Book Review: “On The Waterfront” by Budd Schulberg

No discussion of On the Waterfront, the novel, can be undertaken without at least mention of the movie. The book was highly praised when it was released in 1955, a year after the film received eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. On its own, the novels was a best seller.


Originally, the book was titled just Waterfront, it was no simple novelization of the film, “that bastard word for a bastard byproduct of Hollywood success”, as Budd Schulberg states in his Introduction in the 1987 edition. The book was compared to the works of Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser by the critics because of its use of the ‘naturalist style’. The naturalist school featured detailed realism, that in this case, suggested that social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping the characters that populate the book. The critics, after all the awards, praise and kudos the film received, were surprised that there was still so much to say than a 90 minute movie could suggest.

Originally inspired by a 24-part series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, titled “Crime on the Waterfront,” Budd Schulberg wrote a long piece for The Saturday Evening Post, titled “Father John Knows The Score”. Schulberg took an unorthodox approach to writing the screenplay by not spending a month or two, but literally years absorbing the unique atmosphere of the New York Waterfront. He hung out at the westside Manhattan and Jersey bars that were the unofficial headquarters of the waterfront racketeers and Irish and Italian “insoigents”. He spent nights drinking beer with longshore families in their $26.50 a month railroad flats. Along the way he interviewed longshore-union leaders and the outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, one of which the book is dedicated to; Father John Corridan described as “a rangy, ruddy, fast-talking, chain-smoking, tough-minded, sometimes profane Kerryman”. A welcome antidote to the stereotypical Barry Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby “Fah-ther” that Hollywood was so fond of. Father Corridan’s speech was a unique blend of Hell’s Kitchen and  baseball slang and he expressed an encyclopedic knowledge of waterfront economics and man’s inhumanity to man.  This maverick priest was the Father John of Schulberg’s article for The Saturday Evening Post. Schulberg was surprised to find that just a few blocks west of comfortable watering holes like Sardi’s there was this entire world that the rest of Manhattan didn’t know existed.

Schulberg’s ‘escort’ or protector and his cover was one of Father John’s most staunch adherents, Little Arthur Browne, Brownie as he was known. Brownie was one of the standup “insoigents” in the Chelsea local run by the fat cats and their “pistoleros.” Brownie was probably the model for Runty Nolan of the book and Kayo Duggan of the film. Browne had been beaten up, had his nose flattened by “the cowboys” – the local union enforcers – been thrown through a skylight and even tossed in the river unconscious, all things that Runty endures in the book. Schulberg got most of the local dialect that he would write into the screenplay as well as the novel during Runty and his forays into the local bars which were, in places, ten to a block.

“On The Waterfront” Official Trailer

Schulberg had discussed with director Elia Kazan his research into the waterfront, and Kazan urged him to write a screenplay, which was thrown back in Schulberg and Kazan’s faces by one of Hollywood’s leading moguls. So, he set out after this to write a novel when some smarter Hollywood mogul accepted the screenplay. The film was made, after a few changes to the script, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. The film was an astounding success. Filmed over 36 days on location in various places in Hoboken, New Jersey, including the docks, workers’ slum dwellings, bars, littered alleys and rooftops. Furthermore, some of the labor bosses goons in the film – Abe Simon as Barney, Tony Galento as Truck and Tami Mauriello as Tullio – were actual former professional heavyweight boxers. Terry Malloy’s (Brando’s) fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle-blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real-life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken Docks and had suffered a degree of ostracism for his deed.

The historical context of the film and the book are rooted in the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) which was established from the ashes of 19th century labor unions that organized dockworkers. In 1895, the ILA grew to  adopt the Chicago (Great Lakes) Longshoremen’s Union ideals as a model and encompassed all of the U.S. and many Canadian longshoremen. By the turn of the 20th Century they became affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). By 1916, the ILA had become based in The Port of New York, which took in all of the harbor shore, including New Jersey. In 1918 Joseph Ryan became the president of the ILA’s “Atlantic Coast District.” Joseph Ryan was elected International president in 1927 and it is him that the character of “Weeping” Willie Givens is based. Under Ryan’s leadership, the ILA had become corrupt and was affiliated with Mafia characters such as Albert Anastasia and the Irish gangs. By the late 1920s, Anastasia had become a top leader of the ILA, controlling six union local chapters in Brooklyn. The character of Tom McGovern in the film and movie were modeled on the mobster Anastasia and the like, and Anastasia’s Murder Inc. also figures promptly in both. Under the mobsters were the local union bosses; the Johnny Friendly of the story.

These corrupt men ruled “the greatest harbor of the greatest city of the greatest country in the world” and they ran it like their own private grab-bag. After the largely successful 83-day 1934 West Coast longshore strike, Pacific coast longshoremen, who had rebelled against Ryan’s leadership,  first organizing the membership to reject the contract that Ryan had negotiated, then leading the strike over his objections, voted to secede from the ILA and join the Congress of Industrial Organizations as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Soon longshore locals in Baltimore (the 6th busiest port in the world) , The Great Lakes, New Orleans and everywhere else except the Port Of New York Harbor, had bolted.

“Karl Malden as Father Barry in On The Waterfront 1954

Longshoremen obtained work through a ‘shapeup’ in which bosses chose a workforce on a daily basis. Longshoremen often worked only a day or less per week as a consequence. Work was especially uncertain for those who unloaded trucks and ships and had to appeal to gangsters who controlled this work for employment. The ‘shapeup’ figures prominently in the story, as it lays out how the gangsters and local bosses controlled the work force. They got to pick and choose who worked to put bread on the table and who didn’t. Complain about anything ; safety – and longshore work was the most dangerous in the country and suffered more casualties than miners – pay, theft, literally anything and you did not get a work assignment. You kept your mouth shut and went along if you wanted to eat.

This also tended to tie the longshoremen to their neighborhood. If they moved, they wouldn’t get work anywhere else because they were ‘outsiders’. And naturally, the bosses made sure the workers didn’t earn enough to even consider moving. And when they’d be short on money, there were the loan sharks, who were also the same bosses, to lend you enough to feed your family at 10% interest per week. If you got behind they’d make sure you got your tag to work for a few days and have your pay-packet sent straight to the guy who hired you to pay your debt. The gangster went even further by owning or controlling (by providing protection) the local businesses. Then there was the ‘short gang’. If a crew of 22 was required to unload a ship and turn it around,  the bosses would ‘short gang’ the load. They’d only send 16 or 18 men to do the work, then charge the shipping company for the full 22, pocketing the wages from the ‘ghost’ 6 or 8 longshoremen. The gangsters even controlled the bars in the neighborhoods surrounded by the railroad flats (so called because the rooms were strung together back to back, like the cars of a train. You might enter a flat through the kitchen and to get to any other room in the apartment, you walked through one room to another).

The 1950s was a decade of turmoil and trauma for the ILA. Several sensationalist articles, like those published by Schulberg and Malcolm Johnson, were  printed in New York City newspapers and  focused on “alleged” rampant gangsterism on the City’s waterfront. In 1953 Governor Thomas E. Dewey ordered his New York State Crime Commission to conduct a full investigation of the ILA. They in turn formed The Waterfront Commission of the New York Harbor which put a lot of pressure on Ryan and his gangster associates and eventually led to his resignation after the ILA was suspended by the AFL. It is during this period that the story – both the movie and the book – take place.

Set in the fictional port of Bohegan, NJ the story opens centered on Terry Malloy, a retired prize fighter who just goes along and has no real ambition other than to earn a few bucks to keep himself in beer and dames. Terry Malloy is a half-vicious hoodlum caught between the waterfront mob and a groping, anxious awakening of his conscience. But Terry’s inability to look into himself or to experience anything but the immediate pleasure or pain of life on the waterfront are nothing but sloth. Terry’s brother is Charley Malloy, the dockside lawyer and right hand man of Johnny Friendly, the local pier boss who exercises iron-fisted control of the waterfront. Terry is used to coax a popular dockworker, Joey Doyle, out to an ambush  preventing him from testifying against Friendly before the Crime Commission. Terry thinks that Friendly’s “pistorleros” – the men he keeps around him who are “on the muscle” – picked for three qualities or rather two of three qualities; they have to be rough or brainy AND loyal – are just going to put a scare in to Doyle, maybe work him over a little, but they throw Doyle off the roof. Terry resents being used as a tool in Joey’s death but is still willing to play  “D and D” – deaf and dumb. Terry meets and is smitten by the murdered Joey Doyle’s sister, Edie (Katie in the book) who has shamed “waterfront priest” Father Barry into fomenting action against the mob-controlled union. Father Berry convinces Runty Nolan (in the book, Kayo Duggan in the film) to testify after Father Barry’s promise of unwavering support. Duggan is killed when Friendly get’s word of Runty’s agreement and his body thrown in the river. See the scene above with Karl Malden giving the speech when Runty/Kayo is pulled from the river. As Father Barry says, “In his mind the river and Johnny Friendly were one, endlessly dangerous and never sleeping.” Silent partners as it were.

“I could have been a contender”

Terry, tormented by his awakening conscience, increasingly leans toward testifying, Friendly decides that Terry must be killed unless Charley can coerce him into keeping quiet. Charley tries bribing Terry with a good job, and finally threatens him by holding a gun up against him, but recognizes he has failed to sway Terry, who places the blame for his own downward spiral on his well-off brother. In one of the most famous scenes in film history, Terry reminds Charley that if it had not been for the fixed fight, he “could’a been a contender”.

Charley gives Terry a gun and advises him to run. Friendly has been spying on the situation, so he has Charley murdered, his body hanged in an alley as bait to get at Terry. Terry sets out to shoot Friendly, but Father Barry obstructs that course of action and finally convinces Terry to fight Friendly by testifying.

