The Mise à sac Score: Finding the Lost Parker Movie

Well, I finally watched it. What took me so long? I’ll get to that.

The Score is the fifth of Richard Stark’s Parker novels and universally thought of as one of the series’ very best. I bet some would say that The Score is the best. It’s probably in nearly everyone’s top five, and possibly in nearly everyone’s top three.

On the page, The Score feels ready-made for a movie adaptation, and in 1967, it got one: A French film entitled Mise à sac, AKA Pillaged, Midnight Raid, Una notte per 5 rapine (One Night for 5 Robberies), and possibly more.

If Mise à sac has ever been released on video, it was once, in France, in the very early days of home video–I have a report of someone seeing the video box in France, but I have never seen the box myself. I have checked French eBay many times over the years and never seen the tape for sale. The movie was impossible to see for decades.

Now it is on YouTube.

A few people have written to tell me this. I thank you for the e-mails about it (and sorry if I never got back to you–I always mean to), but I know. I know because I’m in large part responsible for getting it there.

Well, I didn’t upload it there myself but…

I’ll explain.

When this site was in its infancy, more than twenty(!) years ago, the Internet was in its infancy as well. The whole impetus for the creation of the site was that there was almost no information about the Parker novels anywhere on the Web. You youngsters may find this hard to believe, but there was almost nothing out there at all. Can you believe this?: Wikipedia didn’t even exist!

I’ll quote myself here:

“This site started…as ‘The Parker Page,’ which was just that–one page, hosted at the now-defunct Geocities. It listed the novels in order, and the movies based on them, with a couple of pictures.

Why bother with that? Well, at the time I had to do research, including a trip or two to the University of Texas library, to get that much information, and, once I dug it up, I didn’t want others to have to work so hard. Also, I wanted to experiment with this newfangled Internet thing. So I used my rudimentary HTML knowledge and posted my research online.

The result was astonishing. A constant stream of e-mails began pouring in from Parker fans around the world, telling me bits of trivia I had not known, offering to send me hard-to-find books, hooking me up with bootlegs of Made in U.S.A. and The Split, mailing me unproduced screenplays. There was a hunger out there, and by posting one lame page on the Internet, it became my job to feed it.”

It was while doing research at the UT library that I discovered the existence of Mise à sac. I thought it was in John M. Reilly’s Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, but I have a copy of that now and, no, it’s not in there. It must have been in another of those extraordinarily expensive reference books sold primarily to libraries.

There were few traces of the film on the Internet at the time. Mostly, it was just on IMDB with little extra information. Heck, it’s still on IMDB with little extra information. And that’s all I recall from the time.

Eventually, a little more emerged. I found images of a couple of posters, as well as a short synopsis or two in French, which revealed only that it tracked the novel fairly closely. A French reader named Miroslav who had seen the movie e-mailed with his recollection of the film (a little inaccurate, as it turns out). Later, he e-mailed me to say that the film was a French/US coproduction and that the rights were at United Artists and frozen, I believe implying that the coproduced nature of the film had unsurprisingly resulted in a rights issue.

But that was about it–for nearly fifteen years. I despaired of ever seeing it.

During this time and largely because of this site, this previously nearly-unknown movie became the Holy Grail for many Parker fans. The books came back into print, and the other film adaptations were released to DVD and sometimes even Blu-ray, but of Mise à sac, there was still little trace. There were images of posters and a few stills online. Lobby cards and other promotional materials could be found for sale online. But the film itself seemed to have vanished as completely as Parker after a successful heist.

Then, finally, a strike. In 2013, reader Adam K. sent me an e-mail. He had found someone online selling Mise à sac on iOffer, of all places. Sketchy, but what the hell. I took a chance, ordered, and actually got it. It was a transfer from videotape. It looked and sounded really rough. It was in French with no subtitles. But it was the real thing!

A problem–I don’t speak French, and neither do the vast majority of Parker readers. We would need subtitles.

Fortunately, I had an idea about how to get them.

