May 232014
 

“From the darkness, something stabbed my face.” And that something is life.

So begins Jake Hinkson’s The Posthumous Man, in which a man who killed himself is brought back to life in the emergency room. Elliot Stilling is given the rarest of opportunities in the noir universe—a second chance, which he screws up almost as soon as he is brought back to life. First mistake: falling under the rapturous spell of his nurse, Felicia Vogan. Second mistake: escaping from the hospital. Third mistake: accepting a ride in Felicia’s car—a ride that leads Elliot into a circle of thieves aiming to rob a truck carrying two millions dollars worth of Oxycodone. And now that he knows about the plan, it’s too late to back out now. 

As economical as it is electrifying, The Posthumous Man is a lean, mean, noir machine that evokes the stripped down Gold Medal paperback thrillers of the 1950s. In particular, Hinkson seems to be channeling the spirit of David Goodis and his brooding blend of melancholy and action, two qualities that would normally be at odds with one another, but in the world of noir they go hand in hand. But Hinkson is no copycat, and instead of Goodis’ gutter blues Hinkson sings of a spiritual crisis.

Elliot is a former preacher, and even though he claims to have given up on his old beliefs, the separation between old and new self isn’t so simple. “It had been almost two years since I had been brutally relieved of the impression that God was listening to me. But like a grown man crying for his mother, some part of me cried out for Jesus to help me.”

In Stan, the mastermind behind the drug heist, Elliot finds his counterpart, someone who is also trying to reconcile divine aspirations with human failure. But while Stan has embraced a life of crime—“Apostle Paul earned his glorious salvation by being the chief sinner. I figure to outdo him.”—Elliot hasn’t lost all faith. He may have resigned himself from ever finding redemption, but he does believe in the goodness of others, chiefly Felicia. For Elliot, the stakes of the robbery are higher than two mil: he’s putting his existential philosophy to the test, looking for some reason—and someone—to live for.

Hinkson’s meticulously sparse prose is tinged with moments of noir poetry, such when Stan tells Elliot, “you’re pouring yourself a long tall drink of misery,” or this Emily Dickinson-esque exchange when Stan and Elliot first meet:

“Elliot Stilling. That name sounds familiar. You somebody I heard of?”
“I’m nobody.”
“Nobody’s nobody.”
“Most people are nobody.”

A stunning novelist (Hell on Church Street) and astute critic (Noir City and Criminal Element), Jake Hinkson is a dangerous man—a dangerous man we can take great pleasure watching out for.

***

Nov 122012
 


Friday morning when I arrived at the Society Hill Playhouse, I found the backroom abuzz with this year's participants. A nice-sized crowd that filled the room without feeling overcrowded. There was enough room to take a look at Farley's or Port Richmond's books without having to resort to murder.



First up was Heide Hatry and "The Art of Noir." She showed slides of her body of work, including many of the performances shown on the opening night for participants who weren't able to make it out. Lots of blood and pig skin in the name of provocative, political performance art. Heide imparted a few important noir lessons from her career. First, don't leave dead animals in your luggage when traveling -- the authorities always take them away. Your backpack is much safer. And second, if you live in a shared apartment building, don't leave dead animals in the communal freezer in the basement if you don't want the cops to show up thinking they've located a serial killer.



Next, I humbly took the stage to moderate a conversation between S.J. Rozan and Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding) called "Career in C Minor." Stace's most recent book is a classical music-themed mystery called Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer -- it's a terrific book, just imagine Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus with a little more murder. Rozan's latest is Ghost Hero, the 11th in her Lydia Chin / Bill Smith private eye series, another stellar NYC novel fueled by an art-related murder that goes back to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Stace and Rozan discussed their respective backgrounds in music and architecture and its affect on their subsequent work as novelists. Stace also graced us by singing two songs.



