May 192014
 



John Trinian is not your typical Gold Medal author, and North Beach Girl (1960) and Scandal on the Sand (1964) are not your typical Gold Medal paperback originals. Far from ordinary, these two titles are among the most unique and extraordinary Gold Medal originals I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. Once again, thanks must be given to the team at Stark House Books for rediscovering these should-be classics, and collecting them in new volume with three illuminating essays by historian Rick Ollerman, close friend Ki Longfellow, and daughter Belle Marko.

A radical blending of 1960s counterculture and noir sensibilities, Trinian’s novels evoke the West Coast spirit of the times with the doomy melancholy of Goodis. The plots vaguely touch on murder, but they're more like hangout books, with the characters drunk or stoned most of the time. Booze, drugs, and art flow freely through these pages—at times the inebriation is a pure high, at others it’s a hazy attempt to block out reality. But unlike something like Lawrence Block’s A Diet of Treacle, these books aren’t Beatnik-sploitation, or caricatures of the scene. Trinian, who was pals with Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, lived the lives he writes about. With each passing page, there’s an authenticity to North Beach Girl and Scandal on the Sand that can’t be faked—it gives the books their realism, but it also gives them their sadness. Trinian feels for his characters, their troubled pasts, their hazy futures, and their lost present.

Though at first glance, the title North Beach Girl might sound like some Frankie and Annette sandstorm, it is nothing of the sort. Erin, the main character, just quit her job as an artists’ model. She crashes as a garage paid for by another woman named Bruno, who runs a local art gallery. The gallery has attracted a local crew of beatniks, drunks, artists, wannabes and has-beens, including Riley, a painter who comes knocking on Erin’s door late one night, piss drunk, wanting to hire her as a model. Bruno, who obviously has some sort of affection for Erin, is resentful and jealous. Deep in debt and looking for a way out, Bruno wants Erin to borrow money from her dying grandmother in order to invest in a larger gallery space. And Erin, indecisive in life and love alike, hasn’t made up her mind what to do about anything.

“The bitter confusion of her life became magnified and it seemed to melt into a solid lump of nothingness. Why should she think about it? Life was wretched and disgusting. It was mean for the stupid idiots who could swallow its lies and shadowy promises. Only fools lived in peace. She thought of the cemetery where her mother was buried. Give and take, old ashes to even older ashes … have another drink and the hell with it. One negated the other.”

It’s as gloomy as any of Goodis’ gutter monologues, a pure mainline dose of 100% noir.

Trinian’s first line in North Beach Girl establishes the theme of entrapment that runs throughout the novel: “Erin covered herself with the pale green robe and sat on the empty packing crate by the narrow barred window.” From her workplace to the garage to the gallery to her grandmother’s house—and of course the variety of places where she goes to drink—Erin never has a place of her own. Always in between, borrowing, crashing, or killing time, she lives in a permanent state of impermanence. While she may be an anti-establishment figure of the time who has dropped out from mainstream society, Erin isn’t a romantic or idealistic character at all. She’s realistic as hell. Most of us have either known an Erin, or been like her (at least for a little bit). And that’s where the power of North Beach Girl is—in the characters. Unlike Riley who likes his “entertainment real simple,” where “the good guy wears a big white hat and the bad guy wears a black one,” Trinian writes ambiguous characters who are neither good nor bad, neither heroes or villains, nor even anti-heroes. They’re screwy people who drink too much and say stupid things and waste time and never seem to figure out what they’re supposed to do. And that’s why Trinian’s characters are among the most recognizably human—and modern—in all of the Gold Medal paperbacks.

Though sex, drugs and murder are very much a part of the story North Beach Girl, the novel isn’t plotted like your standard head-first-into-the-action thriller. Trinian takes his time, slowly developing the characters, their relationships, and their inebriated trajectories. North Beach Girl is structured like an extended bender, coming out of the haze for brief moments of recognition and sobriety, only to drive back into the fog once they see the bleakness of their circumstances.

