Gravetapping by Ben Boulden
Posted: 18 Dec 2014 07:31 PM PST
“His name was Jimmie Prescott and he is thirty-one years of age. Five foot ten. Slight build.”
He is a loner. A sniper. A killer. The sort of sniper who sets up over a busy city street and randomly chooses a target. A victim. It is the spontaneity that thrills him, and, by his own reckoning, he is the best. The best because he has 41 notches on his rifle, and, while there have been a few close calls, he has no real fear of capture.
“A Real Nice Guy” is a stylish crime story written by William F. Nolan, a favorite author of mine, originally published in the April 1980 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. It is something of a battle of sociopaths—both bad, of course—and while the ending is less than surprising the journey is ideal. The prose is smooth and, especially the non-dialogue narrative, is something like a brassy jazz riff—
“He was a master. He never missed a target, never wasted a shot. He was cool and nerveless and smooth, and totally without conscience.”
It is short. Third person, and very much worth seeking out. But, in the interest of fairness, that is exactly what I think of all Mr Nolan’s short work.
I read “A Real Nice Guy” in The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, published in 2013 by Running Press, and edited by Maxim Jakubowski.
Davies spent most of his writing career riffing on themes of identity confusion and amnesia. He wrote in all genres often blending and hybridizing well known tropes of detective fiction (amnesia victims) and science fiction (mind altering drugs) into a kind of new subgenre of his own invention. Psychogeist (1966) tells of a young man who cannot remember who he is and alternates with his hallucinatory dreams of an alien world that parallel the story of his recovery from amnesia. Or is he actually an alien who crash landed on Earth? Probably his best known crime novel treatment of identity loss is his second novel Who Is Lewis Pinder? (1965), originally titled Man Out of Nowhere in the UK. Give Me Back Myself (1971) belongs with Davies' crime fiction novels. It presents the story of Stephen's search for his true identity as a tale of an unbelievable conspiracy with no introduction of either supernatural or science fiction elements.
In these amnesia novels we are always hoping for the hapless protagonist to find at least one ally who will believe his story, help him uncover the truth and bring the villainy to light. Stephen finds his allies quite by accident when he asks for directions of his next door neighbor Ambrose Kenny. Later Kenny's daughter Fran will stop by for her weekly visit and she will turn out to be both confidante and detective cohort. The manner in which Stephen and his two allies slowly uncover the plot is done with ingenuity and a few startling surprises. You have to credit Davies with a fertile imagination in continually finding new methods to essentially tell the same story repeatedly.
Though his books are out of print copies of nearly every one of Davies' fascinating books are easily found in the used book market at very affordable prices. I'm sure many of his books, not just Give Me Back Myself, can be find both in US and UK libraries as well.
I read this book for both Bev Hankins' Silver Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge and Rich Westwood's 1971 Mystery Reading Challenge. For more on L. P. Davies breathtaking displays of variation on the theme of amnesia and identity confusion see Sergio Angelini's reviews of Man Out of Nowhere and The Alien.
The little boy placed the Yule log on the andirons along with kindling, struck a match and set the log ablaze. He sat there transfixed by the crackling and popping sounds and the dance of the yellow and orange flames. It was his private fire, his alone.
Then an explosive pop and the log split in two. Smoke poured into the room like a carpet of soot unfurling. Out of the smoke a scaly clawed hand was reaching for something.
And a scratchy snarling voice cried out from the hearth, "Playing with matches again? Here's your coal, you naughty boy!"
For more Christmas themed drabbles please visit Loren's blog where he has collected the links to all the participants' blogs. There are also a few stories posted here for those who don't have blogs. They make for quite a variety of chilling holiday visions and events.
BARBARA & MAX ALLAN COLLINS – Bombshell. Five Star, hardcover, April 2004; trade paperback, 2005.
Did you ever hear the story of how Marilyn Monroe saved Nikita Khrushchev’s life while he was making his famous visit to the US in 1959? Me neither, so either (a) it was hushed up really, really well, or (b) could it be? – in this, their latest venture into historical mystery fiction, the Collinses are completely making it all up.
