Mississippi Noir


Mississippi Noir is the latest collection of dark crime stories in the long running series of similar titles from Akashic Books, and it’s another good one. The first hint of what to expect from the book’s sixteen stories comes in the blunt opening paragraph of Tom Franklin’s two-page introduction:

“Welcome to Mississippi, where a recent poll shows we have the most corrupt government in the United States. Where we are first in infant mortality, childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, teenage pregnancy, adult obesity, adult diabetes. We also have the highest poverty rate in the country.

And, curiously, the highest concentration of kick-ass writers in the country, too,”

And judging strictly from the number of writers who make their homes in Oxford, the claim about “kick-ass writers” might very well be true. (But sadly, so are the other ones.) This Mississippi-based story collection features the work of a few familiar names, such as Ace Atkins, writers newly-come to the genre, and even a couple of writers being published for the first time. As is always the case with the Akashic books in the series, the sixteen stories are divided into four thematic sections with tiles that give a clue to the type of story housed there: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” Bloodlines,” and “Skipping Town.”

As it turns out, my three favorite stories come from three different sections of the book: “Lord of Madison County,” by the first-time-published Jimmy Cajoleas, “Oxford Girl” by the already well-known Megan Abbott, and “Pit Stop”, by veteran writer John M. Floyd.

“Lord of Madison County” tells of a seasoned teenaged drug dealer who has stumbled upon the best way imaginable to hide the truth about himself – he pretends to be a Jesus freak interested only in spreading the word of God among his peers. When, predictably, the young man learns that, not only is he nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but that bigger, badder criminals are all around him, things do not go particularly well for him and his preacher’s-daughter girlfriend.

“Oxford Girl” takes the rather unusual approach of adopting its plot from an English ballad dating back to the 1820s. The old ballad tells the story of a young woman who is brutally murdered by the man she believes she is going to marry. The short story cleverly cites verses from one version of the old song as the story about two University of Mississippi students unfolds along eerily similar lines. There is one key difference, however, that makes the story especially effective – unlike the song, which is narrated by the killer, the story’s narrator is the murdered girl.

And then there’s “Pit Stop,” a story that likely would have warmed the heart of Alfred Hitchcock. In this one, a young woman is telling her little girl a story from her past, the one in which she encountered the infamous “Night Stalker” who killed several women along Mississippi’s Highway 25. An abundance of false leads and misdirection – along with plenty of clues that point to the Stalker’s true identity – make this one a fun and satisfying read.

Bottom Line: Mississippi Noir meets the high standard set by it predecessors in this Akashic Books series.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Far Empty

J. Todd Scott has worked as a DEA agent for over twenty years and has put that experience to good use in The Far Empty, his debut novel set in far West Texas.  Murfee, Texas, may be fictional but it is obvious to anyone familiar with that part of the state that it would fit right in near the actual cities found there (Scott, in fact, notes in his Acknowledgements that the town is “stitched together” from places found in the West Texas counties of Presidio and Brewster).
 Murfee is one of those towns so typical to Texas, where high school football is king and high school football players who do well are remembered as town heroes for a long, long time.  It’s a town in which, at the least, everyone pretty much knows everyone else by sight – and that’s not always a good thing.  What makes Murfee different is that the evil people there are so darkly and cleverly evil that they are able to exploit everyone else in town easily through guile or through outright intimidation.  And it’s been that way for way too long.
J. Todd Scott
Deputy Sheriff Chris Cherry is one of those high school heroes.  Chris, in fact, was able to turn his great success on the high school football field into the chance to play college football.  That opportunity, however, did not work out so well, and Chris is back in Murfee with a blown-out knee and a sheriff department job handed to him largely because of his high school glory.  And, even worse, the man who hired Chris, Sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross, is evil personified. 
Caleb Ross, the sheriff’s teen-aged son is convinced that his father has murdered at least three men.  Perhaps even worse, Caleb thinks the sheriff may very well have killed each of the women he’s been married to – including his third wife, Caleb’s mother.  Since his mother’s disappearance, the house Caleb and the sheriff live in has become kind of a war zone, a place in which both of them tolerate the other’s presence and speak only the minimum amount required to make it through a day.  For good reason, Caleb both hates and fears his father.
Things come to a head very suddenly when Chris Cherry finds the remains of a murder victim whose hands are bound behind his back with the very type of plastic handcuff favored by the Murfee sheriff department.  Caleb needs an ally if he is to ever find out what happened to his mother, and he sees Chris as just the man he needs.  Throw in the Feds who come snooping, and you have a whole lot of people putting pressure on Sheriff Ross, a man capable of doing anything to keep the truth about how he runs Murfee hidden – perhaps even to killing his own son if that’s what it takes.

