Friday, November 30, 2007

By Barrington J. Bayley

The Rod of Light is Bayley’s sequel to his SF classic, Soul of the Robot. It picks up with Jasperodus, the robot who wanted to have consciousness, visiting the last Zoroastrian temple. There the priest expounds on the nature of the cosmic struggle between light and dark, spirit and matter. He makes it pretty clear that for followers of Ahura Mazda’s light, robots are from the dark.

The dialectic of dark and light permeates the action-filled story that follows. Jasperodus and other free robots are marked for destruction (can artificial minds die? are they even alive?) by the Bogor Empire. Meanwhile a group of super-intelligent robot scientists are developing their own technique for instilling robots with a true sense of self-awareness, a sentience beyond mechanical mimesis, a soul. Jasperodus is caught between his own desire for self-preservation, the Bogors’ hatred of robots, and his revulsion at the soulless methods of the robot scientists. Souls are granted freely to humans, but robots acquire them at a steep price.

Along the way there are interludes of truly bizarre wonders: an eternal soccer game, a recapitulation of Plato’s analogy of the cave played out in a coal mine, battles, airplane crashes, and startling revelations. Bayley’s dry humor and pointed observations on society are in abundance. As always Bayley’s work has something of the chameleon about it. Only a master can make lines like, “This vessel holds my soul. For technical reasons it cannot be united with my brain,” both funny and poignant.

Rod of Light is a refutation of all the pretentious goofs who think SF needs to avoid quality storytelling, wild scientific fantasy, and suspenseful thrills in order to be serious literature. Bayley achieves the high distinction of writing adventures thrilling to the soul and stimulating to the mind.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, November 29, 2007

By Barrington J. Bayley

Barrington Bayley is perhaps the truest science fiction writer I have ever come across. His stories are filled with all the swashbuckling action and adventure SF is supposed to have while taking the ideas raised by imagined science very seriously indeed. Bayely does this by blending history, philosophy, and classic fiction with a dash of mysticism.

In The Soul of the Robot we get the story of Pinocchio with Steerpike from Gormenghast in the starring role, a spicy blend indeed. The story begins with Jasperodus, a highly developed artificial intelligence coming into being. He departs his creator with nary a backward glance in search of adventure and himself in the wide world. Jasperodus is vexed by the question of consciousness, is he a sentient being or simply a clever imitation? But first he gets in the middle of a Wild West train robbery. His reactions to the violence he encounters leave one wondering, is Jasperodus fatally flawed by a lack of empathy or is he simply to young to understand the consequences of actions.

Jasperodus isn’t exactly a naif, after a period of slavery he rises to become a general and eventually a king through a series of Machiavellian intrigues. Is Jasperodus a true anti-hero or just a kid who wants his way, NOW. Bayley’s plot is a sardonic commentary on the nature of power, aimed less at those who wield it, than those who follow it.

Jasperodus’ tale takes surprising twists as the robot follows his quest, ever seeking to understand the nature of consciousness. Japserodus also follows some other, lesser quests to whip the bejeezus out of various personal foes. Bayley doesn’t mind stopping the action to have a debate on ontological metaphysics, usually framed by a duel to the death with a hostile space cruiser or a revolution. Bayley drops in deadpan humor as well, describing just how a robot deals with a comrade on a psychedelic trip, and why it’s unwise to make an enemy of an automated plumbing system.

The Soul of the Robot is taut, engaging SF that manages to thrill the senses while exercising the mind.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, November 26, 2007

By Paul Cain

Paul Cain is one of the least known hard-boiled writers of the ‘30s. While Hammett, Chandler, and Burnett achieved great success in the pulps and Hollywood, Cain remained obscure though he produced memorable work in both fields.

The classic hard-boiled hero is a PI, someone who stands partway between the law and the Underworld (to use a phrase coined by Race Williams, the original hard-boiled hero). But a PI is nonetheless a product of the legit world, essentially a free-lance policeman. Cain liked to bring his protagonists from the other side of the equation, he focussed on gangsters who acted like detectives. While the utter corruption of Poisonville in Red Harvest was an exception in Hammett’s writing, corruption is the basic norm of Cain’s stories. The cops and politicians are on the take from the crooks.

In “Black” the setting is a small town ruled by an alliance of bootleggers that is breaking apart. In one night the protagonist must get to the bottom of that disintegration for his own purposes. “Black” is a gangland thriller of double and triple crosses that reads a bit like a miniature of Fast One. A hallmark of Cain’s stories is a complex and shifting set of hidden, or half-hidden, alliances and enmities that confront his protagonists. By sifting each person’s true motivation, the truth emerges.

