Friday, March 8, 2019

Last Year’s Man by Paul D. Brazill

Picking up a novel by Paul D. Brazill, a reader can expect fast paced action, humorous observations, funny dialogue, and a seedy, noir quality. His book, Last Year’s Man, delivers all that and something else: a touch of melancholy, a bit of sadness.

Tommy Bennett, an aging gun for hire, reluctantly comes to the conclusion that he is too old for his chosen profession. That profession is killing people and doing it efficiently with no trace of his involvement.

The story opens with Tommy on a job. A moment’s negligence on his part screws up a nice clean hit. It leaves him wondering if it is time to get out of the business. His next job goes wrong, too, but in a much bigger way, and Tommy is no longer wondering. He has to quit and run.

With little money and no passport, there are few places Tommy can go. He chooses to return to his hometown, a small city by the sea that has seen better days. Brazill highlights the city’s decay as Tommy takes in the town for the first time in many years. He gets off the train and notes the shops that are gone and the once proud statute in of “an old civic dignitary,” with a road cone on its head, and “the remnants of a Chinese take-away in its outstretched hand.”

He isn’t in town five minutes when he stumbles into a killing in a crummy bar. Soon, he is back in the company of violent crooks and con men he knew in his youth. But Tommy has to make a living and the local criminals remember him as a guy who can make things happen.

The slangy speech of Brazill’s characters not only gave me a laugh, but also provided an instant picture of the speaker. In a few words, Brazill describes characters. Of an underworld dame, Tommy says, “Bev smiled but there was the familiar razor-sharp look in her eyes.” Placing razor and eyes in the same sentence made me cringe and I knew just what Bev looked like. Later, Tommy calls a local heavy, “an ex-copper who was so bent you could use him to unblock your toilet.”

Last Year’s Man is a raw story seen through the eyes of Tommy Bennett, and is another fine job from Paul D. Brazill. I rarely say this about a book, but I wish this one was longer so I could spend more time with Tommy.

(And, if you enjoy crime novels with lots of action, please check out Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Best Commercial During the Oscars


No one I know saw this. My wife was out of the room when it came on. Friends who watched the Oscars missed it.

The best commercial shown during Sunday’s Academy Awards show was Google's 15-second reworking of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” See it HERE.



(And please don’t leave this page before checking out LYME DEPOT. Thanks.)

Friday, February 22, 2019

They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross

Raymond Chandler may have summed up James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much best when in a 1954 letter he wrote, “…a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town.”

Chandler also said of Ross, “I’ve never heard that he wrote anything else.”

He was right. The 1940 book was Ross’ only published novel. And what a novel it is.

The story, set in rural North Carolina in the 1930s, is hard-boiled noir.

Jackson McDonald, who everyone calls Jack, is a little better educated than most of the residents of the town of Corinth and its surrounding farming community, but that does not help him financially. The family farm is failing and he is deeply in debt with no immediate way of digging himself out of trouble.

But if Jack thought he was in trouble before, it is nothing compared to the problems he gets himself into when he accepts a job from Smut Milligan, a thuggish bully who runs a gas station a few miles from town.

Smut’s property, which is beyond the municipal limits, is the perfect spot for a roadhouse he plans to build. Along with food and dancing, he can also sell illegal liquor and run poker and crap games. Smut wants Jack to work for him and puts him in charge of the cash register.

The other help Smut employs are a handful of Corinth ne'er-do-wells he does not have to pay, but will allow to eat and drink and pick up tips. Interestingly, the only employees of Smut’s roadhouse with any integrity and talent for their jobs are the two black men hires as cooks.

Once up and running, the roadhouse does good business, but not good enough for Smut. He wants more. He is in debt to Astor LeGrand the power behind the town, a shrewd, dangerous man. Smut also needs money to entertain Lola, the wife of the richest man in town. To get what he wants, he hatches a robbery plot and involves Jack in his scheme. And since this is noir, the execution of the plot goes wrong and has serious consequences – physical and mental – with Jack suffering long after the first event. But do not feel sorry for him. Jack is no saint.

There is a long passage of extreme violence in this book, and it is tough to get through. There is also language folks today will find offensive.

The book takes a while before the violence occurs, but the anticipation of it and the colorful setting and characters and Ross’ deceptively plain, down-home style keep the pages turning.

James Ross obviously knew the terrain and the people well enough to accurately depict the many types who populate his fictional town of Corinth. (I am assuming Ross' Corinth is fictional. A quick check shows several towns called Corinth in North Carolina.)
The Mysterious Press republished the book and had this biography of Ross: “James Ross (1911-1990) was an author of noir fiction. He published They Don’t Dance Much in 1940, and though this hard-bitten story of life and death in a small town roadhouse won acclaim from authors like Raymond Chandler and Flannery O’Connor, it did not sell well.

“His follow-up novel, In The Red, was never published, and Ross turned to writing short fiction for magazines like Collier’s, The Sewanee Review and Argosy. In 1970, he became a highly-regarded literary agent, and 1975 saw the reissue of They Don’t Dance Much, which saw the book become truly popular for the first time. Ross died in 1990 in North Carolina.”

The publisher also noted, “Jonathan Yardley, a former colleague of James Ross, wrote about They Don't Dance Much in The Washington Post. It provides some fantastic insight, placing the book into historical and personal context.” The article is here.

For fans of noir crime novels, They Don’t Dance Much is a must read.

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

(As for country crime novels, have you checked out the sidebar on this page?)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

DVR Alert: The Window, film noir


At 4 a.m. Friday, Turner Classic Movies is scheduled to show the 1949 film noir, “The Window.”

