Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Jack’s Return Home (aka Get Carter) by Ted Lewis

If you’ve heard that Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home is one of the grittiest British crime novels ever written – believe it.

Is Jack’s... the original British noir? No. Others got there first, including Gerald Kersh’s 1938 Night and the City.

But are any of the other stories tougher than Lewis’ 1970 book? Put it this way, it would be quite a feat to outdo Jack Carter – an enforcer for two London gangsters – for coolness, street smarts, and violence.

Jack must have rocked many a cozy little English village when it hit the bookshelves.

The story opens with Jack Carter returning to his home town, an industrial city in the north of England, after learning his brother Frank died in a car accident. Jack goes up there to bury Frank and to make sure his teenage niece is all right.

The circumstances of the car crash are fishy. Frank was murdered and Jack sets out to learn why and who did it. This takes him through the seamiest places in the city and to some stately places built by local gangsters – men who Jack knows well from the old days.

Jack, the first-person narrator of the story, is an uneducated poet. He tells his tale in a combination of slangy dialogue and impressionistic images of the cold, wet town.

“The misty rain was dense enough to practically obscure the neighboring blocks. Only dull lights separating soft at the edges were evidence of the other flats,” he says while looking for someone in a public housing project.

A horrible scene is coolly described by Jack when goes to see Albert, a once cocky, small-time hood. Albert is now a broken-down hulk living in a dilapidated house next to a steel mill. A disheveled old lady answers the door. The place smells. A sloppy woman sits on a folding lawn chair near two filthy children. The former tough guy – now only about 40 – is rooted in a chair, drinking. All are watching a crummy TV set. A door to a bedroom opens. A man comes out buttoning his clothes. A woman comes out tying a bathrobe and Albert introduces her as his wife.

Jack’s energy is almost superhuman as he moves around the town getting into multiple fights, putting the clues together and taking his revenge on the men who killed his brother.

Jack’s Return Home was later reissued as Get Carter, the title of the excellent 1972 Michael Caine movie based on the book.

Ted Lewis (1940-1982) grew up in northern England, went to art school, worked in advertising and in animation – including the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” – and wrote nine novels before dying at age 42.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Two truly scary films for Halloween

Halloween is approaching, and while there are more than enough slasher films and boogeyman movies to watch this weekend, here are two films that should scare the stuffing out of any viewer.

Free Solo

Mountain climber Alex Honnold goes about his sport without a helmet, without spiked books, without ropes, and without other climbers. He free climbs using just some chalk on his fingers and a pair of sneakers on his feet. In this 2018 documentary, Honnold attempts to climb the sheer rock wall of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.

The Alpinist

Marc-Andre Leclerc also likes to climb alone. While he does bring equipment with him, his special thrill is climbing in winter on the ice that forms on mountains. This 2021 documentary follows him as he travels looking for greater challenges.

Both of these films have photography that is unbelievable – beautiful, breathtaking – and action to make palms sweat. So chalk up and check them out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Roseanna by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall

Reading Roseanna confirms that Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall were a hell of a great crime writing team.

Their publishers must have thought so, too. The pair went on to write nine more police procedurals featuring their fictional detective Martin Beck of the Swedish national police.

The story opens when workers repairing a set of locks connecting two lakes in Sweden’s inland waterway dredge up the naked body of a young woman.

Local police find no one in their small city who can identify the murdered woman. The investigation widens and Martin Beck is brought into the case.

Beck and his team figure the woman was a passenger on a cruise ship passing through the locks. The woman must have been killed on the boat and then dumped overboard.

The detectives determine which boat she was aboard and set about finding the the crew and other passengers. It is a long, painstaking process. Wahloo and Sjowall take their time yet make the police work fascinating.

Detective Martin Beck is an odd sort of hero. He is good at his job, but rather morose, always seems to have a cold, complains about the weather, and has no rapport with his wife and kids. He only connects with the guys he works with and even then he is a bit chilly.

Wahloo and Sjowall keep the story and its many clues and suspects clear and orderly. The authors had a clean, no nonsense writing style and the Lois Roth translation is well done.

Per Wahloo (1926-1975) and Maj Sjowall (1935-2020) were not only writing partners but also partners in life.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Only Murders in the Building is a series to watch

In this comic mystery series, three residents of an old, stately Manhattan apartment building meet and then learn that another resident died mysteriously. The three, played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, knew the young man by sight and are sure he must have been murdered. They decide to not only investigate on their own, but also create a day-by-day podcast of their activities.   