The novel bares many differences from the film. Mainly, the film is centered on Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando’s character and is told almost entirely from Terry’s point of view. The novel, on the other hand, is narrated by Father Barry, and though Terry Malloy is a main character, he is but one of many. Schulberg stated the reason for this being the two “art forms” are very different. “Film is an art of high points. It should embrace five or six sequences, each upping the tension and mounting to a climax. In film,” he states, “there is no room for multiple points of view, for ‘digressions’ into complicated, contradictory character traits or an exploration of social background.” In short, the film must “act” and employ action where the novel can meander into things like background, motivation and historical context. The film, in Schulberg’s view, must go from significant episode to more significant episode.  So, the film makes no effort to explain the social background. It simply ‘shows’ the mob controlled docks, simply mentions the Water Front Crime Commission and gives no background of why it existed in the first place.

The novel does all of these things, and Father Barry in the novel art form, is the ideal narrator. Terry Malloy becomes, in the novel, just a single strand in the rope, a major strand among the characters to be sure, but not the central strand. The novel allows Schulberg to work ‘veins’ of the story, the social conditions, Father Barry’s inner dialog with himself as he wrestles with his conscience,  that the film could not. It allows the struggle of Father Barry’ as he weighs obedience to the church and his social responsibility to his flock  just as St Francis Xavier of Goa had to weigh his conscience against his Portuguese masters and martyring himself for the Hindu Pearl Divers being exploited by the European colonizers.

“On The Waterfront” Final scene

As good as the film is, which hardly need’s my support at this stage in life, the book is a more educational and deeper look into a place in time. It fleshes out the story in a way the film didn’t even try to, and makes for a great read with a basis in history. Although Schulberg as a novelist, is no Émile Zola or Theodore Dreiser and Schulberg claimed no membership in that great company, the novel is written in that tradition and deserves its place in the literary canon.

On the Waterfront is a powerful  retelling of an iconic American story that stands apart from the great film as an unforgettable vision of crime, politics, and class in the twentieth century. This eBook from Open Road Media features an illustrated biography of Budd Schulberg including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.


  • File Size: 1789 KB Print Length: 336 pages Publisher: Open Road; Reprint edition (July 31, 2012) Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English ASIN: B008JVJJ4U Text-to-Speech: Enabled X-Ray: Not Enabled Lending: Enabled


Article first published as Book Review: On The Waterfront: A Novel by Budd Schulberg on Blogcritics.

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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Book Review : “The Twenty-Year Death” by Ariel S. Winter



20-Year-Death_smThe Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime)

  • Hardcover: 700 pages Publisher: Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
  • 1 edition (August 7, 2012) Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0857685813 ISBN-13: 978-0857685810

I’ve read trilogies that had five books (Douglas Adams) but I’ve never heard of a debut novel that was, in fact, three complete novels. To be fair, Ariel Winter did – well write isn’t completely correct – publish a picture book. For children. And he has written short stories. For Elle, The Urbanite and McSweeney’s.

Hardly the background you’d expect for a crime novelist, though in his former life as a book seller, he no doubt read some crime fiction. But to decide to write your debut novel, that is in fact three novels, in a genre you have never published anything in previously takes an audacious author. And since he decided to tackle such  a task, why not really go out on a limb and write these three novels in the style of three giants of the genre? Or three subgenre of the genre.

That is exactly what Ariel S. Winter did with The Twenty-Year Death. First he tackles Georges Simenon, an author probably more important in Europe than America, but a seminal author of the crime fiction genre. His Commissaire (Jules) Maigret novels and short stories were a kind of bridge between the ‘cozy’ detective stories, where the crime was solved through deductive reasoning, and the police procedural, where the crime was solved through hard work and the collecting of evidence. Maigret appeared in Seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories between 1931 and 1972.

The first novel in The Twenty-Year Death is “Malniveau Prison” and, fittingly, Winter has modeled his Chief Inspector Pelleter on Maigret. Maigret, like Sherlock Holmes, was known for his pipes. With Pelleter, it is his ever-present cigars. Both policemen employ a mixed bag approach to detecting, at times relying on pure intuition, at other times on police methodology. A certain laconic manner is also present in both detectives, as is the penchant for mentoring and encouraging underlings. Both also have a  fondness for beer and wine, although Maigret is more of the heavier drinker. I think it is no coincidence that “Malniveau Prison” takes place in 1931, the same year that the first Maigret story, Pietr-le-Leton was written.

In  “Malniveau Prison” Pelleter is in the village of Verargent, near the prison of the title. He is there to question a serial child killer who has, in the vein of Hannibal Lector, helped Pelleter solve other crimes. While taking Mahossier’s testimony, the killer drops a hint about a series of stabbings that have taken place at the prison but have been hushed up. At the same time, in the village, a body has been discovered lying in the gutter during a rain storm. Initially the victim was thought to have gotten drunk and drowned in the gutter, but it is soon discovered that the man was in fact stabbed to death. Further, he is not known to the people of the village and he also had his clothes changed after having been stabbed.

The victims identity is soon discovered to be that of an inmate at the prison, though he hasn’t been reported missing from there and he is also the father of Clotilde-ma-Fleur, the French wife of the American writer, Shem Rosenkrantz ,who has come to the village to write in peace and quiet. It is only after moving to Verargent that Clotilde discovers that her father, who she has not seen since she was a little girl, is housed at Malniveau. When Clotilde disappears and the bodies of other inmates float out of the ground in a farmers field during the continuing deluge of rain, Pelleter must solve the murder and try and find out who is behind the killings of other inmates.

Winter has managed to capture the style of the prolific Simenon in using many of what were to become standard tools of the trade in crime fiction. Pelleter doggedly follows the clues using a mix of scientific and police procedure (door to door canvasing, questioning of witnesses, the tedious examination of records and files)  as well as intuition, logic and the process of elimination getting inside the heads of the characters to ascertain their possible motives– the author, Rosenkrantz – singularly self absorbed, but madly (perhaps too madly) in love with and protective of his new bride-, the killer Mahossier and his psychotic crimes, the local police and business people. He follows many dead ends and pursues red herrings – the disappearance of a group of young boys, the possibility of Rosenkrantz involvement in the disappearance of his wife and how that could tie into the stabbed inmates – and meets many physical and mental challenges, seemingly from both good guys and bad guys until he is finally able to solve a puzzling case.

This first ‘book’ of the trio is totally satisfying and stands on its own two feet. It captures the voice of Simenon perfectly and if left unsigned and stashed in Simenon’s notes could easily have passed as his own work. Indeed, Winter could have stopped here and spent the next decade or two writing Pelleter novels to the utter delight of crime fiction fans everywhere. The plot is masterfully drawn and the sense of place as well as place in time, are wonderful. The characters, both in the French villagers and , the American Rosenkrantz and the melodramatic Clotilde are an achievement. Having succeeded so far, Winter then turns his hand to Raymond Chandler.

To be sure, Raymond Chandler is probably the most important and most copied writer in crime fiction. Many worthy writers have tried to capture that same style – the use of language, his sharp lyrical similes, and some of the finest  dialog ever written in any genre.  Most have failed. Most end up with parody and pastiche or at best works that are successful but pale in comparison. Chandler (in his own words) took “a cheap, shoddy and utterly lost kind of writing, and made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about?” Winter will have Chandler fans giggling with glee and those same scholars tearing their hair out. His detective, Dennis Foster could be a drinking buddy of Phillip Marlowe’s. It’s not hard to picture them playing chess, chasing the same women. They are both loners, both ex-cops. Both oh so quotable.

Titled “The Falling Star”, book two moves the scene ten years into the future and from France to Los Angles. I’m sorry, it moves the scene to San Angles. Much as Chandler wrote of Los Angles and its environs pseudonymously – Bay City is Santa Monica, Gray Lake is Silver Lake – Winter does the same. Winter even goes so far as to spell ‘okay’ in the "Chandleresque" fashion; “Okey”. But it is not through a few clever name changes and quirky spelling habits that he manages to capture Chandler. His detective, Dennis Foster is cut from the same cloth; He refuses a prospective client’s money because he is ethically unsatisfied with the job and in reality, works for the interest of a character he is investigating.

“The Falling Star” opens with Foster being hired to bodyguard a Hollywood starlet; Chloe Rose – the same Clotilde Rozenkrantz of “Malniveau Prison”. She is still married to Shem, whose career is nearing its ebb, as he works as a script writer, though he has become less important as he sinks in to drunkenness and womanizing, usually with the younger actresses working on his super star wife’s movies. Foster is, as Phillip Marlowe was, not your stereotypical tough guy, but a complex, sometimes sentimental man. He doesn’t like working as a bodyguard, as his self-image is that of a detective. He also doesn’t like the fact that he is hired, in actuality, to NOT do a job and in the end discovers that he was lied to. But, in his diligent way uncovers another crime and as he wades through the Hollywood egos, the single minded police, the shady crime figures and the requisite femme fatale’s he not only sees justice done, but follows his own unique code of ethics which is defined as doing the right thing, not necessarily the legal thing.

I cannot recall a single author who captured Chandler so well. The plot and story could have been pulled from Chandler’s notebooks. The characters could have have stepped out of the pages of The Big Sleep or The Little Sister or any of the novels. And the dialog is wholly satisfying and could have been penned by Chandler from his grave. When Foster narrates, “Hollywood. The talent was crazy and the people behind the scenes were crazier.” It is exactly in that lyrical, cynical fashion that Chandler would have used and when he finishes the story/book with, “That’s why the movies never made any sense. The screen’s not big enough to hold everyone in it.” He adds to the Chandler ideal.

Again, Winter has managed to do, what many have tried, only do it not just successfully but brilliantly. The reader will be left hoping this is not the last time that Winter channels the master.

And for the grand finale, and to wind up this marvelous odyssey of crime fiction, from the cozy/police procedural to the heart of the hardboiled era, Winter takes on another persona from the pantheon of ‘crime fiction gods’ by summoning the "Dimestore Dostoevsky", Jim Thompson. “Police At The Funeral” finds Shem Rosenkrantz in his home town in Maryland. He is now the kept man/pimp of the casual prostitute, Vee, the “should have been enticing, but she is just vulgar,” Vee. Winter pulls out all the stops and would appear to embrace the “three brave lets” that Stephen King spoke of when discussing Thompson; “he let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it." It is totally over the top, and sinks to the deepest depths.

