Wednesday, August 27, 2008

There's Something About Parker

If you follow this blog, you know that Donald Westlake's best known creation, professional thief Parker, has been on my mind of late. In the last two weeks I've read the first three Parker novels' The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit, and I've also watched the director's cut of Payback, director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's adaptation of The Hunter featuring Mel Gibson.

Helgeland's film is much different than the film that made it to the screen. It has a third act that follows Westlake's book much more closely and the overall tone of the film is much more in keeping with Westlake's vision of Parker. The theatrical version of Payback made Porter (the Parker character) accessible via a wisecracking voiceover (voiceovers are almost always a bad sign in a movie) and provided a happy ending. I liked the theatrical version well enough, but the director's cut was much better. With the voiceover gone, Gibson's character was much more self-contained and mysterious. The DVD had a documentary about the making of the film, and how the suits and Gibson (who was a producer) had second thoughts about the level of violence, ambiguous ending and the very nature of the character. The director's cut Porter hits his ex-wife and shoots people in cold blood. He's not a psycho, but he's not exactly a thief with a heart of gold either.

Now, it's not surprising that the movie version of Westlake's hard ass character would be watered down. That's what Hollywood does. They need to reach as many people as possible to make as much money as possible. The result of trying to please everybody is usually an inferior product, and I think you can make that argument with Payback, but, on the other hand, there is a validity to the concerns of the suits in this case. Parker is unlike most fictional characters in that he has no redeeming qualities. He is not nice to dogs and children. He does not have any interesting hobbies. He does not give the money he steals to the poor. He has no friends, just associates, and he'll kill them the minute he thinks they might trip him up, and he's not tortured or tormented either. The people he kills and the violent acts he commits never cause him to lose a moment of sleep.

Westlake intended for Parker to get caught at the end of The Hunter, figuring the guy was just too mean for more than one novel, but the editor at Crest, the outfit that bought the book, wanted a series based on the character, so Westlake obliged. So, what is it about Parker, who has now traipsed through around twenty novels, that appeals to people? Is it Parker's complete amorality? Is it his professionalism? Is it his lack of emotion? For me, I think it's his tenacity. In the opening page of The Hunter Parker is walking across the George Washington Bridge. He is broke. A guy offers him a ride and Parker's response is to tell him to go to hell. He then proceeds to go into the city and steal enough money to begin his campaign of revenge. I think that's why I root for him. He's always coming from nothing and pulling himself up out of the gutter. Every time he thinks he's got a problem solved another one comes up and he's got to start all over again. It never gets him down and he never gives up, and that's a good quality to have even if you are a thief.

Wednesday Paperback Cover


Isn't Balsamo a type of vinegar?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: Dogs of God

Pinckney Benedict is not a prolific author. He's published a couple collections of short stories, but only one novel. Dogs of God, published in 1994, is a backwoods apocalypse. Set in the mountains of West Virginia, it revolves around two main characters: Tannhauser, a 12-fingered drug lord who imports illegal immigrants to use as slave labor on his marijuana plantation and Goody, a bare-knuckle brawler who makes his living fighting in honky-tonks. There is a large cast of supporting characters, including corrupt lawmen, a hermit and drug smugglers. For much of the novel, the characters go about their brutal business, but their paths gradually converge, and when they do the result is a conflagration so great that those lucky enough to survive come out scarred beyond recognition.

Benedict, a native West Virginian, uses his Appalachian setting to the fullest, and his depiction of men (and it is a book about men, not women) forging a hellish new society in a lawless wilderness gives us a view of human nature as bleak as that in Conrad's
Heart of Darkness or Golding's Lord of the Flies. Men in their natural state, are little different from the insanely destructive wild hogs that populate the woods around them. They have the same animal urges, for sex, for blood, and they act on them without thought or consequence. Even Goody, the moral center of the book, is a fighter. He works beating men bloody in bars for cash. The only difference between Goody and the murderous drug runners is that his fights have rules, nebulous as they may be.

The book's climax is an apocalypse, in the true sense of the word, a "lifting of the veil," for Goody, who, after killing one of Tannhauser's lieutenants in a prearranged bar fight, end up on the plantation just as the shit hits the fan. He ends up, well, I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say he emerges from the experience with a terrible revelation on his lips. Dogs of God is steeped in rural culture and old time religion, and Benedict's characters are the type of creations Flannery O'Connor would have dreamed up had she ended up with a Y chromosone instead of two X's.

(Thanks to Patti Abbot for the invitation to contribute)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sundries

You already know about Fifty-to-One, the fiftieth book in the Hard Case Crime series, but Bookgasm is reporting that there's going to be a special leather bound edition of only 5o copies, each one autographed by multiple Hard Case authors. It'll only cost $750. Who's going to volunteer to buy one for me?

Bleak House Publisher Ben LeRoy and author Nathan Singer (In the Light of You) have put their heads together to come up with the 32 most Rock and Roll Rock and Roll songs.

Over at Behind the Black Mask Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards interview George Pelecanos.

Continuing my fascination with all things Parker, I present to you an interview with Donald Westlake from the University of Chicago Press Web site.

And to bring it back to rock and roll, the two best bands in the country will be touring together this fall.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wednesday Paperback Cover

Have you checked under the couch cushions?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mystery versus Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is a pretty broad label that can encompass anything from Sherlock Holmes to Lolita. It is, like most labels, artificial. It's also useful. Labels generally are. If you went to the bookstore and the romance and the crime fiction were shelved together with chick lit then browsing at the bookstore would be a less enjoyable experience because everyone would have to wade through ten things they have no interest in to find one thing they might want to look at. Having handy categories is a must, even if the lines can blur at times.