Martin plays a semi-retired actor who once starred in a popular TV crime series and thinks he can apply methods from the show to the real murder. Short plays a washed up Broadway theater director who sees the investigation as a way back into the limelight. And Gomez, who was house sitting for a wealthy aunt, has a mysterious connection to the murdered man.

This series, streaming on Hulu, plays out like a well done comic novel – think, A Confederacy of Dunces. And, by the way, why hasn’t Confederacy ever been made into a film or series?

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Six Graves to Munich by Mario Puzo

In 1969, author Mario Puzo hit the jackpot with his blockbuster novel, The Godfather, about the fictional Corleone crime family.

For many years before that, he made a living writing stories for men’s magazines. Then in 1967 he published the novel, Six Graves to Munich, under the pen name Mario Cleri.

Six Graves to Munich
is a short (224-page), fast-paced thriller set in Europe during the Cold War era. It is tale of vengeance, full of sex and violence.

During World War II, Michael Rogan, was a U.S. intelligence officer married to a French woman. He and his wife were captured by the Nazi’s and tortured. His wife died.

Ten years later, after a long recovery, Rogan returns to Europe to find the men responsible – and kill them.

One of the torturers Rogan hunts was Italian army officer. He tracks the man down to Palermo, and learns he is a high ranking mafioso and well protected.

In this section of the book, Puzo’s knowledge of the underworld is evident. It reads like a test run for the sections of his next book in which Michael Corleone hides out in the hills of Sicily. But, in keeping with Puzo’s men’s mag background, Rogan, while on the trail of the man he wants to kill, takes time out for a steamy romp with a beautiful young Italian woman.

Today, with 20-20 hindsight, Six Graves to Munich, with its suspense and period detail, might be taken as Puzo’s warm up for his big novel.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Dead Still is a series to watch

One of the weirdest mystery shows to come along has to be Dead Still.

The six-part series is about a Victorian photographer who specializes in memorial shots – or pictures of dead people made to look like they are still alive.

How some of these dead people got to be that way and why dumps the photographer into a world even stranger than the one he made for himself.

The show was shot in Ireland with a terrific cast, including the superb Michael Smiley as the photographer.

Check out the trailer here.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Two Shots of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, and an earlier series called, “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” published in the pulp magazine Black Mask, are the same story.

Both tell how the Continental Op – Hammett’s unnamed operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency – comes to a small Western city called Personville (nicknamed “Poisonville”) to help rid it of gangsters, crooked cops and corrupt politicians.

In Poisonville, the young publisher of the city’s local paper is waging a campaign to clean up the town. The publisher’s father owns the paper, the mine, and several other prominent businesses. The father also has the leading citizens and top officials in his pocket. But the father is old and losing his grip. Racketeers have moved in and divided up the city.

Unwilling to side with any one group the Op sets about turning the gangs against one another so they will destroy themselves.

It is a complicated story filled with violence and double crosses.

The four Black Mask stories – “The Cleansing of Poisonville” (November 1927); “Crime Wanted – Male or Female” (December 1927); “Dynamite” (January 1928); and “The 19th Murder” (February 1928) – are included in their original form in The Big Book of the Continental Op (2017) compiled by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.

When the stories appeared in Black Mask, they caught the attention of a book editor who approached Hammett with the idea of publishing them as a novel. But first the editor wanted Hammett to make some changes. He suggested cutting some of the violence to make the story more believable, according to Layman and Rivett.

The book, called Red Harvest after Hammett submitted a page of alternate titles, was published in February, 1929, by Alfred A. Knopf.

Reading the stories and the book at the same time shows interesting changes made by Hammett in his transition from pulp writer to novelist.

Key cuts were the dynamiting of police headquarters and the bomb killing of one of the three gang leaders. The Op’s escape over the rooftops from an ambush was also cut. And the shootout at the Silver Arrow Club was streamlined and in the book.

There are small changes on almost every page of the novel. Often they are as simple as a word choice or a rewritten sentence. Most of these changes tightened the writing, eliminating repetitions in dialogue, but they also took away some of the flavor.

Hammett was always good at creating realistic dialogue. In his pulp stories, he used a good deal of the underworld slang of his era. The amount of slang was reduced in the book, or altered to clarify a point. The book editor may have felt that readers of the novel would be less familiar with the slang than the readers of Black Mask.

The changes made the writing a little less colorful and took some of the rough edge off the tale, but did not damage the storytelling. Hammett was still Hammett, and the tough, lean writing style was still there. Even Hammett’s earliest stories showed this talent.

For the slang that remained, Layman and Rivett, the editors of The Big Book..., found some of the words and phrases needed footnotes for current readers to understand them.

Future readers of Hammett may need even more annotations. The time may come when a Hammett story will require as many footnotes as a Shakespeare play.

