Still from trailer for The Big Combo (1955) Allied ArtistsJohn Alton, Cinematographer
Hell on Church Street
New Pulp Press, December 2011. 198 pp.
Is this noir enough for you? “The story of my life is I lived, I fucked up, and I’m going to die. I’ll probably go to hell.” Hell on Church Street is the debut novel from Jake Hinkson, who first made his mark as a scholar in the pages of Eddie Muller’s Noir City Sentinel and with short stories in ezines like Beat to a Pulp. Hinkson’s first book is like some unholy union of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, and Charles Willeford’s The Black Mass of Brother Springer. Hell on Church Street tells the story of Geoffrey Webb, a rotund con artist with a clerical collar and a delusional superiority complex. After taking a job as a youth minister for the Higher Living Baptist Church in Little Rock, Webb begins a doomed affair with the preacher’s teenage daughter. Once the local sheriff gets wind of this, he attempts to blackmail Webb into stealing a valuable document from the preacher, which sets off a chain reaction of violence in the Baptist community.
Hell on Church Street is one of the rare novels that actually deserves the over-used comparison to Jim Thompson, not just because Webb follows in the footsteps of such crazed protagonists as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey (Pop. 1280), but because Hinkson takes a risk and deviates from Thompson’s iconic moulds. As Webb’s world spins further out of his control, he develops a self-awareness lacking in Ford and Corey: “And then it hit me. Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I wasn’t as hidden and smart as I thought I was. Maybe the problem had been me all along.” Despite his perverse sociopathy, Webb suffers a genuine fall from grace, and we sympathize with him in ways that we never can with Thompson’s protagonists.
Who do we hold responsible, or thank, for unleashing such a savagely psychotic, yet strangely compassionate novel as Hell on Church Street? That would be New Pulp Press, a small outfit under the editorial leadership of Jon Bassoff. Over the past three years, they have cultivated an arsenal of bold, experimental crime fiction titles — many of them from debut authors such as Hinkson — that carry on in the grand noir tradition without pandering to pastiche. Leonard Fritz’s In Nine Kinds of Pain is a love letter to the seediest aspects of Detroit, with literary echoes of Burroughs and Bulgakov; Heath Lowrance’s The Bastard Hand is a crack-addled ride through the backwoods of Mississippi; and if you ever wondered what a collaboration between Bukowski and Ian Fleming might have looked like, check out Jonathan Woods’ collection Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. And with Woods’ debut novel, A Death in Mexico, already on deck for 2012, New Pulp Press is a small publisher to watch.
Thomas & Mercer, October 2011. 316 pp.
John Rector’s Already Gone begins with a hell of a punch; or rather, with its aftermath: “I put up a good fight.” Stepping out of a bar, Jake Reese, a professor of writing, gets the crap kicked out of him by a pair of mysterious thugs. Jake, an ex-con who served jail time for assault, has put his past behind him, and now refuses to call on his underworld contacts to find out who was behind the attack – that is, until his wife goes missing. When the police prove ineffective, he resorts to the person who got him started in crime so many years back. But as he searches his own history for answers to his wife’s disappearance, Jake begins to wonder if the answer might not be in her past, instead?
Rector writes hardboiled noir with a rare poetic élan, tight, almost violently compressed action, and reticent melancholy. The terse style exhibited in his first two works, The Grove and The Cold Kiss, is taken to an economical extreme in Already Gone. My favorite paragraph is only four words: “The road is dark.” The line itself is slight, but Rector’s ability to imbue it with metaphoric significance for the narrative itself is proof of his skill; the road may literally be “dark,” as in “unlit,” but in the context, that darkness also communicates the narrator’s profounder sense of loss and of being lost.
