SEPTEMBER 17, 2011
Still from trailer for The Big Combo (1955) Allied Artists John Alton, Cinematographer
2011 IS TURNING OUT to be a banner year for crime fiction. Despite all the hubbub over the encroaching death of the publishing industry, crime lit continues to flourish, branching out like so many rivulets from an endless pool of blood. First-time authors and beloved mainstays have found homes with new publishers of various sizes. Among the most welcome arrivals is Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Still only a few months old, their roster already boasts such fine writers as the backwoods bard Daniel Woodrell, with his astoundingly atmospheric The Bayou Trilogy, as well as Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block and his A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a dark (and sober) night of the soul featuring series favorite, Matthew Scudder. On the indie scene, New Pulp Press is still going strong in its third year, ushering in several noteworthy debuts, including Heath Lowrance’s The Bastard Hand (a wicked good “Bad Preacher” story: Gil Brewer meets Night of the Hunter). Four of the summer’s most anticipated novels come from rising stars poised to break into the mainstream: Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Jason Starr’s The Pack, and Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games. This summer also marks the return of the legendary private eye Mike Hammer. In Kiss Her Goodbye, the late Mickey Spillane and his co-author, Max Allan Collins, have a few new tricks up their sleeves for the gat-wielding shamus. Each of the authors above take bold steps in new directions. Their risks pay off on the page, resulting in some of the finest novels of their respective careers.
Duane Swierczynski is the Wile E. Coyote of crime fiction. His novels are filled with chases, explosions, and, amidst all the mayhem, a dash of philosophy about the absurdity of existence. His first novel, Secret Dead Men, appeared in January 2005 from the small but solid indie publisher Point Blank Press, but it was his follow-up in October of that same year that announced his arrival with a big kaboom. The Wheelman is about a mute Irish getaway man, who blacks out after a heist goes sour and wakes up in a body bag that some musicians are trying to dump down a Jersey drain pipe. From there, things only get worse (for him) and better (for us). The book is violent, twisted, and frequently funny as hell, yet its characters are strangely endearing. They’re capable of the most brutal acts, but are also incompetent, entirely human, and believable. That’s the Swierczynski touch: he makes apeshit chaos seem par for the course.
Swierczynski’s latest novel is Fun & Games, and it’s 100% Acme approved. This first volume in a proposed trilogy introduces us to Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop-turned-housesitter whose latest job embroils him in a Hollywood assassination attempt by “The Accident People.” Their latest target: Lane Madden, a B-list action actress who knows something she shouldn’t. From its opening high-speed chase along the Decker Canyon Road, to the tense cat-and-mouse pursuit through the Hollywood Hills, to the epic, bloody finale, this book shows Swierczynski at his pulpy and imaginative best.
One of the book’s main joys is its bad guys, The Accident People, who suggest the influence of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu by way of Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, only funnier, and gorier. They are classic arch villains, armed with the technology of tomorrow and the ineptitude of sitcom spies. Swierczynski specializes in such mélanges of pop culture tendencies. A deep knowledge and appreciation of movies, literature, music, and true crime runs through all of his novels, and Fun & Games is no exception. The chapters are graced by cultural litanies, ranging from environmentalist Marc Reisner to critic Geoffrey O’Brien, and from Hickey & Boggs to Anchorman. In this way, Swierczynski emerges as one of the genre’s leading post-modernists, playfully tweaking the history of crime fiction as he drives it into the future. With Fun & Games, Swierczynski has pushed his style to its farthest extreme yet, and from the looks of things, the rest of the trilogy is going to go even further; he has the chops pull it off like the perfect heist.
Jason Starr is best known for Jim Thompson-esque crime novels like Fake I.D. and sharp social satire-cum-thrillers like The Follower, as well as his expert evocations of New York City’s neighborhoods. After dipping his feet into fantasy and horror with the 2010 graphic novel The Chill, Starr now plunges headfirst into the supernatural. His latest novel, The Pack, is the story of Simon Burns, an advertising executive who falls victim to the recession. Laid off from his job, he becomes a stay-at-home dad while his wife goes off to work. A chance meeting with a group of other dads at the playground, however, turns Simon’s world upside down. After a night of drinking, Simon wakes up in the woods, naked and recalling dreams of werewolves. But when his body starts to undergo a radical transformation, he starts to wonder if those were really dreams.
