EIGHT O’ CLOCK WALK

It is the morning of April Fool’s Day, and a gang of rambunctious kiddies run through the streets of Camden, London, playing tricks on every adult they encounter. Meanwhile, radio cab driver, Tom Manning (Richard Attenborough), is running late for work.

When one of the little girls in the gang stops Tom and tells him that she’s lost her doll in a nearby bomb site, he happily takes her by the hand and leads her off to find it. It’s a beautiful day and the jaunty soundtrack tells us that all is well in the world. Even when the crying little girl cracks a smile and shouts out, “April Fool!” Tom merely shakes his fist at her and chases her around for a brief moment while she giggles. Then he lets her be and goes to work.

But hours later, the little girl is found dead. Strangled. Covered in mud. A discarded heap amid the wreckage of a bomb site.

Sure enough, Tom is implicated in the crime by several witnesses, and he is later arrested for the murder. Now it’s up to young Peter Tanner (Derek Farr), inexperienced but sympathetic counsel for the defence, to do what he can to oppose the damning but circumstantial evidence against Tom.

And meanwhile the real killer keeps a close watch on proceedings …

The ‘wrong man’ narrative places this one squarely in film noir territory. The film’s opening twenty minutes do their utmost to depict a happy-go-lucky young man and wife embarking on a new life together. Tom is hard-working and wife, Jill (Cathy O’Donnell), is devoted to her husband, and together they are dead set on a life of aspirational respectability.

But fickle fate has other things in store for them.

It has to be noted, though, that the black path is not followed through ruthlessly to the end, and any noir fan wanting a merciless denouement may well be disappointed.

The film’s strongest scenes concern the hoopla around the trial, which takes up a good half of the picture. It is important to note that this is a film set during a period of capital punishment in England, a full ten years before the final hanging took place in 1965. And the film has something to say about an innocent man’s life being in jeopardy due to the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

The movie, it’s true, is not entirely explicit in its social outrage. It is not a haranguing, passionate plea for change. It is more a question of tone than anything — one that is implied by several strong, though subtle, scenes. The public follows Manning’s trial with a mixture of self-righteous horror, gleeful fascination and matter-of-fact boredom:

Outside the court, members of the public queue for spaces in the gallery, sitting on chairs on the pavement outside, knitting, obviously having been there for hours to secure themselves a spot. One clucking hen proudly tells those around her that she hasn’t missed a murder trial since 1947. Inside the courtroom, the foreman of the jury is happy. “We’re in luck,” he says. “We get our lunches free with a murder.” An important witness disappears to go shopping. And in a story strand that strangely goes nowhere (almost as if it were rewritten to make way for a happy ending), the presiding judge, though fair and professional during the trial, is preoccupied by the ill health, and subsequent death, of his wife.

These scenes reminded me of Fritz Lang’s superior Fury (1936), in which an innocent man (Spencer Tracy) is seemingly burned alive by a baying mob of vigilantes, while townspeople gather to cheer on his death, eating hotdogs, cackling with laughter and gossiping with their neighbours.

It is almost as if nobody but Tom and Jill Manning truly cares about the truth.

All, that is, except Tanner, who is presented as a modern, empathetic man of law, who to the horror of his stuffy colleagues actually visits Tom in jail, rather than merely handling the evidence for his defence objectively.

The film seems to be making some sort of statement about a need for change in British law — a more progressive approach, a more human face. But it doesn’t come right out and say what it seems to be hinting at.

But then again social outrage might not be exactly what you wanted anyway. The question is, with an innocent man about to have a noose placed round his neck, and a sickening child murderer still stalking the streets, is the film thrilling?

Well, to put it bluntly, no, not really. Perhaps it’s personal taste, but the courtroom scenes — as such scenes often do — slow the picture down and drain it of its energy. Energy, that is, that it starts with, with abundance.

My favourite scene — if this isn’t in poor taste — is the child’s early murder scene. She sits on the bank of a canal and sings the popular nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ A shadow of a man in a hat appears on the water beside her. The girl goes on singing as the shadow edges nearer. Suddenly the little girl turns around and squints confusedly up at the man, with the sun now behind him. The shadow falls over her face and a nearby train screams as it passes. Fade to black.

As child murders go, it’s pure black poetry. What a shame, then, that the rest of the picture can’t live up to it.

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THE DEPRAVED

Here we go with a by-the-numbers low budget film noir from the dear old land I call home. Brit noirs are a strange and inconsistent beast. When they’re good, they’re very, very good; but when they’re bad they’re awful.

And I do mean awful. Flat, ugly cinematography (whose only saving grace is priceless post-war period location shooting), weak, contrived plots whose conclusions you can see coming a mile away, and risible tough guy dialogue delivered in the plummiest Queen’s English.

The Depraved (1957) is nowhere near the dregs, it has to be said, but it’s never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Brighton Rock (1947), They Made Me A Fugitive (1947), Hunted (1952), Obsession (1949) or Odd Man Out (1947).

