Author Archive

A Short Stay In A Dark Place

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Whenever I’m cruising non big-box book stores, I’m always on the lookout for anything by Jim Thompson that I’m not already overly familiar with. Not always an easy task. Most of the shops stock the titles that have been made into movies. You know the ones. The Killer Inside Me that spawned the latest cinema creation with Casey Affleck in the lead. Then of course, there was the earlier version with Stacy Keach some twenty or thirty years ago. And you always seem to run across The Getaway. Sam Peckinpah directed the version with Steve McQueen and Allie McGraw. And that was followed a few years back by the Alec Baldwin / Kim Basinger take on it. Both novels (and at least one of the movies descended from them) are classics to be sure, but as I said earlier, I know them perhaps too well.

One of the joys in life is discovering a Jim Thompson story where you don’t already know where it’s going and you haven’t experienced the delicious plate of prose he’s set before you. Such was the case recently when I picked up A Swell Looking Babe (the novel, not the object of the title).

Of course, the title is now a politically incorrect anachronism. But the story itself and the humanity it lays bare is as relevant today as it was when Thompson penned it in 1954. The language crackles with insight, wit, and savage irony. As is often the case in a Thompson novel, you start out empathizing with the protagonist and wind up asking yourself how you might have ever thought well of him or her in the first place. Such is Thompson’s skill. He initially introduces someone you’re more than ready to root for, then ever so slowly he slips in just enough information to cause you to begin to question your judgement. And by the time you get to the end you wonder how you could have ever liked that individual in the first place. Until you reflect long enough to ask yourself the question–would you have reacted differently…really? More often that not the answer is no. And you realize that humans are simply that, human. Flawed, imperfect creatures who make their way in the world as best they can. Often not very prettily.

The main character in A Swell Looking Babe is not actually the swell looking babe. It’s a bellboy by the now overused name of Dusty Rhodes. He’s a hard-working, ambitious kid who has had to drop out of school to help support his single parent who has suffered a setback that seems to be taking an insurmountable toll on both his physical and mental health. The father is now the son’s cross to bear. Or is he? With Thompson you can never know for sure. Until he wants you to know.

The plot involves robbery, treachery, sex (or the impending promise of it), escape, lack of repentance, and perhaps karma. But while, as in most Thompson efforts, plot keeps you turning the pages, the author’s use of language and his searing honesty into the black holes of human weakness is what makes the page turning enjoyable.

Stay a day or two at The Hotel Manton in Jim Thompson’s A Swell Looking Babe. Get to know the bellboy. He’s a nice kid, the kind you’d like to see do well. Until you know what he’s really doing. But you’ll still enjoy your stay. At least one visitor did–The Fiction Fortune Hunter.

Requiem For A Gumshoe.

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Sorry for the prolonged absence. Finishing a manuscript for a novel that may or may not get published depending on the fortunes of the would-be publisher’s ability to get a start-up operation off the ground and airborne in a cyber sort of way. Always best to take a run at whatever is your passion. Regardless of the outcome, regret at not having tried is never a good thing to look back on.

Most recent reading has included Poodle Springs, the last effort of Raymond Chandler, who died after only completing four chapters. The chapters were, to be sadly honest, sad. It was actually the remaining chapters, ably picked up and driven to a satisfying conclusion by well known and prolific author, Robert B. Parker, that made the page-turning worthwhile.

Great writers in the twilight of their time before the keys frequently slide into mere impersonations of what they once were. Chandler was still trying, to be sure. But it was obviously taking him longer to get to the heart of the matter than it once did. And his penchant for iconoclastic prose was greatly lacking as well. To his credit, Parker picked up the pace and the poetic essence of Chandler’s once classic approach. He delivered a novel that is not only an homage, but also an entertainment worth the investment of time and hope both for what’s on the pages themselves and for what might have been.

Poodle Springs is Chandler’s take on Palm Springs circa 1958, before it became the ultimate Rat Pack hangout and desert oasis for the fabulously wealthy that it is today. Then it was simply an oasis for the soon-to-be-fabulously-weatlthy and those whose wealth was invested in country clubs, houseboys, nightclubs, and ennui. As is the case in most of the Philip Marlowe tales, there are missing persons, murder, mayhem, and a dollop of things that might have been. If nothing else, hopefully it will whet your appetite for all the other Chandler novels you haven’t read but wished you had.

