Westlake Score: The Black Ice Score (Allison & Busby, 1986)

Stark_Black_Ice_AB

This will be my last post for The Violent World of Parker for a little while—for reasons I’ll be outlining on Existential Ennui before too long—so as an adieu, let’s have a quick Westlake Score, in the shape of a 1986 Allison & Busby hardback edition of The Black Ice Score (dust jacket design by Mick Keates), which I won on eBay just last month. Now, this book has a special significance for me; not so much because of the story—to be frank it’s one of my least favorite Parkers—more because of the particular edition, and what it represents: namely the final piece of a collection that has taken me over three years to complete.

Stark_Black_Ice_AB_1

There’s further explication over on Existential Ennui, so I’ll restrict myself here to saying that the chronicling of that crazed collecting quest on EE led directly to my becoming co-blogger on TVWoP (I think; I wonder sometimes what exactly it was that prompted Trent to invite me over—temporary insanity, possibly), so it’s kind of fitting that its completion should coincide with my taking a blogging break—not just from TVWoP but shortly from EE as well.

Thank you for putting up with me. See you on the other side of the George Washington Bridge.

News for week ending 2013-04-19 (open thread)

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part III–Not Quite Parker review and guest post

Nolan - Scratch Fever by Max Allan Collins

Note: Huge apologies to Mr. Dan Luft for the long delay in posting his Nolan series. Although I’ve got plenty of excuses, it really is inexcusable.

I’m hoping to get up two more long-delayed guest posts in the coming week or two, and to get back into the groove of regular posting soon.

Thanks to Dan for his great contribution to the site.

Nolan in the 80s

by Mister Dan Luft

Scratch Fever and Spree are a little different from the other books in the Nolan series because they were actually published when they were written. The first two books in the series were published in 1973 and then revised for re-publication in the early 80s to give them a contemporary veneer. The rest of the books sat awaiting publication for years and were re-written in a similar style. Mourn the Living is a revived “trunk” novel that was published 30 years after it was written and is not technically part of the series.  But Scratch Fever and Spree were published immediately after they were written so there is no fear of the anachronisms that sometimes pop up in earlier volumes.

In Scratch Fever, Collins really proves that he is a chronicler of mid-sized, midwestern cities. Where so many crime stories have always taken place in coastal cities or tiny, isolated towns, Collins goes for a more easily recognizable, small city venue that is almost universally ignored by crime fiction.

Scratch Fever begins with Jon playing keyboards in a regional band, The Nodes. The trappings of the 1970s are now gone, this is a recognizable early 80s book. New Wave is the sound of the moment sweeping England and the larger cites but in smaller towns a new wave band survives by doing covers from the whole history of rock music. The Nodes are a talented bar band going nowhere as they play their last gig before the members go their separate ways. During this final show, Jon spots Julia, the violent femme fatale from the previous book, in the audience.

Though Scratch Fever is not structured as neatly as the previous book in the series, Hard Cash, it is still better written and better paced than all earlier books in the series and is a quick read.  Hard Cash was a sequel to the original Nolan novel, Bait Money. Scratch Fever is structured similarly to Blood Money, the second book in the series, in that they both deal with the fallout of the robberies committed in the books that precede them. They also both take place in a single day with the action told from a constantly shifting point of view. But Blood Money, ambitious as it was, showed its structure and could creak in some scenes, Scratch Fever is a tightly wound novel by a more experienced writer.

Both Hard Cash and Scratch Fever show Collins’ growth. These books mimic the heist/regroup theme the first two books of the series but they work much better. Collins gets both the physical and mental attributes of the characters across to the reader in a lot less time. The plots zip by logically and the shifts in character viewpoints are smooth, almost cinematic. He spends a lot less time inside characters’ heads but conveys more character and motivation through action and dialogue.

For a while, this was the end of the Nolan series but five years after Pinnacle dropped the series Collins brought out Spree for Tor books. This was the most visible book in the series with a big print run and a cover that was plastered with blurbs by hardboiled icons like Charles Willeford, Joe Gores, and Richard Prather. It was sold as a stand-alone novel rather than part of a men’s adventure series. This book, like Scratch Fever, really digs into the 80s. The object this time is to heist the most obvious symbol of the decade, a mall.

In between the action of Scratch Fever and Spree, Nolan has used his money to go straight and has bought and maintained a thriving restaurant. He’s settled down with his girlfriend from a previous book, Sherry, and is friendly with the small businessmen’s association. He’s finally leading the boring life he was almost leading just before the series began.

Collins takes his time with this novel as if he is re-introducing himself to the characters.  This makes for a slow beginning as we see Nolan and Jon living separate, domestic lives before the action begins. Nolan is living blissfully while Jon is breaking up but in both cases the dialogue between these guys and their ladies is stilted and awkward. The action begins when Nolan’s girlfriend is kidnapped by yet another wing of the Comfort family and he is blackmailed into heisting the mall that houses his restaurant.

