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).

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.

Posts in this series:

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.

Posts in this series:

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.

Posts in this series

Cover of Enough by Donald Westlake