“Hell,” Erin said softly, “people drink a lot.”

One aspect of Trinian’s writing that does remind me of Lawrence Block, and also anticipates the work of Ed Gorman, is the portrayal of alcohol and drugs. These aren’t people who drink to have fun, or get high to have a good time—they’re just sad wrecks of people. Trinian has great sympathy for them and their constant need substances—and he never pities them, perhaps because he was something like them, himself. As his daughter, Belle Marko, writes, “He was popular and unreliable, his own worst enemy in many ways, getting in his own way with self-sabotage and isolation, depression and bouts of rage and horrible remorse. He was plagued with demons …” One of the biggest clichés of noir literature is its senseless and unrealistic celebration of alcoholism. Trinian, on the other hand, hammers home the unpleasantness of what it really is like.

The second book in the anthology, Scandal on the Sand, also sounds like a Frankie and Annette movie, but it is even less like one than the preceding novel. It begins with a great, and totally surreal, first line:

“In the deep, in cold darkness, a hundred feet below he rocky cliffs and half-hidden among the fan fronds and greenly-waving fields of sea grass, the great gray whale hovered, his tail fins moving now and then to maintain his depth.”

The first couple pages are all from the whale’s point of view—an unorthodox narrative as exciting and it is insane, and yet Trinian pulls it off perfectly. The story is set into motion when the whale washes up on the beach, gets stuck, and can’t get back to the ocean.

An ensemble narrative like John D. MacDonald’s Cry Fast, Cry Hard, Scandal on the Sand follows a group of characters on a single afternoon that all come together because of the spectacle of the beached whale. There’s Karen and Hobart, a hookup from the night before that Karen resents and that Hobart thinks will lead to marriage. There’s Joe Bonniano, a wanted hitman whose picture is on the front page of the newspaper and who is hanging around for a delivery of money. Also near by is Mulford, a cop whose stupidity is matched by his ego and quick temper. Out for a stroll are Fredric, a one-time Hollywood star-turned-dope addict, and his wife, Becky; Riley, an ex-con tow truck driver; and even a sleaze photographer named Earle and his two bikini models. And overseeing all of this is Alex, a lifeguard too hungover to notice what is unfolding on his beach.

Scandal on the Sand is, in my eyes, an even greater accomplishment than North Beach Girl. Structuring the novel around the beached whale is just a magnificent, maverick concept that borders on the avant-garde. The whale functions as a unifying symbol for all the characters: a manifestation of their collective problems, disappointments, uncertainties, and pains. Confronting the whale brings out their true character—in some it reveals compassion, in others indifference, opportunism, and violence.

Like in North Beach Girl, Trinian’s characters are distinguished by their waywardness and uncertainty. In Scandal on the Sand, the action may be compressed into a single afternoon, but the characters experience years of life through their reveries and regrets. Unable to actualize any change in their lives, they’re stuck in a limbo consisting always of nights-before and nights-after-next; days are spent forgetting and planning, and rarely doing. Of Karen, Trinian writes, “She felt a terrible need to search for something, anything, inside or outside herself that would help erase the idiotic outcome of the night before.” Trinian also has Fredric ask his wife, “Becky, do you think that if I can manage it on pills today, pills alone, without anything else, that I’ll still be all right by this evening?” These aren’t characters living for the day so much as they’re struggling to just make it through. As Earle sums it up, “Sometimes I do good; sometimes I don’t. Beer one day, champagne the next. Up and down, and down and up. That’s life.”

Scandal on the Sand also has its moments of hardboiled noir philosophy, like this line that reads like something out of Richard Hallas’ You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up:

“What had Herb said? That Joe wouldn’t even break away from the post? That the odds weren’t in his favor? That was a laugh and a half. Joe had known that all along. Because that’s the way it had always been. Not matter what. Dice, roulette, poker, the horses. Everything always ended with a bust-out.”

