So long, Elmore

Elmore Leonard died today.

This was the man who, in 1986, when I was fourteen, broke my crime fiction cherry with LaBrava. Joe, the ex-secret service agent, Jean, the faded movie star, the Miami backdrop – I loved every second and devoured it in one sitting.

I was late for school the next day due to that damn book, because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading it. And although my tardiness resulted in the threat of detention I couldn’t really hold it against the writer – he’d given me far too much enjoyment. In fact, I enjoyed LaBrava so much that I bought another four second-hand Elmore Leonard’s the next week – $wag, Stick, Glitz and Cat Chaser – and devoured every one of them.

Over the years I read more Elmore Leonard, a lot more, but kind of took his books for granted, too. They were always a pleasure to read (even the lesser ones), but for some reason, I would go long periods without reading him again. And for the life of me, I’m not sure why, because every time I did there would be the many pleasures of superb dialogue, sparely drawn yet fully rendered characters, controlled storytelling, and a great sense of humour (even when things got grim).

But it’s impossible to take him for granted any more because he’s gone and there’ll be no more trawls through the underworld with blue-collar crims and cops, all of who possessed the kind of patter that made you want to share a beer with them.

And that’s damn shame. My thoughts go out to his family.

So, I’m going to dig out an old copy of LaBrava, turn off the TV, sit back, listen to Maurice Zola spout off about Joe LaBrava’s photographs and let the story take hold.

So long, Elmore.

My Favourite crime novels No. 25

Dirty Snow – Georges Simenon

Not done one of these in ages, probably because I’ve not had the time. But here’s a stone-cold classic to make up for it.

As many of my regular readers will know I love Georges Simenon. His novels are a lesson in how to tell a good tale as leanly and meanly as possible. He is most famous for the Maigret police detective books, which are much harder and darker than their reputation might lead you to believe, but his reputation as a writer has been made by his roman durs, which are noir in everything but name. They scour the gutter and focus on societies’ rejects or, on quite a few occasions, they focus on those who, for whatever reason, drop out and reject society. Redemption is rare, happy endings rarer still.

And Dirty Snow is probably the apotheosis of this art. In that it is probably the darkest and nastiest of these books. Which is really saying something. It focuses on France during the occupation, and offers up an existence of hunger, poverty, and constant fear for normal folks trying to live their lives during WWII

However, the protagonist of Dirty Snow, Frank Friedmeyer, isn’t one of the normal folks. He’s one of the nastiest pieces of shit you will find in any kind of fiction. At nineteen, he’s already a pimp, a thug, and, as the novel begins, he’s just committed his first murder – of a fat officer from the occupying forces. He doesn’t commit it because of hatred, he doesn’t commit it because of fear, he does it for no other reason than because he wants to, and because he feels that now is as good a time as any to do it. He takes the officer’s gun, again because he wants to. And later, when he arranges to steal some watches for a General – for a lot of cash and a much sought after green card (which allows him to go anywhere) – he uses the gun to shoot an old woman who has the misfortune to recognise him during the robbery.

His one chance at redemption is Sissy, who for some reason sees something that nobody else can and falls in love with Frank, but even this he messes up when he sees the opportunity to use her love to his advantage with his ‘friend Kromer. (I use quotation marks because both men dislike each other, they just hang around together due to criminal connections).

Then Frank is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the occupying forces. The same elements that make him so wrong for the outside world (his lack of fear, of empathy, his coldness, and distrust of others), give him an edge inside. He doesn’t inform, he doesn’t compromise, and – by looking out of his window at a woman in a building across from the prison – he finds a spark of humanity.

Dirty Snow is one of those rare books that’s as dark and destructive as a black hole. It sucks away all light, all hope, and pushes the reader face first into the dark snow that builds up in the gutters.

It is also beautifully written in lean prose that strips away all the excess fat to find the meat and bone of the story beneath. Dirty Snow doesn’t waste words or paragraphs on things the story doesn’t need, it uses them to build a dark world that pulses with life.

