A Stack of Hard Cases… and One Ringer

Continuing to whittle away at the giant stack of unread books in the bedroom. This time, it’s all about Hard Case Crime… with one exception.

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First up is Are Snakes Necessary? by Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman.

I did not have as high expectations for this as some folks might have, because frankly I don’t think that much of Brian DePalma’s cinematic oeuvre. The only films of his that I really like are Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible, and most of that is because of my affection for the source material, not any particular talent Mr. DePalma brought to the proceedings. I certainly have never thought of him as “the heir to Alfred Hitchcock,” even though that phrase keeps getting tossed around by critics who ought to know better.

I have to admit I am bringing some personal prejudice to it; first of all, the annoying pretentiousness I associate with DePalma has been a thing with me ever since I was coaxed into attending Dressed To Kill back in college specifically because the girl I was with swore up and down I would love it, and I so completely did not. It was a spectacular example of someone not respecting the form of a mystery thriller, as well as the most common failing of directors who write– they think in scenes, not story, and will happily sacrifice common sense plotting in favor of a moment that looks cool. (See also the courtroom jury-switching finale of The Untouchables, something that even the most ignorant layperson knows is completely not possible.)

The other prejudice I bring to this is my hatred of stories told in the present tense. Like this from chapter one…

As Crump’s campaign manager and strategist, Brock’s MO springs from a line he read in a David Mamet play: “The only way to teach these guys a lesson is to kill them.”

Brock is going to teach the pretty-boy politicos a great big lesson, one that will kill their chances. And it’s going to take a very dirty trick to do it.

Brock, 42 and busily not thinking about how he is not going to tell his wife about the vasectomy, applies himself to the question of how best to smear Senator Rogers.

First thing, we move the news cycle away from foreign policy, farm subsidies and all that and towards something Rogers would rather not talk about, something like his zipper problem, maybe.

Brock feels a familiar excitement as he considers what dirty rabbit he can pull out of his hat. Suspecting that Dr. Jack Daniels might supply a little inspiration, Brock drives his rental sedan past several hard-to-distinguish strip malls—it seems to Brock that suburban Pennsylvania may, in fact, be one interconnected strip mall. He steers the sedan into a big lot and heads towards One Fish, Two Fish, a tavern at strip’s end. A swollen goldfish floats at the top of the tank inside the front door. Brock pulls a stool up to the bar and orders. A couple of shots later, no light bulbs have gone off.

The good thing about having a history, even a bad history, is that your record can be a source of confidence—or sometimes supply a sense of direction. Brock, now dim in the ideas department, decides maybe a little sleep will kickstart his dark genius. He’ll come up with something in the morning. He’s sure he will. He always has.

All of this might be okay with you folks but it’s fingernails on a blackboard to me. Even granting that the smug nastiness is part of Brock’s character, it still put me off, and the present-tense narration made me flash back to all the bad writing workshops I ever endured in college. Scrape that away and there’s not much left in the way of plot, certainly nothing genre fans can’t see coming. For that matter you could easily lift out the introductory chapters and get to the real story a lot quicker, but the trouble is there’s not that much story to get to. The whole thing feels like a screenplay that didn’t sell, reworked into a novel. For DePalma fans only. I know they’re out there and this probably was a good investment for Hard Case, but it’s not my thing at all.

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Much better was Mike Hammer: The Night I Died. Story by Max Allan Collins, with art by Marcelo Salaza.

This is based on a never-used 1950s screen treatment by Mickey Spillane, and it has the advantage of being adapted by Max Allan Collins, probably the best crime writer working in comics. It’s really a good story and it feels almost like a prequel to Ms. Tree in places. In fact, as visualized here, Hammer’s secretary Velda looks a lot like Ms. Tree…

…which is funny because Ms. Tree was very specifically a riff on Velda back when she started out, so the whole thing is a metatextual visual loop of sorts.

