Sunday, July 13, 2014

Turnabout and Shallow Secrets by Rick Ollerman

Rick Ollerman

Timepieces: The New Old Worlds of Rick Ollerman
by Cullen Gallagher

Conventional wisdom separates the critics from the authors. It’s a literary prejudice akin to that school-age fallacy, “Those who can’t do, teach.” (It was memorably extrapolated by Woody Allen in Annie Hall to also include the coda, “And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”) In grade school, that is a perfectly acceptable philosophical outlook on life: a way to assert one’s own sophomoric superiority over their teachers. As we grow older, however, we discover that such dichotomies are rarely so simple, and that conventional wisdom is often just misinformed malarkey.
Such is the case with the critic/author division, and this volume of Ollerman’s novels is the proof.


I first got to know Rick Ollerman through his critical introductions to Stark House’s books. The first one I read was in Peter Rabe’s The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver. It was immediately apparent that what I was reading more than just an “introduction”—it was the transcription of a deep conversation between reader and text.

“His sentences are often stark and at the same time rich with subtext; idiosyncratic, yet so deftly written their intent remains clear.”

And that was just the beginning. It was the sort of rigorous, perceptive critical analysis that fans of noir fiction long for yet rarely find. Ollerman took one of my favorite writers, explained to me in intimate details why I loved him, and then provided me with dozens of new insights and reasons to love him. A finer and more insightful essay on Rabe has yet to be written.
Ollerman was my new best friend, and I had never even met the man.
Future introductions were included in the books Nothing in Her Way and River Girl by Charles Williams; Jada M. Davis’s never-before-published country noir masterpiece, Midnight Road; two West Coast countercultural novels by John Trinian, North Beach Girl and Scandal on the Sand; and several others. In his critical essays, Ollerman does more than just remember books that have unjustly fallen through the cracks, he reminds us why they deserve to be remembered, and of the rich legacy that was almost lost. Most importantly, he treats paperback originals not as some low-brow curiosity, but as literature, the way they should be. His is an invaluable insight and knowledge that should be treasured and revered for generations to come.
That is Rick Ollerman the critic.
Now, meet Rick Ollerman the author.


Ollerman writes the types of books that he would love to write about. High-octane noir. Mystery laced with action and doom. Thrillers with big black heart at the core. Gruesome crimes. Investigations that bring out the worst in people. Spiritually broken protagonists with nothing much to lose because they’ve already lost it all. Driving plots told with breakneck pacing, where each passing page brings the incessant timer that much closer to zero. His style is a fond homage to the pulpy élan of 1950s and 1960s paperback originals, but it’s not imitation or pastiche. Ollerman’s stories are of their moment, and the stories and characters thoroughly contemporary.
Imagine Lionel White and Charles Williams writing a computer caper and you have an inkling of what Turnabout is like. It is equal parts heist-, revenge-, buddy-, and techno-thriller, topped off by a killer chase through Florida swampland for the big finale. The story is about a cop, Frankie O’Neil, who decides it is time to retire after his marriage starts to fall apart and a fellow cop commits suicide. By chance, he falls into the then-new business of computer consultation. But after a tech colleague is found murdered floating in the ocean, O’Neil is pulled back into action by two cops who were working with the victim on a money laundering case.
As the title suggests, Turnabout is no straightforward mystery, the characters aren’t simply good and bad, and the moral situations are never just right and wrong. After all, the book is about an ex-cop colluding with an obese pickpocket and a computer-obsessed custodian, and they’re breaking into offices after hours to battle corrupt businessmen dealing in stolen money that is also wanted by equally corrupt cops.
The title also suggests an instruction to turn around and travel back in time. Even though it is set in the not-so-distant past of the early 1990s, to newer generations these primitive days of the computer boom will seem like science-fiction. As Ollerman explains in his preface, “These books were written back in the days when the technology most of us use every day was either not invented yet or still very uncommon. There was the Internet, but no world wide web.” In this light, I don’t think Turnabout could be written today, and I’m sure many publishers wouldn’t have the guts to even publish it. The very qualities that make it such a timepiece, on the other hand, are also what make it such a valuable piece of literature. It offers us an insider’s view into a world on the precipice of an enormous change, the magnitude of which even the characters are unaware of, despite what they say. Turnabout exists in a technologically naïve world to which we’ll never be able to return. Ollerman, however, makes it possible to revisit that world, if only for a few pages.

“You’ve got to remember what I said about computer security. There’s no such thing. When personal computers were designed nobody dreamed of the kinds of things we’d be doing with them today. Nobody knew how clever we could be with them. … Anything someone can think of to secure the data, someone else can think of ways to un-secure that data. We can’t outsmart ourselves.”

The second novel here, Shallow Secrets, is the dark beast of the two, a grim and brooding blend of noir and backwoods horror that suggests a lost weekend shared between Robert Bloch, David Goodis and Harry Whittington.
Whereas in Turnabout, O’Neil left the police force just as the darkness began to touch him, in Shallow Secrets, the protagonist wasn’t able to get out so clean. Ex-detective James Robinson is fully engulfed by darkness. He carries within him a shattered marriage, a girlfriend murdered by a serial killer who he’d let crash in his house, a crime that he himself was officially implicated in but never given the chance to redeem himself. He also told the girlfriend’s bother he would get to the bottom of it, a promise he never fulfilled. So, he leaves the force and becomes a recluse, fixing motorcycles to pay the bills. Now, six years later, another serial killer has been caught, and he will only talk to Robinson, which pulls him into the case both as an unofficial investigator, and also as a suspect.
The vacuous blackness that is consuming Robinson is brilliantly manifested in his home—or, rather, in the sinkhole that has literally swallowed the rest of the housing development, leaving only Robinson’s house on unstable ground that will surely give way in a matter of time. This is, without a doubt, high among the most noir homes ever, physically representing the spiritual crisis that is plaguing Robinson throughout the book.

“You’re like my life,” he said to the sinkhole as he popped another can. “A goddamn black hole that swallows everything that comes near it.”

This scenic trope also shows the literary quality of Ollerman’s writing, an inspired touch that plunges the story into a surreal, symbolic world apart from the rest of the story. I’m not sure if it is intentional or not, but it reminds me of the beached whale in John Trinian’s Scandal on the Sand that washes up in the first chapter and haunts the characters and landscape for the rest of the novel. Like the whale, the sinkhole is a moment of magical realism in an otherwise realist narrative, a metaphorical anchor for the book’s overarching theme of life losses that are beyond our control.


In the 1950s, these two novels would have been published by one of the premier paperback houses such as Gold Medal, Lion, or perhaps Ace, who would have issued it as one of their signature “doubles” that could be flipped over for the second book. Sadly, Gold Medal and Lion are gone, and Ace no longer offers those literary double features. But thankfully, we do have Stark House Press, who honors their legacy not only by reprinting their classics from half a century ago, but by issuing new work that carries on in their tradition. Rick Ollerman, critic and novelist, represents the best of both worlds.
And now, without further ado, here’s Rick Ollerman.

–June 2014
Brooklyn, NY

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