Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books, March 26, 2010


Naomi Johnson is a sometime writer of short stories and co-blogger, with Corey Wilde, at The Drowning Machine. In her previous life she was a financial analyst with an unused degree in criminology.

A PARADE OF COCKEYED CREATURES OR DID SOMEONE MURDER OUR WANDERING BOY? by George Baxt (1967)


Detective Max Van Larsen really isn't interested in finding the Blaney's
missing teenage son, Tippy. The Blaneys are an unpleasant pair and Tippy sounds like an overindulged, petulant brat. Max just isn't interested. He's too busy feeling guilty for not grieving over the deaths of his wife and son in a car crash two weeks prior. He never wished them dead, but he sure never loved them either. But Max works in the Missing Persons section of NYPD, and he dutifully begins to try to track down the errant young man. Enter the eponymous cockeyed creatures and Max soon learns that his initial impression of Tippy was erroneous. Sorting his way through the 1960s weirdness of Greenwich Village, Max begins to respect and care about the missing boy. Along the way Max has to deal with some fake antiques and smuggled heroine and, among all those cockeyed creatures, one killer.

Included in the "cockeyed creatures" are a lonely high school teacher who threatens her students with deportation when she's not contemplating how to land Detective Van Larsen as a husband; a cape-wearing student who can predict death and is known to everyone as Whatsisname; one Madame Vi
lna, a bombastic former star of the Yiddish theatre; a sculptor who spends his spare time sniffing children's undies; a masochistic junkie; and a lisping Satan.

And there is the missing Tippy, too, real name Henry Thorpe Blaney. The character of Tippy is revealed through Max's encounters with the cockeyed creatures, and what shines through the teen angst and petulance is Tippy's loyalty, his intolerance of deceit, and the artistic bent that outshines all of the older artists he associated with. He is the sun around which all of the characters orbit, and as Max warms to him so does the reader. Baxt was much too smart to fall into the trap of allowing his characters to be either all good or all bad, including the precocious Tippy. What's remarkable is that even when the bad is revealed, it's often done with dark, deft humor.

In gener
al, mysteries from the 1960s don't age well. The authors tended to cling to formula and strove too mightily to be hip, with too little success. In some ways, particularly in the early going in this book, Baxt was as guilty as many another crime writer of that era in sticking to formula. But once he had the set-up in place to get his detective out on the street, Baxt pretty much threw away the conventions. In fact, no less than the great Anthony Boucher wrote of this book in The New York Times Book Review: "...those who were revolted by early Baxt should try this new one. They will find the same unpredictably absurd invention, the same brilliant techniques in dialogue and narrative (plus some virtuoso cross-cutting), this time devoted to a warm and loving portrayal of people in all their improbable variety... If you have never suspected that the crime novel of the absurd could have charm, try this one."

Hey, if you're not persuaded to read this book by the man for whom Bouchercon is named, then I'm not going to have any luck in that regard either. But don't be fooled by Boucher's "warm and loving portrayal" com
ment either. Baxt's forte was the sharp barb and swift rejoinder. He had a good eye for phonies, too, as this book proves. This is a book to be read not so much for the mystery, which is of its day, as for Baxt's acid wit and observant eye for human foibles. It may never rank among the classic mysteries of all time, but you won't forget these characters in a hurry.



Dan Fleming is the writer/co-creator of Warrior Twenty-Seven, (www.warrior27.thecomicseries.com) the independent comics anthology. His daily thoughts on all things crime related can be read at My Year In Crime (www.myyearincrime.blogspot.com) . He lives in Bangor, Maine, where the weather is enough to drive anyone to criminal activity.