If you see Poodle Springs in an obscure bookshop or happen to run across the 1998 HBO movie that was made of it with James Caan in the Marlowe role, spend an hour or two with it. Even though it was the least and the last of Chandler’s efforts, a little of his humanity goes a very long way.

At least that’s what the Fiction Fortune Hunter thinks.

As General Douglas MacArthur said…

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

“I shall return.” But now The Fiction Fortune Hunter blog is officially on hiatus for the next few months as I go into intensive hibernation while working on a second novel. Contractual obligations and due dates tend to focus one. So, no new reviews until the end of Spring. But feel free to peruse past pages and posts and whatever you do…keep reading. The Fiction Fortune Hunter will return with the warmth of Summer.

Trailer Park Trolling In The Big Thicket

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

If you’re down for (key word, down) a slog through the sub-strata of East Texas culture (using the term extremely loosely), then a hike through the pages of Joe R. Lansdale’s 1997 Bad Chili may be for you. You’ll definitely find all the good old boys, bad babes, miscreants, and malcontents you can handle. Assuming you can also handle the nonstop colloquialisms, homespun profanity, bawdy metaphors, scatological humor, and a tendency to do everything possible to turn off anyone expecting to find anything of lasting value.

Crime novels are crime novels, you might counter. And woe to the reader who thinks he’ll find traces of poetry amid the pulse pounding prose of murder, mayhem, and misery that make up most pulp fiction. But one can dream, can’t one? More than dream, one can actually find arias of adjectives and violently vivisected verbs in the tales of masters such as Andrew Vachss, to whom this novel is actually dedicated. But there’s a vast desert of difference between Mr. Lansdale’s unrelenting overkill and Mr. Vachss’s expert economy.

Bad Chili is one of a series of novels featuring two friends named Hap and Leonard. Hap is a middle-aged white guy who drifts from job to job (offshore oil rig worker, nightclub bouncer, would-be night watchman) and Leonard, a black homosexual who apparently drifts from one lover to another while maintaining his platonic relationship with Hap. They are both (as the genre requires) extremely skilled at firing guns and busting heads. And each, in his own way, has redeeming qualities. Providing at least the pretense of someone worth rooting for.

The plot is replete with gruesome murders, sexual torture, mangled bodies, embarrassment, humiliation, and treachery. All played more or less for laughs. There’s a bit of a love (make that lust) story embedded in the antics, but it concentrates more on the rutting than the romance and reinforces the author’s proposition (probably unfortunately true) that the heart’s desire is always ignited by the organ south of it.

Joe R. Lansdale is certainly accomplished at his trade. He’s written multiple novels, won prestigious awards, culminated a devoted cult following and made money at something he no doubt enjoys doing. One can be envious of his success without being drawn to the product of it. Such is the case with The Fiction Fortune Hunter. Of course, you may be different. And if you know what you’re getting into, by all means give it a go. But for me, a little Bad Chili goes a long way.

A Quick, Deadly Read

Monday, September 5th, 2011

A Very Simple Crime isn’t. It’s rather complicated really. Once you find how who did what to whom and why. But that’s all for the end, isn’t it. The beginning starts simple and stays that way for a while. Or, at least it’s meant to make you think it’s simple. But as the brilliant crime author, Jim Thompson, once reminded us. Nothing is as it seems.

Adam is on trial for the murder of his wife. He’s being defended by his brother, Monty. The brothers are polar opposites. Adam is quiet, reserved, appealing in an intelligent way. Monty is brash, good looking, appealing in a visceral way. Adam is the younger brother who’s always looked up to his older sibling, Now he’s depending on him to literally save his life. But maybe he always has. Maybe.

It’s really Adam’s story. The story of a good man in a bad situation. His wife is a certifiable nut job. Intense, relentless, clinging as one of those malevolent vines that stab you with its thorns every time you try to rest free from it. She loves her husband. But it’s a love that smothers him. A love that imprisons him. And to make matters worse, as if they needed to be, a son is born to them who is found to be insane. Criminally so. A danger to himself and others. He’s committed to an institution. His incarceration only exacerbates his mother’s mental problems. Adam’s situation worsens.

Eventually, Adam’s wife is found dead. Her scull crushed by a heavy crystal ashtray. The plot has been constructed effectively enough so that the reader is not exactly sure who did it. The deranged son? The cheating husband? Yes, Adam seeks respite in the arms of another, and eventually wishes he hadn’t. Someone else? There’s always the specter of someone else, isn’t there? It seems unlikely based on what we’ve been told. You see, Adam is telling the story. Yes, it seems unlikely. But as noted earlier, nothing is as it seems.

