving ease to lull her victims. Reflecting her rootless existence, Getting Off unfolds chapter by chapter like a series of linked short stories, in each of which she meets and disposes of a new man. She’s icy and clinical about murder, but constantly overheated about sex. Aimless, she picks up some semblance of a life goal (and the novel picks up the threads of its loosely woven plot) when she realizes that of all the men she’s had, five have survived—which is unforgivably sloppy of her, and ought to be corrected.

With the same skill he’s shown in his more mainstream work, Block slowly ratchets up the intensity and violence, using each successive murder either to give a deeper glimpse into Kit’s twisted psyche, or push her one step further toward her psychotic but somehow distortedly logical goal. He also accomplishes the same trick Thompson often pulled of planting readers inside his killer’s mind just enough to understand her without sympathy, as well as Richard Stark’s trick of treating criminal behavior as just a job to be worked. And as with Thompson’s books, there’s a thick layer of dark humor bubbling throughout the swamp of Kit’s messed-up psychology—the street-smart but undereducated Kit mistakes a reference to Shakespeare’s Goneril for “gonorrhea,” and also encounters a kinky but violently untrustworthy threesome-seeking couple apparently named after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Emerson/Block writes about killing and the sex with such shameless relish that it would be foolish to even suggest this is anything but exploitative trash. Especially when the phenomenally lurid cover art so accurately reflects what happens under the dust jacket. John Waters would love this book, and would be perfect to direct any future film version. Some trash can also be high art, but Block probably isn’t even trying for anything loftier here than entertaining sleaze. But for exploitative trash, it’s excellently crafted and lean.

Originally posted on avclub.com Sept. 21, 2011. Read the complete article.

‘Takers’ fits right into heist-movie tradition

Film features a star-studded crew, big-money prize and plenty of twists.

This summer’s biggest hit, “Inception,” put a novel twist on the caper film by setting its action in the world of dreams. But you don’t need to go quite so high-concept to get some juice out of the heist movie, one of the most reliably entertaining variations on the cops-and-robbers story for as long as there have been movies about crime. The latest straight-up heist film to hit the big screen is “Takers,” out Aug. 27 and starring Idris Elba (“The Wire”), Hayden Christensen, Paul Walker (“The Fast and the Furious”), and rappers T.I. and Chris Brown.

Heist films are one of the most formula-bound of genres, but that can be a big part of the fun of watching them. The basic drill is always the same — a group of thieves work together to pull off some seemingly impossible job — but the best heist movies stay fresh while letting viewers indulge in the vicarious thrill of getting away with the perfect crime. Here’s how “Takers” fits in with its shadowy brethren.

Originally published on msnbc.com August 23, 2010. Read the complete article.

Gateways To Geekery: Sherlock Holmes

Geek obsession: Sherlock Holmes

Why it’s daunting: Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, and it seems like everyone has written about him, too. It’s amazing just how much Holmes material is out there. The London sleuth, invented by Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1887 novel A Study In Scarlet, has come to personify the very idea of the private detective who relies on logic and deductive reasoning to solve the most baffling crimes. Conan Doyle wrote relatively few Holmes tales—four novels and 56 short stories that fans collectively call “the canon”—but that’s just the tip of it. Holmes wasn’t the first fictional detective, but he was far and away the most influential, and it’s impossible to overstate his importance to the mystery genre. His continuing adventures in the hands of subsequent authors and filmmakers have been estimated to number at least 25,000 novels, movies, TV shows, radio plays, cartoons, games, and other media over the last century.

Originally published on avclub.com June 17, 2010. Read the complete article.

Comics panel: Darwyn Cooke, Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter

Richardf Stark's Parker: The HunterThe late crime novelist Donald E. Westlake was notably protective of his most prominent fictional creation, the hard-as-nails master thief Parker, who starred in more than two dozen books written under Westlake’s major pseudonym, Richard Stark. Though the Parker books were adapted into films seven times, including the acclaimed Point Blank, Westlake insisted that the filmmakers change Parker’s name if they weren’t going to bother with a faithful rendition of the series. It’s a signal of both Westlake’s approval and Darwyn Cooke’s intentions, therefore, that Cooke’s graphic-novel adaptation of the first book, Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (IDW), gets to give its protagonist the right name. Developed in collaboration with Westlake before his 2008 death, The Hunter is pitch-perfect in capturing not just the story, but the lean, gritty noir spirit of the original novel, starting with the classic opening line, “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” A long, largely wordless sequence introducing Parker highlights that Cooke both knows the original story inside-out, and knows how to retell it in a new way. Cooke’s noir bona fides include the 2003 Catwoman story Selina’s Big Score and the 1950s-set DC: The New Frontier, which also captured his aptitude for mid-century design aesthetics. Here, he creates a black-and-cool-blue early-’60s New York that’s both evocative and appropriately unglamorous. Cooke reportedly plans to continue adapting at least the next three Parker books; based on this one, it’d be a crime if he didn’t… A

Originally published on avclub.com July 24, 2009 as part of a group-written roundup. Read the complete article.