The only downside is the art. Marcelo Salaza has a good sense of storytelling and he understands how to lay out a comics page, but there are times his anatomy is just off. Take a look at Hammer’s forehead on that last page, and the odd perspective on the blonde’s arms in the first and last panels on this page.

In flat color it might be a little more forgiveable, but with that digital rendering the amateurishness is really pronounced. And I’m afraid through no fault of his own, Mr. Salaza has run into another prejudice of mine– his Hammer is just too pretty. Same problem I had with the Armand Assante and Ralph Meeker versions of Mike Hammer.

Mickey Spillane was careful never to actually describe Hammer, he wanted readers to come up with their own idea of his looks from the stories. Well, my idea of what Mike Hammer looks like is somewhere between the Ed Robbins comics, Stacy Keach, and Spillane himself.

Salaza’s is much too close to Ralph Meeker for my taste, especially with that forehead that’s almost worthy of the Leader. So they lose points for that. But I still liked it enough to buy the trade paperback collection for myself, even though Hard Case sent me a review PDF, and I’m happy to have it in the library.

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Another one that ran afoul of my personal prejudices is Blood Sugar by Daniel Kraus.

The blurb: From the dark imagination of bestselling novelist Daniel Kraus—co-author with Guillermo del Toro of THE SHAPE OF WATER (which as a film won the Academy Award for Best Picture)—comes a Halloween crime story that’s like nothing you’ve ever read before.

At the end of Yellow Street, in a ruined junkyard of a house, an angry outcast hatches a scheme to take revenge for all the wrongs he has suffered. With the help of three alienated neighborhood kids, he plans to hide razor blades, poison, drugs, and broken glass in Halloween candy and use the deadly treats to maim or kill dozens of innocent children. But as the clock ticks closer to sundown, will one of his helpers—an innocent himself, in his own streetwise way—carry out or defeat the plan?

Told principally from the child’s point of view, in a voice as startling and unforgettable as A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kraus’ novel is at once frightening and emotional, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny. It’ll make you rethink your concepts of family and loyalty and justice—and will leave you anxiously double-checking the wrappers on your Halloween candy for the rest of your days.

In fairness, the story is very good. The trouble is the prose itself, which is an enormous struggle to get through. (I didn’t like it in A Clockwork Orange, either: as far as I’m concerned, that’s a bug, not a feature.) I hate dialect stuff in prose, it always takes me out of the story. Like this:

Fat boy says hes gonna put crack inside Fun Size Snickers. I guess he went ahead and lost his dang mind. News flash, Robbie, crack is rocks, and you cant squoosh rocks inside Fun Size Snickers without ruining the Fun Size shape. Thats some idiotical sharkweek right there so I go Robbie doesnt smile or nothing. Dudes trying to be some kind of hard ass robocop. Says no poopypants baby that still skid marks his drawers oughta joke out loud about a grown mans personal stash.

The mightyduck is he grumping for? The chunky butts seen me hit a whole thing a Reddi Whip till I got crunk. Saw me get torched on a big bowl a dank too. Dang, I puked a whole bottle a stank ass apricot schnapps while he just sat there and laughed his fat ass off. I dont say none a that out loud though cuz what if Robbie thinks all that stuff is poopypants baby stuff? One thing I dont need is more teasing from Robbie cuz when he teases he does it real hurtful.

That’s page one and it annoyed me so much I almost put the book down right then. Again, this is pretentious collegiate stuff. I much prefer my crime-fiction prose to be straight and simple, it should never be an obstacle for the reader. This reads like it’s trying WAY too hard to be Art, and it irritated me on the level of an X-Men story narrated in the first person by Gambit.

Now, your mileage may vary. I want to stress that the story itself is clever, nasty, and cool, but it’s hard to get into.

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Here’s the ringer. Still from Titan, but a different imprint. Batman: the Court of Owls, by Greg Cox.

