Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Holiday Gift Guide: Crime Fiction

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age -- the ’20s, ’30s & ’40s edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) 1,150 pages
“Like jazz, the hard-boiled private detective is entirely an American invention, and it was given life in the pages of pulp magazines.” So writes the estimable Otto Penzler, bookstore owner, critic and editor of this blunt weapon of a short-story anthology. His was a daunting task -- to pull together more than 50 tales from the pulp-fiction heyday of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, penned by both giants of the genre (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner) and once-familiar wordsmiths (Carroll John Daly, Paul Cain, Norbert Davis, etc.) whose reputations have not fared as well in recent years. But he has executed his task most admirably. Divided into three parts -- “The Crimefighters” (introduced by Harlan Coben), “The Villains” (prefaced by Harlan Ellison) and “The Dames” (with Laura Lippman providing a foreword) -- this Big Book of Pulps is no less than an excavation of 20th-century American history, as conducted by writers with their eyes focused on the seedier, less-privileged and more violent side of life. Unlike many of the consciously reassuring stories we’re served nowadays, the good guys don’t always win and things don’t always work out for the best in the yarns Penzler has corralled here. Among the treats are “Faith,” a previously unpublished Hammett story; “Killer in the Rain,” which Chandler cannibalized for his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939); and Cornell Woolrich’s avenging-angel tale, “Angel Face.” But anyplace you begin in this mammoth tome is the right one. The pulp writers thought they were writing just for money; it turns out, they were writing for posterity. Good of Penzler to reintroduce us to their broad range of hyper-realism. And Vintage/Black Mask get extra points for the design of this fat paperback. Although its cover is decent enough, a no-surprise-there reproduction of a relatively well-known old pulp cover, the publisher took the time to re-typeset the stories (a lot of these sort of collections, particularly the cheaper ones, simply reproduce the old pages). Even better, Vintage utilized era-appropriate faces and has assembled the text in a two-column grid format that deliberately recalls the layout of many of the old pulp mags. As an added bonus, a number of the original black-and-white illustrations have been re-integrated into the text. This is simply one of the best-looking pulp collections to come out in a while -- an attempt to do more than just plop some great old stories on a page. -- J. Kingston Pierce and Kevin Burton Smith

Dead Man’s Hand: Crime Fiction at the Poker Table edited by Otto Penzler (Harcourt Books) 400 pages
Having already commissioned original short stories for anthologies with sports themes (basketball, boxing, baseball, tennis, horse racing, etc.), Penzler is finally tapping into the enthusiasm for what seems to be America’s latest favorite spectator-friendly endeavor: poker. Taking its name from the aces-and-eights card hand that Wild Bill Hickok was reportedly holding when he was shot to death in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876, this compilation bears all the excitement and inconsistency associated with Lady Luck. It’s nice to see talented stalwarts such as Peter Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley, Jeffery Deaver, and Michael Connelly pitching their prose into Penzler’s pot. And gambling’s longstanding nefarious edge makes it an ideal subject around which to build a crime-fiction short-story collection. I only wish that the poker theme had been played as expertly by all of the contributors, as it is by some. Still, for fans of cards and crime, Dead Man’s Hand is a good bet. -- J.K.P.

