New Release & Special Offer

RELEASE AD_jaypeg

 

Yep, for one week only, you can get my entire back catalogue without worrying your bank manager. Offer ends Fri. 18th March, 2016.

Go here:

AMAZON US

AMAZON UK

As for the new release itself, here’s the blurb for Dying Will Be Easy

A house of death and madness … A place of pain and sadness and no joy.

When a shocking death shatters Heather’s humdrum life, it’s time to pick the pieces back up and rebuild all over again. This time, though, she’s going to make some changes. No longer will she let other people’s expectations influence her decisions. No longer will she repress all of her desires. From now on she is really going to live.

New housemate Gemma and Gemma’s boyfriend Roland help Heather to concoct a bizarre scheme that might put them all on Easy Street. But old habits die hard, and Heather once again finds control of her future being wrestled from her grasp, this time by the devious, brutal hands of domineering Roland.

Now, instead of embracing life, Heather finds herself obsessed with thoughts of death, and only she can decide whether she will be victim or survivor.

Dying Will Be Easy is a short, sharp hit to the gut, a tale of sex and violence in the classic paperback mould. Part pulpy melodrama and part psychological thriller, Heather and Roland’s warped and sadomasochistic battle of the sexes is unflinchingly bleak and doom-laden.

AMAZON US

AMAZON UK

SMASHWORDS (for all non-Kindle formats)

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THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE

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John Henry sat back in the hard, uncomfortable chair to try and find a position that didn’t send his ass to sleep. The plastic farted in the silent room and the red-faced man turned his face to him. John Henry tried a smile but the red-faced man looked away.

“Well, Jesus,” John Henry said, standing up, “is nobody coming to this damn thing, or what?”

He strode across the classroom and stuck his head out into the hall. From all the other adult education classes came the sounds of talking and learning. He came back over.

“You wanna do this, or what?” John Henry said.

“Do what?” the red-faced man said.

John Henry picked up his book from the floor. “Talk about this thing.”

“What’s the point?” the red-faced man said. “No teacher to sign us off. Nobody’ll believe we’ve been here, anyway.”

“We’ll get one of these other bastards to sign us off. Get ’em at the end of one of their lessons. Tell ’em we’ve been here all this time, no sign of Miss Tightass.”

“And so, what?” the red-faced man said. “Meantime talk about this damn book?”

“That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it. Court-appointed rehabilitation.”

The red-faced man shook his head. “What’s the point?” he said again.

“But I liked the damn thing,” John Henry said. “Didn’t you read it?”

“Course I did.”

“And?”

“And …” The red-faced man shrugged.

“You didn’t like it?” John Henry said. “Whaddaya mean you didn’t like it? You nuts? All the crap they’ve been forcing down our throats all these weeks, book like this comes along and you don’t like it. Mister Critic, all of a sudden, huh?” John Henry laughed. “Book like this is real, you know what I’m saying. All that other crime stuff, it’s not real. This is real. It’s just about the real-est book I ever sat down and read.”

“Ah, well, sure,” the red-faced man said, nodding his head. “It’s real. Sure, yeah, I get that.”

“This George V. Higgins,” John Henry said, reading from the front cover of the book, “he knows his stuff, musta been around real criminals a few times. Don’t you think?”

The red-faced man was still nodding. “Sure, sure.”

“He knows how we talk, what we talk about–”

“Oh, well, hey,” the red-faced man said, “while we’re talking about dialogue, let’s really say something about it.”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t like the dialogue,” John Henry said. “Man, I could believe almost anything but you bad-mouthing the dialogue. Only that other guy — what’s his name? — Elmore Leonard. Only Elmore Leonard can get his guys to talk like this Higgins boy can. If anything, man, I think Higgins got him beat.”

The red-faced man was staring at him. “You gonna let me finish, or what? I didn’t say the dialogue was bad, did I? You hear me say that?”

“What are you saying, then?” John Henry said.

“I’m saying, don’t you think there was a little too much of it? The whole damn book’s nothing but dialogue, just about.”

“Well, and so what? Makes it easy to read, doesn’t it? You spend long on this one? I’m willing to bet you flew through this thing, double quick.”

“Well, what of it?” the red-faced man said. “They hand out awards now for making books quick to read? He didn’t put in no descriptions or nothing.”

“Sure, he did,” John Henry said.

“Hardly any.”

“Not all that much,” John Henry said, “but enough. You wanna know about warts and the colour of their goddamn eyes, or something?”

“I just got confused, is all,” the red-faced man said. “At the beginning. Who was who. What was what.”

“Ah, well, hell, you got confused, huh? You got confused. So this Higgins fella’s to blame for you being confused.” John Henry leaned forward a little. “I get the impression that it don’t take all that much.”

“Hey, fuck you.”

“You got a problem with a bit of subtlety, huh? Want everything handed to you on a plate? You gotta work for some things in this book, think about it maybe a little. Use that big old brain of yours, for a change.”

The red-faced man gave him the bird.