But with our without the explanations, Hammett’s work is always a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The French Connection Revisited

In 1962, two New York City police detectives made the biggest drug bust of that time. The case is known as the French Connection.

Many people are familiar with the case from the 1971 Oscar-winning movie, “The French Connection.” Fewer may know the case from Robin Moore’s 1969, non-fiction book.

Moore detailed the painstaking and sometimes hair-raising work of detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso leading to the seizure of more than 100 pounds of heroin and the arrest of some – but not all – of the drug traffickers. 

Egan and Grosso got on to the case by chance. After working round the clock for several days, they went to a night club for a drink. There they spotted a young guy being treated like royalty by some known wiseguys. Wondering what was up, the detectives followed the guy who turned out to be the nephew of a mob boss. The guy seemed to have some suspicious connections of his own. By night he made pickups and deliveries around town. By day, he and his young wife ran a lunch counter and candy store in Brooklyn.

For weeks, Egan and Grosso watched the man. Keeping an eye on the luncheonette, the detectives observed some shady characters coming and going. The detectives got warrants to tap the man’s home and business phones. When the wiretaps picked up some foreign voices, Egan and Grosso were on to the French connection.

They identified a key player, but tailing the Frenchmen proved to be harder than expected. At one point, the man gave Egan the slip in the subway and waved at the detective as the train left the station. The filmmakers used that moment in the movie.

But the book and the movie differ.

The movie – which is one of the great crime films – invented some scenes not in the book, like the car chasing the train. The book had scenes in cars that may have been too confusing to film, as when the Brooklyn man routinely drove up and down Manhattan streets to shake any possible police tail and making it hard for the detectives to follow him. At one point, Grosso, dressed as a delivery boy, tried to follow on a bicycle.

A confusing part of the movie was when the drug smugglers inexplicably left a new Lincoln Mark III on a street in a rundown neighborhood. The book explains the move. It was the method the local mob guys used to transfer the drugs.

They found that a 1960 Buick Invicta had panels under the car that when taken off revealed spaces perfect for hiding contraband. They arranged for the car, which had been brought in from France, to be left on a particular street. The mob guys would then move the car into a rented garage on that block, open the panels, take out the packages of heroin, replace the panels and put the car back on the street to be picked up by their French contacts. They even had a jar of mud from France to smear on the panels. If the police tested the dirt, it would look like nothing had been done to the car since it left Europe.

Moore’s book ranks up there with the best non-fiction crime stories, and, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it reads like a novel.

Robin Moore (1925-2008) wrote about 60 books, often with co-authors, including other true crime stories and The Happy Hooker. He died at age 82 while working on three new books. Moore served in the Air Force during World War II, then went to Harvard. In the early 1960s, he approached one of his college acquaintances, Robert F. Kennedy, and gained access to the Army Special Forces. In 1965 he published The Green Berets.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

New York Dead by Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods introduced his calm, cool, rich lawyer, Stone Barrington in his 1991 novel, New York Dead.

When this novel opens, Stone is not yet rich or a lawyer, but he is cool. Cool enough to eat at Elaine’s, a Manhattan restaurant frequented by celebrities.

Stone is a 15-year veteran of the New York Police Department and one of its detectives. While on medical leave after taking a bullet in the knee, he witnesses a woman fall from a 12-story building, landing on a hill of dirt in a neighboring construction site. Miraculously, the woman lives. An ambulance is called.

Did she jump? Did she fall? Was she pushed? The latter seems the best scenario when Stone pursues someone fleeing the woman’s building. His bad knee keeps him from making an arrest.

Although he is supposed to be home recovering, he convinces his superior to let him take the case, along with his partner, Dino Bacchetti.

As if surviving a fall from a high building is not enough of a twist, when Stone and Dino check on the woman’s condition they learn she disappeared from the ambulance taking her to the hospital. Complicating matters, the woman is a well-known TV news anchor. 

The police brass, anxious to close this case and get it off the front pages and the evening news, railroad a suspect Stone believes innocent. Going head to head with his superiors gets Stone bounced off the force on the pretext that his knee will never recover well enough for him to resume his duties.

But Stone – one of the luckiest characters in mystery fiction – runs into an old pal, an attorney at a prestigious law firm. The firm could use someone with Stone’s experience. And just like that, Stone is drawing a big salary while continuing his own investigation of the woman who fell.

What may be surprising to readers of the later Stone Barrington books is how much Stone and Dino clash in this first novel. It is not until the end that they seem to form a real friendship. Dino will continue being a prominent character in the later Barrington books.

