Friday, May 01, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday, May 1, 2009

The Gish Sisters reading.

Jedidiah Ayres lives in St. Louis. His fiction can be found in the forthcoming anthologies Sex, Thugs and Rock & Roll and Surreal South '09 as well as Out of the Gutter magazine and online at Plots With Guns and Thuglit. He keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.


James Ross produced only one novel in his life, They Don’t Dance Much, 1940, but damned if he didn’t make it count. It’s tough and dirty, funny as hell and it deserves to be read.

“’Okay.” He said. ‘Pull off his shoes.’ While I was taking off his shoes Smut picked up the tongs that were standing beside the fireplace …He put the coal to Bert’s right foot, just above the toes… I wished we could think up some other way of making money.”

So says Jack, the down on his luck farmer, who takes a job from an old school mate with ambitions, and goes along for the ride, or descent. Smut Milligan has got plans for revamping his filling station into a roadhouse with dancing, gambling and hourly rate cabins out back, to attract the money falling from the pockets of hosiery mill workers outside of Corinth on the North/South Carolina border. He also has designs on an old flame, married now to a wealthy man in town. Smut brings Jack on as an employee at the roadhouse and later as a partner in something darker when the flow of money isn’t fast enough to suit his plans. And Jack lets himself be led into trespasses we wouldn’t have believed him, (ourselves), capable of, without much resistance. Then things get sticky.

Fans of Jim Thompson or Charles Willeford will recognize the world view stripped of sentimentality and find that the account of a murder at the plot’s center is still, (seventy years on), shocking and horrific as the disposal of the body is disgusting and hilarious, (this shine taste funny to you?). The book lives in the details and consequences of the actions taken and not, refreshingly so, in stopping the fiends.

I like Raymond Chandler as much as the next guy, but sometimes I wonder what things would look like now without the inescapable influence and legacy of his moralistic and sentimental trappings. They might look something like They Don’t Dance Much which Chandler himself called “a sleazy, corrupt, but completely believable story.” High praise indeed.

Beyond entertaining and provoking me, it taught me a great deal about writing – specifically all the things I do wrong. What things? You’ll have to read it, and me, yourself. I read it only last year for the first time and have gone back to it physically and psychologically countless times since. In another ten years, I imagine I’ll have it memorized.

Hilary Davidson is a New York-based writer. The author of 17 nonfiction books, she also writes crime fiction, and her stories have been published by Thuglit, Crimespree, The Rose & Thorn, and Spinetingler. Visit her online at

FLETCH by Gregory Mcdonald

If you were alive in 1985, there’s a reasonable chance you saw the movie Fletch, starring Chevy Chase as a wisecracking reporter. (Even if you weren’t alive then, there are fair odds you’ve viewed it, given the $24.5 million the film has grossed in rentals alone.) Its tagline — “Meet the only guy who changes his identity more often than his underwear” — was accompanied by a visual on the original film posters of Chase holding up fake IDs that show him in some of his various guises. The movie made heavy use of props — from fake teeth to wigs — to great comic effect.
That’s just one of the reasons that Gregory Mcdonald, author of Fletch, hated the script when he read it.
While Fletch, the film, lives on (in spite of a sequel that bombed at the box office), the novel that it was based on — and the eight books in the series that followed — have stayed in its shadow. The film was such a departure from the novel that it’s best, arguably essential, to forget about it as you tackle the first book. (To get some idea how different, keep in mind that the film studio wanted to cast Mick Jagger in the lead role.) In both, the central character is a Los Angeles reporter willing to do anything for a story, and he’s investigating a beach notorious for its supply of heroin and other drugs. The hero is on the side of the underdog, suspicious of authority figures, and always ready with a sharp quip. End of the similarities.
The genius of Fletch, the novel, is that Mcdonald has created a thoroughly untrustworthy, unlikable character that you just can’t stop reading about, or rooting for. Irwin Maurice “Fletch” Fletcher is intrepid in his pursuit of a story, but that’s his only virtue. The Fletch of the novel may sympathize with underdogs, but that doesn’t keep him from exploiting them to get his story. While the novel doesn’t give any salacious details, Fletch shares a room — and a bed — with a 15-year-old girl, a heroin addict he uses while pursuing his story. Fletch is admirably modest about the fact he won a Bronze Star in Vietnam — he hasn’t even picked up his medal — but when his lies fail to work on a source he needs, he uses his war-hero status to win him over. What’s clear in the novel is that Fletch will do anything — including shooting heroin — to get his story. As long as his newspaper story is true, nothing else matters to him.
That’s not to say that the novel isn’t comic — it is, only darkly so. Fletch doesn’t need props or disguises to change his identity; his confident lies — and a new T-shirt — carry him into a snooty country club. When he’s on the beach with the addicts, he has a different set of lies and a grungier T-shirt. When avoiding his two ex-wives, or the cops, he shape-shifts again — pretending to be lovelorn, or impersonating one of his former wives’ lawyers — before lying his way into bed with the wife of a man he’s investigating. He’s smart, he’s funny, and he’s got a wicked sense of humor (on display as he convinces both of his exes to move in with him again… on the same day, just before he leaves town).
The Fletch of the page is so thoroughly awful, he’s irresistible.
Mcdonald ended up loving the film Fletch, in spite of his early objections to the script. It’s easy to enjoy both, if you ignore the fact that they’re related. A third Fletch film — supposedly closer to Mcdonald’s vision — has been in pre-production for more than a decade. It’s called Fletch Won, and it’s based on another of Mcdonald’s novels (a pre-quel to the original Fletch). Script and casting problems have held up production. Contenders for leading men have included Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Joshua Jackson. While we’re waiting, there’s plenty of time to crack open the Edgar-award-winning novel that started it all.

