*Upcoming these: August 20th-your favorite book from your college years.
**Also the thousands of books recommended in the last 28 months can be found here.
Cameron Ashley lives, drinks and writes in Melbourne, Australia. He's one of the CRIME FACTORY bosses. The zine can be found here: www.crimefactoryzine.com
GUNS, Ed McBain
Guns, by the prolific Ed McBain (real name Evan Hunter), is pretty much a classic textbook on how to throw your character into a hole and let him do nothing but dig. First published in 1977, Guns is also one of those rare McBain novels that stands alone from his 87th Precinct series and for readers understandably nervous about tackling a writer with such a gigantic series of cop novels, it’s the perfect entry point to the man’s work. The only problem with that is it's arguably his masterpiece.
Colley Donato, low-rent stick-up artist, is our protagonist, trying to stay afloat in McBain’s seedy seventies New York City, a whole “fuckin world full of junkies and hookers and fuckin armed robbers.” Ex-con Colley, of Italian descent, grew up in Harlem and has engaged in armed robbery for most of his life. NYC is suffering through a stifling heatwave and Colley’s trying to get the rest of his stick-up crew, Jocko and getaway driver Teddy, to postpone their latest job until the cool change hits – people get unpredictable in the heat. He's also got the heebie-jeebies over the fact that it's stick-up number thirteen for the crew. Jocko’s ex-stripper wife and all-round Amazon, Jeanine, burns through money like I do McBain books, and Jocko, broke, insists the convenience store job goes down. Things, of course, go bad and Colley’s on the run through the nastiest parts of New York, with cops swarming on his ass, and a New Jersey so unfamiliar it has its own hillbillies.
Most likely an illusion caused by levels of consummate skill and craft, the book feels like it poured out of McBain – moving so fast in parts it’s almost difficult to imagine his typing keeping up with his thoughts. McBain was so gifted with pacing, chopping up sequences with taut punchy tough-guy writer sentences, then throwing in long run-ons, he seemed to be a writer who enjoyed teasing his audience to the point that he controlled the speed at which they read. Colley’s in deep shit from the first chapter and the fact that the book rarely slows and his predicament only worsens are further evidence of McBain's gift with a story.
In Colley, McBain gives us a paranoid, delusional scumbag, prone to flights of fancy, who needs a gun in his pocket so feel truly empowered. When Colley is weaponless, his confidence is down, his paranoia and fear heightened. Each time he gets a gun, he becomes a new man, recharged, ready to throw himself into the chaos, sure that he can beat the insurmountable odds stacking up higher and higher against him. Breaking up the narrative are sequences on Colley’s past, his troubled upbringing, his gang days, the first time he shot a man. McBain plays with it all here – including the idea of a gun as a stand-in phallus – but this is such a fun, dark, sleazy book, it never feels like a ham-fisted character study set in a society on the skids. The supporting cast is deftly constructed – unique individuals all – and the dialogue and interplay between them, from the opening discussion about postponing the robbery to Colley’s interactions with prostitutes and even wannabe-heroes during a diner robbery, are terse, tense and frequently funny.
Currently out of print, Guns is an incredibly tasty 190 page piece of pulp that’s easily stood the test of time like only true classics do. Old copies seem pretty easy to find online, from my cursory search (I saw a copy for eighty-nine cents on amazon) and I recommend you seek one out. It was the first real crime novel I ever read and, to this day, upon re-read number three for this piece, it honestly remains one of the best.
Frank Loose lives in Atlanta, GA and works as a freelance cinematographer.
When he isn't shooting, he's reading.
The Blue Room, Georges Simenon
The Blue Room opens with pillow talk between two lovers.
“Have I hurt you?”
“Are you angry with me?”
“No.” It was true. For the present, everything was true because he was living through it now, at this moment.
At this moment, Tony and Andree are in the blue room of the Hotel des Voyageurs where they have met eight times over the course of a year for afternoons of lovemaking. For Tony, that’s all it is–––carefree sex. For Andree, it is much more.
“Could you spend the rest of your life with me?”
The words scarcely registered, or so it seemed at the time. He noticed them no more than shapes and smells. How could he guess that he was to live through this scene ten times, twenty times, more times indeed than he could count, each time in a different frame of mind, seeing it each time in a different light?
Andree has been secretly in love with Tony since they were schoolmates ten years ago. He moved away, but returned with a wife and daughter. Andree, too, is married–––to a frail sickly grocer. She feels trapped in their arranged marriage. She sees in Tony everything she has ever wanted. Things are fine until their eighth tryst when their post-coital conversation sets in motion events from which there is no escape.
Simenon wrote this story in quite a captivating style, manipulating time, as all writers do, but in quite a creative way. He inter-cuts the linear story of Tony and Andree with snippets of dialogue between Tony and a judge, and Tony and his lawyer. The impression early on is that Tony has been charged with some crime, but that is not what they talk about. Rather, the judge wants to learn about Tony and Andree’s relationship, about Tony’s wife, his daughter, his job. These snippets, in turn, setup flashbacks. In most crime and mystery stories, the question “what is going to happen next?” propels the story along, and that is certainly true here, but it is not Simenon’s main concern. Rather, he seems more interested in the torment and anguish of the man, Tony Falcone, as events, seemingly beyond his control, play out to their inevitable tragic conclusion.
It’s a short read, 140 pages, and offers a kind of agonizing suspense. And in the end raises questions about the relationship between thoughtless, selfish behavior and guilt for the actions of others. Simenon is best known for his Inspector Maigret crime series, but he also wrote stand-alone titles, like The Blue Room, which was written in 1963 and last published in 2002 as part of Orion’s Crime Masterworks series. Highly recommended.
Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and the editor of forthcoming anthology BY HOOK OR BY CROOK. You can find him here.
Plunder Squad by Richard Stark
One of the ways Donald Westlake kept his Parker novels fresh was to vary the the success his man had as a professional criminal. Sometimes the magic worked, sometimes it didn't.
Plunder Squad is a long (for a Parker novel) and intense study of how things can go wrong in trying to plan and execute a robbery. Not anywhere as easy as you thought.
Parker is near broke and in bad need of money. As often happens he's forced to deal with people who overestimate their worth as professionals. In this novel we meet a number of them. We also meet a woman who is familiar to readers of Parker books, the sullen horny slut who has affixed herself to the man who has the idea for the heist. Parker knocks several points off the man's score for even having her around. Inevitably she means trouble not just for her honey bunny but for all of them involved in the robbery. She is contrasted, later in the book, by the crisp, pretty, bright young woman who is a helpmate to her criminal boyfriend.
Plunder Squad is a maze of false starts and bad turns. The heist Parker eventually settles on is complicated and requires the kind of skill and oversight only he can bring to the job. As usual the story is enriched by all the men involved, each with different needs and capabilities. And with different degrees of trustworthyness. In a book of this length you really get into Parker's head and pick up on his paranoia and general distrust of those terrible creatures known as human beings.
This is a major addition to the Richard Stark canon, a relentless and often bleak look at life on the wrong side of the law. Though in the Stark books cops often have fewer scruples than cons.
Christopher Fowler (Please be sure to read this most interesting piece in January Magazine)
Steve Lewis/Max Collins