Friday, August 30, 2013

Hill Girl

Charles Williams
Hill Girl

Gold Medal, 1951

A part of Forgotten Books Friday

Bob Crane after college comes back home to the farm inherited from his late grandfather. Bob’s father nicknamed the Major did not leave the youngest son a cent , but had written everything to his oldest, Lee. While Bob was away, Lee married a patient girl whom he had known since high school, though hadn’t started to do something serious with his life. He remained the same drunkard and womanizer like he had always been. Family life hadn’t brought him to reason.

Soon after meeting after a long separation, the brothers immediately make a journey to the farm of a local hunter Sam, who moonshines selling whiskey under the counter. Buy a jar of whiskey is just an excuse to go to Sam's house. He has an older daughter, Angelina, who the farmer hides from the men's eyes better than his whiskey from the eyes of the sheriff .

«So this was Angelina. This was the scrawny little girl with the thin arms and legs and chapped knees and the wide, frightened brown eyes I remembered. I felt myself growing uncomfortable and tried to take my eyes off her.

It wasn't that she had grown so much. She wasn't big, even now. But it was as if she had received twenty-five pounds or so in the mail with instructions to put it on where she thought she needed it most.»

Lee has already heard about the 18-year-old angel, who lives as in prison, and intends to do more than just stare at her. Younger brother warns him than nothing good will come out from the affair with the hill girl, but the older brother isn’t listening. And nothing good really will come.

The debut novel by Charles Williams is a successful blend of noir fiction and the Southern fiction. After the first visit to the farm to Angelina and her father it becomes clear where things will go, and you should only watch as Williams is unfolding this play in rural scenery. Bob Crane is hardly a typical noir hero: he's not very good-looking, large, sharp-tongued, but with a bright head on his shoulders and a clear conscience. And it is his rackety brother, who will only brings problems and try to drag the protagonist to the bottom.

Details of the novel, I should say, are a little dated: several plot twists are entirely of this kind that another five years, and the whole structure of the novel would have ceased to have sense at all. But this should not be an obstacle to get the pleasure out of reading this book.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Sour Lemon Score

Richard Stark
The Sour Lemon Score

Gold Medal, 1969

A part of Forgotten Books Friday

Parker and three accomplices robs the bank and then go to an abandoned farm, where they have to sit out and share the loot. In the house one of the accomplices, George Uhl, kills two others and almost kills Parker, but Parker manages to jump out of the window, however, losing his gun. Hiding in the woods, Parker, unarmed, can only watch as Uhl sets fire to the house and one of the cars, and leaves on the other.

Parker gets to the town, where there was a robbery, asks Claire to wire him money and leaves twon. Parker needs to find the son of a bitch Uhl and pick up the share that belongs to Parker. The search is complicated by the fact that Uhl is relatively new in the game, he was only in for six robberies and no one really knows him or anything about him.

This is a solid Parker novel, at the same time an example of that Parker has mellowed in Gold Medal books. For example, moneyless and gunless Parker does not have to rob and steal: Claire wires him money. He even buys, not steal cars. Or take a truth serum, first used on Parker and then by Parker. What are the chances that Parker would use serum instead of fists? This serum is clearly from the repertoire of Westlake, not Stark. I wil be silent about the finale, when Parker catches Uhl (spoiler, yeah, but this review is written for those who have already read the book).

If you do not pay attention to these "soft spots" then The Sour Lemon Score is quite a solid read. The plot has a few borrowings from the previous books, but it’s not really a shortcoming.

The Sour Lemon Score is often regarded as the best of the four Gold Medal Parkers, but I will name the best The Green Eagle Score, more unexpected and more violent book.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Alissa Nutting

Ecco, 2013

26-year-old Celeste Price is the owner of the doll looks and a mind of a sex predator. She is married to a rich cop because of money, but she does not become a passive housewife, cooking dinner for husband every day, but found work as an English teacher in school. Celeste is looking forward to the start of the school year, when she will be able to start teaching at the eighth grade. School for Celeste means that she will be close to the 14-year-olds - the object of her desire. Sexual desires of the young teacher are reduced exclusively to young bodies. A 14-year-old boy had not yet grown up to become a man, but is able to satisfy an insatiable woman like Celeste.