What the film does, it actually does quite well. It’s just that plenty of other films did it better years beforehand. (And it damn well knows it.)

We open on a back road in the English countryside. An American army jeep (from the base in town) runs out of fuel and Captain Dillon (Robert Arden) treks up the quarter-mile driveway of Laura and Tom Wilton for assistance. Laura (Anne Heywood) is upstairs ignoring the drunken bellyaching of her husband (Basil Dignam), who is causing a mess downstairs as he tries to move his record player.

Tom is in his bathrobe, carrying his bottle around with him and drinking glasses at a gulp. He forces Laura to clean up after him then knocks the dustpan out of her hand as the whim takes him.

Dillon appears and asks to use the telephone. Tom is still in the lounge fiddling with the wires at the back of his record player. Before Dillon can make the call, the lights go out, and Laura finds her husband passed out on the floor, stunned by the electrical current still coursing through him. And that is the moment Laura gets a wild idea.

And meanwhile Dillon has had some ideas about Mrs. Wilton of his own …

That’s right, we’re squarely in James M. Cain-land (a great or scary place to be, depending on which side of the silver screen you’re on). And even if you’ve only ever seen one film noir in your life, you probably know exactly where all this is headed.

The movie’s opening scenes are certainly its highlight. There are some skewed camera shots to reflect the dysfunction of the Wilton household; the dialogue is snappy and interesting, creating strong characters and an understandable predicament with a minimum of fuss; and the movie has pacing out of the gate that hammers home the fact that this is going to be a thrill ride.

Basically, it breaks down like this: in the first scene, we understand that Laura wants her husband dead (and we agree with her); and in the second major scene, we see that Captain Dillon agrees with her, too. We, the audience, now understand that the lust, the murder and the mayhem will surely follow.

However, this second scene with the three primary characters actually serves to highlight something else — something a little more problematic for the rest of the picture. Basil Dignam’s drunken Tom is the movie’s most memorable and entertaining character. As I worked out that the cantankerous old sod’s days were numbered, I realized that I didn’t want to see him leave. In other words, I began to side with him, against Capt. Dillon and Laura.

In this scene, too, is another factor that hampers the rest of the movie. Tom has a wonderful, bitter speech concerning the presence of a soldier in his home.

“You ever kill a man, Mr. Dillon?” Tom asks his house guest apropos of nothing. “What did it do to you, all this killing?” He has a theory about war, he says. The camera suddenly tracks forward for a close up.

“I believe,” Tom says, “that when a man learns to kill he becomes an animal. And after that he’s never completely human, completely civilized. … You can’t even hold a loaded gun without feeling the power to kill, and with the power the wish comes easily.”

It’s an interesting theory. We know that it’s meant to be important because of that sudden camera zoom. But that’s it as far as developing the theme goes. If the rest of the movie’s action is meant to be an illustration of Tom’s theory — and I suspect it is — then it’s not really a theory at all, is it? It’s treated as unchallenged fact. Dillon is easily persuaded by Laura to kill because he is an animalistic soldier who can’t act otherwise.

The theme of returning soldiers is an important one to the noir canon — one that could fill a book, let alone this brief review. In American films like The Blue Dahlia (1946), Crossfire (1947), Dead Reckoning (1947) and Somewhere in the Night (1946) the returning veteran is humanized, sympathized with and presented within a broader socio-political framework. He is not merely reduced to a wild, animalistic killer who has had his self-control destroyed within him by being ground up in the war machine.

If the ending of The Depraved is particularly ruthless in its sadism, it is not because the film is making a bold statement. It is because it is copying the harrowing endings of better films made a decade earlier.

And really, that is all the film is — a formulaic copy. Hell, if you squint a little, Robert Arden even looks and acts a bit like Fred MacMurray.

What it is, in a way, is an early dry run for the slavishly imitative neo-noir that we are sometimes saddled with today, with well-loved plot points and character types preserved in celluloid amber.

What the film doesn’t reflect is the wider implication of what this post-war ‘noir’ mood really means. If it had continued and elaborated on its theme of what state-sanctioned violence on far-flung battlefields does to a peacetime soldier in a more genteel location — still displaced from his true home — then it might have carved a place for itself and become something much more memorable. But it doesn’t do that. It opts for plot mechanics over substance.

It doesn’t even touch on that very British idea of American soldiers being “over-paid, over-sexed and over here,” a theme that would have fitted the story, the location and the period perfectly. Oh well. Shame. It could have been a tight little belter of a Brit noir. All it is in the end is a decent but anaemic imitation of the greats.

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NO STRINGS

I actually have a lot to thank Mark Safranko for. If it hadn’t been for him, I might never have discovered the romans durs of Georges Simenon. For it was in the pages of Safranko’s ‘Hating Olivia’ that I encountered my first recommendation of the Belgian’s work. (“the non-Maigrets only,” as his narrator Max Zajack hastened to point out.)

