Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Behind the Black Mask is No More

I was disappointed to find out today that Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards have discontinued their podcast Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed. You can read their goodbye message here. The good news is that all their episodes are still available, and the change seems to have come, not out of a lack of interest, but because both men have kids, and jobs, and other good things to put their effort into, including a possible book based on their other podcast, Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, which still seems to be going strong. (And Shannon, I'm glad to see that Turner Classic Movies thing worked out. You'll have to introduce me to Rose McGowan at some point.)

Wednesday Paperback Cover

Who knows what 2009 will hold? This guy. That's who. He's a doctor.

Monday, December 29, 2008


With the news that actress Ann Savage passed away over Christmas, I went poking around and found that you can watch her in her most famous role, as a femme fatale in Detour, at the Internet Archive. It's short and very much worth watching if you haven't seen it, or even if you have. Her performace is one of the highlights.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Vintage Sleaze

Vintage sleaze is a Web site dedicated to, well, vintage sleaze. See what some of your favorite authors wrote before they made it big. If collecting old paperbacks is your thing, some of the books are for sale, and you can buy them.

(Thanks to
Gonzalo Baeza for the heads up.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hard Boiled Sentimentality

I've been kind of lazy this week in terms of blogging. It's been a combination of issues with my Internet provider and real life issues of consequence that must be attended to, so there will be no book review, or deep thoughts on anything this week. I can, however, give you a book recommendation. I have, in my spare time, started reading Leonard Cassuto's Hard-Boiled Sentimentality. Cassuto, a professor at Fordham University, advances the thesis that the hard-boiled heroes who emerged in the Twenties and Thirties owe a debt to the sentimental fiction of the Nineteenth Century (think Harriet Beecher Stowe). I'm about halfway through the book right now, and my impression so far is that Cassuto has oversold his thesis, but you can say that about 99 percent of literary criticism. Cassuto seems to put a lot of stock in the fact that hard-boiled fiction often deals with personal and familial relationships, as does sentimental fiction. Of course, all fiction deals with personal relationships, so I stand less than convinced that Harriet influenced Hammett.

There is, though, a lot of good stuff. Cassuto's analysis of The Maltese Falcon is particularly trenchant and timely, as he discusses the book in light of the Great Depression. As he frames it, the mad hunt for the black bird is a metaphor for the rampant stock speculation that occurred before the big crash. I found this particularly interesting given my interest in how crime fiction and capitalism coexist, given the fact that our economy seems to be crumbling around us.

His section on Jim Thompson is also well worth reading as Cassuto takes on The Getaway, which is a novel about trust, and Thompson's most important work, where he takes the romantic idea of the debonair, lone wolf criminal to it's logical conclusion.

Perhaps I will have more to say once I've plowed through the rest of the book. Until then, you can read Sarah Weinman's review at the LA Times.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wednesday Paperback Cover

Quit corrupting the noble American farmer with your big city wiles dammit!
(courtesy of Eric Beetner)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The New Relevance of Detective Fiction: The Big Sleep and Captialism

The PI novel has been pronounced dead many times, and it still manages to stick around. It is a genre that serves, among other things, as a critique of the excesses of American capitalism. It often pits the detective's code of behavior in contrast to the success at all costs values that lead to success in the marketplace. This contrast is especially relevant now that the economy is floundering and the extent of the incredibly crude and vast nature of Wall Street corruption, which is coming to light. New York lawyer Marc Dreier was found to have been selling fake promissory notes to investors. The only difference between Drier and a guy selling DVD player boxes full of bricks out of the trunk of his car is, well, I can't think of one. And let us not neglect Bernard Madoff, who ran a $50 billion ponzi scheme. He is no doubt the envy of boiler room operators everywhere.

This economic turmoil presents and opportunity to examine the relationship of the PI novel and its relationship to between the detective novel and American capitalism. In this first entry, I will examine Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, as it is in many ways the archetypal PI novel, and Marlowe's manner and value system have been imitated many times over.

Many, many detective novels involve a rich man, or family calling on the detective to clean up a mess. The iconic novel in this vein is, of course, Chandler's The Big Sleep, which begins with Philip Marlowe, "wearing [his] powder blue suit, dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with blue clocks on them." Marlowe informs the reader that he is dressed up because he is "calling on four million dollars."

The four million dollars Marlowe is calling on belongs to one General Sternwood. Despite his title and his wealth, however, Sternwood is weak. "a cripple paralyzed in both legs with only half his lower belly." Sternwood needs the young, healthy Marlowe to deal with his family problems, which he is unable to cope with. His daughter, Carmen, has fallen prey to a blackmailer. In the course of cleaning up this routine depravity, Marlowe uncovers the true extent of the depravity of Sternwood's family. He, literally, finds out where the body is buried.