Simenon tells the tale without sentimentality, and never resorts to cliché. In fact, it’s rare to find a book of his that does resort to clichés (for instance, Maigret isn’t a tortured soul with addictions and no home life, he’s a happily married man who does his job with distinction, even when he doesn’t like it). It presents the world to us and says this is how it is. If you don’t like it, look away, but this is how things are.

Even now, it stands up as a hostile, dark masterpiece.

Review: What it Was by George Pelecanos

I’m a big fan of the work of George Pelecanos. The DC Quartet is up there with James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet in my very humble opinion. He writes action as well as just about anybody in the business and his sense of plot is also top-tier. So when I had the chance to grab What It Was I didn’t hesitate.

Derek Strange, a regular Pelecanos player, recounts the story of Red Jones to another of his major players, Nick Stefanos. Jones is a bad-ass hard man who decides to light up the DC streets one hot summer in 1972 when he goes on a crime spree. The carnage begins when he shoots a wretched heroin-tester by the name of Bobby Odum and takes what little money he has along with a fancy-looking ring and some Roberta Flack tickets, both of which he gives to his girlfriend, a stunning, Amazonian madam called Coco Watkins.

Strange is dragged into it when he is hired by a maths tutor, with a serious set of curves and a story that doesn’t quite add up, to find the missing ring. At the same time a Detective Frank Vaughan, a former police partner of Strange, is investigating the murder of Odum. Both men end up chasing Jones and his equally ferocious partner, Alfonzo, as they cut a swathe through DC’s criminal element.

One thing I’ve always loved about Pelecanos is his attention to period detail – the clothes, the cars, the hair, and especially the music – without ever sacrificing the pace of the story. Which is why What It Was is something of a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad novel, in fact, I’m not sure Pelecanos is capable of writing a bad novel, but it’s not in the class of The Big Blowdown or King Suckerman, either. The problem here is that the period detail, once such a great servant of Pelecanos’ peerless plots, in places overwhelms the story. At one point, towards the end of the story, two major opposing characters end up at the Roberta Flack concert. This should have been the source of some serious tension, but Pelecanos instead drowns the setpiece in unnecessary detail about Robert Flack’s gig, and music, and loses momentum. In fact, it knocked me out of the story for several pages.

Another hefty paragraph earlier in the novel has Strange pondering the fact that he’s in the middle of a ‘cultural revolution that was happening’. Is anybody that self-aware about the time they’re living in? Possibly they are, but whilst the character is rather loaded with beers? That I’m not so sure about. It almost felt like the addition of detail for detail’s sake.

There are some other moments when the details feel too over-worked; like a master painter, and Pelecanos is a master, have no doubt, who obsesses over the details to the detriment of the overall canvas.

If this sounds like I’m slating the novel, I’m not; but Pelecanos is a writer who’s set such sky-high standards over the years that anything that doesn’t scale these heights will seem like a come-down. And, for me at least, What It Was is a real comedown from the heights of the DC Quartet or Drama City.

If you’re a new reader of Pelecanos then no doubt you’ll enjoy it, but if, like me, you’ve read some of his masterworks then you might feel, as I do, that this isn’t a great writer at the top of his form.

The joy of Ed McBain

Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter aka Salvatore Albert Lombino) is one of those writers who sometimes seems to get name-checked more than he seems to be read by some modern day crime fiction readers. Despite the fact that he gets into all the top ten crime greats lists there seem to be some folks out there (even in crime fiction circles) who know the name, and the rep, but not the books.

So, I’m telling you now, if you haven’t read McBain before then go and do yourself a favour, and buy one today – and then bloody well read it!

So, why should you read McBain over that flavour-of-the-month novelist whose book you’ve been gazing at on your shelf or Kindle list? Well, I’ll tell you.

For a start, McBain writes clean, pared down prose – he uses words rather than wastes them. Nobody is ever going to describe him as a master stylist (a la Raymond Chandler) but nor will they slate him as an empurpled adverb clown  (a la Dan Brown). And as anybody reading modern crime fiction will tell you, that clean pared-down style is currently very much in vogue. McBain’s prose measures up very well with these guys.