“Red 71” and “Parlor Trick” both employ underworld protagonists involved in murder. The need to reveal who committed murder may be just as strong as the need to conceal who else had a part in it in these twilight stories.

“Murder in Blue” and “One, Two, Three” feature somewhat more traditional PI protagonists. But the detective in “Murder in Blue” is a half-baked one, freelancing not so much because he believes in justice, but because he expects to make a name for himself.

The last two tales angle away from the world-weary cynicism of the other tales toward a world where white-knights might really ride to the rescue of the falsely accused. “Pigeon Blood” is perhaps the weakest of the set, with a decent hard-boiled whodunnit, but few big surprises. It’s a tale of scheming blue-bloods mixed up with degenerate hoods. The hero, known only as Druse, is less of a working PI, than a crime-fighting vigilante in a fedora. “Pineapple” takes up the notion of yellow-journalism and its role in demonizing outsiders. Again the hero is less a working PI than a vigilante who is determined to seek justice. It seems as if Cain was angling to create a justice-seeking PI who lived to bring in baddies, preferably in a popular series that would be highly salable to editors. If the editors didn’t bite, it’s a pity because success might have kept Cain writing his highly entertaining crime fiction.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich was the poet-laureate of noir. His career as a pulp writer spanned the ‘30s and ‘40s. His output was large and distinguished by many successful screen adaptations. Yet, Woolrich is little known outside of crime novel aficionados. Perhaps it is because of the intense darkness he found beneath the sunlit world.

Nightwebs brings together both the dark and the light with a dozen tales groups under the headings of “The Claws of the Night”, “Death and the City”, and “The Butchers and the Trapped”. They are a nightmare ride through the doomed roller coaster of Woolrich’s imagination. They are also representative of the classic themes of Woolrich’s work: guilt, loss, suspicion, cruelty, and a kind of cosmic fear of a world filled with a malignant will to crush one’s soul.

“Grave for the Living” is about an abominable cult that practices burial alive, which is pretty mild compared to torturing someone with sulfuric acid as the police do in this ghastly tale. “The Corpse Next Door” is a Depression-era nightmare of life in a decaying tenement and the decay bred by a guilty conscience. “You’ll Never See Me Again” is about the loss of a loved one, but Woolrich’s characters are apt to physically lose a loved one. Retrieving them is compounded by the difficulty of demonstrating they are really missing.

“Dusk to Dawn” is another Depression story, but instead of dwelling on the horrors of guilt this tale describes the thrill of shedding one’s decency for savagery. “The Screaming Laugh” is an off kilter “whodunnit” where Woolrich’s verve for the absurd is matched by his relentless pacing. “Dead on her Feet” visits that most characteristic of ‘30s entertainments, the dance marathon. It also features one of Woolrich’s most sadistic detectives.

Woolrich wrote noir tales that mixed depravity with love, bleak doom with hope, and sadism with tenderness. His tales can have a wild improbability or a realism rendered with painful clarity. What they all have is an ability to compel a reader’s attention.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

By Dashiell Hammett

This collection pulls together a variety of Hammett stories, few of which have ever been anthologized and none recently. Consequently the collection focuses on early, minor work. That’s not to say it’s bad, it is surprising to see what a good craftsman Hammett was right from the start. However, by and large this is not his top-drawer work.

The collection includes some non-crime stories such as “Holiday”, a piece of naturalism that is very much in the vein popularized by Hemingway. The story concerns a tuberculosis sufferer on a spree in Tijuana. Tuberculosis was a subject very close to Hammett’s heart: he suffered from TB and lived hand-to-mouth for years on small disability checks.

Some of Hammett’s sense of humor and irony shines in tales of low-life crooks in “Itchy” and “The Green Elephant”. Both concern crooks who try to be something different, still crooks, but different kinds of crooks, and find that change brings a terrible price.

“The Road Home” and “Ber-Bulu” show a rarely seen side of Hammett’s fiction: stories with exotic settings and adventure motifs. Hammett later reversed the adventure story trappings in “The Ruffian’s Wife” and “The Maltese Falcon”, bringing the exotic into hard-boiled crime stories set in American cities.

One recurring theme is comic deflation. Stories such as “The Crusader”, “The Barber and his Wife”, and “Ber-Bulu” depict men with a greatly inflated senses of self-worth and physical power, suddenly brought down to earth.