Celeste teaches, barely holding back the desire during the class, so after class she has to immediately masturbate as an auditorium still has a smell of young bodies. The narrator is a good teacher, but the school is only a means for her. Being a good teacher just means being employed, and therefore she can continue to have access to teenage bodies. Predator with a perfect face and body, however, she is very careful: she selects a victim of only one young man, shy Jack. Once have choosen him as a lover (if the definition is appropriate), Celeste several times watches Jack out of her car, parked outside of the Jack’s house, where he lives with his father.

«Focusing the binoculars, I gleaned what I could through windows. Many of the blinds were closed, but the square of frosted glass on the home's left side told me the location of a downstairs bathroom. The living room's light was on, though its couch appeared unoccupied-perhaps Jack was home alone? I didn't know him well enough yet to risk knocking on the door and saying hello; if he reacted badly or questions were raised the wrong way, it would blow everything-although he was the clear standout of his classmates, I reminded myself that he could still prove to be a dead end. It wasn't worth it to do anything risky. There was a flash of light in one of the back windows and I focused in further, suddenly letting out a long sigh of gratitude at my luck: there he was sitting in front of a television, low to the ground in a beanbag chair-another bright flash confirmed it was him. His alert posture and proximity to the TV suggested he was playing a video game rather than watching a program. I tried to zoom in further, but the lenses were already at maximum view.

Although a passerby would have had to press his nose fully against my car's tinted window in order to see inside, masturbating in public with no cover seemed inelegant. I grabbed the towel, unfolding it across my lap as though I were about to eat a personal picnic, then slid down my running shorts beneath it. Unsticking my legs from the seat, I expertly opened them into position-since they would immediately bond with the hot leather of the car's seat and fix themselves in place, it was important that my orgasm wouldn't require any thigh movement. It took me just a moment to perfectly balance the binoculars in my left hand and steady the vibrator in my right. But just as I was about to begin, I heard voices; looking up from the binoculars I saw two power-walking women turn the corner, swinging hand weights.»

Soon Celeste advances from innocent flirting with a young man to the sex games. Shy Jack gradually loosens up, looking forward to almost daily meetings with the teacher. The place of comfort couple chooses for its games is Jack's house - the boy's father is always working at day, and Celeste and Jack has plenty of time to have sophisticated sex.

Alissa Nutting has written a provocative novel, full of the detailed descriptions of sex with teenagers. Without them, perhaps, it would be impossible to write it, the degree of obsession of the protagonist would not be easy to realize. The novel certainly has undergone numerous accusations, still, because the book is about the teacher-pedophile. There is nothing frightening in this: we've already read books written in the first person about hired killers, pimps, gangsters, terrorists etc. Surely there is a place in literature for pedophile as well. (The word "pedophile", though, is mentioned only closer to the ending of the novel.)

Generally, Tampa can be considered as neo-noir. The heroine is doomed to an unenviable fate from the start, and holding one’s breath, one can only watch as Celeste will make mistakes. The novel could easily have been published in some softcore paperback series in the sixties, if the author to lower the tone to an acceptable in descriptions of sex and to change the ending a little bit.

The novel is written in first person, so the reader can be better able to immerse himself into the consciousness of a sex predator. Wherever she would be, her thoughts are just about young bodies. The phrase "thinking with your genitals" is just about Celeste. Do not look for the causes of the behavior of the protagonist: Nutting focuses on the here and now. Celeste just remained forever a little girl who liked the sex with her peers. That is why the finalу disappointes at first, but, if you think longer, looks quite fair after all. The worst punishment for such a predator is her own body that will age over time.

