Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pychon

At the tail-end of the 60s, as the peace and love generation have given way to something darker, Doc Sportello, a private detective with a serious penchant for soft drugs, is hired by an ex-girlfriend to look into the affairs of her current lover, a Californian millionaire real estate mogul, who she thinks is in trouble. At the same time he’s hired by an ex-con to look into the affairs of his former cell mate, and also by a woman who wants Sportello to look into the mysterious heroin related death of her husband. As the various strands weave together, Sportello realises that there are quite a few conspiracies going involving the authorities and an organisation called the Golden Fang.

Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Pynchon’s back-catalogue (barring Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day) and his stuff is nearly always about conspiracies, power struggles and abuses of power by those in charge. And Inherent Vice is no different in this respect. It has all the elements one should expect from Pynchon: crazy conspiracies, interweaving storylines, stupid character names, postmodern playfulness, made-up songs and lyrics, and some utterly ravishing prose, but it also has a tightness that has been missing from his work since Vineland (to which Inherent Vice seems like a prequel of sorts).

Whenever a well-known literary writer attempts hardboiled fiction the results can often seem like the worst sort of parody (ie. total shit), but Pynchon’s work straddles homage and originality beautifully. He knows his stuff, too. The use of multiple, seemingly different, cases that ultimately become one big case is the kind of thing that Ross MacDonald built his career on. Also, the use of lead characters who use drugs copiously makes Pynchon’s flights of fancy (a surf-pop band becoming ravenous zombies, for instance) work because you never really know whether these things are hallucinations caused by narcotics or by something else entirely. Also, Pynchon generally keeps his previous habit of using long, elaborate sentences well under control, replacing them with tight, hardboiled, declarative prose.

I enjoyed Inherent Vice immensely. In fact, it made me want to finally try and scale the vertiginous, and somewhat difficult, peak of Gravity’s Rainbow in the very near future. Highly recommended.

Review: Hogdoggin’ by Anthony Neil Smith

The sequel to Yellow Medicine finds Billy Lafitte, former police officer, suspected traitor, and full-time bad guy, riding with a biker gang led by the brutal and savvy giant Steel God. Lafitte has worked his way up to second in command and has God’s respect. But when a call comes in about his ex-wife, Lafitte decides to turn his back on the gang and go and find out exactly why he’s been called back.

Meanwhile, his nemesis, Agent Rome, an FBI agent with a serious grudge against Lafitte, is still trying to pursue his man despite being warned off the case by his employers and his wife. But Rome doesn’t listen and decides to use Lafitte’s emotionally fragile ex-wife as bait to lure him in.

After an ill-fated trip back to Yellow Medicine, Lafitte decides to get back to his family by any means possible, but things go increasingly wrong. Leading to his capture and torture by some idiotic rednecks.

When he decides to call on Steel God for help everything gets really bloody, leading to a showdown, and serious carnage, at a hotel surrounded by the police, with Agent Rome in tow.

Smith’s sequel improves on Yellow Medicine in a number of ways. Firstly, in dispensing with Lafitte’s first person narration it broadens the scope of the story. Rome is no longer the one dimensional FBI guy he appeared to be in the first novel – his run-in with Lafitte at the end of the YM has affected him both professionally and personally and his reasons for pursuing the man seem more believable this time around. Other characters get the opportunity to breathe and Smith does a good job of bringing them to life. Also, the use of multiple character perspectives propels the tale at a faster clip than the first novel managed, especially during the final chapters, which are superbly paced, and Smith’s muscular, clipped prose helps bring it all together in fine style. Fans of noir and hardboiled fiction will find plenty to enjoy here, but it’s written in such a way that fans of more ‘mainstream’ thrillers will get a kick out of it, too. Recommended.

Review: City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance

Anybody who has read this blog over the past year knows that I’m rather a big fan of Heath Lowrance. The Bastard Hand and Dig Ten Graves are up there with the best I have read this year, so I had high hopes for his latest crime thriller City of Heretics. I interviewed Heath in September about his new novel for this blog, which you can find here.

The story concerns Crowe; an ageing mob enforcer who is fresh out of prison with some scores to settle with some colleagues who got him sent up and tried to kill him. Before he can settle those scores Crowe attempts to find and take care of a serial killer. This leads Crowe to the front door of a strange and secretive Christian society with some very Old Testament notions about the word of God.