I was very much taken with Safranko’s Zajack novels. (Note to self: why the hell haven’t you bought ‘God Bless America’ or ‘Dirty Work’ yet?) They’re often compared to Bukowski, but I think the comparison is not entirely fair to Safranko. There are similarities of texture and tone, it’s true, but Safranko has a voice all his own, and Zajack is a clearly-defined and individual character, negotiating his way through a very different world to Hank Chinaski’s.

Safranko is also an interesting and thoughtful interviewee. I found and read quite a few interviews with him after finishing ‘Hating Olivia’ and ‘Lounge Lizard’, and like Bukowski, Safranko is often just as entertaining with his opinions about literature and writing and the world as he is with his fiction. I also read some of his columns for The Guardian website, and here again I found a love letter to Georges Simenon’s romans durs.

So I bought a few to see what the fuss was about — and since then (about thirty-five books into Simenon’s vast oeuvre) I haven’t looked back.

‘No Strings’ is the first of Safranko’s psychological thrillers I’ve read, and I suppose I was expecting something of the thick, claustrophobic nightmare of a Simenon. I’m not sure I got what I was expecting, but I do know I enjoyed the read all the same.

Photo by Lorrie G Foster

Photo by Lorrie G Foster

Our narrator is one Richard Marzten, a man “tired of endlessly fantasizing and not doing anything about it.” He has dreamed up a way to commit the perfect extramarital affair. He will arouse his older wife Monica’s suspicions, tempt her to investigate his odd behaviour, and then go out and have an affair after Monica has already been convinced of his innocence.

When he puts the plan into action, everything seems to be going just as he’d thought. He meets the stunning “Gretchen” and falls into bed with her on their first encounter. He has the best sex of his life and is not encumbered by any of the usual difficulties that such entanglements often bring. Their relationship is strictly on a “no strings” basis.

Until one day she jokes that they would both be better off if their respective spouses were no longer breathing; and then on another day admits that she has started to miss him when they’re not together.

As Marzten says, “Whoa. What the hell was this shit?”

But if from this partial synopsis you think you know where the rest of ‘No Strings’ is headed, then think again, as Safranko has some neat tricks up his sleeve. Because, y’see, he too is a fan of the genre. He has Marzten himself say it: “Visions of cheap, pulpy murder plots, stuff like what happened in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, raced like a comet through my brain.”

He’s fan enough — and smart enough — to create something of his own that nevertheless remains true to the type of book he obviously loves. So while you can sit back and enjoy the fast-paced, tightly-plotted thrill ride of the plot mechanics, what you also get is a nuanced portrait of an emasculated coward.

What he creates in Marzten is a confused and less-than-sympathetic character — one who’s every bit as fucked up as the kind of anti-hero that populates the best of Jim Thompson’s sick, sick world.

He vacillates between thinking, “I was in the jam I was in because of women. Two women. Both had ensnared me,” to admitting, “I was the most pitiful and ridiculous fool, trapped and destroyed by my desires.”

Marzten married into untold riches as a young man, and he only works now, in middle age, out of a kind of male pride. When the idea of having an affair creeps into his mind, he is self-conscious enough to understand that it is because, “[f]or a while I needed to not be an impotent suburban papa who was under his wealthy wife’s thumb.”

His thoughts of other women are of the fleshy, puerile fantasies that all men, if they’re honest, carry around in their heads all day long. His wife’s sagging, pale flesh disgusts him; he wants smooth, tanned, youthful perfection. He wants to prove to himself that such a body is still (literally) within his reach.

But at the same time — “The last thing I wanted was a high-maintenance model on my hands full-time.”

In a way, it is this confusion between being the all-conquering lothario and, in reality, a pathetic, desperate middle-aged man wanting to eat his cake and have it, too, that triggers the intricate twists and turns of the story’s (melo)drama. In a moment of honesty with himself, Marzten can admit, “What snakes we humans are.”

What the pulp plot dynamics also afford Safranko is the opportunity to push Marzten’s character development into hyperdrive. As proceedings spiral out of Marzten’s control, his behaviour becomes ever more desperate and reckless.

The book covers similar themes and follows a similar trajectory to Safranko’s own ‘Lounge Lizard,’ in which Max Zajack goes from being a down and out loser who hasn’t been laid in years, to a bed-hopping sex junkie who ends the novel crouched on a fire escape, frothing at the mouth and howling at the moon like a lust-crazed wolf. And while ‘No Strings’ can’t quite top that incredibly memorable parting image, it does at least end neatly and satisfactorily.

I said at the beginning that it wasn’t as dark as I had expected it to be, but really, that’s unfair of me to say that it didn’t match the expectations that I brought to it. It isn’t so much a chilling character study as a blackly-comic sex-and-murder farce. I can imagine an increasingly-manic Nic Cage in the Marzten role, if filmed.

What you get with ‘No Strings’ is a memorable narrator, a strong cast of supporting characters, and a wild, out-of-control pulp plot that will please every fan of lust ‘n’ violence madness.

And, Jesus wept, who ever asked for more than that?

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CORRIDORS OF BLOOD

Now, if you sit down to watch a picture that has Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in it, you’d be forgiven for expecting a horror movie, right? (Especially one with a title like ‘Corridors of Blood.’)