Chloe/Clotilde has been institutionalized in a mental hospital for the past ten years, since 1941 when “The Falling Star” took place. Shem has not written anything in years and is mostly forgotten by the public. He is home to hear the reading of the will of his first wife, Quinn where he is reunited with his son, Joe who we met in the opening scenes of “Star”. Shem is hoping to inherit his ex-wife’s estate but when the entire thing is left to his son, Joe, he finds himself nearly penniless and living off the money that Vee gets from her gangster Johns.

Shem has borrowed money from his publishers and from the Hollywood executives and even gamblers and underworld king pins to the extent where they won’t even accept his phone calls or answer his telegrams anymore. Vee is about to abandon him as well, since he won’t be getting his hands on his ex-wife’s money and young Joe  holds him in contempt, seeing Shem as nothing but a drunk who abandoned his mother. As the story progresses, Shem sinks deeper and deeper into drunkenness and desperation, but clings to the lie he tells himself that he deserves the money so as to keep Chloe Rose out of a state hospital.  But when Joe is killed in a drunken argument with Shem, Shem enlists Vee’s help in staging the scene as an accidental  fire.

Winter captures the noir genre and the godfather of the noir movement, Thompson, to perfection. Shem is perfect as a desperate, egotistical, totally self-absorbed, devoid of any redeemable qualities protagonist. Vee is the his perfect accomplice and finds her lineage in the buxom female characters that Thompson and many others of the noir subgenre drew so well. Every single time that Shem has a chance to redeem himself as a human being, he destroys it. His every ‘real’ motive is selfish. At every turn, he is his own worst enemy and has gone from a downward spiral to the final plunge into madness and damnation.

What Winter has accomplished with The Twenty-Year Death will have not just the crime fiction world, but the literary world talking for years to come. To have captured so perfectly the style and voice of three disparate giants and then set them in three separate but interconnected and absorbing stories is truly an accomplishment. It is hard to imagine that he could possibly hope to achieve this kind of tour de force in his future works, but then again, its hard to believe that he could do it in the first place and right out of the gate.

Article first published as Book Review: The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter on Blogcritics.


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Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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Book Review: “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” by Horace McCoy


Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Midnight Classics)

The second of Horace McCoy’s noir classics, republished in April by Open Road Media in a nicely formatted eBook with perhaps the most extensive biography of McCoy available. Published in 1948 at the start of what scholars consider the beginning of the Noir/Paperback era in crime fiction (and the end of the hardboiled era of authors like Dashiell Hammett, Chandler and the pulp magazines and their authors) , Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye leans towards the hardboiled genre, that had just past, but enters the noir era. The book is full of lively dialogue and tough guys and femme fatales that were also “tough gals”, and though it comes nowhere close to Raymond Chandlers snappy, cynical wit, it stacks up nicely with most of the hardboiled writing of the era.

McCoy, from Tennessee, served in the first world war. After the war he relocated to Texas where he spent the years between 1919 and 1930 as a sports editor for the Dallas Journal . It was while he was in Texas that he got bitten by the acting bug which led him to acting in local theater that eventually saw him move to California in an attempt, at first to become a movie star. This experience was put to good use in his novels and short stories which often depicted central characters that were either involved, usually with little success, in the budding film industry. In the late ‘20s he started his writing career by selling short stories to various pulp mystery magazines such as Amazing Stories, Black Mask and Dime Detective. He went on to publish his first novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1935. Between ‘35 and 1961 (Corruption City was published posthumously in 1961) he published 5 more novels. He spent most of his efforts working as a script writer after the success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (which we reviewed last week)  from 1935 until his death in 1955.  Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, is among his best efforts and was turned in to a film starring James Cagney as the protagonist, Ralph Cotter. the film, and the book were widely banned because it was "a sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality and an extreme presentation of crime with explicit steps in commission." I guess they didn’t want little Johnny learning step by step criminal schemes.

“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” 1950, starring James Cagney









The movie received mixed reviews by the American critics, and was often compared unfavorably to White Heat which features Cagney in a similar role. Nevertheless, the film had a great influence on the French filmmakers who loved pulp fiction and gave the genre the name, film noir, and can be seen, for example, in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Made in U.S.A, in which one character is reading this novel in its French translation, Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour. Indeed, the influence led McCoy and other writers such as David Goodis and James M. Cain ,works to be relabeled ‘noir’ differentiating them from the classic ‘hardboiled’ detective novels of Hammett, Chandler and others.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the story of Ralph Cotter, an unquestionably amoral man who sees himself as intellectually superior because of his Ivy League education and his having been born into an upper class family, although his pedigree is questionable and he avoids any proof when challenged by his minions, one exchange;  “Does it matter?” (where he went to college) “You’re not ashamed of it , are you?” “I think the college might be. I’m sure my career doesn’t reflect too much credit on the school. It does prove one thing, though it proves that I came into crime through choice not through environment. I didn’t grow up in the slums with a drunk for a father and a whore for a mother and come into it because it mistreated me and warped my soul. Every criminal I know – who’s engaged in violent crime – is a two-bit coward who blames society. I need no apologist or crusader to finally hold my lifeless body up to the world and shout for them to come observe what they have wrought.” It’s easy to take this book as nothing more than a great ‘genre story’ but McCoy’s use of the then topical subject of “nature verses nurture” is important to the times he lived as many of the “folk lore” criminals of the day such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson  were raised in ‘broken homes’ and the apologists of the day explained their antisocial behavior on the hard times of the day.

The book opens with Ralph, along with a fellow inmate, Toko, breaking out of prison on a chain gang. They are aided by Holiday, the buxom gun moll cum femme fatale of the piece. Once successful, Ralph immediately starts pulling robberies in the unnamed town where he is hiding out. On his first job, he ends up being double crossed and when confronted by the police who at first seem about to shoot him, Holiday and Jinx, who had aided in the escape, but take their money instead and tell them to take the first bus to Phoenix.

Horace McCoy

Ralph comes up with a scheme to turn the tables on the crooked cops by recording them on a phonograph talking about a bigger heist and presumably aiding the gang in the crime. He uses this to blackmail the high ranking Inspector Webber and along the way meets and employs the lawyer, Mandon to help him setup his blackmail scheme. As he carries on a tumultuous relationship with Holiday, and plans bigger and bigger capers, Ralph (having taken on the alias of Paul Murphy) is soon revealed as not only wanting to gain riches but to climb socially as well. While trying to locate a con artists that can help him pull off his blackmail scheme he meets Margret, who he sees as a step up the social ladder. But after being caught In flagrante delicto with Margret and coming up with the excuse they had just been married, Ralph figures he has bitten off more than he can chew and consequently turns down $35,000 in bribe money to sign an annulment.

As Ralph, showing disdain for his loosely formed criminal gang,  now with the aid of the crooked police and the shyster Mandon, plans to hold up, and kill, the bag men for a local mafia don, he details a complex and involved strategy. When the crime goes off without a hitch, he is at his most egotistic in the false belief that his superior intellect and planning were the reason for their success. He lords it over Holiday, Jinx and even Mandon, and instead of sowing respect earns more and more resentment from his compatriots.

But Margret and her wealthy  industrial giant of a father has a new found respect for Ralph because he turned down the bribe. He offers Ralph a million dollars to marry Margret, who is infatuated with Ralph. Ralph has no desire to be married, but a million dollars and the respectability the offer could bring him tempts him. But he soon learns that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is and that old barb about a woman scorned combined with karma can be a bitch.

McCoy drew the story in a very Hammett like way. The unnamed town, the prevalence of crooked small town politicians and superficial upper crust characters are all devices that Hammett used to great effect in his Continental Op stories. But McCoy adds to that many elements that would become in the coming decade of the ‘50s typical of the ‘noir’ genre. Instead of the lone good guy against the array of bad guys – crooked cops and crookeder crooks – and the damsel in distress femme fatale, McCoy introduces the tough gal in Holiday and nary a character is admirable. Everybody has their own motivations and most of those are deplorable and the characters are thus, beyond redemption. Further, though Ralph on occasion displays competence, his ego wants to see his successes as brilliance on his part when what it is is mostly luck.

McCoy also rises above the typical hardboiled/noir fare by introducing many topical subjects of the day; the deplorable conditions in prisons, “Not much of the morning could get into the place where I was, and the portions that did were always pretty well mauled and no wonder: they had to fight their way in through a single window at the same time a solid shaft of stink was going out. This was a prison barracks where seventy-two unwashed men slept chained to their bunks, and when the individual odors of seventy-two unwashed men finally gather into one pillar of stink you have got a pillar of stink the like of which you cannot conceive; majestic, nonpareil, transcendental, K.” (I’m not sure whether the ‘K’ is a misprint or an obscure term.). He also alludes to male rape in prisons and homosexuals who Ralph comes to accept as fellow rebels, he thinks to himself at one point “ We all had a little twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency….They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted. theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill.”  . There is also the subject of “nature verses nurture” which was very much in discussion at the time the book was written. Further, he reveals much about Ralph and uses a plot device that would become stock in noir fiction through Ralph’s inner dialogs which are almost as numerable as the tough guy banter between the characters. This also portrays Ralphs rising mania to not only out wit the system but to rise above the typical slow witted crooks he is forced to employ in his schemes.

Altogether, not only a tour de force of hardboiled noir fiction, but a literary triumph of genre fiction from one of the grandfathers of the style and a wonderful edition now available in a nicely formatted eBook with an extended biography of the author.

Article first published as Book Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy on Blogcritics.



