Sunday, September 02, 2007

Mad Men; Kill Now, Pay Later

The Crank Patrol: I finally got around to watching Mad Men and I don't see why it's getting such good reviews. It could well be me. It probably is me. Yes, I am George Costanza. I just get the same feeling from it that I get from too many neo-noirs. If we put on the right clothes and and drop a few lines to indicate the historical era and its mores then we'll have us a pretty cool retro show. It's playing dress up without a realistic or even very interesting script to buttress the fashions. The one I'm zeroing in on concerned keeping the Lucky Strike tobbaco account happy. Just in case we didn't get the point that cigs equal cancer nearly everybody around the table--ad men and tobacco ghouls alike--were coughing. Pretty ham handed. And the way the ad dude saves the moment when the client starts to walk out...I've seen Superman scripts more believable. The much undervalued Rona Jaffe did this all much better in 1958 with Tbe Best of Everything. The scriptwriters should look it up.


In this age of psycho self-promotion (of which I'm guilty myself) and big buck book promotion, it's no longer enough to be a good solid writer. I remember Anthony Boucher calling John D. MacDonald "One of the first-rate craftsmen of crime." And that was a valid assement. JDM wasn't an innovator, a poet, a master psychologist. He was a damned good storyteller who was, in his fiction, true to his time. You can learn a lot about post-war America by reading his early Gold Medals. Those are just a few of the reasons his best work bears rereading today.

I say this because Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall, the new one from Hard Case Crime, demonstrates how admirable and readable a really fine craftsman can be. Terrall worked under a variety of names and worked in a variety of forms. As John Gonzales he wrote a very good 1951 Woolrichian Gold Medal called Death for Mr. Big. As Brett Halliday he wrote a number of Mike Shaynes that not even Halliday could have pulled off. And as Robert Kyle he wrote three excellent serious crime novels about governmental and police corruption. He even, believe it or not, wrote some good books under his own name.

In Kill Now, Pay Later private investigator Ben Gates is hired to watch over the very pricey wedding gifts bestowed on the mucky-muck couple getting hitched in a mansion. But somebody doctors Gates' coffee and he passes out. A valuable diamond bracelet is stolen. Right off I liked the set-up because it was unusual. And that's what makes this book such a fine read. Just about everything in it is unusual. Terrall is like another Hard Case Crime author, David Dodge. You're in free fall with these guys. You don't know what the hell they're up and that's what makes reading them such a pleasure. Nary a single private eye cliche in the entire book.

Terrall was especially good with dialogue. His sex scenes are really sexy and they're good clean fun as well. His take on a recently graduated parochial school vamp is funny, sexy and, given her gold-digging ways, a little scarey.

No it's not a masterpiece; no it contains no big thoughts; no it doesn't enrich humankind. It's just what it should be, a terrific read.


Graham Powell said...

I think guys like this are vastly underappreciated. Even the likes of Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner don't get much critical attention because they weren't deep.

I think part of this is the mindset that serious fiction must be difficult. Real professionals try and make their work more readable, not more obscure.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can see your point re: Mad Men, but it's about "something" and so little on TV is. I watch it with absolute dread-fearful for what became of us, sick with the incredible misery in every episode, in every character. It's a heightened reality, but boy, it's us in so many painful ways.
Can a show succeed when every character is pretty dreadful? We'll see.

Vince said...

Rona Jaffe’s novel was deftly acknowledged in an episode of Mad Men. Much as I hate to disagree with you, Ed, I remain a big fan of the show. I think the stylistic choices you noted are deliberate; the show is about the ways the world has changed large and small in the past 50 years – and the ways it hasn’t. The episodes have the structure and at times the impact of fine short stories, like the most recent one about Don Draper’s small-scaled revenge on his boss or another on how all ad men aspire to be writers and what happens when one of their number actually achieves the goal.

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, Patti...SEINFELD did quite well for itself with an all-jackass cast of characters, and WEEDS is certainly puffing along. An NPR interview I heard yesterday morning crystallized what was bothering me about MAD MEN, which had previously not annoyed me so much for the kind of heavy-handed historical-drama rummaging that bothered Ed (producer/creator Matt Weiner seems to think, from a previous promo bit, that he was the first to note that historical drama has the same sort of satirical potential as sf drama), but this bit of Weiner callowness did...the remarkably silly scene in which the junior executive rumninates aloud about hunting, killing and dressing some prey, then presenting it to his one night stand buddy to have it cooked and served to him, and she responds about how wonderful that would be, is apparently a good snapshot of what Weiner thinks the dynamic universally between men and women is...women admire men 'cause they go hunt. Weiner is a year younger than I am (read: not young enough to have not noticed better) and he still hasn't realized that some women might do that, but that even a fair amount of those probably would prefer to be the ones holding the rifle if they didn't feel it would be somehow wrong to do so. The inexplicable attraction of our secretary character to our junior executive is suddenly revealed to be, in Weiner's mind, archetypal.
The degree of sexual harassment experienced by the women in the series might well be not too exaggerated for 1960, but I suspect it is...and I'm willing for now to wait for more on the central mystery of Draper's hidden past...but now I know why there has seemed to be a certain naivete at the core of the whole thing, which helps to explain why it doesn't ring true to me.

Anonymous said...

Vince--I'll have to check on THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY's pay rates in 1960...somehow I suspect they might've offered a bit more than $50 for a short story. But that might've been a point to research on their part.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Todd-Was the secretary (can't remember her name) turned on or scared to death by his tirade?
I started working at Bell Telephone in 1967 and though I was married but only 19, I was fair game for the daily hit. The men seemed to sharpen their teeth on it. It was a competition, no more. Feminism did have its useful side, bringing this behavior to a grinding halt around 1972.

Anonymous said...

Can't remember her name either, which might be part of the problem as well. We're supposed to gather, according to Weiner (and by what I gather of the interplay), that she's into it...though your interpretation makes more sense. However, given that she's previously slept with and still seems to trust this weaselly resentful idiot, I suppose she's all of a piece. As one who's generally pro-feminist, Joanna Russ and Vivian Gornick among others had suggested a situation not quite but nearly as bad as suggested here, and the boozy and self-important environment of a Madison Avenue seemed a pretty good choice for intensification of the utter boorishness. Sorry for those last years of swagger.