"Good Country People: Deranged Preachers, Crazed Cops and Other N’er Do Wells of Southern Noir" followed. Jonathan Woods, Vicki Hendricks, Jake Hinkson, Joe Samuel Starnes, and Peter Farris discussed a wealth of Southern Noir writers whom they admired. These are just a few of the topics. Jonathan Woods presented on how obsession and "mad, first person narrators" links Poe with Jim Thompson. Joe Samuel Starnes discussed the noir side of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom. Jake Hinkson talked about religion, noir, and The Night of the Hunter and Flannery O'Connor. And Vicki Hendricks spoke about Harry Crews and his advice to young writers that that "If you can be discouraged, you should be discouraged."




After lunch, Lawrence Block, Anthony Bruno, Ed Pettit and Duane Swierczynski took the stage for "The Movie Was Better," a discussion about which films have influenced these writers. Anthony cited Chester Himes' Cotton Comes to Harlem. Duane mentioned that seeing Faces of Death at age 9 had a profound affect on him and was, perhaps, one of the reasons why he turned in decapitation stories while attending Catholic grade school. Some of the nuns loved it, he mentioned, but some of them were terrified. "Nuns are my target audience still," Duane joked -- or maybe he was serious? Block mentioned that the anthology television shows of the 1950s "taught me something about dramatic instruction." He mentioned one particular episode whose program title he can't remember -- it was about a group of people plotting an assassination. At first, you are rooting for them, but at the end it is revealed that it was Lincoln's assassination they were planning, which makes you re-think everything you previously felt. "Your sympathies were inverted in a wonderfully tricky fashion," said Block. The mysterious nature of the show continues to intrigue Block, but not in the same way that it used to. "The fact that it has disappeared from the public consciousness has tempted me to write it." Here's hoping he does.


Duane recalled working with Brett Simon on an adaptation of his novel Severance Package. In a reversal of the cliche, this time it was Duane who wanted to make a lot of changes to his novel and Simon who wanted to be more faithful to the source material. Sadly, the studio's initial enthusiasm mysteriously disappeared and the project fell through. Sigh ... well, I still have my fingers crossed the movie will see the light of the projector soon, as I'd love to see that. Block also mentioned that Hammett's style increasingly moved towards "prose screenplays" because he realized that movies were the future of his income as a writer. Block also shared this wisdom that too many filmmakers and screenwriters don't realize: "When you have good actors, you don't have to have the words do all the work."


Robert Polito and Joan Schenkar, two of Noir's finest and most original scholars, shared some of their great findings. Polito recontextualized Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon as a Noir film, and Joan enlightened us with maps of Patricia Highsmith's literary murders and real-life lovers -- it's chilling how they line up when compared!


"Noir is the spider that sits on top of the world," said Schenkar -- that's one of the best definitions of Noir I've heard.


Author and former Private Eye Writers of America president Jeremiah Healy interviewed Otto Penzler, winner of the Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Literary Excellence. Their conversation covered the beginnings of Penzler's career, from his small apartment in the Bronx in the 1970s when he was a one-man operation, writing receipts, fulfilling orders, editing manuscripts, and shipping the first Mysterious Press books. When Penzler began his limited edition, cloth-bound, signed editions, it was groundbreaking for the mystery field. Of course "literature" and "poetry" had been treated so ceremoniously before, but never crime fiction. Since then, Penzler has continued to give crime writers, and readers, the respect they deserve, both through his Mysterious Press and Bookshop.

The Bookshop is a miracle that couldn't happen today. With only $2050 in his bank account, Penzler found a partner to buy a building behind Carnegie Hall for $177,000. Penzler's contribution to the down payment was $2000 -- the other $50 he kept to celebrate. His idea was that the first floor would be all paperbacks, the upstairs all hardcovers. All the publishers told him that readers didn't buy mysteries in expensive hardcover edition. History proved Penzler right, and his good judgement has kept him at the front of the field for many decades since.