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Book Review: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” by Horace McCoy


They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?: A Novel (Serpent’s Tail Classics)

Horace McCoy’s, along with James M. Cain and a few other authors of the ‘20s, ‘30s & ‘40s, was labeled early on as a hardboiled authors, in the same vein as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and others. But, in retrospect, most of his novels didn’t fit the classic description of hardboiled. First, they weren’t detectives. Secondly, the main protagonists were not mainly dealing with solving a mystery and often the main characters were flawed, and if not totally beyond redemption, at least of questionable character. Of course, now these writers are most identified with the ‘Noir’ genre; the ‘roman noir’ or “dark books’ as they would finally be labeled after many of them were made into film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Reissued in April by Open Road Media, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is McCoy’s most well known novel, perhaps because of the Academy Award Nominated film (it won one Oscar for Gig Young as supporting actor, and was nominated in eight other categories, including best director- Sydney Pollack and best actress – Jane Fonda) starring Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda.

The story opens up with the narrator and protagonist confessing to murder, thus quickly shedding any aspirations to a mystery. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn’t "have a leg to stand on." alluding to the title of the book. In his youth, he saw the favorite family horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery, also leading to the conclusion as well as the title.

The main characters are Robert Syverten, who came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great director, and Gloria Beatty who ran away to Dallas from a farm in West Texas where her uncle always made passes at her. In Dallas, she tried to commit suicide, then ran away to Hollywood with dreams of being in movies, but is finding only rejection. The pair meet on the morning when they have both failed to get parts as extras.

The setting for the novel is in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. Gloria talks Robert into participating entering a marathon dance contest believing the contest may be a way to get noticed by studio producers or movie stars. The novel was written in 1935, at the height of the dance marathon craze. Dance endurance contests attracted people to compete to achieve a type of cheap celebrity or monetary prizes. McCoy, whose life story very much  resembled Roberts, had briefly worked as a bouncer at contest just like this in California.

Official movie trailer, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” directed by Sydney Pollack

The book also differs from the of hardboiled books of the era in that the plot is nonlinear, being told back to front as well as flash back scenes that reveal the characters back story and histories. From the start we know that Robert killed Gloria and the plot reveals why. Further, the flash back scenes to Robert witnessing the shooting of the families pet horse and how that affected him, his hopes and dreams of becoming a great film director, and the failure he feels in just hanging on and excepting bit parts, to Gloria’s life with the lecherous uncle, her despair in trying to make it as a single girl at the height of the depression and why she tried to kill herself in Dallas before coming to Hollywood to become a movie star. All of this reveals why Gloria, from the start has a fatal outlook for her future, and maybe everyone’s future. From the start, Gloria tells Robert that she wishes she were dead, a point she repeats in most of their conversations. She also feels she has had to resort to unsavory acts, one of which will come out later in the dance contest, just to survive. One hundred and forty four couples start the contest. Robert and Gloria, like most of the contestants, are young, jobless, and drawn as much by the free food as by the $1,000 prize money (raised to the ‘princely sum of $1,500 in the movie).

The book was also printed in a dramatic fashion in that the story begins with Robert’s sentencing for murder. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn’t "have a leg to stand on." He is advised to beg for mercy from the Court. The story of his relationship with the  Gloria  is then intercut after every few chapters with short excerpts from the judge’s sentencing. The excerpts of the judge’s words are written in larger and larger type until the last page of the book concludes with the words written in small print: "And may God have mercy on your soul".

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has long been considered, along with The Grapes of Wrath as one of the most convincing—and heartbreaking—fictional portraits of America during the Great Depression. It is a stunning portrait of poverty and powerlessness during the Great Depression, as Robert and Gloria, along with the supporting cast of characters risk everything I the grueling dance marathon, to ever more desperately keep their dreams alive, and as those dreams die in the face of the times, just survive. As the dance goes on, into the second and third week, the crowds grow larger and the media come out, as hoped for by the contestants, to cover and sensationalize the contest. Also, the rich and the Hollywood stars that have made it, also come out to watch, almost like people stopping to look at an auto accident. As the contest grinds on, couples break down physically and drop out, and some plot desperately to gain an advantage. The sponsors also stoop to new lows in the hopes of profiting from the desperate dancers. There are rumors of the contest being fixed half way through, and then they weather an attempt to shut down the contest by the local morals society, and Gloria, angry, bitter and outspoken in her desperation, angry, curses the women as spoiled, interfering hypocrites..

I believe that what makes the novel a classic isn’t just it depiction of life in The Great Depression, but its larger parody of life in general, in every generation. It reveals how easy it is for dreams to crumble, and also how our egos can work against us by giving us goals that are beyond our capability to achieve. Gloria dreams and searches for redemption by becoming a Hollywood starlet, when in reality she is not that attractive.  this universal theme is what makes the novel a classic and not just a snap shot of a desperate time in history.

It’s wonderful to see the book republished by Open Road, who released this book in eBook at the same time they republish McCoy’s other masterpiece of classic noir, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which I will also be reviewing. Both eBooks feature an extended biography of Horace McCoy and are nicely formatted.


Article first published as Book Review: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy on Blogcritics.


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Book Review: “David Goodis : 5 Noir Novels of the ‘40s &’50s” Robert Polito, Editor


David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America)

David Goodis established himself as the successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler with the publication of his first book Retreat from Oblivion in 1939. The year before he had graduated from Temple University, so Retreat boded well for a young author. Unfortunately, his career began at a time that many consider the twilight of the Hardboiled era in fiction. Additionally, the world was on the cusp of yet another Great War.

During the 1940s, having moved to New York City, Goodis scripted for radio adventure serials, including Hop Harrigan, House of Mystery, and Superman. Novels he wrote during the early 1940s were rejected by publishers, but in 1942 he spent some time in Hollywood as one of the screenwriters on Universal’s Destination Unknown. His next novel wouldn’t come until 1946 when Dark Passage was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, published by Julian Messner and filmed for Warner Bros. with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall heading the cast.

Now, The Library Of America who in ‘97 issued the books, Crime Novels: American Noir gathered, in two volumes, eleven classic works of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s––among them David Goodis’s
moody and intensely lyrical masterpiece Down There. Now, they  have teamed with editor Robert Polito to gather five of Goodis’ seminal works of the genre that became known as Noir. Goodis, along with James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, are today considered the ‘godfathers’ of Noir and for good reason. They wrote of ‘the mean streets’ but the people that populated their novels were doomed. They had very few redeeming qualities and the lines were often blurred between right and wrong, good and evil, and hero and villain.

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This volume opens with Dark Passage, considered by some as his masterpiece, but regardless, it was his first big break through in 1946, and later on, it made history in a copyright lawsuit. More on that in a minute. The story centers on Vince Parry, who is in prison, convicted of killing his wife. Parry was a decent sort of guy, quiet, never bothered anybody, not too ambitious and worked as a clerk in an investment house bringing home $35 a week. He’d only been married for sixteen months when his wife was found by a neighbor, in her house with her head bashed in. But, before the wife died she supposedly whispered to the neighbor that Parry had hit her with a heavy glass ash tray. The police found the wife’s’ blood on the ash tray and Parry’s fingerprints on it. To make matters worse, as they are wont to do in noir novels, it came out at trial that Parry hadn’t been getting along with his wife and was seeing other women, the fact that the wife had been seeing other men didn’t make much of a difference to the jury. With no alibi, Parry is sentenced to San Quentin.

He plots an escape, and after carrying out the careful plan, he makes his way out of the prison in a very harrowing and realistic way. But, after the escape, while attempting to hitch a ride, he ends up killing a man. Finally picked up by a woman, Irene Jansen, he hitches back into the Bay area and Irene confesses that she suspected who he was, having followed his case in the papers, and then, hearing on the radio, of his prison break had gone looking for him, guessing his route. Irene agrees to hide him in her apartment and provide him with the means to go looking for the real killer.

The tension, and psychological suspense that Goodis paints during these scenes would become a trade mark. Parry is divided between being grateful for the help Irene provides him and the fear of leaving behind a witness who could provide the police with clues as to his activities. Finally, having difficulties staying hidden at Irene’s apartment because of  Madge Rapf, the spiteful and melodramatic woman whose testimony sent him up to prison, keeps stopping by. It seems that Irene has been simultaneously carrying on a friendship with Madge and an affair with Madge’s husband. Irene gives Parry money, and he leaves her apartment, where he starts his quest for the real killers. Along the way he meets a helpful cabbie, who gives him a tip on a plastic surgeon who can inexpensively change his appearance to help him elude the cops.

The novel, with a boost from the Bogart/Bacall movie the very next year, put Goodis on the map as a serious novelist of noir. One interesting aside is that the novel became the set piece in a legal battle between Goodis estate and United Artists Television. The Goodis estate claimed that the UA series The Fugitive constituted copyright infringement. United Artists claimed that the work had fallen into the public domain under the terms of the Copyright Act of 1909 because it had been first published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post, and that Goodis never obtained a separate copyright on the book. The court found in the estates favor and stated that the law only defined the standing of a work, and should not operate to completely deprive a claimant of his copyright.

In 1947s Nightfall, Goodis would continue to expand his reputation as a master of the genre.  Continuing with the man on the run from the law themes of Dark Passage, Nightfall  also adds the element of the protagonist on the run from some bad guys. Artist Jim Vanning is on the run in New York City, working as a commercial artist. Three gangster hoods are after him, thinking he has a suitcase full of $300,000 of their money. Vanning doesn’t have the money, but this fact won’t deter the hoods as Vanning did have it, but lost it. From there, the plot get complicated. A detective Fraser is on to Vanning, and though he suspects that Vanning may have stolen the money, he doesn’t picture him as the killer of the man who had the money. Naturally, there’s a dame involved. There always is a femme fatale in these great stories and Vanning has to decide whether the alluring Martha is with the crooks or if she is just a dupe for the crooks and being used for bait. The prose are taut and well crafted as you would expect from an author who achieved cult status. It’s packed with action and scenes that would become standard fare for the authors after Goodis that worked in the noir genre.