Midway into the novel we’re introduced to Leo, a disgraced ex-public prosecutor who will become the thorn in the side of both brothers. Attempting to get back in the good graces of the department he embarrassed years before (though for all the right reasons, we learn) he “Colombo’s” his way through the facts of the case in a way that would make Peter Falk proud. And in the best tradition of the genre, he plays a key role in the novel’s surprise ending.

Grant Jerkins, the author, has fashioned a compelling page turner. Made more so by the fact that most chapters are under five pages. A technique many writers and editors have adopted for pace purposes, I assume. It makes the reader feel like he’s flying through the story. That’s why it’s a bit disconcerting then, when Jerkins interrupts the tale to fill in “back-story” on characters who are only marginally involved in the tale. Such diversions feel like padding. Perhaps because they are.

Still, A Very Simple Crime makes for a very fast and entertaining read. It’s Jerkings first published novel and it gives promise as well as pleasure. The Fiction Fortune Hunter suggests you seek it out. If for no other reason than to find out if the husband, who continually professes his love for his wife, actually killed her.

Shakespeare’s Quote Writ Large

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” So says William Shakespeare. And since then a number of novels have been written by authors who have chosen to tell their tales through the mouths of individuals who would be considered something less than normal. Of course, just who is and who isn’t normal is getting harder and harder to quantify these days, but that’s another story.

William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury is probably the most famous novel that uses a “mentally challenged” narrator. And more recently, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time became a national bestseller by spinning a compelling narrative through the mind and voice of a child savant.

But the purpose of this post is not to bring your attention to either of those worthy tomes. Rather, it is to make you aware of The Getaway Man penned by Andrew Vachss and published in 2003. The narrator and protagonist is Eddie. To be sure, he is what the title implies, a wheel jockey who deals in burning rubber, escape and evasion. But he’s also what we used to call (in pre politically correct times) a little “slow.” Or is he? Near the end you think you know the answer. Then all of a sudden, you don’t.

Andrew Vachss is one of the premier crime fiction writers working today. His gut-crunching, eye-bleeding prose slaps you in the face and makes you like it. It slices you so deftly you don’t even know you’ve been cut, until the blood starts to trickle and air hits the wound like an incoming round. While the native New Yorker is best known for his Burke series, some of his other novels like Shella, The Getaway Man and Two Trains Running (where he tells the entire 450 page story in chronological running-time) are just as tight, tough and menacing as any hard-edged police procedural you’re likely to find.

If, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you like your noir with dirty double crosses, hard charging plots, hairpin turns, and hot pages you hate to put down, then pick up The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss. And you can decide for yourself if it’s the storyteller who’s the dim wit, or the reader.

Strange Stories, Strange Author

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

If you’re a fan of dark, wet streets, foggy nights, lamp post shadows that outline tall, mysterious figures in Fedoras and raincoats, women who are almost always tougher than men, and worlds where fatalistic gloom hangs overhead, omnipresent and unavoidable, then you should seek out the work of Cornell Woolrich.

Perhaps lesser known than other crime writers of his day, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Woolrich ripped through the 1940′s with noir hit after noir hit. His sad detectives, vengeful wives and doomed heroes actually got turned into more movies than either of his more famous counterparts.

Cornell Woolrich lived a tormented life that equaled the sordid stories of many of his characters. A relatively promiscuous homosexual, Woolrich married the daughter of a silent film producer, never consummated the marriage and had it subsequently annulled. He spent the majority of his adult life living with his mother in the Hotel Marseille in New York. After her death he moved to another hotel where he lived and wrote and drank.

An ill-fitting shoe, that he refused to replace, eventually gave him an infection that led to an amputated leg. He remained an alcoholic recluse for the remainder of his life and died at the age of 65 weighing approximately 89 pounds.

One shouldn’t read Woolrich expecting finely tuned tales that intertwine as precisely as a Swiss watch. He was much more interested in mood, character and inescapable fate. Therefore you have to take his plots with immense reliance on coincidence and contrivance as mere scaffolding for the unlucky characters that inhabit them. Do that, and you’ll find some of the most rewarding and suspenseful page turning you can imagine.