But what you get in reality is something much more, especially for those of us who crave real darkness in our movies. For what Corridors of Blood (1958) most emphatically is, is a noir picture, first and foremost.

In fact, it seems crazy to me that no one ever speaks of this film as one of the true greats of horror/noir crossover. It ruthlessly follows the noir formula through to the end, with more grim despair and sad, hollow triumph along the way than any of the Val Lewton pictures more commonly associated with the sub-genre.

We open in London, 1840, “Before the discovery of anaesthesia,” as the opening title card helpfully points out. Karloff is Dr. Thomas Bolton, a gifted surgeon performing an amputation on an unfortunate strapped-down wretch. In an auditorium full of inquisitive spectator students, an old woman sprinkles sawdust around the operating table to mop up the blood. Cue a terrible scream — and a colleague who insists that “pain and the knife are inseparable.”

Bolton, however, thinks differently. He is sure that the brain can be made insensitive to even the most invasive of surgeries. At home in his laboratory he works tirelessly to perfect an opiate that can be inhaled to render the patient unconscious.

In addition to his surgical duties and private studies, Bolton also visits the Seven Dials area in the West End, where he runs a free dispensary for the area’s poor.

A good guy, then.

But it is this very benevolence that will be his undoing.

In the Seven Dials area, local toughs with incredible names like Resurrection Joe, Black Ben and Ned the Crow hang out at Ben’s seedy tavern and lodging house, from which they are embarking on a new business venture — murdering down-and-outs to sell the cadavers to Bolton’s hospital for experimentation.

All the gang needs is a willing dupe to sign the falsified death certificates.

When Bolton innocently signs the certificate for the dearly departed Scrivener Sam, he sets in motion a chain of events that will send his life of goodwill into free fall, from which he will be lucky to save his reputation, if not his life.

Seven Dials, London

Poverty in the Seven Dials area.

Corridors of Blood is a portrait of a doomed man. I’ll say it straight out — it’s a noir. Noir through and through. You want proof?

For starters, there’s its bleak urban setting. The Seven Dials area of this period was far from the fashionable area it is today. Men suspiciously huddle in groups, scarper from the peelers into hidey-holes, glance mournfully into their gin-induced reveries, and cackle gleefully at the humiliation of Dr. Bolton. Everyone is desperate, cynical and above all, avaricious. They’d sell their grandmothers for the price of their next drink (if their grandmothers hadn’t already been buried by consumption…)

The period setting is not rose-tinted. The streets are dirty, narrow and poorly-lit (leading to some excellent noir cinematography). Its denizens lounge about, up to no good, or lurch and sway drunkenly from one ginmill to the next. Black Ben’s tavern has none of the quaintness of, say, one in a Hammer horror picture. There’s no kindly old Michael Ripper behind the bar. There’s singing and dancing and wenching, it’s true, but there’s a grubby desperation to proceedings. Abandoned children roam the barroom, picking pockets and receiving clouts round the head. Everyone sneers and shouts at each other. It is the past through the naturalist eyes of Balzac and Zola, the great grandfathers of noir and hardboiled fiction.

Next up on the noir checklist is a central character with a weakness and an obsession. For Bolton, his weakness is his generosity and benevolence. His obsession is his work and his dream of a pain-free future for the world’s patients. These are the two triggers of his downfall.

He is, to use noir-speak, a sucker. In the avaricious world of the Seven Dials, he is the worst kind of naïve fool, just ripe for the most ruthless exploitation.

In his quest to perfect his formula, his experiments on himself lead to addiction and consequently a trembling surgical hand. When the initial demonstration of his formula to his colleagues goes disastrously wrong, the pride and humiliation he feels redoubles his efforts, and thus speeds up his inevitable flush down the whirlpool of opium addiction.

It is like those old ’30s exploitation flicks of Kroger Babb and Dwain Esper – sordid tales torn from the headlines, morality plays presented as cautionary tales, warnings not to follow paths of degradation and sin!

Except … Bolton’s weakness is to want to do good in the world. No morality play, this. He is blameless.

So what lesson is to be learned from his downfall? None at all. That’s just the way of the world, baby. Like it or lump it.

Noir, I tells ya all — NOIR! NOIR! NOIR!

It only really remains to talk about the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Karloff’s craggy features are tired from the start of the picture. He looks like a man hounded by an idea. His only moment of levity is a wild, out of control hysteria brought on by opium, as he whirls about his lab smashing equipment and laughing his head off.

Francis de Wolff as Black Ben and Adrienne Corri as his wife deserve credit, too, as the masterminds behind the corpse-selling scheme. There is a constant glimmer of malice in their eyes, and small smiles on their lips, as if sardonically amused that the rest of the world is so easy to manipulate.

