Thursday, June 21, 2018

FFB: Horns for the Devil by Louis Malley

Louis Malley’s 1951 novel, Horns for the Devil, may be my favorite read of the year.

It is the story of Severio Lebbrosa, a rising star in the New York Mafia of the 1940s and 1950s. At 23, he runs an illegal, high-stakes gambling joint frequented by celebrities, politicians, judges, and mob bosses.

Severio hates the local mob lieutenant who oversees all the neighborhood’s activities, including Severio’s game. He has been having run-ins with this low-level boss since he was a kid, and worse, the guy is married to his sister. After the mobster beats his sister, Severio sets out to kill him, which he does early in the book. This sets off the tense story of Severio trying to survive despite the Mafia’s law that anyone who kills a boss will himself be killed – no exceptions. If they catch on that it was Severio, even his godfather, Don Saldona, won’t be able to help him.

Louis Malley gets many things right about the inner workings of the Mafia, which is an achievement since most of the country had no idea what actually went on behind the scenes of organized crime until a hit man named Joe Valachi testified before Congress in 1963. Peter Maas wrote about the real-life gangster in his 1968 book, The Valachi Papers.

Severio could be an earlier version of Sonny Corleone, the volatile oldest son of Don Corleone in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather. He also seemed like one of the wiseguys in Nichols Pileggi’s 1985 non-fiction book, Wiseguy.

The sketchy information available about Malley suggest he grew up in a section of New York City dominated by mobsters. Horns for the Devil is set in Manhattan's Little Italy and as much as it is a suspenseful crime story, it is also a portrait of that neighborhood in the mid-20th century.

Malley’s writing is blunt and forceful and his knowledge of the place and the people comes through on every page. Some of it is so tough it is funny, as when Severio tries to charm a hat-check girl in a nightclub. “Muriel turned around and gave him a look like someone forgot to flush the toilet.”

The title, Horns for the Devil, refers to a symbol sometimes worn on a chain around the neck to ward off the devil.

In 1952, Gallimard published Horns for the Devil in France. The following year, Malley was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for the best mystery of 1952, Publishers Weekly reported.

Malley wrote four crime novels: Horns for the Devil, 1951, which was later reissued as Shadow of the Mafia; Stool Pigeon, 1953, later reissued as Shakedown Strip; Tiger in the Streets, 1957; and The Love Mill, 1961.

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Words of Anthony Bourdain

Sometime in 2002, I found a new show on cable that sounded good – travels to exotic locations. It was Cook’s Tour on the Food Network hosted by a New York City chef who had become a celebrity after writing a behind-the-scenes book about restaurants called, Kitchen Confidential.

Viewing one half-hour episode hooked me. The chef was a witty, adventurous, wise-cracking, cool guy named Anthony Bourdain. He went places few would ever see, or ventured into areas few would ever enter.

He ate great meals, often simple dishes made by ordinary people. He ate exotic foods. And sometimes he ate nightmarish items. The beating heart of a cobra was horrifying. Bourdian consumed those things as not only a challenge, but also because they were eaten in by the locals.

Bourdain met people, engaged them in conversation, drank vast amounts of alcohol and smoked scores of cigarets.

But as much as I enjoyed living vicariously through his televised travels, it was his narration of the shows that kept me coming back. Through 16 years of episodes on three different channels, Bourdain was always interesting, observant and humorous, all presented in his original and unique voice. The man had a marvelous facility with words. All those words, I have to believe, were Bourdain’s own. They were too close to the way he spoke on camera or when interviewed on news or talk shows. His conversations in his shows could go anywhere, from local food and customs to the history of the place he was visiting, or from current events to the characters on Gilligan’s Island.

It wasn’t all fun. Sometimes the adventures turned dangerous. In 2006, Bourdain and crew were in Beirut when a conflict between Lebanon and Israel erupted. They wound up stuck in a hotel with no way of getting out until U.S. Marines landed on a nearby beach and took them and other tourists out of the country. But the TV team first had to sneak out of the hotel, slip past soldiers, and get onto that beach. This episode can be viewed here.

Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour lasted two seasons. Then he moved to the Travel Channel with a new show called No Reservations, with hour-long episodes, but the same basic structure as the previous show. He and a small crew would go to a country, take in the sights, explore the food, and meet the people. Sometimes the country was the U.S. No Reservations lasted seven seasons. Bourdain next moved to CNN with a new show called Parts Unknown, which was also structured like the previous two shows. He was at CNN from 2013 until this month when he took his own life in a hotel in France.

Over the last 16 years of following his shows, I also read several of his books, the non-fiction Kitchen Confidential and Cook’s Tour (I’ve yet to get to some of his later books). I also read some of his crime fiction, his novel Bone in the Throat and the collection of stories about Bobby Gold. Of those works, I preferred his non-fiction. He also wrote an occasional article for magazines, and I kept up with those.

The magazine article that propelled Bourdain out of the kitchen and into a new career as a writer, traveler and eater of exotic foods, was a 1999 piece that ran in The New Yorker magazine, called “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” The article can be found here. His book, Kitchen Confidential, grew out of this story.

