Thursday, February 25, 2016

Forgotten Books: Down There by David Goodis from 2010

Forgotten Books: Down There by David Goodis from 2010

"Love between the ugly/is the most beautiful love of all."
--Todd Rundgren

I haven't kept up with all the Goodis mania of the past five years or so so forgive me if what I'm about to say has been said not only better but quite often as well.

To me Down There is one of Goodis' finest novels filled with all his strengths and none of his weaknesses. The world here is his natural milieu, the world of America's underclass. Yes, there are working class men and women in Harriet's Hut, the tavern in which a good share of the action happens, but most of the book centers on two people, Eddie Lynn, the strange protagonist and piano player and Lena, the strange somewhat masochistic waitress. They live on pennies.

The story is this: Eddie's brother Turley is a criminal and a criminal being sought by two killers. In defending Turley, allowing him to escape, Eddie himself becomes a target. Not until well into the novel do we learn why the killers want to "talk" to Turley. It takes almost as long to learn Eddie's personal secret, that he was once a Carnegie Hall attraction with a golden future of him. What happened?

Triffault filmed this in the sixties. Much as I like Triffault's films I was disappointed by this one. There is a purity of composition here that Triffault missed entirely. Few crime writers have the skill to vary melodrama and comedy as well as Goodis did. Even fewer have the nerve to extend set pieces the way he does.

For just one example there's a scene where the two killers have captured Eddie and Lena and are taking them to find Turley. The two men, Morris and Feather, begin to argue about Feather's driving. This becomes a mean, bitchy Laurel and Hardy sequence with the heavy threat of violence. This is a kidnapping scene. The comedy isn't foreshadowed. A high risk break in mood. And it works perfectly. And it is three or four times longer than most scenes found in the paperback originals of the time.

The Todd Rundgren quote applies to many of Goodis' lovers and never more so than here. Even by Goodis standards these two people are ugly with failure, with distrust of the world, with contempt for the values most people hold dear and most of all with loathing for what they've become. Goodis breaks your heart with them, especially in the surreal scene in which they are forced to hide out. Lena touches Eddie's arm--one of the first time they have any physical contact of any kind--and it's powerfully erotic because it is charged with desperation and an inkling of trust and forgiveness.

No matter where you look you won't find a novel as unique, and as shrewdly observed (there's a long bar scene that would fit perfectly into The Iceman Cometh) as Down There. I guess it's time I need to get all caught up in this Goodis mania after all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Max Allan Collins' new post

Ed here: I'm adjusting to the (now) six-seven hour infusions so I'm posting again. Isn't it great to see Al Collins posting after his surgery!!!!!!