Gateways To Geekery: Classic crime fiction

Geek obsession: Classic crime fiction

Why it’s daunting: The roots of American crime fiction go all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, but like science fiction, the genre exploded with the pre-World War II rise of the pulps, magazines like Black Mask and Weird Tales, which were printed on cheap paper, and written and published by people who were often after a quick buck more than they were interested in lasting, quality literature. Which means there’s a metric ton of the stuff out there, even if you focus solely on the golden age of crime fiction, and much of it is just awful—clichéd, tawdry tales penned by hacks. But just as H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories lived alongside a mountain of garbage in their original magazine appearances, there’s gold to be found in the old-school noir stories as well.

Possible gateway: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest

Why: Of all the many fine writers who made their name in the pulps, Hammett ranks among the very best, with a lean, diamond-hard prose style that’s part of the DNA of just about every important piece of crime fiction that came afterward. He’s also one of the few who not only wrote it, but lived it, and Red Harvest springs directly from his experience as a strike-breaking detective for the Pinkerton Agency in the 1920s. Also, and not inconsequentially, Red Harvest is a hell of a ride. Set in a corrupt Western mining town nicknamed “Poisonville,” the novel follows a tarnished, grizzled detective—never named, and known by fans as The Continental Op—who is hired to solve the murder of the son of the tycoon who supposedly runs Poisonville. In actuality, the town has been carved up by cutthroats and mobsters, and the Op decides the only thing to do is tear the whole rotten, stinking thing down by force, powers-that-be be damned. The book is short enough to be finished in a single evening, with a nonstop mix of gun-blazing action and eminently quotable, tough-talking dialogue. Here’s the Op, declaring that he isn’t going away easy: “Your fat chief of police tried to assassinate me last night. I don’t like that. I’m just mean enough to want to ruin him for it. Now I’m going to have my fun.”

Originally published April 9, 2009 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Crime writer Donald Westlake dies at 75

Prolific and influential crime novelist Donald A. Westlake died Jan. 1 after collapsing of a heart attack on his way to a New Year’s Eve party the previous day. He was 75. Westlake wrote more than 100 novels over the course of his long career, turning out material of extremely high quality with such speed that early on, he found it necessary to use a variety of pseudonyms, most famously Richard Stark, because publishers were leery of releasing more than one book a year by the same author. His writing was notable for its brisk, inventive plotting, sharply drawn and believable characterizations, and especially his mastery of both the drolly absurd and the starkly hardboiled. Westlake often used his pseudonyms for particular kinds of stories, something like a brand name. As Westlake, he wrote mainly lighter-hearted crime stories, including the recently republished Somebody Owes Me Money, as well as harder-edged material including the terrifically bleak thriller The Ax, in which an out-of-work job-hunter raises his chances of landing a new position by systematically tracking down and murdering the other qualified applicants in the area. Writing as Richard Stark, he created what became his quintessential character: master criminal and heavy heister Parker, the antihero of more than two dozen novels. Originally, Westlake intended the character to die at the end of his first book, and so never bothered to give him a first name. That choice stuck with the character, though, because it fit both his taciturn personality and his workmanlike attitude toward thievery, which he treated as a job to be done, carefully and thoroughly.

Originally published Jan. 2, 2009 on avclub.com. Read the complete article.

Inventory: 13 sidekicks who are cooler than their heroes

1. Tonto, the Lone Ranger movies
The Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion debuted in the 1930s, an age not known for its enlightened attitudes toward minorities. And writers like Sherman Alexie have pointed out Tonto’s more problematic aspects, like his stereotypical broken English. But from the beginning, Tonto was depicted as a heroic figure in his own right, and not so much the Lone Ranger’s assistant as his friend. Tonto was saddled with pidgin dialogue, but he wasn’t dumb, and could track bandits and right wrongs with a skill equal to the masked man’s. Also worth noting: The similar character dynamic in the Lone Ranger spin-off The Green Hornet, between the Hornet and his Asian sidekick Kato, led to Bruce Lee’s American breakthrough role on the short-lived 1966 TV series. And few people, sidekicks or not, are cooler than Bruce Lee.

9. Dr. Pretorius, Bride Of Frankenstein
It’s so hard to find good help these days, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein found out. In the original movie, his lab assistant steals the wrong brain. In the sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, his old teacher shows up and nearly steals the entire film. Though Henry is nominally the lead scientist in their partnership, Dr. Septimus Pretorius wins hands down in the “mad scientist” department, swanning through the movie with such gleefully macabre abandon that he makes the wet-blanket Henry instantly forgettable. Where Frankenstein is plagued by his wishy-washy conscience, Pretorius revels in his blackmails and grave robberies, and even goes tomb-looting with a sense of style, sticking around after the corpse is dragged away, and having a light supper and a smoke inside a mausoleum.

