In a Lonely Place

This is the city. Late 1940s Los Angeles. The war has been won and the economy is booming, but something sinister is prowling the foggy streets of the city at night. Women are being murdered and their lifeless bodies abandoned in seemingly random locations. The police are unable to find a pattern or a motive. Panic and fear permeates the streets.

If this sounds like a standard noir plot from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett you would be right. The difference here is that this tale is written by the little known, but much regarded Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 and reissued here in the NYRB Classics series, is as entertaining as it is subversive. Hughes works within the noir genre to expose its own dark underbelly: the genre’s disturbing attitude towards its female characters.

Most of the novel is from the perspective of the killer, Dix Steele (a noir name if there ever was one). Recently back from the war and living off a stipend from a rich uncle, he wanders the city streets claiming he is a writer of detective fiction. Underneath this suave facade, he feels entitled to an easy life and is enraged by those he sees denying him, primarily women. There is Laurel Gray, the cynical aspiring actress who lives next door and Sylvia Nicolai, the wife of his best friend during the war. Sylvia is married to Dix’s old war buddy, who just happens to be a detective investigating the recent string of murders plaguing the city.

Hughes takes these classic noir characters (the femme fatale, the good girl, the detective, and the killer) and uses them to play with the readers expectations. The result is a novel grounded in, but not straightjacketed by, the genre. I won’t give any more of the details away. Just know that this is not a ‘standard’ noir tale in execution or resolution.

Do be warned though, it can take a bit of time to adjust to this excellent work. The prose can be dense and heated, the slang sometimes obtuse, and it is grounded in the mores of its time. That being said, this slim novel is well worth your limited reading time.

Heavenly Pulp

It’s become a habit, a sleazy late-night habit, when the stars are out and the ladies are tucked away between chenille and damask sheets. But then we’re not dealing with ladies here are we? Broads, dames, happy cha-cha marimba girls in twirling sequined dresses and little else if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Pulp.

What with a tsunami of ancient pulp novels and short stories being reissued as ebooks, I’m discovering authors and characters I’ve never heard of, brave adventurers I crave to read about again and again. This is not frilly prose filled with multisyllabic words such as “anglepoise” or “asymptomatic” but rapid-fire, clipped writing featuring gats and hooch and stiffs.

Over the past few months, I’ve read little other than pulp and blogged about the same. One of my discoveries this month was Super-Detective Jim Anthony. Let me say that delicious name again: Super-Detective Jim Anthony. Written in the 1940’s before the U.S. entered World War II, Anthony is often described as a Doc Savage clone (no time to go into Savage today), sharing similar characteristics and cohorts. He is a perfect physical specimen, superior athlete, supergenius, inventor, engineer, chemist, and on and on. No time for ladies, duty calls! In Dealer in Death, Anthony must defeat the ultravillain Rado Ruric who is trying to bring down the U.S. in a bloody revolution. If you can imagine a Flash Gordon serial as a novel then you understand the concept.

As with many stories from this time period there are racial stereotypes that we no longer consider acceptable. And of course, women are, well, window dressing, underlings, dames, broads … Well, you get the picture. Dickens it ain’t, but I thoroughly enjoyed Super-Detective Jim Anthony (I could not resist saying it again) and his gang as they saved our beloved nation.

The library does not have a lot of pulp titles as they are long out-of-print, but you can find a few collections of short stories, as well as a book filled with pulp author profiles. Here are some titles worth (wait for it) checking out.

Pulp ActionThe Mammoth Book of Pulp Action ed. by Maxim Jakubowski
A collection of crime stories written in the 1930’s and beyond, this book features pulp authors such as Erle Stanley Gardner, David Goodis, Hugh B. Cave, Lawrence Block, Frederic Brown, John D. MacDonald and Ed Gorman.


Paperback Confidential
Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt
This title contains profiles of important pulp authors including Gil Brewer, Paul Cain, Lester Dent, Brett Halliday, Orrie Hitt, Elisabeth Saxnay Holding, Day Keene, Richard S. Prather, Harry Whittington and Cornell Woolrich.