The conversation was truly great, and I could have listened all day and night to Healy and Penzler. Among my favorite parts were when Penzler gave his list of favorite books. Here's what he listed:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White
Raymond Chandler
4/5s of Hammett ("The Dain Curse is silly.")
Fredric Brown ("The Night of the Jabberwock is so fascinating ... a tour de force.")
Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying
Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series
Michael Connelly
Rober Crais ("Consistently wonderful.")
Lee Child
Dennis Lehane
James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss ("The best Hardboiled novel.")
Charles McCarry ("The best American Espionage writer.")
"I love too much," Penzler said. "I could go on all day."

As Penzler's list shows, he's a man of great taste, and his publishing record is astonishing. I'm happy he won the award and very pleased that he was able to come out to NoirCon to speak.


And now, some candid shots of the NoirCon crowd from throughout the day.





Jan 232012
 
My most recent post at the Los Angeles Review of Books is called, "Hell, Hurt, Blood and Rapture." Check it out for reviews of Jake Hinkson's Hell on Church Street (New Pulp Press), Reed Farrel Coleman's latest Moe Prager book, Hurt Machine (Tyrus Books), John Rector's Already Gone (Thomas & Mercer), Alan Glynn's Bloodland (Picador), and a Harry Whittington anthology from Stark House Press that includes Rapture Alley, Winter Girl, and Strictly For the Boys.

Read the full article here.

Excerpts below:

Hell on Church Street is one of the rare novels that actually deserves the over-used comparison to Jim Thompson, not just because Webb follows in the footsteps of such crazed protagonists as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and Nick Corey (Pop. 1280), but because Hinkson takes a risk and deviates from Thompson’s iconic moulds.


Rector writes hardboiled noir with a rare poetic élan, tight, almost violently compressed action, and reticent melancholy... He’s already proven himself among the freshest and most stylistically austere voices working in the thriller field. In fact, labeling his books “thrillers” feels too limiting. There’s a tonal ambience and doleful vibe that permeates his work, which comes as a surprise, considering how action-packed and tense his narratives tend to be. Acutely visual, Already Gone pulses with cinematic urgency and visceral punch.


Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager saga, about a Brooklyn ex-cop turned reluctant wine merchant and occasional PI, is that rare series that improves with each new entry. Coleman is now up to the seventh book, Hurt Machine, and it’s not only the best one yet but also the darkest... Coleman’s novels, like Ed Gorman’s, impress not with distractingly complex plots (though they’re both certainly capable of spinning real page-turners) but with their profound clarity and expert simplicity. Coleman’s characters don’t need grand schemes or million dollar payoffs as motivations: as Moe too frequently discovers, there’s enough potential for lifetimes of pain in our everyday lives.


Alan Glynn’s Bloodland, a loosely related follow-up to 2009’s Winterland, is a stunningly intricate and timely piece of globalization noir... In its depiction of immoral business practices and the increasingly blurred lines between criminals and politicians, Bloodland is like an amped-up 21st-century version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. From the exploitation of human labor through umpteen middlemen to who-knows-where, Bloodland captures the fragmentary and alienating mechanism of international affairs with prismatic clarity.



The real prize of the anthology, however, is Strictly For the Boys, originally published in 1959, and the only one of the three to bear Whittington’s own name. The story is about a battered wife attempting to flee an abusive husband who refuses to let her, her mother, and her new boyfriend alone. Downright disturbing in its realism and sobering depiction of domestic violence, Strictly For the Boys displays a social consciousness that was prescient for its time, and which continues to be relevant today... Editor and scholar David Laurence Wilson deserves special commendation for his tireless efforts to restore Whittington’s reputation (and, in the case of Winter Girl, to restore the text itself). Wilson and Stark House publisher Greg Shepard give their books scholarly attention on par with the Library of America. Meticulously researched and lovingly edited, Stark House presents these forgotten paperback novels not as pulp curios, but as real literature, and set the bar high for other reprint series.