John Henry sat back in his chair and laughed loudly. When he’d finished, he said, “Well, and what else?”

The red-faced man gave it some thought. Sounds from all the other lessons came down the hall. From a room upstairs came the sound of tuneless singing.

“Well, still with the dialogue,” the red-faced man said.

“Oh, Jesus–”

“Most of the time those guys’re just talking about nothing, you know what I mean. Telling each other about this guy they once knew. Some job they were on once, or this time they were in prison. Talking about their wives.”

“Sure,” John Henry said. “They shoot the shit. Just like life.”

“But this ain’t life, is it?” the red-faced man said. “It’s a goddamn book. Get to the story.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” John Henry said. “Here’s where you’re wrong. The story’s in there, man, you just gotta pay it some mind. You gotta tease it out of there, from between what they’re saying.”

The red-faced man clucked his tongue.

“You want hand-holding, do you?” John Henry said.

“Nah,” the red-faced man said, “I just got confused a few times, is all.”

“Back to this–”

The red-faced man sat forward and pointed a finger at John Henry. “You wanna know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of those movies. Those movies that guy makes. Tarantino.”

“Hey,” John Henry said. “You’re right there. I bet that Tarantino guy could make a tough as hell movie out of this book.”

“They already made a movie out of it,” the red-faced man said. “Robert Mitchum. I seen it. So you tell me, smart guy, who’s Tarantino gonna find could play this guy Coyle as good as old Bobby Mitchum?”

John Henry shrugged.

“But anyway,” the red-faced man said, “you’re gonna make me go losing my train of thought here. I’m willing to bet that little Tarantino pipsqueak’s read a couple of this Higgins guy’s books in his time. Read ’em cover to cover and thought, hey, I could do that. With the dialogue, you know. Talk like a tough guy.”

“That Tarantino writes great dialogue.”

“Sure, sure,” the red-faced man said. “On the surface, sure. Shoot the breeze stuff. Slice o’ life. Good old guys talking about movies and such. But you know what the problem is with that guy? All his characters? Every one of the suckers talks with the same goddamn voice. And if you ever see this Tarantino guy — like in an interview, or something, you know? — then it all clicks, and you say, hell, that’s the voice. All his characters talk in the same goddamn voice, and they all talk as if they was this Tarantino guy.” The red-faced man laughed. “Every single goddamn one of ’em.”

John Henry thought about it. “Well–” he said. He pursed his lips. “I guess they all do.”

“So this is what I’m talking about,” the red-faced man said. “It gets confusing to hear all the same guys talking in the same goddamn voice. You don’t know what they look like, they hardly ever do anything. Just stand around yakking in the same goddamn voice.”

John Henry thought about it. There was a long silence. “I just think you’re wrong, is all,” John Henry said eventually. “It’s a good book.”

“Hey, you hear me saying it wasn’t a good book?”

John Henry looked startled. “What the hell we been talking about here?”

“I just said the way this Higgins guy wrote it confused me a coupla times. But I got the hang of it eventually. I enjoyed it.”

John Henry laughed and shook his head in disbelief. “He liked it,” he said to himself, still shaking his head. “Coulda fooled me.”

“Nah,” the red-faced man said. “It’s like you said earlier. It’s real, man. All the guys. Way they fuck each other over any chance they get. Believe me, I known a few guys just like ’em in my time. Act big and tough on the outside, talk like tough guys, then you get ’em in a tight spot, they get weak legs all of a sudden. Rather rat you out than do anything else, near enough. Practically go running to the cops first chance they get.”

“It’s why I was in this last time,” John Henry said. “Guy on this last job, he got hisself picked up for something else, just kids stuff, a goddamn stolen bike. Can you believe it? Stole a bike ’cause he didn’t have no other way to get across town. Car was out with his girlfriend, hadda go see her mother. Saw a bike up against a wall, no lock or nothing. First thing he does when they took him in is start singing. Singing ’bout things they weren’t even asking him. What were they gonna do? Send him down for life? Over a bicycle? But he sang. All they had to do was tickle him a little, opened his mouth.”

“Yeah,” the red-faced man said, “all o’ that. I liked that. You can’t trust nobody in this game, that’s the truth.”

“Ain’t it just.”

John Henry and the red-faced man shook their heads to themselves while they thought about it. They fondled the wrinkled secondhand books as they thought.

“So after all that,” John Henry said, “we’re in agreement?”

“I guess so.”

“Shit!” John Henry said, standing up. “We coulda got all that over with a long time ago, ‘stead o’ talking all this crap about you getting confused. Fucking Tarantino.”

He started walking over towards the window, undoing the button of his breast pocket with a couple of gnarled fingers.

“What are you doing?” the red-faced man said.

“Having a cigarette while I wait the time out. Lesson’s over. We’re in agreement. Good book. Ain’t nothing else to talk about, is there?” John Henry looked over at the red-faced man as he put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it.

The red-faced man shrugged and said, “Sure, we wait it out.”