Many years ago, I had made the acquaintance of Mike White. Mike is best known today as the host of the most in-depth podcast on movies there is, the terrific Projection Booth (which you listen to, right?) but we began way back when he published what at the time was a pamphlet-size fanzine called Cashiers du Cinemart. Although we didn’t know each other while attending (and still have never met in person), we went to the same university. His ‘zine was available at our local Tower Records. It had caught my eye, and I became a reader and fan.

A couple of years later, I had moved to Texas. I was in a “news” store–Texans from the cities know what I mean. There are fewer of them now, but there were many back then. They sold a lot of newspapers and magazines, but a whole lot more pornography. I was looking to grab something non-pornographic to read at Taco Bell or someplace while on my lunch break from my awful job, and what should I see but Cashiers du Cinemart! It had grown into a much bigger affair by then, with a glossy cover, even. Excited (not by the pornography) and happy for a slice of home, I grabbed it.

I read it cover to cover, as I always did with that excellent magazine. Then, me being me, I sent Mike an e-mail complaining about some snark in the issue regarding Shogun Assassin (from memory, “The less said about [Shogun Assassin], the better”). My complaint didn’t put him off too badly, he responded, and we struck up an e-mail friendship.

It turned out Mike was also a Parker fan, and Cashiers du Cinemart eventually ran a piece by Mike himself on the film adaptations of The Hunter (reprinted and expanded in the best-of book). Mike is a hunter himself, a champ at tracking down obscure movies (else he couldn’t have published his magazine), and knows all kinds of things about obtaining foreign films never released on video, at least in the US, that I had no clue about at the time and many things I still don’t. He had also been searching for the Mise à sac.

If anyone could get me subtitles, he could.

Mike worked his movie magic, converting the DVD to .avi and posting a file of the film to some film enthusiasts forum or website, hoping someone would be inspired to create an .srt file for it. What were those? I didn’t know back then. (An .avi is a video file and an .srt is a subtitle file.)

Eventually, Mike got a hit. Someone who goes by Djilik had created subtitles.

So now we really had it!

And now it was available on the Internet and with subtitles, if you knew where to look and could get a membership. Which was great for a few hardcore cinephiles, but didn’t do a whole lot of good for most people, including most of my readers.

But a couple of years after that, a user named A B, who has only one other video to his name, posted the film to YouTube with the subtitles.

And this is crazy: It has since racked up 236,000 views.

Yet still, up until the night before I started drafting this post, I hadn’t watched it.

Why?

Sometimes it was life getting in the way, sometimes it was an odd, personal form of laziness and procrastination. I also spent some time dealing with a health scare. (I’m 100% fine–thanks for asking!)

But some of it was because I kept hoping for better.

When I watch a movie, I watch a movie. I do my best to set things up for the most optimal viewing experience I can manage. That goes double for something I am writing a formal review of.

And, let’s face it, my videotape transfer looked and sounded like crap. It also may be cut by twelve minutes, although that may be the result of PAL to NTSC conversion and a couple of other factors not involving actual content–there is nothing to indicate obvious edits, anyway. (It’s also possible that the runtime at IMDB is incorrect, but I doubt that.)

Plus, every once in awhile, there were little signs that indicated that maybe the film would get a proper home video release. I heard from a source, possibly Miroslav again, that it had been restored. A couple of years or more later, there was a showing of the restored version at the Museum of Modern Art. (I actually considered flying to NYC for this, but I was barreling towards my wedding day at the time, so common sense and wedding-related poverty prevailed.) There were a couple of theatrical showings in France.

Darwyn Cooke’s brilliant adaptation of The Score won a ton of awards. Darwyn (who I hope got to see it before his tragic passing) touched on the film in the interview then-co-blogger Nick and I did with him and did a drawing of Michel Constantin as Parker in Parker: The Martini Edition.

Michael Constantin by Darwyn Cooke, from Parker: The Martini Edition

So it was on the radar of some prominent people, including, I would think, the people who actually control the film. Shouldn’t all that lead to a video release?

But it never happened.

So finally, after resolving to work on the site again after one of my typical hiatuses (hiati?), I fired it up, the at-least 236,001st viewer of a film that I, along with Adam K., Mike White (who I hope has come around on Shogun Assassin), and some strangers who go by Djilik and A B, had rescued from near-total obscurity.

