Michelle Williams reading.
THE GANGLAND SAGAS OF BIG NOSE SERRANO, VOL. 1: SERRANO OF THE STOCKYARDS by Anatole Feldman
Bio: Brian Ritt thanks Patti Abbott for posting his review on her blog.
&n bsp; ****************************
Serrano Of The Stockyards, the first novel in The Gangland Sagas Of Big Nose Serrano, is Anatole Feldman’s blend of Edmond Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac, with the gangland pulp tales of prohibition-era Chicago during the height of that city’s brutal and bloody gang wars.
In brief, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a masterful poet, wit, and swordsman. He is courageous and adheres to a strict code of honor. He also, to his shame, has a grotesquely enormous nose. Cyrano’s insecurity about his looks keeps him from declaring his love for Roxane, a beauty who is both intelligent and sincere. Baron Christian de Neuvillette is a handsome soldier who also loves Roxane, but who lacks the ability to articulate his feelings. Cyrano teams-up with Christian, and composes a series of poetic love letters to Roxane, allowing Christian to sign his name. The play is set agains t the background of the wars between France and Spain.
In Feldman‘s Serrano of the Stockyards, which first appeared in the pages of the pulp Gangster Stories, Cyrano becomes Big Nose Serrano, Roxane is now Annie (Will Murray, in his introduction, is rightfully stymied over how Feldman missed using the name “Roxy”), and Christian de Neuvillette sports the moniker Chris Webber. The battles between France and Spain are now the battles of the booze barons.
Here lies the remains of Bull La Rue
&nb sp; A lousy rat and yellow too.
He cracked too wise about my nose
So now he’s turning up his toes.
"The year is 1930, and after blasting his way into Chicago’s underworld only two years ago, Big Nose Serrano has already gained a legendary reputation." Rival gang bosses all want him on their side, but he is, “the lone wolf of gangdom, standing alone, shooting alone; asking help from no one but giving it frequently.” He has risen to power through a combination of “the might of his gun, courage, wits, and brawn.” But he has a peculiar quirk. Rather than blasting his enemies at first sight or planning an ambush, Serrano, “through some romantic and chivalrous distortion of his brain”, always issues a formal challenge before he fights his foe, and names the time and place they are to meet. A 1920’s gangland version of a duel, in other words.
As for Serrano’s protruding proboscis? His sniffer? His sneezer? His snout? His snoot? He is of two minds about it. At one point in the story, while looking in a mirror, he calls it, “A noble nose, a Roman nose, a nose so sacred that all men bow their heads and avert their eyes when it passes; a nose so ferocious that all men tremble when it is mentioned.” (Paging Dr. Freud!) But with his next breath: “God, you’re an ugly mutt, Serrano.”
Chris Webber is a young cannon looking to “crash the elite of Chicago’s underworld.” But he has two obstacles. One: Webber needs to distinguish himself from a large number of young, eager, and ruthless competition all vying for a spot in the top gangs. His second problem? The poor sap’s fallen in love. And love is “bad business when one is young and ambitious,” even though the jane he’s tumbled for is “the classiest, swankiest, most desirable bit of perfumed fluff that ever played a sap for a sucker or rammed a rod into a rat’s ear.” Her name is Annie.
Annie and Chris initially meet at the speakeasy of a gang boss named LeBrett. Annie likes Chris’s good looks and nerve, but for her to tumble for a guy, he’s got to have more: “He’s got to tell me things. Pretty things. He’s got to have a heart and a soul. He’s got to have more than the ability or guts to pull a gat and pump lead.”
Big Nose Serrano is also in love with Annie, but is too insecure about his looks to let his ardor be known.
Annie asks to privately meet with Serrano at LeBrett’s headquarters, whose mob he has recently joined. Annie confides in Serrano: she’s in love with Chris Webber. But she knows Chris is young and inexperienced and she asks Serrano a favor: keep an eye on Chris, befriend him, protect him. Serrano--downhearted that he is not the object of Annie’s affection, but remaining her loyal friend--agrees.
Serrano runs into Webber at a local speakeasy. He tells Webber of Annie’s love. She knows a local gang boss named Gilley is gunning for Chris and wants him to lay low, but wants him to write to her. Chris confides in Serrano. He has no gift of gab. He gets tangled up in words. Serrano’s proposes a solution: he’ll write the letters, Webber will sign his own name.
At the story’s climax, LeBrett’s gang (which now includes both Serrano and Webber) fight a hell-for-leather shooto ut with Gilley and his gang. Serrano and Webber both play central roles in the bullet barrage. One lives, one dies, and a confession is made.
According to Will Murray’s introduction, Anatole Feldman was an unsuccessful playwright during the early 1920’s. In 1929, Feldman started selling stories to two of the earliest gangster pulps, Underworld and The Dragnet Magazine. Feldman wrote twelve Big Nose Serrano “novels” (as the pulps typically called their feature stories, though they were really much closer to novelettes) over a five-year period. Serrano’s initial appearance, which I reviewed here, appeared in the May 1930 is sue of Gangster Stories. Serrano appeared in four more issues of that pulp, in three issues of Greater Gangster Stories, and his final appearance was in the May 1935 issue of The Gang Magazine. Off-Trails publication of THE GANGLAND SAGAS OF BIG NOSE SERRANO, VOL. 1 contains four novels.
Regarding Feldman’s writing, I had great fun reading his handling of 1920’s gangster slang. Also, the story really moved: windows crash, lead splatters, and gats bark (although they don’t sneeze or cough, like the roscoes of my favorite pulp character, Dan Turner). In other words, fast-paced action and tough-talking dialogue aplenty.
