Hatcher’s Junk Drawer #18: Comfort Food

Pandemic Lockdown Week Two finds us much the same as last week, only more so. We’ve spent the last seven days pinballing between existential dread and flat-out panic, depending on whether the fears were health-based or financial. Somehow, through a combination of desperate budget-fu and good luck, we are both still employed full-time (though hours have been cut for both of us), we’re still not infected with the mutant superbug, and most miraculous of all, we kept the car running, although it’s literally held together with duct tape.

I talked last week about how we’d sort of fallen back into childhood escapist entertainment as a kind of comfort food. For me that’s always been crime fiction. My friend Don Milliken says that’s actually true for lots of folks besides Julie and me.

I think that a lot of people take comfort in the depiction of a world where crime is consistently and correctly punished and there’s rarely any confusion as to who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. A world that most certainly isn’t our world.

I can’t really argue with that. Back when I was five years old, the two things I loved about Adam West’s Batman were that he was not only able to make sense of the senseless with his fearsome intelligence, but he was able to follow it up by beating the shit out of the bad guys who had it coming.

I’m not going to get into the whole family history, but let’s just say I sure wasn’t getting any of that in real life at the age of five. There’s no wonder it was hugely soothing to me to see it on TV at least. And considering the almost total lack of worthy adult role models around me in the real world, there were worse ones to have than fictional ones like Batman or the Lone Ranger or Captain America. People disparage ‘comic-book morality’ as something to jeer at, but you know what? The stuff Steve Rogers used to talk about back in the day still works for me. (When it showed up in Winter Soldier, I don’t know about you all, but that was a fist-pumping fuck yeah moment for me.)

When I got old enough to read books on my own, that was what I gravitated to. Detectives who were smart enough to figure things out and tough enough to see justice done. Order out of chaos, good people saved and bad people punished. The Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes, the Bronze Age Batman… they all had that in common when you scraped the paint off, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time.

So once again, surrounded by terror and chaos in our daily life, both Julie and I are gravitating to entertainments where the world is simpler and functions as it should. Here’s what we’ve been watching and reading. I’m passing it on in the hope you’ll find these as soothing and restorative as we have.

*

The ’93 Untouchables.

I’ve always been interested in the mythology that’s sprung up around the war between Eliot Ness and Al Capone, and have done a fair amount of reading on it, starting with Ness’s own memoir as well as other history books about it. Watching it become a classic American folk tale has always struck me as proof that, no matter how much we talk about adulthood being about discarding such things, we need heroes. If we don’t get real ones we’ll invent them. Or, in the case of Eliot Ness, we’ll draft actual people and paper over any inconvenient real stuff.

Of those fictionalized efforts, this version is my favorite.

Mostly because of Tom Amandes as Ness, who puts across that Steve Rogers-style decency better than anyone else who’s played the character, and also because I like the way the scripts are put together; not exactly realistic, but with more awareness of the actual history than the old 1959 version, and certainly more than the DePalma movie with Kevin Costner (a collection of wonderful scenes held together with a nonsense plot.) I should add that here in the ’93 show, William Forsythe is amazing as Capone, as well; he manages to be terrifying, dangerous, and yet incredibly convincing in his self-justification for his increasingly heinous crimes. A villain who’s persuaded himself he’s a hero. Plus you get both Tonto and Superboy backing Ness up. What’s not to love?

Julie is still firmly on team Robert Stack, though she’s coming around.

Who knows? Once we’re done with the ’93 version maybe we’ll go there next.

*

More Perry Mason! Specifically, this 50th Anniversary Collection.

Now, I’ve talked about Perry Mason and Gardner’s novels in this space a time or two, and I think I may have even mentioned that I find them to be fun but forgettable; the literary equivalent of a bag of potato chips, as opposed to the novels of Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald or even Ian Fleming, which I’d consider to be more of a full meal deal.

The same thing is even more true of the television show, which was a dependable formula whodunit series that derived most of its entertainment value from us in the audience trying to solve the puzzle ahead of Perry, as well as seeing the regular cast do their familiar thing. Maybe it’s just echoes from childhood. But even at the age of 58, for me there’s still something soothing and viscerally satisfying about watching Raymond Burr slam the door on the killer in the final courtroom scene. “Because you were never there, were you, Mr. O’Dell? You were back at the hotel! Killing Jacob Trenton! Weren’t you? WEREN’T YOU??” O’Dell starts sobbing. Music up and out. Never gets old.

Nevertheless, there’s really no huge craving on my part to have the whole nine-season set here in the library. I just like one once in a while. But when I saw this set on Amazon for a couple of bucks, I snapped it up. Why? Because it’s a wonderful greatest-hits collection, plus there are all the extras.

It’s a great sampler from the whole run, plus there are all sorts of cool interviews and archival footage of the cast auditions (William Hopper tried out for Mason before he was cast as Drake; Raymond Burr auditioned for Hamilton Burger before he was cast as Mason.) Barbara Hale introduces the episodes and they include the times the show dared to break the formula, or at least stretch it a little; the one done in color, the one where Perry actually lost a case to Burger, and so on. Best of all, it has the first reunion movie, which may not seem like a big deal today considering they made something like thirty more, but it was a big damn deal when it happened and I have very fond memories of the watch party we had for it the night it first aired.