Still, there are some labels that have a pretty clear meaning. Take "mystery" for example. While there are different types of mysteries, it is pretty easy to find the common thread in books as different as The Orient Express and The Maltese Falcon. There are questions to be answered. The author uses unanswered questions to keep the reader in suspense. The term mystery is often abused, though. Many bookstores will label their crime fiction section mystery, even though mystery fiction is a subset of crime fiction. Sometimes it creeps onto book covers as well.

The recent reprints of Donald Westlake's Parker novels from the University of Chicago are labeled mystery on the back cover. Now the label is undoubtedly intended to help let those stocking shelves know where to put them, but it's not an accurate label for the books. While the Parker novels are crime fiction, there is no mystery element to them. There is never a whodunit element in the books because the reader knows Parker's doing it. The suspense comes from finding out how he's going to pull off the crimes he commits.

Now, I'm not picking on U of C, here. The books are very nice, and I'm reading these old Parker novels for the first time now that they are back in print, and I'm enjoying them quite a bit. It does bother me a little, however, seeing mystery used as shorthand for crime fiction because mystery has a certain meaning, and it promises a reader a certain experience. If you start labeling everything on the shelf a mystery the meaning of the word is eroded. Of course I'm a sticker for precision in language, and I could be the only person in the world who this bothers.





Sunday, August 17, 2008

More on Hunt for Adventure

So Charles Ardai has gotten around to releasing some more information about the forthcoming Hunt For Adventure series. The excerpt below comes from the latest Hard Case newsletter. I'm thrilled to see James Reasoner on the list, although I think his output is somewhere north of two dozen books.


One last tidbit, and then I'll let you get back to your regularly scheduled summertime activities: Our pulp adventure series, THE ADVENTURES OF GABRIEL HUNT (www.HuntForAdventure.com),

continues to rev up, and I'm pleased to announce that the authors contributing books to the series will include Hard Case Crime veterans Christa Faust (MONEY SHOT) and David J. Schow (GUN WORK) as well as James Reasoner (author of the cult classic TEXAS WIND and two dozen other books) and Nicholas Kaufmann (Stoker Award nominee for GENERAL SLOCUM'S GOLD). And me, of course. How could I miss the chance to write of these myself?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wednesday Paperback Cover


As usual in a Reginald Heade cover, gravity doesn't affect clothing.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle. We have some very nice lofts.


What happens to noir when the cities are all full of townhomes and loft apartments populated by nice, educated families with long-term employment and a hefty mortgage? Will people be able to identify with Hammett's San Francisco, Chandler's Los Angeles or Spillane's New York? Will they look at the tenements and narrow alleys in noir films, and ask themselves, where is that?

There's no denying that major American cities are
undergoing a change and have been for a while. As people move back into the cities and developers race to tear down everything that's not bright, shiny and brand new in the mad scramble to accommodate them what is lost? Character? Charm? Affordable housing for all the people who cater to the whims of the new, wealthy residents? What is gained? Lower crime rates? Higher property values? More tax revenue? Gushing write-ups in glossy magazines?

In Los Angeles, mystery writers and tenant groups have both recognized what they have to lose through gentrification, and I have to say I have sympathy since I live in a 60's era apartment complex in Atlanta that's scheduled, at some indefinite point in the future, for demolition and replacement with a billion dollar mixed use (whatever the fuck that means) development. My apartment complex isn't crime ridden. It isn't shabby by any reasonable definition of the word, and it is affordable, which is why I like it. I don't go in for fancy. Granite countertops mean nothing to me. (I sometimes think I'm the only white person in America with a college education who doesn't take a masochistic pleasure in paying too much for housing.)

Still, it's not as simple as tenants good, developers bad, although there is a stunning amount of corruption that always comes along with any big money development. New is sometimes better. There's very little that stays constant in cities or anywhere else. And I wouldn't worry too much about the urban jungle disappearing from our popular imagination anytime soon. In the end, the noir city is just a backdrop. It doesn't make or break noir or detective fiction, which isn't about anything as mutable as a city. It's about the darkness in the human heart, which is something that all of us carry with us always, whether our homes have granite countertops or not.

(This post was, in part, inspired by this one.)

Sundries

It's Friday, and I've got a bottle of beer in hand and a list of links I've been meaning to post here, so I'm gonna get down to business.

There's an interview with Jason Starr over at Bookgasm, where, among other things, he reveals that there's a movie version of Bust in the works. I think Bust could be worked into an R-rated flick, however, don't hold out much hope for a movie adaptation of Slide. NC-17 films are commercial suicide. The final book in the Bust trilogy, The Max is coming out in September.

There's a new independent publisher on the block. Rudos and Rubes Press. I have not yet had the chance to check out their offerings, but Bookgasm likes one of their launch titles, Devil Born Without Horns by Michael Lucas. The cover's no great shakes, but you know what they say about judging books.

Bleak House author Mark Coggins, inspired by Dell Mapbacks, has created a Google Map of the locations of the crimes in his latest novel, Runoff.

And it's been a while since there's been an honest to goodness book porn link, and I don't think I've featured this site before even though I've known about it for a while.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008

Late to the Party

So, I finally got around to visiting Seth Harwood's latest project Crimewav, which now features five podcasted stories from various authors including Jason Starr, Gary Phillips, Christa Faust and Vicki Hendricks, who is twisted. Her story "Must Bite" is, uh, freaky. (Part 1, Part 2). You might not want to listen to it if you have a problem with chimp on human action. And if you don't have a problem with that sort of thing, I don;t want to know, so keep it to yourself.

Being able to hear authors read there own work while lying on your bed make's this the lazy man's way to engage with short stories, so if you are wiped out after a long day, as I often am, you can just click your mouse listen. Pretty convenient.

Interview with Anthony Neil Smith

Jim Winter has an interview with Plots with Guns editor and author of a few books, Anthony Neil Smith at The Rap Sheet.