Behind the controversial theme is hidden brilliantly written prose, which, however, will not leave anyone indifferent.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Purgatory Chasm

Steve Ufelder
Purgatory Chasm

Minotaur Books, 2011

Former alcoholics have to help each other. This is the motto for Conway Sax, a former alcoholic and drug addict, a former race car driver and now a car mechanic who dreams of his own garage. Conway belongs to the anonymous group Barnburners: if one Barnburner is in trouble, the other Barnburner has to come to the rescue. So Tander Phigg, the son of the late local magnate, comes to Conway for help. Phigg’s given his car to be repaired to a body shop, but it's been a few months, but there is no result – a vintage Mercedes is still in the body shop. Phigg asks Conway to return to him the car and the money given for the job.

But after the first visit to the body shop Conway stumbles upon a surly owner, and gets a blow to the head with something heavy. Phigg soon is found hanged in his shack, but Conway won’t stop until he finds out what's what. Even dead Barnburners need help.

Sax is an unexpected hybrid of amateur detective and a private investigator with the profession of a mechanic. Sax is not the smartest of the detectives in the world literature: he knows how to survive on the street, but may not know a particular word or its pronunciation. The guy is just a mechanic trying to build a family and start his own business. Selecting such a narrator, not the brightest head, Steve Ufelder tricks the reader making one believe as if the author himself is not smart. And former profession of the narrator, race car driver, even hints that there will not be any investigation, and all will come down to race at high speeds and fist fights.

After leading the reader by the nose for half a novel, Ufelder gradually pulls rabbits from the hat - one by one. Multiple story lines begin to connect into one, the number of twists is growing exponentially, and the finale in general leads to believe that the mechanics are the most insightful people on earth.

In addition to entertaining plot, Ufelder catches a wave which a little town lives on, where the events of the book take place. And the little people are capable of great crimes.

Purgatory Chasm has a few stylistic imperfections, not including typos. For example, Ufelder clunky switches from the dialogue to the first person narration. This is evident in the dialogues Sax has with new characters Sachs had just met and who share their life stories. Ufelder does not let a character to speak out, replacing character words with Sax’s. And it looks, as if Sax reads dossier of one or another character from a sheet of paper.

Purgatory Chasm is able to pleasantly surprise. Isn’t it what we expect from literature - to surprise us?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Silent Wife

A.S.A. Harrison
The Silent Wife

Penguin Books, 2013

The novel is set in Detroit, Michigan. In alternating chapters, from the point of view of the wife and the husband, the novel tells the story of a failing marriage that lasted 20 years. Jodi Brett is a psychotherapist, 45 years old, young-looking, quiet, silent, in fact, as says the novel's title. From the first pages we are already told that in a few months this fragile woman becomes a killer of her husband.

Jodi likes to be the mistress of the house, keeper of the hearth. She cooks dinner for her husband when he comes home from work, she knows his habits. Jodi is responsible for the food, her husband, Todd Gilbert, - for the preparation of cocktails. They take turns walking a dog by the name of Freud, a frequent subject of jokes. Todd is the earner in the family: he is a professional renovator of buildings, he has his own stable business. He rose from the bottom performing once all repairs by hand. After the first successful project Todd was able to go up the ladder and became his own boss.
Jody practices at home, while her husband at work, Todd brings a stable money into the house, the couple live in a spacious condo, they are financially fine. But the thing is that Todd regularly cheats on his wife (started to cheat almost immediately after they got together), and she turns a blind eye to it. She already knows how to find the signs by which one can determine whether a husband had been with someone or not. Jodi never reproached her husband, never tried to reason with him or stop him sleeping around. She learned to tolerate these betrayals, not pay them much attention, while her husband comes home to her. They are comfortable together, they form a family, but for 20 years they had no children. The state of things in the family is broken when Todd makes his 21-year-old lover Natasha pregnant.

