Sunday, June 28, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #3: VIOLENT SATURDAY

The third installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early '90s:




THE STORY: A bank robbery throws a small Alabama town into chaos.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A major Southern novel disguised as a crime thriller. Or maybe the other way around.

"The three men arrived in Morgan Friday afternoon on the two-thirty train from Memphis. They were the only strangers to get off the train that day, and several people noticed them but didn't pay them much attention. They might have been salesmen or minor businessmen of some sort. They only reason they were noticed at all was because there were three of them."

So begins W. L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY. The three aren't salesmen, of course, or minor businessmen. They're big city bank robbers who descend on the small town of Morgan, Ala., to plunder the local Savings and Loan. As their plans proceed and the titular day looms closer, the town itself seems to tremble with anticipation, as if a storm were gathering on the horizon. But before that happens, Heath delves "Peyton Place"-like into the passions and private dramas of Morgan's citizens, none of whom are very innocent themselves. When the run-up to the robbery leads to the kidnapping of the book's ostensible hero, an "expediter" for the Fairchild Chenille Company, things start to go badly wrong. And the book earns its title in a climactic shoot-out that's startling in its realism, especially by 1955 standards.

One of the great things Black Lizard did during its original run was bring near-forgotten novels like this back into print (even if they promptly fell out again), and VIOLENT SATURDAY is maybe the best of the bunch. Unlike most of their reissues, it wasn't first published as a paperback original. Though it was Heath's debut novel, it was bought and published in hardcover by Harper, and the film rights sold almost immediately. It was filmed later that year at 20th Century Fox, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Victor Mature, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin in an early role. The story was transplanted to Arizona, with Borgnine as an Amish farmer (!) who helps foil the robbery. The film isn't available on DVD, but can be seen in its entirety on Hulu.

VIOLENT SATURDAY is very much a novel of its time, and the casual racial epithets can be a little jarring, even in context. But the finely nuanced social observations and expert build-up of suspense put it right in the forefront of American crime novels of the 1950s.

William Ledbetter Heath has become something of an enigma in the decades since the book was published. He wrote at least eight novels, three of those for younger readers, but all remain out of print. The Black Lizard edition of VIOLENT SATURDAY also contains a great introduction by Ed Gorman, with plenty of biographical details about Heath, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2007). Black Lizard also reprinted Heath's follow-up, the excellent ILL WIND, which again takes place in the fictional town of Morgan, though it's only marginally a crime novel. Last year, browsing in a used book store, I found a British edition of Heath's third novel BLOOD ON THE RIVER, which, as far as I can tell, has never have been published in the U.S. at all. Like those two earlier books, it's an almost flawless merging of character and action, deeply evocative of small-town communities in the rural South.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Peter Rabe's THE OUT IS DEATH

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chasing "Something in the Night"

And speaking of Cornell Woolrich ...

It may seem a stretch to equate noir master Woolrich's doom-laden novels and stories with the music of Bruce Springsteen, but they actually share a lot of common ground. Along with their fondness for nocturnal imagery, the best of Springsteen's earlier songs often had that haunted - and haunting - quality found in Woolrich's work. The narrator of Springsteen's "Stolen Car" (from 1980's "The River") is an archetypal Woolrich character, mourning a lost love while driving a stolen car "through a pitch-black night," wracked by guilt and fear that "in this darkness, I will disappear."

And just look at some of those other song titles - "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Downbound Train," "Point Blank" "Because the Night," "New York City Serenade" (Woolrich had his own "Manhattan Love Song"). And years before Springsteen came along, Woolrich found his own muse in Asbury Park, setting several stories in that once-glamorous but forever-fading seaside resort. The best-known of these is probably 1935's "Boy With Body," which was reprinted as "The Corpse and the Kid" in the 1988 Woolrich collection DARKNESS AT DAWN. Woolrich always had a fondness for citing popular song lyrics in his stories as well. If he were alive and writing today, he'd probably be quoting Springsteen.