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The other works chosen here are The Moon in the Gutter (1953), which tells the story of a street hardened man whose sister commits suicide after being raped. With  his marriage on the rocks and questions to be answered in his quest for the man that drove his sister to despair,  he meets a rich woman. The beautiful Loretta provides him with an escape route out of the mean streets of “Filth-adelphia” , but he learns you can take the tough guy out of the alley, but you can’t take the alley out of the tough guy. The dialogue is perhaps some of Goodis’ most hardboiled. The Burglar (1953) is the story of Nat Harbin, the scion of a family of Burglars who upon finding love looks for a way to leave his ‘family’ and past behind. As Ed Gorman wrote in The Big Book Of Noir, Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes. At heart the novel has themes of crime, honor, loyalty and a futile search for redemption. And finally, 1954s Street of No Return tells the story of Whitey, a singer with a million dollar voice. With that voice, women came under his spell and would sacrifice their body and their soul. He could have been another Sinatra until he met a woman who would prove to be his downfall. The story is told as a tale of Whitey’s past to his wino buddy’s in the present and we follow Whitey from that once glorious future through a nightmare descent into oblivion. Whitey now has no future, and only wants the next drink. Along the way Goodis paints the times with hard boiled pictures of Philadelphia and life on the streets and uses historical events such as Puerto Rican race riots as a back drop.

Upon Goodis return from New York in 1950, he lived with his parents in Philadelphia along with his schizophrenic brother Herbert. At night, he prowled the underside of Philadelphia, hanging out in nightclubs and seedy bars, a milieu he depicted in his fiction. He died in January 1967 a week after suffering a beating in a robbery attempt. He died at the age of forty-nine, one month after winning the “Fugitive” lawsuit. But during his life, The Pulp Poet of the Lost and The Prince Of The Losers made a mark on the world of fiction that many noir authors of the present day readily acknowledge.

LOA logoLibrary Of America is dedicated to preserving the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions.

politopic_homepageRobert Polito, the editor is a poet, biographer, and critic whose Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson received the National Book Critics Circle Award. He directs the Graduate Writing Program at the New School.


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Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved


Article first published as Book Review: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and the 50s by David Goodis, Robert Polito, Editor on Blogcritics.

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Book Review: “I Was Dora Suarez” by Derek Raymond

Dora Suarez

I Was Dora Suarez (Factory 4)

“Don’t you see, the words sometimes take the place of tears?”

What if a true villain, a thoroughly evil psychopath, a man who already possessed a heart of darkness, who already scared evil men witless, then went mad? Fully and irredeemably insane. What depths of depravity, what  inhumane crimes would he be capable of?

In I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth in Derek Raymond’s Factory Novels we find out.

Be warned. This novel is not for the squeamish. This novel made it’s publisher, who had already published the first three Factory Novels, vomit over his desk. Much to the glee of it’s author, who himself was a bit of a mad man.

As with the other Factory Novels, Dora Suarez stars the unnamed, detective sergeant of London Metropolitan Police’s, Department of Unexplained Deaths – The Factory, otherwise known as A14. Unexplained Deaths handles the ‘rough trade’. The investigation of the ugly murders of the average citizen and the dispossessed as opposed to The Department of Serious Crimes – Scotland yard – who get the glamorous investigations.

The novel opens with the brutal murder of Dora Suarez, a seemingly gentle young girl, and the kindly 86 year old widow, Betty Carstairs, who has taken her in. The reader gets a peek inside the mind of the killer and of his methods. “His eyes….bore the stare of someone entirely lost on the earth, and he was the most hideous thing that you prayed you might never see.”

The detective sergeant is on suspension from the police for striking a superior officer. Insubordination comes easy to him, as he isn’t a career ladder climber. He is called back on the job, all is forgiven, to handle this case as the police are short handed.

As the sergeant investigates, he immediately empathizes with the victim, and is deeply effected by the heinous details of the murder. Dora was repeatedly axed, one arm cut off before death as she pleaded with her murderer. As he investigates further it’s discovered that the murderer ejaculated on Dora, and defecated on the scene. He also literally threw Betty through a clock. The sergeant also discovers a diary of sorts that, as he reads, makes him believe that Dora may have known her killer. The diary also reveals her innate gentleness in real life and that she was already dying and he develops an obsessive fondness and sadness for the dead woman . There’s a sadness to Dora’s life, the way that she has been repeatedly beaten down, used by life and the people in it.

During the autopsy, the extent of Dora’s sickness is revealed to be advanced AIDS, but how she contacted it is not immediately apparent. It also becomes clear that the killer ate pieces of Dora post mortem. 

Mean while, barely a mile away, another murder is being investigated by Stevenson, one of the sergeants few friends on the police. Felix Roatta has had his head blown nearly off, and the timing of the two sets of murders, as well as the nearness of the scenes, perks both their interest.

Roatta was a notorious gangster and part owner of the Parallel Club. A photograph is discovered taken at the club on Roatta’s birthday with Dora singing on stage, and a man that the other criminal elements that haunt the club are reluctant to talk about.

As the clubs Greek doorman, and other criminal elements that had ownership interests in the club are detained and questioned, and as the degenerate offerings of the clubs “exclusive” upstairs rooms are revealed, the pure ugliness and subversion of decency make the sergeant and Stevenson more than determined to discover the identity and whereabouts of the murderer who even scares these hardened criminals.

This is where I usually talk about the authors craft. How well he uses literary devices, develops the characters and sense of place. Dialog and narration and all the other component parts of a good story. In the case of Dora Suarez, that would be superficial at best. Akin to criticizing the paints in Michelangelo’s pallet or discussing the merits of the water that Monet used to soak his paper.

Raymond simply defines British Noir and in Dora Suarez created one of the most important pieces of crime fiction of the past fifty years. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, Raymond has taken a cheap, shoddy and utterly lost kind of writing, and made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about. Paul Oliver at Melville House Publishing told me when he provided this review copy, Raymond “Wrote like John Donne if Donne had been taught how to write by Jim Thompson.”

As an entry in the “hardboiled” genre, if bounced on the floor it would chip concrete. In the “Noir” field it is to “black novels” what black holes are to darkness.

As with most of The Factory Novels, it is only superficially a police procedural. And only nominally a mystery. Raymond’s concern, and his protagonists, throughout the series was always more about the victim and what brought them to their fate.

To be sure the dialog is as elegant as Raymond Chandler, and the basic story line as good or even better at uncovering the fault lines of society than Hammett at his best.

The sergeants dialog is hard violent, and insolent, and never approaches the realm of civil discourse whether he is talking to the politically motivated higher ups, the lowly bobbys on the beat who wish to play at being a cop or to the dregs of criminal society, whether they be witnesses or suspects.

In contrast to his violent exterior is  an almost psychotically sacred level of concern for the victim.  In the words of the author, he “describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed. It deals with the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle — the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfillable, and where defeat is certain.”

First published in 1990, I Was Dora Suarez was the fourth of five Factory Novels published and considered the master work of Raymond’s career. Rereleased in September by Melville International Crime and available singly or in a set consisting of the first four novels, with the fifth offered free when it is published in January.


No one seriously interested crime fiction as literature, noir written as taut, ugly and teetering on the edge of sanity can possibly pass this one by.


Article first published as Book Review: I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond on Blogcritics.


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Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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One Man, One Murder by Jakob Arjouni

A Kayankaya Thriller                  


To rescue a kidnapped prostitute, Kemal Kayankaya must face some of Germany’s most depraved and dangerous criminals. Fortunately, some of them are his friends. . . .

OneManOneMurderHard-boiled prose, lean, clean dialogue, hard bitten as Sam Spade, cynically cool as Philip Marlowe. Kemal Kayankaya is a worthy successor to the great noir characters and hard boiled detectives of the past. This isn’t a parody or a cheap imitation, Jakob Arjouni has created the real thing. Beautiful!

Jakob Arjouni tells a tale that could have come off of the mean streets of Chandler’s Los Angles or Hammet’s San Francisco, or Chicago or New York or Boston but it takes place in Frankfurt, Germany – the dullest town in Germany, except it isn’t. One Man, One Murder was originally written in 1991 as Ein Mann, ein Mord. Melville International Crime provided me with this Galley of the translation and after reading it, it’s jumped to the top of the list of ‘Best Surprise Book’ of the year. In an original voice, Arjouni tells such a true story and he tells it so well, maintaining tension throughout, dialogue that is  clever, witty, and sad and an atmosphere that James M. Cain would have been proud of.

Kemal Kayankaya is the orphaned son of a Turkish garbage collector, a German Citizen, born and bred. But, because he is of Turkish extraction he encounters suspicion and racism wherever he goes. He meets them with a smart assed attitude and a cynical, jaded tongue.

A piece of dialog while Kemal is trying to rent an office:

“Well then, Mr. Kayankaya, I see you are a private investigator. That’s an interesting name…Kayankaya.” “Not really that interesting. Just Turkish.” I see.” The saccharine content of his smile increases; his eye slits are no wider than a razor’s edge.”Turkish. A Turkish private investigator? What do you know…I hope you don’t mind my asking, but – how come you speak such good German?” “It’s the only language I know. My parents died when I was a child, and I was raised by a German family.” “But – but you are a Turk? I mean —“ “ I have a German passport, if that makes you feel better.”…..”Mind showing it to me?”

And this from when he meets his new client:

“How did you find me? “ He looked startled….”You must have checked the Yellow Pages. But why Kayankaya, why not Muller?” “Because she is Thai, and I thought…” “You thought Thailand and Turkey both start with a ‘T’?” “How could I have known you’re a Turk? On the contrary, I expected – but…”

…They visit exhibitions in New York and go on safaris in Africa: they smoke hashish in Cairo, eat Japanese food, and purpose to teach democracy to Muscovites; they are “international” down to their Parisian underwear – but they are not able to recognize a Turk unless he is carrying a garbage can under his arm and leading a string of ten unwashed brats.


This book would have worked so well as just a comic take on the American Hardboiled detective transplanted to Europe in the late 80’s; as a cynical updating of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but Arjouni had loftier goals. And he achieved them in spades. Sam Spades. It is Arjouni’s willingness to confront serious social issues and display them in the light of a hardboiled/noir novel, with an avoidance of clichés, intelligent observation, and dialog that is both realistic and acid-tinged. And to do it all without preaching. He kind of reminds me of the great Walter Mosley in that regard.


