Category Archives: Hard Boiled

A Bullet For Cinderella – John D. MacDonald

A Bullet for Cinderella – John D. MacDonald, published in 1955 I read the PlanetMonk Pulps Book  (#12) Kindle Edition published in 2013, 192 pages.

Tal Howard returns home from the Korean war having been held captive in a POW camp. He finds himself somewhat changed by his war experience. His ‘old life’ doesn’t seem to fit him any more. He’s dissatisfied with both his clerical work at an insurance company, and his domesticated married life. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants… he’s just certain that what he has, isn’t it.

About this time Tal remembers a friend of his who died in the camp. This friend of his confessed to him an embezzlement he did before being drafted. The ill gotten gains where stashed back in his home town. Another prisoner in the camp “a Texan and a Marine”, known for his strength and his callousness, evidently overhead this confession because when Tal goes in search of this nest egg, private Fitzmartin is already in town.

The friend who left this stolen loot never lived long enough to tell Tal exactly where it was stashed. But what Tal does have, that Fitzmartin doesn’t, is a clue… a clue that can only be deciphered by ‘Cinderella’. As Tal works to solve this mystery he is quite aware that Fitzmartin will be stalking him… and will stop at nothing to seize the spoils!

It was quite a good story. Its a stand alone pulp written before John D. MacDonald would create the Travis McGee series of adventure stories.  I found it very interesting that issues like gentrification of cities and towns, as well as cultural stagnification from mass media were issues brought up within the story. Issues we are still addressing today. But at the heart of it, the story is really about man’s search for meaning… and what constitutes ‘treasure’.

I drove back out to the motel. It no longer seemed important about meeting Antoinette in the morning. It didn’t matter any more. I had come here to Hillston to find treasure. I had thought I would find it buried in the ground. I had found it walking around, with dark red hair, with gray eyes, with a look of pride. And I hadn’t recognized it. I had acted like a fool. I had tried to play the role of thief. But it didn’t fit. It never would fit. The money meant nothing. Ruth meant everything. I had had a chance and I had lost it. They don’t give you two chances.

Crusader’s Cross – James Lee Burke

Crusader’s Cross – James Lee Burke Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition (July 12, 2005) 337 pages.

The story starts out in a flashback with Dave and his brother Jimmy spending the summer of 58 in Galveston where they were rescued from the surf by a girl… who is eventually taken and subsequently disappears. Later, in the current time frame,  a former classmate of Dave’s, who’s path in life is to run into trouble inevitably finds it and on his deathbed has a confession he gives to Dave,  his uncle, formerly a sheriff’s deputy, had been involved in the girl’s disappearance back in 58.

Dave is reluctant to visit ghosts of the past until an incident where two corrupt sheriff’s deputies take a forceful interest in what might have been said to Dave by an old school chum. Meanwhile,  a series of killings has taken place in the suburbs surrounding New Orleans with one of the bodies discovered in New Iberia parish where Dave has just been rehired by the sheriff’s department.

So, while Dave is officially looking into  the current homicide he’s conducting a reluctant parallel, personal investigation into the past. Which is not something that a wealthy powerful old family wants to have happen. And Dave does not react well to the intimidation tactics of people in power.

In this novel Dave is constantly making bad choices that have serious repercussions for those around him. His reckless encounter with a genteel belle whom he used to know inadvertently corrupts a crime scene. He meets openly, in public, with a witness willing to talk and she subsequently turns up dead. And a verbal confrontation he orchestrates in a posh restraunt turns into an assault and leads to Cletus offering to help his perjured witnesses.

Its not only incredible how Dave turns this around… its miraculous!

“The problem isn’t just the beef at Clementine’s. Its you Dave. You don’t like rules and you hate authority. You wage a personal war against guys like Val Chalons and take the rest of us down with you. No amount of pleading with you works. People are tired of following you around with a dustpan and broom.”
“I’ll clean out my desk,” I said.
“You force your friends to hurt you, Dave. I think that’s a sickness. But you act like it’s funny,” she said.

The Double Take – Roy Huggins

The Double Take – Roy Huggins – originally published in 1946, I read the kindle edition (2015) from NightHawk Books (188 pages).

Set in the mid nineteen thirties Los Angeles where shamus Stuart Bailey gets a job to investigate a news wife’s past for a city planning commissioner. The case itself seems somewhat suspicious,  but he agrees to take. And sets off for Portland, where she’s from as far as her college transcript says. I had to look us ‘shamus’ on a blog of slang terms. I thought it might be a term for a generic irishman, but nope, it’s an old slang term given to private detectives like gum-shoe or dick.