The Far Empty is genuine West Texas Noir: dark, gloomy, and not a lot of fun for any of the characters caught up in this story.  All the fun is reserved for those of us who read it.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

St. Louis Noir

St. Louis Noir is just the latest of about a dozen of the short story collections in this Akashic series that I’ve read now, and the streak continues – not a single one of them has disappointed me.  Each of the collections begins with an introduction from the book’s editor (in this instance, Scott Phillips) that helps set the overall tone for what is to follow.  As Phillips says, the St. Louis region has not had an easy time in recent years, and that makes the city the perfect setting for this kind of hardcore crime fiction.  Consider that one of Phillips’s definitions of noir is fiction that “traffics in fatality and doom and bad luck and characters who persistently, knowingly, act against their own best interests” and you have an idea of what is to come.
Among my favorite stories in St. Louis Noir is one called “Deserted Cities of the Heart” (by Paul D. Marks) in which a loner of an IT nerd with a security clearance is convinced to hack into a witness protection data base with disastrous results by the attractive young out-of-towner who suddenly comes into his life.   Another is “A Paler Shade of Death” (by Laura Benedict) about a young woman that many suspect is guilty of killing her four-year-old son.  Now that her marriage has fallen apart, she is trying to convince herself that it is time for a fresh start – but is it?  Two other stories are particular standouts: “The Brick Wall” (by John Lutz) and “One Little Goddam Thing” by the collection’s editor Scott Phillips.  The first is a rather Hitchcockian story involving revenge of the most ingeniously delicate variety, and the second involves revenge of the cruder, but equally effective, type. 
St. Louis Noir also includes what is titled “A Poetic Interlude,” four short poems from Michael Castro.  In very few words, the first two pieces (“In St. Louis Heat” and “Gaslight Square”) paint vividly memorable pictures of St. Louis street scenes, but the third poem, “St. Louis Blues Revisited” strikes a note I wish it had not stricken by referencing “the cold cop who killed Michael Brown.”  Perhaps I am misreading the poet’s intention in making that reference, but I do not see that it adds much of anything to mood of the poem, even coming in the poem’s very first stanza as it does.  Much worse is a similar reference in author Umar Lee’s short author biography (whether written by Lee or by the editor did, I do not know) to the “murder of Michael Brown.”  That reference serves no purpose whatsoever other than to explain the politics of Umar Lee who is “presently a candidate for mayor of St. Louis.”

The bottom line: St. Louis Noir is another worthy addition to what is perhaps already the best series of short story collections to be published in decades.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler is the master, the guy who pretty much created the pattern for most of the fictional, tough-guy detectives that would follow Chandler’s own Philip Marlowe.  Written in 1953 (while his wife was dying of a terminal illness), The Long Goodbye is my favorite of all the Philip Marlowe novels because of how much it reveals about Marlowe’s character and core beliefs.  Marlowe is a cynic with a good heart, a man attracted to the down and out characters he so often finds on the streets of Los Angeles.  He still believes that he can help them, even though more times than not, he fails to do so.
One of those whom Marlowe tries to help is a hopeless drunk by the name of Terry Lennox.  Marlowe and Lennox meet late one night when a woman angrily drives away and leaves the appallingly drunk Lennox standing alongside Marlowe outside a restaurant.  After Marlowe takes the man home with him so that he can safely sleep off his drunk, the two men become friends of a sort. Things get interesting a few months later when Lennox comes to Marlowe looking for a quick ride to the Tijuana airport.  Marlowe, hoping to avoid incriminating himself, refuses to listen to the reason for the sudden trip but decides to drive his friend to Mexico despite his suspicions that Lennox is in trouble.  Upon his return to Los Angeles, Marlowe learns two things: Lennox’s wife was murdered just before the man left town, and the cops know that Marlowe helped him flee the city. 
Chandler, never one to shy away from using coincidence to move his story along, uses the device effectively several times in The Long Goodbye to keep Marlowe involved in Lennox’s problems long after their late night drive to Tijuana.  For instance, when a New York publisher asks Marlowe to help find missing writer Roger Wade, another out-of-control drunk, the detective (only after the man’s wife personally asks for his help) reluctantly agrees to take the job.  As it turns out, there are connections – several of them – between Terry Lennox and the Wades, and what Marlowe learns about those connections keeps him hanging around the Wades a whole lot longer than he ever intended to.
Raymond Chandler
Probably because of what he and his wife were going through at the time he was writing The Long Goodbye, the novel has a more serious tone than what Marlowe fans had come to expect from Chandler.  Marlowe is presented here as a cynic trying to get by, a hard man with a soft side who values friendship but has few friends because he understands that he lives in an every-man-for-himself world where he is all too often the odd man out.  This aspect of Marlowe’s character not only makes Chandler’s writing a little different from most of the detective fiction of his day, it is one of the chief influences on the writers who followed him. 

