FFB: Build My Gallows High

buildmygallowshigh-illusbyharrybarton-1BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH
Geoffrey Homes (1946)

Probably best known as the text for Out of the Past, the classic noir film with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas (and how much better a title is the book than that?), this novel written under a pseudonym by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who also worked on the script for Invasion of the Body Snatchers and dozens of others, has much less cultural currency than the film it led to (I’d forgotten Against All Odds was a remake: I just cringe automatically on hearing in my head the Phil Collins theme song).

It’s a tight little book that feels very much like an adapted screenplay. There’s no wasted words in this slim volume though it fleshes out the backstory of the novel quite a bit more. The action pretty much hurls through the events non-stop. Nonetheless Homes/Mainwaring offers some moments worth lingering over, throwing in scraps of poetry (‘When I am dead and over me bright April shakes down her rain-drenched hair’) and some description that offers a bit of poetry of its own:

Lloyd Eels was a tall man who hadn’t come off the assembly line.Somebody had found some spare parts lying around and had put them together carelessly, not bothering to get the bolts tight so that they seemed almost ready to come apart. He had black, sad eyes and a black mustache like an untrimmed hedge. No amount of combing would help his shock of hair.

‘You’re getting fat,’ Red said. ‘It doesn’t become you.’
‘You come up here to tell me that?’
‘No, I hate to see a man let himself go. They’ll get you back in shape in Alcatraz.’
‘Always the jester,’ Whit said acidly.
‘But the cap is getting pretty shabby and the bells lose their merry tinkle.’

Jim Caldwell’s eyes saw nothing in the drab domestic scene to wonder at, nothing to make him consider even momentarily the thought that people got old and people took each other for granted and presently there was no magic in the world. Jesus, she was beautiful standing under the hard, white light, her head tilted a little, her cheeks flushed, her dark eyes full of stars.

See all the overlooked books over at Patti’s blog.

Occult Crime: The Dain Curse

In Satan’s Sorority, I wanted to explore the idea of crime that uses occult connections even if there’s nothing supernatural happening (it’s open to interpretation, of course — the characters certainly believe something diabolical occurs). Admittedly my forthcoming story Elf Prefix, which again mixes up crime and the occult, is a little more beyond acceptable reality, but I’m interested in the ways the occult has been used to cover up or shield crime.

You don’t think of Dashiell Hammett as a ‘fantasy’ writer, though he did pen a short supernatural tale of a magician and his assistant (‘Magic’). But he was aware of how the occult could be used to con people — he was always interested in how people manipulated one another. After all, many cults are just a way to swindle folks — another big con.

The Dain Curse has a fascinating occult motif in the middle of it. California has long been the hotbed of strange cults so it’s not surprising the Continental Op would run up against one. The Temple of the Holy Grail supposedly resurrects a sort of druidic practice of Arthur’s Britain. While guarding Gabrielle Leggett, inheritor of the curse, the Op discovers her blood-soaked with a dagger in her hands, confessing to murder.

Entering the temple itself through a ‘small iron door’ he sees ‘dim stars in a night sky’ as they walk over ‘a floor of white marble, or pentagonal tiles that imitated white marble…The light glittered and glistened on a wide altar of brilliant white, crystal and silver.’ The victim lay upon the steps pooling blood.

Later as the Op tries to protect Leggett in her room, he’s aware of the persistent smell of dead flowers intensifying. Then he sees something weird:

Not more than three feet away, there in the black room, a pale bright thing like a body, but not like flesh, stood writhing before me. It was tall, yet not so tall as it seemed, because it didn’t stand on the floor, but hovered with its feet a foot or more above the floor. Its feet—it had feet, but I don’t know what their shape was. They had no shape, just as the thing’s legs and torso, arms, and hands, head and face, had no shape, no fixed form. They writhed, swelling and contracting, stretching and shrinking, not greatly, but without pause.

The Op figures things out eventually–and as you might suspect, the cause of the seemingly supernatural vision has a lot to do with the strange smell and suggestibility, but it’s worthwhile thinking about how even the hard-nosed Op can be thrown off kilter by what appears to be inexplicable. You might breathe a sign of relief when the Scooby-Do ending gets revealed, but for a time even the hard-boiled reader might be willing to suspend disbelief for a time.

