Friday, September 21, 2018

FFB: Stool Pigeon by Louis Malley

A man sitting in his car in New York’s Little Italy is shot to death and police Detective Vincent Milazzo is assigned to the case, in Louis Malley’s 1953 novel, Stool Pigeon.

Detective Milazzo, who grew up in the neighborhood, joined the police department, made good, and got promoted to detective, now needs to find a stool pigeon to break this case. But the neighborhood is traditionally wary of talking to the police. Even though Milazzo is one of them, his choice of profession makes him an outsider.

The dead man is part of a pornography racket luring young women, making sure they are soon broke, then sending them into clubs and onto the street to earn for them. These gangsters have mob connections and may even have powerful members of the police force protecting them. Milazzo finds himself up against the old neighborhood, organized crime, and his own department.

Louis Malley obviously knew how the mob and the cops operated in his era. He uses that knowledge and creates some fine character studies in this suspenseful, fast-paced novel. Every page of Stool Pigeon feels real and true.

Little is written about Louis Malley, other than he was born and raised in New York City and he published four novels: Horns for the Devil, 1951, (reviewed here) which was later republished as Shadow of the Mafia; Stool Pigeon, 1953, later republished as Shakedown Strip; Tiger in the Streets, 1957; and The Love Mill, 1961.

According to court records and a newspaper report, Malley was shot and killed in 1962 at age 40.

Today, Malley’s novels are hard to find, but Stark House Press plans to bring out Stool Pigeon as one of its Black Gat Books.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

FFB: Dark Hazard by W.R. Burnett

The surprise read of the summer was W.R. Burnett’s 1933 novel, Dark Hazard. I fully expected to enjoy what I thought would be another tough-guy yarn filled with gangsters and gun molls. After all, Burnett made a splash with his first novel, Little Caesar, and went on to write other books populated by the underworld, like High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle.

Burnett knew his characters and the worlds in which they lived, and he wrote about them in a clean, hard style. But what surprised me was finding Dark Hazard had a soft heart.

It is the story of Jim Turner, once a high-stakes gambler and race-track regular who has fallen on hard times. It is winter, 1928 and he is making ends meet working as a night clerk at a third-rate Chicago hotel. He has a new, straight-laced wife who knows his past and is happy to see him making an honest – if poorly paid – living. The dull job is driving Jim nuts.

In a great twist, Jim meets a gambler who operates on an even larger scale than Jim ever did in his heyday. The gambler owns an interest in a dog track near Los Angeles and hires Jim to go out there and keep an eye on the operation. Jim jumps at the chance to leave wintery Chicago for sunny California.

At first his wife is happy out there. Then, two things happen. Jim, who swore off gambling for her, starts betting on the greyhounds. And Jim falls in love. He loses his heart to a champion dog named Dark Hazard. The more into dog racing Jim gets, the more he wants to buy and race Dark Hazard. His wife is not happy about any of these developments, nor about Jim’s new friends, a bunch of West Coast gamblers and sharpies.

The story follows Jim for several years through ups and downs, and winds up with an unexpected ending.

Burnett’s skill as a writer not only weaves a completely believable story out of these various threads, but also makes the ins and outs of dog racing understandable and exciting.

As Jim gets sucked back into the gamblers’ orbit, readers will worry about him on every page.

Not far into this book, it hit me I knew this story. Warner Bros. made not one but two movies in the 1930s based on this book. Around the time Warners bought the film rights to his 1929 novel, Little Caesar, Burnett went out to Hollywood to work on movie scripts.

After reading several of Burnett’s books, I’ve got to believe he was one of the writers who taught talking pictures how to talk. All through Dark Hazard, his characters’ dialogue is as sharp and funny and energetic as the roaring 20’s must have been.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott's blog.)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

She Rides Shotgun, Jordan Harper’s violent debut novel

All the praise heaped on Jordan Harper’s 2017 novel, She Rides Shotgun, is deserved. It is a hell of a book.

A large, muscular, tattooed man, just released from prison arrives at a Southern California middle school, puts a little girl into the stolen car he is driving and zooms off with her.

The man is Nate McClusky and the girl is his daughter, Polly.

While in prison, Nate seriously pisses off the head of a powerful gang. The leader puts out an order for members on the outside to track down and kill Nate – and his family.

The gang gets to Nate’s wife before he can save her. But Nate reaches Polly first and they are off on a high-speed road trip.

Nate realizes there is no safe place. The gang has eyes and ears everywhere. He and Polly elude them, and, to protect the girl, Nate teaches her how to fight and survive. Polly learns fast and changes from the quiet, immature schoolgirl who was bullied, into a confidant, self-sufficient young woman.

Despite her increasing toughness, Polly has a good heart. That heart is the bright spot in this dark, suspenseful book.