Probably the most Woolrichesque of all Springsteen titles is "Something in the Night," from his 1978 album "Darkness on the Edge of Town." It's one of the great but lesser-known Springsteen songs, filled with evocative lyrics and existential angst. It's also one of his most geographically specific songs, set on Asbury Park's Kingsley Street, which at one time formed a oval with Ocean Avenue known as "The Circuit," where aimless teenagers cruised on hot summer nights. The Circuit is also mentioned in that other Springsteen song with a quintessentially Woolrichesque title, "Night," from 1975's "Born to Run." At the south end of The Circuit was Palace Amusements, the ramshackle beachfront arcade immortalized in that album's title song.

While listening recently to some archival Springsteen shows, I came upon the first-ever version of "Something in the Night," from a concert at the Monmouth Arts Center (now the Count Basie Theatre) in Red Bank, N.J., on Aug. 1, 1976. Springsteen and his E Street Band were performing a six-night stretch there, debuting new material while an ongoing lawsuit kept them from recording (other songs premiered that week included the equally haunting "The Promise." )

This earliest version of "Something in the Night" is even more Woolrichian than the one on the album. Slowed down, with only a simple keyboard accompaniment, the Red Bank version is radically different from what was released, with bleak impressionistic lyrics and references to a night when the devil "will walk these streets like a man."

Springsteen refined the song further through the years, leading up to the "Darkness" version, which is the one he currently performs, albeit infrequently. The various live versions also offer an insight into his songwriting process, as he gradually reshaped both the lyrics and mood of the song. By the time of a widely-bootlegged performance at New York's Palladium in November 1976, Springsteen had added a mournful trumpet to the arrangement, along with a new final verse. The album track lyrics can be found here. The Aug. 1, 1976 Red Bank version follows (all lyrics are copyright Bruce Springsteen, of course).

Well, I'm riding down Kingsley figuring I'll get a drink
I turn the radio way up loud so I don't have to think
And I ease down on the gas, looking for a moment when the world seems right
And I go tearing into the heart of something in the night

I picked this chick up hitch-hiking, she just hung her head out the window and she screamed
Said she was looking for someplace to go, to die or be redeemed
Well, you can ride this road 'til dawn, without another human being in sight
'Cause baby, everybody's gone looking for something in the night

And me I gotta stop running, I gotta stop my fooling around
Well, I got this stuff running around my head, I can't live with or live down
She wants me to push this machine until the whole world disappears out of sight
And just me and you baby, we'll surrender to the kindness of something in the night

Now tonight no sins are forgotten, no sins are forgiven
And when I look out on these streets sometimes I can't tell the dead from the living
Just winners and losers, mumbling about some vague wrong and right
And kids like us, rumbling over something in the night

And now you people out on the island, lock your doors and take your children by the hand
Put on your black dress, baby, because tonight the devil will walk these streets like a man
I don't know about you, but I'm gonna bring along my switchblade, in case that fool wants to fight
If he wants me I'll be running down the highway, chasing something in the night.

An audio version of the Palladium version can be found below.

Above, an Asbury Park Press ad promoting the Red Bank shows, and a ticket from the Aug. 1, 1976 performance.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Random Readings, Vol. 7

This installment of Random Readings is from Cornell Woolrich's beautifully written - if highly fictionalized - unfinished autobiography BLUES OF A LIFETIME, the existing chapters of which were assembled and edited by Mark T. Bassett for a 1991 Bowling Green State University Popular Press edition. In this excerpt from the first chapter, titled "Remington Portable NC69411" (after one of Woolrich's early typewriters), an aged, infirm and deeply depressed Woolrich, sensing he hadn't long to live looks back nostalgically - and painfully - on his days as a young writer. "It makes me blue to look back at the past," he writes. "But I want to look back 1ce more, before it's gone forever." He recalls long happy nights on the second floor of a Manhattan brownstone shared with his mother, grandfather and aunts, crafting his first novel, 1926's COVER CHARGE, in a white-hot rush, reveling in the fierce joy of his art and talent:

"It had become such a fixed habit by now, such a part of my daily routine, I was so hooked on it, that I couldn't have given it up for love nor money. So every evening after my meal was over I'd sit there, anywhere from nine to eleven-thirty or twelve, in the room on the second floor that had the grand piano in it, with the white cicatrices on its lid where spilled gin from my pocket flask had eaten into the ebony patina, the door closed, the family out or inaudible, a single lamp lit behind me on a pedestal in the corner ... bending over my knee, scribbling away ... . Every now and again I'd take a breather, lean back to rest my back and ease my neck, and put out even the one light, to facilitate the gathering of new thoughts for the pencil bout to come.

"I never forgot those chiaroscuro seances in that second-floor room. Lights up, writing; lights out, getting ready to write some more; lights up, at it again. I like that kid, as I look back at him; it's almost impossible not to like all young things anyway, pups and colts and cubs of all breeds. But I feel dreadfully sorry for him, and above all, I wish and pray, how I wish and how I pray, that he had not been I. He might have had a better destiny, if he hadn't been, he might at least have had a chance to find his happiness."

ABOVE: Artist Larry Schwinger's evocative cover for the 1982 Ballantine paperback edition of Woolrich's 1941 novel THE BLACK CURTAIN.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Out of the past: More on Dan J. Marlowe

As a follow-up of sorts to last week's post about Dan J. Marlowe's 1962 novel THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH:

A couple of years back, I was browsing through the paperback mystery racks in a used book store in south Florida when I came across a rare find - a copy of Marlowe's hard-boiled caper novel FOUR FOR THE MONEY, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1966 and never reissued. I'd read most of the Marlowes Black Lizard reprinted in the mid-'80s, including TNOTGID, THE VENGEANCE MAN and STRONGARM, but I'd never come across this one before.

I was even more surprised when I turned to the title page and found this:

It reads: "To that sterling character, Bill Bell - fellow worker with words - Dan Marlowe."

Yup, an autographed first edition out-of-print Marlowe Gold Medal, in excellent condition, hiding there in the stacks along with the dog-eared James Pattersons, Rex Stouts and Agatha Christies. I bought it immediately, along with a handful of other books (I think I paid $10 for the lot), and when I got it home - or at least to the motel serving as home - I found the following typewritten note tucked into the pages midway through the book:

I've been back to that store many times since, but no other Marlowes have ever turned up, and 1960s Gold Medals alone - from any writer - are becoming increasingly difficult to find. The note dates the inscription to sometime before November 1966. Had it sat unmolested within those pages for 40 years? And why and how did the book suddenly appear in that store after all that time? (I'd been there previously and never seen it).

These are all mysteries, of course, which will never be solved (Marlowe died in 1986, at age 72). But boy, I'd love to learn the backstory there. As it is, the book feels like a strange time capsule from a long-gone era. If anyone out there (Bill Crider?) can offer any clues as to context - or the identity of Bill Bell, "fellow worker with words" - I'd love to hear from you, either here or at my site.

ALSO: Reading Francis M. Nevins' introduction to the Cornell Woolrich collection TONIGHT, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK this week, I stumbled on another interesting Marlowe anecdote. In a letter he sent to Nevins in 1968, Marlowe recounts the night in the late 1950s when he drove down from Connecticut to Manhattan to go out drinking with Woolrich, whom he knew only casually, though both were writing for Avon Books at the time (the episode is recounted in full in Nevins' 1988 Woolrich bio FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE). "We had our evening, which turned out to be a disaster," Marlowe wrote. "He didn't drink much, but I learned quickly that any amount was too much for Woolrich. He simply went to pieces, and I learned later that this was his pattern... I never saw him again, although we did exchange a few notes from time to time. There was a wit in his notes sadly lacking in his person ..."