Heath Lowrance’s second novel is a different beast to The Bastard Hand. For a start, it’s a much tighter, shorter affair; the prose is leaner, the pace faster and the protagonist a whole lot meaner. Richard Stark’s Parker novels spring to mind when thinking about the feel of this book (the earlier novels, that is, not the later, weaker, ones). Lowrance paints some memorable images using very few words (particularly concerning the Ghost Cat – a dream figure that weaves its way through the novel). Also, his ear for dialogue remains as sharp as it did for TBH, though, again, the dialogue is shorter, more direct. What makes it really work is Crowe. He’s a hard-ass, a tough guy, a smart operator, ruthless and single-minded. He drives the tale forward, propelling it like rocket-fuel. Despite the beatings he takes, Crowe never gives up, never takes his eyes off the goal. He is a first-class character, a character most writers would love to have created. But, the thing is, they didn’t, Lowrance created him, along with a world that leaps off the page. It’s superbly written and confirms the abundant promise that The Bastard Hand announced to the world. Highly recommended.

Review: Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings

At the beginning of Beautiful, Naked and Dead Moses McGuire is one seriously damaged man. He’s in debt, works as a bouncer in a lapdancing bar, can’t afford alimony payments to his bitch of an ex and would rather eat a bullet than go on with this life. His suicide attempt is interrupted by his friend Kelly, a waitress at the club where he works, who leaves a message asking him for help. When he eventually catches up with her it is too late, she has been raped and murdered by persons unknown. He puts aside thoughts of suicide and replaces them with ones of revenge. Initially, McGuire thinks it may have been Russians but eventually the clues link her death to the Italian mob. The path leads him to Kelly’s sister, Cass, pornography, and some unpleasant gangsters who want to turn McGuire and the girl into target practice. But McGuire is tough to kill and an even tougher opponent to cross wits with and decides to hunt them instead. Leading to several bloody showdowns…

Man, Josh Stallings can write. Creating a good first-person voice is difficult to do (particularly if you misjudge the tone). Stallings gets McGuire’s voice spot-on from the get-go: a combination of Chandleresque asides and observations, spare but vivid scene-setting and a keen eye for nailing his characters dead-on (even the minor ones). Also, he’s no slouch at the action stuff, which comes in handy because there’s plenty of it, particularly later in the tale. On top of this compelling voice he builds a strong narrative that drives forward at ever increasing speed; not once does it flag. I raced through it in a couple of days, which seems to be a rarity for me nowadays (as my time is at a premium). If you fancy a top-notch read with zero flab then get yourself Beautiful, Naked and Dead today. You won’t regret it. It comes highly recommended.

Official announcement for my next novel, The Hunters

The Hunters, the first Stanton brothers novel/novella (at nigh on 41,000 words, it’s either a large novella or a short novel), will finally be released on Kindle on the 23rd January (and as a paperback in February). It will be the beginning of a series of novellas, novels and short stories featuring these characters. They will also cross over into several other writing projects that I’m currently undertaking (one of which features Mark Kandinsky, who makes a brief but memorable cameo in The Gamblers, wherein you will find out exactly where he got his bruises from {this will mean nothing to those who haven’t read my first book}). During its first month on release, The Hunters will be on special offer at $0.99 and 99p

A short story collection entitled The Greatest Show in Town and other stories, featuring five shorts about the brothers (along with two or three other stories that don’t feature them), will appear as a Kindle exclusive in February.

A shorter novella, tentatively titled The Glasgow Grin, is well underway and should make it into release later in 2012.

On top of working as a freelance crayon monkey, so that I can earn enough to pay for my food and rent, it’s going to be a very busy year for me.

My Favourite Crime Novels – No. 15a

The Maltese Falcon – How does one come back from a novel that, in terms on quality, was a bit of a flop. Well, in Dashiell Hammett’s case you turn round and write one of the greatest crime novels ever. Hammett followed up the only duffer in his back catalogue, The Dain Curse (which isn’t a bad novel, not by any means, it just isn’t a patch on Red Harvest), with The Maltese Falcon. Written in highly cinematic prose, which gives no indication of what the characters are thinking other than via facial expressions, it tells of… Well, you probably know the story by now, so there’s no need for me to recount it here, and if you haven’t I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It also introduces in Sam Spade the archetype for every detective who followed in his wake. However, unlike many of the detectives who followed in his wake, Spade isn’t a good guy. In fact, if he wasn’t a detective he’d probably be a bad guy. He manipulates, happily sleeps with his business partner’s wife and has a very flexible approach to the law. The one thing that keeps him relatively straight is his code of ethics, which he reveals at the very end. It’s brilliant stuff. And on level par with the next book in my list, another Hammett, The Glass Key.