“Just sit there in silence and try to use that big brain o’ yours for something useful.”

The red-faced man gave him the bird again, and John Henry chuckled. He opened the window a crack and blew the smoke out of there.

“It’s no smoking in here,” the red-faced man said.

“Oh, is that so? You gonna tell on me to teacher?” John Henry said.

“Maybe.” He winked. “Can’t trust anybody in this game, ain’t that right?”

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THE DAMNATION OF ADAM BLESSING

blessing

I’ve talked before on this blog about Marijane Meaker, about how I unfairly assumed that her novels written under the pseudonym of Vin Packer were going to be action-filled, hardboiled pulp books; but also how I was delighted to find her a sympathetic, skilled writer of precise and psychologically-probing slow-burners.

Her writing pulls no punches; it is relentless and fearless without ever straying into salaciousness and gimmickry. The novels of hers that I have read so far are noir through to their core; complex and penetrating analyses of average people whose lives are in the process of spiralling out of control.

Crucially though, they are not the usual chump-meets-dame kinda story, either. They are fascinating, not-oft-told tales of small, depleted characters whose simple lives have become impossible, whose damnation never seems in any doubt.

Like Adam Blessing’s …

When we meet Adam, he is a slightly twitchy, but nevertheless meek and well-meaning, clerk in a Manhattan store that caters to specialist autograph collectors. He has a cantankerous drunkard for a boss, who would rather get drunk and complain than make her business a success, and a dull, plain girlfriend that he has almost zero interest in.

But he also has a past. He is an orphan, deeply ashamed of something over which he had absolutely no control — a kid doomed from the start, joyless and awkward.

As a youngster, a rich family, the Bollings, allowed Adam into their home in a kind of do-gooder scheme designed to satisfy their rich-person consciences. And thus began a new life for Adam Blessing, one in which he found solace by imagining himself in an alternative reality; one in which he was loved and cared for by a kindly father figure, sharing in the Bollings’ carefree wealth and sense of inherited self-worth.

In reality, though, the elderly Bolling found him tiresome, and the son, Billy, bullied him relentlessly for being fat and slow-witted, trailing after his father like a lost little puppy dog.

But now, years later, Adam encounters Billy Bolling in a bar — and in this meeting the first loose strand is unplucked from Adam’s tightly-wound life. What follows is Meaker showing us through her clear, unsparing eyes and prose what happens as Adam’s sad and desperate life begins to unravel.

And believe me, there won’t be a dry eye left in the house …

Not least of which Adam’s.

Yes, crying’s a theme in ‘The Damnation of Adam Blessing.’ Poor Adam spends about half the novel welling up or weeping openly, or hiding his face away so that others cannot see his tears. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character who cries so much — not least a male one.

And this gender distinction here, I feel, is of great significance.

If you read a lot of book reviews online, one of the things you notice repeatedly is people complaining that a novel’s central character is weak. Or whiny, or incompetent, not resourceful, lacking in moxie …

In other words, they are not capable and resilient action heroes. They wail and moan and beat their breast when times get hard. They fall prey to introspection and self-doubt.

They don’t kick ass.

Well, look, there’s no other way to say this: Adam Blessing is one of the biggest weaklings in all of literature, crying his little heart out whether faced by kindness or cruelty. It happens so frequently that Meaker is obviously saying something with this. The other characters — be they strangers walking past him on the street, or close acquaintances of Adam’s — all look away from the pitiable sight; walk away from him, even, unable to fight back their feelings of disgust.

But we, as the reader, are not allowed to look away. Again and again, Meaker forces us to watch a grown man crying openly — a sight that our cultured upbringings and impeccable good taste tells us is something quite beyond the pale, something so goddamned shameful that Meaker’s got a nerve forcing the sight upon us.

Some book reviewers are not going to enjoy this novel at all …

But such is Meaker’s artistry that I, for one, felt the opposite effect. Y’see, Adam’s still a baby, untouched by notions of masculinity, just a poor baby wanting someone to love him. Someone to help him. Someone to be there for him. Someone who won’t abandon him like his parents did.

He fights desperately through the novel to keep a hold of the false life that exists inside his head, none of which actually exists. Meaker is merciless, allowing everything to go wrong, forcing Adam to react in the worst possible ways to hurdle after hurdle thrown in his way.

It’s enough to make you rail against the unfairness of it all — to become that person who will finally stick up for him, who will hold him to a warm bosom, who will soothe him by means of a kind and beating human heart, who will stroke his hair and make everything all better.

Because the world is such an unfair, cruel place, and there are certain people who should be allowed to walk through it shielded from the worst of its indifference. People who deserve to live in their fantasy worlds. Who deserve our compassion and understanding. Whose lashing out at the world slowly starts to make some sense.

Explaining unconscionable behaviour is not the same thing as excusing it. And Adam wrongs other people as much as he himself is wronged. Meaker is robust enough for her book not to invite accusations of bleeding-heart sentiment.

Whether you choose to feel sympathy for Adam Blessing’s damnation or not, you will be forced along in the narrative by Meaker, who is a skilled and precise writer who knows how to turn a character study into a thrill ride. So skilled is Meaker that her most action-packed set pieces — the kinds of thing that would be the meat of a good pulpy story — are merely alluded to in retrospective newspaper articles, or conversations that characters have after the event.

This, dear reader, is the mark of a writer who is confident, bold and playful. By rights, Meaker should be one of the heavy-hitters in the world of noir fiction. I recommend her Vin Packer novels to you without any reservations whatsoever.

 

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NEW RELEASE – ‘PENCIL NECK’

Well, hell, what can I say? It’s been a bit quiet on the blog recently. My only excuse is that I’ve been putting the finishing touches to the release of my new novel, ‘Pencil Neck’, the ebook of which is available now at Amazon.

Paperback to follow in a while, I promise. Been letting myself get snowed under with real life dramas, unfortunately…

Meanwhile, dig in and enjoy!

He ran and ran down a road to damnation!

With each mile marker, handsome, muscle-bound drifter Gray Boakes escapes further from the pathetic Pencil Neck he once was. Thrown off the train in a deadbeat town, it doesn’t take long for him to be surrounded by willing women.

But new squeeze Barbara wants to tame him and trap him in a world of loveless sex and cheap booze, just as his devoted parents wanted to trap him in the 9-to-5 world of money and power.

Now his time on the road is quickly reaching its inevitable dead end, and an increasingly desperate Gray commits one final act of rebellion — a perversion from which there might be no salvation.

Pencil Neck is a work of noir fiction in the classic paperback mould, with lean, terse prose and a black and cynical heart. Part pulp fiction thriller and part dark psychological character study, anti-hero Gray Boakes’ doom-laden descent into hell is unflinching, twisted and gloriously, unapologetically amoral.

AMAZON US

AMAZON UK

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FREE NOIR EBOOK – ‘DARK IS THE NIGHT’

To pick up what I believe to be the best short story I have written — FOR FREE — just follow the below links to your retailer of choice:

AMAZON U.S.

AMAZON U.K.

ITUNES

BARNES AND NOBLE

SMASHWORDS

KOBO

If you do download it, be sure to stop by and tell me what you think. I’ve got thick skin and my chin can take a pretty solid punch…

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DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD

I don’t know how many times I will say this on this site, but: noir should never be about hard guys. The term ‘noir’ is often used as an adjective synonymous with ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ and ‘tough’. I think it more helpful to consider the term a noun, a small word that carries with it implicit meaning, conveying in its four letters the challenges of modernity, and the inherent failures and weaknesses that result from tussling with it — creating an inescapable mood of desperation and bitterness.

A movie or a book should not be noir in its stylistic approach, but convey a world that is noir, through to its core, revealing a ruthless, ungilded truth at the heart of man.

Because the truth is that tough guys are a rare commodity in this world, and yet, disproportionately, they fill our most popular movies and books.

But is there a very simple psychological explanation for this? Advertisers employ very deliberate tactics to get us to buy their crap. They convey a world that we are desperate to be a part of. They show us sexy, vivacious people enjoying full and happy lives. Buying their products is likened in the mark’s mind to being a spontaneous, outgoing and fun act.

But the mark knows in his heart that, in reality, he is none of these things. He gets up in the morning and goes to his job. He comes home and he eats quick TV dinners, then goes on the internet and reads gossip columns and watches pornography.

Buying things ultimately serves no purpose, and we know it — no matter how momentarily good it makes us feel. Similarly, our cowardly consumption of heroes doesn’t help us, either — not least of which in the wee smalls, when we are forced finally, inescapably, to stare into our souls — and recoil in horror at the truths we find within.

In Drive a Crooked Road (1954) Mickey Rooney plays one of film noir’s greatest weaklings, and does so with one of film noir’s great performances.

Eddie Shannon is a mechanic and amateur racing car driver, who opens the movie finishing second in a race. And that isn’t even an apt symbolic position for him to finish in — he is the lonely, quiet guy who remains in his seat while his lunching mechanic buddies whoop and howl at the girls who pass by their garage; the loser who picks sorry-looking flowers from the front yard of his boarding house to brighten up his evenings spent lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling and dreaming he was somebody else.

There are two guys spectating his second place triumph; two guys who are looking for a driver. In fact, they’ve been staking Shannon out for a while. Their opinion? “No family, few friends, lives alone and hates it. He’s the right type.”

Yes, in the world of noir, he’s the right type. Yet in Shannon’s head, he’s very much the wrong type, unable to participate in the world the way others do. But for these two guys? He’s the right type. Just begging to be chewed up and spat out.

Besides, there’s some money to steal. And money’s more important than feelings.

Pretty soon, Shannon finds himself being wooed by a shapely gal who turns up at his garage, making goo-goo eyes at him and teasing him to follow her to the beach, where she lies back all tanned and curvy and wanton, and pudgy little Shannon’s stripped torso makes her goo-goo eyes briefly recoil in pity and disgust.

