Monday, August 22, 2011

The Big Fix by Roger L. Simon (1973): Playing Clue Solitaire

The '60s are over, and unlikely private detective Moses Wine knows it. He's a Jewish divorced father of two young sons who likes to get high and tries to forget those radical days, because in '70s California, that could get you dead. Or worse - not voted into office. Then Lila Shea, the former lover Wine hasn't seen in half a decade, turns up at his door asking him for help with the the presidential campaign of Senator Miles Hawthorne. The self-exiled Abbie Hoffman-esque Howard Eppis has been endorsing the campaign with a series of flyers linking him to Mao and Lenin - positively of course - and the campaign calls on Wine to track him down and get Eppis to stop. Hawthorne might be progressive, but he's not crazy. So the wonderfully named private dick Wine hits the scorching streets of East L.A. looking for answers... and soon, for who killed Lila Shea.

Roger L. Simon has written several novels with Wine over the years in which his detective seems to be mapping out a chart of contemporary history. I spent months looking for a copy of The Big Fix in bookstores and had no luck till I was browsing in a Hollywood bookstore. I wasn't blown away by The Big Fix or anything, found it good in places and confusing in others; even, at times, unbelievably violent, in the sense that characters seemed more brutal than I found credible. If anything, I recommend the delightful 1978 film version with Richard Dreyfuss, who's perfectly cast as Wine, trying to hang onto ideals long since forgotten by everybody but him, it seems (too bad he didn't play the character again). It cuts down on some of the book's more outre plot (satanic cults) and captures a laid-back LA of the time filled with uptight political wranglers, as well as Wine's tough-comic-cynical nature and his concerns for the impact his odd lifestyle will have on his sons. I've been digging on LA noir lately so if that's your thing too, you should see if The Big Fix will fix you right.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Outfit by Richard Stark (1963): To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest

It's been more than three years I've been looking for cheap copies of Richard Stark's novels featuring his laconic, professional, and very very deadly criminal called Parker, no-first-name. When I found last week a thin, cracked-spine copy of the 1984 Avon reprint of The Outfit, I began reading it immediately. I finished it immediately too. Violent, efficient, ballsy, pulpy but without cheapness, The Outfit bristles with macho energy but doesn't feel creepy or dated. This is classic crime fiction utterly assured of its mission: that you never put the book down and that you believe in its characters.

1973 movie tie-in edition from Berkley Medallion

The titular organization is basically the mob or Mafia but it doesn't go by that name. The Outfit wants Parker dead for past deeds they think were wrong but Parker knows were right. The guy they send to do the job louses it up and now it's Parker who's hunting the Outfit. In fact through a letter-writing campaign he encourages his fellow professionals - not friends, not for Parker, but men he's worked with - to knock over various illicit "businesses" run by the Outfit. This works extremely well, like clockwork even, and soon the Outfit's out nearly a million and the head, Bronson, wants Parker... you guessed it, dead. But Parker's got other plans.

1963 original edition from Pocket Books

My mind is boggled by the effortless way in which Westlake depicts the criminal underworld and their Byzantine cons and double-crosses and set-ups. One great thing about The Outfit is the time Stark spends detailing said cons, like numbers-running or betting on horses. Even though I love good crime fiction I find it difficult to grasp these logistics. He makes it easy. Stark's spare and precise prose makes you feel smart and tough at once. I like that in a book. Hell, I love that in a book.

Stark is the famous pen name of crime writer extraordinaire Donald E. Westlake and it was under this name Westlake put out all his Parker novels. The Outfit is 3rd in the series and I'm getting more.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy (1988): Nightmare Movies

Welcome to Los Angeles, CA, New Year's Day, 1950. The century's half-way point is marked by a grim discovery in West Hollywood: a male corpse, eyes torn out, body riddled with strange bite marks, genitals mauled. Deputy Danny Upshaw, not yet thirty, eager to prove his skill and talent as an LAPD detective, bribes a celebrity coroner so he can examine the body himself... and begins a case that will open a whole wide world of depravity, corruption, vengeance, and death. Happy New Year, and welcome to Hell.

Oh, yes, this is a James Ellroy novel. This is The Big Nowhere. I can't imagine anyone familiar with contemporary crime literature not knowing his name, for James Ellroy single-handedly resuscitated the mystery-noir novel in the late-80s (and continues to astonish with his work today). With his penchant for hipster-cop slang, clipped, vivid prose, extreme violence and gore, complicated and lengthy novels, and dozens upon dozens of characters, Ellroy upped the ante for what mystery novels could do and be. This is not escapist fiction--you will probably never encounter a world as dark and unrelenting, or as morally repugnant, as the one depicted in his so-called L. A. Quartet, of which The Big Nowhere is second.

While not as gripping as White Jazz, nor as masterful as L. A. Confidential, this novel still manages to astound, shock, and satisfy the serious reader. With his spot-on recreation of 1950s Hollywood, Ellroy provides a unique glimpse into the evils of a period we still imagine to be fairly innocent. Ellroy spares no expense here, kicking ass all over PC historical revisionism, going places with language, character and story that Chandler, Hammett, Cain, etc. would scarcely have dreamed.

Along with Det. Upshaw, there is Mal Considine, a DA assistant, still tortured by the fact the woman he once loved was a Nazi whore; her son means more to him than anything. To adopt this boy, he will join forces with paranoid, violent men with hard-ons for busting Commies in Hollywood. One of the most harrowing scenes in the novel is when he and Irish LAPD Lieutenant Dudley Smith--oh, evil, evil Dudley Smith, who appears in more than one Ellroy novel--interrogate a screenwriter and, in the end, force him to name his friends as Communist conspirators. Ellroy shades scenes like this not in a phony tone of black and white, but in those hellish, inescapable greys that damn us all.

Then there's Buzz Meeks, an ex-cop who pimps underage girls to the infamous Howard Hughes, buys off judges, and does strong-arm work for Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen. Buzz is the hero of the novel, and that should give you another idea of what Ellroy's vision of conventional cops'n'robbers morality is. He'll eventually work with Considine and Smith, trying to uproot the perverted Communists at work in the movie industry--but he'll only do it for money.

You'll take a tour through black jazz joints, through junkie flophouses, medical examiner labs, through murder sites sprayed with blood, sit in on a special screening of a harrowing art-snuff movie, rub shoulders with incestuous men, femme fatales, and meet a killer who wears animal teeth. There are ugly secrets, double-crosses, set-ups; Upshaw goes deep undercover as a Leftist hep-cat and almost gets caught in a love-nest--but he's so tormented by his own sexual identity, he can't go through with what his job requires...

But by the last third of the book, things get really complex and confusing, and I found myself drifting. The explanation for everything comes in the final pages, and there is a very good climax, so stick with it. The Big Nowhere isn't necessarily Ellroy's best, but it's still miles ahead of virtually every other crime writer out there.