Another piece of dialog where Kayankaya channels Sam Spade in his violent reaction:

“What’s your name, nigger?”   So, I said to myself, this must be their guy with the communications skills.I took the cigarette out of my mouth and studied its glowing tip for a moment. His beery breath struck my face. I looked at him and said very quietly: “Listen, pig. Another word out of you, and I’ll see to it that you won’t be able to stand up, sit down, or fuck – ever again.”

And then a few seconds later, he switches to the cynical humor:

(Mrs. Steiner, a bureaucratic receptionist who has just refused to serve or speak to Kayankaya because he appears to be a minority gives an explanation and then Kayankaya says…) “If you are not telling me the truth…” “I beg your pardon…” Despite her obvious fear that our argument might turn into a free for all, Mrs. Steiner looked indignant. “ I am a civil servant!”


This particular story opens when Kayankaya  takes on a new client, Herr Weidenbusch, who has discovered that love is never roses and springtime when your girlfriend is a Thai immigrant that has been kidnapped by a gang of pimps. This isn’t the first time either, and the simpering Weidenbusch, with his pink eyeglasses and colorful wrist watches, who rebels against his mother at the age of 40 or so, wants to get her back. He has “paid her debt” to the brothel that sponsored her, and paid for a fake passport so that Weidenbusch can marry her, and now they apparently want more. Kayankaya recognizes a name from the place where Sri Dao Rakdee worked.  “The Lady Bump”, a shady bar and house of prostitution in Frankfurt’s “Eros Center’. Slibulsky is a low life, depraved and shady criminal, a degenerate gambler no loyalty and a broken arm. He just blew a fifty thousand mark inheritance at a roulette table and is working off a further debt to the owner of the establishment. He is also a ‘friend’ of Kayankaya. The kind of friend you hope the other guy has. But Slibulsky has his ear to the ground of the Frankfurt underground and soon opens some doors to dark places where Kayankaya seeks Sri Dao.

Along the way Kayankaya encounters deadly crime bosses, indifferent and crooked cops, violent muscle men, a landlord who wants his money, an illegal immigrant ring that sells the hopefuls fake visas and then disposes of them – the hopefuls, not the visas, a miasma of bureaucratic and social injustice and racial prejudice that mirrors Americas own. The air of contemporary Europe’s racial politics and inane nationalism are the maze that Kayankaya navigates in his quest but he is well equipped with a sharp mind, a sharper tongue and meets these challenges with a cynical, smart-assed attitude and an anti-authority front. There are enough seeming dead ends, as almost any detective novel requires, but instead of having them …dead end, Arjouni has them turn into very interesting ‘small mysteries’ or stories inside the story.Jakob Arjouni Arjouni is a consummate professional. His prose are efficient with a minimalists approach that Hemingway would love, but not so minimalist that he doesn’t manage to fully develop the characters without using stock, stereotypes, and he makes them way too real. He also paints scenes both colorful and dark about the underbelly of a city and maintains a pace that lingers just enough in all the right places.

The only criticism I have for this otherwise master work is that it took to damn long to get it translated and released in English. Well, Melville International Crime has fixed that, and thank you very much.



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“The Kid Was A Killer” by Caryl Chessman

Kid Killer3

I will never again complain about dead lines or  crappy writing conditions. Caryl Chessman, for those of you out of the loop on your history was on California’s Death Row having been convicted as the Red Light Bandit when he penned this little bit of trivia. He reportedly finished his only novel (although he did write three non fiction books) while awaiting his execution in the gas chamber in 1953 but the manuscript was confiscated and locked in the wardens safe until 1960 when, as California’s longest serving death row inmate he was finally executed.

The book is actually not that good, but much like it’s author, it is brilliant in places, preachy in a lot more places, again, like it’s author is is ultimately undone by trying to get too cute; tries to justify anti social actions, takes off into a fantasy world, and has a morality that wouldn’t mesh with any non sociopaths ideology. Another important fact about the book, or really it’s author is that it was a major cause célèbre in the fight against the death penalty.

First a synopsis of the book, then we delve a bit into the man. The story is a boxing novel written when boxing novels were a major sub genre of the Noir or paperback era, AKA the second golden age of American Crime Fiction. It’s narrated by an old, wise sports writer, Charley Evans. Having been ordered by his editor to dig up, or for that matter manufacture some sporting news as there was a dead spot and people were starting do other thing besides read the sports page. Evans goes to the local gym where an old pal of his is training the next light heavy weight champ. Kid Killer2

The contender is Angelo “The Angel” Marino, and he is a can’t miss, scientific boxer. In walks “The Kid”, a nobody off the street who picks a fight with The Angel and allows himself to be beaten to  pulp, never even fighting back, but never going down either. All the time wearing a maniacal grin. Finally he dismantles The Angel. Not only does he embarrass him but he breaks him. Breaks his will to fight, breaks his ego and his image of himself. Then the kid disappears. Word gets out and from his hospital bed The Angel pretty much retires at the ripe old age of 23. Not that anyone would give him a title shot anyhow.

This first 25-30 % of the book is actually quite good. The Kid vanishes and nobody knows anything about him. He is painted almost like a Robert Johnson type character, in that he traded his soul for an unnatural fighting ability. Evans eventually consults a psychiatrist friend who has another theory.  And this is where Chessman starts to preach, rationalize his own behavior. Caryl paints The Kid as a killer, a man who can’t refrain from maximal violence, and he explains that the forces of society have made him this way; in other words he has lost his ability and his willingness to control his destructive impulses when he is angry or when an opportunity to kill arises. If society makes us furious enough, or exposes us to enough cruelty, we may become killers. And justifiably so.

chessman3 Evans, after consulting with his psychiatrist buddy first builds The Angel back up, convincing him that his utter dismantling at the hands of The Kid was a fluke. He then sets out to find the kid and to include him in a weird plot to  convince the current champ, a really despicable “hairy beast” of a character to give The Angel a title shot. He finds the kid a few moths later and convinces him to tell ‘old Evans’ his story.  The story is a doozey, The Kid is the product of a terrible home. His father was an ex boxer turned to booze and beating his wife and two children, The Kid and his younger sister. Finally his mother, a deeply religious woman has had enough and one night after a beating she shoots her husband with a borrowed gun.  The Kid, fooled by the cops (as Chessman himself actually was a number of times) into inadvertently  telling the truth gets his mother convicted of man slaughter. Of course, it is the systems fault, the laws fault for twisting the truth. His mother is sent to prison and The Kid and his sister to a home where his sister contracts TB and is on deaths bed for the next few years. In prison his mother also dies a tragic death. The Kid manages to escape, through his own ingenuity, the home and joins the Army and goes to Korea where his hate and killer ability is appreciated. He makes Rambo seem like a whimp as he almost single handily holds off the entire Chinese and North Korean armies as the allied forces retreat. He is captured and further helps the war effort by being able to take all his captures can dish out and generally being such a threat that it takes half the enemy army to keep him locked up. When the armistice is declared he is brought home and while he is in the hospital it is discovered that his homicidal tendencies and his sociopathic hate makes him a danger. Once again, through his genius he gets released. Society quickly reinforces his justification for becoming a natural born killer until the novel reaches the end and The Kid is shown to be not only justified but redeemed by his homicidal ways. There’s a lot of convoluted plot, and a lot of holes in that plot, involving reformatories, jail, bad cops, war, psychology, waterfront mobs, the dirty underside of boxing, religion and mom and apple pie.–much of it self serving. Even worse than the plot are Chessman’s “observations on the “human condition”.


As I said above, the book is filled with Chessman’s own attempt to justify himself. It’s not a well written book, but he hardly had access to an editor. It is very interesting if you know Chessman’s story as it gives great insight into an often brilliant, but scared sociopath.It really only differs in a few ways from his own life. Namely, by all accounts his father was a gentle, hard working man. Also, Chessman never killed anyone, nor was he ever accused or convicted of killing anybody and yet he went to the gas chamber.

Caryl Chessman’s mother, Hallie was an abandoned infant in 1900, raised by Charles and Abigail Cottle in Chicago and was by all accounts a model child raised by good people. In 1918 she graduated from high school and attended business college and soon was wed to Serl Whittier Chessman, Caryl’s father who was from St. Josephs, Michigan. Carol Whittier Chessman was born to the couple in 1921. Carol, who as a teenager changed his name to Caryl to escape the “girls name” teasing grew up uneventfully after the family moved to the Los Angles area. Serl found work as a carpenter in the fledgling movie business constructing sets. He worked for Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, Later came The Thief of Bagdad, another Fairbanks film and many more movies. In 1928, when Caryl was 7 years old he fell sick after playing near Devil’s Gate Reservoir in the Flintridge Hills. It was misdiagnosed as the flu, the doctor ignoring the fact he was covered from head to toe in mosquito bites. It was actually encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain. Could this have caused his later sociopathic actions? Who knows. With the start of the Great Depression, Serl lost his work in the movie biz, as great sets were cost prohibitive. He eked out a living as a handyman, but the family eventually had to sell their home. Later he ran a couple successful small businesses. The second event in his young life came in 1931 when a girl friend of his mothers took Caryl and his mother to a new drive in restaurant and when their little Ford convertible was smashed into by a 16 cylinder Cadillac driven by a religious cult member that didn’t believe in insurance. The girl friend was killed, Caryl ended up with a severely broken nose and jaw and his mother was left paralyzed from the waist down. Chessman2

Caryl’s father, now working at a service station 12 hours a day was of course strapped for cash and the family would suffer through the depression trying to afford doctors for Hallie. Soon after this Caryl started to get into trouble and his father tried to commit suicide twice.