Well, the case takes Bailey from Portland back to LA and seems he’s picked up a couple of tails along the way. Well, mobsters and along casino, a marine biologist and him luscious young Brazilian wife and her chauffeur,  a vaudeville performer or two and this case gets a bit crowded round the middle.

But it’s all sorted out in the end… what’s a dead body or two along the way. Huggins didn’t write too many books but rather went on to fame and fortune in producing! Shows like 77 sunset strip… and … draw upon the images you can see in this book…

  The mouth stayed hard and drew apart into a tight smile, a smile to carve diamonds with. She made a sharp noise in her throat and turned suddenly and ran down the four steps to the sidewalk. She looked back at me.
“You cheap gumshoe,” she rasped quietly. “I finally figured you out. You’re yellow.” Cold laughter. “You’re too yellow to even live up to your own manhood.” She turned and jumped into the car. The motor ground and roared, and then she leaned out the open window and screamed, “I’ll send my houseboy around to see you. He’s just your type.” The car jerked and jumped away from the curb and raced toward Wilshire in an agony of grinding gears.

  

Neon Rain – James Lee Burke

Neon Rain – James Lee Burke – I read the Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) paperback version.

Right off the bat we get poignant social commentary and we meet New Orleans homicide detective Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux who may just be the target of a hitman… seems he’s investigating the suspicious drowning of a prostitute in a parish in south Louisiana that ties back to the New Orleans mob. But its deeper than just the mob… soon South American gun runners are setting him up to take a fall for a federal agent’s death. Then, suspended from the force he continues his own investigation following it wherever it leads stepping over bodies as he goes.

From a Calloused parish sheriff and a pair of his corrupt deputies, to biased and apathetic Internal Affairs investigators, the mantle of Noir fiction rest well on this first Robicheaux novel. His life, from serving in Viet Nam to facing down crime in the underworld of New Orleans while battling the bottle and other demons from his past make for a character that is surprisingly introspective and takes the time to see the beauty around him. Burke takes the time to paint a visually lush and fertile environment throughout the novel. It’s a treat for the senses and an immersive experience.

This is the third novel of Burke’s that I’ve read…. I suppose its about time that I got to read the book that started the whole series. This came out in 1987; over ten years from the first Spenser novel and five years before the first Bosch story… which is now on my list to read. There’s something about the narration of the Robicheaux stories that jumps to life… I just wish that they came out with scratch and sniff pages!

   She sat beside me, wiped ointment on my cuts with a piece of cotton, snipped adhesive tape into strips with the scissors, and taped down two big, folded squares of gauze on top of the ointment. Then she rubbed her hands over my skin, down my shoulders and back, across my chest, her eyes looking over my body without embarrassment, as though she were discovering me for the first time. I leaned her back on the bed and kissed her mouth, her neck, unbuttoned her flower-print blouse and placed my head against the red birthmark on her breast. I felt her body stretch out against mine, felt the confidence, the surrender that a woman gives in that moment when she no longer hides her hunger and instead blesses you with a caress that is always unexpected and heart-rushing and humbling in its generosity.

This time I wanted to give her more than she gave me, but I wasn’t able. In seconds I was lost inside her, her hands right against my back, her legs in mine in almost a material way, and when I tried to tense and stop because it was too soon, she held my face close to hers, kissed my cheek, ran her fingers through the back of my hair, saying, “It’s alright Dave. Go ahead. It’s alright.” Then I felt all the anger, the fear, and the heat of the last two days rise inside me like a dark bubble from a well, pause in its own gathered energy and momentum, and burst away into light, into the joy of her thighs, the squeeze of her arms, the blue tenderness of her eyes.

Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke

 Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke Published in 2011 by Mulholland Books, 288 pages I read this on my kindle at a very nice price.

This is the third book in the Dave Robicheaux series, and it seems to pick up right after the death of his wife. Her death, as well as her ghost haunts him through this story. But it’s a friend of his from College that brings the former New Orleans homicide detective to check into a pair of oil company men his friend Dixie seems to have gotten himself in bed with.

One thing leads to another as they say, and when thugs send a not to subtle threat involving his adopted daughter, its payback time. Then, when one of the oil lease-men turns up dead, Dave follows the leads to Montana to clear himself and finds that his old friend Dixie has taken refuge with a mafia family who’ve helped him in the past.

With missing Indian activists, oil company land deals and mafia drug transactions… well as picturesque as the landscape is, it may not be the healthiest place for an ex-lawman to be asking too many questions.

