Potted reviews – Fatale, Knockemstiff and The Wheelman

Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Hitwoman Aimee Joubert heads to Bléville and causes trouble by using an impoverished Baron to help her turn the town’s inhabitants against one another so that she can undertake a dastardly plan. As with all good Manchette novels, a lot of carnage ensues.

Fatale feels in a sense like a more subversive play on Hammett’s Red Harvest, which was fairly subversive itself. The Blé in Bléville apparently means wheat or the dough that’s made from it. Dough is obviously an Americanism for money – Moneyville, in other words. It feels kind of like Poisonville (which is the nickname of Personville, the town in Red Harvest). The heroine also plays the various sides against each other in a similar way to the Continental Op and both novels have a similarly jaundiced worldview and large amounts of bloodshed. It’s a weaker novel than both Three To Kill and The Prone Gunman, but considering they’re out-and-out works of genius and this is merely excellent there’s no shame in that. It is incredibly readable and comes highly recommended

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray PollockKnockemstiff is a short story collection set in and around the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. The stories range from incredibly sad to funny and most of them are as black as a mineshaft at midnight. Pollock’s prose is as lean as a racing greyhound and just as nippy. Some of the characters from one story reappear in another (or get name checked). There isn’t a duffer amongst them and at their best (Knockemstiff and Honolulu, in particular) they damn near took my breath away. Go out and buy it straight away – you won’t be sorry.

The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski – Lennon is a mute Irish getaway driver who finds that getting out of Philadelphia is a lot more difficult than he had anticipated. He finds himself pursued by the Russian Mafia, the Italian Mob, an ex-policeman and various other criminals, all falling over each other to get their hands on $650,000 of loot.

This is the first Swierczynski novel that I’ve read but it won’t be the last. It’s a cartoon romp that’s almost too tricky for its own good at times, but it is also a damn fine piece of entertainment that races by at an astonishing pace. It has some excellent moments of black comedy along with some nicely written set-pieces. If you like heist capers you’ll really enjoy this.

My favourite crime novels – part one

I was thinking about a top-ten list of favourite crime novels recently and jotted them down on a notepad. They are in no particular order of preference. Some may have been covered in previous lists, but I’m trying to keep the list fresh.

1) The Laughing Policeman – The fourth in the series of Martin Beck novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö has probably the most ironic book title in crime fiction history. Beck and his team investigate a massacre on a bus in Stockholm, and find that one of their own has also been killed in what appears to be a meaningless slaughter. The pacing is superb, the writing spare and the ending is a marvel – the one moment where Beck does laugh, though not through amusement I might add.

2) Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett’s first novel might not be his best (a tie between The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key) but it’s certainly my personal favourite. The action is relentless and the storyline is anarchic. The Continental Op is brought into a town by a client who is murdered. He then realises why he was brought in by the client and proceeds to clean up the town by turning the various factions running the place against each other. The body count is high and Hammett’s camera-eye prose captures it all without a wasted word. Brilliant.

3) The Long Goodbye – Choosing between this and Farewell, My Lovely is a difficult one. I’m only going for The Long Goodbye because it contains some of Raymond Chandler’s finest prose and his most acerbic comments about humanity, friendship and the nature of the world. In many senses it is also the closest that Chandler comes to noir. By the end of the novel Philip Marlowe has spurned a woman who is besotted with him, has pretty much lost his one ally in the police force and has little in life to look forward to; the only thing he has is himself and he doesn’t really seem too happy about that. The following novel, Playback, probably the lightest and slightest of Chandler’s works, seems to almost be an apology for The Long Goodbye. But there’s nothing to apologise for – it’s a brilliant piece of work.

4) The Last Good Kiss – James Crumley’s superb hardboiled mystery has one of the finest opening paragraphs in all of crime fiction:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

And it goes on from there brilliantly. TLGK starts with private eye C W Sughrue tracking down Abraham Trahearne, a writer out on a bender, and leads into the search for a girl who has been missing in San Francisco for a decade. It almost feels like a distillation of the work of Ross MacDonald – an initial case which leads into another case involving family intrigue – but the prose is more incisive and the detective is harsher and less forgiving of human foibles than MacDonald’s Lew Archer. It’s a fantastic piece of work and if there was any justice in the world Crumley would sell far more novels than the Jeffrey Archers and Dan Browns of this world.

5) The Friends of Eddie Coyle – George V Higgins’ debut novel is a marvel of concision; there are literally no wasted words. Bare prose descriptions are merely a framework for some of the finest dialogue ever to be put on the page by anybody (including Elmore Leonard). The story is told in the dialogue, including backstory, and concerns arms deals, armed robberies, affable but ultimately deadly hitmen and Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle who is as tragic a protagonist as you’re likely to get in a noir. He tries to dig himself out of a hole, only to find out that he’s digging an even bigger hole, a fact he doesn’t really discover until the very end. The whole thing is pure noir, but it feels lighter because Higgins presents everything with such matter-of-fact brilliance. In fact, the damn thing is so good that Higgins spent the rest of his career trying to live up to it.

Part 2 to follow…

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.