He committed his first crimes in 1935 he attended Glendale High School, and was often dressed in thread bare clothes. He fell in with some other poor kids and they were soon committing thefts. When the lady of the house was in her backyard hanging out laundry, Caryl and his cohorts would dash in the unlocked, standing open front door and grab whatever wasn’t nailed down. A radio, pictures in silver frames, an alarm clock, a vase, what ever they could grab. A lot of the loot was really worthless, they stole for the thrill. Soon after this Caryl learned to hot wire cars and they were soon joy riding all over town.  In 1937, after stealing a Cord Roadster Caryl got busted for the first time. He eventually ended up in a boys home where he learned to con the authorities and play the system. He was a bright boy and learned easily. His IQ was measured at 128 and he quickly learned most subjects from reading. Over the next few years he graduated to bigger and bigger thefts, often getting caught when he’d get to cute. During his incarcerations he was always a model prisoner and because of his brains often landed cushy prison jobs even working for the wardens. It was during one of these stays that he started writing. After being convicted as The Red Light Bandit he would publish  four books, three about his life in prison and this one novel. In 1941 at the age of 20 he landed up in San Quinten, where he would eventually come back too live on death row. In 1943 Caryl was transferred to the new, experimental ""prison without walls" – Chino. Ten weeks after his arrival, at the age of 23 Caryl escaped, or walked away after perpetrating a ruse, again, being too cute about it. He had landed a job as an air plane spotter -America was at war and his job was to call a number in L.A. whenever he saw or heard a plane fly over the tower. He set up his escape by leaving a black shoe mark on the ladder leading up to the top of the tower and by cutting his finger and leaving blood at the scene. He then walked away and hitch hiked to L.A. where he soon was back to his old crimes of theft and burglary. He was busted three weeks later. At trial he tried to pretend that he had fallen while climbing the tower, the heel mark and blood was proof of that, and he had amnesia. It was pointed out to him that if he had amnesia he wouldn’t have remembered the heel mark and blood. Once again, Caryl Chessman was too cute for his own good. It was off to Folsom Prison for Caryl.  Again a model prisoner he was paroled, for the last time in 1947. cell 2455a

Caryl Chessman walked out of Folsom Prison on December 8, 1947. The Red Light Bandit crimes began on January 13, 1948 — just one month and five days later. 

If you want to read a detailed account of the individual crimes of The Red Light bandit follow this link. But a brief synopsis goes like this, the "Bandit" would follow people in their cars to secluded areas –Lovers Lanes -  and flash a red light that tricked them into thinking he was a police officer. When they opened their windows or exited the vehicle, he would rob them, usually of less than $20,  and, in the case of two women, force them to give him oral sex. One of these women was a young 17 year old virgin who was scared for life and spent the rest of her life after the trial in mental facilities . She died in 2010 and never recovered from the trauma. Maybe this warranted the death penalty, but the law didn’t state the death penalty for rape.

In July 1948, Chessman was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape, and was condemned to death.

Part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case stems from how the death penalty was applied. At the time, under California’s version of the "Little Lindbergh Law", any crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense. Two of the counts against Chessman alleged that he dragged a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza a short distance from her car demanding oral sex from her. Despite the short distance the woman was moved, the court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty.

At trial and throughout his numerous appeals Chessman, against the judges and expert legal advice, represented himself. At various time he claimed that it was somebody else and he knew the real rapists identity but he wouldn’t “rat”. It was against his principles. He also claimed to have been framed in a larger conspiracy and he further made assertions that the confession was beaten out of him. In a number of ways Chessman was effective as his own council, but as always he got a little too cute. It is very likely that the confession was coerced – by trickery or physical threats, if not actual beatings. And, there were a couple of things that should have made the trial declared a mistrial and garnered him a retrial. Namely that the clerk, who used shorthand instead of a transcription machine, died before he could transcribe the trial record and that the eventual transcription was done by a man who admitted he couldn’t decipher the original short hand. Further, all descriptions of the Red Light Bandit were of a shorter, smaller man and the only time that the rape victims actually picked him out of a line up was at trial, where it was obvious who the defendant was. Regardless, although Chessman postponed his execution for 12 years, at that time a record in California he was eventually put to death. Shortly after the pellets fell and Chessman started foaming at the mouth, but was probably still alive, the phone rang in the death chamber. The caller was Judge Goodman’s secretary. In her nervous haste, she had first dialed a wrong number, then had to hang up and redial San Quentin. When she quickly told Nelson the purpose of her call – that the Judge had granted yet another stay, he said simply, "It’s too late. The execution has begun." There was no way to stop the fumes, and no way to open the door and rescue the condemned man without the deadly fumes killing others. Ballad

While behind bars Chessman penned not only The Kid Was A Killer, but a critically acclaimed non fiction book (and two others that never got much press) called Cell 2455 Death Row, published by Prentice-Hall, in 1954 and quickly was a rallying point for death penalty opponents around the world. Ronnie Hawkins even wrote a song called The Ballad of Caryl Chessman and President Eisenhower is even said to have granted a temporary stay of execution because of an official trip to South America where Chessman had many supporters and the Secret Service was afraid of violent demonstrations if the President travelled there shortly after Chessman’s execution.

Today, Chessman would never have received the death penalty for the crimes he was convicted and accused of committing . A number of his appeals were against the Little Lindberg Law being applied. After all, his victims were never forcibly moved more that 20-25 feet from the scene. He never killed anyone, and he didn’t have a history of sex offenses in his past. Was he even the Red Light Bandit. Probably so in at least some of the crimes although it is possible and even likely that there were more than one Red Light Bandit. Further, the mistakes at trial and in his interrogation would have any case thrown out today. Still, he was undoubtedly a sociopath and a career criminal. Was that caused by his bout of encephalitis? How about being scared for life in the car accident that crippled his mother, or growing up hard during the depression? Who knows. And are those mitigating circumstances? Many people grow up hard and don’t become criminals. many people suffer the loss of a parent or growing up poor. The evidence shows that he wasn’t beaten, but given a decent home the hardships of the Depression aside.  Still, the suffering of Mary Alice Meza who spent her life in mental hospitals because of the trauma, maybe that justifies those pellets falling and that secretary misdialing the phone.


The Dirty Lowdown


Filed under Crime Reports-Book Reviews, Reviewing The Classics

“Frenzy” by James O. Causey


The Capital Vices

Can a book be called Crime Fiction if there is nobody chasing the bad guys? Frenzy is such a book. All of the characters are bad guys. Not a single one, with the possible exception of the protagonists brother has the slightest bright spot in his soul to redeem him or her. It’s often labeled as “hardboiled” but there is no detective in the story. At least not one who is actually pursuing a crime or trying to solve a mystery. This is classic noir that would have made David Goodis or James M. Cain proud if he had written it.

The story is told by Norm Sands, a self described “two-bit grifter”.  How does a man become a “two-bit grifter”? That question is answered twelve years earlier. Norman Sands and his year younger brother, Matt were orphaned at the age of five when their parents were killed in a car crash. But that wasn’t the defining moment. They had insurance money and an aunt to take them in. They lived in a little town on the edge of the desert in southern California, Mason Flats. A five room room house. They were fed, clothed and cared for but Norm “was a dark child”, moody, got in fights, got in trouble. Boy kind of trouble. Matt was an honor student. Basketball star. People liked Matt. Matt was going to be a lawyer. Norm had a job setting pins in a bowling alley when WWII broke out. Norm ran with a fast crowd. They got in gang fights with the Mexican kids. Hung out playing pool in the backroom of Hermann’s. His brother was going places but Norm was sitting there at a fast idle until he fell in love in the eleventh grade with Laurie. Problem was Laurie was Hal Karse’s steady. Hal’s daddy was a big shot business man in town. Hal drove a sharp convertible, chrome headers, Carson top and all the girls were crazy about Hal. Until in a gang fight with some Mexican kids, Hal picked up a broken bottle and scarred one kid for life. Laurie dropped Hal and started seeing Norms brother, Matt. Hal was envious, but glad that Laurie was near.Frenzy

On prom night, Hal picked a fight with Matt, really beat him up. Norm finds out and takes a knife to Hal’s fine ride. Slashes the top, the upholstery, the dash. Pours dirty in the engine, took a brick to all the glass and gets caught. In the fight, Norm is being beat mercilessly when a free hand finds a brick and and hits one of his attackers, Claude, in the head. Suddenly the fight is over, apparently Claude is dead. What started as boys fighting ended in a murder. Norm flees town. Hops a freight destined for a life on the lam. You learn fast when you are on the run, a murderer at 16. You learn about degenerates, about filth, about hunger. You learn about sadistic brakemen, fond of crippling hobos. You learn to survive. You hustle in poolrooms in East L.A. At twenty you graduate to floating crap games. You discover you have good reflexes and a natural talent for cheating at cards. You celebrate your twenty-first birthday by having your ear drum punctured to avoid the draft. Your friends are con men, pimps and thieves.

Most of all you embrace the Seven Deadly Sins – that is really the message here. Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. AKA The Capital Vices and they will each, in its time undo Norm Sands.

The story opens twelve years later. Norm has become that two-bit grifter. he knows all the cons and can stack a deck. Norm is dealing cards in Gardena, a city out side of Los Angles that took advantage of state laws to operate poker parlors. Norm is shilling and dealing in one of these between betting on sure things that never come in, at Santa Anita on race days.

He is working for a shady character named Garth Anders and answering to Garths muscle, Angelo Ventresca. Norm has plans, such big plans but his own ambitions and schemes derail him every time. The Capital Vices.He plays hanky panky with Ingram’s girl, Robin. When he is caught, because of slothful ways, he is beaten.Nothing more.  In this kind of business there are various types of beatings, this wasn’t a beating that left you with ruined kidneys and a broken soul. Just an object lesson. Norm could have learned a lesson and gotten on with his small life, but lust, greed, envy, a touch of wrath – a need for revenge, and pride won’t let him. And sloth, time after time does him in. The Capital Vices, and Norm has them in Spades. Frenzy 3When a cop named Mallory finds out that Garth is planning on taking a delivery of Heroin he co-ops Norm. Norm decides to finger Garth and Angelo. And at the same time, rip off Garth for a sizable chunk of change….and steal his girl. Naturally it all goes wrong, and Norm this time is on a one way trip to being fitted with a wooden suit, when he escapes, hops a train, not a plug nickel to his name.