I’ve read this book having just finished his novel New Iberian Blues (2019). Its been thirty years between these two books and it’s a clear demonstration of something I’ve been calling the “Stephen King effect”. This novel has a fairly simple linear narrative with a limited number of characters moving through it… whereas New Iberian Blues has several narrative threads weaving through numerous characters over a sweeping story arc, and it shows how James Lee Burke has grown and developed as a masterful storyteller.

And, though this novel is smaller in scope than its latter novels it is no less dramatic in is descriptive landscapes:

“I headed for the Blackfeet Reservation, on the other side of the Divide, east of Glacier Park. In the early morning light I drove up the Blackfoot River through canyons of pink rock and pine, with woodsmoke drifting through the trees from the cabins set back in the meadows. The runoff from the snowpack up in the mountains was still high, and the current boiled over the boulders in the center of the river. Then the country opened up into wider valleys and ranchland with low green hills and more mountains in the distance. I started to climb into more heavily wooded country, with sheer rock cliffs and steep-sided mountains that ran right down to the edge of the road; the canyons and trees were dark with shadow, and by the time I hit the logging town of Lincoln the air had turned cold and my windows were wet with mist. I drove into clouds on the Divide at Rogers Pass, my ears popping now, and rivulets of melted snow ran out of the pines on the mountainside, bled across the highway, and washed off the dirt shoulder into a white stream far below. The pine trees looked almost black and glistened with a wet sheen.”

New Iberia Blues – James Lee Burke

New Iberia Blues – James Lee Burke Published January 2019 by Simon and Schuster, 465 pages of pure scenic detective fiction. I checked my copy out from the library and I sure wasn’t disappointed with this. This is the book I had in mind when I was reading Debbie Herbert’s Cold Waters. There are several threads running through this story and its woven together masterfully.

Detective Dave Robicheaux spies a woman tied to a cross drifting in from the bay while on the deck of his old friend Desmond Cormier’s house. The award winning director Desmond and company are in the area filming a new movie when a series of unfortunate incidents occur. From a dead woman on a cross, to a hanged laborer, then a crooked sheriff’s deputy is killed… as Robicheaux diggers deeper into the people surrounding Desmond the bodies pile up.

Is there a killer amongst Desmond’s friends or could it be a fugitive death row inmate from Texas who has been spotted in the area… or perhaps its an albino mafia contract kill whose also returned to New Iberia. It couldn’t be a young deputy who has a knack for being around just when someone is killed… could it?

The descriptions are wonderfully drawn in a vibrancy of detail and oe of the things that I liked about this story is that there is time in between the events. Everything isn’t cramped together, its spaced out, paced over a series of months, season even. The story starts in the spring and concludes in the fall and Burke gives amble nuanced description of the bayou throughout its transitions.

And its not just the physical landscape, no, the characters themselves are painted with a fine-tip brush. Even the recently deceased get rendered in full dimension:

   By Monday the victim had been identified through his prints as Joe Molinari, born on the margins of American society at Charity Hospital in Lafayette, the kind of innocent and faceless man who travels almost invisibly from birth to the grave with no paper trail except a few W-2 tax forms and an arrest for a thirty-dollar bad check. Let me take that one step further. Joe Molinari’s role in life had been being used by others, as a consumer and laborer and voter and minion, which, in the economics of the world I grew up in, was considered normal by both the liege lord in the manor and the serf in the field.

He’d lived in New Iberia all his life, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and worked for a company that did asbestos teardowns and other jobs that people do for minimum wage while they pretend they’re not destroying their organs. He’d had no immediate family, played dominoes in a game parlor by the bayou, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never traveled farther than three parishes from his birthplace. He had gone missing seven days ago.

Vengeance Is Mine – Mickey Spillane

Vengeance Is Mine – I read this as the third story in the Mike Hammer Collection vol 1 – New American Library 2001. Original copywrite E P Dutton & Co. in 1950.

Felons, fillies and fisticuffs, nobody every accused Mickey of writing a dull story, and this third Mike Hammer novel starts out right away with Mike being roused from a night of drinking with a corpse in the middle of a hotel room shot with Mike’s own gun. Police are looking at it as a suicide, but Mike, having seen an important detail, comes to the conclusion that its murder… and if it wasn’t Mike, who did it?