Philip Marlowe is the granddaddy of all the fictional detectives working the streets today, and Raymond Chandler deserves to be read and appreciated for his tremendous contribution to what is still one of the most popular literary genres in publishing.

New Orleans Noir: The Classics

New Orleans Noir: The Classics is the eleventh book from the Akashic Books noir series that I have read and enjoyed since late 2009.  But, as indicated by a quick count of the books listed inside the cover of this one, that is just the tip of the iceberg.  If I counted correctly, 75 of the short story collections have now been published and another 18 are being prepared for publication.  
New Orleans Noir, as indicated by its subtitle, mines the historical treasure trove of previously published fiction set within the confines of New Orleans.  With only one exception, the book’s 18 stories are presented in chronological order, beginning with an Armand Lanusse story from 1843 and ending with one by Maurice Carlos Ruffin from 2012.  The stories are further subdivided into three sections, each part titled in a way that characterizes the New Orleans of that day.  
Kate Chopin
“Part 1: The Awakening” is comprised of four stories written between 1843 and 1899 and includes contributions from Kate Chopin and O. Henry.  “Part II: Sweet Bird of Youth” adds five more stories, including ones by Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, and the book’s third, and longest, section adds another nine stories and is called “The Thanatos Syndrome.”  This third section includes the work of writers familiar to today’s short story readers such as James Lee Burke, Ellen Gilchrist, Ace Atkins, and Nevada Barr.
As in any short story compilation, some of the stories will appeal to individual readers more than others, but I suspect that there is something here for just about everyone, no matter the style and content they prefer.  My own favorites from the collection demonstrate, I think, the varied nature of the stories included.  There is Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894), at just four pages one of the shortest of all, that tells a story that Alfred Hitchcock could easily have used in his television series seventy years later.   And there is Shirley Ann Grau’s 1955 story, “Miss Yellow Eyes,” which at thirty-six pages is one of the longest in the book.  “Miss Yellow Eyes” tells the tragic (noir in every sense of the word) story of a young black woman planning to move to Oregon with her soldier fiancé where they can easily pass for white – before the Korean War interrupts their plans.
Ace Atkins
Another favorite is “Ritual Murder” (1978) by Tom Dent, a New Orleans-born writer who would die in 1998 at age sixty-six.  This one is presented in script form, including stage directions, and strives to come to grips with the black-on-black violence that Dent aregues is akin to “group suicide.”  Of the more recent stories, my favorite is Ace Atkins’s 2010 story “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.”  Atkins so perfectly captures the elements of noir fiction in this one that it is perhaps my favorite story of the entire collection.

Bottom Line: New Orleans Noir: The Classics is another fine addition to one of the best short story series being published today.  Don’t miss this one.

(Review copy provided by publisher)