Secondly, like Simenon’s Maigret stories, the 87th Precinct mysteries are darker and stronger than you might anticipate, and are happy to get into the blood, the guts, and shit of a major metropolis. They’re happy to put readers into the mix with the criminals and scumbags. To paraphrase Chandler, they did a Hammett, and took crime out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. McBain used swear words, though sparingly. Quite a few of his tales were fairly violent. But he didn’t dwell on things, which is why he might be seen as tame by today’s gory standards.

Thirdly, are you after a fast-paced read? Well, hello… In the earlier books, McBain nearly always got his business done in under 200 pages (often well under). Even the later books weren’t doorstop fiction. He didn’t do bloated character-building moments. When he dealt with Carella, Kling, Meyer Meyer, or any of the other members of the 87th he wove their personal moments seamlessly into the plot – again, part of that no words wasted ethos he seemed to have ingrained into his DNA.

Ah, so you’re worried he might be dated? Obviously in this time of DNA and CSI the methods in the earlier novels might seem antiquated but any novel written of its time will date to a degree. Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Simenon, Thompson; the moment they mention some outdated argot, or recondite phrase, or mention an item of clothing, or a now ancient piece of technology, then that automatically places the stories in a time and a place. The same goes for McBain, but, like the rest of these guys, his stories deal with age-old human themes of murder, violence, heroism, love, hate, greed, lust, and, frankly, that stuff isn’t ever going to date (not while humans continue to populate this planet, anyway). Yes, I am aware that today’s literary police seem to need a maverick streak, a fatal flaw, or some kind of intellectual brilliance to succeed with modern day readers – but don’t you find all those mavericks a touch tiresome? Wouldn’t you prefer something different?

Well, the policemen and women of the 87th aren’t mavericks or intellectuals, they’re regular folks, which is why McBain is so bloody good. They’re  dedicated officers who put in legwork, are dogged, and work on hunches and feelings (backed up by the evidence). You like these guys because they’re just like us, rather than a band apart.

Lastly, and crucially in my opinion, his storytelling chops are spot on. He knows how to hook readers from the first line. He knows how to pace his tale just so. A lot of literary snobs like to put down writers like McBain and other popular authors because they dare to entertain, and have no illusions that what they produce is high art. Well, storytelling is an art and McBain is a damn fine practitioner, and if you pick up one of his novels I guarantee you that you will be entertained.

But where to start, right? After all, McBain wrote a lot of them. Well, Ice is a particular personal fave, along with Sadie When She Died and Shotgun. But why not start with the first one Cop Hater? It’s a tight, top-notch thriller and introduces the boys from the 87th in fine style.

Go on, what are you waiting for. If you haven’t read him before you’re in for a treat. And I envy you that first-time feeling of reading a future favourite author!

Loitering with intent!!

I was recently lucky enough to be asked to contribute to Eva Dolan’s excellent criminal classics season on her equally excellent Loitering with Intent blog. It covers literary classics that also double as really rather excellent crime novels too.

My contribution is here – it’s The Outsider by Albert Camus. And when you’ve finished reading mine I suggest you read the rest of them, because you’ll be missing out on some classics otherwise (a lot of far better writers than me can be found giving you the heads up on some brilliant and inspiring novels).

My Favourite Crime Novels – No. 20

Three To Kill – Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three To Kill is much like The Prone Gunman in that it’s a very cold, detached piece of work, as happy meticulously describing a stereo system as it is describing the characters that populate its pages – treating both as objects, in essence; objects that Manchette’s moves around the chessboard of his plot with chilly abandon. In fact, when Manchette describes Georges Gerfaut, the hero of the novel, he describes him in relation to the vehicle he is driving:

“Georges Gerfaut is a man under forty.  His car is a steel-gray Mercedes.  the leather upholstery is mahogany brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle’s interior.  As for Georges Gerfaut’s interior, it is somber and confused; a clutch of left-wing ideas may just be discerned.”