Well, the corpse was an Air Force captain Mike had met when he came home from oversees. After a night or reconnecting over several bars, he turns up dead. Who in New York would want a department store buyer in from Cincinnati dead… that’s where Mike’s trail starts. And that trails leads to a modeling agency, a trip to the Bowery, a lunch in Greenwich Village, and a tangled web of an extortion ring weaving its way through the city leaving a string of bodies that were often dismissed as suicides. Somehow, the blackmailers are always one step ahead as Mike makes his way through to the truth behind the apparent suicide that wasn’t which started this crusade.

Mickey’s third novel, just like the first two makes wonderful use of straight forward prose to paint a picture of New York in the late forties on a canvass using a shadowy pallet of grays. Against this backdrop he paints the bright colorful characters of Connie, Clyde, Juno and Anton as well as the ever present and faithful Velda and Pat.

I love reading the pure, unvarnished, pre-pc prose. There is a raw and visceral quality to the low-life’s, high hats and criminal middle managers that Mike encounters. And although most people are quick to tell you about his hard-nose ‘take no prisoners’ approach to personal conflicts whenever some mook invades his ‘personal-space’ I like the wa that Mickey lets you know that the ghosts of Mike’s past still haunt him. Mike really sees clearly the impact that his actions make and that he himself is not insulated from the violence around him. But he still chooses to clean up his city. A city where Mike feels for his fellow citizens.

One description that really stands out in this book is where Mike is taken to a section of town he hasn’t visited in a while… and if you like this, wait till her goes to the village…

   The Bowery, a street of people without faces. Pleading voices from the shadows and the shuffle of feet behind you. An occasional tug at your sleeve and more pleading that had professional despair in the tone. An occasional woman with clothes too tight giving you a long, steady stare that said she was available cheap. Saloon doors swung open so frequently they seemed like blinking lights. They were crowded too. The bars were lined with the leftovers of humanity keeping warm over a drink or nursing a steaming bowl of soup.

It had been a long time since I made the rounds down here. A cab swung into the curb and a guy in a tux with a redhead on his arm got out laughing. There was a scramble in his direction and the redhead handed out a mess of quarters then threw them all over the sidewalk to laugh all the louder when the dive came.

The guy thought it was funny too. He did the same thing with a fin, letting it blow out of his hand down the street. Connie said “See what I mean?”

I felt like kicking the bastard. “Yeah, I see.”

My Gun Is Quick – Mickey Spillane

My Gun Is Quick – Written in 1950, I’m reading from the New American Library edition published in 2001, 190 pages.

As the novel opens we find Mike stopping at a diner in the wee hours of the morning where he chats up a red head whose currently prostituting to make ends meet. He sees something honorable in the kid and invests some of the profit he’s just made on a case. He gives her some dough to get a new outfit, get a new job and a new lease on life. The next day she’s found dead, apparently by an accident but Mike sees it otherwise. He takes to the streets uncovering a city wide prostitution ring and dispensing cold hard justice along the way to finding her killer.

This novel tells a story whose central theme appears to be the potential for redemption in a gritty city pulled out from under you at the last second. Nancy, the redhead could have made it if crime hadn’t caught up with her. Lola, another central character who Mike encounters seems well on the way to redemption until her young life was snuffed out too. Even Ann who was going to take the cash a blow town, got herself whacked before she could cash the check.

Following up on leads, Mike encounters a wealthy elderly gentleman, the last survivor of his line, erecting a memorial to himself. While Mike explains what information he needs and the nature of the case, the gentleman is moved by Mike’s story feels a renewal of faith in human kindness… and insists on financing Mike mission to find the identity of the redhead, as its unknown to us at the start…

It’s here as the old man discusses the futility of wealthy the Mike offers his insight on what makes a detective.

I nodded, blowing a streamer of smoke at the ceiling, ‘Money is great. Mr. Berin, but sometimes a guy gets pretty damn sore and money doesn’t matter any more. A guy can get just plain curious, too… and money doesn’t matter then either.’

What follows Mike all through the story, like a dog with the sent of a fox, snapping at his heels is this indignation. He isn’t concerned with the ‘big picture’ prostitution ring that his investigation appears to be unearthing. He leaves that to the press and the police to clean up. No, his mission is a personal vendetta… He took up a cause, to give a young deserving lady a chance at redemption and some one… some scum, stole that from her just as it was about to bear fruit.
It’s this feeling of ‘making it personal’ that builds an intimacy with this reader… I feel for these guys and dolls of the noir city.

Lady Go Die! – Max Allan Collins / Mickey Spillane

Lady Go Die! – A hard-boiled noir novel published by Titan Book 2012, running 241 pages.

In the Mickey Spillane ‘Mike Hammer’ universe, this novel is set to take place between the original Mike Hammer novel “I, The Jury” written in 1947, and “My Gun Is Quick” written in 1950.