Towards the end of Already Gone, Jake finds himself hiding out in a secluded old house. There, he finds a box full of old paperbacks by Day Keene, Fredric Brown, Ed Lacy, Horace McCoy, and James M. Cain, all of them past masters of the hardboiled school of writing. It is in their footsteps that Rector follows, and even though he’s only published three novels so far, I feel confident in saying that he is well on his way to joining their ranks. He’s already proven himself among the freshest and most stylistically austere voices working in the thriller field. In fact, labeling his books “thrillers” feels too limiting. There’s a tonal ambience and doleful vibe that permeates his work, which comes as a surprise, considering how action-packed and tense his narratives tend to be. Acutely visual, Already Gone pulses with cinematic urgency and visceral punch. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood realizes his big-screen potential. The Cold Kiss, his bleak midwinter lovers-on-the-run nightmare, has already been optioned. Its time to get on board, before Rector stops being “the next big thing” and becomes the phenomenon he deserves to be.
Reed Farrel Coleman
Hurt Machine (Moe Prager)
Tyrus Books, December 2011. 320 pp.
Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager saga, about a Brooklyn ex-cop turned reluctant wine merchant and occasional PI, is that rare series that improves with each new entry. Coleman is now up to the seventh book, Hurt Machine, and it’s not only the best one yet but also the darkest. If you haven’t been following the series since its opener, 2001’s Walking the Perfect Square, there’s a lot of history to catch up on, more than can be covered in a single review. There’s an uncommon and rarely matched richness to Prager’s world — his family, friends, and foes — and the way it develops from book to book. Prager’s family has an unspoken lineage of pain and remorse, and his problems aren’t solved with the words “The End.” Even though each novel works as a standalone, it pays to start at the beginning, not only to get a firmer grasp on the interpersonal relationships, but also to witness Prager’s evolution into one of the most tragically human of all literary PIs.
As Hurt Machine begins, Moe has just learned that he has cancer, and that his daughter is about to be married. Now his second ex-wife (and ex-partner), Carmella Melendez, contacts Moe after years of silence. Carmella’s sister, an EMT branded persona non grata after she refused to help a dying man in a restaurant, has been murdered outside a pizzeria in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Carmella is convinced that it has something to do with a recent scandal. As in previous books, the public mystery that Moe investigates is nothing compared to the private traumas that he uncovers along the way.
Coleman’s novels, like Ed Gorman’s, impress not with distractingly complex plots (though they’re both certainly capable of spinning real page-turners) but with their profound clarity and expert simplicity. Coleman’s characters don’t need grand schemes or million dollar payoffs as motivations: as Moe too frequently discovers, there’s enough potential for lifetimes of pain in our everyday lives. “Humans are like hurt machines,” he muses on the novel’s first page. “No matter how hard we try not to do it, we seem to inflict hurt on one another as naturally as we breathe.” These words reverberate throughout the whole novel, as Moe dredges up old ghosts and opens new wounds.
Unlike the classical Private Eye, who doggedly pursues the truth in a moralistic quest to right the world’s wrongs, Moe has no illusions. Since his very first case in Walking the Perfect Square, he has never been one to tell the whole truth. “It was my experience that where tragedy was involved, the truth made things worse. Always.” He’s harbored as many secrets as his clients (if not more), and his have caused irreparable damage to a great many people — some of whom deserved it, some of whom didn’t. Moe is better aware of his own mortality than ever before, and it remains to be seen just how many more secrets he’ll be able to keep.
Picador, January 2012. 384 pp.
Alan Glynn’s Bloodland, a loosely related follow-up to 2009’s Winterland, is a stunningly intricate and timely piece of globalization noir. With a core ensemble cast of roughly a dozen characters, and locations spanning three continents, Bloodland defies simple summarization. It all begins with an out-of-work Irish journalist, Jimmy Gilroy, taking a fluff commission to write a biography of Susie Monaghan, a celebrity who died in a helicopter crash. While it comes as no surprise that Gilroy soon links the incident to a nearby international conference on corporate ethics, he does so subtly and deftly. It’s a pleasure to read such a smartly designed political thriller. Alternating between the perspectives of each of the major players, Glynn goes behind the scenes of a covert international operation that involves Congolese warlords, American tycoons, United Nations inspectors, Iraq War vets, and scores of corrupt politicians and businessmen.