The performance of the picture for me, though, is Christopher Lee’s as Resurrection Joe, the muscle man in the gang of corpse-sellers. It’s a magnificently understated performance, simmering with menace and hinting at very dark secrets. He steals each scene he’s in without even trying. His measured sadism is controlled but lightning fast when called upon. Most of the time, however, he just lingers in the background, his tall, imposing frame topped off by a shabby, bent top hat. It’s performances like this that have kept Lee from being overwhelmed by, let’s be honest, a bottom-heavy filmography of clunkers.

So … no femme fatale, no crooked industrialists or wayward cops, and definitely no neon glimmering on rain-slicked streets. I’m not suggesting that Corridors of Blood deserves its place among the elites like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). But in the somewhat limited pantheon of horror/noir hybrids, this one earns its place up with Cat People (1942) and The Black Cat (1934). Give it a try next time you’re lurking in the fringes.

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*NEW RELEASE* Dark is the Night

darknight_7

The fair is in town, and a quiet young man leaves the house to see a girl. But it is only from the shadows he can watch her. She is out there enjoying the music and the bright lights. She is nothing like him.

What is it, then, that connects them? Is it the game she plays when she knows that he is watching? Or is it the darkness that resides in her as well?

‘Dark is the Night’ is a short story of 4000 words.

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THE TWISTED ONES

The excellent Prologue Books' release.

The excellent Prologue Books’ release.

If you’re not a reader of pulp fiction, I think it’s very easy to have a pre-formulated idea of what you’re going to get between the covers. Even as someone who has read his share of paperback originals, I still pick a new title up half-expecting it to be the usual hard boiled swagger.

I guess that’s how the genre came to be — it was good at giving the audience exactly what it wanted. And, sure, sometimes as a reader all you want is shabby-suited stubble-chins giving wrongdoers bellyfuls of hot lead. But while, of course, there’s nothing wrong with cheering on granite-jawed bulldozers, I have to admit that, for me, that particular type of writing got old pretty quick.

I’m not saying I outgrew it; I’m not even claiming that it’s too formulaic or knuckleheaded to be fun; all I’m saying is that it stopped exciting me. The nonstop action bored me, and what most people claimed as fuzzy morality for me seemed very cut and dried. The good guys — though hair-triggered and unapologetic — were very much always on the side of good.

But noir fiction at its best is never so predictable. And I realized that most of the time the hard boiled writing, stripped of its square shoulders and one-liners, is — well — conservative and lame.

Like the tough kid at school who grows up and ends up working in insurance — his hard-edged persona seems so toothless and contrived.

How excited I was, then, to find Vin Packer, whose The Twisted Ones I at first assumed to be a salacious tale of juvenile delinquency. I was shocked and delighted, then, to find it so measured and sensitively-handled. What’s more, there was a twist to come after I had finished it.

Y’see, I assumed that tough guy paperback writer Vin Packer was a man. But Vin Packer isn’t Vin Packer at all, but actually the pseudonym of Marijane Meaker.

Tough guy Vin Packer ...

Tough guy Vin Packer …

Now, with hindsight, that name Vin Packer was a little too good to be true, wasn’t it …?

The Twisted Ones are three young men: neat, polite, law-abiding Brock Brown; nervous, molly-coddled, good boy Reginald Whittier; and child prodigy, bookworm, genius Chuck ‘Chuckles’ Berrey. All three are from caring, loving homes; but all three are becoming very twisted indeed. Their inner lives are getting darker every day, and all three are heading towards some kind of release.

And when they vent, there is no telling what they’ll do.

Meaker, as Packer, cuts between the three young men, whose lives build towards their climaxes over one Memorial Day weekend. Meaker keeps all three connected subtly. The three boys read about each other in the papers; and Chuck is appearing on a national television quiz show that the other characters all watch.

Aside from this being an elegant authorial touch, what this approach also does is throw the novel’s final chapter — a press clipping from a Labor Day report on the weekend’s violence — into absurd relief. We, the reader, have just been shown that the problem of juvenile violence can not merely be explained in sweeping, catch-all statements of “youth gone cuckoo.” The problem is more complicated than that.

A lesser writer might have employed the exploitationeer’s classic get-out clause of showing — nay, revelling in — salacious content, only to wax all tut-tutty and moralistic at the end.

Meaker allows her anonymous journalist to do this in her stead, and makes a mockery of such simplistic thinking in the process.

What we are given instead throughout the course of the novel is understanding, sympathetic insights into three individual young men whose lives are growing increasingly out of their control. They are kids filled with self-loathing and/or sexual confusion, and with no means to find their own identities; whose parents warp their minds with well-intentioned love, overbearing dominance and lifetimes of their own shortcomings, prejudices and failures.

When I finished The Twisted Ones, I knew that I was in the presence of no hack writer. And when I discovered Packer’s real identity, the fact that ‘he’ was female — well, it made sense.

Listen to this quote from Meaker that I found on her Wikipedia entry:

“I remember being depressed by all the neatly tied-up, happy-ending stories, the abundance of winners, the themes of winning, solving, finding — when around me it didn’t seem that easy.”

