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 to 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).

Continue reading Can you spot it?

Hard Case Crime to release Donald Westlake’s Castle in the Air

In February 2021, Hard Case Crime is re-releasing Castle in the Air, which has been out of print for forty years.

I’m excited about this one, as it’s eluded me at used book stores.

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.

Movie review: Ordo (2004), based on “Ordo” by Donald Westlake

Note: This is the fourth of four posts on Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. The series covers the novellas and the movies based on them. Links to the other entries in the series are at the bottom of this post.

In 2004, a film adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novella, “Ordo,” was released. It was directed and co-written by Laurence Ferreira Barbosa. A French/Canadian co-production, Ordo was suitably released to DVD in France and Canada. (Note that if you decide to track this down, you will need to find the Canadian release unless you speak French, even if you have a player that can play Region 2 discs, as only the Canadian edition has English subtitles. I found out the hard way.)

The case for the DVD attempts, by its cover art and blurb (“A troubling game of seduction begins.”), to paint Ordo as a neo-noir. It’s not. Rather, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novella, updated and set in France. In this telling, Ordo is a member of the French Marines rather than an American sailor. Actress Dawn Devayne becomes Louise Sandoli, so while Ordo is still ordinary (“ordinaire,”), there is no obvious implication in the actress’ name as there is in the novella. (I will call Louise “Dawn” in these comments, after the novella.)

The plot is the same. Ordo is shocked to learn that a famous actress is the person he was married to briefly when both were very young. She is so different now, he doesn’t even recognize her in photographs. He sets out to meet her and does. As in the novella, the viewer, with Ordo, studies the character of Dawn–her words, what people say about and around her, her actions, and her environment–to gain an understanding of how the girl became this entirely different woman and to take whatever meaning one can from that.

These elements pulled straight from the novella work fairly well. Where the film occasionally gets off track is when it veers from its source in regards to Ordo’s interactions with Dawn’s world. In the novella, Ordo is intentionally constructed without much of a personality. He’s a working-class stiff. He doesn’t have big dreams, a creative streak, or much of anything else to distinguish him. There is a reason for this, and the film strays from this characterization to its detriment. When Ordinary Ordo begins actively engaging the people in Dawn’s social circle, it moves the focus from Dawn to him, where the focus should not be–the title may be Ordo, but this is a character study of Dawn. This also makes him less sympathetic, because when he does exhibit signs of a personality, he’s a jerk. (This is at its worst in his completely unnecessary second scene with Dawn’s mother.)

The film ultimately ends up in the same place as the novella. As a character study, Ordo is a limited, qualified success. But a character study is pretty much all Ordo is. The audience for such a thing is rather narrow, but if it sounds up your alley, it might be worth a shot–there is a decent chance you will like it, although I doubt you will love it.

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Review: Double Feature/Enough, part two – “Ordo”

Note: This is the third of four posts on Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. The series covers the novellas and the movies based on them. Links to the other entries in the series are at the bottom of this post.

“Ordo,” the second of two novellas in Double Feature (previously published as Enough), is an entirely different animal than opener, “A Travesty.” While “A Travesty” is nearly novel length, “Ordo” is only seventy pages or so, and while “A Travesty” fits neatly into the comic crime portion of the Westlake canon, “Ordo” is an outlier that doesn’t draw easy comparisons to his other works.

Ordo Tupikos is a sailor in the US Navy. One day, one of his fellow sailors says, “You never said you were married to Dawn Devayne.”

Dawn Devayne is a hugely popular and famous movie star, and according to the article in the magazine Ordo’s fellow shipman is reading, used to be named Estelle Anlic. Ordo was married very briefly to Estelle when he was twenty-one. Estelle had said she was nineteen, but was only sixteen. Estelle’s mother had found them, and had the marriage annulled.

Ordo is familiar with Dawn Devayne. He’s even seen a couple of her movies. But the woman on the screen was so different from the Estelle he was once married to that he drew no association.

This throws him into a state of mental turmoil, so he cashes out his leave and goes to Hollywood to visit Dawn Devayne. She is willing to see him.

To point out the obvious from the names of the characters, Ordo represents the ordinary–he has a career, he is working towards retirement, and then he’ll get his pension and either retire or do something else. If the “de” in “Devayne” is French, she’s “of vanity.” She represents the glamour and superficiality of Hollywood that Ordo, and most of the rest of us, know little about beyond what we see or read in the entertainment press. “Ordo” is the story of what happens when these two worlds collide, when regular-Joe Ordo begins mingling in her ritzy world, and movie star Dawn Devayne is drawn, at least partially, back into the world of the rest of us.