I hadn’t really thought about it until I typed all this out, but, holy cow! I wanted to see Mise à Sac. I wanted every Parker and Donald Westlake fan to be able to see Mise à Sac. And, in whatever clunky form it happened in, it happened! And more than a quarter-million people have now watched it.

How cool is that?

(So what did I think? Review coming soon-ish.)

The Hardy Boys Meet Parker by Mike Capozzola

This post doesn’t show up well on mobile device. Click here to view the image on its own.

The Hardy Boys Meet Parker

Dan Kearney of Joe Gores’ DKA series had a crossover with Parker and vice versa in Gores’ Dead Skip and Richard Stark’s Plunder Squad.

Donald Westlake’s own Dortmunder had a crossover with Parker (sort of) in Jimmy the Kid.

Comedian and cartoonist Mike Capozzola envisions a rather different sort of crossover with his artwork for The Hardy Boys Meet Parker. As you would expect, this encounter is rather brief.

Thanks to Mike for a good laugh.

Hard Case Crime review: Castle in the Air by Donald E. Westlake (HCC-148)

A DIRTY DOZEN
WITH A FRENCH CONNECTION

When four groups of international heist artists team up to pull off the theft of the century – stealing an entire castle, and the treasure hidden in its walls – what could possibly go wrong? Well, consider this: none of the master thieves speak each other’s languages… And no one knows precisely where the loot is stashed… And every one of them wants to steal it all for him or herself. It’s MWA grand master Donald E. Westlake at his wildest, a breathless slapstick chase through the streets of Paris only one step ahead of the law – and each other.

The cover of the Hard Case Crime reprint of Castle in the Air reads, “FIRST PUBLICATION IN 40 YEARS!”

Unfortunately, there is a reason for that. Castle in the Air is a novel of mostly unrealized potential.

There are two intriguing plot elements that form the foundation of this Castle. The first element is the one that gives the novel its title–a gang of thieves is going to steal an entire castle. How, you ask? Well, this castle is being transported from the fictional South American country of Yerbadoro (even the name of the fake country isn’t very good) to Paris to be part of that country’s exhibit at an international exposition. Revolution is brewing in Yerbadoro, and el presidente knows that it is in his and the first lady’s best interest to exile themselves before they are exiled, or much worse, by others. But they can’t be expected to leave their plundered wealth behind, now can they? The expo provides an opportunity to relocate with a modest home (by castle standards) and their looted lucre, which is to be hidden in the stones of the castle. Which stones is unknown, so all of them must be absconded with.

The second element is the gang itself. For this immense task, British master thief and ringleader Eustace Dench brings on board three other master thieves from three other countries, who then recruit their own subordinates. Eustace hires the British team, with additional teams from France, Italy, and Germany.

This is to enable the primary farcical elements. The first of these is the language barrier. All of the team leaders speak English, but the subordinates from the continent do not. In addition, there is the Yerbadoroan contingent, on whose behalf this ambitious heist is allegedly being undertaken, adding Spanish to the mix of this United Nations of crime.

You can probably guess the second: With twelve thieves from four different countries, there is extraordinary potential for double-cross upon double-cross.

Let’s take these elements in order.

The theft of an entire castle sounds like a heck of a premise for a book. What it actually amounts to, however, is stealing a bunch of stone blocks. An exciting concept becomes quite pedestrian in its execution.

The gang itself, and the attempts at humor derived from its composition, face a similar fate. Trying to squeeze comedy out of the language barriers becomes quickly tiresome. Maybe this could have worked in a movie*, but on the printed page, it’s nearly as irritating to the reader as it is to the monolingual Eustace Dench.

The one element that comes closest to working, which will surprise no one reading this, is the double-crossings. Westlake’s goal here, with four primary factions of three members each, seems to be to create the most double-crossing-est book ever, with each faction crossing the others, and then the individual members of each faction crossing each other. This is the liveliest portion of the book. As you would expect, this is primarily relegated to the third act, which is somewhat of a slog to get to. It’s also far from the best work Westlake has done in this territory–again, the concept is much more promising than the execution.