While many of the stories are short, in fact some qualify as micro-fiction, editor Vince Emery includes a great deal of biographical material and critical analysis. The criticism is insightful and written in a bullet format intended for casual readers rather than scholars. The biographical data is likewise valuable, but would benefit from more focus. Maybe some folks need to be reminded that Hitler came to power in the 1930s, but is it really relevant here? Matters that lie much closer to an understanding of Hammett’s life and times need a little more detail. Emery’s assertion that Communist infiltration of Hollywood was directed from Moscow really needs to have footnotes to support it. While Hammett’s shifts in viewpoint to support the party line are unpleasant to read about, more detail on his Communist associations might help a reader sort out what Hammett truly believed.

Lost Stories has some fine Hammett fiction in it. However, this is a collection for a completist or someone trying to build a deeper picture the greatest crime-fiction writer of the 20th century. Beginners should start with The Big Knockover, The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, or Red Harvest. Read any of them, you’ll read the rest and a yearning for Lost Stories won’t be far behind.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, November 19, 2007

By Donald Goines

Most crime writers approach their topic from the far side as it were. They read about crime. Donald Goines lived it, it gives his pot-boiler crime novels an urgency not exactly found in other, more polished work.

Eldorado Red is a successful numbers racketeer. His son Buddy is a junkie. Red lives a life of luxury while Buddy seethes over the deprived childhood he had with his mother (Red’s estranged wife). But Buddy is an ambitious young man, he knows the routine at the houses where Red’s runners deposit their take. In dizzying round of larceny, he and his addict pals rob them all. Meanwhile Red’s henchmen are busy tracking down the heist gang while Red takes on a number of beautiful ladies.

It sounds a bit like a Quentin Tarantino film. I daresay it would make excellent material for QT. Goines knew his subject well, having robbed several numbers houses to support his heroin addiction.

Not that Eldorado Red is exactly flawless. Red’s easy-come-easy-go relationship business seems out of place on this action packed 24-hour robbery and murder spree. Goines’ dialog sometimes sounds a bit stilted, though that may have been an editorial retreat from the smooth street dialect his characters use.

The best way to approach this book is to imagine the speech in your mind, letting the real voices you may have heard bring the story to life. Goines characters are ruthless but at the same time a bit purposeless. For all the blood they shed in the name of money, few will end up rich. None can be said to be better off. There is a street-wise cynicism that pervades this tale, making it among the hardest of hard-boiled yarns.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, November 16, 2007

By Edward Bunker

Eddie Bunker was a crime writer who knew crime: he grew up in the California criminal system and was a professional thief. That experience, plus twenty years of labor as a professional writer, gives Dog Eat Dog a brutal realism that is seldom found in fiction.

The novel is about three jailhouse buddies. Deisel is a tough hoodlum who works for a low-level mobster while keeping a middle-class lifestyle with his wife and kid. Mad Dog is a violent, paranoid nutcase with a cocaine habit. Troy is the product of a prosperous, upper-class family where madness and brutality was the norm. Newly released from prison he plans to rally his buddies and cut a swath through the underworld.

Dog Eat Dog follows these hoodlums through their lives of crime: drug-binges and violent rages, family life and crime for hire, high-priced hookers and the LA night-life. Troy’s gang progresses from robbing drug-dealers to acting as hired guns for a Mexican drug-lord. The uncontrolled nature of a life of crime propels the story to a brutal and bloody climax.

California’s new “three-strikes” law hangs over the heads of these men. They are acutely aware that any crime: from check fraud to armed robbery, means a life sentence. The life of these criminals forms a backdrop for their constant self-justification and commentary on prison. They all are products of broken homes and jail. Each proclaims that they learned their toughness as a survival mechanism in reform schools and prison. Troy’s sudden arrival in 1990s America lets him see a society in free-fall that seems normal to the rest of us. They also uniformly blame society’s anger on what they see as the real problem: out-of-control African-Americans. In the eyes of Troy, Deisel, and Mad Dog black teenagers with AK-47s are ruining life for decent, hard-working crooks.

While Bunker makes pointed commentary on society through he eyes of Troy, he is too aware of how criminals build a wall of BS around their selfish and destructive lives. While loudly proclaiming their disdain for the senseless harshness of the three-strikes law, Troy and his pals have no intention of being anything but violent criminals. They praise the open, money driven world of Mexican prison as better for a prisoner’s rehabilitation, all the while they are planning a ruthlessly violent crime in a drug-lord’s cell. Troy’s self-pitying litany of “what-did-I-do-wrong” is a brutal impeachment of a violent man.

Before the story has run its course, everything is turned upside down. Make no mistake, each of these men believe that they have some moral limit: Troy doesn’t see himself as a killer, Deisel only wants to provide for his family, Mad Dog is, well…, Mad Dog is loyal. But Bunker doesn’t shy away from showing that it isn’t just broken families or prison that corrode a man’s soul, but also his choice to commit himself to the treacherous world of crime.