“Ordo” is at least as much a meditation on the Hollywood life as it is a plot-driven story, and while it would be easy to imagine the comic possibilities of this setup in Westlake’s hands, it’s dead serious. Tonally, the closest comparison I can come up with in the Westlake catalog is his posthumously published Memory (which I have not written a review of yet). It’s a sad, human tale, and it’s easy to see why it was packaged with something more typical of the Westlake brand, not to mention more lighthearted.

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Cover of Double Feature by Donald Westlake

 

News for week ending 2020-04-19 (open thread)

Greetings, all! I hope you’re holding up during quarantine. I’m enjoying having more time for reading and watching movies, but it sure would be nice to do something other than reading or watching movies. Here are a few items of interest from the past few weeks, that I hope will provide you some entertainment as we all sit at home. I’ll also have a new post or two this week, as I finish writing up the Hard Case Crime reprint Double Feature (AKA Enough).

Off-topic

Some posts from my other place.

  • I look at the remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic, Suspiria.
  • Rest in peace to Stuart Gordon, director of the horror classic Re-Animator. Here’s my review of his horror-comedy Dolls.
  • I cannot recommend The Amazing Spider-Man.
  • I can highly recommend Walk Through Fire, the debut album by Yola. I hope to have a lot more album reviews in the future.

Yola – “Faraway Look”

 

Movie review: A Slight Case of Murder (1999), based on “A Travesty” by Donald Westlake

Note: This is the second of four posts on Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. The series covers the novellas and the movies based on them. Links to the other entries in the series are at the bottom of this post.

A Slight Case of Murder is a quite-faithful TV-movie adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novella, “A Travesty,” really, one of the most faithful adaptations of Westlake’s works that I’ve seen. Plenty of scenes and even lines are straight from the book.

The setup is the same–film critic Terry (Stacy in the book) Thorpe (William H. Macy) accidentally kills his girlfriend (well, one of them, anyway) during a fight when he pushes her and she splits her head on a coffee table. Seeing no reason that he should pay a price for an unfortunate accident that wasn’t really his fault, he endeavors to remove traces of his presence from her apartment and go about as if he had nothing to do with it. It can’t stay that simple, of course, as private investigator John Edgarson (James Cromwell) is on to Thorpe and wanting money in exchange for silence and police detective Fred Stapelli (Adam Arkin) is on the case.

A Slight Case of Murder handles Thorpe’s internal deliberations by having him break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, a device that works well and often quite humorously. Part of the fun of the novel is the process of Thorpe talking himself through whatever moral and other contortions will get him off the hook, and this captures that.

Macy is reliable as always as Thorpe and Cromwell is a hoot as Edgarson, but Adam Arkin is badly miscast as Fred Stapelli (Staples in the book). While staying entirely faithful to its source would have been impossible, this character’s deviation from the material does not work at all. In “A Travesty,” Staples is a happy-go-lucky, charming, likable, and perhaps slightly naive fellow. Stapelli is jaded and grumpy, which makes a critical scene where he plays cutesy with his wife crash and burn and reduces the audience’s sympathy for him when he is betrayed. It also greatly dilutes the impact of the ending.

Another big problem is the final act, which is rushed and unsatisfying. A successful landing would have elevated A Slight Case of Murder over typical TV fare, but instead we’re left with a decent film–the kind you watch on a rainy Sunday when it happens to be on cable and you have nothing else to do (or, as of this writing, when you’re quarantined due to coronavirus). Not bad, but not worth going out of your way to seek out.

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Cover of Enough by Donald Westlake

Review: Double Feature, part one – “A Travesty”

Cover of Double Feature by Donald Westlake

Note: This is the first of four posts on Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. The series covers the novellas and the movies based on them. Links to the other entries in the series are at the bottom of this post.

What is the most Westlakeian of all of Donald Westlake’s works? Something that really captures the whole of him?

That’s probably impossible to answer, but let me submit “A Travesty” for your consideration.

“A Travesty” begins moments after the accidental murder of one Laura Penney by film critic Carey Thorpe, our narrator and her part-time lover. Thorpe’s imagining of how the conversation with the police would go, if he were to allow such a conversation to happen, tells you much about the kind of guy Thorpe is:

“And you say you hit her?”

“Well, not that hard. She slipped on the floor, that’s all, and smacked her head on the coffee table.”

“As a result of you hitting her.”

“As a result of her polishing the goddam floor all the goddam time.”

Laura’s clean jagged style had, as a matter of fact, killed her more than anything else. What kind of bachelor girl apartment was this, with its hulking glass coffee table and chrome lamps and white vinyl chairs and bare black floor?

Thorpe goes about clearing the apartment of evidence of his presence there without an iota of guilt. Nothing to be done about poor Laura now, after all.

In a first chapter that could have been a standalone short story, Thorpe encounters the first hiccup in his plan to suffer no consequences. A private detective has been keeping tabs on Laura at the behest of her husband, and has put the pieces together. But he’s not an unreasonable man…

Without giving too much away, we go from here to Thorpe absurdly (but it doesn’t feel absurd) solving the murders of others with the police assigned to the Penney case while attempting to make certain they don’t solve the Penney murder, and ending up, fittingly enough for a film critic, in a variety of situations that could only happen in the movies.

