Sunday, May 31, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #2: THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH

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



ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1962

THE STORY: Amoral professional criminal infiltrates small-town America, finds it rotten to the core.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The good stuff, 100 proof

I first read this novel about ten years ago and enjoyed it. Reading it again, I think it's some sort of twisted masterpiece. Written in first person, it's the story of a ruthless professional heister who travels cross-country to a rural Florida town to investigate the disappearance of a former partner, who was holding the mutual proceeds from a Phoenix bank robbery. Once there, he runs afoul of a crooked cop, a larcenous postal employee and other out-of-town criminals on the trail of the money.

The book begins in media res during that bank job, with bullets flying. The getaway driver is killed and the nameless narrator - who uses the aliases of "Chet Arnold" and "Roy Martin" in the course of the book - dispassionately guns down two bank guards before taking a bullet himself. He and the surviving bandit split up, the partner taking the money to squirrel away while the narrator hides out and recovers from his injuries. When the partner drops off the radar - and the monthly packages of cash stop arriving - the narrator heads east to find out what happened and try to recover what's left of the money.

A lot has been written about Dan J. Marlowe, so I won't go into much of it here. Suffice it to say that TNOTGID is about as hard-boiled as they come. While on his trek east, the narrator reflects on his past life and abusive childhood, the injustices done to him by bullies and brutal cops, and how it all forged a bitter rage and alienation that can't help but explode when triggered. But he loves animals, if not people, and even adopts an injured dog after he sees it intentionally run over on a Florida street. He also has a casual relationship with a big-framed barmaid, and forges a friendship with a local real estate salesman, all in hopes of getting to the bottom of what happened to the partner and the cash.

TNOTGID does bear similarities to Donald E. Westlake's THE HUNTER, the first of the "Richard Stark"/Parker books, published that same year, though it lacks the forceful focus of that novel. Instead, it gives us an almost textbook study of an anti-social, misanthropic outlaw who kills without compunction and has a mean-on for the world that can't be slaked. It does meander a bit midway, with passages devoted to horse racing discussions, the specifics and tools of tree surgery and the narrator's fondness for women with large bottoms. But the ending is a genuine surprise, with the narrator's anger and determination only fueled by the catastrophic events that overtake him.

Marlowe's nameless narrator returned in 1969's ONE ENDLESS HOUR, in which he was rechristened Earl Drake "The Man With Nobody's Face." In this new incarnation, he became an international adventurer and secret agent and the hero of 11 more Fawcett Gold Medal titles. These new books (and slightly revised versions of the first two) were reconfigured to fit in with the mens adventure series boom of the '70s. Although one of them, 1970's FLASHPOINT (later reprinted as OPERATION FLASHPOINT) won an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, most were far removed in tone and content from TNOTGID, and the books were clearly running out of steam by the time of the last one, 1976's OPERATION COUNTERPUNCH. Marlowe died in 1986. One of his final novels was 1982's GUERILLA GAMES - an installment in the Executioner spin-off series PHOENIX FORCE - written under the house name "Gar Wilson."

Though Marlowe did water down his signature character to make him more palatable (and marketable) in later books, Arnold/Martin/Drake is at his full sociopathic glory in THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH. In contrast to the barking dogs of most pulp paperback crime fiction of its era, this book is a wolf howl in the night.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: W.L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Wild Oates

My review of Susan Compo's new Warren Oates biography A WILD LIFE appears on the Books page of today's Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, somewhat abbreviated (by me) for space reasons. What follows is the complete review.

Susan Compo
University Press of Kentucky, 472 pp., $34.95


If American movies of the 1970s have a face, it belongs to Warren Oates.

With his wind-etched squint, toothy grin and rumpled charm, Oates was an iconic figure in American film. Though he never achieved the leading man status he sought, he became one of Hollywood’s most ubiquitous character actors (between 1970 and ‘79 alone, he appeared in 24 films and a dozen TV shows). In the 1960s and ‘70s, Oates was the go-to guy for doomed losers, charming hustlers and eccentric cowboys, investing his roles with a hangdog aura that suggested late-night barrooms and day-long hangovers. Although best known for the four films he made with friend and fellow hellraiser Sam Peckinpah, Oates worked with directors as varied as William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick.

This is the first major biography of Oates, and Compo has done her homework, interviewing those who knew him best, including ex-wives, children, friends and costars such as Robert Culp and Peter Fonda. All speak of Oates with affection, admiration and regret. An inveterate womanizer, hard drinker and frequent substance abuser, Oates unapologetically burned the candle at both ends, dying of a heart attack in 1982 at age 53.