Taken on their own, revelations of blood minerals and governments that look the other way aren’t anything groundbreaking, but Glynn doesn’t rest on such easy straight-from-the-headline tactics. His prose may be more functional than stylish, where Glynn excels is in the web-work of conspiracy: following a single thread until it forms a complete and complex pattern. It’s a long and twisty path from drugged child laborers in African mines to coked-out celebrities and shady politicos, but the connections are logical and all too recognizable. In its depiction of immoral business practices and the increasingly blurred lines between criminals and politicians, Bloodland is like an amped-up 21st-century version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. From the exploitation of human labor through umpteen middlemen to who-knows-where, Bloodland captures the fragmentary and alienating mechanism of international affairs with prismatic clarity.
Rapture Alley / Winter Girl / Strictly for the Boys
Stark House Press, February 2012. 339 pp.
Stark House Press continues their revival of Harry Whittington with their third anthology of deep cuts from the “King of the Paperbacks.” The nickname is well deserved. During the renaissance of the paperback originals in the 1950s and 1960s, Whittington was one of the hardest working pros, pumping out multiple titles a year. Ultimately, he published over 170 novels in his three-decade-long career. More than just prolific, he was one of the most reliably entertaining and distinctive paperback writers of his era. Whittington wasn’t a flashy plotter: he shot from the hip, and when he hit the bull’s-eye, it stuck. His were stories of intensely driven characters living out their unlucky lives as the world closed in on them. He might not have been as bold as Jim Thompson or as plaintive as David Goodis, but Whittington’s novels, like the work of those two titans, were character-driven tragedies, at times more realistic and recognizable than those of his more lauded contemporaries. Like Day Keene and Orrie Hitt (both of whom Stark House has also reprinted), Whittington wrote of people you’d find across the street, down at the corner, or sitting next to you in the bar. He turned commonplace situations into frenzied odysseys of obsession and self-destruction.
The three novels selected for this anthology have never been reprinted before, and two of them never even appeared under Whittington’s own name. To long-time Whittington fans, this volume will provide a revelation of the depth and diversity of the author’s talent, while newcomers will find plenty of reasons to dig deeper into the author’s seemingly endless backlog.
Rapture Alley, originally published in 1953 under the pen name “Whit Harrison,” charts an aspiring model’s descent into heroin addiction: “It seemed that her life had become a bad dream, an endless nightmare in which everything continually worsened.” Whittington’s rendering of Lora’s condition may be, at times, melodramatic, but he nails his portrait of the psychological strain and self-loathing that surround addiction. The doomed relationship-and the impossibility of a truly happy ending-are hallmarks of the author’s worldview.
Winter Girl was originally released in 1963 as A Taste of Desire, under the “Curt Colman” byline, by the sleaze specialist Corinth, with numerous scenes added by hacks to spice up the text. Thanks to editor David Laurence Wilson, who restored the novel to Whittington’s original version, we’re finally able to see the book in its intended form, and it’s a real treat. The final product is sort of a “boy and his dog” meets “backwoods tramp” mash-up set in the Deep South. Among its author’s more unusual creations, it stands out for its sensitive yet unsettling coming-of-age narrative. The motivating crime (the theft of the narrator’s prized pet) is nothing compared to the more pedestrian tragedies he faces on a daily basis: alcoholic fathers, abused mothers, rampant unsatisfied ambitions and desires, and the gradual realization that he’s fated to become just like everyone else in his crummy, beaten-down town.
The real prize of the anthology, however, is Strictly For the Boys, originally published in 1959, and the only one of the three to bear Whittington’s own name. The story is about a battered wife attempting to flee an abusive husband who refuses to let her, her mother, and her new boyfriend alone. Downright disturbing in its realism and sobering depiction of domestic violence, Strictly For the Boys displays a social consciousness that was prescient for its time, and which continues to be relevant today.
Editor and scholar David Laurence Wilson deserves special commendation for his tireless efforts to restore Whittington’s reputation (and, in the case of Winter Girl, to restore the text itself). Wilson and Stark House publisher Greg Shepard give their books scholarly attention on par with the Library of America. Meticulously researched and lovingly edited, Stark House presents these forgotten paperback novels not as pulp curios, but as real literature, and set the bar high for other reprint series.