This being Westlake, there are, of course, worthy moments in this unremarkable novel. A scene involving a continuous stream of visitors to the chambers of the beautiful Yerbodoroan revolutionary deserved to be in a better book. But that and a couple of others are not enough to make Castle in the Air deserving of other than a low priority spot on your Westlake TBR list.

* One of the commenters over at The Westlake Review speculates that Castle in the Air began life as a script. While there is no evidence of this so far as I know, this strikes me as quite plausible.

Castle in the Air at the official Donald Westlake site

Not Quite Parker?: Trouble Man (1972)

Note: For those of you who are new here, the “Not Quite Parker” category is where I look at pastiches of, homages to, references to, and rip-offs of the Parker novels. 

Mild spoilers, but this is a pretty typical crime and blaxploitation flick, so nothing in it is all that unpredictable.

Robert Hooks plays a sort of fixer who goes by “Mr. T.” If you’re in a jam, you can give Mr. T some money, and he’ll get you out of it (he is somewhat similar to Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder in this regard, although he predates Scudder). He’s brilliant, he’s a badass, all women love him, and he’ll whip you at pool.

Chalky (Paul Winfield) and Pete (Ralph Waite) drop by the pool hall where Mr. T holds court. Chalky and Pete run dice games, Chalky on the black side of town, Pete on the white, and lately those games have been hit by a masked and armed gang. They need Mr. T to help put a stop to it.

But all is not as it seems. When Mr. T is performing reconnaissance at one of the dice games, the “gang,” which is really Chalky and Pete’s flunkies, hits it. Chalky and Pete frame Abbey Walsh (John Edwards) as a gang member, with Chalky killing Abbey in the process.

And here is the complication: Abbey is a loyal henchman of Mr. Big (a name spoofed in the blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), another L.A. crime kingpin, and wouldn’t make a move without Mr. Big’s permission, indicating that Mr. Big has broken an unwritten contract. In addition, someone is tipping off everyone he can, including both the cops and Mr. Big, that Mr. T greased Abbey.

So now this problem solver has problems of his own.

Trouble Man is a solid, better-than-average blaxploitation flick, primarily noted these days for its soundtrack by Marvin Gaye, his first release after the classic What’s Going On album. The movie is mildly recommended to fans of the genre.

While I was watching the film, I was struck by two similarities to The Hunter.

The first is the table-turning aspect. Like in The Hunter, Mr. T is shafted by the people he is working with (or, in this instance, for). The third act has him hunting down those who have betrayed him, with prejudice.

Of course, a plot like this is hardly original to The Hunter, and certainly could be just a coincidence. However, the feel of those scenes gave me that Parker vibe.

Still, that wouldn’t have been enough to prompt this writeup.

What prompted it is a scene in that third act that strongly suggests to me that writer John D.F. Black had read The Hunter.

Mr. T’s price for assisting Chalky and Pete in solving their fake problem was $10,000. Mr. T has cornered Chalky. Mr. T has a gun to him, and is having Chalky open a safe to get the money.

Chalky: I’ll give you thirty-thousand dollars, man!

Mr. T: Ten-thousand five-hundred* is what you owe me, pimp. That’s all I want.

Now that sounds too much like The Hunter for me to think it’s entirely coincidental.

Anyone else seen Trouble Man? What say you?

*The extra $500 is to replace Mr. T’s suit.

Trouble Man – Trailer

Movie review: The Silent Partner (1978)

The Silent Partner (1978) poster

Yesterday, Christopher Plummer, whose career spanned nearly 70 years and included films as diverse as The Sound of MusicMurder by DecreeAn American Tail, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Knives Out, passed away at 91. In remembrance, here is a look at a film that you may not be familiar with that I think any fan of Donald Westlake would enjoy.

Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) appears to be somewhat of an underachiever, or at minimum under-accomplished. He’s physically attractive and clearly intelligent, but he’s single, has a run-down car, and is a mere teller at the bank branch office in which he works. Perhaps some of this is due to his social awkwardness, which, while not crippling, is definitely there.

Miles figures out not only that his bank is about to be robbed, but how and by whom–a man dressed as Santa Claus who is posing as a bell-ringer at the shopping mall where Miles’ branch is located plans to pass him a note claiming to have a gun immediately after a customer who regularly makes large cash deposits goes to Miles’ window with the latest.