It also delighted me (and made sense) that she was an admirer of Carson McCullers (a personal favourite of mine). On McCullers, Meaker said:

“She was an underdog-lover as I am. She was also this sensitive, intelligent writer whose words were lovely. I felt she was a champion of everyone who felt out-of-step with the world.”

And this is precisely what I feel about The Twisted Ones.

It is precisely what I feel about great noir writing in general.

As a reader, it is the kind of writing that I want to read. As a writer, it is what I aspire to.

In a way, it is my very view on life.

For me, Meaker’s writing in this novel — her characters themselves — are the very antithesis of those schoolyard toughs now working 9 to 5 in their offices. This is rebellious, dark, troubled writing in a very real sense, reflecting a chaotic, fragile existence in a difficult, indifferent world.

And writing like that does not need to be hardboiled. Writing like that means every word it says.

Meaker apparently wrote 20 novels as Vin Packer. The excellent Prologue Books has released most of these as affordable ebooks, as well as novels from some of Meaker’s other pseudonyms.

I, meanwhile, have found myself a new heroine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off to buy the rest of them.

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THE DARK MIRROR

 

Like oh-so-many murder stories before or since, The Dark Mirror (1946) begins with a camera prowling around a night-time apartment, only to stumble across a body with a knife sticking out of its back. The victim is a doctor, who we never get to meet (no flashbacks here…). Witnesses in his apartment building saw him only last night with a woman, and his secretary is quick to provide a name and place of business for the doctor’s girlfriend. The investigator, Lt. Stevenson, is confident that this can all be wrapped up quickly.

But things are about to take an unexpected turn …

Y’see, that girl is Terry Collins, played by Olivia de Havilland. She runs a concession stand in the lobby of the building where the doctor’s offices were. The problem is, however … there are two of her.

It transpires that Terry has a twin, Ruth — also played by de Havilland — and the two of them have been sharing duties at the job. Nobody at the building has a clue that there are two of them. More importantly, nobody can say with any certainty which one of the women is the one that they’ve been interacting with at any one time. And of course, no witness can swear on a bible which one they saw at the scene of the crime.

The police are sure that one of the women is a murderer, and the other — albeit naively — is covering up for her. But without a shred of evidence, both of the women are free to go.

Lt. Stevenson, however, refuses to believe in the existence of the perfect murder. And luckily for him, one of the other offices in the building belongs to Dr. Scott Elliott, a psychologist who just happens to specialize in the study of twins …

Now, of course, if there’s one thing twins are good for, aside from studies into behavioural genetics, it’s a darn good twisty murder plot.

Though both women are played by de Havilland, and always in matching outfits, they are both given widely different characters (as well as unnecessarily helpful nametag necklaces and monogram brooches). Evil, conniving murderer twin smokes cigarettes in the shadows; good, pure innocent twin frets and giggles and falls in love with Elliott.

There’s really never any doubt who the guilty party is. If you’re looking for a murder mystery, then this ain’t it. What we’re dealing with here is a psychological study.

Psychology in noir, for me, is perhaps the genre’s defining characteristic. These are not simply sex and murder stories for the sake of it. Collected together as a movement, during a specific period of time, and within a single country, these movies seem to work as a critical dissection of American post-war mores.

Complicated, bewildering subjects such as confused gender roles, the corrupting influence of power and money, and the need to settle back into normality after WWII’s insane, bloody nightmare, were too vast to be tackled head-on by the average Joes contained within the noir canon.

What better figurehead for these hapless chumps to turn to than the psychologist?

In film noirs such as Whirlpool (1949), Fear in the Night (1947), The Seventh Veil (1945), Spellbound (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947), the psychologist’s methods are depicted as either miracle-working cures, or as the means of destroying already-fractured psyches — a view perhaps reaching its climax with paranoid cold war noir The Manchurian Candidate (1962) — methods that are dangerous in the wrong hands, dangerous precisely because they seem to be working on a plane so far above the average Joe’s understanding; a kind of Pandora’s Box that we perhaps in our ignorance never should have opened.

(Both views, you might note, still stand in awe of the methods depicted. Off the top of my head — and feel free to correct this in the comments — I can’t think of a classic period noir that openly and aggressively criticizes psychiatry. Perhaps for this we had to wait until the early seventies, when Harry Callahan would merely reach for his .44 Magnum to outwit evildoers seemingly protected by the law’s loopholes. No blind faith in hypnosis, Rorschach ink blots or dream analysis for Dirty Harry (1971) in the aftermath of the flatulent, mumbo-jumbo sixties.)

All of which, really, is discussion for another time and place.

Ultimately, The Dark Mirror is a satisfying experience, breezing by in 85 minutes and never quite outstaying its welcome, despite its talky scenes. De Havilland is great in both roles and the special effects convincing enough not to make the film a dated curiosity.

The early scenes adopt a light, comedic tone that damages the eventual darkness of the story, but I did at least appreciate the film’s ruthless devotion to realism. Though one twin could easily be seen as the ‘evil’ twin, and the other as the ‘good’, this is explained away by nothing more exotic than old-fashioned sibling rivalry. It is a tale of bitterness, frustration and jealousy — a tale as old as the bible’s Cain and Abel — primeval emotions explained and ultimately cured by the miracle and wonder of analysing ink patterns splattered on a piece of card.