Harper does a fine job of telling this rocket-propelled story, and more impressive, it is his first novel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Brutal “Shot Caller” is a Movie to Watch

The 2017 prison film, “Shot Caller,” is not like the old movies where Jimmy Cagney found himself in the big house, nor is it like the men-behind-bars exploitation flicks of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Shot Caller” is a whole new, ultra-realistic look at the violent world behind the walls of American prisons.

Jacob, a successful businessman with a nice family, causes a deadly accident which lands him jail. He is put in with violent criminals and quickly learns the code of survival: Either become a victim at the mercy of the predators, or become a warrior. Jacob chooses the later and as if being sent to jail was not life-changing enough, needing to choose sides in the gang-run prison yard changes his entire being.

Affiliation with the gang not only means participating in drug smuggling, riots and murder, it also means a lifetime membership extending beyond the wire cages when Jacob is released.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an actor I have seen before in small roles, does a superb job as Jacob. His transformation from the hard-charging executive to the hard-bitten convict is quite a performance. Also excellent in the picture are Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Emory Cohen and Benjamin Bratt. I could go on naming the players in this movie because everyone did a fine job, most portraying some of the most convincingly tough inmates seen on screen.

Ric Roman Waugh, who knows more than most about prison life, wrote and directed the movie.

“Shot Caller” is a tough, terrifying and terrific film.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

FFB: Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways To Die is the fifth novel in Lawrence Block’s mystery-crime series featuring alcoholic ex-cop, Matthew Scudder, and it is a terrific read.

In this book, Scudder is approached by a call girl who wants out of the life but is afraid to confront her pimp. She pays Scudder to break the news to the pimp and to see that he lets her go.

Surprisingly, the pimp agrees with little argument. But a couple days later, Scudder reads in the newspaper of the gruesome murder of the prostitute.

The cops have too many crime reports to handle and cannot devote much time or effort to the call girl’s murder. Strangely, the pimp wants the murder solved, and he pays Scudder to investigate. The pimp says his reputation is on the line and his other girls don’t feel safe. Scudder wonders if the pimp is using him to take the heat off himself as the obvious prime suspect. This is just one of many paths Scudder must go down as more angles to the murder are uncovered.

Block is one of the few novelists who can weave a complicated mystery together with a personal story – Matthew Scudder’s rocky road to recovery. The side trips to bars and AA meetings is never distracting or dull – just the opposite. Scudder’s dual struggle to solve the mystery and fight his urge to drink create a good deal of tension in this book.

Published in 1982, Eight Million Ways To Die takes place in New York City when the Big Apple was in the economic dumps, and Matthew Scudder has to navigating those mean streets. It is also a time before laptops and cell phones, and a reminder of what now seems like the distant past when Scudder has to look for a phone booth to make a call.

Eight Million Ways To Die is a well constructed mystery with plenty of clues for readers to play detective along with Scudder. But, perhaps due to the age of the book, I was on the right track to the killer earlier than I expected. Still, there are enough twists and turns to keep those pages turning.

Some friends have reviewed this book with slightly different takes on it. Col, at Col’s Criminal Library, wrote here, and Sergio at Tipping My Fedora, reviewed the book and the movie here.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s site.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

“Fort Bliss” is a Movie to Watch

A fine film I missed when it came out in 2014, but caught up with on video, is “Fort Bliss.”

The title comes from an actual U.S. Army base. It and the West Texas suburbs around it are the setting for the story of Sgt. Maggie Swann, a combat medic, returning home after two years in Afghanistan.

She has a bitter ex-husband who is remarried and who has been taking care of their small son while she was deployed. He does not want to send the boy home with Maggie, although that was their original agreement. Two years in the life of a pre-schooler is a very long time and the boy does not remember Maggie.

Maggie has a hard time adjusting to civilians who do not obey her commands and to a little boy she cannot order to love her.

This is a good story, extremely well told by director Claudia Myers. Myers, who came out of documentaries, including films with returning veterans, wrote the script, and this drama has a strong sense of reality.

All the performances are first rate, particularly that of Michelle Monaghan, who plays Maggie. (Where were the Academy members when it was time for the 2014 Oscar ballots?)

Also in the film were Oakes Fegley as her son, Manolo Cardona as the new man in her life, Ron Livingston as her ex-husband, Emmanuelle Chriqui as his new wife, and Freddy Rodriguez, Pablo Schreiber, Gbenga Akinnagbe as fellow soldiers, each with their own sets of problems.

Friday, August 3, 2018

FFB: The Double Take by Roy Huggins

Last year, I posted a piece about Roy Huggins’ 1949 novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me (here), and hoped this week to post another positive review of one of his books.

But, The Double Take, from 1946, Huggins’ first book, was not as enjoyable as Lovely Lady...

Private detective Stuart Bailey is hired by a public figure to investigate his wife. Recently married to a younger woman, the man received an anonymous phone call vaguely threatening blackmail over something shady in the woman’s past. The man wants to know what it is and Bailey investigates.