Before you accuse Jason Starr of joining Team Jacob, be warned: this isn’t a typical “werewolf” narrative. In fact, it’s actually closer in tone to Starr’s Panic Attack (which was recently optioned by David Fincher’s production company). Published in 2009, Panic Attack was about a Forest Hills family that falls apart after the father (Adam Bloom) kills an intruder. Both The Pack and Panic Attack are primarily concerned with the fragility of the modern American family. Simon’s and Adam’s families are, at least temporarily, wealthy enough to maintain the façade of contentment, but a sudden change of fortune brings repressed violence to the surface. Panic Attack, with its cozy Forest Hills setting, doesn’t yet show the full effects of the current recession, while The Pack clearly shows the anxieties of an unstable and tenuous economy. The respective patriarchs temporarily gain control over their worlds through violence — Adam with a gun, and Simon through his werewolf super-strength — but this newfound authority ultimately undermines their relationships, leaving them powerless and alone.
Werewolves aside, The Pack is one of Starr’s most realistic and relatable novels yet. In the past, he has excelled at exploring the latent criminality in everyday protagonists and familiar situations, but here he uncovers a savagery that is both sympathetic and uncomfortably appealing. Simon stands on the verge of solving all his problems, only to realize that the rifts in his family and the emptiness of his life are much deeper than he suspected.
Starr isn’t the only one stepping away from familiar territory. Megan Abbott possesses one of the most lyrical voices in all of noir. In novels like Die a Little, The Song Is You, and Queenpin, her prose captured the magic of old Hollywood crime flicks, the tenderness of a soft focus close-up, the dim haze of a gin joint, and the sharp tongues of classic femmes fatale. With Bury Me Deep, her reworking of the Winnie Ruth Judd “trunk murderess” case, Abbott’s marriage of hardboiled and rhapsodic styles reached its pinnacle. Rather than retread past trails, Abbott has made the daring, but wise, choice to leave the past of gun molls, nightclubs, and tinseltown temptations behind.
Abbott’s latest novel transports readers to the dark underbelly of 1980s Midwest suburbia, and with a nihilistic title to rival Lawrence Block’s Everybody Dies. The End of Everything is told from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood, whose best friend and next-door-neighbor, Evie Verver, suddenly goes missing. Lizzie was the last person to see Evie, and her recollections are the only clues the police have to go on. Coping with the trauma of her friend’s disappearance as well as the realization of her own vulnerability is a hard enough struggle, but Lizzie’s complex emotions are compounded by the awakening of her own sexuality. As Lizze’s envy of the family next door turns into desire, Abbott pulls back the curtains on middle-class morality, exploring the uncomfortable impulses lurking beneath respectable veneers.
Stylistically, The End of Everything is Abbott’s most refined and rapturous offering yet. Through Lizzie, Abbott is able to tap into the strange poetry of adolescence, of newfound intuition and overflowing emotion. Without being reductively juvenile, Abbott captures that twilight of mystery and superstition that fades with experience. Lizzie’s ruminations on the kidnapping reveal a mixture of dread and desire: “How does this man, a man like this, like any of them, come to walk at night and stand in a girl’s backyard, and then, smoking and looking up, suddenly feel himself helpless to her bright magic?” Abbott’s portrayal is often disturbingly, even brutally honest, especially when Lizzie empathizes with the kidnapper:
Her dark hair sheeted out, matching her limbs, summerhoneyed.
He saw that and he fell in love. How could anyone see Evie’s cartwheels and not fall in love?
Oh, how his heart must have ached with it.