Chances are good you can find this set for under five dollars and if you have any affection for the show at all I’d very much recommend it.

*

Speaking of Erle Stanley Gardner, Hard Case Crime sent me their latest re-issue of Gardner’s Cool and Lam series, Shills Can’t Cash Chips.

HAS DONALD LAM GONE OVER TO THE DARK SIDE? From the world-famous creator of PERRY MASON, Erle Stanley Gardner—at his death the best-selling American author of all time—comes another baffling case for the Cool & Lam detective agency. Return to the 1960s as a simple insurance investigation into a car accident puts Bertha Cool and Donald Lam on the trail of murder—and Donald hip-deep in danger when he poses as an ex-con to infiltrate a criminal gang. It’s Gardner’s twistiest caper ever, and a fitting conclusion to Hard Case Crime’s revival of this classic (and long-unavailable) detective series.

I think the Cool and Lam books are better than the Masons, on the whole, though they get weaker as they go on. Gardner’s writing style tended to flatten out as he became more successful; I can’t blame him, really, since it made him rich. But speaking strictly in a literary sense, the earlier books from when he was still hungry and trying new things are better. This is from the later period when the characters of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam have largely calcified into a formula: Bertha’s a miser who is always mad at Lam for taking chances and spending agency money, and Donald’s a physically unimpressive guy who’s smart enough to nail the killer even after getting pushed around and beat up a lot.

If I’m ruthlessly honest I have to say this one was closer to the potato-chip category than the other ones Hard Case previously sent me.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It was entertaining enough that I decided to drop a couple of bucks on completing the Hard Case reprint set, from before they very kindly started sending them here for review. So I picked up the first one they put out, Top of the Heap.

When the beautiful girlfriend of a notorious gangster vanishes, it’s up to P.I. Donald Lam to get to the bottom of her disappearance — and of a mining scam, an illegal casino operation, a double homicide, and an opportunity for an enterprising private eye to make a small fortune…if he can just stay alive long enough to cash in!

This one’s from earlier in the run, but still late enough that things are getting a little too familiar. Of the five Hard Case reprints, The Knife Slipped is the least formulaic, since it’s the second one Gardner wrote and he was still figuring out what the series was. Which is why it’s the one I like best.

*

So that’s how we’re sheltering in place. Best to all of you and stay safe, please. Also wash your hands and…

Back next week with something cool.

Housekeeping note– if you should happen to click on one of the many Amazon links above and you end up purchasing an item– ANY item, not necessarily the one at the link — the Junk Shop gets a referral fee. If you feel a shopping spree coming on, please consider using our gateway. It helps to defray the costs around here and then we don’t have to put up annoying ads. Thanks.

7 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Well, heaven knows I could use some comfort food now: not only is the coronavirus situation ramping up over here, but Zagreb had a scary bad case of the shakes yesterday (with constant aftershocks into the early morning hours, and more to come probably).
    With the internet down most of yesterday, and after needing a break from binge-watching the news, I actually found myself picking up the simplest fare for comfort reading: an Archie digest (specifically the ‘Silver Age’ collection, which in Archie world means the 1960s and 1970s).
    However, I agree that crime fiction rates pretty highly as comfort food reading – I’ve got small stacks of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins novels and Grafton’s Milhone novels that I’ll probably be picking up pretty soon.

    Oh, yeah: thanks for posting that bit from Winter Soldier. That’s also one of my favorite scenes from the movie, together with the follow-up in which there’s stand-offs between the true-blue Shield guys and the Hydra moles throughout the complex.
    Anyway, what Greg said everybody: stay safe and stay away from each other.

  2. conrad1970

    I guess it doesn’t really come under crime fiction but I’ve been reading the Black Samurai series by Marc Olden.
    Lucky for me they became available in digital format recently as there’s no way I could afford to buy the original paperbacks. Got to admit they come with some godawful covers compared to the originals.
    Just out of curiosity,, did you guys in America have to endure the ridiculous wave of ‘Panic Buying’ that we’ve had to endure in the UK?

  3. conrad1970

    I remember seeing the Black Samurai movie around 1979/80.
    I was living in Trinidad at the time, had no idea about the books back then, I just wanted to see it because the guy from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was in it.
    To be honest I’ve not been too worried about the actual virus, it’s peoples behaviour that upset me.
    Kind of just makes you worry for the future as a whole.

  4. As someone who used to live in Florida, panic buying doesn’t surprise me at all. Fortunately we’re not driving anywhere so the gas stations running dry (a major problem around the time of Katrina) is not an issue.
    Perry Mason was the first mystery series I read, and I love them even though they’re formulaic. I also learned a surprising amount about the law (circumstantial evidence, hearsay and it’s exceptions). I like the TV show more than you; I have several seasons.
    Have you ever read Ron Goulart’s Dime Detectives? It’s a history of detective pulps which revealed to me that Gardner wrote an amazing number of series, most of them forgotten (though these days probably available somewhere).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.