Armed with this knowledge, Miles takes the large cash deposit and puts it in his own briefcase, so that when Santa robs the bank, the conniving Kris Kringle doesn’t fill his bag with most of the money. Miles then takes the surplus home, with the police and the other bank employees none the wiser.

While not a bad plan on the surface, there are two problems that Miles had not anticipated. First, the local news reports how much money the robber was supposed to have gotten away with, so the robber quickly figures out that somehow Miles must have the rest of it. And second, the hood is Harry Riekle (Christopher Plummer), a psychopath who is quite willing to kill Miles to get the money, and probably willing to kill Miles as revenge even if he does get the money.

Miles becomes something of a local celebrity after being on the news, because women find him quite handsome (or “photogenic”) and drop by the bank just to see him. This, and pulling off such a clever scheme, cause him to gain a great deal of confidence. His boss’ wife flirts with him. His co-worker Julie (Susannah York), who he has been pining for and who had previously belittled him, is suddenly interested.

The side-effect of this newly-found confidence that will have the greatest impact on Miles’ life, however, isn’t the attention from women–it’s that he believes that he can outwit Riekle, and is determined to do so no matter what.

The Silent Partner, then, is the clash of two strong–perhaps even pigheaded–personalities. Miles may be the brains to Riekle’s brawn, but Rieckle is a lot of brawn (and hardly stupid himself). The two use the weapons at their disposal in a series of phone calls, feints, and dirty tricks in an effort to control the money and squelch the threat his opponent represents. Who will eventually emerge victorious? Or will neither of them?

The script for The Silent Partner is by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to Oscar gold as writer (a win) and director (a nomination) of L.A. Confidential. Relentlessly clever, it indicates a young talent well on his way to his multiple later triumphs.

The direction by Daryl Duke, while solid overall, isn’t quite as sure-footed. The original poster for The Silent Partner misleadingly emphasized the film’s comic elements, and while they are there, the comic moments are both of relative insignificance and by far the clumsiest portions of the film. (The exception, unsurprisingly, is a minor subplot involving the great John Candy, who plays one of Miles’ fellow employees.) But that’s a quibble. On the whole, The Silent Partner is well paced, suspenseful, and unpredictable.

All of this is anchored, of course, but its two ever-reliable leads, both completely convincing in making this battle both professional and personal.

While it has a cult audience, this relatively obscure crime thriller (perhaps due to its Canadian origin), while not a lost classic, deserves a significantly higher profile than it has. The Silent Partner is a gem that has been secreted in movie history’s safe-deposit box for far too long.

I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking there is a Donald Westlake influence in this film. The plot is very much like something DEW would have constructed, and so are the characters. Had Westlake written The Silent Partner, I suspect he would have made it much more overtly comic (and would have been a lot more successful at it). Or perhaps he would have done a straight noir. The material could easily lend itself to either approach.

If such influence exists, it was likely smuggled in by scripter Curtis Hanson, who was almost certainly familiar with Westlake–I simply can’t imagine L.A. Confidential‘s impresario not being familiar with Westlake. But The Silent Partner comes from another literary source, the novel Think of a Number (Tænk på et tal) by Danish author Anders Bodelsen, which had been previously filmed under that title in 1969. I am curious about both the novel and the previous adaptation.

Revew: Killer’s Payoff by Ed McBain (87th Precinct #6)

Cover of Killer's Payoff by Ed McBain

A well-to-do man is shot in the face while walking in Isola. The weapon is, of all things, a hunting rifle. An informant tells Bert Kling at the 87th precinct’s detective desk that Seymour Kramer, the victim, was an extortionist, giving the detectives a likely motive. Was Kramer killed by one of his victims? And who are his victims?

In his introduction to the edition of Killer’s Payoff that I read, Ed McBain expands upon previous remarks about the pressure, some of it ridiculous, placed on him by his publisher to put Cotton Hawes front and center. Series mainstay Steve Carella, you see, was married, and that just wouldn’t do.