Like everyone, I was stunned by the news on Friday, June 8, that Bourdain was dead.

I did not know the man, but through his work on the page and on the screen, I felt like I did.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MOVIE: The Saint in London (1939)

“The Saint in London” is considered the best of the seven-film series of B-movies made by RKO in the 1930s and 1940s featuring Simon Templar.

Templar, aka the Saint, was Leslie Charteris’ sophisticated thief and modern-day Robin Hood.

After watching “The Saint in London” recently, I would agree. It is the third entry in the series, the second to star George Sanders – the best Simon Templar, in my opinion – and the only one produced in England. Later Saint movies were filmed there, but of the original series, this (I am pretty sure) was the only one. All the others were made in Hollywood.

The use of actual London locations and an English cast, including a young Sally Gray as Simon Templar’s girlfriend, was a big plus.

Unlike the original Leslie Charteris story it is based on, Simon Templar and Penny Parker (a name change from the original story) do not live together. He meets her for the first time at the beginning of the film. After that, she comes and goes easily from Templar’s London townhouse.

Sally Gray did not make too many movies, but was a good actress with a fantastic voice, and who was memorable in the movie, “Green for Danger.”

George Sanders was perfect casting as Simon Templar. He could pull off the debonair, witty, anti-hero better than almost anyone. Sanders is perhaps best known for his role as the theater critic in “All About Eve.” The only drawback to Sanders as the Saint was that he did not seem young enough or fit enough to match Leslie Charteris’ descriptions. But, for that, they would have needed Errol Flynn, which would have made it a whole different kind of picture.

The film follows a Leslie Charteris’ story, but if his plot about a gang attempting to distribute illegal Italian currency was thin, the filmmakers played it down even more, the way Alfred Hitchcock used a “McGuffin” – a plot device to thrust the characters into action, but something the audience does not care about. That works thanks to the brisk direction of John Paddy Carstairs. The film also has a nice, dark, noir look to it.

Now for a bit of confusion: The film, “The Saint in London,” is not based on Leslie Charteris’ 1934 book, The Saint in London, which is a collection of three novellas. It is based on The Million Pound Day, which is a novella found in a 1932 collection of three called, The Saint versus Scotland Yard. (My review of the novella is here.)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

FFB: The Saint / The Million Pound Day by Leslie Charteris

It has been a long time since I read any of Leslie Charteris’ stories of Simon Templar – aka the Saint. The last time may have been in high school – so make that a very long time.

Last week, I bought a $1.49 Kindle copy of The Saint versus Scotland Yard, a 1932 book containing three Saint novellas – The Inland Review, The Million Pound Day, and The Melancholy Journey of Mr. Teal – and read the middle story first.

In it, Simon Templar, driving back to London at night, stops to help a dazed, exhausted and beaten man running from a pursuing thug. The thug is part of a gang planning to pass a million pounds worth of illegal Italian currency. The man Templar helps is an Italian official in England to stop the gang. The Saint hides the man in a safe place and takes up the cause.

None of this will spoil the mystery of the story because there is not much of a mystery in The Million Pound Day. The novella is an adventure yarn with the Saint hunting down the leader of the gang while dodging the police. The cops are always eager to slap the cuffs on Simon Templar because the Saint frequently breaks the law, but usually to help others.

The dashing, erudite Templar goes head to head with the gang’s leader, matching wits and showing just how unflappable he can be in the face of danger. At one point, a gun at his back, he causally composes a little ditty about the situation just to annoy the bad guys and amuse himself.

But, occasionally, the Saint can be an obnoxious jerk, as when he eludes Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard with a rapid fire stream of pure BS. In that instance, he was assisted by his girlfriend, Patricia Holm.

Templar and Holm live together in the Saint’s London townhouse, an interesting plot element considering the era.

The Million Pound Day is a fast, easy read, written in a breezy, lighthearted style, although Charteris’ unusual word choices sent me to the dictionary a few times, looking up words like “spondulix,” an archaic term for money. The language, especially Templar’s clever dialogue add to the fun of this Saint story.

The one sour note was the racist descriptions of one member of the gang. Maybe that was acceptable then, but we know better now. (I hope.)

Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) introduced Simon Templar in his 1928 book Meet the Tiger. He continued writing Saint stories until 1963 when other authors took over the writing under Charteris’ guidance.

Monday, June 4, 2018

“The Rider” is a Movie to See

Chloé Zhao's quietly moving modern-day western “The Rider” is not so much a drama as an experience.

The film blends fact and fiction in the story of Brady Blackburn, a young rodeo rider, who after an accident and a serious head injury can no longer do what he lives to do.

Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, a former rodeo rider who had the same thing happen to him.

Jandreau can not only mesmerize audiences, he can also mesmerize horses. In an astounding scene, Jandreau, who is also a trainer, approaches a wild horse in a corral and gently calms it.

This movie's story and the images will stay with you long after the lights come up.

If you need more convincing before going to see this excellent little film, check out Justin Chang’s review in the Los Angeles Times.