Conversation with Shannon is a gloomy affair, his voice low and his eyes unable to stay in one place for very long. His inability to participate in the world has left him wounded, suspicious and backward.

“You don’t think much of yourself, do you?” his new gal pal asks.

He doesn’t. And the one group of people who should have some sympathy for the putz — the audience — well, we don’t think all that much of him either. We’ve already seen him steal a handkerchief from her car, and then pull it out of his pocket to sniff in his darkened room, as the camera mercifully fades to black before we can see what sordid use he finds for it next.

But, Jeez, the guy’s lonely, all right? That’s what lonely guys do, don’t you know?

If this had been a more standard Mickey Rooney picture, do you think he’d be lying in bed in his boarding house, thinking up the Devil’s work for his idle hands? No, he’d be downstairs with the other boarders, having a little sing-song around the piano. At the very least he’d be helping his kindly old landlady with the washing up.

But this ain’t no usual Hollywood picture. His landlady here is just a disembodied voice.

The guy’s so pathetic that his new gal pal starts to have second thoughts. She very kindly, understandingly realizes that breezing into a guy’s life and reaching into his chest and plucking out the withered, beating thing that resides within is unkind. She begins to understand that he’s very much the wrong type.

“He’s like a lonesome little animal,” she says, “… filled with a devotion … a kind of terrible worship.”

(‘Terrible worship’ might be my new favourite phrase.)

And we know things are going to end badly; no spoiler alert needed here. (Nor in noir, in general, of course.) But when the ending comes along, it’s not necessarily rage and revenge that’s in Shannon’s heart; but love, with cooed words into his love’s ear.

“Please don’t cry. …”

Christ, the camera itself is too sickened and disgusted to watch. It pans back, drifting slowly away, the pathetic sight too much to catch in any detail, too heart-breaking for any normal person to think about. Fade to black.

And the audience walks away, thinking, Jesus, this world’s a sad and lonely place…

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BLUE RUIN

The great success of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013) is that it exists with feet in two camps, and manages to satisfy on both fronts. It is a gripping, wince-inducing, bladder-holding suspense thriller, as well as a meditative slow-burner of a character study.

It’s a neat trick. And it places this lean 90 minute film firmly in the tradition of film noir, exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘what happens next’ of a sudden, unexpected act of violence, then following the inevitable chain of events ruthlessly through to the end without once flinching away.

Also true to its roots in film noir, Macon Blair plays the central character of Dwight Evans with the meek desperation of a terrified everyman, who instead of rising to the plot’s ever-worsening challenges, fails miserably, creating the unholy ‘Blue Ruin’ of the title.

Did you ever imagine yourself challenged by the ruthless violence of the world’s evildoers? Reckon you’ll step up to the plate and discover previously unknown qualities within yourself? Turn yourself into a roaring rampage of revenge?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you won’t. ‘Cause you’re a coward. And you watch too many of the wrong types of movies, and your head’s full of macho nonsense. Deep down in your soul you know that you would fail. You would make things worse before they ever got better. And that, my friend, is the way the world is — ain’t nothing you or I can do about it.

Or, as Dwight’s sister tells him, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.”

When we meet Dwight, he is a shabby, bearded drifter bathing in other people’s bathtubs, scavenging from garbage cans and living in his dilapidated, battery-less car (another blue ruin) on the beach. We don’t know how he got there, but we know that he is settled in his life. He has a ‘job’ collecting bottles from the beach for their deposits, and has decked his car out with everything he clearly feels he needs. (One of his needs is obviously to stay away from people.)

Like the man, the opening of the movie is wordless, with a wealth of expositional information conveyed solely visually, even as further questions are being raised by what we see. It is the first clue as to how Saulnier has managed to pull off his neat trick of combining a thrilling fast-paced revenge plot with slow and meditative character development. It is lean and muscular storytelling at its finest.

When a kindly cop takes Dwight into the station, she makes it clear he’s not in trouble. She says she wants him to be in a safe place when he hears something. We are told only that ‘he’ is being released from prison. The rest of the background story is left for later, to be drip-fed to the audience as the plot requires. Dwight stares over the cop’s shoulder and her dialogue fades off into a distorted, abstract sound. This subtle, simple film technique both conveys Dwight’s sudden fear and anger and confusion, as well as cleverly leaving the audience in the lurch as to what exactly is happening.

The scene is quiet and gentle, but there is definitely one foot depressing the accelerator, and the viewer is given no choice but to follow on. Our sympathy for Dwight is created by direct access to his emotional experience. We, like Dwight, are now uncertain and anxious. From now on — without knowing the whys and the wherefores of his situation, or even whether Dwight himself is to blame for something awful — the audience is firmly on his side. We are complicit in a potentially muddied moral maze.