McBain makes it clear that he disdained this pressure. For starters, the 87th Precinct series was envisioned as an ensemble, and he wanted to keep it that way. McBain gets some petty revenge by making Hawes a bit ridiculous and not terribly sympathetic. He turns him into an unmitigated horndog, albeit a quite successful one. But Hawes does get more page time, as well as the denouement. After all, McBain had a series to get renewed.

Killer’s Payoff is another fine entry in this series, but with a significant flaw–the reader will almost certainly think of an obvious possibility regarding one of the novel’s situations that the police detectives do not even consider. It would not have taken a lot to fix this, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this was less important to McBain’s editors than Cotton Hawes being a ladies’ man was. But the rest of the novel is classic 87th, which more than makes up for its one problem, and McBain’s characters–cops, criminals, and civilians alike–shine.

Posts in this series

Review: Cop Hater by Ed McBain (87th Precinct #1)

Review: The Mugger by Ed McBain (87th Precinct #2)

Review: The Pusher by Ed McBain (87th Precinct #3)

Reviews: The Con Man and Killer’s Choice by Ed McBain (87th Precinct #4 & #5)

Review: Killer’s Payoff by Ed McBain (87th Precinct #6) (this post)

VWOP giveaway: Parker DVD

 

Update: The drawing has been held and lucky reader Sean is the winner!

I haven’t been posting or updating as much I’d like lately, so to keep you on your toes so you’ll keep checking in, here’s a giveaway.

I’ve got a used DVD copy of the 2013 Jason Statham/Jennifer “J-Lo” Lopez movie, Parker, based on FlashfireFlashfire is one of my favorites novels in the series, but, alas, I didn’t like the movie at all.

But what do I know? I was surprised by how many defenders it had. Several readers liked it. Max Allan Collins of the Parker-inspired Nolan series (and one jillion other books) even dropped by the comments with some praise.

If you would like to add this to your collection, now is your chance! E-mail me (contact link in the sidebar) and I’ll draw a lucky winner.

DVD is region 1. I’ll ship free within the US, but if you’re international, I may have to charge you a little something.

Movie review: The Untouchables

The Untouchables poster

Note: I learned of the death of the legendary Sean Connery from my wife when I woke up this morning. In tribute to the great man, here is a review I wrote at another venue of The Untouchables, for which he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jim Malone, an honest cop in a dirty town. Not too far off topic, I think–it is a crime film. Rest in Peace to a beloved icon.

I would hope no one takes The Untouchables seriously as history, even history graded on the Hollywood curve. Rather, the story of Eliot Ness and Al Capone is American mythology, and you’d do no better getting your facts about Al Capone from it as you would from “The Night Chicago Died.”

In a manner similar to any portrayal of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Untouchables seeks to both depict and add to that mythology, and at that it excels. This is most notable in the striking use of a baseball bat in a fashion not approved of by the makers of the Louisville Slugger, but the film also gave us, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun,” a line paraphrased by no less than a US president (also from Chicago).

The Untouchables mixes three kinds of filmed entertainment–it takes the mobster movies and television programs of previous generations (including, of course, “The Untouchables,”) and updates them by adding in the adventure of the summer blockbuster while imparting some gravitas via elements of The Godfather films’ mafia drama.

This is audacious–in hands lesser skilled than those of Brian De Palma and David Mamet (as well as Ennio Morricone and many others in a film brimming with top-notch talent), the blockbuster-style horseback raid in a film about mobsters would have been unintentionally hilarious. Instead, it’s thrilling, as Ness moves the battle out of Capone’s territory (Chicago) and into Our territory (the American heartland and its peaceful neighbor to the north). Advantage: Ness, and a turning point in his crusade.

It’s no slight on the film to say that the world of The Untouchables is black and white. Al Capone was not a cuddly fellow, and the only tender side we see in Robert De Niro’s portrayal is him weeping during an opera (where he also gets word of a successful hit on an enemy). Kevin Costner plays Ness as an attempted stoic, tightly controlled emotions belying that he is a big-hearted family man afraid that his rage at the violence consuming his community will spiral out of control. Ness’ only weaknesses are his addiction to his own newspaper headlines and his initial unwillingness to violate the law. Both are excusable. PR is an important front in any war, and breaking the law in pursuit of a perceived higher justice can cost you not just your soul, but your court case.

