Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fifty-to-One by Charles Ardai (Hard Case Crime)

"[This game is] called 'Fifty-to-One'. Those are the odds, you see."
"Of winning?"
"Of surviving."
— from Fifty-to-One

Charley Borden is a publisher, editor, and self-proclaimed rip-off artist. The best-selling book of his publishing line, Hard Case Crime Books, is blatant Mickey Spillane pilferage — Eye the Jury by Nicky Malone ("a Mac Hatchet mystery") — and he thrives on bad publicity because it sells books.

But Charley's a likeable sort, so when he asks showgirl Tricia "Trixie" Heverstadt — who dances in a famous gangster's nightclub but really wants to write for The New Yorker — to write a true-crime work on her boss's exploits, she is glad to oblige for a penny a word. Only the story she tells — of the theft of the gangster's millions — is completely made up.

Or so she thinks. The gangster disagrees; the details of the events depicted in Tricia's novel happened to him exactly the way she wrote them — down to the combination of the vault — and he wants to know who the thief was. The police would also like to know the identity of the book's author (published as "Anonymous" to create mystery and sell more books, of course) and no one is going to let up until they get what they want.

Fifty-to-One is the 50th book in the Hard Case Crime line (the real one), founded in 2004 by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips. In recognition of this milestone, Ardai felt a very special sort of book was called for, and he wrote it himself (though Phillips contributed a chapter).

And Ardai really set himself a challenge: to tell a riveting story in 50 chapters, each named after the Hard Case Crime books published up to that point, in chronological order. Chapter 1 is "Grifter's Game," chapter 2 is "Fade to Blonde," etc. (Observant readers will also find references to books 51-55.) And Ardai's story tries its damnedest to deliver what the chapter titles promise.

Along for the ride are a couple of writers named Larry and Don (maybe you've heard of them?), ever-ready with a quip or a caper. Their influence is felt in how Ardai deftly commingles suspense and humor in what is undoubtedly the funniest book Hard Case Crime has published to date. (The humor carries you through a few too many convenient coincidences.) Ardai makes fun of the publishing business, the crime genre, and best of all, he makes fun of himself!

Fifty-to-One is well paced, and it has that pulp-style written-in-a-hurry feel that adds to its sense of immediacy. That said, it also feels a little too long at 330 pages. But it's hard to be too critical of a book that is so obviously a labor of love. Ardai didn't have to write a special book to commemorate Hard Case Crime's 50th "anniversary," so the fact that he wanted to is all the more endearing.

Ardai's novel isn't meant to be a future classic — it's just a fun, self-referential romp purely intended to offer a few hours' diversion along with its plethora of cross-merchandising (an 8-page gallery of all 50 covers is included in place of the usual club advertisement). The great thing is, fans will see these as bonuses, which just goes to show how attuned to his readers Ardai is. He has produced a novel that attempts many things and succeeds at more of them than should have been possible. Fifty-to-One is a book that is not only a solid example of the comic crime novel, but also goes to show what a really good writer can come up with when he truly challenges himself.

Friday, August 15, 2008

No House Limit by Steve Fisher (Hard Case Crime)

Joe Martin runs the Rainbow's End, the only independent casino left in Las Vegas; the rest are all run by the Syndicate (better known to the uninitiated as the Mafia). The Syndicate wants Joe out of business, so they surreptitiously challenge him on his own turf — by sending Bello, the world's greatest gambler, to win millions of dollars at Joe's craps table.

With Bello on their side, how can they lose? But a man like Joe Martin doesn't get where he is by taking unnecessary risks. He's got an ace in the hole of his own, namely an innocent schoolteacher from Utah.

Steve Fisher, screenwriter of such beloved films as Lady in the Lake and Song of the Thin Man — and Oscar-nominated for Destination Tokyo for his original story — was the author of over 100 novels, as many screenplays for film and TV, and nearly 1,000 short stories. Any author who can produce that much understands the need for a brisk pace, and his novel No House Limit doesn't let up from the start. If other Fisher works are this briskly paced, I'll definitely be on the lookout for more.

But the main reason for No House Limit's success is the atmosphere. Fisher's portrait of Las Vegas in the 1950s, especially the casino environment, is so rich and detailed, it's a character in itself. I would have believed that he was a denizen of the city himself. But according to his son Michael's afterword, he just really enjoyed gambling — the rest came from research, in particular time spent with famous real-life gambler Nick the Greek.

The portrayal of the inside of a busy casino: the overlapping voices (game callers on top of conversations) and the loneliness of crowds combines with his insightful characterizations to make No House Limit — which is essentially a simple story, well told — into a memorable reading experience.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Sense of Humor" by Damon Runyon (Broadway short story)

Any fan of crime fiction would do well to check out the short stories of Damon Runyon. One of the most most popular writers of his day, he is now largely forgotten among modern readers, except for fans of the musical Guys and Dolls (and they may not even know that Runyon's work was its source).

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly his reputation for unapologetic sentimentality (almost completely absent in crime fiction since the "tough guy" 1950s) and his propensity for O. Henry–style twist endings — both aspects that appear dated to readers in the 21st century.

But alongside those traits runs an ironic (often pitch black) sense of humor that would probably surprise someone expecting a more "innocent" tone from 1930s fiction. Take for example this (more than somewhat edited) selection from the story "Sense of Humor" (available along with many others in the new collection Guys and Dolls and Other Writings):
"Say," [Joe the Joker] says, "I am going to play a wonderful joke on Frankie Ferocious."

"Well, Joe," I say, "you are not asking me for advice, but I am going to give you some free gratis, and for nothing. Do not play any jokes on Frankie Ferocious, as I hear he [...] will not laugh if you have Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, and Joe Cook telling him jokes all at once. In fact," I say, "I hear he is a tough audience."