To date, Stuart Woods has published 61Stone Barrington novels. They are fast, enjoyable reads. His first novel, Chiefs, from 1981, is a rural mystery spanning several generations in a Southern town. It won an Edgar Award.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Dark Crime Novel, The Informer, by Liam O’Flaherty

Forget everything you might remember about the movie, “The Informer.” The book it was based on will knock you on your arse with its realism, squalor, crime, and violence.

Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel of the same name, Gypo Nolan is not the lovable oaf played by Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s 1935 film. He is a beast roaming the slums of Dublin. O’Flaherty almost always describes the powerful giant with the slow brain in animal terms, except when comparing him to plants or rocks. 

Gypo Nolan is about as down and out as a person could get in the Ireland of the early 1920s. While the country was struggling to establish a new, independent government, political factions and splinter groups were fighting among themselves, inflation was on the rise and the poor were getting poorer. The only money Gypo could lay his his hands on was from beating and robbing sailors or through handouts from Katie Fox, an emaciated, drug addicted, prostitute. 

Once a police officer, Gypo was thrown off the force. He then got involved with a Communist organization looking to dominate the new government and in need of a thug. Sent to deal with a farm labor group, Gypo and his old pal Frank McPhillip got drunk and Frank shot and killed one of the farm leaders. This got both of them thrown out of the radical group. Frank, with a price on his head, was forced to hide in the countryside. Gypo returned to the slums of Dublin.

Living in a men’s shelter, Gypo is surprised to see Frank sneak in and tell him he is ill, possibly dying, and is going home to visit his parents. 

This puts an idea in Gypo's head. Tired of being broke, wanting a good meal and drinking money, he decides to go to the police, tell them where to find Frank, and claim the £20 reward (about £1,200 pounds or $1,500 in today’s money, but could have been a lot more due to the conditions of the time). 

In a skirmish with the cops, Frank is killed. 

Now, with the money in his pocket, Gypo goes right into a bar and starts drinking. The bartender is stunned when Gypo produces a pound note to pay. For a guy everyone knows is on the skids, pulling out a bill worth about $70 or more would be stunning. Katie Fox comes in, sees Gypo has money and starts cadging drinks off him and manipulating him to give her some cash. 

Carried away with his new prestige as a man of means, in one of the best scenes in the book, Gypo goes into a little fish and chips shop and buys food for anyone who wants to eat. He spends recklessly and a big crowd gathers. Among them is a member of the radical group of which Gypo was once a member.

The group and its leader, Dan Gallagher, now suspicious of Gypo and his new found wealth, haul him into a secret tribunal and get the truth out of him. He was the one who informed on Frank. Every member of the group is now in peril if Gypo ever goes to the cops again. Gypo is sentenced to die, but he escapes, runs through the streets like a frightened animal and is finally killed by the group. Before he dies, he stumbles into a church where Frank’s mother is praying and he asks her forgiveness. 

Unlike the sentimental movie, the ending of the book is graphic and unsettling. 

Another person in the story who emerges as a main character is Dan Gallagher, the young leader of the revolutionary group. Gallagher is a man committed to the Communist movement, but reveals to Frank’s sister, a young woman in love with him, that his – Gallagher’s – ideas and goals are not fully formed or even well thought out. He enjoys the power of leading men, but is confused about many things. 

Frank’s sister, Mary, is the only character who has a chance of escaping the slums and the wretched lives of the people around her. She finished school and got an office job in a Dublin company. If only there had been a little more about her, the book would not have been so bleak. But a dark, bleak tale is what O’Flaherty set off to tell and it is what he achieved. 

Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984) was born in the rural Aran Islands, studied to be a priest for a while, fought in the English army in World War I, had Communist leanings, wrote 14 novels and many short stories and has been considered one of Ireland’s great, if overlooked authors. 

The Informer is a marvelous read, even if O’Flaherty, describing the squalor and poverty, lays it on a little thick. At times he also sails off on wordy tangents, waxing poetic and nearly forgetting the point he was trying to make. But those passages are few and do not take away from the power of the book and of O’Flaherty’s ability to describe the inner workings of Gypo's mind. 

Before leaving the impression that the novel is a grim slog, there are some funny moments in The Informer, as when Gypo beats up a man in the street and then beats up the cop who came to break up the fight, then searches for the tiny little hat he always wears:

“His massive round skull stood bare under the night. It stood naked, hummocked and gashed here and there, like a badly shorn sheep. He traversed the skull with his right palm, in little flurried rushes, as if he had had a vague suspicion that the hat was hiding somewhere along the expanse of skull.”

It is a brutal humor, but then, brutal is a good word for the book.