Posts Tagged ‘noir’

Book Review: “Shooting Star” and “Spiderweb” by Robert Bloch

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Shooting Star/Spiderweb (Hard Case Crime #42) Shooting Star/Spiderweb by Robert Bloch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A great package! I knew nothing of Robert Bloch when I picked up this book at the library.  I selected it largely because of my experiences with other releases from its publisher, Hard Case Crime.  Bloch was the author of Psycho and the youngest within H. P. Lovecraft’s circle.

Both novels are gritty, L.A. mean noir, and have some exquisite and darkly funny word-paintings.  From Spiderweb:

The Professor nodded and whispered.  “We’re back in the world of normal people, my friend. Look at them.”

I looked. . . .

A cannibalistic circle huddled around a small fire, gorging on half-raw weenies and rancid dill pickles.  Troglodyte faces gaped in the firelight.  A wrinkled, wizened old man’s head: white, bushy hair and beetling black brows that moved convulsively as he chewed with his whole face.  There was a fat, blobby woman with stringy hair and a red neck: the rest of her flesh hung in dead white folds, broken here and there by bulging purplish veins that stood out like mountain ranges on a relief map.  She slapped at a screaming brat with one beefy hand, slopping beer from a punctured can clutched in the other.  A bullet-headed youth squatted next to a portable radio, fiddling with the volume control and scratching the hairy recesses of his armpits.

From Shooting Star:

Yes, there but for the grace of God went all of us, and there seemed to be plenty the grace of God had somehow overlooked. Everybody overlooked them, including the nice, clean, family newspapers and the smug little moralists who devoted their oracular pronouncements to solving vital problems of people who couldn’t make up their minds between buying a new station wagon or taking a vacation in Hawaii this season.

Neither book is perfect.  They both hinge on paranoid fears over dated controversies: marijuana in Shooting Star and self-help gurus in Spiderweb.  (Incidentally, alcoholism plays a curious subtext in both.  Booze gushes everywhere.  Perhaps that’s unsurprising given the books were written a half-century ago, but it also suggests a sly take on sanctioned addictions versus criminal ones: “Put down that joint, stop listening to that shrink, and have a drink!”)  Shooting Star’s ending is so contrived and deus ex machina it detracts from its overall artistry.  But don’t let any of this dissuade you from reading the book.  It’s a fantastic read!

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Anatomy of a Killer and A Shroud for Jesso by Peter Rabe

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Anatomy of a Killer & A Shroud for Jesso Anatomy of a Killer & A Shroud for Jesso by Peter Rabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Very good! I read much of “Anatomy of a Killer” on train rides from New York to D.C. and back again. At times I was a little tired, and that might account for the confusion I experienced with some of it.  That said, someone else remarked that Rabe does a lot of “head-hopping,” i.e., quick changes in perspective.  It’s literally a portrait (“Anatomy”) of a young killer. It doesn’t surprise me Rabe was a psychologist because really does go into the characters’ heads, particularly their habits, methods, etc. Of the two novels, I liked “A Shroud for Jesso” the best.  As Donald Westlake observes in his afterword, at first it’s a nasty big American city-hardboiled tale, but then quickly switches gears into an Continental espionage thriller and romance.  Don’t let “romance” fool you though: this is a bitter, bitter story.  The characters are really well-crafted. I can’t understand why it wasn’t made into a film.  “Killer” also would’ve been good on the screen.  Recommended!

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The Washington-Baghdad-New York Musical Express (with a stopover in Noirville)

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I took a quick trip to Washington, D.C. earlier this week.  Washington is such an underrated city.  There are no great songs about it and there are no cinematic encomiums to it the way there are to London, Paris, and New York, not to mention Los Angeles.   But Washington was, and is, a gas.  Its museums are second to none, its architecture is breathtaking, and its subway system is futuristic and immaculate.  What’s not to love?

On my train rides there and back, I listened to Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq, a compilation of Iraqi pop music from 1980s up through 2000The music is so good it’s outrageous.  Some of it sounds like techno with its funky, staccato drums.  The linear notes explain that while the percussion might sound electronic, and sometimes is, it’s typically a hand-drum called the khishba, also known as the zanbour (Arabic for “wasp”).  Any of these songs would sound great on a dance floor.

Choubi Choubi! also features “1970s Socialist Folk-Rock” by a singer named Ja’afar Hassan.  To my ears his songs are more like mid-1960s garage rock, particularly with what sounds like a caterwauling Farfisa.  I also really dig his enormous Dylan/Hendrix afro.

After my happy experience with Choubi!, I’ll turn to Sublime Frequencies, the compilation’s label, to satisfy further my exotic auditory needs.  (That sounds lewd.)  With titles like 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground, Radio Myanmar (Burma), and Sumatran Folk Cinema DVD, how can you go wrong?  On its website, the label says that:

SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations. SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience inspired by music and culture, world travel, research, and the pioneering recording labels of the past including OCORA, SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS, ETHNIC FOLKWAYS, LYRICHORD, NONESUCH EXPLORER, MUSICAPHONE, BARONREITER, UNESCO, PLAYASOUND, MUSICAL ATLAS, CHANT DU MONDE, B.A.M., TANGENT, and TOPIC.