Significantly, Marlowe does not share this secret with General Sternwood, who is on his deathbead. Sternwood gets to die in peace. Marlowe bears that for him.
Sternwood's frailty and the wild, self-indulgent behavior of his daughters stand in contrast to Marlowe's youth, reponsibility and integrity. Sternwood, for all his worldly success, has failed as a father, and his daughters have nothing in the way of moral values or even common sense. Carmen is shown, in the end, to be insane. She is so self-centered that to reject her is a death sentence. She is the embodiment of success-at-all-costs values, and if she cannot succeed in seducing someone, then she tries to own them through murder.

In the marketplace, money is the goal. People start business to get money. Money isn't enough for Marlowe though. When Marlowe confronts Vivian Sternwood with evidence of her sister's crime, she offers him fifteen thousand dollars. The offer prompts a sarcastic response from Marlowe, who sneers,

" I'm a very smart guy. I haven't a feeling or a scruple in the world. All I have is the itch for money. I am so greedy for money that for twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, mostly gasoline and whiskey, I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of cops, and of Eddie Mars and his pals, I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you'll think of me, I'll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up...With fifteen grand I could own a home and a new car and four new suits of clothes. I might even take a vacation without worrying about losing a case. That's fine. What are you offering it to me for? Can I go on being a son of a bitch, or do I have to become a gentleman, like that lush that passed out in his car the other night?"

Marlowe puts integrity above financial gain and Vivian, clearly unused to someone like Marlowe, quickly capitulates to his demand to put Carmen in an institution. Marlowe's refusal to take the money is a repudiation of the get ahead at any cost. If his main aim is to make money, then he surely would have taken the money. Marlowe is that most revered of Americans, the small business owner, and yet he would sacrifice financial security for principle. With this ending, Chandler lays down the groundwork for many PI novels to come, particularly the novels of Ross MacDonald, whose novels almost always involve wealthy families, hidden secrets and class tension.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bettie Page meets Ellery Queen

Recently deceased Pin up queen Bettie Page was the cover girl for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine at least twice. Not exactly the sort of magazine she's usually associated with.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

This is Pulp Fiction on BBC7

Hear classic pulp fiction short stories read on BBC7 radio. Right now you can listen to stories by Gil Brewer, Jim Thompson and Paul Cain.

Donkey Punch becomes Sucker Punch

Ray Banks' second novel is getting published in America in February, and somewhere along the line it has undergone a name change. Published in the UK as Donkey Punch, it has been retitled Sucker Punch for its U.S. release.That may be because the publisher was squeamish about publishing a book whose title is taken from a potentially lethal and almost certainly mythical sexual manueuver, (link NSFW), or because Banks' book had everything to do with boxing and absolutely nothing to do with sexual manuevers of any kind. They may also not want to confuse people into thinking it's related to the recently released UK film Donkey Punch (which actually involves said punch and seems about as appealing as being punched.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wednesday Paperback Cover

Today's cover comes from reader Eric Beetner. Submissions for the Wednesday Paperback Cover are always welcome.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

William Marling, a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, has a fascinating Web site on detective fiction with articles on famous authors and works of hard boiled fiction. I would spend all day reading this if I didn't have to work. (via.) I'm not sure how I managed to overlook this site, but I'm going to be spending some quality time there this week.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Free Books from Bleak House

I am back from my vacation, and regular posting should resume shortly. As I checked my inbox for the first time in a week, I found a message from Bleak House Books about their holiday promotion, which involves giving away books. That's right. Get a free book. All you pay is shipping and handling. It's difficult to beat that kind of deal. Bleak House has a ton of great titles to choose one, so don't miss out on this deal.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Review of The Spoke

Bitter Lemon Press performs an invaluable service by making foreign language crime fiction available in English. They’ve opened the door for many worthy authors whose work would otherwise be unknown to a large audience of crime fiction readers. Bitter Lemon’s most fascinating find, by far, is Swiss author Friedrich Glauser, author of the Sergeant Studer novels.

Glauser, who wrote in German, was a junkie, a jail inmate, member of the foreign legion and a mental patient. He started writing novels in an asylum and was a prolific letter writer. Unfortunately, there is very little biographical information about him in English, which makes him something of an enigma. His novels, including the latest to be translated by Mike Mitchell, The Spoke (Bitter Lemon Press, 2008), are conventional detective stories up until the point that they’re not. Studer, who is laconic and rational, also depends on dreams to guide him and sees nothing strange about it. It is also true that it is seldom the dead who are the real victims.

As with The Chinaman, the real victims in The Spoke are the living. The novel finds the marriage of Studer’s daughter interrupted by the discovery of a murder at the hotel where the wedding party is staying. Complicating matters is the fact that Studer’s first love is married to the hotel’s consumptive owner. What at first appears to be an open-and-shut case of murder over a woman turns into something more complicated when Studer starts questioning the shady characters hanging around the hotel. Studer’s patient interrogations and his innate skepticism get him ever closer to the truth, and when he finally arrives the crimes surrounding the murders loom larger than the deaths.

Glauser is not to be missed. The Spoke is the final novel in his Sergeant Studer series, and also the last to be translated into English. Start with Thumbprint, the first in the series and go from there. Glauser is an author worth getting to know.