Unfortunately, Compo is often too enamored of the stories she’s hearing, citing at length anecdotes that shed little or no light on their subject. She’s also a little too fond of half-clever turns of phrase and strained metaphors (she describes the jokes in Oates’ 1973 pothead Western “Kid Blue” as falling “flatter than a panhandle pancake”).

Fortunately, Compo also quotes extensively from interviews Oates himself gave over the years, infusing the book with his voice (the first time he saw singer/songwriter Tom Waits on television, disheveled and chain smoking on “The Dinah Shore Show,” Oates told a friend “That guy stole my act.”).

In those interviews, Oates seems to accept the fact that, despite his extensive filmography, he would be best remembered for the films he made with Peckinpah. And in the Kentucky-born Oates, the director found his muse. Even in relatively small roles in early Peckinpah films such as 1962‘s “Ride the High Country” and 1965’s “Major Dundee,” Oates practically leaps off the screen. Every moment, every line reading, feels real. Peckinpah also gave him one of his few leading roles, as the obsessed Benny in the twisted crime drama “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974).

Oates’ Peckinpah years have been widely chronicled, especially in David Weddle’s definitive 1994 biography “If They Move ... Kill 'Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah,” so Compo wisely does not plow the same ground again. And while she does recount some of Oates’ wilder times, Compo downplays the actor’s fondness for cocaine as a major contributor to his death. She lets Fonda, who directed Oates in the elegiac 1971 Western “The Hired Hand,” have the final word: “He smoked too much,” Fonda says. “And he lived in Los Angeles too much.”

Despite his excesses, Oates always seemed to value the stabilizing effect his family and friends had on him. And though Peckinpah cast him in two undisputed classics – “Ride the High Country” and “The Wild Bunch” – those closest to Oates considered the hard-partying director to be a dangerous influence on him. As famous for his alcoholic rages as his artistic genius, Peckinpah would die two years after Oates, at 59, estranged from his family, his health ruined and his personal and professional life a shambles.

But good films outlive the troubles of those who made them. And Warren Oates made a lot of good films – and a handful of great ones. A wild life maybe, as this fine biography tells us, but not a bad one.

Some great Oates moments on-screen:




And the COCKFIGHTER (1974) trailer (that's source novelist Charles Willeford as the pit referee):

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Complete PANIC

Nobody writes blacker black comedy than Jason Starr. I've often referred to him as "the Larry David of crime fiction," and I think the comparison is apt. His New York-based novels - 12 so far - are alternately intense, uncomfortable, disturbing and funny as hell. In one of the first experiments of its kind, his publisher, St. Martins Press/Minotaur (full disclosure, my publisher as well), is making the complete text of his new novel PANIC ATTACK available as a free download for a limited time (the physical book itself doesn't come out until August). As the industry struggles to reinvent itself for the digital age (and the current recession), it's always encouraging to see major publishers trying out new ideas.


Totally unrelated - and apropos of nothing - I'm in the process of selling off a substantial collection of books, videos, comics, DVDs etc. for space reasons, via eBay. Lots of interesting stuff I've accumulated over the years, but which is nonetheless driving me crazy as I acquire more things which I don't have space for. Seller name is nightside7 and I've been putting new auctions up generally every Sunday at around 9 p.m. ET (a pair of early Richard Stark/Parker paperbacks will go up tonight). Nothing too rare and, for the foreseeable future, none of the Black Lizard books I'm currently revisiting. And that's the last I'll mention it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #1: SWAMP SISTER

As per last week's post, this is the first entry in my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early 90s:

SWAMP SISTER by Robert Edmond Alter

ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1966 (according to the Black Lizard copyright page, other sources have it as 1961)
THE STORY: The crash of a plane carrying $80,000 in cash leads to murder and more in a rural swamp community.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Compulsively readable but somewhat tongue-in-cheek potboiler. Li'l Abner noir.

Satire alert: One of two novels Robert Edmond Alter wrote for Fawcett Gold Medal (CARNY KILL is the other, which I'll revisit in the future), SWAMP SISTER presents itself as a pulp thriller ripe with greed, lust and murder. Its hero, a strapping and virile swamp youth named Shad Hark, finally discovers the wreckage of the "Money Plane" four years after it crashes and helps himself to some of the cash, eventually drawing the attention of greedy and dangerous neighbors, swamp tramps and an insurance investigator with the unlikely name of Tarleton Ferris. Though it purports to be a down-and-dirty saga of the lives and loves of poor white trash on the bayou, it's actually a parody of the genre. Shad services unhappy housewife Iris Culver as well as Dorry Mears, the town slut, battle gators and human swamp rats, all the time conversing in local dialect that sometimes needs multiple readings to parse ("You can cold toot that again.")