The Silent Wife is called by the publisher a psychological thriller. Such a definition is only half true. The novel lacks any elements thriller should have: yes, there is a violent death, but not all the books, where someone is killed, can be called a thriller. The killer and the victim are called at the beginning, and there won’t be surprises about that (although this does not mean that the book really has no twists). There won’t be surprises, but the essence is not in them. The Silent Wife is an anatomy of a marriage, study of the relationship between the two people forming a single family. Why did not marriage work and why did it last for 20 years - these are the main questions the novel asks. What are the elements of a character the couple should have similar, and what should be different for a man and a woman to be able to hold for each other for two decades? Reading the novel, you notice that the marriage is not about love, the word "love" is almost not mentioned here. And you can notice on the example of Todd and Natasha that, maybe, if there is love, the marriage will not work. Anyway, man and woman have different concepts of love.

If the word "thriller" is confusing, "psychological" played out in two ways. The novel offers a look at the characters from different angles, so we can try to understand the motives of Jodi and Todd.

In this story, there are no positive and negative characters. It will not work - to blame Todd or hate Jodi for her act. Both he and she are not the most positive people. They're hard to love: the victim will be a predator, betrayer – a victim. The author focuses more on Jodi, but in the second half of the novel we learn more about Todd and more understand his inner self.

But "psychological" speaks not only about the psychological side of the book, but also about the profession of the heroine. The novel will show plenty of discussion about the theories of Freud, Jung and their followers. Jodi, as a psychologist, will analyze herself. Hence the second layer of the novel, on top of domestic one.

The Silent Wife reads quickly, but does not give quick answers. Silence is gold, but it can be Midas’ gold.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Killer is Loose

Gil Brewer
A Killer is Loose

Gold Medal, 1954

The plot summary could be described within the three sentenses - even one, that is the title of the book. And obviously, the plot is not the most important here. It’s enough to know that the book includes a loser with a pregnant wife, empty pockets, barely seeing eye, and a psychopathic killer, whom almost until the very end we know nothing about.

Brewer feeds us the details of a psychopath in small portions, to keep us hooked. The book is a good illustration of the fact that even the most miserable existence can turn into a complete nightmare in one instant, though it’s impossible to think that things might be even worse.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m just telling you thanks. You saved my life. We’re buddies now, pal.”

Monday, August 5, 2013


Mark Slouka

Norton, 2013

Brewster from the title of the book is a town where the action takes place in the late '60s. Jon Mosher, the narrator, is a lonely teenager with no friends and special interests. The younger brothe rof Jon, Aaron, died as a baby, and now the parents seem to not notice their eldest living son. They do not call Jon by the name, are not interested in his affairs, do not allow him to go into his brother’s room and touched his brother's things, but also they do not show aggression toward the boy, too.

The main character of the book recalls the events of a few years, when Jon began to study in high school and found his friends. About Jon and his friends: Ray, Frank and Karen we will know more along the way. 16-year-old Jon meets with Ray and Frank, it all starts with conversations, long walks, drinking beer at the lake. Jon learns that Ray's father is an ex-cop. Ray's mother ran away, leaving two children, Ray and his younger brother, Gene.

The book starts so far away, the author seemed to spread out his narrative lens, you do not know what it is going on, and it is not exciting, to be honest. Another American town, another company of teenagers. All American small towns are alike, and all the teenagers as well. But as the story unfolds, Slouka finds the correct angle, his narrative lens clear, and the main plot directions thickens.
Then it becomes clear that all will end badly, that there will be victims, and this is where the book grabs you by the throat. After a foggy start every word and every sentence are becoming full of sense. The style of the book is very scratchy and raw, in the manner of American authors as Fante and Selby. Language is very physiological, because of that the book events are even closer to the reader. Slouka is not trying to stick any artificiality, he uses language in its most low-lying level, close to the bone.

The dialogues are written in a colloquial style, with rudeness, but the violence as such is almost taken out of the scope of the book. Violence is so terrible here that the protagonist does not even dare to write about it. There are no descriptions of violence, but you feel it there.