There is more than a little Raymond Chandler influence in this story, but Bailey is no Philip Marlowe, and readers have been down these mean streets before.

Huggins (1914-2002) wrote three crime novels in the 1940s and then went on to a successful career in television creating shows like Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files.

If his character, Stuart Bailey, sounds familiar it is because Huggins created the TV series, 77 Sunset Strip, in which Bailey was played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

There is one more Huggins novel in my TBR pile, 1947’s Too Late for Tears. With one hit and one miss, I am hoping I like this next book more than The Double Take.

(For more posts on books, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

“Small Town Crime” is a Movie to Watch

A garage door on a suburban home opens revealing a painfully hungover man who looks out at a car now parked on his lawn after mowing down his white picket fence.

This is former police detective Mike Kendall.

Kendall knows he has a drinking problem. He also has an employability problem. He can’t seem to find work and the chances of him ever getting back on the force are zero. The reason why is linked to his drinking on duty.

Stumbling through life, starting his days with a cold beer, and dreaming of being a cop on a case again, Kendall is wasting away.

Then, one morning, waking up in a field after a binge, he discovers the dead body of a young woman. Kendall ignores his former boss’ warning to stay out of the investigation and strikes out on his own. He proves to be a smart detective but the situation is way over his head.

Character actor John Hawkes gets the chance to play a leading role here and does a great job. In supporting roles are top-notch veteran actors Octavia Spencer, Anthony Anderson, and Robert Forster.

“Small Town Crime” is a terrific little film written and directed by two brothers, Eshom and Ian Nelms. It is now out on DVD.

I hope the brothers bring back John Hawkes as Kendall for another case.

Friday, July 20, 2018

FFB: Some Die Hard by Stephen Mertz

Stephen Mertz, author of thrillers and suspense novels, came up with a hell of a locked-room mystery for his first book Some Die Hard.

Rock Dugan, former Hollywood stuntman turned private investigator, is swept into the mystery of why a man being chased by two thugs ended up dead. It turns out the man, who bumped into Dugan during his getaway, slipped an envelope into Dugan’s jacket pocket. The envelope contained gambling IOUs obtained by the dead man before he could deliver them to Susan Court.

Intrigued and feeling an obligation to get the envelope into Ms. Court’s hands, Dugan tracks her down. She hires him and takes him to the estate of her wealthy father. The father ends up dying in a very strange manner which Dugan believes to be murder. I will not give away the locked-room device or its solution, and just say that Stephen Mertz spins a fast-paced and enjoyable journey to the conclusion.

Some Die Hard is also a modern hard-boiled detective story in which the PI, Dugan, is pretty tough but not too hard-boiled. He encounters aggressive suspects, a goonish police chief and a former jockey with a pistol before the action really heats up.

Published in 1979, Some Die Hard was reissued a few years ago by Rough Edges Press and the Kindle version I read had a bonus at the end. In it, Stephen Mertz explains how the book first came to be published by a house specializing in paperback originals, and how that publisher tried screw him out of any money owed him. Stephen Mertz also tells how he got his revenge and his money.

(For more posts on books, check out Todd Mason's blog.)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Noir Alley is a Program to Watch

Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel showing old movies, uncut and commercial free, created a series with Eddie Muller, author and founder of the Film Noir Foundation. The show is called Noir Alley.

Saturday nights at midnight (Eastern time), and repeating Sunday mornings at 10, Muller, the host of the show, presents classic films that fit the definition of “film noir.”

The French term meaning dark movies was adapted from the name of a line of crime novels, including many American books, published in France starting after World War II called série noire.

Film noir generally identifies – and there are a lot of definitions – American crime movies produced from the mid-1940s to the late-1950s that often feature men with sketchy pasts trying to go straight, but who either get sucked into committing crimes or become victims.

The movies usually have dark, high contrast, black and white photography, often framed at odd angles. Some say this look traces back to German Expressionist films of the silent era.

For years, film buffs have argued over film noir, trying to establish an exact definition. But the genre seems to defy rules and provides all kinds of exceptions. If film noir requires black and white photography, what about “Leave Her to Heaven” from 1948, directed by John H. Stahl? Or, “Niagara” from 1953 directed by Henry Hathaway? If film noir requires the unreal world of movie studios where even exteriors were built on sound stages, what about the documentary style of “The Naked City” from 1948 directed by Jules Dassin, filmed on location in New York?

The debate goes on and on. So I will sum up my definition of film noir by using Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s quote about pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Eddie Muller, introduces each of the films, some of them restored by his foundation, and he always gives an informed and entertaining preface and postscript to each showing.

For movie buffs, this is a great series, and for film noir fans, this program is not to be missed.

To check out the Noir Alley site, click here. To see the program's schedule, click here. And for the Film Noir Foundation, click here.