Archive for August, 2009

Perfect Prose Of The Evil That Men Do

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

I confess. For years, decades really, I’ve seen all the movies and read all the reviews of works by John LeCarre. I always assumed the cinematic simplifications of his stories were easier to digest in two-hour bites than in multiple hours of slogging through which spy is which and whose side is either really on. I realize now how indisputably stupid that was.

In the space of a few weeks, I’ve read and loved LeCarre’s first novel, Call For The Dead, where he introduced George Smiley to the world, his second novel, A Murder of Quality, where Smiley became more the detective and less the spy, his third and perhaps most famous novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which like many of his works, was turned into a particularly good motion picture, and The Mission Song, a relatively recent (2006) offering. All were exceptional in the extreme. And while you might assume, if you’re not a LeCarre fan, that any writer in the spy genre must always favor intricacy of plot over elegance of prose, you, like I, would be dead wrong.

I had seen and liked the film version of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (Released in the mid 1960’s.) But I was compelled to read it because I was so enamored of the quality of the writing in his previous two novels. I was not disappointed in the least. While the plot is indeed an ingenious foray into Cold War intrigue and double dealing, the prose itself is as dry as a good Martini and as piercing as a stiletto buried to the hilt. LeCarre’s protagonists are the anti-Bond. They are neither suave, nor handsome, nor devil-may-care, nor invulnerable. They are humanity personified trapped in very dehumanizing activities. Often of their own choosing. Which perhaps makes them the most human of all.

In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Alec Leamas is the figurative chess master who becomes the pawn in a game of cat and mouse so devilishly constructed that you’ll be unable to get him, his fate and his ultimate choice, out of your mind forever. For those of you who didn’t live through The Cold War, as it was known post World War II, there is no better history than this fictional account of just what the East and the West were willing to do to each other, and to themselves, to one-up the enemy.

Writers who succeed in a particular genre are often too quickly categorized as a crime writer, or a spy writer, or a romance novelist, or an adventure writer, or whatever. The fact of the matter, is that John LeCarre is a wonderful writer whose stories and prose are as literate and compelling as any Pulitzer or Nobel winner.

If, like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’ve only nibbled around the edges of John LeCarre without partaking of one of his sumptuous meals, dine on the nearest one you can find. And if you have a taste for the bitterly moving and that which is unsentimental even in it’s warmth, do yourself a favor and order The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Hard to find, but worth the hunt

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

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 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.

The Literary Equivalent of Spontaneous Combustion

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Much has been written about Norman Mailer. He is certainly one of the most famous authors of the last century. And while his prodigious writing talent is the source of most of that fame, his innate ability as a self promoter and a publicity magnate bear a large percentage of the responsibility as well. Two time Pulitzer Prize winner. Co-founder of The Village Voice. Harvard and Sorbonne alum. Persevering pugilist. Bad film director. Unpredictable chat show guest. His life seemed to be made for the television medium he grew up and grew old with.

Mailer and his contemporaries such as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and more, are given credit for innovating what came to be known as narrative nonfiction, or the new journalism. And certainly Mailer’s works like The Executioner’s Song and The Armies of the Night are fascinating examples of truth scaling literary heights.

But I’d like to focus this post on Norman Mailer’s big bang fiction beginning. In 1948, Rinehart and Company published The Naked And The Dead. A big, meaty, page-turning and thought provoking novel of World War II. It was immediately met with a fusillade of praise. Time Magazine called it “the best novel yet about World War II. Newsweek said it was “brutal, agonizing, astonishingly thoughtful.” The Providence Journal hailed it as “the most important novel since Moby-Dick.”

The Naked And The Dead, along with James Jone’s From Here To Eternity and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, tower above the infinite number of novels that sprung from that conflict. But Mailer, who was only twenty-four when he penned his masterpiece, seems, to this writer, to have best captured all the savagery, heroism, boredom, bravery, cowardice and and terrible coincidence that were part of that gigantic struggle.

The author tells his tale by focusing mostly on one platoon engaged in the battle for possession of the Japanese-held island of Anopopei in the South Pacific. Through the troop-ship taking them ashore to the rain-soaked days and nights in pup tents continually being blown away, to the final mission undertaken to provide recon for the larger invading force, Mailer weaves a tapestry of men engaged in human endeavor no human should be forced to endure. Cutting back and forth between the men on the island and their lives prior to the war, we live with this cross-section of Americans that have since become rather stilted stereotypes in lesser hands. But with Mailer at the helm, their fears, their desires, their longing for home and a safer place is mesmerizing. So too is the bigger picture that they are part of, as the author parallels the squad’s struggles with the battalion commander’s intricate offensive that must be achieved at any cost. And always looming overhead, for officer and enlisted man alike, is the constant need to come to grips with why they have to be where they are and whether they’re really making any difference at all.

Not unlike Orson Welles, who created a sensation in his youth with his film, Citizen Kane, a young Mailer wrote the great book about the great war. And while subsequent efforts in his long and storied life garnered fame and recognition for him as well as his works, none ever eclipsed the power of The Naked And The Dead.

And the hits just keep on coming

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

At the moment you’re reading this, there’s probably a new Elmore Leonard novel coming out. How do I know this? Because there’s always a new Elmore Leonard novel coming out. The guy has written over 40 books (when you throw in his short story compilations as well). We’re talking now about an author who’s in his 80’s. Think that’s slowed him down? Not a chance. The guy’s a machine. Cranks them out like sausage. And boy do they taste good.

The one Fiction Fortune Hunter is lauding today, is of relatively recent vintage. Copyright 2007. It’s entitled Up In Honey’s Room. Think of it as a wry romp through the mean streets of Detroit during the second world war. You remember that one, it was in all the papers. You remember papers, don’t you? Lucky for us, both Leonard’s memory and imagination are still humming along like a 1944 Buick. He brings the era back with a keen eye for detail and a coalition of characters who’ll keep you reading and smiling.

There’s Honey, of the title. A beautiful blond whose good looks are only exceeded by her moxie. Her ex-husband, Walter, a dead ringer for Heinrich Himmler. Carl Webster, the U. S. Marshall from Oklahoma with a reputation like the Ringo Kid. Two escaped German P.O.W’s. A sleek but hard-drinking femme fatale who just might be a Nazi spy, or a double agent, or both. There’s a KKK wizard (or is it a dragon, I can never remember), an ex-con brother-in-law, a stalwart FBI agent, a junkie doctor and an unforgettable cross-dressing Polish concentration camp survivor who’s wound tighter than a Timex. In other words, the typical suspects of an Elmore Leonard enterprise.

The plot, as in most of Mr. Leonard’s novels, is intricate enough to keep you wondering what’s going to happen, but never tediously gets in the way
of a slam bang scene or snappy dialogue. I always find myself reading faster and faster the deeper I get into one of his books. Not to finish in a hurry, but rather to enjoy it even more gluttonously.

Elmore Leonard is an American treasure. His books have been the source of many movies you’ve probably seen. Get Shorty and Be Cool with John Travolta. Fifty-Two Pickup with Roy Scheider and Ann Margaret. Hombre with Paul Newman. Mr. Majestic with Charles Bronson. And lots, lots more.

Look in the bargain bins for Elmore Leonard titles. Anyone you find
will be fun to read. And in particular, be on the lookout for Up In Honey’s Room, which, I forgot to mention earlier, culminates in her apartment with most of the characters stark naked. I need say no more.