Buffalo Noir

Buffalo Noir, a 2015 addition to the Akashic Books collection of noir short stories, follows in the tradition of the numerous series editions that have preceded it.  The books, most of them set in specific cities, offer twelve to fifteen stories from writers who are especially familiar with those cities and who recognize the undersides of those places that outsiders only stumble upon by accident – sometimes to their regret. 
This time around there are stories from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates (who recently tweeted that the “best view of Buffalo is in a rearview mirror), Lawrence Block (who was born in the city and lived there for several years), S.J. Rozan (whose family lore says that she was conceived in Buffalo), and Lisa Marie Redmond (who has been with the Buffalo Police Department since 1993).  Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, who also contribute stories to the collection, edit Buffalo Noir. The book opens with Park’s eight-page introduction in which he describes the meaning of the term “noir” more by example than by explicit definition. Although his approach marks his introduction as different from the other introductions I’ve read in the series, it is highly effective and, in fact, Park’s recollection of an incident from his own childhood is almost as intriguing as the collected stories themselves.
The twelve stories are as different in style as their authors. Some stories are told in a straightforward fashion and have conclusive endings; others are more open-ended and leave it up to the reader to decide what really happened. Some are dark and filled with the shadows one expects from noir fiction; others stretch the definition of noir almost to its breaking point.
I’m sure reflecting my personal reading tastes as much as anything else, my two favorite stories are both of the more straightforward type: Lawrence Block’s “The Ehrengraf Settlement” and Gary Earl Ross’s “Good Neighbors.”  In Block’s story, a wealthy man, used to always getting his way without much of a fight on the part of whomever he runs over in the process, makes a critical mistake when he decides to cheat his defense lawyer of the bulk of his fee. And in “Good Neighbors,” the couple buttering up their elderly next-door neighbor in hope of inheriting her property some day does not react well when new neighbors move in and immediately gain the old woman’s affection (Hitchcock would enjoy this one, I think).

Buffalo Noir is fun, and that is what noir fiction is all about, really. If you enjoy noir, you simply cannot go wrong with any of the books in the Akashic Books noir series, this one included.


Chicago Noir: The Classics

Chicago Noir: The Classics is my ninth experience with the wonderful Akashic Books series of noir short stories since I first discovered them several years ago.  In addition to this Chicago collection, I have enjoyed the books set in Manila, Belfast, Long Island, Boston, Mexico City, the Lone Star state of Texas, Providence, and one set entirely inside prisons.  I was particularly interested in getting my hands on Chicago Noirbecause that city’s reputation for political corruptness is the first thing that many people think of when they hear the word “Chicago.”  Even the book’s editor, Joe Meno, stressed that reputation in his introductory comments:
            “Only in Chicago do instituted color lines offer generation after generation of poverty and violence, only in Chicago do the majority of recent governors do prison time, only in Chicago do the dead actually vote twice.  With its public record of bribery, cronyism, and fraud, this is a metropolis so deeply divided – by race, ethnicity, and class – that sociologists had to develop a new term to describe this unfortunate bifurcation.  As Nelson Algren best put it, Chicago is and has always been a ‘city on the make.”’
But all that said, the stories in Chicago Noir seem to stretch the definition of “noir” to a greater degree than any of the other noir collections I’m familiar with.  Granted, these stories are labeled as “The Classics,” and some of them are decades old, but I found myself wondering several times whether they really fit in this particular collection. 
There is, for instance, a wonderful story from 1945 by Richard Wright called “The Man Who Went to Chicago.”  While this is one of my two favorite stories from the entire collection, I struggle to fit it within the confines of my personal definition of the term “noir.”  It takes place entirely within a Chicago Medical District research lab, and the only crimes committed are an aborted knife fight that causes damage to the lab, and the workers’ decision to cover up the fact that the resulting damage ruined the research studies being conducted there.  It is “dark” only in the sense that it exposes the horrible racial discrimination so common to those times.
Now, my other favorite story from Chicago Noir: The Classics leaves no room to doubt that it belongs in any collection of noir fiction.  This one is called “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen,” and it was written by Fredric Brown way back in 1948.  The story is brutal, has a couple of unforgettably duplicitous characters in it, and the most shocking ending of any story in the entire collection.  It is only the second time I have read Fredric Brown and it is enough to make me search for more of his work.

As in most short story collections, the stories in Chicago Noir: The Classics are a bit uneven.  Perhaps that is purposeful and done in hope that there is something in the collection that will appeal to everyone who picks it up.  If so, that might be a legitimate reason for packaging them together.  But a couple of stories were so formulaic that I wished I had not bothered with them at all.  It’s as if they were written to “spec” even though they were from 1995 and 2009.  But overall, this is a worthy addition to the Akashic Books noir series, and I am happy to add it to my collection.

Post #2,581


Breaking Bad Bobbleheads Can Be Found at Barnes & Noble

Here’s a quick heads-up to fans of Breaking Bad, the cable TV series that finished up a spectacularly successful run last season.  