Shooting a gun out of a crooked cop’s hand in his own police station with the chief watching… even in a small town like Sidon, that takes balls. So much so that I’m amazed Mike can walk through the front door without turning sideways. But here we are, and Mike Hammer continues to be a champion of the downtrodden, and of a local beachcomber on the receiving end of some ‘enhanced interrogation’ by local cops. This mind you, is Mike on vacation.

Max Allan Collins does a great job of writing this story, published in 2012, as if it were written in the late 1940’s timeline. There is a scene in the novel where Mike is sitting down with his friend Pat, a homicide detective and they are discussing the various aspects of what defines a serial killer. This conversation is written into the story because the writer, of a work in the late 1940’s wouldn’t assume that his readers would know well what a ‘serial killer’ is. It reminded me very much of how Poe had to lay down the various aspects of what a detective is when he wrote the Murders In The Rue Morgue because he couldn’t assume that his readers would know.

Reflecting on this collaboration of Spillane and Collins, I can’t recall if there are references to Mike’s war-time service in this novel. Mickey makes sure to underscore Mike’s ease around violence by referencing his service record fighting the ‘Japs’. The first three novels were written right after the war, with a reader base of veterans who had served.

But Max makes a point of Mike being more introspective of the violence that he needs to employ to meet out justice to those who richly deserve it.

“And Mike – you’re the goddamnedest, most cold-blooded killer I have ever seen in my life. And… you’re good at it.”
I looked down at my hands and suddenly the weight of the .45 under my left shoulder seemed a little too heavy. When I looked up my face was tight.
“I’ve had judges tell me that more than once. I can’t say I liked it.”
He didn’t back off an inch. “Well, tough shinola, sport! Because it happens to be true. I know you. Any time you pull the trigger, you are in the right. The bleeding hearts will never understand people like us. So feel flattered instead of getting touchy about it. I’ve killed people too and never lost sleep over it.”
That was more than I could say.
“Anyway,” he said with an awful casualness, “you’re a killer, not a murderer… and murderers need killing. Somebody has to do it. And I’m electing you.”

Mike is aware that there is a price to pay, and internal toll that all this takes on him. He’s perfectly willing to take that on, and not show that cost to others, and even as others blasely brush it of as a necessary evil… its easy for them, they don’t actually have to do it. Mike is there, and Mike will do it, because that’s how he rolls. But contrary to popular opinion, he doesn’t go looking for it.

But another reason I love reading writing like this…

Bill was one of those medium guys – medium build, medium height, medium weight, with the kind of face they build crowds out of.

C’mon, how can you NOT love a line like that. And this novel is littered with those gems at almost every turn of the page…

Stranger In Paradise – Robert B Parker

Stranger In Paradise – Putnam publishing February 2008, 304 pages, crime novel by Robert B. Parker, the seventh in his Jesse Stone series.

Gang-bangers, mobsters and gunmen oh my! Welcome to Paradise. Crow has arrived. The last time he was in Paradise was ten years ago and any crimes he may have committed back then have reached their statute of limitation. He’s back, and looking for a girl… a mobster’s daughter. Seems the dad wants his little girl back with him in Florida and has commissioned Crow to accomplish this task.

The daughter happens to be seeing something of a local gang leader. After an altercation or two in a rough little town just outside of Paradise where the gang calls home, Crow has his flighty juvenile. Having contacted his employer for instructions, the boss wants his ex-wife rubbed out. At this point we see Crow’s core values, and it seems murdering helpless, alcoholic ex-wives is not part of his warrior ethics.

By not acquiescing to the boss’s wishes a hit-team is dispatched from Florida with Crow as their target. The daughter is taken to Chief Stone who takes her in while Crow deals with the gunmen. As it would seem, killing armed gunmen is within his warrior ethics.

Eventually with a gang on the loose chasing him and the remaining gunmen hunting him, Crow agrees to hand over the girl to her father, but not without some late minute fireworks. A bend in the road by the sea with a nice wall and setting sun to shield them a handoff is proposed, to one group of trigger happy gunmen, the other group of trigger happy sociopaths don’t know about this arrangement… Will this hand off work, is it some sort of ploy, is Jessie going to watch as this goes down?

And what is it about Crow that reminds me of another bird man Parker has written so enigmatically?

“I wish to speak with my attorney,” he sad without inflection.
Jessie nodded. Everyone was quiet. The only sounds were the movement of the ocean, and the sound of the rain falling, under the low, gray sky.
There is no quiet like the one that follows gunfire.