by Francis M. Nevins
WILLIAM ARD – Hell Is a City. Rinehart, hardcover, 1955. Popular Library #756, paperback, 1956. Ramble House, softcover, 2012.
In the early 1950s, when our political and cultural life was dominated by Senator Joe McCarthy and HUAC, and our crime fiction by the bloody exploits of Mike Hammer, a young man named William Ard joined the handful of hard-boiled writers — among them Ross Macdonald, Thomas B. Dewey, and William Campbell Gault — who carried on the legitimate private-eye tradition of Hammett and Chandler.
In Ard’s world the PI stands for personal and political decency, a clear line is drawn between dramatically justified violence and gratuitous brutality, and sex is seen as a restoration of oneself and caring for another. Anthony Boucher, the dean of mystery critics, praised Ard over and over for his “deft blend of hardness with human warmth and quiet humor,” for turning out “masterpiece(s) of compressed narration … backed with action and vigor, written with style and individuality.”
Hell Is a City, seventh of Ard’s nine novels about private eye Timothy Dane, is the most powerful and exciting of his novels. Dane is pitted against the corrupt forces of law and order in a nightmare New York where the mayor, the police commissioner, and most of the officials are allied with the mobs and determined to hang on to their power in the coming mayoral election.
When a young Latino shoots a Brooklyn vice cop who was about to rape the boy’s sister, the municipal bosses use their puppets in the news media to portray the case as the cold-blooded murder of a heroic officer, and put out word to shoot on sight whoever might contradict the party line.
Brought into the picture by a crusading newspaper editor, Dane finds himself in the classic roman noir situation: knowing the truth no one else will believe; threatened on all sides by killers with badges and without; hounded through city streets dark with something more than night.
With its sharply drawn characters, pulsating pace, and terrifying premise, this book could easily have been masterpiece, were it not for its grotesquely bad denouement, perhaps the first televised criminal trial scene in fiction, where all is set to rights in record time and in an impossibly silly manner. In a later Dane-less novel, As Bad As I Am (1959), aka Wanted: Danny Fontaine, Ard reworked the same story line to a better effect, but without the raw, nightmarish tension of Hell Is a City.
Ard was far from a model of all the literary virtues. He wrote quickly and revised too little, and his style, though readable and efficient, lacks the hauntingly quotable quality of Chandler and Ross Macdonald. His plots tend to fall part under scrutiny and he recycled certain names again and again so that his novels contain small armies of characters named Stix Larsen and Barney Glines.
But his best books — among which are The Diary (1952), .38 (1952), Cry Scandal (1956), and the paperback original Club 17 (1957), published under his pseudonym, Ben Kerr — are miracles of storytelling economy in which Ard’s special brand of tenderness is integrated with the standard elements of mean-streets fiction.
His death from cancer in 1960 at age thirty-seven silenced one of the most distinctive voices in the history of the private-eye novel.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
The title of David Shafer’s novel (Mulholland Books, $26) is the military radio phonetic spelling of that slang staple, WTF. That’s fitting, because this thriller is about a small group of disaffected 30-somethings who are out to prevent a shadowy international conspiracy to put the entire Internet behind a paywall that will make its creators even richer than they already are. Shafer, a journalist, creates some outstanding characters including Leila, a nonprofit do-gooder working in Myanmar, and Mark, a self-help guru in New York who’s got plenty to fix in himself. In Shafer’s hands, they’re as funny and as paranoid as can be, which makes this an entertaining and smart book.
James Ellroy stopped by The Mysterious Bookshop this week to read from his new novel, Perfidia. If you couldn't make it out, here's what you missed...
Fortune's client in this story is not the typical client any private eye is used to. He's Pete Vitanza, a young man hooked on fancy sports cars and devoted to his best friend Jo-Jo Olson who has disappeared. Vitanza is worried it might have something to do with some tough guys who were in the neighborhood a few days ago. Pete doesn't have a lot of money but he's willing to pay Fortune and he pleads his case giving some hazy reasons why he's avoiding the police. It's enough to convince Fortune to take the case, albeit begrudgingly. Soon Dan Fortune finds that Jo-Jo's skipping town is tied to the mugging of a cop and the murder of a showgirl. And that Pete has a lot more on his mind than seeming loyalty for a missing friend. The engaging plot takes Fortune to some seedy night clubs sporting names like Monte's Kat Klub and The Blue Cellar, a mechanic's garage, and finally to Flamingo, Florida where he confronts his quarry only to learn he's been followed by some New York heavies.
Dan Fortune is one of the new breed of private eye that started to appear in the late 1950s. He's not an out an out tough guy. He's got a lot of humanity and he genuinely cares about people. The book is filled with his philosophical musings about the effect of crime on a neighborhood, how growing up in tough unsympathetic Chelsea can harden a person. We learn of his own teen age life as a juvenile delinquent, the consequences of his actions, and the loss of his arm that is a constant reminder of his past. Even with all the thuggery and villainy from the bad guys Fortune still takes to the time to understand why they became such rotten apples.