As a matter of fact, it was in September of that year when I left home for college for the first time, and given that as an understandably overwhelming distraction, I simply did not remember, until reading this book, that Nikkie, as Marilyn fondly begins to call him, even went to California. His outburst of annoyance when he discovered that he was not going to be allowed to visit Disneyland, for example, must have made headlines at the time, but until I checked it out on the Internet, I wasn’t sure if it happened, or if it is only one of the totally misguided urban legends that spring up from time to time. It is not.
It is Marilyn Monroe herself who is the detective in this book, beginning when she is accidentally visiting one of the men’s room at Fox Studios – don’t ask, read the book – and overhears two plotters discussing their upcoming assassination attempt on the Russian leader’s life.
And of course she is the book’s star attraction all the way through, although the title may have another interpretation or two as well. The Collinses have done their homework – they always do – and that their leading character is Marilyn Monroe, full in equal measure of self-confidence and self-doubt, well, they certainly convinced me. I don’t think any male of a certain age can read this book without falling in love with her all over again.
December is winding to a close, and I’m all too conscious of how infrequently I’ve updated the blog this year. 2014 has been hectic if fantastic, what with the sale of the mystery novel Rosemarie and I wrote, and my becoming co-managing editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine Noir City, and a host of other assignments, not to mention my thriving mail-order decorative soap business. Order by today if you want your Christmas orders fulfilled!
ASIDE: The annual Noir City Xmas show was last night, at which the program for the 13th annual film festival was revealed. The theme is marriage and I have something of a proprietary interest in it, considering the idea was hatched by Eddie Muller and me at a late-night dinner in Seattle several years ago. You’ve gotta love that poster. Here’s its sordid backstory. You’ll also notice on the Noir City page a sneak peek of the cover of the next issue of the magazine. Trust me when I tell you it’s a doozy. Support the Film Noir Foundation to have it delivered to your inbox come January.
But as the days dwindle down, I realize that I miss posting. In 2015, I’m going to strive to update the blog on a semi-regular basis. No better time to get started than now, with a whip round of new crime fiction I commend to your attention.
Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. Rosemarie and I had the pleasure of meeting our Tor/Forge labelmate at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Rachel’s novel is a taut L.A. crime story with a tremendous sense of place. Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton’s latest case lands her in all-too-familiar territory. A young woman is found dead on a condo construction site abutting the Jungle, the neighborhood where Lou grew up. More to the point, the site is being developed by the local businessman who might have murdered Lou’s sister decades earlier. As if those old wounds reopening weren’t enough for Lou to handle, her marriage is collapsing, too, and this time a “‘Sorry, baby’ Porsche” won’t cover the damage. You want a strong female character, in the authentic and not buzzword sense? Spend some time in Lou’s company.
The Big Ugly, by Jake Hinkson. Brother Hinkson is a familiar name to Noir City subscribers, one of our constant and most valued contributors. He also writes take-no-prisoners noir novels with a Deep South flavor and a taste of that old-time religion. In his latest, Ellie Bennett walks out at the end of her sentence at Eastgate Penitentiary after years of walking in as a guard. She’s still trying to get her head on straight when a job falls into her lap: find a fellow ex-con who disappeared – and who has ties to both sides in a hotly contested election. A rabbit punch of a book, doing its dirty work in short order.
The Great Pretender, by Craig McDonald. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sprawling, wildly ambitious series about Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted novelist who trucks with twentieth century luminaries, from the outset. Pretender finds Hector in pursuit of the Spear of Destiny, last seen in Hellboy and Constantine, and tangling with Nazis, witches and, most contentious of all, Orson Welles. McDonald cagily splits up the action, with Welles in full enfant terrible mode in the first half of the book – much of the story unfolds on the night of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 – while the second takes place in the late 1940s as the filmmaker’s star is already burning out. Another entire Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits, slots in between, and I’ll be tackling that one soon enough.
Angels of the North, by Ray Banks. The publication date says 2014, but yours truly was lucky enough to clap eyes on this book last year. Damn thing left marks that haven’t faded. Now you have the chance to partake of its majesty. A big, bruising tale of Thatcher’s England, about street-level politics and petty power. You know, the kind that matters. Ray weaves three stories together effortlessly, as always finding sympathy for the devil and humor in the darkest of corners. It’s the best thing Ray’s written, which is saying something, and one of the finest novels of the year. Even if I read it in 2013.