North Beach Girl and Scandal on the Sand have whetted my appetite for Trinian, and convinced me that he is one of the true unheralded greats of the Gold Medal canon.
Apr 262014
 

Whoever said stories must have a likable protagonist clearly never read One for Hell. Or maybe no one ever bothered to tell that piece of so-called wisdom to the book’s author, Jada M. Davis. Or, more likely, Davis just decided that the old rules weren’t for him, and he was going to break them all. And how he did.

Originally published in 1952 on Fawcett’s short-lived Red Seal imprint, and now available from Stark House Press, One for Hell is one of the most astonishing crime novels I’ve ever read. Simply put, it’s in a class all its own. It is like Hammett’s Red Harvest told from the inside out—you’re on the wrong side of the law every step of the way, and there’s no Continental Op to set things right.

Like a one-man plague, Willa Ree rides into a sleepy Texas town and quickly turns it into a hotbed of crime, vice, and corruption. Beginning with petty thievery, he maneuvers himself into the local police force and spends more time breaking laws than enforcing them. The local government originally sees Willa as a patsy, just another cog in their wheel of graft. Once he has the badge, however, Willa reveals that he has grand criminal ambitions of his own, and they threaten to blow the whole town sky high and expose everyone involved.

Like Peter Rabe’s Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep, there’s something almost clinical about the way that Davis details the mechanics of the crime syndicate inner-workings. There’s no romantic subplot, no false notes of redemption, no attempt to soften the characters and make them likable. It’s as close to anthropology as it is to noir. But whereas Rabe was deeply concerned about psychology, Davis is more concerned with the behavior of his characters and the mechanics of their operation. Davis, prior to writing One for Hell, worked as a journalist in a town similar to the one he was writing about, and he had first-hand experience with corrupt law officials and small city vice. He knew what he was writing about, and it shows in his work. Davis writes with cold-blooded, matter-of-fact precision, and every step of Willa Ree’s crime spree rings unsettlingly authentic.

From bitter beginning to bitter end, this is hard-lived hardboiled.  
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.

Nov 082011
 
Every time I look at my shelf, I’m thankful for Stark House Press. Greg Shepard and his colleagues tirelessly endeavor to find the hidden gems of American literature—the forgotten classics, should-have-been-hits that fell between the cracks, the critically misrepresented, and the underdogs that never got their due. Orrie Hitt is all of these and more, and now he joins Stark House’s esteemed roster that includes Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, W.R. Burnett, A.S. Fleischman, Margaret Millar, and Robert Silverberg. This new anthology includes The Cheaters (originally published in 1960 by Midwood), Dial "M" For Man (originally published by Beacon in 1962), as well as introductions from Hitt's children and Brian Ritt, an afterward by Michael Hemmingson, and a complete bibliography of Hitt's work.

Half a century after most of his books were published, Orrie Hitt still carries the stigma of the “sleaze” genre. But, as Brian Ritt points out in his introduction, this “allowed him to portray a side of American life not dealt with in the mainstream media during the 1950’s.” Upon first publication, Hitt’s milieu might have been thought of as licentious, but today his characters just seem real, and all too relatable. They’re working stiffs sick of their day job, tired of their home life, and bored with their surroundings, and they resort to alcohol and sex to take their mind off the monotony and dreariness of their everyday life. Hitt is not an idealist, and his characters are as imperfect and morally bankrupt as the world they live in.

In The Cheaters, young lovers Clint and Ann leave their farm-town of Beaverkill, NY and wind up living in the slums of Wilton, known as “The Dells.” Ann works by day in a diner, while Clint spends his nights tending bar. Soon, he finds himself caught in a web of small-time vice that could lead to big-time problems. There’s the bar’s owner, a fat pimp named Charlie; his buxom, hot-to-trot wife, Debbie; and a corrupt cop with his eyes on Debbie, Red Brandon. When Clint sees his chance to dump Ann, grab Debbie and the bar, and get rid of Charlie and Red, he decides to put everything on the line…

Dial “M” For Man is about Hob Sampson, a twenty-something with his own TV business, a deadbeat business partner, and a frigid, virginal girlfriend. All that changes when he makes a house call on Doris Condon. Her husband, shady business tycoon Ferris Condon, stands in the way of everything Hob wants: he blocks Hob’s bank loan to improve his shop, and he won’t let go of Doris. Sick of his shop, his girlfriend, and his partner, Hob decides to clear out of Hawley, NY once and for all—but not without Doris, and not without exacting revenge on her scheming husband.