Detroit Noir edited by E. J. Olsen and John C. Hocking (Akashic Books) 280 pages
It’s surprising how quickly Akashic Books’ “Noir” series, anthologizing original short stories with strong connections to individual cities, has become essential reading. Beginning with Brooklyn Noir in 2004, this sequence of paperbacks has since expanded to cover Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Minneapolis, Dublin, Havana and elsewhere. There are plans next year to add Las Vegas, Toronto and Trinidad to the mix, with the future prospect of “Noir” books focusing on Seattle, Portland, Mexico City, Moscow, Rome and other burgs. Although these collections are sometimes uneven, with leading novelists (often not familiar for their briefer fiction) doing most of the grunt work and lesser-knowns benefiting from the time spent in their shadows, there are inevitably several tales in each volume worth the cover price. Certainly, that was the case with Los Angeles Noir, released earlier this year and featuring yarns from Gary Phillips, Michael Connelly, Neal Pollack, Robert Ferrigno, and the anthology’s editor, Denise Hamilton. And it’s true again of Detroit Noir, with its cynical odes to old districts like Hamtramck and Brush Park and Corktown; its contributions by Loren D. Estleman and P.J. Parrish and Craig Holden (The Jazz Bird); and its portrayal of Motown as a city that can no longer keep up with the forward-moving machine that is America. Flipping through this volume’s pages, you are can almost smell the industrial effluents and automobile exhaust and creeping rust that are all part of the cliché that Detroit has become in the public mind. Megan Abbott’s characterization of Michigan’s largest metropolis as a spot inspiring fears of violence (“they found her three days later in a field, gangbanged into a coma at some crack house and dumped for dead, no, no, it was three weeks later and someone saw her taking the pipe and turning tricks in Cass Corridor”) reinforces media perceptions that Detroit is no place you’d want to visit, except through fiction, and even then with a bodyguard. Yet for somebody who, like me, has lived there at one time or another, this anthology also serves as a reminder of Detroit’s uniqueness. Yes, there are many quarters in dire need of repair, and some that would best be attended to by a wrecking ball. But like post-Katrina New Orleanians, Detroiters are a hardy bunch, bonded together by their resolution to remain in a location from which fate seems increasingly to be demanding their ouster. Detroit Noir is at once a pessimistic reminder of the city’s faded state, and a tribute to the strength of its populace. -- J.K.P.

Hollywood and Crime: Original Crime Stories Set During the History of Hollywood edited by Robert J. Randisi (Pegasus Books) 322 pages
Thanks to the works of Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Stuart M. Kaminsky and so many other authors, as well as TV crime dramas and films, Los Angeles and detective fiction may be permanently pared in the public mind. And no sector of L.A. has received more attention from this genre than Hollywood, which offers both an abundance of glitz and the possibility of gore. Editor Randisi solicited more than a dozen familiar crime-fictionists to contribute their own Tinseltown tales to this volume. Among the best are Lee Goldberg’s clever “Jack Webb’s Star,” Michael Connelly’s “Suicide Run,” and “Murderlized,” in which Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens send one of the Three Stooges, Moe Howard, off to investigate the death of that comedy trio’s mentor. Bill Pronzini, Dick Lochte, Ken Kuhlken and the aforementioned Kaminsky also contributed to this fictional look at the fame and infamy that have attended Hollywood’s most familiar intersection during the past 80 years. -- J.K.P.

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman (Pantheon Books) 368 pages
“For 30 years, 10 months and four days, she was the light of my life, my whole ambition.” So said Chandler in 1954, after the death of his wife, Cissy -- a twice-divorced woman, 18 years older than he (though she had lied to him about being younger), whom the author had married less than two weeks after his mother -- a critic of their union -- perished of cancer. Drawing on near-obsessive research into her subjects, novelist Freeman (Red Water) presents a frequently moving study of their symbiotic marriage; the author’s unsteady evolution from oil company exec to distinguished genre stylist; Cissy’s influence on her husband’s fictional portrayal of women; and his rapid decline into drink, depression, and attempted suicide after her passing at age 84. Suffused with quotes from Chandler’s work, The Long Embrace is an extraordinary look at the relationship between love and literature. -- J.K.P.

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Andrew Lycett (Free Press) 576 pages
Through the agency of his literary creation, Victorian detective Holmes, Conan Doyle solved myriad crimes for Queen and country. But the mystery he left behind at the time of his demise in 1930 was the evolution of his own personality and beliefs. Digging into the Scottish doctor-author’s newly released trove of personal correspondence and diaries, Lycett brings fresh dimension to Conan Doyle as a boy in a dysfunctional household (his mother was overbearing, his father an alcoholic), a husband who sought vainly to incorporate a young lover into his family (even as his wife was dying of tuberculosis) and a writer who endorsed scientific evidence in his fiction, yet devoted his later life to proving that fairies existed. A cohesive biography of a contradictory subject. -- J.K.P.