Murder Never Knocks

February 23rd, 2016 by Max Allan Collins
[Before we get to this week’s post, a quick update from Nate: Dad has graduated from the ICU to the step-down unit and now on to the inpatient rehabilitation unit where he’s working hard to get back on his feet. Thank you everyone for your outpouring of support, which gave us something we could always turn to when we needed a boost.]
Murder Never Knocks
Audio MP3 CD:    
As some of you may know, MURDER NEVER KNOCKS was originally announced – and even listed at Amazon, including cover art – as DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU. I was asked to come up with a different title, more overtly noir/PI, when the Titan sales force noted that sales were better for LADY, GO DIE! and KILL ME, DARLINGthan for COMPLEX 90 and KING OF THE WEEDS.
Stacy Keach pointed out to me, when we were doing the radio-play-style novels-for-audio, THE LITTLE DEATH and ENCORE FOR MURDER, that all of the Hammer TV movies he starred in had “murder” in the title. That steered me toward the title I finally picked for this novel…or I should say that Titan finally picked, as I gave them half a dozen possibilities.
Mickey’s title, DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU, was in part a tribute to his favorite crime writer, Frederic Brown, who wrote a famous and wonderful story of that title about a demented typesetter. Mickey had two alternate titles, THE CONTROLLED KILL and THE CONTROLLER, which I didn’t think were right for the novel as it developed. Mickey devised some of the greatest titles in mystery fiction – hard to top I, THE JURY and KISS ME, DEADLY – so it’s important that I go with titles that serve him well. I happen to like both COMPLEX 90 and KING OF THE WEEDS as titles – both were Mickey’s choice – but I understand that neither one immediately suggests mystery or suspense. Still, terrific titles, I think.
This time I worked from around thirty pages of Mickey’s, plus some plot notes and the ending of the book. Mickey often spoke about writing the ending first, but this is only one of two times (the other being THE GOLIATH BONE) that I found those endings. By the way, Mickey’s ending for THE GOLIATH BONE was reworked into that of the second-to-the-last chapter of that novel; the actual last chapter is mine, as Mickey’s manuscript was a thriller and did not contain a murder mystery aspect…and I felt it necessary to add that.
On the other hand, several of our collaborative novels reflect endings that Mickey told me about – THE BIG BANG and KING OF THE WEEDS in particular.
It’s also necessary for me to try to figure out when Mickey’s partial manuscripts were written, so that I can set them properly within the chronology, as well as know what books of Mickey’s to read to get me in the right mind set. Initially, I thought MURDER NEVER KNOCKS/DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU was a ’50s manuscript. But interior evidence – for example, mention of certain NYC newspapers that had recently gone out of business – indicated the late ’60s. That allowed me to do some Greenwich Village characters and scenes that reflect the hippie era.
The basic plot has Hammer up against a Moriarty-type villain (as was the case in KING OF THE WEEDS). This time Hammer has been selected by the superstar hitman among hitmen, preparing to retire, for the honor of being his last kill.
MURDER NEVER KNOCKS will be out March 8 – in time for Mickey’s 98th birthday on March 9.
In celebration of that, here’s a fun excerpt from a great interview with Woody Allen in the January issue of WRITTEN BY, the Screen Writer’s Guild magazine. The interviewer notes that the filmmaker became a great reader, despite a lack of a university education. Woody says:
“I read because the women that I liked when I was a teenager lived down in Greenwich Village and they all had those black clothes. The Jules Feiffer women with the black leather bags and the blonde hair and the silver earrings and they all had read Proust and Kafka and Nietzche. And so when I said, ‘No, the only thing I’ve ever read were two books by Mickey Spillane,’ they would look at their watch and I was out. So in order to be able to carry on a conversation with these women who I thought were so beautiful and fascinating, I had to read. So I read. But it wasn’t something I did out of love. I did it out of lust.”
[Nate here:] Two early reviews came in for MURDER NEVER KNOCKS this week. One from the great Mike Dennis (“Score another winner for Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins,” and another from the Garbage File that was decidedly not garbage (“Very enjoyable indeed!”).

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

health update

I thought I handled my health news pretty well but then Carol read it after I posted it (and three good friends called to check in) and said I needed to explain myself.  I've been getting cancer drug infusions of up to twelve hours each. I haven't been this sick since my stem cell transplant. I have several more of these to deal with over the coming months so I need to save my strength.  That's why I won't be posting for a while. Thanks.

because of a change in my health i won't be posting until further notice good thoughts & prayers appreciated but no need to write

Monday, February 01, 2016


Fred Blosser

The Matt Helm series ended in 1993 with “The Damagers,” at least in terms of published works by Donald Hamilton.  There’s said to be an unpublished manuscript, “The Dominators.”  You’re not going to find fugitive PDFs of that one on Google (I looked), and at that, “The Damagers” isn’t much more accessible unless you’re a completist with a generous budget; copies are relatively expensive from used-book dealers.  However, you can find the next-to-final published installment, “The Threateners” from September 1992, at reasonable prices.

In this final decade of Fawcett Gold Medal Books, Hamilton was one of the last of the old-timers still in the stable, along with Marvin Albert at the tag end of his late-career “Stone Angel” series and John D. MacDonald simply in reprint form.  The label itself, by then owned by Ballantine Books, in turn a division of Random House, was nearly moribund.  I don’t think it survived into the new millennium, in any form, to celebrate a 50th anniversary in 2000, but I could be wrong.

At 293 pages, “The Threateners” is twice the length of the earliest, leanest Matt Helm novels.  The cover art is generic for ‘90s-era men’s fiction: a bullet-riddled outline of South America, with a gat and crosshairs superimposed.  Matt Helm’s name is mentioned in the cover blurb, but there’s no reference to the book being part of a series, although the fact is acknowledged inside with a full listing of all 25 previous titles.

With most of the earlier books out of print by then, maybe the marketing department had no financial incentive to promote “The Threateners” as “#26 in the series,” as it once would have.  That sad decline from the series’ golden days in the 1960s, and the simple but touching dedication at the front of the book (“In memory of Kathleen Hamilton, 1915-1989”), cast a melancholy shadow over the novel for those of us who came to Hamilton and Helm in their prime.