Both The Cheaters and Dial “M” For Man are finely crafted novels, blending squalor, suspense, and social realism. The world that Hitt resents is more recognizably human than in many of his contemporaries’ books. Hitt is like William Inge, but with less melodrama, and with more crime and depravity. And forget about the “sleaze” label—these two novels are 100-proof noir, as potent as any of the more celebrated stuff coming out from Gold Medal or Lion. Hitt’s characters are lost in their frustrated desires, unable to get anywhere new and unwilling to go back to where they came from. Instead of digging up and out, they only dig themselves deeper into the grave. Their motivations are the stuff you find sitting next to you on the bus, or behind you in line at the store—working man’s noir. Read this little excerpt from The Cheaters and see what I mean:

“Several times I tried calling the apartment but when I did he answered and I hung up, my hands shaking and my guts tense and tight. All I had to do was think about her and I was a wreck, a hopeless ghost of a man who was blinded by all of the love that was being lost. More and more I turned to the bottle, seeking from the bottle the answers to the thousands and thousands of questions that kept churning around inside of me. I didn’t find any answers. I got drunk and stumbling and I didn’t care whether I worked at the bar or not.”

One thing you can you say about Hitt’s characters: they really go to work. In both books, the day-to-day grind of the job is intimately detailed. Hitt is deeply invested in the notion of work as few authors are. There’s a lived-in, worked-in quality to Hitt’s novels that is unmistakably authentic—the tedium, the irritation, the slog, and the disappointment is utterly real. There’s the sense that his characters have to work for their dollar, for their booze, and for their rent. Not one aspect of daily life is overlooked or taken for granted. There’s a palpable sense of poverty, hunger, and destitution on every page. As Hitt writes in Dial “M” For Man: “Living with her would be constant excitement. Yes, living with her, giving her children—but how would I be able to pay the bills? Poverty, stark and real; she would not want that and neither would I.”

Real-world worries distinguish Hitt’s plots and give them their distinctive edge. He invests classic suspense scenarios with working class woes, and the result in both books is a story as fantastic as it is believable. On the one hand, Clint and Hob find themselves living out their big bosomed fantasies and their paranoid nightmares, but at the same time, they’re never fully divorced from the concerns of putting a meal on their plates or paying their rent. Call it noir neorealism with a little added sex—Orrie Hitt’s 1950’s make many novels of the time seem like vanilla ice cream in comparison.

Another aspect of Hitt’s novels that I love is his style. There’s a natural, unlabored flow that reminds me of Harry Whittington (though Whittington is, on the whole, much more intense). Hitt had a clever sense of humor, and he rarely resorted to clichéd expressions, instead creating his own distinctive style. For example, “She dripped sex like a leaky faucet,” (The Cheaters) or “She had a low voice, hot and sultry, the kind of a voice that could sell bathing suits in the middle of winter” (Dial “M” For Man). Even when Hitt is trying to be sexy, there’s frequently an underlying nuance of poverty and struggle, such as this line from The Cheaters: “She was the kind of a girl you could starve to death with and not mind it at all.” In fact, that is precisely the future that Clint sees for himself unless he can find a way to pay-off Red Brandon.