After a ten day lock up in San Bernardino for vagrancy he drifts south, eventually landing in his home town, Mason Flats. He initially plans on bumming a couple hundred bucks from his brother but soon is involved in real estate scams, oil speculation, murder, political corruption, and every imaginable vice from gambling to prostitution to drugs and racketeering,

Maybe he sees Mason Flats as his last chance at redemption, read the book and decide for yourself, but he’ll do anything, commit any sin, embrace all the Capital Vices – and betray, use and abuse anybody for this big opportunity to ‘win’.James O Causey  Friends, screw ‘em.  Family, sorry brother. He’ll lie, cheat, steal and no one is safe from his ambition. Not family, not the women he lusts for, not allies. No one and nothing.  Just when you think he has sunk as low as humanly possible, Norman Sands finds new depths of depravity and a new scheme. The Capital Vices rule Norman, and the ending  will answer the question, does crime pay? And what are the wages of sin?

James Oliver Causey was born in Los Angles in 1924 and died 2003. His first writing credit is from Weird Tales, "The Statue," from the January 1943  issue.

Weird Tales Causey’s writing career picked up again after the war. At least four of his stories were published in Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine between June 1945 and March 1947. In the early fifties, Causey tried his hand at science fiction with stories in Galaxy Science Fiction, Science Stories, and Orbit Science Fiction. Frenzy was written in 1960.There is a pretty good bio on him at Teller Of Weird Tales web site.

The Dirty Lowdown


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“Johnny Staccato” by Frank Boyd

A smooth man on the ivories, hot on the trigger, and cool in a jam – he’s the toughest private eye to hit America in a decade.  From the great new television series starring John Cassavetes comes this novel of love in Greenwich Village, murder in midtown, beats on the Bowery, sex on Sutton Place and blackmail, racketeering, and violence in the worlds most savage city.

Johnny StaccatoTake a good novel, and someone will eventually turn it into a movie or TV show. But take a good (or even bad) TV show or movie and turn it into a good book? That rarely happens. There are plenty that go through that process now a days where mixed media is the norm; think Star Wars, Star Trek, The Monk books (which are actually pretty good, especially since one of the original script writers wrote the novels.)

After ten minutes of extensive research – counting the time mixing a martini –I can’t determine the very first example of a movie or TV show being turned into a novel, so we’ll just say that “Johnny Staccato” was it.

From the mid 50’s on, television tried, and sometimes succeeded in cashing in on the popularity of “The Beat Generation” generally making it a parody and stereo typing it with only a superficial nod to Jack Kerouac. KerouacThis was a time when the parents of the “Baby Boomers” were starting to mature. They were, like the Beat Generation which they were a part of, throwing off traditional values, rejecting authority, anti-conformist, freer sexually, and creating their own art. This was the birth of be-bop jazz, coffee houses with poetry readings, drug use for recreational purposes was accepted in bigger and bigger social circles, but above all, they were cool. And, if you are on this page you know there was never a cooler cat in fiction than the hardboiled detective.  He was an individualist. Possessed only a grudging respect for the police, and had his own sense of right and wrong. Probably the first of this new generation was Richard Diamond, Private Detective played on radio from 1949-1953 by Dick Powell who reprised the role on TV from 1957 til 1960 starring David Jansen of The Fugitive fame.

Richard Diamond Private Eye

Sam, his secretary was played by Mary Tyler Moore, or more precisely, her legs. She revealed this “secret” in the 70’s and promptly lost her job selling Leggs panty hose in commercial. Richard Diamond was written by Blake Edwards. Edwards also gave us probably the most memorable, if only for the theme song, TV detectives of the era, Peter Gunn. Peter Gunn2 Peter Gunn is a private investigator in the classic film noir tradition, which was a popular genre on American TV in the late 1950s. However, a few traits differentiate him from the standard hard-boiled detectives, such as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Gunn was a sophisticated hipster, a dapper dresser who loved cool jazz; where other gumshoes were often coarse, Peter Gunn was portrayed as the epitome of cool. He operated in a nameless waterfront city, and was a regular patron of Mother’s, a wharf side jazz club. the theme song, composed by Henry Mancini is one of the most popular from TV.

Peter Gunn with it’s jazzy theme was shown on NBC and moved to ABC for the last season. when it moved to ANC, NBC tried to replace it with Johnny Staccato starring John Cassavetes. As you can tell from the ‘tag’ at the top, Johnny Staccato is a jazz pianist/private detective. The setting for many episodes is a Greenwich Village jazz club belonging to his friend, Waldo, played by Eduardo Ciannelli. The show featured many musicians, such as Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Red Norvo, and Johnny Williams, all jazz greats. Elmer Bernstein composed the main theme.

The show, like Star Trek in the 60’s, was one of those shows that acquired a cult following but didn’t do much else. It aired from September 1959 til March of 1960, 27 episodes. It did feature some great guest stars that would go on to TV and Hollywood stardom. Amongst them Gena Rowlands, Martin Landau, Michael Landon, Cloris Leachman, Elizabeth Montgomery, Mary Tyler Moore (she made the rounds of the detective shows), Dean Stockwell, Geraldine Brooks and Lloyd Corrigan.  It’s star, John Cassevetes didn’t care for the show and had only taken the job to pay off some personal debts. Cassavettes went so far as to publicly criticize the show in his successful effort to escape in his contract in the middle of the season. The big difference between Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato, other than the fact that, Peter Gunn tended to leave a lot of dead bodies lying around at the end of each episode where Staccato ended many episodes with no dead bodies,   is that jazz isn’t just something he hangs around to gather clues, but he’s truly a part of it as a musician. Staccato is a jazz pianist who, according to the TV show, wasn’t quite good enough, so he got his PI license. In the book, he gave up music as a living to make more money as a PI. The scenes of Staccato on the piano are priceless. The music of the late 50s, the “cool jazz” played by those all-star bands,  pulses through Johnny Staccato.A great majority of the episodes were classic, and well written by some very good writers.

Frank Kane

One of those writers was author Frank Kane aka Frank Boyd of the Johnny Liddell novels.  Frank Kane wasn’t a genius, a great innovator or the world’s greatest stylist, but he never failed to deliver the goods, constantly and consistently, in solid, workmanlike prose that always entertained, and rarely disappointed. As fellow crime writer Bill Crider put it on Rara-Avis in April 2000, if it’s a Frank Kane book, chances are "it’ll be a competent, straightforward P.I. story."  And that is what he delivered with Johnny Stacatto, the novel.

The novel actually deals with a social issue that was fresh in the public mind at the time the show aired. The Payola Scandals of the mid 50’s.  The story opens up with ex-girlfriend, blond bomb shell, and sultry singer, Shelly Carroll coming to see Johnny at Waldo’s, the basement jazz club. She’s got a problem. She’s going to be suspected of murder, Les Miller, a disc jockey who had the industry wrapped up tighter than Dick’s hat band with his ability, and inclination to make or break singers, song writers or record companies by pushing or burying their music. Shelley had gone to see Les and found him murdered and hasn’t reported it. But the clerk at the hotel saw her, and soon he will try and black mail her into “playing house” to buy his silence. When Johnny goes to the murder scene to look around, he finds a partial glass of bourbon as well as the dead mans glass. Then someone wearing tasseled loafers knocks him out and the police arrive.The police come quickly to suspect Shelley when the clerk reveals her name after she turns him down, with Johnny’s help, for a little hanky-panky. This alienates Lt. Phil Kovacs, his policeman friend when it is discovered that Johnny didn’t tell him that Shelley had been in the room. Johnny tells Kovacs that it couldn’t have been Shelley because of the glass of bourbon, and Shelley is allergic to bourbon, but this carries no weight with the police or the D.A.  Johnny Staccato2So, more suspects come into the picture. A mob type, named Dom Traina and one of his strong armed/wanna be Sinatra goons who wears loafer like the ones Johnny saw on the guy that slugged him. From there he ends up in the Brill Building, the home of “Poverty Row” – the Tin-Pan Alley of the story. We learn of Delia Moore, the singer that Les Miller had ruined when she wouldn’t “play house” with him.he black balled her in the music industry and gave all her good material to Shelley’s . There’s also Frank Seymour, a publisher who is a straw man; “only a beard-Les Miller owns his company” as Rudy Marcus, the A-R man tells Johnny. Marcus  had promised Shelley he’d talk to Les Miller about letting her back in the game and was supposed to see Miller the night he was killed. Marcus tell Johnny, “I’m going to his funeral. But only to make sure they screw the top down real tight.” Half the music industry, and the crooks in it have a reason to have killed Miller. Seymour stands to now make money from his company with Miller dead because he won’t have to kick back profits, It could be Dom Traina or his goon, since Miller refused to let Traina’s boy, Tony Varon have any good songs and everybody knows Dom gets what Dom wants. And Miller had made purposeful mistakes to embarrass  Varon  on the air. This is motive enough for Dom and Varon .Miller had driven Delia Moore right out of the business, so she had a motive. Rudy Marcus himself is a suspect because he was lusting after Delia, and by Miller being dead, she could be a star again. With this many suspects, and time out for some bit players, like Barney the clerk to distract us with dead ends, some suitable jive-jazz patios stirred in with hardboiled patter and similes that Chandler might just have employed, we have the makings of a first rate crime novel.

Syndacte Girl Frank Kane

Kane/Boyd’s dark descriptions of New York and it’s seedier parts is evocative of the noir atmosphere . The characters are very well developed and the intricate descriptions of the payloa driven music industry and it’s workings are educational. Johnny Staccato is well worth the read if you can find a copy and it is also available for free download in many eBook formats on Munsey’s. There is also a DVD Box Set available on Amazon that would be well worth having. 

For a nice bio on Frank Kane alias Frank Boyd, the prolific hardboiled writer, check out the Thrilling Detective site where they have  a memoir, exclusive to Thrilling Detective by Maura Fox and her reminisces about her grandfather. 

The Dirty Lowdown


Filed under Reviewing The Classics