(Like I said before, baby, welcome to the grubby world of noir …)

Hell, I could go on. I could cite other scenes and explain to you how subtle, clever, exciting, blackly-funny and heart-stopping they all are. But it would be silly of me to over-express the movie’s ingenuity. The fact is that its genius is not that it’s a complex film. It is simple, like any other profound and beautiful thing, and it can be enjoyed for its simplicity as much as for the hard work that has obviously gone into its creation.

It is a revenge thriller with violence as its theme. But it is sensitive as well as tough, with enough common sense not to allow its characters to hide behind absolute moral certainty. Whether consciously or not, this lesson is one that has been carried over from the heyday of film noir. And that lesson is that violence is a mess.

In the same way that even a modern viewer can watch a classic film noir without reading the countless essays that have been penned by the world’s scholars and film historians, Blue Ruin has enough to excite the popcorn crowd as well as all the art bores.

It’s a real classic of modern neo-noir.

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I AM NOT ASHAMED

At the very end of her memoir, ‘I Am Not Ashamed,’ Barbara Payton begs the reader, “Don’t judge me harshly just for living.” Coming after countless bold and startling confessions, all (ghost)written in a brassy, unrepentant voice, this comes as an unexpected moment of weakness.

It’s a hard line to read.

Like hearing a catch in the voice or a barely-suppressed sob at the end of a brave and proud speech, the reader’s instinctive reaction is to look away in embarrassed uncertainty, clap politely then go home and gossip.

Did you know she used to command $10,000 a week as a movie siren but ended up turning tricks for $5 a pop? She was a lush who took her payment for these memoirs in wine. (Yes: literally, wine!) I hear she married more men than some women have slept with. Well, I heard she slept with more men than some women have met. And that once-beautiful face turned puffy with liquor … that incredible body bruised and scarred by over-eager johns … well, hell, it serves her right, the two-bit, chiselling con artist, thinking she could screw and swindle her way to the top …

(Or, as Barbara Stanwyck is supposed to have said after reading ‘I Am Not Ashamed’: “She jolly well should be!”)

But, but … that final line, that moment of weakness and insecurity … doesn’t it demand a little more from the reader? Is it Barbara speaking with her true voice, after all?

“Don’t judge me harshly just for living.”

For living, you hear? For sinking her teeth into life. For craving adulation, good times, fast cars, handsome men. For the glamour, the money, the applause. The unending fun!

For wanting all the same goddamn things that millions of people around her wanted, too — still want — will always want until the day the final cinema burns down and the last tabloid newspaper folds.

“I don’t remember what age I was when I was aware I was alive, but I remember a dream. That was my first recollection.”

(Hold your hand up, if you too know that dream. Do it rigidly and proudly just as young Barbara would have done … stand on tiptoes, reach for the sky with that raised hand … how else do you expect to be noticed in this cruel world?)

Ah, but doesn’t that initial dream seem all right when we’re the ones who are having it? Because we know damn well that it’ll never come true anyway. And what’s more we know with absolute certainty that even if it did come true, we could handle it. We could ride that Hollywood rocket ship of fame straight to the stars, and strangers would come and weep openly at our grave.

So go away, Barbara Payton, with your bitter experience. Just because you were jettisoned and sent crashing down to earth, don’t come back here with your gutter tramp wisdom, your memory clouded by too much sweet rosé wine … you and your degrading, masochistic anecdotes that are no doubt all lies.

Aged 35, bruised after an encounter with a trick. (Image: UCLA library)

Aged 35, bruised after an encounter with a trick. (Image: UCLA library)

“These days I’m careful what I wish for. A wish might come true — then trouble.”

Which is exactly what all those men in her life must have thought. One look at those lithe limbs, that delicate, pale flesh, those swollen breasts, that heavenly female dream so teasingly wrapped in mink.

Oh, boy, for just a little of that! Baby, I’ll give you anything you want …

And in the morning — trouble.

But at least she got some movie parts out of it. And maybe it was something about her unconventional beauty, that hint of danger in her hard brow that added something to the usual blonde glamour; because she found herself in what would later be called films noirs. Tough pictures, gritty pictures, unafraid of showing real life with all the glitz of Hollywood scrubbed away.

“I got news for you, baby — nobody’s civilized. You peel off a little skin and you got raw flesh.”

You’re damn right, Barbara. Peeled facades, peeled dreams and peeled clothes. You had your fair share.

But the pictures: Trapped (1949), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Murder is My Beat (1955) — even the UK film industry could tell what kind of woman Barbara was: a Bad Blonde (1953) — these pictures, at least in film noir fans’ hearts, will always be remembered. (Even when her Bride of the Gorilla (1951) is forgotten.)

Because Barbara was a special kind of femme fatale. In the end (oh, irony!) it was she alone for whom her actions proved fatale.

At 39. Bloated liver and pained, unsatisfied heart both failing at the same time, lifeless on her parents’ bathroom floor.

Poor Barbara Payton. Movie star, long since washed up.

“Don’t judge me harshly just for living.”

But, Barbara, how can you say that? How can you end this fuck-and-tell with a moment of weakness?