So what makes “A Travesty” such pure, undiluted Westlake? We have a protagonist with nothing to recommend him as a human being–Thorpe is reprehensible on every moral level–and yet, darned if I didn’t find myself to some extent rooting for him to get away with it (“it” eventually becoming much more than just the Penney murder, of course). It casts a satirical eye on society in the form of a cast of eminently mockable shallow New Yorkers who may not be murderers but most of whom don’t seem to care much more than Thorpe does about their fellow human beings. It’s got one clever turn after another, leading to a completely satisfying conclusion to a story where that seemed impossible just pages before. And it’s both dark and funny as hell.

So, while depending on tastes, I might recommend The Hunter or The Hot Rock to someone looking for an introduction to Donald Westlake, I also might very well recommend “A Travesty.” If there’s another work that captures the totality of DEW at his best, I can’t think of what it is. This Travesty is a triumph.

Trivia: “A Travesty” mentions A Sound of Distant Drums. This is a title used in several Westlake and Lawrence Block works (and some by others), usually as a fictional film. In “A Travesty,” it’s an upcoming release by murder victim and director Jim Wicker:

“New movie?” I tried to remember what I’d read in the trades recently about Jim Wicker. “Oh, that would be A Sound of Distant Drums, for Lanisch-Sanssky.”

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Cover of Enough by Donald Westlake

 

The Paperback Warrior website and podcast

 

Greetings!

Those of you who follow the VWOP Twitter account have probably heard of Paperback Warrior. Paperback Warrior, as you can tell by the above image, is a website devoted to reviewing hard-boiled crime, mystery, men’s adventure, espionage, and western novels. Like the pulp novelists of yore, Eric and Tom crank ’em out, posting at least one new book review a day and often two.

The Paperback Warrior empire expanded in the middle of last year to encompass a weekly podcast, featuring a book review apiece from Tom and Eric, as well as discussion of authors and other topics of interest to vintage paperback fans.

Needless to say, Parker would have to be involved in such a site.

The most recent episode (#36) of the podcast discusses Max Allan Collins’ Parker pastiche, Nolan, and has some news about Nolan that I have not yet covered.

Episode #16 covers Parker himself, and includes some very kind words about this site. (Thanks, guys!)

Several of the Parker novels have been reviewed on the site, and you can see them here.

I urge you to check out both the site and the podcast (which is perfect for a commute at about half an hour per episode). There’s always something interesting, and it’s likely to send you off hunting for treasure at whatever used bookstores are still around you or on eBay or Advanced Book Exchange.

Enjoy!

Book review: A Stab in the Dark by Lawrence Block (Matthew Scudder #4)

A Stab in the Dark

Nine years ago, the Icepick Prowler terrorized the boroughs of New York City. Eight murders were attributed to him, but when, in a lucky break, he is caught, he only confesses to seven of the killings, and has an unshakable alibi for the eighth.

The eighth victim was a young woman named Barbara Ettinger. With the police not much interested in a very cold nine-year-old murder case, Barbara’s father, Charles London, turns to Matthew Scudder for help.

People reading the series in order will know what to expect by this point (this is not meant as a negative). Scudder’s probing has him talking to and investigating the friends, family members, and acquaintances of Mrs. Ettinger, uncovering secrets and connections.

Scudder’s investigation is hampered by two problems. First, he finds that there are people who most likely had nothing to do with the murder who do not want the murder investigated for fear of what else the investigation may reveal. Scudder is even fired from the case but continues to investigate:

“When you open up a can of worms you can’t just decide to stuff the worms back in the can. There are a lot of things set in motion and I want to see where they lead. I’m not going to stop now.”

It is likely that Scudder’s belligerence and stubbornness in this instance are fueled by alcohol, Scudder’s second problem. Scudder was a heavy drinker when we began this series in The Sins of the Fathers, and in In the Midst of Death, Scudder could maybe just barely still be called a functional alcoholic. His descent continues in A Stab in the Dark, as his behavior becomes more erratic and his decision-making suffers. He hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but there is little doubt as to his direction. And this time, Scudder pays a price for his addiction beyond the usual and expected hangovers.

A Stab in the Dark is a return to form for Lawrence Block and Matthew Scudder after the disappointing mess of In the Midst of Death. Indeed, it in some ways feels like an apology for or correction of the previous entry. When Scudder improbably breaks the case, the solution feels like a revised and improved version of the slapdash ending of the previous novel, changing the ridiculous to the possible with a full explication of why cases are sometimes cracked this way. Matthew Scudder may be going off the rails, but Lawrence Block is back on track.