11. Marvin, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy
Douglas Adams’ science-fiction satire contains no shortage of characters who’d be fun to get drunk with. And even terminally bewildered protagonist Arthur Dent seems like a nice enough guy. But no character captured the hearts of Adams’ fans as much as the gloomy Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Though Marvin’s constant melancholy was a source of irritation to his shipmates on the Heart Of Gold, it was easy to sympathize with the slump-shouldered robot. Marvin may have exaggerated and obsessed over his many burdens—pain in all the diodes on his left side, or being forced to park cars for millions of years while his friends went to a fancy restaurant. But in Douglas Adams’ mixed-up and often terrifyingly random universe, Marvin’s weary resignation was one of the only sane responses to life. Besides, Marvin was more than a piece of miserable machinery, he was also the series’ stoic hero figure—often the only character smart enough to know what was actually going on, he repeatedly saved the lives of his (usually ungrateful) friends at great peril to himself. Whether it meant facing down an intelligent battle tank unarmed or staying behind on a doomed starship while the others teleported to safety, Marvin was always willing (though never eager) to put himself in harm’s way. Perhaps Marvin’s popularity also owed something to Adams’ own identification with the character—though it was inspired by a fellow writer named Andrew Marshall, Marvin’s disconsolate pessimism also came from Adams’ own bouts with depression.

Originally published on avclub.com Feb. 26, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on Tonto (and Kato), R2D2, Nobody, Inigo Montoya, Dr. Pretorius, Marvin, and Mouse. Read the complete article.

Review: Richard Stark, Ask The Parrot

Richard Stark, Ask The ParrotWhen Donald Westlake invented Parker, the iron-cold thief protagonist of the series Westlake writes under the pen name Richard Stark, he didn’t know that Parker would be one of the noir genre’s most enduring creations. If he had, he’d have given Parker a first name. But Parker has been just fine without one through 23 novels. What’s important about him isn’t who he is, but what he does: He steals, and survives the aftermath. Under his real name, Westlake writes lighthearted comic caper novels, often about luckless burglar John Dortmunder. Stark offers colder, bloodier, and more psychologically tense tales—if Westlake takes after Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Stark takes after Red Harvest. At its heart, the Parker series is about professionalism, and a man utterly ruthless in pursuit of his job.

Originally published on avclub.com Nov. 30, 2006. Read the complete article.

Interview: Donald E. Westlake (a.k.a. Richard Stark)

Donald E. WestlakeCrime novelist Donald Westlake is a man of many aliases—Samuel Holt, Tucker Coe, Curt Clark, pseudonyms picked up over the course of 100-odd published books—but two names stand out, his own and Richard Stark. As Westlake, he mostly writes comic caper novels, notably his half-dozen books about luckless criminal John Dortmunder. As Stark, he’s created one of the noir genre’s most definitive antiheroes in the cold-hearted master thief Parker. His books have been filmed many times, including the well-regarded Point Blank in 1967, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his 1990 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. His latest book is a new Stark novel, Ask The Parrot, which picks up Parker on the run from the law after the disastrous bank heist of the previous Nobody Runs Forever. Recently, Westlake talked with The A.V. Club about making it up as he goes, getting into his characters, and the crooks who read his books.

Originally published on avclub.com Nov. 16, 2006. Read the complete article.

Review: Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things: Short Fictions And Wonders

English expatriate Neil Gaiman has arguably received the most attention for fantasy novels like American Gods and Anansi Boys, whose success raised him from genre obscurity to a space on the bestseller lists near Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. But he’s had a knack for the short story ever since his work on the Sandman comic series—a format that rewards the ability to say everything that needs to be said in 24 pages of large illustrated panels and short word balloons.

Fragile Things, Gaiman’s third short-story collection, is probably best viewed as a collection of B-sides rather than any kind of unified artistic statement. The works here include short poems, a novella-length American Gods sequel, and stories compiled from far-flung anthologies, including one written to illustrate a photograph of a sock monkey. So it’s understandable that some pieces are more consequential than others. Still, even the trifles are engagingly written, such as “Strange Little Girls,” a set of brief character sketches written for his friend Tori Amos, as liner notes to her 2001 album of the same name. The similar “Fifteen Painted Cards From A Vampire Tarot” seems even more like a warm-up writing exercise published prematurely, especially since Gaiman admits there are seven more cards yet to be written about.

That isn’t to say that the 31 pieces here (32, counting one tucked away in Gaiman’s introduction) are all oddments. The Hugo-winning “A Study In Emerald” cleverly interweaves the worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft by re-imagining Sherlock Holmes’ debut mystery in a Victorian England ruled by Cthulhu and its brethren. Another Lovecraft-inspired gem plants a character inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster in a world of wittily overstuffed gothic horror, and follows his frustrated attempts to write “serious” fiction to a satisfyingly logical conclusion. And it might seem odd that one of the best stories here, “Goliath,” was written for-hire to help promote the first Matrix movie, but Gaiman has a facility for putting his own twist on other people’s invented worlds, especially when he’s given the freedom to explore on his own terms. Though Fragile Things‘ odds-and-ends nature inevitably makes it disjointed, it’s also a good showcase for the breadth of Gaiman’s darkly whimsical imagination, wry humor, and penchant for elegantly creepy horror.

Originally published on avclub.com Oct. 19, 2006. Read the complete article.

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