The kind of movie that Harry Callahan definitely wouldn’t go to see.

 

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IN HIS BLOOD

Wow. I wasn’t expecting anything when I began this short novel. I picked it up from the Munsey’s website a little while ago and then selected it on my Kindle with a random pot shot.

It took only a few pages to realize that I was reading something special.

Milton Raskob — “a remarkably ordinary looking man in his early thirties” — works as a colour separatist at a chemical company. Like many downtrodden men in nondescript jobs, Raskob one day receives a slight from his hated boss. This slight is one too many for a man who has felt bullied his whole life; and to show his boss (and everyone else) that he’s an important man, he takes his knife to the streets and butchers a little girl.

What follows is a string of child murders that shocks a city.

Lt. Tanager is the cop in charge of the investigation. A diligent but slightly world-weary man, Tanager’s daughter is currently seriously ill in hospital with suspected polio. Much to his terrified wife’s dismay, Tanager seeks solace in his work, and his sense of duty is such that he seems to be protecting every child in the city other than his own.

In His Blood is told in back-n-forth third person fashion between the cop and the killer. Raskob grows more confident and Tanager more determined through the pages; the police work that is carried out is relentless and laborious and the terrible killings become increasingly shocking.

Nothing particularly ground-breaking in the plot, then.

Where, for me, the novel really shines is in its fair and honest depiction of humanity. Daniels, whilst willing to depict the stark horror of what Raskob is doing, is also brave enough to give the sickening child killer a degree of empathy. He is not ‘merely’ a monster; his monstrousness is multiplied by his bland normality.

Raskob’s actions are not excused by his backstory of insecurity and bullying. Daniels’ empathy for the killer in no way strays into bleeding heart sentimentality or cries of social injustice breeding senseless crime. Raskob is depicted as a miserable, pant-wetting coward who can only fight back against the humanity he feels wronged by when it is barely four feet tall and wholly innocent.

You might not like him as you’re reading, but you’ll feel you understand him. Similarly, you understand how Tanager feels about leaving his wife and daughter at the hospital to chase the killer.

In the early pages, as Raskob begins his descent, coupled with the domestic horrors of Tanager’s daughter’s situation, the novel reaches a level of pathos that is far beyond the usual pulp paperback fare. The reader is left feeling that the world seems a very bleak and tragic, loveless place indeed.

If the novel then pulls back slightly from this worldview and allows a little light to shine onto the scene, then Daniels has done such a good job in the early stages of revealing his main characters that by the time the novel is drawing to a close, the reader is desperate for the standard cat’n’mouse happy ending.

From what I can gather after a quick internet search, Daniels was no more than a hobby writer; and while I’m glad there are four more of his novels to discover, I can’t help but wish he made a real go of this career. On the strength of this, his first novel, he easily earns his place among the top tier of crime paperback writers. Definitely worthy of your attention.

 

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A KISS BEFORE DYING

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At the age of 22, I was living back at home after university, drinking every night and chasing after girls (and failing to catch them), and stacking shelves at a local supermarket for chump change. I wanted to be a writer, and occasionally in my free and sober hours, I would sit down and write formless, sketchy short stories that most people shrugged at and confessed they didn’t see the point of.

At 22, Ira Levin was writing A Kiss Before Dying.

Finishing any novel at that age is something to be marvelled at. Writing a publishable one, another thing entirely. Writing a crime classic such as A Kiss Before Dying? Yeesh …

It’s actually very hard to write too much about this novel without revealing its plot and thus spoiling its pleasures. I can’t even tell you the central character’s name without ruining the masterful suspense of the second act. Suffice it to say that the plot concerns a disturbingly normal sociopath who plans to ingratiate himself into a rich industrialist family, and the murderous lengths he’ll go to to achieve his goal.

I picked this up expecting a dark, probing slice of noir fiction (I had already seen 1956’s colour film noir classic movie adaptation). What I got, however, was so much more besides. Somehow, Levin manages to pull off the full show — in-depth noirish character analysis of a sick mind, coupled with strictly-plotted, surprise-filled suspense and mystery.

I couldn’t help comparing Kiss… to Pat Highsmith, in fact. She, too, strikes that balance between characterization and carefully-plotted suspense. Levin’s sociopath is not a hundred miles away from Highsmith’s Ripley. Sometimes-panicky, sometimes-boastful, Levin’s killer is, on the face of it, a charismatic, likeable chap. It’s not difficult to see how he could worm his way into so many people’s lives. He is given just enough charm to woo the reader, too. His increasingly disturbing behaviour is little more than a woefully misguided attempt to keep things on an (albeit skewed) even keel.

The dark workings of his mind are presented by Levin without direct judgement. At most, Levin allows himself and us a wry chortle at his character’s expense. After shaking his head in apparent ingenuous wonder at the intricacy of his latest scheme, he affectionately calls himself “a crazy nut.” Levin, however, tells us, “He didn’t really think that; he thought he was daring, audacious, brilliant, intrepid and bold.”