I was rooting for you, Barbara. You were a trailblazer, a martyr. You went through all that fire, all that pain, with just enough breath left in you to feed us the final, chilling truth before you croaked.

“I don’t want any more of that picture jazz. It’s a bad scene, I just want to be myself. If I’m a disreputable hoyden then tough, that’s what I am. I don’t want to be characters on film. I just want to be me.”

But hadn’t that become confused along the way? Lost in the dream. And, Barbara, you were damn right when you called your memoir, ‘I Am Not Ashamed.’ Because, hell, others would have done the same damn thing, too, and don’t you let them tell you otherwise. And even if they wouldn’t have done the same things, suffered the same indignities, they all used to read eagerly about you in the tabloids, and swallowed their jealousy when they saw you draped across the arms of all those handsome, gallant Hollywood men, those stokers of the dream in millions of girlhood hearts.

Barbara, you were supposed to end this thing with balls of brass and tense, defiant middle digits.

“Don’t judge me harshly just for living.”

But that ain’t living.

Barbara, I know you knew it, so why not say it? Why not be honest? Could it be that the dream still burned so hot and bright within your scarred and brittle heart? You were real and you tried to mix in with the phonies. It could never work.

The phonies were always going to win that one. They always have done. Always will.

But always that dream. That goddamned dream. That phony’s dream.

A young girl with a dream. A young girl with a weakness. One and the same thing. The booze and sex were nothing next to the power of that dream. Your hooking rate fell steadily — $300 down to $5 — but that was the dream dwindling within you, Barbara, not just your looks.

And Barbara, the book you left behind is no doubt part fantasy, and is certainly muddled, but its story is one of the most damning indictments of this world’s blackheartedness that I’ve ever read. And I felt a lot of things for you, Barbara, as I read, but I didn’t judge you harshly just for living.

You got the last word of your book wrong though, Barbara. Living. You should have changed that. What you should have said is, “Don’t judge me harshly just for dreaming.”

And we don’t, Barbara. Nobody could.

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CALL ME KILLER

Click to go to the Prologue Books page!

Click to go to the Prologue Books page!

When Sam Gowan wakes up from a bout of amnesia, he is standing over a corpse, an empty automatic in his hand. Despite the number of bullets in the corpse’s face, he recognizes the man as Ross Lambart, and the last thing Sam can remember doing is meeting up with Lambart in a bar.

Being “one of those average fellows you wouldn’t look at twice on a crowded street” (or as his wife refers to him, “the most spineless man I ever met … a weak fool, a real life Caspar Milquetoast, cringing from trouble like some cur dog”), Sam is horrified at the possibility of being a murderer, and promptly takes off running, trying to cover his tracks and dispose of evidence along the way.

Adding to the mystery, a strange woman calls out to him on the street as he bundles into a cab. The strange thing, though, is that this woman calls him David …

Being something of a prominent citizen, Lambart’s corpse presents the city with a problem. The police are under pressure to crack the case, and two very different policemen with very different methods are called in to find the murderer.

The first cop is Detective Sergeant Barney Manton, the kind of man who celebrates his birthday “with a stupid blonde and a fifth of cheap whiskey.” The other is his superior, Lieutenant Milligan, who has seen “a lot of innocent people hurt by careless police procedure. He didn’t like to hurt people: that was what had first turned him from the little back room and strong lights to the laboratory.”

And it is here, in the relationship between these two very different cops, that we find the real meat of Whittington’s solid paperback quickie, ‘Call Me Killer.’ Because, though he delivers on the thrill-ride aspects of a hardboiled noir mystery, it is actually in its deliberate, thoughtful subversion of the usual genre tropes that Whittington’s novel really comes into its own.

I’ve read other reviews and synopses online that describe this book as a cat and mouse saga between a hardboiled cop and a luckless chump circling down towards oblivion. It is a description that does the book a real disservice.

Because just as Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides did with their subverted Mike Hammer adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), here Whittington depicts his hardboiled cop as the real luckless chump — an out of touch bully dinosaur superseded by the specimen dishes and test tubes of the laboratory.

Indeed, if anything, it is Manton’s pitiful figure, and not Sam’s amnesiac fighting to clear his name, that fits the ‘noir’ model of a doomed loser:

“The honest fact was that Manton, living alone in a rented room with a radio he seldom snapped on, magazines he almost never read, hated nights: the lonely, small, dark hours.”

He is a man who lives for nothing but his job — but the methods of his job have changed, and he has not.

It is a narrative very different from the rather clichéd conservative fable of namby-pamby police methods allowing criminals to get away with murder, but it is of course a narrative much closer to the truth of decades of improved criminal detection techniques and plummeting violent crime figures.

For doubters, here’s psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker talking on the subject:

It is a reason-based view with which Lieutenant Milligan — and I daresay Harry Whittington — would agree.

But what of fiction’s much-loved hardboiled cop? Could it be that he no longer has a place in the modern world? What is it, then, about the figure that enables him to continue lumbering through the pages of our bestsellers, and stalking across the flickering silver screen?

