Monday, December 13, 2004

Kill the Boss Good-Bye

Loyal readers know I write a column called "Book Beat" for the quarterly publication Pomp and Circumstantial Evidence, a magazine from the Magna Cum Murder Mystery Conference. Here's the article I wrote this time out, maybe of some interest to people here:

It’s always fun to review the newest bestsellers from the latest hot writers, but sometimes it’s even more fun when you find an old yellowed paperback for a quarter or a dime at a yard sale or flea market that turns out to be a real treat. For this installment of BOOK BEAT, I am going to turn the pages backward, to a baker’s dozen of old favorites that deserve a second look.

This one’s a bit easy but it’s a good way to kick off the theme. Because of a spate of movies and re-releases Jim Thompson went from being out of print to being somewhat popular again, with AFTER DARK MY SWEET, THE GRIFTERS, and others. This hard-boiled thriller with a shocking denouement is a lesser-known entry in his rediscovered works and worth a read.

PHANTOM LADY by Cornell Woolrich
Also a bit easy, and Woolrich isn’t quite as unknown as he once was. But I have to include this one on the list as it is one of my favorite novels of all time, eye-opening writing by a haunted and scarred author; and if you haven’t discovered Woolrich yet, grab this one, then THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and I MARRIED A DEAD MAN.

THE DRAGON’S EYE by Scott C.S. Stone
This tidy little spy thriller won an Edgar in 1969—surprising, as you don’t hear much about this author anymore, though he went on to do other work in a number of genres. This one deals with a war correspondent who ends up a reluctant spy behind “the bamboo curtain” in 60s Asia. Finding this one at the Indiana State Fair for a quarter, then looking up more info about this author after reading this paperback in a single setting, sparked this article.

PICK UP by Charles Willeford
Willeford had a late-career burst of recognition with his Hoke Moseley novels (notably MIAMI BLUES, made into a film of the same name), but this early work is a devastatingly blunt looks at the human condition, framed in the bleakest noir setting.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE by Dorothy B. Hughes
Curiously, Hughes quit writing mysteries at what was basically the height of her popularity; and it’s a shame, as one will find when reading novels like IN A LONELY PLACE and this one, a revenge story set in a southwestern locale.

I’ve been surprised that Hamilton’s extremely tough-minded Matt Helm books aren’t discussed more often anymore; but, fortunately, neither are the woeful Dean Martin film versions. This non-series entry is one of my favorite outings from the prolific author.

THE SCRAMBLED YEGGS by Richard S. Prather
Here’s another guy that’s off the radar now after a long run with the enjoyably tongue in cheek Shell Scott detective series. Lots of good choices here, like SLAB HAPPY, THE TROJAN HEARSE, and DIG THAT CRAZY GRAVE, but this is probably my favorite mystery novel title of all time.

THE HEAT’S ON by Chester B. Himes
I am a long-time fan of Himes’ Harlem detective novels (which include COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and THE BIG GOLD DREAM), and this is probably my favorite; Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, Himes’ two pistol-whipping police detectives, prowl the back alleys of the big city in their huge slab of low-riding Detroit steel. This entry especially is written with lots of energy and humor.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY by William Lindsay Gresham
Some might remember the Tyrone Power movie based on this novel, about the rise and fall of a con man working in a carnival sideshow—but it’s not a patch on this novel, harrowing from top to bottom.

Also the basis of a film, and again the original—about the desperate people involved in a grueling marathon dance contest—is a stark portrayal of down-at-the-heels characters in marginalized lives.

DOWN THERE by David Goodis
Better known as SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, a story about a fallen musician trying to keep on the straight and narrow is a crackling read. Goodis’ works seem to have fallen through the cracks over the years despite the success of this one and DARK PASSAGE, both of which were turned into films.

British novelist Rathbone is still writing, in a number of genres, but some of his early works have gone out of print—including this one, a unique spy story featuring a circus performer and his twin, a secret agent. Original storytelling and offbeat characters, as well as an unusual title.

For me, Peter Rabe is the perfect writer for this article; in my mind the best mystery writer nobody has ever heard of. Although I also really like JOURNEY INTO TERROR and MURDER ME FOR NICKELS, this one gets the nod because of the unusual (for a noir) overseas setting.

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1 comment:

Dorian said...

"Pick Up" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" were two of my favorite books during my noir phase in college.