I’ve mostly been skipping the prose adaptations Titan has been doing of DC comics stories because they keep doing stories I either already have in the original or the story itself doesn’t strike me as something I’m interested in. On its face this should be both– the original interminable Court of Owls storyline from Scott Snyder actually caused me to drop the regular Batman comics after forty years. For some reason DC just was in love with that concept; it even crept over into Jonah Hex and the TV show Gotham for God’s sake.

So you’d think I’d give the novel a hard pass. But I fell for this because I really like Greg Cox’s books and I found this one remaindered for a couple of bucks in hardcover. I figured if anyone could make me like the Court, it would be Mr. Cox.

And it turns out he did. Cox has the knack of stripping out all the extraneous crap, so this moves quite a bit faster than the Snyder original; and he has a good grasp of the Bat characters and how they play off each other. I’d still rather Cox had been given the opportunity to do something original instead of an adaptation, but nevertheless I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I was going to. Skip the comics and get this instead.

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Best for last. Double Feature by Donald Westlake.

Another in the Hard Case series of bringing obscure works by famous crime writers back into print. This is a little gem of a book put together from one short novel and a novelette, that originally appeared as Enough back in the day.

Here’s the blurb… In New York City, a movie critic has just murdered his girlfriend—well, one of his girlfriends (not to be confused with his wife). Will the unlikely crime-solving partnership he forms with the investigating police detective keep him from the film noir ending he deserves?

On the opposite coast, movie star Dawn Devayne—the hottest It Girl in Hollywood—gets a visit from a Navy sailor who says he knew her when she was just ordinary Estelle Anlic of San Diego. Now she’s a big star who’s put her past behind her. But secrets have a way of not staying buried…

These two short novels, one hilarious and one heartbreaking, are two of the best works Westlake ever wrote. And fittingly, both became movies—one starring Jack Ryan’s Marie-Josee Croze, and one starring Fargo’s William H. Macy and Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman.

They ARE totally terrific stories. Now I’m interested in the movies, especially the one made from the first of them, A Travesty. It was filmed as A Slight Case of Murder and I gather it was reasonably faithful to the book.

In any case the book itself is wonderful and you should get it. If Westlake is new to you this is a great introduction to his work, especially the range he was capable of.

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A footnote to the Hard Case stuff– I just can’t say enough good things about the cover art of Paul Mann, who did the art on most of these. You should check out his website here.

And there you have it. Back next week with something cool that’s a bit of a change of pace, though still adhering to my New Year’s resolution. See you then.

5 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, I think we talked about it before, but I similarly can’t stand the present tense in prose.
    And it’s good to know that someone else found the faux future slang narration in A Clockwork Orange offputting…

    Didn’t know A Slight Case of Murder is based on a Westlake story, but it doesn’t surprise me. It’s been a while since I watched it, but I remember liking it well enough.

    1. I don’t mind present tense first-person, if the narrator has an interesting voice; I can read Damon Runyon’s “Broadway” stories all day long and twice on Sunday. This third-person present tense is far beyond annoying.

      As for dialect, it’s like garlic; a little goes a long way. If you need to include a glossary, you’re doing it wrong. If the reader has to keep one finger in the book to keep going back to look up your made-up language, maybe quit writing fiction and become a linguist.

  2. Present tense is a tough sell for me, but it can be done. It worked beautifully in Hunger Games.
    Dialect annoys me unless it’s in very small doses. There are some of Kipling’s stories that are narrated in an Irish brogue written phonetically and I find them unreadable. Can’t speak as to Clockwork Orange as I never read it.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    All those cover models look like they need a sandwich.

    Right there with you on fake slang. If its introduced gradually and use sparingly, it isn’t as jarring; but if you have to slog through paragraphs of it, it’s a nightmare. I’ve never desired to read A Clockwork Orange, though less to do with the slang and more to do with the violence and bleakness. Not something I am drawn to for reading entertainment. I was curious about reading Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, until I started skimming through all the dialect. I know Welsh was trying to recreate the sound of people he knew; but, it’s a real chore, on paper. The movie was hard enough in some segments (mostly Spud and Begbie).

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