Bunker’s story may be too raw for some, but it is a fascinating insight into the underworld from a man who had seen it from both sides. Dog Eat Dog is also a compelling thriller with edge-of-your-seat twists and turns. After the action is done, it will leave you wondering just how we’re supposed to deal with the criminals our society produces.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dir. by Larry Cohen

So if a white guy writes and directs a movie about a black gangster who is super-cool, but also a super-scum bag, is it exploitation or iconography? Does anybody care? Is the soundtrack by James Brown the coolest thing since Isaac Hayes sang the theme song for Shaft?

Tommy Gibbs (Fred Washington) is a go-getter street hood and a crack shot with a broom-handle Mauser. He has tons of ambition and balls to match. Black Caesar chronicles his rise from shoeshine boy and mob runner to Lord of the Ghetto. He survives a vicious beating from McKinney (Art Lund), a crooked cop. Tommy becomes first an underling then a partner and finally the overlord of the alliance of Mafioso and crooked cops that run Harlem. Tommy hires a smart white lawyer (William Wellman Jr.) and even buys off McKinney.

Some lessons to take away: don’t stand around on the street getting a shoe shine when there’s a contract out on you, do build up a loyal cadre of devoted gunmen, don’t ever, ever bring a crooked cop less than the pay off he was expecting, most critical, don’t keep a ledger of every bribe paid to the crooked cops and judges, it’s just plain a bad idea.

Black Caesar suffers from iffy acting, dialog that is sometimes incomprehensible (speaking to a Mafia capo, “I spent years in your private institutions.” Does la Cosa Nostra run youth camps?), and sound that appears to have been recorded on a Mr. Microphone hanging on a mop-handle. I was glued to my seat. Because all that aside, the film is deliriously over the top in its treatment of racial power fantasies. Tommy’s mom is a maid and his dad abandoned him. Tommy’s two best friends are Joe, the nerdy kid, and Rufus, a hood turned into a sleazy preacher. Of course they plan to use crime profits to improve the ghetto (Cohen is honest enough to show that plan never comes to pass). Tommy is brutal and direct in his dealings with his girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry).

The real jewels in the crown are Tommy’s revenge on the white crime establishment that scorns him. Some people buy respectability, Tommy buys his lawyer’s up-town apartment, furniture and clothes included. He celebrates by throwing the lawyer’s wife’s fur coats over the balcony. In a twisted climax, Tommy humiliates a white enemy by smearing shoe polish on his face and making him sing “Mammy”!

What stands out here is Fred Williamson’s take as a super-cool, ghetto Alain Delon. While not exactly in the same league as Richard Roundtree, he is a bit above the “You kilted my bruth-ah!” skewered by Robert Townsend in The Hollywood Shuffle. Black Caesar is a true low budget gem. Is it offensive, racist trash or a Black insurrection on screen? I guess that depends on your point of view. There’s a reason they call the genre “Blaxploitation”.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dir. by Howard Hawks

The film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective story is marvelously done. This is the silver-screen vehicle that put the Bogart and Bacall chemistry on the map. The screenplay is a memorable collaboration between William Faulkner, the darling of literary critics in the ‘40s, and Leigh Brackett, one of the great SF-action storytellers of all time, as well as Jules Furhtman.

Hard-boiled PI, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) has been hired to help General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). The general is an elderly millionaire with two daughters who are about 46-flavors of trouble. Carmen (Martha Vickers) is being blackmailed. Vivian’s (Lauren Bacall) husband Rusty Reagan (a man the general respects) has disappeared and may be responsible.

What Marlowe finds is a sordid mess where secrets need to be buried as fast as they are unearthed. Navigating from swanky Hollywood nightclubs to scuzzy porno stores (back then they were illegal!) and all manner of high-society lowlifes, Marlowe follows this exceptionally twisted skein to its end.

The Big Sleep is a true classic, entertaining and stylish to see.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Dir. by John Farrow

The Big Clock is a film adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel of the same name. For anyone who finds critics’ ramblings about “the love-wrack”, the sense of a moral void, and the general doom-laden bleakness of neo-noir to be a bit pretentious would do well to watch this old-time Hollywood film and recall that you can tell a hard-boiled story with a bit of humor.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is editor of Crimeways Magazine. Stroud has a reputation for tracking down criminals and getting scoops by interviewing them before the boys in blue. You’d think that would get a guy some respect from his boss, but Stroud works for Earl Janoth (Charles Laughlin), the slimiest creep in publishing. Stroud has promised his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan) he’ll take a vacation and Janoth has promised to fire him if he does. Torn between letting more leave time accumulate or being fired and blacklisted, Stroud’s in a pickle. While drowning his sorrows, he just happens to meet the lovely Miss Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who just happens to be Janoth’s ex. Pretty soon Stroud finds he’s spent way too much time with Pauline and is in deep with his wife. Pauline has a confrontation with Janoth and ends up deep in death.