I especially liked this observation:
Maybe under pressure we all revert to what is easy, to what we have rejected in our lives. The way a gentle man will often become the most violent when violence is forced on him. As if the thing rejected has been lurking all the time and waiting for its chance to burst out when our painfully constructed rational defenses are down.Lynds has said in an interview with Ed Lynskey: "I did not set out to write a detective series, but I decided I wanted to write books that probed into the society we live in. We all must relate to others and how we do that determines the kind of society, country, world and universe we will have." Act of Fear gives you a lot to think about and I'm eager to revisit Dan Fortune and get a few more wise words from this world-weary but wholly likeable private eye with a soul.
For more about Dennis Lynds and his writing career see this website and be sure to visit the Dan Fortune page at Thrilling Detective website for the full list of books and more insight into this great fictional detective.
This fulfills the "Book written by a writer using a pseudonym" for the Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge (space R5). I haven't forgotten my pledge to fill both cards! I'm just slowing down a bit in my posts.
by Erin Mitchell
Some relatively random thoughts/observations this week…
In case you missed it, the Bouchercon programming schedule has been posted. Click here to view/print/download it. There are nine panels at a time this year, so chances are good everyone will be able to find something of interest.
Last night, Scotland voted no to becoming an independent country. Voter turnout was 84.6%. I didn’t have a dog in this particular hunt, although I was hoping for a different outcome. But I’ve been fascinated with the role media (social and otherwise) and IRL events/discussion played in this process, because I think there’s a lot to be learned for the book world.
Because I am lucky to work with some of the best storytellers (not to mention publishers) out there, I have a couple of clients on the September 28 New York Times Best Sellers list. One of them is a brand new book, Robert B. Parker’s BLIND SPOT by Reed Farrel Coleman. It’s fair to say that Reed honors Mr. Parker’s legacy in a way that only he can, and readers are loving it. The other is a book first published some 22 years ago, Lawrence Block’s A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. This has long been a favorite book of mine, and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie this afternoon. And Hard Case Crime has done an amazing job with the movie tie-in edition of the book!
The new iPhone and iOS8 are here. Or there. I mean, I don’t have a new iPhone, but lots of people do. I did upgrade to iOS8. I find it interesting that Apple has apparently abandoned any focus on selling books, particularly given that one of the new iPhones is big enough to be a pseudo-tablet.
Fall is upon us. Heck, it’s even snowed in South Dakota. The next few months will bring an abundance of amazing books, and now would be a swell time to preorder a few of them.
Have a great weekend!
This from Language Log, a University of Pennsylvania site:
Matched guise among the tombstones
Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel A Walk Among the Tombstones has been made into a recently-released movie. I haven’t seen the movie, but in the book, the character TJ carries out what sociolinguists would call a “matched guise experiment”. This is a technique for measuring language attitudes by having the same speaker read a passage in two different ways, and asking hearers a series of questions about the speaker’s intelligence, honesty, or whatever.
TJ is a sort of updated Big Apple version of Sherlock Holmes’ “Baker Street irregulars”:
TJ is a black teenager I met about a year and a half ago on Times Square. That’s his street name, and if he has another name he’s kept it to himself. I’d found him breezy and saucy and irreverent, a breath of fresh air in the fetid swamp of Forty-second Street, and the two of us had hit it off together. I let him do some minor legwork on a case a little later on with a Times Square handle to it, and since then he’d kept in infrequent contact.
Matt asks TJ to check out the pay phones that were used in making some ransom demands.
“I gather the phones had the numbers posted.”
“Oh, right! That’s what I left out. Second one, the one way to hell an’ gone out Veterans Avenue? Where everybody look at you real strange? That phone did have the number posted. The other one, Flatbush an’ Farragut, it didn’t.”
“Then how’d you get it?”
“Well, I resourceful. Told you that, didn’t I?”
“More than once.”
“What I did, I call the operator. Say, ‘Hey, girl, somebody screwed up, ain’t no number here on the phone, so how do I know where I callin’ from?’ An’ she say how she got no way to tell what the number is of the phone I’m at, so she can’t help me.”
“That seems unlikely.”
“Thought so myself. Thought they got all that equipment, you ask them a number at Information an’ they can say it about as fast as you can ask it, so how come they can’t give you the number of your own phone? An’ I thought, TJ, you fool, they took out the numbers to fuck up dope dealers, an’ here you go soundin’ just like one. So I dial 0 again, on account of you can call the operator all day long an’ never spend no quarter, it a free call. An’ you know you get somebody different every time you call. So I got some other chick, an’ this time I took all the street out of my voice, I said, ‘Perhaps you can help me, miss. I’m at a pay phone and I have to leave the number with my office for a call back, and someone defaced the phone with spray-painted graffiti in such a way that the number is impossible to make out. I wonder if you could possibly check the line and supply it for me.’ An’ I ain’t even through sayin’ it when she’s readin’ off the number for me.
Matt is impressed:
“I’m stunned,” I said. “I didn’t know you could talk like that.”
“What, you mean talk straight? ’Course I can. Just because I street don’t mean I be ignorant. They two different languages, man, and you talkin’ to a cat’s bilingual.”
These days, 20-odd years after the period where the novel is set, pay phones are sort of like square-rigged sailing ships. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie replaced this aspect of the plot with something involving throw-away cell phones or texting via TorChat.
And street kids are more likely to be like Billy Baker than like TJ. But it’s a nice story.
Neat, innit? TJ’s an important player in the film, and Brian “Astro” Bradley nails the part perfectly.