On my train rides I also read Peter Rabe’s Anatomy of a Killer.  It’s great, but sometimes I find it a little confusing.  The language itself is simple and direct, but there’s frequent and abrupt changes in perspective.  Nevertheless, so far  it’s strong noir: quick, brutal, and unsentimental. 

I also like it for its mundane settings: a Pennsylvania mining town, a bowling alley, a seedy nightclub.  I want art to transport me somewhere, anywhere–it can be someplace unfamiliar like a Baghdad tearoom, or a rundown coffee shop.  I like the trip–the destination is secondary.  Although, yes, part of Choubi Choubi!‘s fascination is its foreignness, but it couldn’t hold me on that alone.  The music itself grabbed me.

I’m reminded of why I love Don’t Call Me a Crook!  It’s a voyage through Bob Moore’s world.  Sometimes he sails to  to strange places like Alexandria and Shanghai, and other times he’s making trouble in humdrum towns like Hoboken and Glasgow.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s the trip that’s interesting: the places he sees, the women he tricks, the booze he guzzles.  What would Bob make of Choubi Choubi!?  Not a lot, I’m afraid.  It wasn’t European, much less Harry Lauder, “Land of My Fathers,” or “I Belong to Glasgow” so I’m sure he would’ve dismissed it as noise.  But that’s Bob’s problem, not mine.

Stephen King, Max Allan Collins, and Me

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Last week I also read Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved, both published by Hard Case Crime.  Honestly, neither really blew me away, and perhaps that’s not the point.  Hard Case books provide quick, diverting reads: they’re first and foremost entertainment.  That’s fine, and I’ll be quick to say both had me compulsively turning their pages.  They’re competently written and executed.  But they’re both one-dimensional.  I wasn’t surprised that Deadly Beloved was originally a comic strip—it had that simplistic quality of comics that never translates well into books or film (and that’s coming from someone who loves the offerings of Marvel and DC, not to mention Hergé).


I want more from my noir.  I like crime literature that reveals and ponders on the sordid details of life, particularly life beyond the respectable and the law.  That’s why I like Jim Thompson’s books.  Frankly, the plots themselves don’t knock me out.  (I haven’t yet read The Killer Inside Me yet; I understand that’s great on all counts, including story.)  But I’m drawn in by Thompson’s descriptions of people, places, and mood; his artistry of language and imagery; and the subtle yet deliberate way he conveys his worldview.  I didn’t get that from either Deadly Beloved or The Colorado Kid. Contrary to what you might think, I have found it Mickey Spillane’s words.  And not to constantly blow Dissident Books’ horn (that sounds obscene), but Don’t Call Me a Crook! delivers it too.


But all that said, there are two things I appreciated about The Colorado Kid.  It commits the delicious sin of breaking that most holy of compacts with the reader: it leaves the mystery unresolved.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  As the two crusty newspaper editors in Kid intimate, that’s life—an unresolved mystery. 


Stephen King also writes something outstanding in his afterword:


I ask you to consider the fact that we live in web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality.  Where do we come from?  Where were we before we were here?  Don’t know.  Where are we going?  Don’t know.  A lot of churches have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates.  In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got A Clue.  Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive.  Most times the bad telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually.


I would add to King’s rhetorical questions “What’s it all for?”  And again, the answer is “Don’t know.”  It brings to mind a wonderful passage from Mencken’s Chrestomathy:


Yet we cling to [life] in a muddled physiological sort of way—or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way—and even try to fill it with a gaudy, hocus-pocus . . . .   Why?  If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes . . . .

 Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic.  So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror.  He works. He plays.  He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property.  He strives for the coy eyewink called fame.  He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others.  All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself.  Life, fundamentally, is not worth living.  So he confects artificialities to make it so.  So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

 Perhaps my talk of agonies and tragi-comedies may be a bit misleading.  The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore.  It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.  The objection to it is not that is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking sense.  What is ahead for the race?  Even theologians can see nothing but a gray emptiness, with a burst of irrational fireworks at the end.  But there is such a thing as human progress.  True.  It is the progress that a felon makes from the watch-house to the jail, and from the jail to the death-house.  Every generation faces the same intolerable boredom.


Final thought:  It was Mencken together with George Jean Nathan who started The Black Mask, the famed detective magazine.  True, Mencken and Nathan began it as a means to subsidize The Smart Set, their prestigious literary magazine, and sold it after eight issues.  And yes, it was the subsequent editor, Joseph Shaw, who recruited great hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.  And Mencken even wrote in his preface to his collection that those who criticized his use of Chrestomathy were “ignoramuses” who “recreate themselves with whodunits.”  But I like to think (keywords “like to think”: not “know” or “certain” or even “have reason to believe”) that Mencken had a soft spot for noir.  Consider his repeated use of criminal and prison imagery, as in the passage above.  I bet noir’s lack of sentiment and harsh view of life on “this lugubrious ball” spoke to the Sage of Baltimore.