Serrano's hardboiled verses were always amusing. When I flipped through the other three stories in the volume, I found that Feldman scaled back on the verse for stories two and three, but then not only increased the amount for the fourth story, but also adde d a parenthetical note at the end of each verse, such as: From The Complete Works of Serrano, From the Precepts of Serrano, From the Rubaiyat of Serrano, From The Unexpurgated Edition of The Sonnets of Serrano, etc. The other three novels in Vol. 1 are The Gang Buster, The Gunless Gunman, and Dames, Dice, and the Devil.
Will Murray’s introduction notes that in later stories, Serrano evolves into more of a Robin Hood-type character, helping the depression-era poor and fighting political corruption. In “Stockyards”, Serrano is definitely a larger-than-life, invulnerable super-gangster. I see him as a pre-pre-precursor to the men’s action-adventure characters of the 1970’s like The Executioner, The Butcher, The Death Merchant, etc.
My only major disappointment was that I didn’t get to see a rendering of Serrano’s stupendous schnozzola. The cover speaks for it self, and the facsimile illustrations from the original story shows Serrano’s nose with only a slight bump near the bridge. I would have preferred either no illustrations, leaving the look of his nose completely to my imagination, or at least a good old college try at drawing the profound pickle-puss.
Overall rating: five sneezes.
Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and assorted other fabulous novels and stories. You can find him here.
The Inner Circle by Jonathan Fast
This novel came along shortly after the books of Stephen King launched the horror boom. If its storyline owes anything to a classic horror writer it's Robert Bloch. A) Because it concerns a diabolical plot that spans most of the last century and B) Because it's steeped in Holywood lore, this time circa 1979.
Louis Pinkle is a Los Angeles magazine writer who is peddling a screenplay every chance he gets. When his old friend and mega TV star Tony Valenti shows up at his apartment one night pleading to stay and insisting that somebody is trying to kill him, Pinkle manages to ease him out the door. Pinkle wakes up to read in the paper of his wealthy friend's death in an automobile accident. He of course believes that it was no accident at all.
Why I've enjoyed reading this book several times since its publication is not so much the plot, which works very well, but rather its grace notes, its rich human observations and the way Fast makes loopy LA architecture a real part of the story.
"There's a malady I call Dr. Chauvinism that everybody suffers from: my Dentist is The Best Dentist in New York City; the surgeon who did my uncle Murray's surgery is the best Surgeon on the East Coast..."
"I was going through a dry spell at the time, six or seven months without a woman. Celibacy in the East isn't isn't so bad, but out here in the West where the sun superheats your skin and the women walk around half or three-quarters naked, and every
billboard displays vast vistas of flawless flesh, it's worse."
"Once he said to me, `Kitty, are you scared of dying?' And I said, `Yes, I suppose I am. I've never thought about it much.' And he said, `Kitty, that's why I write so much. I think if I leave enough paper with my name on it, people will have to remember me after I'm dead.'"
Then there's a beautifully done scene when a detective visits the badly beaten Pinkle in the hospital. Now there are a lot of ways to write this scene but I've never read one like this before.
"I'll make this as brief as possible, Mr. Pinkle."
Asks him name, birth date, profession. After profession, cop says: "What do you think of Saul Bellow?"
"What's your opinion of his work?"
"I...I like it."
"But don't you think the Nobel prize should have gone to Graham Greene?"
"Maybe." His voice became animated and he began to gesture with his hands, enormous hands with black hairs on the back.
"What I mean is, Bellow is basically a photographer like Roth and many of the other modern Jewish writers. His prose is marvelously descriptive, but does he have anything to say?"
"I don't know. Does he?"
(Turns out the cop is in a writing class and offers to "share" his short stories with Pinkle.)
I was laughing out loud when I read this because when we were in a clinic one day waiting for the results of a test a doc came in with said results but decided that since I'd written writer for my occupation we'd do a little book chatting first. Carol finally said: "How did the test come out?"
I just like this book. I like the voice and I like the slant on life and I like the people. Fast wrote a number of science fiction novels in addition to this and then gave up fiction for teaching. Our loss. He had the touch.
Jerry House lives in Southern Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A LIKENESS TO VOICES by Mary Savage
Stanley Withers is an insignificant adman about to lose his third job within five years. Rasputin is a cat who has gone through some 2000 life cycles and is currently enjoying the easy life; he had been sent by a local coven to help Stanley get his last job. Neither realizes that Jessica, Stanley's preternaturally ageless wife, is a witch. But, then again, Jessica doesn't realize that Rasputin is a familiar. Jessica herself has been living under the radar of the local coven. It gets confusing.
Jessica calls on her Aunt Persy, one of the most powerful witches that ever existed, to come and help her husband. This sets in motion a struggle between witches with Jessica's 14 year old son as the prize. To complicate things (from the cat's point of view) is that Rasputin's body dies early in the book.
I don't know what to make of this book. At times it reads like when Bell, Book and Candle goes bad; at other times it reminds me of a mash-up of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife and an alternate reality Thorne Smith; one reviewer evoked the name of Shirley Jackson. I enjoyed the book, especially the sections narrated by Rasputin, but did not know which side I was supposed to root for. That, I suppose, was the point as the book came to a happy (?) but morally ambiguous and disturbing ending. Recommended.
A Likeness to Voices by Mary Savage, Torquil, 1963, cover design by Si Coleman. Dell, 1965, cover design by Rocco Negro. (The Dell edition cover blurb calls it "a supernatural Peyton Place"...eh, not really.) Savage is evidently a pseudonym for Mary Dekker. This was her third novel; a fourth, The Coach Draws Near (1969), also sounds interesting.
Steve Lewis (Frances Nevins)