Perhaps it is the very blandness of the relative safety we now live in that explains it. There is drama in violence but very little in science. Our continued desire for darkness in our fiction, and the subsequent familiarity with the concept that it resides in all of us — the self-exploration that we can carry out in the comfort of our armchairs — goes some way towards telling us why we are no longer so violent.

To paraphrase Pinker, in many instances we have simply reasoned the need for violence out of existence.

And as long as we don’t confuse the drama of our fiction with the real world we live in, then perhaps we can continue this potentially inevitable journey towards peace.

But seeing as this is a noir blog, and ‘Call Me Killer’ a work of noir fiction, we definitely shouldn’t end things in such a positive way.

Towards the end of the novel, Whittington has idealist Milligan provide his optimistic message: “No honest citizen has anything to fear from the law, not any more. It is his servant. And he need not be afraid if he leads an upright life.”

The hounded, beaten, victimized Sam, however, doesn’t see things so rosily. “If he leads an upright life, is lucky, has a Senator for an uncle, a defense attorney for a father, and owes the judge some money, then I agree with you.”

Ah, that feels much better, doesn’t it?

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DOUBLE JEOPARDY

It is tempting to dismiss the crime novels of Martin M. Goldsmith as hack work. For a start, there is the Cain-inspired title of his debut, ‘Double Jeopardy.’ Then there is the fact that Goldsmith only used his novels as a gateway. He wanted to write for the potentially more lucrative Hollywood, and after getting the chance to adapt his second novel, ‘Detour’, for poverty row ‘legends’ PRC, he abandoned his literary plans and spent the next couple of decades writing western movies, war pictures and crime films.

But Goldsmith’s importance to the noir canon is not to be sniffed at. His role in the creation of Detour (1945) is enough to grant him Hall of Fame status. This incredible cheapie is one of the key moments in film noir. In terms of mood and subject matter, it is, indeed, one of the pictures that provided the blueprint for the genre.

That Detour was made quickly and cheaply shows just how much Goldsmith’s input aided director Edgar G. Ulmer. In a schedule that could not have allowed for lengthy rewrites, I think it fair to say that the movie’s textual blackness was already there in place in Goldsmith’s script. Couple this with Ulmer’s visual ingenuity, and the cast’s B-part, careworn, workhorse shabbiness, and you get a near-perfect noir picture, one whose very imperfections only help to enhance its power.

* * *

In ‘Double Jeopardy’, anti-hero Peter Thatcher is a quiet small town druggist, who is writing down his story from his jail cell. He is facing the chair, he tells us, because he killed his wife, Anita. There seems to be remorse and pity in the weak, pleading tone of his narration, but it soon becomes clear that it is not for his dearly departed wife. The pity that he feels for his current situation is all directed at himself.

He tells us that his wife “killed herself and I was merely the instrument that brought about her end.”

But, this being a work of noir fiction, there is some room for us to sympathize with him. Anita, it turns out, was a classic femme fatale, beautiful on the outside but with a blackened, shrivelled heart. The audience is not exactly left in floods of tears for the deceased. As Thatcher says, “Man usually kills the thing he loves, and cherishes that which ultimately destroys him.”

But Thatcher rather over-eggs the pudding in his tale. “Desire is an insidious parasite gnawing at one’s body,” he admits. “I did not know then that passion plays strange tricks on people. I did not know that the ones who hate hard, love hard.” Through the gnashed teeth of his own bitter narration, it becomes quite clear that Thatcher is capable of both hatred and love.

Later in the novel, he goes for broke to get us on his side, and in doing so produces something of the opposite effect.

“I am reasonably certain,” he says, “that even the great Russian masters of tragedy — Tolstoi, Maxim Gorki, Dostoievski — would be quick to perceive the emptiness of their words in the telling of my story and would probably throw down their pens in despair.”

With statements like this, Thatcher enters the realm of the unreliable narrator. It is very difficult now to take him credibly. He tells us several times that this is his confession. But he also goes to great lengths to distance himself from any blame — the character of Anita in his version of the story is reduced to either a vision of loveliness or a heartless bitch; and a wartime experience of state-sanctioned murder is blamed for sometimes convenient bouts of shell shock-induced amnesia.

Of course, fiction with anything other than an unreliable narrator is not the kind of fiction you should be devoting too much time to. The world of noir is murky and hard to pin down, and reflects the turbulent confusion of all-out lust and desperate violence. When love and hate combine so combustibly, is it any wonder that there is very little left afterwards but a smoking crater, with no two versions of previous events likely to be the same?

Goldsmith, though, is no James M. Cain, it must be said. The voice of Thatcher is rather stiff and formal, even quite dull. And (perhaps more unforgivably) the story relies too heavily on a plot twist that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s actually bothered to read the title on the cover.

All in all, though, Goldsmith keeps his star in the Noir Hall of Fame, and if he’d have written more crime novels I would certainly be looking out for them.

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