As many of you know, action figures for several of the main characters were pulled off the shelves of Toys R Us because of pressure the chain received to get them out of toy stores whose primary customer base is children.  Well, it seems that all of the resulting media talk brought the figures to the attention of a lot of people who never would have otherwise heard of their existence.  Prices for the figures immediately skyrocketed on eBay and finding them in any brick-and-mortar store became more than a little dicey.  

I have not seen the action figures anywhere yet, but I did spot some of the similarly designed bobbleheads at Barnes & Noble this morning (right along side bobbleheads for several  Sons of Anarchy characters). The Walter White one is great, the one for Saul (the crooked lawyer) is pretty accurate, and the one for Jessie not so hot, in my opinion.  

Of course, the one everyone really wants is the Heisenberg version of Walter, and that one was nowhere to be found.  I still hope to find two or three of the actual action figures at a reasonable price, but if not, these bobbleheads are the next best thing.

I also picked up the Sons of Anarchy Clay Morrow figure shown in this post.  Call me crazy, but they make me smile.

Creole Belle

James Lee Burke does something better than any crime fiction writer around today: he creates believable, self-contained worlds in which the outlandish things that happen to his good guys seem entirely plausible.  And, boy do crazy things happen to Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, and those closest to them.  But in Burke’s little corners of southwest Louisiana and remote Montana, it all makes a certain kind of sense.
As Creole Belle begins, Dave is still hospitalized, slowly recovering from the near-death experience he and Clete experienced at the end of the previous series novel, The Glass Rainbow.  In the hospital, Dave, who is often surrounded by visitors from his past (be they long dead or not), is surprised by a visit – and the gift of an iPod with some special songs on it – from Tee Jolie Melton, a young woman he knows.  There are just two problems: Tee Jolie disappeared several weeks earlier, not to be seen since, and no one can hear the special iPod songs but Dave.
Even when he finally leaves the hospital, Dave continues to get phone calls from Tee Jolie in the middle of the night.  Sensing that something is terribly wrong, he and Clete start asking questions.  When Tee Jolie’s sister is found encased in a huge block of ice floating in the warmish waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it all suddenly becomes too real.  Someone badly wants Dave and Clete to back off and will do anything it takes to kill their investigation – and them.
James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke, at age 76, is still very much in peak writing form.  His Robicheaux novels, in particular, are as good as ever, and Burke has even added an intriguing new character to the mix here who will be one of the key characters in his soon to be released Light of the World.  In Burke’s view, the fight between good and evil is not a black and white one.  He focuses, instead, on all the gray areas where the bad guys sometimes show a tiny sliver of a heart and the good guys are forced to use bad-guy tactics in the name of justice.  Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell pride themselves on protecting those incapable of protecting themselves – and if the system cannot do it, they do whateverit takes to get the job done.
Bottom Line: Read this book.  Read this series.  Read James Lee Burke.

Boston Noir

Boston Noir is, by my count, the thirty-fourth book in a series of darkish short story collections set in major cities around the world. Each of the featured cities has distinct enough a personality to set a unique tone for its particular volume, even, at times becoming as much a character in the stories as the chief protagonists themselves.

This particular volume is home to eleven short stories, some of which have been written by authors already well known to genre readers and others by lesser known writers. Dennis Lehane contributes both the book’s introduction and a story entitled “Animal Rescue” about a seemingly simple man with an unexpected hard edge to him. Other contributors include: Stewart O’Nan, Lynne Heitman, Jim Fusilli, Patricia Powell and John Dufresne.

The stories have a tough, sometimes depressing, tone to them but they are kept lighter than they otherwise would have been by the bits of ironic humor that sneak into them when least expected. Even readers unfamiliar with the term “noir,” will be tempted to explore the collection after reading Lehane’s definition of what it takes to be a “noir hero” –

“In Shakespeare, tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs. Tragic heroes die in a blaze of their own ill-advised conflation. Noir heroes die clutching fences or crumpled in trunks or, in the case of poor Eddie Coyle, they simply doze off drunkenly in a car and take one in the back of the head before they have a chance to wake up again. No wise words, no music swelling on the soundtrack.”

These are stories about white collar people who finally reach their breaking point; people who see an opportunity to stick it to the system and grab the chance to do so; people eager to profit from the deaths of others; hard people that suffer because of soft hearts; inept criminals who somehow manage to bluff their way through; and the worst kind of sex predator – something for everyone.