Lizzie’s every discovery is larger than life, whether it’s a clue about Evie’s disappearance, or her own complicated feelings toward Mr. Verver. All that Lizzie discovers about Evie, from the naively romantic to the hurtfully lustful, she recognizes in herself. As the case grows more complicated, the two girls no longer seem transparently sweet and innocent. They are complex, and complicit, young adults, whose desires and impulses aren’t easy for anyone to reckon with, not even themselves. Oddly enough, we can see the roots of Lizzie and Evie in Abbott’s earlier and older noir protagonists. Schoolteacher Lora King’s blooming, then booming, sexual urges, which take control in Die a Little; the unnamed narrator of Queenpin, who runs money for the mob and risks their wrath to satisfy her lust; the trio of nurses in Bury Me Deep, bound by a mutual craving for human touch, which eventually destroys them. Lizzie and Evie might grow up to be any of these women. In this light, The End of Everything isn’t so far removed from Abbott’s earlier books as one might first suspect. It’s pre-noir: a sign of the dark things yet to come.
The trauma of childhood disappearance also haunts Sara Gran’s latest, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, the first in a proposed series. In 1987, Claire’s best friend, Tracy, stepped onto a subway car and was never heard from again. Decades later, Claire is now a private detective (“the best detective in the world,” according to DeWitt herself), but is still haunted by her friend’s sudden vanishing. But Tracy’s mystery belongs to New York City; for the present, Claire is in New Orleans, looking into another missing persons case. Vic Willing was a lawyer who disappeared during Hurricane Katrina. Vic is presumed dead, and his estate has gone to his nephew, Leon Salvatore. But Leon wants to know for sure what fate befell his uncle, so Claire DeWitt begins to look into the private affairs of this supposed do-gooder, who offered his services free to New Orleans’ troubled youth. Her search leads her to the Katrina riots, where even one’s best intentions couldn’t atone for past sins.
Claire DeWitt is a change of pace from Gran’s previous book, Come Closer. Like a cross between Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Come Closer was an allegorical horror novel, detailing how a young woman’s inner demons and loss of self-control slowly destroy her marriage and personal life. Genuinely disturbing and gripping from start to finish, Come Closer showed Gran’s keen eye for psychological detail, vivid atmosphere, and innovative genre approach. Before that, there was Dope, a revisionist noir, told from the perspective of one of those 1950s B-girls that were normally overlooked as mere stock characters. An ex-junkie-turned-thief, Josephine “Joe” Flannigan takes a job as a P.I. to look into the disappearance of a drug-addicted Barnard student. A desolate tour through a bygone New York, Dope nailed the time period without falling into the trappings of nostalgia or pastiche.
One can see traces of Dope‘s street-wise protagonist in Claire DeWitt, but Claire is unmistakably a new creation for Gran, and an attempt to fashion a new mold for the 21st-century P.I. Claire takes inspiration from mind-altering drugs, finds answers in her dreams, and religiously studies a philosophical book called Détection, from which she quotes regularly. After awhile, though, Claire’s metaphysics and Détection‘s treatises begin to grow tiresome (example: “When a person disappears, the detective must look at what she took with her when she left not only the material items, but what is gone without her; what she carries with her to the underworld; what words will go unspoken…”). The novel’s strength lies not in its many conjectures and theories on the nature of detection, but in the process itself. Claire’s journey through New Orleans is thick with atmosphere, and while she herself might be interested in heady concepts, the people she meets have complex problems that are all too recognizable, and that don’t lend themselves to easy solutions.
Among Claire DeWitt’s winning traits is her nostalgia for a bygone New York. She longs for pre-gentrification Brooklyn, and mourns her days partying around Broadway and Houston before NYU bought up buildings. Claire isn’t the only one who misses the good ol’ days. In Kiss Her Goodbye, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer — one of the preeminent archetypes of the private detective — is back on the streets of the Big Apple. The latest Hammer novel began as a manuscript Spillane started and abandoned in the 1970s. Half a decade after his death in 2006, Spillane’s close friend and collaborator, Max Allan Collins, completed the book. With all these young writers taking crime fiction into new territory, the reappearance of Hammer is an interesting counterpoint, to say the least. A WWII vet, complete with crew cut and hyper-masculine drive, Hammer would seem like an anachronism in any era other than Eisenhower’s America. So it’s to Spillane and Collins’s great credit that they manage to place Hammer in the middle of coked-up, disco-centric, late-seventies New York without turning the whole show into an In Like Flint parody.