Janoth knows he’ll be in deep with the electric chair unless he can pin the rap on someone else. So he sets his ace crime-stopping editor to finding the guy Pauline was partying with. Stroud must simultaneously track down the clues that will frame him for murder, while finding a way to prove he’s innocent. Not wrecking his marriage is his side dish.

This is a good, fast-paced suspense tale. Milland, Laughlin, and Johnson were all superb. The story builds tension, but provides relief with quirky humor. If The Big Clock sounds familiar, it should. It was re-made as No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner in 1987. While this was one of Costner’s best movies (yes, I know that bar is rather low), I still recommend The Big Clock on its own merits.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dir. by John Huston

This 1950 film tells the story of the perfect heist that had a few flaws. The script is by W.R. Burnett (High Sierra, Little Caesar, &c), the master of hard-boiled crime movies, and the direction is by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) making Jungle a playground of titans.

The story may seem a trifle complex: Doc (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and wants to make a one big score and get out of the country. He contacts Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a big shot crooked lawyer who agrees to bankroll a massive jewel heist. While these gentry provide the mcguffin, Dix Hayden (Sterling Hayden) is the heart of the movie. He’s a down on his luck hoodlum who just wants to make enough dough to go back to the farm in Kentucky.

The trip back to Kaintuck ain’t an easy one. Everyone is on the make, and the merely dishonest are prey for the utterly corrupt. As Doc’s plan begins to fall apart from unforeseen consequences and treachery from within, the true character of the gangsters is revealed. Burnett’s hoods move from sleazy to decent or to something worse than sleazy. But Burnett finds something worthy in even the worst of them. Pretty soon blood is flowing and the people who appeared indispensable become disposable and underdogs get their moment in the sun.

Marc Lawrence and gives a marvelous performance as Cobby, the low-life bookie. James Whitmore is a hunchbacked diner operator who moonlights as a getaway driver. His food may not be much, but he’ll hide your gat if the cops are about to frisk you. The supporting cast is rounded out by Barry Kelly as a crooked cop and Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich’s girlfriend.

While never as over-the-top bloody as modern crime movies, The Asphalt Jungle is suspenseful. It is also a movie that makes you care about what happens to its cast of hoodlums, criminal masterminds, and three-time losers.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, November 02, 2007

By W.E. Johns

In the early 1930s Captain W.E. Johns of the Royal Flying Corps crafted one of the enduring heroes of aviation stories: Biggles. Generations of British boys have thrilled to the adventures of Captain Bigglesworth and his pal Algy. Whether in the skies over France, flying East, West, North, or South, on vacation, or flying to work, Biggles upholds British pluck and fair play.

Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter chronicles some of those early adventures. The volume brings together sixteen short stories set in the later stages of the Great War (the one that ended all war, you know?). The stories are in fact culled from the first and third Biggles books: The Camels are Coming and Biggles of the Camel Squadron. There is also and introduction by Johns about air warfare and a note about how Biggles and air warfare began.

The stories themselves tend to be brief and pointed little anecdotes about surprising events in war or tricky tactical problems that Biggles and his squadron mates must work out. There are also side trips to the trenches and the home front. The world of spies gets a look in as well. Biggles may have to figure out how to down a heavily armed scout plane or to rescue a Tommy with a leg wound. A trip home finds him getting a white feather from supercilious civvies and a DSO on the same day.

What makes these stories compelling is the very serious matter Johns interjects in what are boys stories. Formally the Biggles tales read at a grade school level. But the content is much more adult. Johns recalls comrades who fought their first and last battle on the same day, men flung from aircraft spiraling down, a pilot whose sole air kill was a friendly pilot.

The stories have light banter and a fast pace that obscures the darkness below. Biggles best friend dies in a flaming mid-air collision. Pilots leap from burning planes rather than die in the flames. Military intelligence coldly arranges for a spy to arrange her own demise. Biggles begins to drink heavily and crack up under the strain.

Johns notes in his introduction that most of the adventures that happened to Biggles were based on real events. Given the mix of defiant jauntiness and soul-crushing horror, that is easy to believe.

Long relegated to the land of corny boys stories, the adventures of Biggles are worth a fresh look for aficionados of hard-edged action stories.

-Dave Hardy