Bare language is perhaps what distinguishes this novel from dozens of others like it. Finale is so powerful that it took my breath away, I do not remember when a book’s end did that to me the last time (Ford’s Canada does not have this powerful a final, although Ford, of course, is better writer). This effect is again due to the style, but the author worked also on the composition, too.

Slouka had written a powerful novel about mistakes and consequences, a novel which is rough, raw, but that grabs you by the throat.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Dame

Richard Stark
The Dame

University Of Chicago Press, 2012
(originally published in 1969)

Alan Grofield, an actor, a professional thief, and - sometimes – a partner of Parker, arrives in Puerto Rico to provide a certain service as a favor to a recent acquaintance. Grofield rents a car and follows the instructions on a piece of paper traveling to a remote ranch where Grofield meets surly middle-aged woman keeping a secret, why would she need a holder of certain skills as Grofield. The thief is not going to play the game: he leaves to go back to the airport, but after meeting with several mobsters returns to the inhospitable hostess, threatening her with a pistol, demanding from her to tell what's going on. The lady says that Grofield’s services are no longer needed, and promises to send him back in the morning. But by the morning the lady is dead, and then there is her husband, mobster, with the conviction that his favorite, but soon-to-be ex-wife has been killed by Grofield. The actor and the thief would have to convince the angry husband that the lady was not killed by him, but one of her guests.

The Dame was written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, although Westlake could easily put his own name on the cover. It was enough to give the hero a new name instead of Grofield, throw away anything that links books about Grofield with books about Parker. As a result, The Dame is what would happen if you connect Westlake’s hard-boiled early novels with his later humorous books. Grofield here is a kind of Poirot with thieving propensities (I wanted to write - with a criminal record, but Grofield has never been caught by the police), and a developed sense of humor.

The tone of the novel is very lightweight and a little reminiscent of the style of the Parker novels, even the familiar four-part structure of the novel is broken. The book is written without dividing into parts, and the plot is a straight line, without the usual Parker's flashbacks and changes of perspective.

Compared with the Parker novels, this is not entirely successful. But Westlake did not write bad books, so The Dame is plenty of fun, after all.

The Midnight Promise

Zane Lovitt
The Midnight Promise

Europa Editions, 2013

John Dorn is a lonely private detective who lives in Melbourne. He certainly is a heir to Marlowe and his contemporaries: Dorn lives in his own office, drinks heavy, suffers from being lonely, takes not promising money cases. But Dorn at the same time is our contemporary, not a figure frozen in the past; fedora on his head, the joke on the lip, a gun in his pocket. All the stories in the collection are written in the present tense, and it's just a sign that Dorn is here and now, this is what happens to us. Present tense is a literary device. One story flows into the other, forming a novel in stories, rather than a collection of stories. Each story is a separate case, and all the stories here are in chronological order. With each turn of the page reality is changing for the worse: things are becoming more disturbing and hopeless, and Dorn's life is becoming more and more miserable.

Typically, a private detective is a knight with morality and conscience that prevents his sleep at night. Private eye is the embodiment of a doer, who commits acts to prevent something bad or bringing to justice those who committed this bad. So the stories about private detectives are often written in the past tense: work is done, time for fun. The detective solved a crime, boasted about it, and this boast of a certain kind usually becomes a short story. For John Dorn this is not so. He is also suffering from the pangs of conscience, but he is often non-doer, who refuses, and with his inaction he saves himself and his client. You’d hardly call Dorn a coward (he is against psychopaths and armed private investigators bending the law here), but he can not be called brave, either.

The Midnight Promise offers a ruthless view of modern Australia, about which we know a little, and private investigators from green continent are almost never seen.

Undoubtedly, 99 percent of stories about private detectives are the opposite of noir. The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt is just this one percent, the name of the series World Noir is telling the truth. Do not promise what you can not do.