If it’s gritty retro hardboiled fun you’re after, you won’t be disappointed this month, when we showcase the best of noir in The Murder Room and launch our beautiful new editions of Mickey Spillane’s iconic Mike Hammer series. Here’s Deborah Valentine on the highlights.
When it comes to hardboiled they don’t come any harder or more furiously boiled than Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, especially when his best friend is murdered in I, The Jury. As you might guess from the title, he plans to act as judge, jury and executioner –and neither love nor money is going to stop him as he cuts a swathe through brothels, drug rings and high society to nail his quarry while the police turn a blind eye to his (ahem) questionable methods.
‘Fig leaf’ means ‘cover-up’ in PI speak, and James Hadley Chase harvests enough of them in Hand Me a Fig-Leaf to denude an orchard. This book could not be more different from his best known novel No Orchids For Miss Blandish, giving us likeable PI Dirk Wallace, assigned to find the missing grandson of a misogynistic frog-catcher (yup, you heard right), only to discover grandpa murdered. Misplaced loyalties and a nasty drugs cartel serve to complicate his investigation but what tumbles out of this family closet surprises even him. See if you can guess the end to this one. Hugely readable.
Solomon’s Vineyard was deemed so shocking it was banned in the US until 1988. Jonathan Latimer’s story of a detective who runs up against a mysterious cult does create a sense of deep unease and you can see it might be racier than 1940s mores could tolerate. Even today there’re things to make the faint-hearted clutch their chests. Its PI comes from the‘lob a bomb in and see what happens’school of detection so there’s action aplenty. In this edition there’s an interview with Latimer that, yes, has delectable gossip about other writers but also a brief account of what inspired this book –and that is seriously creepy.
Another investigator who graduated summa cum laude from the same detection school is Peter Cheyney’s G-man Lemmy Caution. His snappy stream of consciousness has an infectious rap rhythm –you might even find yourself bobbing to the beat –and descriptions that score points for inventiveness: ‘This guy was so ugly he could have got a free scholarship into a college for gargoyles’. In Poison Ivy Caution is up against layer upon layer of deception in a US Treasury gold bullion heist. And it reaffirms this stern literary lesson: never trust a woman nicknamed Poison Ivy.
More cult shenanigans are afoot in The Dain Curse. Dashiell Hammett goes downright hallucinogenic at times in this story of a dope-addled young woman who believes her life cursed and takes refuge in a decidedly dodgy temple. As the body count rises around her, you see her point. With more twists than a corkscrew Hammett keeps you guessing right to the end as to who exactly is pulling the strings in this fabulously tricky escapade. Murder, insanity, bad blood, sexual intrigue –you name it, it’s got it.
What Elmore Leonard has in Rum Punch is one of the coolest women in the hard-boiled jungle. Tarantino was so impressed he made the acclaimed movie Jackie Brown, based on Leonard’s air stewardess who gets nicked trafficking money for an arms dealer but finds a way to call the shots. Violence quota: high. Street smarts: high. Tension: high. Notable also for another woman who really does not know when to shut up.
Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder, The Sins of the Fathers, is every bit as good as his A Walk Among the Tombstones (see July blog). In Scudder, Block has created a PI unique in emotional intelligence and sensitivity. A flawed hero maybe, but in a way engaging our sympathy. This tale of murder and suicide is psychologically complex and the conflicting clues eventually reveal an even deeper tragedy. A brilliant introduction to a ‘betcha can’t read just one’ series.
Many PI’s wear the ‘outsider’ label, but none more authentically than Easy Rawlins. In 1960s LA, Walter Mosley’s hero is genuinely outside the system – a black man in a white man’s world. In Rose Gold, the latest in the series, the police come to him for help finding a kidnapped heiress. Suspicious from the beginning –and not always knowing exactly whom he’s working for –he follows his own foolproof moral compass. Despite the prejudice he encounters, despite the disrespect he’s shown, this is a man who truly knows how to handle himself. Easy? Easy to admire.
The Double refers to both the title of a stolen painting Speros Lucas is hired to recover and, on an existential level, to the duality of man. Ex-marine Lucas is a PI who thinks he’s ‘fine’ but perhaps isn’t. George Pelecanos, a writer on The Wire, compassionately articulates war veterans’ frustration and draws convincing pictures of the psychologically damaged, veterans or no. He gives us ‘the full whack’ – bringing together relationships, family, cultural and sociological elements – and, in Lucas, he has created an intensely complex PI. Oh, and he writes sex scenes that may even be (gasp) erotic.
Okay, violence is bread and butter to the hardboiled, this we know. But to pull this collection together intellectually, we have Joe Gores’ Menaced Assassin. It takes a different approach. A scientist is giving a lecture –possibly his last –questioning, compiling, the evolutionary origins of Man and his propensity to violence. Throughout this backdrop is spliced the elements leading to this moment: the ultimate collision of corporate corruption, mafia hits, a tenacious law officer and, chillingly, the thoughts of a murderer on a mission. Thought-provoking and heartbreaking, it analyses the most lethal animal in nature: us. A damn fine novel. Full stop.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website and follow her on Twitter.