Giles Tippette, The Texas Bank Robbing Company

I'm slowly coming to the realization that I have been behaving like a literary snob when it comes to crime fiction. Tough talking private investigators have long been my preferred choice, with recurring characters such as Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder and Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie being my favorites. I've followed their exploits for years, relishing the fact they lived slightly outside the law. While their feet are firmly planted on the side of good, many of their cohorts are less reputable, but always fun.
Over the past three months I've been seriously studying all forms of crime fiction, and more importantly, opening myself up to authors and genres I would have previously ignored. I've been missing some good stuff.
Tough talk is tough talk, whether it comes from a cynical P.I., a street corner hustler, or a horse riding bandit.
Today's forgotten book is a bit of a misnomer, as I could hardly forget something I'd never heard of. Instead, I forgot an entire genre. Make no mistake, I'm aware of the Western genre. I've heard the name Louis L'Amour, watched The Man With No Name shoot down banditos, and despite learning about it many years ago, I've never failed to remember the Alamo. But I've never believed Westerns belonged on my beloved crime bookshelf along my Hard Case Crime series. (And yes, I've got a bookshelf dedicated to crime fiction, and yes, it's beautiful.) Horses and six shooters just didn't compare to the mean streets of a decaying city despite the commonality I failed to recognize.
The segregation ends today, thanks to the talent of Giles Tippette and his book The Texas Bank Robbing Company.
So I was in jail. What I had feared all my outlaw life had finally come to pass.
I just starred at the floor of my cell and made believe that it was not going to be long before I was a free man again. After all, I was tough. I'd been born tough, raised tough, and I'd stayed tough.
And I could take a jail cell; I could take it without cigarillos and whiskey. Shit, I could take it without food or water.
Goddammit, I was Wilson Young and I was a long way from beaten.
Tough talk is tough talk.
This book had everything a fan of criminal behavior could ask for.
We've got Wilson Young, the leader of the aforementioned bank robbing company. He's young(ish), handsome(ish), a hell of a planner, and though we don't really get to see him in action much, a gunslinger without match. He's loyal to his men, and they gladly follow him to hell and back, or at least Mexico.
He lives by the outlaw code, robbing only those who can afford it, kills only those who need killing, and even wins the hand of the mythical "hooker with a heart of gold."
The book begins with Young and his gang headed toward the Mexican border towns of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. Wilson's lady friend is meeting them there, and he's got plans to take her to Mexico because she's never been. He's in love, and the outlaw ways are on the backburner while he woos his woman. That doesn't sit to kindly with his partners Chulo and Wilcey. They are ready for activity, mostly because love has bitten Wilcey on the ass, and the last thing he wants to do is watch Young and Marianne make eyes at one another. But a border town is a border town, and there will be gambling and prostitutes to occupy their time.
While there, Wilson runs into an old acquaintance, and ladies man, Austin Davis. Suddenly, he's not so secure around Marianne, and decides that hanging around town won't be the best idea as long as Austin is around the threaten his security. A heist must be planned, and what a heist it is. My only regret with this novel is we never get to see the riverboat caper in action. I've got no idea how one would even rob a riverboat, but Wilson Young's got it all planned, and honestly, it sounds like it would have worked. It would have been that "one last job" that criminals are always talking about.
We don't see it in action because around page 100 Wilson goes and gets himself arrested. Why? Because, like many a criminal, he doesn't believe he's going to get caught. He's lounging around, drinking his drink, when the town sheriff walks up behind him and puts a shotgun to his head. Hardly the blaze of glory one comes to expect.
I'll stop with the synopsis now because I really don't want to spoil the rest of the book. I owe it to those who have never read the book to leave the remainder a mystery. Stop the protesting, I assure you it doesn't disappoint. Besides, my paraphrasing hardly does the prose justice. It's sparse, well written, and endlessly readable. The 250 pages zipped right along.
Mostly, I enjoyed this book because it subverted every expectation I had about the Western. I was waiting for lots of gunplay, not incarcerated character study. The "Great Bank Robbery" was unplanned and over within minutes, with minimal bloodshed and bullets fired. Nothing tense about that. Hell, they barely even rode horses. However, this is a series, with this being the seventh, so those exploits might exist in past or future volumes. I'm going to search for them and find out for myself. You should as well.
My thanks to Allen Appel (http://thethrillerguy.blogspot.com) who originally suggested, and provided, this book when I declared my apathy for Westerns. He seems a rather smart man, and I'll admit, he was right. I'll be taking his advice as often as he offers it.