See all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog.

 

FFB: Saturday Night & Sunday Morning

saturday-night-sunday-morning-alan-sillitoe-paperback-cover-artBack in 1980, my modern British literature course at Regents College introduced me to Alan Sillitoe, forever giving me a Northern bias, I think. I re-read this on the train to London and found it just as compelling as ever, though I think age adds at least a little empathy that I didn’t feel back then. When you’re 18 it reads like a tragedy: they’ll grind you down eventually, those bastards. From the perspective of age, you realise eventually you want more than perpetually kicking against the pricks: you want to win. So you find other ways to fight.

Or so I tell myself.

I could quote endlessly from this book: Sillitoe has a sharp observant eye. There’s little in the way of showing off here, he just says everything right and from a perspective that’s spot on, though there’s a soaring beauty to his descriptions of everything from the run down neighbourhoods to the cacophony of the factory. The opening paragraph of Arthur’s drunken fall down the stairs is hard to top, but that’s only the beginning of course. He’s lies not out of habit but out of a desire to reshape reality according to his whimsy. ‘It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken’ but his only attack is wringing the most he can from the system that exists. ‘Liars don’t prosper’ his lover warns him, but Arthur is determined to prove that they do.

‘With the wages you got you could save up for a motor-bike or even an old car, or you could go on a ten-day binge and get rid of all you’d saved. Because it was no use saving your money year after year. A mug’s game, since the value of it got less and less and in any case you never knew when the Yanks were going to do something daft like dropping the H-bomb on Moscow.’

‘Make a woman enjoy being in bed with you–that’s a big part of the battle–then you were well on your way to keeping her with you for good.’

‘The more he talked the less he noticed the noise, and they sat in a magic ring of quiet speech that no disturbance could enter.’

‘Not that he minded them drinking his stout. He expected it from Nottingham women who, he told himself, were cheeky-daft, and thought so much of themselves that they would drink your ale whether they liked your company or not.’

Check out all the neglected reads at Patti Abbott’s blog.

Guest Post: Patti Abbott

Shot in DetroitI’m happy to host Patti Abbott today to talk a little bit about the writing process behind her second novel SHOT IN DETROIT. The book has been generating a lot of buzz, building on the fine reputation of CONCRETE ANGEL.

BLURB: Violet Hart is a photographer who has always returned to cobble out a life for herself in the oddly womblike interiors of Detroit. Nearing forty, she’s keenly aware that the time for artistic recognition is running out. When her lover, Bill, a Detroit mortician, needs a photograph of a body, she agrees to takes the picture. It’s an artistic success and Violet is energized by the subject matter, persuading Bill to allow her to take pictures of some of his other “clients,” eventually settling on photographing young, black men.

When Violet’s new portfolio is launched, she quickly strikes a deal, agreeing to produce a dozen pictures with a short deadline, confident because dead bodies are commonplace in Detroit and she has access to the city’s most prominent mortician. These demands soon place Violet in the position of having to strain to meet her quota.

As time runs out, how will Violet come up with enough subjects to photograph without losing her soul or her life in the process? A riveting novel of psychological suspense, Patricia Abbott continues to cement herself as one of our very best writers of the darkness that lies within the human heart

Do you consider genre when you write? Did you write SHOT IN DETROIT as a crime novel? How about CONCRETE ANGEL?

I lack calculation, or perhaps better phrased as control, which is probably a bad thing for someone trying to find success in writing. I am a pantser rather than a planner. And when I sent Shot out for the first time (it was initially titled Raising the Dead) the very kind editor who agreed to read it, said, “My God, woman, forty pages have gone by without a body?” This was from Hard Case Crime and I clearly did not understand the demands of that genre. The body count in the their books is high and the bodies fall quickly. I should have been aware of it after reading many of their books. I should have calculated or exercised control over what I needed to succeed with them. But instead I went merrily along writing the book that I seemed to only work out on a subconscious level.

