Archive for July, 2010

Charles Williams: Hell Hath No Fury

Posted in Charles Williams with tags , , on July 27, 2010 by gustravis

“It began to come home to me then that maybe I didn’t know all there was to know about her.  I began to sense a steel-trap deadliness of purpose operating somewhere behind that baby stare and sensuous face.  She was as tough as a shark, and she got what she wanted. She’d be hard to whip, because she got fat on her enemies.”

Charles Williams does Southern Pulp with Hell Hath No Fury, sometimes called The Hot Spot. We get a used car salesman.  By accident he stumbles on great, criminal opportunity: a small town bank left almost deserted anytime a fire breaks out.  He commits arson and robs the bank.  In the meantime, he gets involved with two women: one, a stunning young innocent, the other, the wife of his boss, a nymphomaniac with a crazy streak and an unbreakable will. Soon, he’s stuck in a vice. He’s got the cops, the wife, a blackmailer, and his own ambitions to reconcile without getting killed, or worse.

This is my first Williams and he’s damn good. He’s not flashy, sometimes he explains to much, but hell, he creates a world, however small, where anything can happen, where anyone could turn bad at any moment.  True noir.

The writer of many hardboiled novels, some screenplays, Williams committed suicide in 1975.

Cornell Woolrich: Murder at the Automat

Posted in Cornell Woolrich on July 18, 2010 by gustravis

“You talk like a layman.  You’ve been on the squad long enough by now to know how damnably unescapable little habits are, how impossible it is to shake them off, once formed. The public at large thinks detective work is something miraculous like pulling rabbits out of a silk-hat. They don’t realize that no adult is a free agent–that they’re tied hand and foot by tiny, harmless little habits, and held helpless.”
Murder at the Automat, a short story by Cornell Woolrich

“Very few photographs of Woolrich exist, but an interesting verbal portrait appears in Chapter 5 of I Wake Up Screaming, a novel by Steve Fisher who was a pulpwriter contemporary of Woolrich. ‘He had red hair and thin white skin and red eyebrows and blue eyes. He looked sick. He looked like a corpse. His clothes didn’t fit him… He was frail, grey-faced and bitter. He was possessed with a macabre humor. His voice was nasal. You’d think he was crying. He might have had T.B. He looked like he couldn’t stand up in a wind.’ The character’s name is Cornell.”
-From the introduction to the collection Nightwebs, written by Francis M. Nevins, Jr.

Automat falls into “impossible crime” genre.  A man is killed at an automat by a pre-wrapped poisoned sandwich.  The others at the table didn’t do it.  The sandwich packers didn’t do it.  No one could have done it.  At least, that’s how it seems.

What I like about Woolrich’s story is that we have this one detective, Nelson, trying to figure this impossible crime out, while his captain and his partner beat the sense out of the most “likely” witness to get a confession. Woolrich tosses us into a world where justice doesn’t mean a damn thing, just get a confession and that’s good enough. His hero turns against the system in order to protect it in what seems like an ongoing theme in the writer’s pulp work: paranoia.

James Ellroy: Clandestine

Posted in James Ellroy with tags , on July 11, 2010 by gustravis

“I know you’re a smart-mouth young cop.  I know that’s a roscoe and handcuffs under your sweater.  I know the kind of things you guys do that you think people don’t know about.  I know guys like you die hungry.”

Ellroy’s book promises something too perfect in its first pages.  Our narrator tells us about “the wonder”: a fascination with the depravity, the perversity of the streets.  He lets us know that this is the story of the “last season of his youth”, a rite of passage, where he learns that running alongside “hellishly driven lives in clandestine transit was the wonder–as well as my ultimate redemption”.  These pages promise something unusual: a sort of pulp novel that combines the “literary” quality and grasp of The Great Gatsby.

Like Ellroy himself, the novel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  It slowly fades into a dense-plotted thriller that goes from serial killer yarn to family melodrama and ends with the kind of sappy touch that bares no resemblance to the stunning prologue mentioned above.

When you listen to Ellroy, the supposed “demon dog” of American fiction, his attitude and claims create the image of a recluse bad-ass, a man-pervert who peeps and hoots and barks at the sight or mention of attractive dames, a writer who reads no other writers but Hammett and Cain and a few who meet his standard of acceptable.  Of course, this build-up disentagrates too along with his story.  Ellroy, through his protagonist, seems actually very tender towards women (this is not a bad thing; it just runs uneven with his perpetuated myth).

In the end, Clandestine and Ellroy through Clandestine come off as soft. I won’t give up on the “demon dog” but I know when he claims to be the greatest crime writer in American fiction, I can have a damn good laugh.

Ellroy on Hammett

Posted in Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy with tags , on July 5, 2010 by gustravis

As I am in between both writers right now, done with The Dain Curse and not quite done with Ellroy’s Clandestine, this article where the modern writer discusses the pioneer of the genre seems an urgent addition.   The entire piece can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/sep/29/crime.fiction

But I’d like to draw some excerpts that highlight the qualities I like in Hammett too.

“Hammett’s male-speak is the gab of the grift, the scam, the dime hustle. It’s the poke, the probe, the veiled query, the grab for advantage. It’s the threat, the dim sanction, the offer of friendship cloaked in betrayal. Plot holes pop through Hammett’s stories like speed bumps. The body count accretes with no more horror than pratfalls in farce. It doesn’t matter. The language is always there.”

“Hammett’s workday men risk peril for trifling remuneration and never question the choice. The great satisfactions of the job are the mastery of danger and the culling of facts to form a concluding physical truth. These facts comprise the closing of the case and thus the story. Hammett’s men stand hollowly proud in their constant case conclusions. They are in no way affirmed or redeemed. They have survived. They are hopped-up versions of the schmuck clerk who got through one more shift at Wal-Mart.”