The book is paced nicely and moves faster with each chapter. But there is too much time spent on the Comfort family. By now, the redneck family had become very rote device in these books. The gist is that a father-and-son team of violent hicks hate Nolan. There are also some scenes of “hillbilly humor” in the Comfort sections along with a young Comfort daughter, Cindy Lou. These scenes fall pretty flat.

This is part of another tradition of paperback writing from the 50s and 60s that Collins may have read as a kid. Charles Williams and Gil Brewer among others wrote about bad things happening, sometimes humorously, in backwoods environments. But in Spree the Comfort family makes for a bad match with the rest of the book.

And the rest of the book, the heist, is excellent. Throughout the series Nolan is continually described as an experienced, professional thief whose specialty is large-scale heists where he works with other professional criminals. But this is the only book  in the series that has a crime of this scale. Collins gives us a cast of criminals who each have skills that are needed for stealing the mall. The reader is led step by step through the process which pays more tribute to Richard Stark (or Lionel White) than any other book of the series. That said, the Nolan series stands on its own and is no knockoff.

With the Nolan series Collins really grew from a merely publishable writer into an author with a voice of his own with a control over plot, character, dialogue and description. More than in any of his other series he tried out his techniques here. This makes for messy reading at times as Collins is deciding what kinds of characters, plot devices, and narrative voices he’s comfortable with. There are less successful books in the series but he never stops exploring his characters and their possibilities. None of these books feels rushed to deadline.

Also, in the later books in the series Nolan becomes more assertive and almost casual about the violence he commits to stay alive and make his money. In the first book Nolan skirts the issue when someone else becomes violent and carries out all the dirty work. The series isn’t a descent into Nolan’s amorality; Nolan is always characterized as a violent man. But in the early books of the series, he acts more reserved than any of the hype that precedes him. This progression is probably because the author was figuring out for himself how to handle violence in his writing and learning to describe the action. The later books are the better for it.

Collins has said that he has long had the idea for another Nolan book stuck in the back of his head, a story that would now be historical taking place in the late 80s or early 90s, but he has not felt compelled to write it. He probably should.

Collins is now older than Nolan for the the first time in his career. Nolan continually ponders getting older but now the author knows (remembers) how a body that age feels. Collins has proven that he can return to a series after many years. Since he returned to the Quarry series after a long gap, he has reshaped and improved the series which includes writing the very best one: The First Quarry. And, if Collins really wants to keep his self-described Richard Stark rip-off theme going in the series, he could continue by ending a twenty-plus year gap between volumes.

Posts in this series:

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part I

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part II

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins, part III (this post)

News for week ending 2013-04-12 (open thread)

Westlake on Rabe: Murder Me for Nickels & Anatomy of a Killer

NB: A version of this post also appears at Existential Ennui.

In his 1989 essay on Peter Rabe for the critical anthology Murder off the Rack, Donald E. Westlake identified two distinct periods during which, Westlake reckoned, Rabe produced his best work. The first came at the start of Rabe’s career, encompassing the five books from Stop This Man! (1955) to Kill the Boss Good-by (1956). The second—also encompassing five books—began in 1959 and comprised the final Daniel Port novel, Time Enough to Die, along with My Lovely Executioner (1960), The Box (1962), and the final two novels I’ll be blogging about in this current run of Rabe posts: Murder Me for Nickels and Anatomy of a Killer (both 1960).

Only the second of Rabe’s novels to be narrated in the first person (the first being the aforementioned My Lovely Executioner), for Westlake Murder Me for Nickels was “absolutely unlike anything that [Rabe] had done before . . . as sprightly and glib as My Lovely Executioner was depressed and glum.” Westlake isn’t alone in appreciating the merits of the novel, either: it’s also a particular favorite of Westlake aficionado and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, who has called it “marvelously sardonic.” And the Gold Medal original—this copy of which I found at the last-but-one London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair—boasts one of the best covers ever to grace a Peter Rabe book, by the great Robert McGinnis.

But for anyone looking for the single Rabe novel that perhaps exerted the greatest influence on Westlake, especially on his pseudonymous Parker series, I’d still point to Anatomy of a Killer. I blogged about this one two years ago, in its original hardback edition—published, as Westlake puts it in his essay, by “a penny-ante outfit called Abelard-Schuman”—that post later appearing in an altered form over here. In order to demonstrate the similarities between Anatomy and the Parkers I quoted extensively from the opening of the novel, and would you Adam and Eve it that’s precisely what Westlake does too, sampling the exact same passage—including the opening “When”—and labeling the novel “as cold and clean as a knife.”

The copy seen here is the British paperback edition, published by Panther in 1962 as part of their Crime Circle line. The cover art is uncredited and I can’t make out the signature, but around this time Panther had a habit of taking cover art from often random and unrelated American paperbacks and reusing it, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that this artwork is lifted from a completely different book.

UPDATE: Over on Existential Ennui Ray Garraty quickly identified the original book the cover art was taken from as Harry Whittington’s 1959 novel Strange Bargain, as seen on Killer Covers. No word as yet on cover artist though.