Ed Gorman is the author of A TICKET TO RIDE and many other novels and story collections. He also edits a yearly anthology. You can find him here.

Forgotten Books: The Last Night by John McPartland



I've never had any luck learning anything about John McPartland's background. But I know one thing from reading his novels. He wrote with an emotional authenticity rarely apparent among the pb original boys.

In the Fifties he was a Gold medal regular. Late in that decade, he wrote NO DOWN PAYMENT based on a screenplay of the same name. Simon & Schuster published in hardcover. A nice step up for McPartland.

The Gold Medal I have here is THE LAST NIGHT, a 1959 title that I believe was McPartland's last novel of any kind. He vanished after that. (I learned later that he died about this time. He had to be very young.)

The set-up is this: beautiful young beatnik girl is accused of murdering her mentor-psychiatrist with whom she lived (sexlessly) on a house boat. The narrator is the drunken, brawling Irish Catholic lawyer hired by the state to defend her.

Her name is Ripley Aldrich (huh?) and she more-than-not works as a combination Holly-Golightly-earth-mother of radiant Audrey Hepburn looks.

The writing (as in most McPartland books) avoids most of the paperback original cliches and gives us people and scenes we haven't seen before (there's an especially crazy-drunk-believable interlude with the lawyer bar-hopping with three Swedish sailors who want to get drunk and beat up people all in the spirit of fun). The prose, at its best, is fresh, vital, roughneck, exact, even, at certain points, truly poetic (his various descriptions of night are luminous). The voice is unique, a vulnerable but tough blue collar voice too wise to be macho. If there's a flaw
it's some of the bad guys; he could've made them a little more individual. But they aren't on stage long anyway.

The third act is structurally brilliant. He pays off a number of plot points he plants so early you forget about them...and he throws in a major surprise that turns the entire book around (even if the event that allows it happen is highly unlikely). The novel is a true social utterance about the prevailing morality of the Fifties played against the Beat working class streets McPartland obviously knew first hand.

This
may well have been McPartland's Gold Medal masterpiece. He obviously had great ambitions for the paperback original (he even worksin a very sly reference to another excellent and ambitious Gold Medal writer, Vin Packer), bringing a literate, humane and sometimes amusedviewpoint to dime store literature. He coulda been a real contender.

This is well worth your time looking up. #

How's this for a capper? I just Googled John McPartland writer and
found a new entry from 1958. A Daytona newspaper reported that a judge had found that McPartland had fathered three children by three different women. The estate (of undisclosed
value) was being challenged. Somehow I don't have a hard time believing that.

Michael Atkinson
Paul Bishop
Bill Crider
Martin Edwards
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
B.V. Lawson
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis/Bill Prozini
Dennis McGough
Dennis McGough-2
Eric Peterson
James Reasoner
Rick Robinson
Peter Rozovsky
Kerrie Smith
R.T.

7 comments:

Nikki Thornton said...

Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.
:-)
Nikki

R. T. said...

Here is my belated addition to the Friday roundup: A FOOLISH UNDERTAKING by Mark De. Castrique. Sorry to be so late to the party.

Randy Johnson said...

James Reasoner has one up.

Rittster said...

Here's McPartland's obituary:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,821221,00.html

Sounds like the guy got around.

Evan Lewis said...

Naomi - That Parade sounds like the right blend of wackiness and drama.

Dan - Allow me to recommend a western (any western) by the feller who follows you, Mr. Ed Gorman.

Ed - Dang it, now I want that book.

James Reasoner said...

Dan -- In addition fo the recommendation of Ed Gorman's Westerns (which I heartily second), look for a book called HELL TO PAY by J. Lee Butts. As noirish a Western as you'll ever read.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Patti, as Maria Bamford puts it in one of her favored routines, "I'n not so much depressed as Paralyzed by Hope." I'm not so much not doing a "forgotten" book this week as paralyzed by the pile of work I need to get done, and I should be sleeping now so as to do more soon...next week, back to FFB! (And thanks, folks, for the new comments on last week's entry...like RT, I'm ususally not posting till mid-morning rather than having it pop up at dawn's crack or posted the night before...)