The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler by Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank McShane (Harper Perennial) 128 pages
Have you ever come across the Chandler novels Law Is Where You Buy It and Deceased When Last Seen? Or the short stories “They Only Murdered Him Once” and “Stop Screaming -- It’s Me”? Of course not, because those were titles he dreamed up but could never pin to a particular work. Chandler at least wrote them down, though -- along with so many other story concepts and obscure musings and loose chunks of dialogue -- in a series of private notebooks that he kept from the start of his pulp-writing career (in the 1930s) until the end of his life (in 1959). McShane, who penned one of the foremost biographies of this American crime-writing master (The Life of Raymond Chandler), also put together this short but fascinating scrapbook of selections from those notebooks, originally published in 1976. Here you’ll find sketches of scenes Chandler wanted to incorporate somewhere; quotes about disgust, women and other subjects that he took from various sources; his thoughts on the differences between the English and American writing styles, and on the limits of the detective tale (“The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing.”); collections of railroad, pickpocket and urban slang; a list of memorable lines that even he referred to as “Chandlerisms” (“If you don’t leave, I’ll get somebody who will.”); and five short chapters of a non-crime novel called English Summer: A Gothic Romance that he hoped to complete and publish after he’d become established as a mystery novelist (but never did). Like the 2005 stocking stuffer Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life, The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler is a gift through which crime-fiction fans can page with uncommon delight. -- J.K.P.

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw (Rough Guides Ltd./Penguin Books) 310 pages
As long as you remember the title of this mini-book, then you’ll love it as much as I did. If, however, you want something more substantial -- an exhaustive examination of the genre -- then this is not the work you ought to be purchasing. Barry Forshaw is well known in British crime- and horror-fiction circles, thanks to his editing of Crime Time magazine. He also writes and reviews widely for newspapers and other periodicals, and every so often pens the odd book. This (rough) look at crime fiction -- past, present and popular -- is obviously a labor of love, written by someone who knows the great depths of his chosen genre. Naturally, due to space constraints, there are omissions, some of which are puzzling; but a few welcome surprises also lurk between the entries about Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, James Lee Burke, Thomas Harris and so many others. In another section, the guide dissects this genre as a whole, subdividing it into themes such as “Cops,” “Espionage,” “Serial Killers,” “Legal,” etc. I was pleased to find that Forshaw places particular emphasis on the so-called Golden Age of Crime Fiction, with extensive coverage of that era’s pivotal works, including Rogue Male (1939), by Geoffrey Household. However, the most enlightening (pardon the pun) portions are those that showcase noir works. Being a film buff, Forshaw cannot help but pepper this volume with references to classic movies based on the novels he describes. This is a perfect festive volume for digesting late into the night. Discover what you may have missed reading in the genre, and perhaps what missed making the final edit of this tightly knitted guide. -- Ali Karim

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Blogger Stephen D. Rogers said...

If Cissy was 18 years younger than Raymond when she passed at 84, he was 102?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007 10:53:00 AM PST  
Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

No, it says she was 18 years OLDER than her husband. Cissy Pascal was 53 years old when she and Chandler wed (though she claimed on their marriage certificate to be 10 years younger); he was only 35. She died when she was 84 (although her death certificate again perpetuates her fiction, pronouncing her only 68); Chandler perished five years later, at age 70. Does that clear it up?


Tuesday, December 4, 2007 1:21:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not quite sure how you can mention the Lycett book on ACD and not mention ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, A LIFE IN LETTERS[Penguin, 2007], by Jon Lellenbeg, Daniel Stashower, & Charles Foley. But, then, I'm also not sure how Otto can do a book on poker in crime fiction and not include Pete Hautman. Oh, well.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007 6:48:00 PM PST  

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