And as someone who does little planning or outlining, I also never think, “Hey, it’s time for another murder.” It may happen, but I never planned it. I am as surprised as a reader might be when it does, wondering when my character came up with that idea. When did he get so angry?

Getting back to the question of genre, when and how does a story find its way into genre fiction? If there is any murder at all in a novel, is it then crime fiction? Well, that would widen the gates considerably. We’d have to usher in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, THERESE RAQUIN. I would instead say that crime cannot be incidental to the plot in genre fiction. It has to be the focus of it. What we are most interested in, maybe even to the diminishment of character.

With Mr. Ardai’s critique in mind, I decided to begin the second novel, CONCRETE ANGEL, with a murder. But it’s a bit of a cheat because Eve Moran is not your typical murderer, and her first and only murder was an accident. But throughout the book she engages in most other crimes. A crime novel? I was not sure and called it domestic suspense. In many ways, her crimes are the result of mental illness. And if I was able to control or even outline a novel, I probably would have added another murder along the way. Her father might have made a good victim. Her husband?

Shot in Detroit veers even further from the definition of genre. We are not much interested in who killed the people who die in the book. Hopefully we are interested instead in what being around murder or death, in even being invested in it as a photographer, does to a woman like Violet Hart. How it both softens and hardens her over six months. But if twelve men die, it can rest easily on the shelves of crime fiction for me.

So have I written two genre novels? Are both crime novels? I would say yes.

Visit Patti’s blog for all kinds of interesting discussion, including her weekly round-up of Friday’s Forgotten Books.

FFB: The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes


THE EXPENDABLE MAN
Dorothy B. Hughes
NYRB Classics
Afterword by Walter Mosley

Synopsis: “It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Densmore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

This is a much too overlooked classic. Hughes is a master stylist and brings to vivid life the increasing precariousness of an innocent man surrounded by common evil, pervasive prejudice and good intentions gone very very wrong. In short it’s brilliant. As Sarah Weinman writes, “Hughes didn’t just pre-date Jim Thompson, she also pre-dated Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and other so-called Masters of Psychological Suspense or Noir. And her writing style stands up to the test of time.”

I’m writing an essay on the book for a special issue of the journal TEXT called “Crime Fiction and the Creative/Critical Nexus” so consider this just a preview of that longer piece. What I appreciate about this book — indeed most of Hughes’ writing — is her ability to subtly squeeze all the air out of a situation to make you and her protagonist squirm and begin to panic. Hugh Densmore has every reason to be a happy man, but a moment of kindness hurls him into a hell he cannot escape.

The book is an insightful exploration of American culture in the 1960s, a bubbling cauldron of conflicting notions of hope and destruction. As Walter Mosely notes in his afterword, “A white woman writing of a young black man’s problems with the law was certainly a kind of gamble” but she succeeds with “a poet’s eye for detail and feel for language.” Presumably she wasn’t a ex-war pilot serial killer either, but she embodies Dix Steele with a stark reality too. Hughes examines all the layers of racial interactions: there are outright bigots of course, but it’s all the nuances in between like the calculating law man who holds back his most rabid officers because, “this isn’t going to be any race affair” only because he doesn’t want to have to deal with “bleeding hearts” and the NAACP.

It’s not just the omnipresent undercurrent of racial tension that Hughes observes in Densmore’s story, but also the collisions caused by intersections of class and gender. He’s too conscious of the differences between his life and the woman he falls for at his sister’s wedding, her father a judge and her DC style much cooler than his own. Much as he longs for Ellen, he’s also afraid to put too much on her, feeling chivalrous for doing so. Like most of those who people noir tales, the young doctor makes foolish choices at times because he feels trapped by the limits of his situation. In Hughes’ hands we find his decisions entirely plausible even as we bite our nails waiting to see if things turn out as badly as we fear.

Check out the other overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog. Todd’s blog.

FFB: Highsmith – A Romance of the 1950s

Marijane Meaker’s memoir of her romance with Patricia Highsmith reads like one of her novels. Racy, pacy, fun – with characters larger than life. At times it’s hard to remember they’re real people. While Joan Schenkar’s fat biography covers a whole lot more, Meaker’s book offers the first hand insight and anecdotes that makes it sing.