By 1992, with Soviet and Red Chinese conspiracies no longer an international menace, Helm’s missions had begun to center on other threats to world peace such as freelance terrorists and rogue states.  In “The Threateners,” it’s a Colombian drug kingpin, Gregorio Vasquez, “El Viejo.”  A Peruvian journalist under U.S. protection is investigating Vasquez’s plan to “destroy the U.S. by flooding the country with drugs at bargain prices that no one can resist.”    Vasquez has put a million-dollar bounty on the journalist’s head to keep the writer from publishing his expose.  Hamilton’s inspiration for this plot element in then-recent, real-life events is duly noted when one character comments, “The Latins obviously got the idea from the Rushdie case.”

Agent Eric is skeptical that the plot to flood the States with cheap coke, even if executed, would wreak the intended havoc: “there’s a liquor store on every corner now, and we aren’t all running around drunk.”  Nevertheless, events set him on a collision course with El Viejo.  The journalist is murdered by the kingpin’s hit men, and the journalist’s U.S.-born widow travels to South America to retrieve the dead man’s completed but unpublished book, stored on a series of encrypted diskettes in five different cities (this feature now dates the book as quaintly as the Cold War backdrop dates the 1960s novels).  Helm is assigned to tag along to protect her.  El Viejo’s killer compa├▒eros aren’t his only worry; a band of radical environmentalists also covets the reward that the diskettes will bring from the kingpin, and a team of rival U.S. agents, drug enforcement variety, intends to stake its own claim.  Fellow Fed or not, Helm is just an obstacle to move out of the way or trample under, as circumstances dictate.  

Helm’s assignment doesn’t get under way until page 83.  That’s where Hamilton probably would have started the novel in the early ‘60s, when the books ran 176 pages at most, and my favorites, “Death of a Citizen” (1960) and “Murderers’ Row” (1962), clocked in at 142 pages and 144 pages, respectively.  The backstory would have been filled in with a few expository paragraphs as Matt’s boss Mac handed him his traveling orders.

If you’re a Helm fan no matter whether the novel runs 144 pages or 293 as “The Threateners” does, then the difference isn’t a big deal.  You might argue that it’s unfair to judge Hamilton on page count, since he was writing to the publisher’s  specs.  In earlier days, shorter books were the preferred GM format.  Later, as cover prices rose and the page counts increased so that dollar-conscious readers wouldn’t feel stiffed, going longer was the new norm for the market.  From that perspective, you could make a case that my preference for the shorter novels is mostly a matter of taste, influenced by nostalgia, since those were the ones that I found on the spinner racks at the impressionable age of 16.  I’m not convinced that’s true, but I’ll grant you the argument. 

You might also contend that, plot-wise, the first 82 pages of “The Threateners” serve a useful dramatic function by giving us a longer look under Helm’s flinty, sardonic exterior, describing his off-duty routine more fully than the shorter books did, and giving him a couple of additional reasons (besides orders from his boss Mac) to see the mission through to his satisfaction.  “This time, it’s personal,” as the movie ad cliche goes.

Ultimately, however, that doesn’t seem to count for much: confronting Vasquez, Helm falls back on professional duty as his motive for liquidating the kingpin: “[The murdered journalist] came to the U.S. for help and we failed him; the least we can do is make certain you don’t ever threaten another writer or journalist or TV reporter.”  

Two other interesting features about the novel: when Vasquez’s hit team invades in Chapter 8, one of them tries to strangle Helm with a silken handkerchief; seems they’re adept in the old murder technique of Thugee.  Helm, having grabbed an ornamental but functional Bowie knife, nearly beheads his assailant with a killing stroke.  It seems more like a flamboyant scene out of one of Robert E. Howard’s ‘30s action-detective pulp stories than a typically understated Matt Helm kill, although it has something of a precedent, going way back, in Helm’s machete duel with the bad guy Von Sachs in “The Ambushers” (1963).
Hamilton also seems to have some fun with Helm’s movie image, which arguably would have been fresher in the public mind in 1992 than today.  Helm’s occasional consumption of highballs on the South American road trip starts off as a source of  friction with the widow in his charge, but it doesn’t dull his edge any, and he realizes it may provide a convenient cover if his enemies underestimate him as “an incompetent stumblebum who [spends] most of his time in an alcoholic daze.”  Calling Dean Martin.