Stories collected from so many different writers will, of course, vary in quality, and those gathered in Boston Noir are no exception to that rule. What is rather unusual, unfortunately, is that the quality of these stories range all the way from very effective to almost incomprehensible, meaning that most readers are likely to consider Boston Noir to be, at best, an average collection of short stories.

Rated at: 3.0

The Thin Man (1933)

Being almost completely unfamiliar with the old Nick and Nora Charles movies, I came to The Thin Man with no preconceived notions about its two main characters and how they might fit into the rest of Hammett’s body of work. At first, the book did not strike me as being particularly dark or hardboiled, two qualities I have come to expect from Hammett’s writing, but by the time I finished it I had changed my mind. As Hammett developed his storyline and fleshed out his characters it became apparent that the more sophisticated Nick and Nora were dealing with characters from the criminal underworld and the NYPD who would have fit comfortably into any Hammett novel.

Ex-detective Nick Charles and his wealthy young wife have come from San Francisco to spend Christmas 1932 in New York City, a city with which Nick is very familiar and in which he still has many friends and contacts because of the years he worked it as a private detective. Nick, retired from the business and hoping to earn his keep these days by managing the enormous wealth that his new wife has inherited, wants nothing more from the holiday than a chance to visit old haunts, see a few friends, drink some good booze on a regular basis and sleep until noon each day.

A chance encounter with the daughter of a former client of his who wants him to help her find her father makes sure that most of Nick’s original holiday goals will be impossible to achieve because, try as he might to avoid any involvement, he is slowly sucked into a mess beyond his imagination. Before he knows what hit him, Nick is working with a NYPD detective on a murder investigation, becomes the target of one of the murder suspects, finds that the wife of another suspect is trying to frame him for the murder, realizes that he and Nora have become surrogate parents to the young lady who first got him involved, and is still trying to squeeze in as much booze as possible into his daily routine.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammett’s last novel and I had hoped to enjoy it much more than I did. Strangely enough, what will stay with me the longest is the alcoholism that the novel’s main character, Nick Charles, so obviously suffers, suffers to such a degree that he is constantly joking about his need for a drink and offering drinks to others so that he will have an excuse to mix one for himself. In fact, his young wife Nora, if she stays with Nick too many years, is almost certainly going to end up in the same boat. Hammett, an alcoholic himself, portrays these drinking habits as humorous and sophisticated, very much a positive thing in the lives of Nick and Nora Charles. I found that attitude, along with some casual use of the “N-word” to be distracting enough to keep me from fully buying into the novel’s plot. I realize that the book was written at least 75 years ago but I struggled to get past this kind of thing, especially Hammett’s attempt to make alcoholism seem so appealing a lifestyle.

I listened to the audio version of the book and I was impressed with the way that William Dufris read the novel. The Thin Man is largely a first person narrative by Nick Charles with the remainder of the book being told in conversational format. Dufris does a superb job providing accents, inflections and different voices for the various characters, male and female, and made listening to Hammett’s story a pleasure but, overall, I was disappointed in the book. Based on its reputation, I think that I expected too much.

Rated at: 3.0

The Big Clock

The Big Clock is considered to be a classic representation of American Noir and, in many ways, I agree with that assessment. It has all of the elements that reflect that style of writing: a dark atmosphere, hardboiled narration, crime, suspense, obsessive passions, guilt ridden individuals caught up in circumstances beyond their control, etc. But this 1946 Kenneth Fearing novel fell flat for me and I can’t say that I much enjoyed it.

George Stroud, one of the novel’s several first-person narrators, works at a major publishing corporation and has a nice little life going for himself. His world includes a wife by the name of Georgette and a little girl called Georgia, a family that seems to genuinely enjoy calling each other by the name “George” in casual conversation. But all is not what it appears to be. George Stroud has cheated on his wife in the past and he makes little effort to change that habit, even going so far as to start an affair with the mistress of the founder of the company that employs him, one Earl Janoth.

Circumstances catch up with Stroud at the end of one weekend spent with this mistress of both men when, upon returning her to her apartment, he is glimpsed by Earl Janoth who has unexpectedly shown up at the apartment house. The brief encounter with Janoth becomes a threat to Stroud’s very life after Janoth, in a sudden fit of rage, strikes the young woman a death blow with the wine decanter from which they were drinking before he confronted her about the mystery man he had seen with her.