Kent Morgan took early retirement from his "real world" job in educational communications in Winnipeg, MB to freelance in sports journalism and public relations, play oldtimers hockey, and, most importantly, get his bibliomania under control. He co-writes a sports column for the Prime Times newspaper and his work has appeared in The Cooperstown Review, Deadball Stars of the American League, Senior Softball USA, Face-Off and the Winnipeg Sun. His goal is to downsize his book collection that includes mystery and sports fiction, but it continues to grow.

Forgotten Books - Shoeless Joe and Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa - W.P. Kinsella

If Shoeless Joe qualifies as a Forgotten Book, that's because of the movie, Field of Dreams. While the movie was based on W.P. Kinsella's 1982 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award novel, the movie title was changed to better reflect what happens if you listen to a voice telling you, "If you build it, he will come." Those words are from paragraph three of Kinsella's story. The "it" is a baseball diamond in a corn field in Iowa and "he" is Shoeless Joe Jackson, a star player who was banned from professional baseball after the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal. The first section of the novel is a slightly reworked version of the short story, Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, published in a 1980 collection of the same name. That book contains nine stories including one where a doll repairman from Iowa dreams about what their lives would have been like if he had stayed with Janis Joplin after a chance encounter on a San Francisco street.

In the short story and the first chapter of the novel, Shoeless Joe appears in left field and tells narrator Ray Kinsella that the other banned Black Sox will show up to play if he completes the diamond. He does and they do and then the author takes the story in another direction when Ray hears the ball park announcer tell him to "ease his pain." He knows that voice does not mean Jackson, but reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Ray tracks down Salinger in New England and convinces him that seeing a Boston Red Sox game in Fenway Park will do just that. In the seventh inning, the stats of Moonlight Graham, who played one major league game for the New York Giants in 1905, are flashed on the scoreboard and the PA announcer speaks directly to Ray with the message "go the distance." The pair are compelled to travel to Chisholm, Minnesota where Graham became a beloved country doctor after his brief baseball career. A youthful version of Graham joins them for a trek that takes them to Metropolitan Stadium in the Twin Cities and to visit the oldest living Chicago Cub in Iowa City. They end up back on Ray's farm where the author ties the stories together in a manner that may be too syrupy for some. To best enjoy the novel, the reader should suspend belief, not question where Kinsella is taking you across the dimensions of time, and just go along for the ride.

In my mind, the story deserves to be remembered for itself and not just for its connection to the movie. Whenever I make my personal list of the best baseball novels, Shoeless Joe battles for the top spot with The Celebrant by Eric Rolfe Greenberg. Readers who have enjoyed Shoeless Joe should like The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings by William Brashler, All the Stars Came Out That Night by Kevin King and The Veracruz Blues by Mark Winegardner.