I do have a handful of other Peter Rabe paperbacks to blog about, dating from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s, but Westlake doesn’t have much to say about those in his essay, so I think I’ll save them for another time. But I will be taking a look at one last Rabe book over on Existential Ennui—an atypical entry in his canon that has a special significance for me right now . . .

News for week ending 2013-04-05 (open thread)

Let’s do this! Help requested for Donald Westlake nonfiction collection.

Under an English Heaven

Go here.

From Levi Stahl, Our Man at the University of Chicago Press:

…I’ve just signed a contract with the University of Chicago Press (my employer when I’m wearing my publicist’s hat) to edit a volume of Donald Westlake’s nonfiction–a celebratory miscellany, sort of like the wonderful Charles Portis volume that was published last year.

The plans are still at a very early stage, but what we’re envisioning is a volume that would bring together the best of Westlake’s nonfiction, including reviews, essays on favorite writers, magazine pieces, occasional writings, and more. In addition, it would likely include a couple of the most interesting interviews he sat for over the years; a piece or two by prominent fans, friends, and critics about Westlake and his work; and possibly even letters and e-mails. The goal is to give Westlake’s large and ever-growing fanbase insight into how his inquisitive, inventive, alert mind worked over questions of genre, form, talent, and more–helping us to see the man behind the books we’ve all loved for so many years.

I’m already making great use of a small cadre of Parker-fan advisers who have helped me through the years as Chicago has republished that series, but I also could use help from the fan community at large: if you know of any Westlake nonfiction pieces that you even suspect I may not have heard of–anything that’s all obscure, or old, or forgotten–I’d love it if you’d drop me a note or leave a comment below. I’ll be doing some digging in libraries and archives, so I hope I’ll be able to find plenty of good material in addition to what I already have, but I also am well aware that the crime fiction community is incredibly knowledgeable, and I would be grateful for any tips or thoughts folks are willing to share.

I’ve already made a few suggestions. Do you have any? Yes? No? Either way, go here. Read the whole thing. Maybe it will give you some (or more) ideas.

PS: Apologies for the lack of content lately. I’ll be back at some point, I promise! Having a nine-to-five again, in addition to some other fortunate but time-consuming things going on in my life, has severely limited the time I can dedicate to the site. But we’re not going anywhere.

 

News for week ending 2013-03-29 (open thread)

Westlake on Rabe: A Shroud for Jesso & Kill the Boss Goodbye

NB: A version of this post also appears at Existential Ennui.

Continuing the rolling—if intermittent—showcase of Peter Rabe books I’ve bought of late (well, over the last year or so, anyway)—with, of course, additional commentary on each by perhaps Rabe’s greatest admirer, Donald E. Westlake, taken from Westlake’s 1989 essay on Rabe—we reach Rabe’s third novel: A Shroud for Jesso, published, like Stop This Man! and Benny Muscles In, by Gold Medal in the States in 1955. Although once again this particular copy is the British Frederick Muller edition, issued . . . I don’t know when, actually: there’s no publication date inside. But anyway, it’s essentially the same as the Gold Medal edition, with the same Lu Kimmel-illustrated cover.

This, according to Westlake in his “Peter Rabe” essay in Murder off the Rack, is where Rabe starts to come into his own—at least, “in the second half of” the book. Westlake calls the characters “rich and subtle, their relationships ambiguous, their story endlessly fascinating.” For me personally, it’s that ambiguity in Rabe’s novels that makes them especially appealing: there’s an unpredictability to his characters, and as a consequence to his plots; one never quite knows in which direction they’re going to head next. He’s also a dab hand at eliciting empathy with essentially unheroic or criminal characters, something Westlake, whose Parker series was almost certainly inspired in part by Rabe, naturally responds to, as evidenced by the elevated position in his essay he affords Rabe’s fifth novel:

Kill the Boss Good-By, published by Gold Medal in 1956 (although as before, this copy is the Frederick Muller edition, bought at the last-but-one London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair), with terrific cover art by Barye Phillips. Westlake uses Kill the Boss Good-By to kick off his essay, ridiculing the title (“Why would anybody ever want to read a book called Kill the Boss Goodbye?”) but calling the novel itself “one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written,” adding “The entire book is spare and clean and amazingly unornamented.”

For Westlake, Kill the Boss Good-By “was the peak of Rabe’s first period, five books [the fourth being A House in Naples, 1956; I don’t have a copy of that yet], each one better than the one before.” He continues:

In those books, Rabe combined bits and pieces of his own history and education with the necessary stock elements of the form to make books in which tension and obsession and an inevitable downward slide toward disaster all combine with a style of increasing cold objectivity not only to make the scenes seem brand new but even to make the (rarely stated) emotions glitter with an unfamiliar sheen.

Sadly, in Westlake’s eyes, that peak was followed by a trough that lasted roughly ten novels; for him it wasn’t until the late-1950s that Rabe regained some of his early promise, producing a “final cluster of five excellent books . . .”

News for week ending 2013-03-22 (open thread)