The novel takes a Hitchcockian twist when Stroud is called into Earl Janoth’s office and is placed in charge of a massive project to identify the mysterious man who might have the power to place Janoth at the murder scene. Stroud, of course, has to appear to be making the most of the company’s massive resources to find the man while, at the same time, trying to make sure that he is never identified as being that man himself.

Author Kenneth Fearing still had me up to this point. I enjoyed watching Stroud squirm as he tried so desperately to appear to be the hound rather than the rabbit. The suspense level continued to build nicely and I wondered if he was going to avoid the goons who wanted to kill him or if he was going to have to finally confront them directly. But the timing involved in Fearing’s solution is just so improbable that it ruined the novel for me and I wonder why the book is considered to be such a classic of its type. The book did translate well to film and has been made into two movies, The Big Clock starring Ray Milland and No Way Out, a Kevin Costner film.

Rated at: 2.5

I Married a Dead Man

The first version of I Married a Dead Man appeared as a novella in the April 1946 issue of Today’s Woman. By 1948, when the book was published under the pseudonym William Irish, Cornell Woolrich had expanded his novella and completely rewritten its ending, resulting in a fine American Noir novel that has been filmed at least three times. The best known movie version of I Married a Dead Man is the 1950 film starring Barbara Stanwyck for which the title was changed to No Man of Her Own. The movie is an excellent representation of the film noir of the period although it was somewhat weakened by the studio’s decision to use the original ending of the novella rather than the stronger, more compelling, ending of the novel itself.

Helen, a very young woman, finds herself seven months pregnant and abandoned by the father of her child. All that the father of her child has left her is a five dollar bill and train tickets from New York to the West Coast where she hopes to start a new life for herself and her baby. By the time that she is seen struggling to find a place for herself and her one suitcase on an overcrowded train, Helen is down to her last seventeen cents and is near despair. But fate has a surprise in store for Helen and the young couple who befriend her on the train, a surprise that offers Helen the chance to provide her child with the kind of life she never dreamed possible.

Does she have the nerve required to snatch that chance when she recognizes it? Is her love for her new baby so strong that she will do anything to ensure the child’s future? By the time that Helen has to answer those questions for herself, she finds that circumstances completely beyond her control have made it possible for her to live a life she never dreamed possible if only she keeps her mouth shut. But of course, fate is not that kind, nor is life that simple. That’s the rest of the story, a story that would have made Alfred Hitchcock smile, and one that I’m not going to spoil for you.

Cornell Woolrich deserves to be better known than he is today. He was a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Raymond Chandler, all of whom have remained largely in print for the last 60 or 70 years. But despite the fact that during the period between 1940 and 1948 alone, Woolrich produced six novels under his own name, four as William Irish and one using the name George Hopley, his work is not easily found today. Woolrich has been called “the Hitchcock of the written word” and, in fact, between 1938 and 1950 Hollywood producers turned some 15 of his stories into movies, the most famous of which is Hitchcock’s own Rear Window, a film based on the 1942 Woolrich novella It Had to Be Murder.

So if you are a fan of Cain, Hammett and Chandler but have read all of their work, Cornell Woolrich is a name you need to remember. Finding his work will require some extra effort, but Woolrich is a worthy addition to anyone’s American Noir collection.

American Noir

I’ve long had an interest in the American Noir of the 1930s-1950s period and was particularly happy to find that The Library of America considers much of the work of that period worthy of being added to its list. In fact, I know of six volumes published so far: two collections of Raymond Chandler’s work, two volumes from Dashiell Hammett, and two volumes entitled “Crime Novels,” one covering the decades of the thirties and forties and another of work first published in the fifties.

In its own words, The Library of America publishes “America’s best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions.” I totally agree with that description and I’ve been collecting LOA books for a few years now, adding two or three a year to my shelves.

Today I’ve been reading Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man, a novel that is included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s. I plan to review the novel when I finish it because it is one of those “lost novels” that few people remember and that is a shame. But what I already find interesting is the great contrast between the quality of the volume from which I’m reading Woolrich’s book (classy, full cloth binding, acid free paper) with the way that it was marketed in its earlier life.

Take a look at this 1949 cover:

Several of Cornell Woolrich’s novels were published under the name of “William Irish,” so no big surprise there. What makes me chuckle is how misleading this rather outlandish cover is about the book’s plot, making it appear to be some kind of ghoulish horror novel when it is actually more akin to the kind of story that made Alfred Hitchcock famous. I wonder how many readers judged this book by its cover.