The film’s flaws are few. Some of the blockbuster motifs, particularly the comic relief, could be accused of adding an unwelcome element of triviality to the film. But in one instance, a moment of at-the-time goofy comic relief adds needed humanity to a walking stereotype, setting the viewer up for heartbreak later in the film.

My impression is that critical estimation of The Untouchables has declined since its release. If so, that’s a shame. It towers over most of the current era’s popular films like Al Capone on its striking poster.

Review: Dead Girl Blues by Lawrence Block

We are mostly lucky to live in an era where self-publishing is easy. While I’ve read (or tried to read) some self-published titles that I wish I hadn’t, I’ve also read some that, while they certainly could have used an editor’s touch, were decent to quite good books that almost certainly wouldn’t have been published otherwise.

Lawrence Block, of course, is perfectly capable of writing a book to professional standards without the help of an editor, but why would he, the pen behind countless books, choose to self-publish his new novel, Dead Girl Blues? Surely someone would publish it otherwise?

Well, no. Block explains why at length in a post at Mystery Fanfare, but the short version is that no one wanted to touch it due to the book’s subject matter. That’s right–Getting Off wasn’t a bridge too far, but Dead Girl Blues is.

And what is that subject matter? There’s a scene in the fun Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man, where a supporting character tells the female lead regarding the innocent-but-framed Arnold, “You’re lucky he didn’t kill you, too. Or rape you, then kill you. Or kill you, then rape you.”

Dead Girl Blues is a first-person account of the life of someone who went with the third and final option.

The protagonist goes by three different names over the course of the novel, but I will call him John, the name he uses most often. The novel opens with John, at this point a gas station attendant, going to a bar and picking up a highly inebriated girl. He takes her to a remote location, where he proceeds with The Act. The rest of the novel, which is written as John’s memoir, details his life after this singular event.

The plot has two primary threads–will he get away with it, and will he do it again?

Getting away with it appears to be a done deal after the first few months or years. But as time marches on (the murder occurs in the late sixties), so does technology. Use of DNA as a crime-fighting tool becomes commonplace. People voluntary send their DNA in for testing and to fill out their family trees, helpfully filling in gaps for the authorities. Computer processing power increases astronomically. John watches stories about solving cold cases on the the news and true-crime TV shows and wonders, Will they find me?

As to the question of whether or not he’ll do it again: Lawrence Block has written extensively about alcoholism in his Matthew Scudder series and knows the subject well. A recovering or recovered alcoholic may have stopped drinking and may even have conquered his urge to drink, but he has not conquered alcohol. He knows, or should know, that if he drinks again, the odds of him ending up where he was once was, with the drinking problem and all of the destruction that comes with it, are so high as to almost be a certainty. John suspects that he is something akin to an alcoholic. If he kills again, it will likely lead to the destruction of all he holds dear, up to and including the loss of his life. This doesn’t always stop the man who struggles with alcohol. Will it stop John? While the parallel to alcoholism is never directly stated, it is likely not a coincidence that the night of John’s awful decision begins in a bar.

I finished Dead Girl Blues some time ago–before publication, in fact–but have had a deuce of a time writing about it. It’s a difficult book to discuss without spoiling, likely more suited to a book club discussion (if you’re in one of those book clubs where people are open to reading novels about necrophiliacs) than it is to a review, so I won’t write much more. Suffice it to say that it is extraordinarily rare for me to read a Block novel where I am not compelled to keep turning those pages, and Dead Girl Blues is not one of those rarities. I was wondering throughout what would happen and, in a most intended effect, wondering what I wanted to happen. Block forces the reader to grapple with this, and odds are the reader will not always be comfortable contemplating what he thinks and why.

What is quite enjoyable to contemplate is that in his ninth decade on this earth and nearly sixty years after the publication of his first novel under his own name, Block remains a startlingly original and compelling voice. If he’s not the greatest crime fiction writer of all time, he’s on the very short list of contenders for that title. Viva!

Can you spot it?

Can you spot why I posted this shot of Ben Stiller from Night at the Museum?

Answer below the fold (or scroll down).

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