It turns out to be a very neat touch making Gerfaut a left-winger who has slowly but surely slipped into contented, though slightly bored, white-collar bourgeouis lifestyle. One night he is forced, more by social mores than out of concern, to help somebody who has been hurt in an accident – but it’s not an accident, a gunshot as it so happens. By doing this he sets in motion a chain of events that leads to him being pursued by two hitmen – despatched by a right-wing paramilitary who’s attempting to keep his identity a secret

Gerfaut responds by eventually killing one of them after several attempts on his life. Then he goes on the run, is attacked by a psychotic vagrant with a hammer, thrown off a train and ends up in the mountains, where he is taken in by, and becomes the friend with, an elderly bone-setter. The bone-setter teaches him how to hunt with guns, equipping Gerfaut with skills he’ll use in the final section of the novel.

When the bone-setter dies, his beautiful bourgeouis daughter turns up and inherits the place. Gerfaut makes a poorly judged pass at her and is rebuffed, but she keeps him on as a handyman. Later she returns and they start an affair. All the while, though, the second hitman is closing in on him, leading to a storming third-act.

Three To Kill is a superb piece of crime fiction but it’s more than that too. It’s a great example of Hemingway’s Iceberg theory in action; a lot of story, a lot of subtext is hidden well below the water-line of the main plot. Gerfaut is a classic consumer – the kind of person who loves his stereo and his lifestyle trappings as much as he loves his family – though he is able to cast off that lifestyle, and his family, without too much hardship. TTK also makes comments about people viewing their lives through the prism of popular culture: on a few occasions Gerfaut views his life almost as an outsider, relating his predicament to films he’s watched or books he has read. Both of these pieces of subtext are still relevant, if not more so, to readers today (I like to think if Manchette was alive today his heroes would be in thrall to the Church of Apple, drowning beneath the weight of their gadgets). Despite being a slim volume, this novel has a lot to say beneath the surface.

The beauty of Three To Kill is if you want to read it as just a thriller, you can – and a barnstorming one it is too – but if you want something deeper than that, it’s there too, just beneath the main text, if you care to look for it.

My favourite crime novels – No. 15b

The Glass Key – Dashiell Hammett’s fourth novel is arguably the most ambitious of his books. It works both as a traditional mystery and as a political thriller. It is also one of the finest novels about loyalty and friendship that you’re ever likely to find.

The hero, Ned Beaumont, investigates the death of a senator’s son not because he is a detective – he isn’t, he’s a political fixer for his boss and friend Paul Madvig – but out of loyalty. Initially Beaumont wants to use the murder to sink Senator Henry, but Madvig is in love with the senator’s daughter and wants him to do what he can to interrupt the investigation. From here it takes the reader on a lot of detours, false trails and political intrigue, and sends Beaumont on a chase for the victim’s hat (I won’t bother to explain, better for you to actually read the book).

The third person narration style that Hammett developed in The Maltese Falcon comes to its zenith here; the prose is tight, hard-boiled, camera-eye stuff (you never learn what a character is thinking), and the only physical descriptions (something Hammett was always brilliant at) are those that serve the novel, with not a word wasted. The character of Ned Beaumont was groundbreaking for the time. He’s an everyman, not a tough detective. He’s got brains but no luck. He’s got attitude but he’s not exactly handy with his fists (which explains the many beatings he gets during the course of the novel). He’s got loyalty to Madvig, but has enough moral ambiguity to take something that Madvig desperately wants from him before the novel is over. This is joint fifteenth with Falcon because it’s practically impossible to separate them – it’s just as brilliant. It should be compulsory reading for all those who are interested in crime fiction. And not because it’s a piece of hard-boiled ‘history’, but simply a bloody fantastic read.

My all-time favourite crime fiction writers (in no particular order):

Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.

Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.

Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.

Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.

James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.

Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.

Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any  crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!

Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.

There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.