This movie, adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, is about a boy who makes up stories, tells whoppers and outright lies, only to find no one will believe him when he says he witnessed the upstairs neighbors killing a man. But the murderers believe him, and they come after him.

This was by far the scariest movie I ever saw on TV when I was a kid. The 73-minute picture holds up today. And, about a dozen years ago, I found it had the same effect on a new generation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Col Asks Some Questions

Colman Keane of Col's Criminal Library asked me some questions about my new crime novel, Lyme Depot, and more.

The interview is on his site, here.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Col gives Lyme Depot top grade

Prolific reviewer Colman Keane of Col’s Criminal Library gave my new crime novel, Lyme Depot, a five out of five rating.

“Fast-moving, populated with interesting characters and a clever plot as all the characters and story strands are expertly drawn together in a satisfying climax,” he said.


Read his review here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

R.I.P. Albert Finney

British actor Albert Finney died last week at age 82. He was a star of stage and screen for six decades.

His passing started me thinking about three of his excellent early movies.


Finney shot to stardom in 1960 playing the surly Arthur Seaton in the gritty, “kitchen-sink” film, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” The movie was adapted from Alan Sillitoe’s “angry-young-man” novel and directed by Karel Reisz.



International superstardom came to Finney in 1963 when he played the title role in “Tom Jones.” The saucy, happy-go-lucky movie directed by Tony Richardson was adapted from Henry Fielding’s 18th-century novel.


In 1967, he co-starred with Audrey Hepburn in the sophisticated  “Two for the Road." The film was written by Frederic Raphael and directed by Stanley Donen. I will have more to say about it in a future post.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

Frank Bill’s 2011 collection of 17 short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, is a well-written bag of violent tales from the sparsely populated pockets of that state.

I had heard Bill’s book was brilliant, and it is, but it is also exceedingly dark and brutal.

Each of his stories rings true – unfortunately. Unfortunately because it is hard to think of modern America as still having places where so much ignorance, greed, jealousy, and lust can result in so much carnage.

Some of the stories focus on law enforcement in those areas. One piece is strangely psychological and almost hallucinatory. Another is about a mercy killing that is almost sweet in its sentimentality. Almost, but not quite – the killing is shocking.

The only hopeful thing to remember when reading this collection is these stories take place in several different eras and Indiana is a big state. Chicago is right off the upper west corner of it, and Louisville, Kentucky is right across the river from its southern border. In between are miles and miles of open country and farm land.

Readers picking up this book are in for a bloody ride. Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana is noir on steroids.

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

Dana King Asks Some Questions

Dana King, author of Ten-Seven, his new Penns River novel, asked me some questions about my new crime novel, Lyme Depot, and more.

The interview is over at his site One Bite At A Time.

Friday, February 1, 2019

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

The first of Chester Himes’ eight Harlem crime novels featuring New York police detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, was A Rage in Harlem, published in 1957. But these two men do not appear until about a third of the way into this book.

A Rage in Harlem is the story of Jackson, a ridiculously naïve man who lives with the sexy, seductive Imabelle, a woman with a shady past and who may or may not be in on a scheme to fleece the trusting, pious Jackson.

A man claiming he can change ten-dollar bills into hundred-dollar bills with some special chemically treated parchment takes Jackson’s life savings in an explosive opening scene. A phony U.S. marshal arrives, the con man and Imabelle escape, but Jackson is caught, frightened and further fleeced. To pay off the phony fed, Jackson steals a stack of money from the safe of his boss, the local undertaker.

This is only the beginning of a wickedly wild ride for Jackson. The ride includes recruiting the help of his twin brother, a drug addict, who makes a living dressing like a nun and selling tickets to heaven to suckers on 125th Street. Later Jackson will steal his boss’ hearse to make a getaway.

Into this stew come Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, who are both black, tough, savvy, and carry large, cannon-like .38s.

The story spins so fast and so unexpectedly readers will see why Himes was famous for his absurd story lines in the service of making points about life in the 1950s.

Chester Himes’ crazy, violent, funny novel is truly noir on many fronts. It lives up to the dark, cynical view of the world of the traditional noir. The twist is the hilarious way Himes tells his story, often while describing violence.

The humor is brutally dark and involves gun battles, knife fights, acid thrown in faces, and an ax. Here is an example from a passage in which the detectives persuade one of the con men to cooperate:

“Coffin Ed slapped Gus on the check with his open palm. Gus’s tight-fitting hat sailed off and he spun toward Grave Digger, who slapped him on the other cheek and spun him back toward Coffin Ed. They slapped him fast, from one to another, like batting a ping-pong ball. Gus’s head began ringing. He lost his sense of balance and his legs began to buckle. They slapped him until he fell to his knees, deaf to the world.”

This was a decade before reading a suspect his Miranda rights became custom. Writing in the mid-1950s, Himes may have been recalling practices from the 1930s or 1940s. Also, not all the violence in A Rage in Harlem is slapstick, some of it just plain shocking.

The gruesomely violent and action-packed wind up to the story, however, is so funny any reader will feel guilty for smiling as Himes piles one garish moment on top of another.

For a 1957 novel, the dialogue is unusually frank in its use of expletives. Quite a few times, characters uttered “mother-raper,” which I suppose was the only way U.S. publishers could even suggest the term and keep the street flavor of the dialogue.

Chester Himes (1909-1984) wrote 20 novels and two autobiographies. I own six Vintage reprints of the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels and will be re-reading more of them this year.

(For more posts on books, head over to Patti Abbott’s page.)