The Ten Commandments of Noir

People often mistake noir fiction for hard-boiled fiction, and it’s an easy mistake to make for the uninitiated – as they both travel similar territory. The difference, as always, is how they travel it. The ten commandments below will help you avoid making that mistake in future. Let’s just say that Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis and James Ellroy are noir whilst Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark are hard-boiled. All will be explained below:

1) Your main characters do not have to be likeable: In fact, if you want to be ultra-purist about it your main characters should not be likeable. David Goodis’ characters rarely broach anything even approaching likeability: wretched and whiny and too full of self-doubt and self-pity to ever rise above the gutter they are lying in. One of the best reviews (not actually written, sadly) of my book describes Kandinsky (ostensibly the main character of The Gamblers) as ‘the lesser of many cunts’. You have no idea how pleased that made me. You can empathise with the main characters, or even understand, but you don’t have to like them. This rule can be broken, obviously, and works well to ironic effect.

2) They are doomed: Any noir worth its salt knows that the main characters are doomed from the very beginning. They may survive at the end but they should still be doomed – damned by the very flaws that got them into their mess in the first place. No matter how clever a character thinks he is (and the main characters in noir are nearly always men) he will always be tripped up by his own greed, pride, self-pity and venality. If your main character survives at the end, or has a glimmer of hope, it ain’t noir, it’s hard-boiled. If it has to be summed up in a sentence then this encapsulates it perfectly: Life’s shit and then you die.

3) It doesn’t have to be a thriller: Noir fiction doesn’t have to be a thriller. The fact that more than 90% of noir are thrillers is neither here nor there, they don’t have to be. David Goodis’ The Blonde on the Street Corner is pure noir (the lead character is a truly pathetic self-pitying loser, who might have something approaching a life if he wasn’t so willing to give up when things get tough); his moment with the titular blonde at the end might have been a defining moment in any other novel but in this one it’s just simply another moment on the slide to damnation.

4) It should be a one-off (at the very most two): If you’re writing a series of novels then it ain’t noir it’s hard-boiled. See Commandment 2 for the reason why.

5) It should trawl the gutter: Noir isn’t about sparkly fucking vampires or boy wizards and it sure as hell isn’t a Cozy mystery. Noir protagonists are often ordinary, though deeply flawed, people, but the situations they are in are usually extraordinary and usually stretch them to breaking point, or break them completely. The only way to do that is to send them trawling around the gutter. Indebted to loan sharks; addicted to substances or gambling; in love with the wrong woman; or loving the right woman, but being too weak to leave the wrong woman (or alternatively, to change his ways). In many cases noir is just the stuff of real life but with a better plotline.

6) Irony: Noir endings don’t have to be ironic, but it helps. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and The Getaway are classic examples of the ironic ending. The main characters get what they wanted only to find that this is what will destroy them. Leading nicely on to…

7) Sometimes what you want is not what you need: Often, a good noir will have the main protagonists chasing a dream (be it money, woman, power, or some other vain hope) only to find that once they have it it brings them little comfort, or leads to their damnation. If they’re still alive at the end, and if they’re halfway smart, they may realise this.

8 Nothing is ever what it seems: The sweet-natured girl with pretty smile; the best friend you’ve known for years; the decent dim-witted sheriff/police officer; the scarlet harlot; all will probably have a skeleton in the closet – watch out for ’em!

9) It won’t be pretty: Noir isn’t for the faint of heart. Often, a decent character (they do exist in noir) will do a bad thing for a good reason and it will lead to more bad things and inevitably to their destruction/damnation. Watching this unfold won’t be pretty and may lead to frustration for readers. It’s the main reason why noir doesn’t sell as well as hard-boiled fiction. The hard-boiled hero/heroine can ride off into the sunset with their beloved – the noir protagonist never will. Get used to it!

10) A good enough writer can bend or break most (but not all) of these commandments! If you’re a reader of these rule breakers then I congratulate you, as you’re probably reading a stone-cold classic!

Suggested reading for those unfamiliar with noir (you lucky things, you have it all to look forward to): The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, Shoot The Piano Player and The LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz).