Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

One of the first books I picked up when I began exploring the world of Crime Fiction was They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. Written in 1935 by Horace McCoy, it was a short book that I found on someone's "Best of List" at I had no real idea what the story was about, it just seemed like an interesting title, but it was written in the early period of the genre and I wanted to start there.

More of a novella than novel, the story begins with the main character, Robert, standing trial for murdering a woman named Gloria. Each chapter begins with a snippet of Robert's trial and finishes by explaining the path that brought him there. Robert and Gloria were two wannabe actors trying to make it big in Hollywood during the Great Depression. Robert is fresh faced and determined, while Gloria has been run through the grinder and tires of the rat race. (Gloria is not some you take home to mom.) after a random meeting on the street they become hesitant friends and decide to enter a couples only Dance Marathon to earn some cash. A Dance Marathon is exactly what is says apparently; couples must dance, (or be in some sort of motion,) 24 hours per day with only a 10 minute break every two hours.The fact that these Dance Marathons were real and the misery the contestants go through just to make a buck was the most horrifying part of the story. Crowds came to watch these things which make it seem like the first real seeds of reality TV.

At the time I had never read anything quite like it. Thinking back now, and having a broader base to compare to, I would say it is in the same vein as James M. Cain's work, meaning it's completely dark and brutal. If you are looking for an old school, black as night noir, pick this up and enjoy. It's definitely a classic that should be mentioned up there with the greats.

(This story was turned into a Sydney Pollack film bearing the same name starring Jane Fonda as Gloria. I've never seen the film but judging from the trailer below it sure seems to capture the tone.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: The Ax

When Donald Westlake passed away recently I had only read one of his stories, The Hunter, which was absolutely fantastic. Since that was written under his Richard Stark persona I went in search of a true Westlake stand alone. After reading numerous blogs dedicated to remembering Mr. Westlake I found his story The Ax was highly regarded by nearly everyone. So I ran out to my local library and scooped it up immediately.

Although it was written in 1997, the basic premise of the story is extremely relevant to our current economic climate. Burke Devore is a married, father of two trying to find another job in the paper manufacturing business after being laid off nearly two years ago. After becoming disillusioned with the resume/interview process, he devises a devious plan to improve his odds in locating a new job. He will kill those that he considers his competition. Then, he will kill the man who currently holds his dream job, giving himself the inside track.

I loved the premise of the story but I think the style with which it was told turned me off. I think it may have been too heavy on the first person internal dialogue for my tastes. I would estimate about 90% of the story is told from inside Devore's mind, which is probably fine for most people, but I found it boring to be honest. I'm usually a big fan of first person narration but I got tired of hearing his rationalization for each murder. I understand Mr. Westlake was trying to get the audience to empathize with Devore's state of mind but it just came off as self pity rather than empathy.

The other problem I had was the ending. I kept thinking the wife would be a major factor in the ending but instead she's left to a rather dull subplot. I was just waiting for some twist or something to turn what seemed like a straight forward story, upside down. That never happened and I was a little disappointed.

Now I'm sure that for those that have read The Ax, and loved it, I'm going to be burned at the stake. Maybe I don't have a refined eye for good writing yet. Maybe I haven't been in that situation and therefore couldn't connect with Devore. Maybe I wouldn't know great storytelling if it crawled up and bit me on my ass. Whatever the reason I just could not force myself to like the book. Let the flaming commence!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nothing Forgotten Today

Sorry I don't have a forgotten book this week. I was going to review The Ax by Donald Westlake but I'm sorry to say I can't give it a positive review. Mr. Westlake is certainly not forgotten so I didn't have much of a case for adding The Ax to this week's round of Forgotten Books. I will definitely have one next week and I'm almost done with a post summing up my Inauguration experience. My apologies again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

2500 Words and Counting

Since Monday night I'm up to about 2500 words in my manuscript. That's not even close to meeting my goal of 1000 words per day, but I think the lower output has been caused by the slow evolution of finding my routine when I sit down to write. I have the itch to rewrite and move things around every time I pop open the laptop but I'm learning to control that.

When I first started thinking about writing the #1 piece of advice was write everyday, no matter what it is, just write something. I can see why that is so important. Now each time I write, I can see what I was lacking the day before and correct that in today's new additions. I can see that cycle occurring over and over until you get comfortable and know where things are getting hairy as you go along. It's never perfect the first time through but at least you can spot it earlier and correct it faster. (At least I'm guessing that's how it works)

The one thing I've found to be a slight hindrance is late night writing. My brain does not work nearly as fast after 10pm as it used to. I've taken a few lunch breaks to write and I've found it flows much better than late at night. Nights are the the only large amounts of time I have so I guess I have to fight through it.

I'm having a great time doing it so I must be doing something right. Thank you all of you for the tips and encouragement. They are greatly appreciated!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Gutter and The Grave

It's hard to label The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain forgotten since it was re-released by Hard Case Crime in 2005. I would make the case, however, that McBain's Matt Cordell should be in the discussion for the greatest PI put to paper.

The Gutter and the Grave was firsted published under the title I'm Canon - For Hire in 1958 by the great Ed McBain. Matt Cordell (in the pre-Hard Case edition known as Curt Cannon) is a successful private investigator in New York City until one day he comes home to find his wife in bed with one of his operatives. After pistol whipping the man, he loses his license and his wife. His life spirals out of control and finds him disgraced and alone on the streets. That is until Johnny Bridges, an old friend from the neighborhood, finds him on a park bench, drinking another day away. Initially asked to help Johnny find out if his business partner is stealing from him, Cordell is sucked in to a murder mystery when the partner is found dead, with Johnny's initials scrawled in blood next to him. From there Cordell reluctantly takes the case and the story takes twists and turns, with the truth a hard thing to come by.