Take for example Rendezvous In Black. The story of Johnny Marr who loses his fiancee on the eve of their wedding to a horrible (and quite unlikely) accident. Johnny is so scarred by his loss that he sets out on a quest to revenge the perpetrators of the aforementioned accident. Then, every year, on the anniversary of his love’s demise, one of the involved-perpetrators looses a wife, lover or daughter. And a good part of the fun is the way Johnny does them in while the cops are hot on his trail. Will they catch him before he gets them all. Will he get them all? And just what was the cause of Johnny’s fiancee’s weird accident? Set aside your inherent suspension of disbelief and you’re in for both a who- done-it and “how” that will have you hanging on to the very last page.

You probably won’t find Rendezvous In Black in bookstores, unless they really handle the hard-to-find. But you can run it down through Amazon or at www.modernlibrary.com If, like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’re into nostalgic noir, get on the trail of Cornell Woolrich and enjoy a great writer who’s work was turned into classic’s like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1984′s Cloak & Dagger, and the Antonio Banderas /Angelina Jolie flick, Original Sin. You’ll be in for some serious and highly entertaining downers.

Lowry’s Mexican Masterpiece

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

First published here October 19, 2010. Repeated because it’s worth discussing again.

Sooner or later, if you have anything to say about literature and/or novels, you have to say something about Under The Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opus to alcohol. I tend to fall decidedly on the side of pretty damn fabulous. It doesn’t really matter that it took Lowry over eleven years to write it and get it published. It doesn’t matter that there were multiple versions of the novel over those years finally culminating in publication in 1947. Coincidentally, or perhaps profoundly, the year of the Fiction Fortune Hunter’s birth. What matters is that it exists and continues to intrigue and inspire writers and readers to this day.

On a visit to Mexico by Lowry and his first wife in 1936, an incident occurs. While riding on a bus through remote areas, the bus comes upon a man on the side of the road. He is apparently dying. Even as they were advised by the driver not to get involved, they witness another man stealing the dying man’s money. This was to be the event that took root in Lowry’s mind and found full flower eleven years later as Under The Volcano.

On the surface, the novel is simply twenty-four hours in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul living in Mexico who has resigned his position to devote himself full time to drinking. While a plot does ensue, involving his divorced wife who returns to Mexico to try to rekindle their relationship, and a visit by Firmin’s brother who’s at odds with himself about not being in Spain and fighting for the Loyalists, the real struggle for the life and death and sole of Geoffrey Firmin goes on inside his own mind and voluminous bottles of liquor. There are those who would have you believe that the entire novel is simply one of Firmin’s alcohol-soaked hallucinations and that his wife, his brother and everything that goes on are simply figments of his imagination. Still others insist that though the story is rife with hallucinatory episodes, what happens actually happens. It is perhaps one of the hallmarks of great literature that it can still spark such debate some sixty plus years after its debut.

Malcolm Lowry knew of what he wrote. He was certainly no stranger to strong drink. In the mid thirties he entered Bellevue Hospital in New York after an alcohol induced breakdown. He was also a world traveller, serving as a deck hand, he voyaged to the Far East and also made visits to America and Germany. English by birth, after stints to Hollywood to try a bit of screenwriting, Mexico to engage in other pursuits, and British Columbia where Volcano was actually finished, he eventually returned to England and died at the age of 48 due to what the coroner recorded as “death by misadventure.” Alcohol and sleeping pills being intricately involved.

While he managed to produce a few other books during his lifetime, none came close to the majesty of Under The Volcano. Many consider it one of the foremost novels of the 20th century. And yes, I would have to be counted among those. The legendary director, John Huston, made a film of Under The Volcano in 1984. Not surprisingly, it spurred similar polarity of opinion as to its worth. Some proclaiming it one of Huston’s best and certainly a tour-de-force performance by Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin. Still others deemed it unwatchable.

With a vocabulary the size of the Volcano and the country that Lowry lovingly evokes, he certainly created something unforgettable. Do yourself a favor and set aside some time to walk where Lowry walked (perhaps without the Mescal). The journey will stay with you forever. As it has with The Fiction Fortune Hunter.

From The Mouths Of…

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” So said the Bard Of Avon, William Shakespeare. And since then a number of novels have been written by authors who have chosen to tell their tales through the mouths of those who most would consider something less than normal.

William Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury is probably the most famous of these. And more recently, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time became a national bestseller by spinning a compelling narrative through the mind and voice of a child savant.

But the purpose of this post is not to bring your attention to either of those worthy tomes. Rather, it is to make you aware of The Getaway Man penned by Andrew Vachss and published in 2003. The narrator and protagonist is Eddie. To be sure, he is what the title implies, a wheel jockey who deals in burning rubber, escape and evasion. But he’s also what we used to call (in pre politically correct times) a “little slow.” Or is he? Near the end you think you know the answer. Then all of a sudden, you don’t.

Andrew Vachss is one of the premier crime fiction writers working today. His prose slaps you in the face and makes you like it. It slices you so expertly you don’t even know you’ve been cut until the blood starts to trickle. While the native New Yorker is best known for his Burke series, his other novels like The Getaway Man and Two Trains Running (where he tells the entire 450 page story in chronological running-time) are just as tight, tough and menacing.

If, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you like your noir with dirty double crosses, hairpin turns and hot pages you hate to put down…dash to Vachss’s website or scour the independent bookstores and pick up The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss. And decide for yourself if it’s the storyteller who’s the dim wit, or the reader.

The Fiction Fortune Hunter highly recommends it. For what that’s worth.

Just As Good In Paperback

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Here’s a review I did of Pete Dexter’s novel Spooner about a year ago. The paperback edition has recently been published. If you missed the hardcover, get the paperback. Any thing Pete Dexter writes is worth reading. And believe me, Spooner is a trip you’ll be glad you’ve taken.

Spooner, the most recent novel from Pete Dexter, is about life. Okay, I know what you’re saying, all novels are about life in one way or another. But Spooner is so full of life that it may well redefine what most readers think, when they think about novels about life. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, keep in mind that life often doesn’t make sense either. The author freely admits that a number of incidents in his life are used as jumping-off points for this novel’s collected incidents. If you’re a reader of Dexter’s work, you, like me, will realize that before he tells you so in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. But believe me, it doesn’t make any difference one way or the other. You’ll be enthralled with Spooner.

On the surface, its a story about one boy’s lifelong quest to understand and appreciate his stepfather. And perhaps more importantly, to be understood and appreciated by him. From a rural upbringing in the South to a suburban adolescence in the midwest to young adulthood in Philadelphia to middle-age and beyond in the Northwest, its a story that, like life, winds its way slowly and meanderingly through family ties from which none of us are immune.

Dexter’s easy way with words (easy to read, not to write) convince you that he’s in the room spinning his yarn with a pitch perfect down-home accent. His ability to take you from a quiet bucolic setting one moment, followed by a horrific incident the next, followed by a sense of love and warmth and understanding after that, is a high-wire walk not to be missed.

The protagonist of Spooner, a lad by the same name who seems a few cards shy of a deck, is an unpredictable bundle of trouble. He doesn’t try to be. It just seems to come naturally. His long-suffering mother, smarter sister and (eventually) smarter brothers all seem to live their lives more or less successfully, without anywhere near the mayhem that follows Spooner around like an unshakable storm cloud. Luckily, Spooner has Calmer, a stepfather on which all male parents should be modeled after. Not perfect to be sure. As in life, none of us are. But the kind of rock even the stormiest sea can’t seem to shake. Through each phase of his life, Spooner seems to find a unique way to screw up. And Calmer is always there, whether physically present or not, to help set Spooner straight and get him back on whatever bizarre path he’s set for himself.

It would be buzz-killing to go into any detail about the many wondrous things that happen to Spooner, and for that matter, Calmer, in Dexter’s 459 pages. It is in fact, a bit like a slow high turning page after page and being surprised, shocked, saddened, brought to tears in one chapter and giggling like a schoolgirl in others. The wonder of Pete Dexter’s mind, his eye for detail and insight into the workings of the human heart are about as pleasurable as reading can possibly be.

No one turns a phrase quite as surgically as Dexter. Charming one moment, jarring as a left hook the next. And no one else could have lived the life (even though it’s fiction of course) or written so lovingly about it, as Pete Dexter does in Spooner. Get it. Read it. Don’t worry about how long it takes. It’s the kind of treat you can put down and come back to again and again and still get the feeling you’re tasting it for the first time. The Fiction Fortune Hunter recommends anything you can find by this exceptional novelist. I plan to keep reading him until he quits writing. Lets hope that won’t be for a long, long time.