As Kiss Her Goodbye begins, Hammer is in Florida. He’s been away for a year in semi-retirement after a deadly shootout with a mob boss. The supposed suicide of his former mentor calls Hammer back to New York, and he doesn’t like what he sees. The city has changed, so have the people he knew, and so has Hammer. Now it’s time to get things back to the way they were. Convinced his friend’s suicide was staged, Hammer opens the case and uncovers corrupt politicians, international drug schemes, mob wars, wayward young women, androgynous Brazilian singers, and a complex web of mysteries that only Hammer and his trusty .45 can solve.
Kiss Her Goodbye is a throwback in the best sense of the word: it reminds us why Spillane was so good in the first place; and Collins, too, for that matter. Dexterous and dynamic plotting, swift and explosive action, snappy dialogue, graphic metaphors, and energetic characters that come alive: this is action-mystery par excellence. Spillane’s style is unmistakable, but it is also nuanced. At times, it’s as staccato as a gunshot. At others it resembles stream of consciousness, a torrent of thought and action with which words can hardly keep up. In his more experimental moments, Spillane’s prose even shows traces of Imagism (though I’m sure he’d shun such scholarly tags). And few dare to use italics as often and as effectively as Spillane:
…my head still full of the wild banging of handguns and the crazy booming of shotguns, echoing across the pier, flame belching right past my face and even though I didn’t feel the impact of the slugs that took me down I could remember the numbness and the slow drifting away that began to smother me. The face was there, too, blood smeared across the Bonetti kid’s mouth, tight in a mad grin as he poked the barrel of his .357 against my forehead and said, “Die, you bastard,” as he started to squeeze the trigger but he shouldn’t have taken the time to say it because the .45 in my fist went off and his finger couldn’t make the squeeze because the brain that should have sent it signals shut off like a switch as Bonetti’s head came apart in crimson chunks like a target-range watermelon.
At the same time, Kiss Her Goodbye isn’t a mere rehashing of the past. While Hammer himself struggles to fit into the 1970s, Spillane and Collins have no trouble keeping him up to date. (The fact that Hammer no longer smokes is, perhaps, a little too up to date.) While he’s more liberal and no longer lambasts the Communists (or blasts them, either), there’s something timeless about Hammer’s persona that would fit any era: he’s an individual driven by his intolerance toward a complacent society. Where law and order seeks to “keep the peace,” Hammer prefers to create disorder, in order to highlight injustice and corruption. He’s also funny, charming, quick with a gun, lands a hard punch… and so what if he’s a bit arrogant? That’s all just part of the appeal. Kiss Her Goodbye has all the blood of One Lonely Night, and a shocking finale that rivals Vengeance is Mine. In short, it’s classic Spillane, as good as the old stuff, or any of the newer books on the shelves. Spillane (thanks to Collins) can still keep up with the new generation, and maybe even teach them a lesson or two.
These are just some of the highlights of the year thus far. Fall and winter have an equally promising line-up, beginning with the re-emergence of publisher Hard Case Crime after a year of silence. Their killer slate of new works includes more from Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Mickey Spillane, and Christa Faust, as well as a final novel by Donald E. Westlake and a lost novel from Robert Silverberg. James Sallis’s new book The Killer Is Dying (Walker & Company, August 2nd) examines the intersecting lives of a hitman, a detective, and an abandoned young boy. Longtime readers of Sallis know not to expect a conventional narrative, but whatever he has in store will certainly be worth reading. (On a related note: Sallis’s earlier novel Drive was recently adapted by Nicolas Winding Refn, and is due to be released in September. Winner of Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this is one of the most anticipated crime movies of the year.) S. J. Rozan continues her Lydia Chin/Bill Smith detective series with Ghost Hero (September 27, Minotaur Books), set amid the contemporary art world. Ed Gorman’s small-town lawyer Sam McCain returns to investigate a murder at a commune in Bad Moon Rising (Pegasus, October 12th). And Frank Bill has already made his debut with Crimes in Southern Indiana (FSG, August 30th), a collection of short stories about the grimier aspects of the Midwest.