"I am going to have myself delivered to Frankie Ferocious in a sack."

"Well," I say, "personally, I see no percentage in being delivered to Frankie Ferocious in a sack, because as near as I can make out from what I read in the papers, there is no future for a guy in a sack that goes to Frankie Ferocious. What I cannot figure out," I say, "is where the joke on Frankie comes in."

"Why," Joe the Joker says, "the joke is I will not be asleep in the sack, and my hands will not be tied, and in each of my hands I will have a John Roscoe, so when the sack is delivered to Frankie Ferocious and I pop out blasting away, can you not imagine his astonishment?"

Well, I can imagine this, all right. In fact, when I get to thinking of the look of surprise that is bound to come to Frankie Ferocious's face when Joe the Joker comes out of the sack I have to laugh, and Joe the Joker laughs right along with me.
Add to that Runyon's signature use of present tense (which can come off as stilted when he forces past- and future-tense phrases into its rules but has a charm all its own), and you have something that is difficult to get into at first, but that is immensely rewarding once you "learn the language."

"Sense of Humor" ends with a twist worthy of the darkest crime fiction and had me open-mouthed, but at the same time, it's really the only ending that fits the story. Runyon's stories often wrap around themselves and tie up neatly with a ribbon, often in a way that elicits a smile at the author's craftsmanship.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Leather Maiden by Joe R. Lansdale (country noir)

Cason Statler is an Iraqi War vet returned home to Camp Rapture, Texas. Before his time in the service — he signed up for Afghanistan after 9/11 but was shipped to Iraq, go figure! — Cason was a Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist, so the local paper is happy to hire the "local boy made good" as a columnist.

Cason is wondering if there'll be anything to write about in such a slow town when he comes across the notes left by his predecessor (best known for her weekly survey of local garden insects) regarding the unsolved disappearance of teenager Caroline Allison.

Meanwhile, Cason struggles with the return to his hometown, among other things: living at home with his parents again in the wake of his more successful brother; a drinking problem that may or may not be out of hand; and being dumped by the girlfriend whose presence helped see him through the war.

When Cason's brother Jimmy's reputation is threatened by blackmailers, this pair of Statler brothers have to work together as a sort of private detective/vigilante team, and Cason learns that his brother has weaknesses too. Including one that connects him to the Allison girl.

Nearing the end of his third decade as a horror and crime fiction author, Joe R. Lansdale (winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Bottoms, and more Bram Stoker Awards than you can count on one hand) is still topping himself with each new novel, singling himself out with his particular style of down-home noir.

Leather Maiden combines Lansdale's talents for mystery plotting, quirky but realistic characterizations, colloquial dialogue that doesn't resort to dialect, and an intense portrayal of the dark and light of daily life in the rural South that can only come from a native. The result of this is a novel that offers emotional depth and authenticity along with a fun read. Last year, I wrote that Lost Echoes, Lansdale's previous novel, was "very likely the best thing he has ever written." Leather Maiden may be even better.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Strip for Murder by Max Allan Collins (a Jack and Maggie Starr mystery)

Manhattan, 1953 — Rehearsals are underway toward the opening night of the musical Tall Paul, based on the popular comic strip of the same name by Hal Rapp. Rapp's ex-employer (and chief rival), Mug O'Malley creator Sam Fizer, has threatened to sue, saying Rapp's characters were originally created by Fizer when Rapp was working under him on the O'Malley strip. To make matters worse, Fizer's estranged wife has been hired for a role in the musical.

On Halloween night, shortly after a party at Rapp's apartment, Fizer is found dead in his own room — an apparent suicide but with painfully obvious signs pointing to Rapp as a murderer. Rapp asks Jack and Maggie Starr for help. Maggie runs the Starr Newspaper Syndication Company, and her stepson Jack is a private investigator "with one client: the Starr Syndicate." (Maggie is a former ecdysiast only 10 years Jack's senior — a situation that is a constant source of Oedipal-incest jokes at Jack's expense.)

Rapp has offered his new strip, Lean Jean, to the Starrs, so they are very invested in keeping him out of jail — especially since it looks like he is being framed. Jack takes on the case, hoping to remove the frame from Rapp before Captain Pat Chandler can nail it on tight.

Though Strip for Murder has some basis in history, author Max Allan Collins plays around with the facts here more than with his other historical-mystery novels, which usually hew closely to the facts with just a fictional character thrown in.

In fact, in this case, even the main participants' names have been fictionalized right along with the timeline of events and the characters' relationships, though their real-life counterparts can easily be discovered with a little research. Collins gives them names that aren't obvious caricatures, but realistic names in the style of the real ones. (Even the fictional characters in the musical get this treatment, like turning Daisy Mae into Sunflower Sue.)

Artist Terry Beatty, Collins's collaborator on various comic projects, including Ms. Tree, serves up era-appropriate comics-style drawings at the beginning of each chapter, and also adds a cute feature illustrating the motives, means, and opportunities of all the suspects just prior to the denouement.

Beatty's illustrations do a lot to keep the reader immersed in the world of comics, because once you've seen his renderings of the characters, it's impossible to imagine them any other way. Even with his work isn't on the page, it's still there in the mind's eye. So, though Collins likely had real humans in mind when he created these characters, I had Beatty's renderings in mine while reading Strip for Murder, which gave it a surprising "graphic novel" quality uncommon in a prose volume.

The characters are as two-dimensional as the illustrations — but that may be intentional given the milieu (Collins did write Dick Tracy for 15 years, and his lengthy experience provides fodder for some very welcome comics-business in-jokes). What's important is that Strip for Murder gives a remarkable snapshot of Manhattan in the 1950s and a mystery solution that is as surprising as it is satisfying.
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