It's never really clear where all this is taking place, though it might be Florida, since there are multiple references made to Jacksonville, and the swamp folk speak disparagingly of Louisiana Cajuns as if they were a different race. Alter seems to know his way around though, because the book is steeped in details about different types of swamp vegetation and the habits of bull alligators. However, there are some jarring and abrupt perspective shifts, including one when we're suddenly seeing things from the point of view of an angry gator. It seems unlikely SWAMP SISTER was the original title either. There's no major female character at all for the first 30 or so pages, and Dorry disappears midway through the book.

But Alter's satiric intentions become clearest near the end, when Iris Culver's husband - a pulp novelist - catches her half-naked in the arms of investigator Ferris, who excuses himself with a casual "Pardon me" and goes out to renew his search for the Money Plane. Rather than sheepishly apologizing, Iris takes the offensive:

"Do you think you could satisfy a woman? Any woman? ... Do you have any idea what your lovemaking is like? It's like that watered-down slop you write!...

Suddenly she spoke with cold sarcasm. "Do you know what your work reminds me of? It's like the trash those hack writers used to potboil for the pulp adventure magazines back in the '20s and '30s. They always called their dashing Nordic heroes names like McCoy or McKay or McCloud or Quincannon - names which automatically had a connotation suggestive of rough, manly derring-do. Invariably they had sandy thatches of hair, frequently red, and always a scattering of freckles on the backs of their tanned square wrists. But best of all was the manner in which these literary giants would introduce those girl-killing, booze-drinking, saloon-brawling, quick shooting, Scotch-Irish supermen. They would write. 'No plaster saint - comma - McKay'."

"Now you're not being fair, Iris. You know I don't use that archaic kind of sentence structure."

Devastated by his wife's infidelity and spot-on literary criticism, the husband retreats to his study with a .22 target pistol, intent on taking his own life. But he's distracted by the nautical scene he's left half-written on the page, and soon he's typing away, all thoughts of suicide forgotten:

He squared himself in his chair facing the typewriter and typed, "Marlinspike?" Reb cried. "I thought it was a blunt ice pick! -"

And after that - somehow - he just kept on writing.

**** UPDATE: And for those looking for more Swamp Girl cover art, look no further. Who knew?

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Dan J. Marlowe's THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Black Lizard lounging

A few years back, I used to occasionally browse at a now-defunct Coles bookstore at a slowly dying Jersey Shore mall (since passed on). In the weeks before the store closed for good, odd things began showing up - dusty boxes of paperbacks that had been unavailable for years, British edition PBs in plastic-sealed three-packs, entire lots of books from individual publishers. All these, I guessed, had been recently liberated after being left to yellow in a warehouse somewhere (on one visit I found Gerald Petievich's first two novels, the long out-of-print MONEY MEN and ONE-SHOT DEAL, unread, for 69 cents each). All were mint condition, uncirculated books that for some reason had been stored instead of pulped.

One day, not long before the end, they set out a table with, I believe, almost the entire run of original Black Lizard mass market paperbacks published between 1984 and 1990. Founded by publisher Donald Ellis and edited by novelist Barry Gifford (right), Black Lizard had quite a run in the late 1980s, publishing more than 90 titles before selling its name and catalogue to Random House in 1990 (the label lives on as an imprint of Random's Vintage line).

The titles on display were like-new books, with glossy covers (most featuring original illustrations by Jim Kirwan) and bright white pages. They were a mixture of classic noir (Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis), paperback originals from the 1960s and '70s (Charles Willeford, Dan J. Marlowe, Peter Rabe) and the works of some prolific but all-but-forgotten pulp masters (W.L. Heath, Harry Whittington, Steve Fisher), as well as a handful of new titles by contemporary authors (Jim Nisbet, Murray Sinclair, Sin Soracco). Though they'd originally been priced at anywhere from $3.99 to $7.99, the books had been marked down to 50 cents each. I bought them all.

I read some of the classics right away, books I'd heard of but never been able to locate - Lionel White's THE KILLING (aka CLEAN BREAK), Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY, Marlowe's THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH. Some I gradually got to later. I good amount of them I never got to at all - until now.

So beginning next Sunday - and continuing occasionally - I'll take a fresh look at some of those pulp gems, either reading them for the first time or revisiting them anew. First up: Robert Edmond Alter's SWAMP SISTER.

(BTW: the photo at top is a generic one, it doesn't reflect the actual books I bought that day, though I did get most of those pictured.

Click HERE for the reviews.