Kinsella is best known in the USA for his baseball fiction that includes the novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986), and the short story collection, The Thrill of the Grass (1984). However, Oberon Press published two collections of short stories in Canada before Shoeless Joe Comes to Iowa. In Dance Me Outside (1977) and Scars (1978), Kinsella writes about Indians living on a reserve near Edmonton, Alberta, who are trying to survive in a white man's world. The stories filled with characters named Silas Ermineskin, Frank Fencepost and Sadie One-wound are both funny and sad. While they seem realistic to a reader such as myself, who grew up in a small northern Canadian town next to an Indian reserve, critics have disagreed with that assessment. Kinsella since has admitted that he has never set foot on the reserve where his stories are based.

Over the years, Kinsella has produced several more collections of stories about Silas, Frank and their friends and enemies. They don't always remain at home. In one collection, The Fencepost Chronicles (1986), Silas and Frank even manage to have a drink and smoke with the Queen of England in her bedroom in Buckingham Palace. Stories about baseball in Central America and Japan can be found in Japanese Baseball and other stories (2000). I encourage readers to try Kinsella's short fiction as that's where he truly shines

Ed Gorman is the author of many crime and western novels and the editor of many anthologies. You can find him here.

PITY HIM AFTERWARD by Donald E. Westlake

Pity Him Afterward

Though this is one of the rarely mentioned novels by Donald E. Westlake I have to say was flat out dazzled from beginning to end with Donald Westlake's 1964 novels PITY HIM AFTERWARD.

The story concerns an escaped madman who takes the identity of a man who is headed to a theater that does summer stock. While we see the story several times from the madman's point of view, we're never sure who he is. This is a fair clue mystery.

In quick succession, a young woman who works summer stock is found murdered in the house where the young, struggling actors stay. A part-time chief of police appears to find the killer.

Two points: writers owe their readers fresh takes on familiar tropes. The madman here is no slobbering beast but rather a deranged and sometimes pitiful lunatic (the opening three thousand words are among the most accomplished Westlake pieces I've ever read). And the police chief Eric Songard is one of the most unique cops I've come across in mystery fiction. He works nine months of the year as a professor and summers as a police chief. The small town he oversees usually offers nothing worse than drunks and the occasional fight. Murder is another matter. Westake gives us a cop whose self-confidence is so bad all he can do is try and hasten the appearance of the regular cops from a nearby district. Meanwhile he has to pretend he knows what's going on. Songard could easily have gone to series. He's a great character.

As the story is told, we get a believable look at summer stock with its low pay, brutal hours, frequent rivalries. The payoff is that some of the actors will get their Equity card at the end of the nine week run and thereby become professional actors.

Then there is the telling. The craft is impeccable. Precise and concise and yet evocative because of the images Westlake constantly gives us.. You also have to marvel at the rhythm of his language, watching how'll he'll shave an anticpated word here for a certain effect, add a word there for the sake of cadence. These sentences are CRAFTED.

There are so many great Westlake novel it's impossble to rank them. But given what he accomplished, I'd have to say this is one of his early best.

Richard Prosch
Wallace Stroby
Bill Crider
Martin Edwards
Terrie Moran
Scott Parker
George Kelley
Randy Johnson
Cullen Gallagher
David Cranmer
Ray Foster
Kerrie Smith
Todd Mason
Michael Carlson


Cullen Gallagher said...

I first heard about THEY DON'T DANCE MUCH in Geoffrey O'Brien's HARDBOILED AMERICA and quickly bought a copy, which I almost picked up yesterday to read. After reading this review I think it may be next on my list.

Charles Gramlich said...

"They don't dance much" certainly sounds interesting. I'd never heard of it before. I'll be looking for it now.

Joe Barone said...

I didn't see the movie, but I read all the Fletch novels back in the day. I liked Fletch.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A sense of humor is a rare thing in crime fiction.

Todd Mason said...

Patti, you think? I seem to read a fair amount of humorous, even when gallows humorous, CF...from Christie's mild mockery of the British through Poirot to Joe Lansdale's ultraviolet grotesqeries at times (and relatively gentle humor other times), from Dortmunder's bad luck to the incidental humor in Muller or Ball and on over the the scholarly jests in Borges at times.

Even Hammett, not otherwise too engaged in Laff Riots, offered THE THIN MAN.

Paul Brazill said...

Never heard of THEY DON'T DANCE MUCH but it sounds very good indeed!