Not that she spares herself: who but a real neurotic could make a go of things with the singular Highsmith? At times Meaker almost outpaces Ripley’s creator in the crazy stakes: obsessing madly and far too quick to start snooping and drawing wild assumptions. She admits that before they even met ‘Pat had become my idol’ so she worked up the courage to go across the bar and introduce herself to the woman who ‘looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolph Nureyev.’

Meaker doesn’t mention that she’s living with someone and quickly the two become mutually infatuated, soon living a folie à deux like…well, like two characters in a Highsmith novel. It’s clear Meaker is as much enamoured of the writer as the woman. She knows the restaurant where O. Henry wrote his stories, envies Highsmith’s literary friends, stalks some of her exes, and longs to write a hardcover book to get a little more literary credit. ‘It didn’t occur to me that I would lose Kit,’ Meaker writes, ‘I would lie, talk myself out of blame, something.’

But Highsmith was so open about her affection, it wasn’t something that could be hidden long — especially with all the drinking. While Pat cooked, Meaker would make her a “cooking drink” but mentions she also had her “dressing drinks” and “argument drinks” and “sleepless night drinks” as well. The drinking didn’t help. Nor did the fact that Meaker in her own words ‘let it all hang out’ which Highsmith found wounding at times.

Far too soon they decided not only to move in together, but to do so out in the wilds of the Pennsylvania countryside. There were the usual negotiations of living together with the added strangeness of country life after Manhattan’s swirl. They find ways to order their very different work habits but there are lots of little things:

‘I think it was also why she often left things unsaid: She didn’t want her mind cluttered with bad feelings. She knew anything she brought up…would be endlessly defended by me, with my working it around somehow so that Pat was to blame for whatever we were discussing. She would not have made a good debater. I was a champion.’

Or when discussing why only Highsmith’s cat Spider and not Meaker’s five brought rabbit carcasses to the door: ‘”Because Spider’s a natural killer. He’s a Highsmith.” It was supposed to be a joke.’ Ouch!

Not that Pat was any picnic: her drinking and her racism (and anti-Semitism seemed to take off to higher levels, slowly at first but then sharply as she seemed to feel trapped. The images of her sneering at Lorraine Hansberry and walking around the house trimming the plants with a switchblade while she grumbled. Meaker refuses to consider traveling abroad, but complains that ‘Pat always made me feel that I was holding her back.’

They almost break up several times, then cancel even as the movers fill the vans (rather comically, they have to keep looking for movers ever further away because they cannot face the same ones for yet another aborted move). Almost 30 years later they get together for a short visit. Highsmith has ossified in both her drinking and her misanthropy to a level that shocks Meaker despite what she’d heard.

This is a fun and interesting read, if more than a little cringe inducing at times because Meaker really does let it all hang out and two neurotic creators have some very creative madness. Oh, I didn’t even mention the letters from Highsmith’s mother — wow.  Fascinating!

Read all the overlooked gems at Patti’s blog.

FFB: The James Bond Dossier by Kingsley Amis

All the

Among the vintage Bond titles where I’m house-sitting, I found this volume which I had actually forgotten about. Signet packaged it the same as Fleming’s originals so they make a nice set.

2015-09-22 08.51.44

‘As a recently retired university teacher, I can’t help being slightly drawn by any form of writing that (like science fiction) reaches no part of its audience through compulsion. One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.’ Amis is a fan and it shows in his being most delightful and on his best behaviour throughout.

2015-09-25 07.23.04

I love the implication of sexy revelations — including the advert for Jan Cremer’s ‘scandalous’ tell-all of his sexual escapades.

The ToC promises more of the same; Amis sneaks in some Spillane for the Appendix on Sadism.

The ToC promises more of the same; Amis sneaks in some Spillane for the Appendix on Sadism.

Perhaps the best line in the book, which I like to quote ad infinitum, though I’d forgotten where I first got it, is ‘All literature is escapist.’

See all the overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s round-up.