And yet, of course, you cannot help but kinda like the twisted bastard. All the time, it’s little more than a complicated game to him. Like any psychopath, thoughts of others’ misery never once enter his head. To the very end he remains self-obsessed and rather proud of his achievements. The ending is right out of the pages of pulp fiction, with our anti-hero dangling from a wire above a vat of molten copper in a smelting plant. Still he cannot help but play delusional games — “Yes, a plan! Even now, at this moment, a plan!” he marvels to himself.

The structure of the novel is intricate without becoming convoluted. It is split into three parts — or, more accurately, three sisters — and yet it is in no way episodic. Levin deftly plants seeds that bear fruit later on in the proceedings. He employs gripping, simple tricks that had me literally popping my eyes open with delight as I read. And most importantly, I could barely put it down.

Whatever your favourite stripe or subgenre of crime fiction is, A Kiss Before Dying has enough to keep you satisfied. A real and deserved classic of its type.

 

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THE CRIMINAL

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Growing up, I always wanted to like olives. But every time I put one in my mouth I winced and spat it out. For some reason, though, I wouldn’t let things lie. Almost immediately I put another olive in my mouth.

A grudging, perverse acceptance soon turned to outright fanaticism. And soon I was eating them directly out of the jar.

I think it’s fair to say, too, that I’ve had to acquire a taste for Jim Thompson. Let’s face it — the man’s uncompromising view ain’t changing for you, so you’d better shift your own view till you agree.

To this day, though, I’m not sure what it is about even his classic works that leaves me with a slight taste of disappointment in my mouth.

Yet always — always — I find myself going back for more. And I can say with my hand on my heart that once I’ve finished reading all his works, I’ll go back to the start and read them all again.

Some writers just get you that way, I guess. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad Jim Thompson’s got me.

And so to The Criminal, which I have to say I assumed to be a very early work of his. It has the feeling of a writer experimenting with his voice — his world view, even. But in fact, by this time he had already written The Killer Inside Me, Nothing More Than Murder, and Savage Night — all of which you could pick out of a line-up as a Thompson novel from a mile off.

But The Criminal is another beast entirely.

Its story is of a young girl raped and murdered in a small town. The boy who lives next door is implicated in the crime, and nobody in town can quite believe that he is guilty. The girl was sexually precocious, and the intercourse she engaged in with the boy — and others — was entirely consensual. But external forces seem to want to force the hand of justice. The newspapers and the D.A.’s office seem to have their own agendas.

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When I said it feels like an author discovering his voice, what I mean is that while the world depicted in The Criminal is a noir-soaked, unforigiving one, it seems a lightweight depiction all the same. It wears no knuckle dusters and it definitely pulls its punches. Its characters are largely stupid, self-serving and amoral; but the story never plumbs the depths of, say, Pop. 1280 or A Swell-Looking Babe. The reader’s head is not forced down into the gutter and held there until the final pages.

What sets The Criminal apart from Thompson’s more powerful works is its narrative style. Whereas the big hitters are exercises in suffocating madness, with the reader forced into a psychopath’s company and never given respite from their warped psyche, The Criminal flits around from character to character, chapter by chapter, with the story allowed to build around the individuals’ testimonies.

Indeed, it is a kind of ‘message novel.’ Thompson even goes so far as to spell it out:

“It’s difficult to place a rope around a man’s neck: the law, slowly evolving through the centuries, winding its way up through dungeons and torture chambers, emerging at last into the sunlight, intended it to be difficult […] the law has changed, but people have not. They are still lingering back in the shadows; thumbs turned down on the fallen, hustling wood for the witch-burner, donning their bedsheets and boots at the first smell of blood.”

It almost seems trite of me to say that it’s a message that still resonates today. It is, at least, a message that will resonate in any noir aficionado’s dark and cynical heart.

But as a message novel, it does lack punch. Most of the characters are only given one chapter to reveal themselves. It seems hurried, just like the police investigation itself, and the characters are never given room to breathe. It could use about another hundred and fifty pages.

And I don’t say that about many books, believe me.

The only other Jim Thompson novel that I’ve been out and out let down by is The Kill-Off, another character-flitting novel that reads more like a dark-hearted soap opera.

Whether this narrative style was an attempt by Thompson to write ‘important’ novels or not is hard to say. But ironically, his greatest literary — yes, literary — achievements were within the strict confines of the pulps, with audacious experiments and tricks that any self-indulgent high-falutin’ wordsmith could only dream of. He took the pulps further than they had any right to go. His first-person descents into warped but real personal hells were unlike anything else of the kind I’ve read.

Maybe that’s why I still find myself needing to psyche myself up for them somewhat, and why I can never quite work out if I actually enjoyed them. And also why I keep coming back for more. Jim Thompson was so ahead of his time, and beyond his contemporaries, that I’m still not sure I’m ready for him yet.

But one day, Jim, one day I’ll get there…

 

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