 

Hard-boiledHard-boiled: an Anthology of American Crime Stories ed. by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian
An anthology of crime stories written from the 1920’s to the 1990’s by Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Leigh Brackett, Jim Thompson and others.

 

Perhaps it’s hard to compare beautiful prose to pulp writing, but it’s the very hit-or-miss quality of metaphors and similes, the unlikely turns of phrase, the clichés, the “churn-it-out-if-you-wanna-get-paid” quality that makes pulp stories endearing to me. The stories in these anthologies are a good starting point, so find authors that grab your roving eye and then explore their writing further. Strangely, these long out-of-print tales are getting easier and easier to find.

And who can resist writing like this, a statement made by Dolores, the woman in love with … Super-Detective Jim Anthony?

 “Jim, don’t you realize that a killer as shrewd as that might have deliberately switched cars, knowing of your gelatine process?”

That, my friends, is pulp.

Noir Around the World

I’ve never been very fond of puzzles. Slowly deducing how to put something together, or take it apart, has always seemed deathly dull to me. Of course this could be due to the fact that I suck at it and am easily frustrated. My eventual answer to the Rubik’s cube was a large hammer and I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great’s Gordian knot solution.

Because of this fact, you wouldn’t think I’d be a very good candidate for becoming a mystery reader.  But I’ve actually come to enjoy mysteries… of a certain type.  After lots of trial and error, I’ve learned that the two things I really like about certain titles in the mystery genre are their strong sense of place and, for lack of a better term, a general dark tone.

Imagine my delight when I came across a new series of books published by Europa editions titled World Noir. This unique ongoing series highlights international crime fiction and features many titles that have been published for the first time in English, a great help to the language challenged such as myself. I’ve come to think of these books as cultural travel guides, albeit with a body count. Here are three of my favorite locales so far.

summertimeDestination:  Perpignan
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget

This city on the French Mediterranean shore is gearing up for the summer influx of tourists, when a murder in a nearby town and then a kidnapping in Perpignan break the vacation atmosphere. Both victims are Dutch. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Either way police detective Gilles Sebag is tasked with getting to the bottom of the situation.

The setting for this novel is unique, with Perpignan being a few miles from the border with Spain and having a mixed Catalan culture. In addition Sebag is an intriguing character, a world-weary family man who stumbles through the investigation in a pleasingly existential, but not necessarily despairing, way. If you read this novel you will start feeling the overbearing heat of the Mediterranean sun and begin looking up unfamiliar terms like Pastis.

midnightpromiseDestination:  Melbourne
The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt

It doesn’t get any more hardboiled than this series of ten cases involving “private inquiry agent” John Dorn set in the southern Australian city of Melbourne. Each case is unique but they have a cumulative effect, slowly revealing why Dorn is such a troubled soul. The author likes to play around with the temporal to great effect and the main character has an intriguing weakness for a gumshoe: he actually cares at times.

Lovett’s Melbourne is a great setting, being at once familiar and unique. Moneyed interests battle for supremacy as the underclass struggles to survive and an often corrupt police force tries to keep the lid on things. As a side benefit, the lead character’s massive alcohol consumption will make those of us who imbibe feel better about our lesser drinking rates.

thecrocodileDestination:  Naples
The Crocodile by Maurizio De Giovanni

Inspector Giuseppe Lojacono, disgraced due to false accusations of bribery in his native Palermo, has been transferred to a dead-end position in the Naples police force where he splits his time between playing computer poker and visiting the local trattoria. When a series of seemingly random shootings goes unsolved, he is drawn into the investigation by the prosecutor Laura Piras who recognizes his superior deductive skills.

This mystery is more of a “why did they do it” with the narrative being equally split between the perpetrator and the pursuers. The real star of the show though, is Naples: A city seemingly in a permanent state of decay and peopled by indifferent citizens, yet stunningly beautiful and magnetic none the less. Truly a perfect noir city.

If you like to discover new and vivid locales, and don’t mind a little darkness, these three books will take you there. Just don’t hold your breath for a happy ending.