Friday, September 26, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday Vol. 2 ...

... continuing Patti Abbott's tag-team effort of assembling a list of books which, in her words, "we love but might have forgotten over the years."

My previous Forgotten Book Friday choice was Donald E. Westlake's THE RARE COIN SCORE, written under the pen name "Richard Stark" and featuring Parker, the solo-named professional thief and protagonist of (so far) 24 lean and mean crime novels.

When I first discovered the Stark books in the late '70s, they were like nothing I'd ever read before. There was a certain terseness to them I recognized from Hammett and Cain, and a laconic coolness reminiscent of the quirkier '50s film noirs, but they seemed like a totally new animal. I was amazed by their compactness, their narrative drive, their swift declarative sentences and their objective amorality. They were something no one had ever done before, I assumed. They had sprung into the world fully formed, unique creations owing nothing to anything that went before them.

And then I discovered Peter Rabe.

Between 1955 and 1974, Rabe wrote more than two dozen novels, many for Fawcett Gold Medal. Five of these, beginning with 1956's DIG MY GRAVE DEEP, were the adventures of an ex-gangster named Daniel Port, who leaves "The Stoker Mob" to strike out on his own. The cold-coffee-swilling Port is tough, agile and intelligent, but unlike Parker, he's one of the more compassionate animals in his particular jungle. In 1957's THE OUT IS DEATH, the second book in the series, Port comes to the aid of an ill and aging safecracker named Dalton, who's being strong-armed into doing one more job for a brutal young gang leader named Corday (shades of Westlake/Stark's THE JUGGER eight years later, although in that case the safecracker is dead before Parker can get there).

I came to Rabe's novels late, when Black Lizard Books reprinted a handful of them in the late '80s and early '90s. I had burned through all the Starks by then, and the Rabe books were more fuel for the fire. They were clearly the direct forerunners of the Stark novels, and shared a lot of the virtues I'd found so startling - their brevity (they almost all ran under 150 pages), the precision and clarity of the descriptive passages and the refusal to engage in simplistic genre stereotyping of good and evil. THE OUT IS DEATH, while not the best of his novels, is a quintessential slice of Rabesian pulp, hard-boiled in an understated way that Westlake would polish to perfection just a few years later. Here's Port trying to make his escape out the side door of a nightclub, with a menacing group of thugs at his heels and a lone obstacle at the door:

Port headed for the nearest exit guarded by only one man. The band stopped before he made it, and the sudden quiet was unearthly. After the silence there was bedlam again; chairs scraped, people laughed, and a buzz of voices rose from the tables.

The kid at the door saw Port coming, but he didn't expect much from a man running away.

Then the kid's arm was suddenly bent double. The pain grew like a fire running up his arm and bursting hot and big in his shoulder.

"It hurts less if you walk," said Port's voice close beside him, and they moved out of the door and into the alley.

Some of Rabe's novels were recently reprinted as double editions by Stark House Press (though, so far, not the Port novels). When the bottom of the paperback original market fell out in the early '70s, Rabe went back to his other profession, teaching psychology, a subject in which he had a Ph.D. Two of his final novels were the Fawcett GODFATHER cash-ins WAR OF THE DONS (1972) and BLACK MAFIA (1974). He died in 1990 at age 68.

There were other antecedents to the Westlake/Stark books, of course, notably Lionel White's CLEAN BREAK (aka THE KILLING) and W.L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY, both of which were also reprinted by Black Lizard and are terrific novels in their own right. More on them at some point in the future.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for this great review. I'd barely heard his name before.

Barrie said...

I'd never heard of this guy, but he sounds great. Thanks!