When it comes to plotting, Hitt doesn’t rush head-first into trouble, and instead lets the situations develop slowly. Both The Cheaters and Dial “M” For Man are more about the build-up than the pay-off. Don’t get me wrong, both have terrific and surprising finales, but Hitt dispenses with conclusions rather quickly. He’s more interested in how—and why—his character get themselves in such a rut. Two of the driving motivations are summarized by Hitt himself:

“I’ve got a bull by the tail here but I’ve got to hang on. If I let go now there won’t be another chance. There’d be just jobs here and jobs there and I’d end up floating from place to place, never earning very much and never being sure what I was going to do the next day.” (The Cheaters)

“How bored can you get and still live with yourself?” (Dial “M” For Man)

Hitt’s characters are as restless as they are in need of a rest. The male characters are afraid of commitment, and frequently realize that they’re no good sleazebags. As the narrator of The Cheaters admits, “I was making big money in The Dells but I was just as bad as the prostitutes who worked out of the bar.” The female characters, in particular, are ready to settle down, but they don’t want to settle for less than they feel they deserve. While many of the women are too easily forgiving of the men and too quickly accept the role of a martyr, Hitt never forgets the hardships they faced in order to maintain their independence. They’re smart, savvy, and world-weary from a very young age. Only the femme fatales—Doris and Debbie—come off as thinly characterized (but “fully” developed, physically speaking) archetypes. But these are also the characters Hitt spends the least time with—he’s obviously not interested in them, nor does he sympathize with those who exploit others for personal gain. His loyalty is with the underdogs, the losers, and the workers.

Two days ago, I was new to Orrie Hitt. Today, I’ve read three novels by him. Not only the two books reprinted by Stark House, but also I’ll Call Every Monday, Hitt’s debut. And sitting by my side is another Hitt novel, Shabby Street. Yup, I’ve been bitten by the Hitt bug, and I’m a happier readier because of it. On page one, I knew I would enjoy Hitt's work, and by the end of the collection I knew I had found a new favorite author.

Thanks, Stark House, and keep up the excellent work!

----------------
Vintage Paperback Covers found at Orrie Hitt: The Shabby Shakespeare of Sleazecore.
Nov 052011
 
The second installment of my Los Angeles Review of Books column, "The Criminal Kind," has been posted on their website. In the piece, I discuss Christa Faust's Choke Hold, Ken Bruen's Headstone, Ed Gorman's Bad Moon Rising, and Day Keene's Dead Dolls Don't Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold.

Excerpts are below, or read the full piece here.

Christa Faust
Choke Hold
Hard Case Crime, October 2011. 256 pp.
Written in a casual-but-confident first person perspective, Faust skillfully weaves some of today’s most kinetic hardboiled action with her endearingly earthy humor and moments of unexpected poignancy.

Ken Bruen
Headstone
Mysterious Press, October 2011. 256 pp.
“Taylor, I heard you were dead,” yells a cabbie in Ken Bruen’s ninth Jack Taylor novel,
Headstone. Bruen’s series detective has endured enough booze, coke, beatings, and bruises to bury most of his private eye predecessors, but like a hardboiled Sisyphus, Taylor’s eternal punishment is to push bottles back-and-forth across a bar, taking cases as they come, seeking atonement that’s always out of reach, and accepting yet another glass of Jameson as a consolation prize.

Ed Gorman
Bad Moon Rising
Pegasus Books, October 2011. 256 pp.
Gorman is in top form in Bad Moon Rising. Rather than wax nostalgic or reactionary about the sixties, Gorman cuts through the mythology to reveal a much more nuanced and confused socio-political landscape... Sam McCain is Gorman’s most compassionate and endearing character, and Bad Moon Rising is another triumph in an already extraordinary career.

Day Keene
Dead Dolls Don’t Talk /Hunt the Killer /Too Hot to Hold
Stark House Press, August 2011. 371 pp.
Rounding out the Keene anthology is Too Hot to Hold (1959), in which average joe Jim Brady steps into a Manhattan cab on a rainy day and walks out with a suitcase full of money... Circumstances get so twisted that even Joe wonders, “What kind of a nightmare had he gotten himself into?” The type of nightmare that Day Keene can dream up: the result is a lean, dizzying, and masterful thriller to rival any of today’s top-sellers.