The premise is nothing too original but Cordell as a character is the real highlight. As with any hardboiled detective worth his salt, he is tough as nails but soft as butter when it comes to woman. Through out the book Cordell has numerous run ins with woman, with some looking to change him and others looking to use him. He also had a brutal side, as evident by the pistol whipping, that seemed to be mostly uncommon for the PI's that preceded him.

I'd be interested to see if Cordell had some influence on Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. Both are brilliant detectives but horrible events in their lives have turned off their will to care. If, as Raymond Chandler said in The Simple Art of Murder, "Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the people that do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse", McBain gave the hard stuff back to PI's that do it for reasons other than just quenching their thirst.

The Gutter and The Grave is the only full length novel featuring Matt Cordell, with six short stories collected in 1958's I Like'em Tough. It's a real shame considering, in my opinion, Cordell could have been one of the greats of the genre had he been fully fleshed out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Last Night's Postmortem

Well I started typing last night around 10pm and looked up at the clock a little later and found I had been sent through time to 1am. I enjoyed the experience and time didn't crawl by so that's a positive. The words didn't flow as smoothly as I had hoped but I fought through it and came up with a decent 1000 words. I found the hardest part to be describing locations. The dialogue came pretty easily but trying to describe a house or an office was pretty laborious.

Looking back now I think I was focusing on getting everything perfect where I should have just poured it out and edited it on rewrites. I'm definitely going to stick with it today but I'll probably rewrite a little of last night's work.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tonight's The Night

After a lingering cold, Holiday distractions, and lingering fear/doubt I think tonight is the night I put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and lips to bottle. Chapter 1, Page 1, Paragraph 1, Sentence 1, Word 1, it all starts tonight. The stars have aligned and the time is now. Besides, now that I've said it out loud I have to do it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

1 in 5000

Holy smokes! I just managed to secure 4 seats to the Inauguration Parade! It's going to be a long day but at least I have a place to sit now.

Friday's Forgotten Books: Rendezvous In Black

When I first started creating a list of crime/noir writers I had to read, Cornell Woolrich was right at the top. Trying to find just the right story to start with was much more difficult than the others on the list. He didn't have Archer or Marlowe serials that let you start at #1 and move on from there. I originally chose "It Had To Be Murder", the story that would become Hitchcock's Rear Window, but could not find it at my local library. "The Bride Wore Black" was checked out. Ditto for "I Married A Dead Man". My last available option happened to be "Rendezvous In Black". As it turned out, I don't think I could have picked a better place to start.

The story begins on May 31st and Johnny Marr is meeting his bride-to-be one last time before they tie the knot the following day. Just as everything couldn't be better for Johnny, his every dream is shattered in an instant. From this point forward he is hell bent on inflicting the same amount of loss on those that took everything from him.

With the engine started, the story is then broken into five "rendezvous". Each episode is centered around a character that may have been directly or indirectly involved in Johnny's moment of horror. In an ironic twist, the rendezvous always ends on May 31st, the same date they took everything from Johnny.

This is where Woolrich really earns his Master of Suspense moniker. Since you have no idea how Johnny will be introduced into each story, you are left to assume the worst of every character introduced. There is also this ticking time bomb always in the background as May 31st looms. The last rendezvous is the strongest of the group. He takes his time crafting a simply horrifying scenario (albeit slightly ridiculous) that is so vividly told, it felt like I was watching the last scene unfold on a movie screen in my mind. Intertwined through the story is a detective who follows in Johnny's wake of destruction, trying to piece together the random events. This adds another layer of suspense as he gets closer and closer but always seems to just miss saving the day.

The beginning is a bit slow and hard to follow, but as events unfold it is a dark suspense story of never ending love and unflinching revenge. By the end you may not approve of Johnny's actions but you can't help but share a little understanding of his motives. While Cornell Woolrich is definitely not forgotten, I think "Rendevzous in Black" may not get the credit it deserves.

Check out Patti Abbott's blog for more Forgotten Books.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Slow and Steady

When I find an author I'm interested in, I usually start with their first book and slowly move through their library, rarely reading the same author back-to-back. Since I've started reading stories by authors who are long gone and have a small library to choose from (Chandler, Hammett), I find myself being even more strict when choosing my next book off the pile. I have to fight the urge to run out and grab every Marlowe and Continental Op book and devour them in one sitting. I guess I don't want to feel that disappointment knowing that I have no new Chandler to read.

I assume I'm in the minority but what are your habits when it comes to reading a new author's backlog? Do you read serials in order or just skip around?

Friday, January 2, 2009

2009 New Year's Resolutions

1. Write a novel. Last year my wife set goals for everything she wanted to do before she turned 30 (sorry babe). That inspired me to set some goals before I turn the big 3-0 in 2009. Writing a novel is at the top of the list. I wrote quite a bit when I was younger, but mostly little 4 page Batman short stories and book reports I chose to do for no one in particular (I did a write up on the Warren Report....I was 12....damn you Oliver Stone). I know it's a bit ambitious but everybody starts somewhere. Hopefully I can stick with it and have a least a first draft done by July 30th.

2. Start interacting in the Crime Fiction community. This blog was inspired by Duane Swierczynski, Scott Parker, and Patti Abbott. Hopefully I can follow in their footsteps and either add something to the conversation or start a conversation worth discussing.

3. Keep reading and turn off the damn television!