I’m a big fan of the Hardcase Crime imprint, which has been publishing a succession of luridly jacketed vintage pulp fiction alternated with contemporary noir ever since their premiere title – Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – in the sultry summer of 2004. I also love Stark House, a small press publishing a steady stream of vintage crime fiction by such forgotten pulpsters as Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Stephen Marlowe, Wade Miller, and the prolific Peter Rabe. Continue reading “SPL Discoveries: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding”
Among crime readers, there are certain qualities that serve as points on our criminal compass. For example, authors who put a scalpel to the subtle psychological underpinnings of crime contrast with those for whom swift action on every page is essential. Another scale lies between whodunnits with a humorous or “cozy” feel, and those on the darker, grittier end of the spectrum. And just as with diners who always order the full 5 spicy stars at a Thai restaurant, there are readers who devour the bleakest and blackest of hardboiled authors with perverse relish. For these readers, I suggest Derek Raymond, the deeply influential but little-known godfather of British noir.
Raymond’s life story is fascinating – rich kid turned criminal, exiled to France – but his reputation rests on a series of five novels featuring a detective sergeant working out of Police Headquarters, aka “the factory,” on the unsolved deaths of largely forgotten people – drunks, derelicts, junkies and the insane. The detective (we never learn his name) is haunted by the death of his daughter at the hands of his wife, an event which committed him utterly and unrelentingly to seeking justice for the nameless, faceless “trash” written off by an increasingly alienated, materialistic society. The detective’s path grows darker and more tortuous from He Died with His Eyes Open to the assembly of a dismembered corpse and its story in The Devil’s Home on Leave, to How the Dead Live, featuring a bizarre crime that plunges us past sanity into murky madness.
Then we come to Raymond’s masterwork: I Was Dora Suarez, a book so shockingly graphic that Raymond’s erstwhile publisher was purported to have vomited on his desk just a few pages in. We witness in disturbingly objectified detail the ghastly murder of a young prostitute, and the offhand killing of an elderly friend. Then we join our detective as he surveys the carnage and is transfixed, and transfigured, by what he sees. It is a harrowing reading experience, and one that dares us to witness the true face of crime, not merely as a riddle to be solved or a wrong to be righted, but as the most tragic failure of individuals and of society. It is very hard to come out the other end of I Was Dora Suarez and not be somehow altered by the experience. Reading the book reminds me of the first and only jury I ever sat on, sifting through the facts and the evidence in a case that led to us finding a man guilty of the murder by strangulation of three drug addicted prostitutes. Like jury duty, reading Raymond demands a certain responsibility of the reader.
As with his other “factory novels” – Raymond termed them his “black novels” – I Was Dora Suarez begs us see how the most unspeakable crimes differ only in degree from the little deaths and depredations endured by many of the living, day after day. The real crime is not the manner of death, but the manner of life. Long unavailable, all five of Raymond’s factory novels have been reprinted by Melville House. If you’re up to the challenge, they’re incomparable.
Think of British TV mystery and you may conjure up images of teacup wielding dowager sleuths, peering through the foxgloves at some suspicious goings on about the Village green. Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple. Arsenic and tweed. But there’s a whole other side to British Crime – a tough contemporary side where hardened detectives battle it out with society’s most depraved and disturbing felons on the streets. In addition to longer narrative arcs and fewer commercial interruptions, the British seem to have a knack for depicting compromised coppers with truly dark sides. American prime time TV might make much of hinting a detective’s brush with alcoholism or insanity; in British crime TV, it’s almost a given. Here are some of my favorite gritty Brit crime shows.
Best known among these is probably Helen Mirren’s star turn as embattled detective Jane Tennison, struggling against twisted baddies and her own sexist colleagues in Prime Suspect. Fans of this might also enjoy another Lynda La Plante created series featuring a lady cop – Clare Blake – whose personal and professional lives get muddled in highly inappropriate ways: The Commander. Then there’s tenacious private eye Cordelia Gray, hero of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, a series loosely based on the novel by P.D. James, and single mother DCI Janine Lewis juggling her messy life in Blue Murder.
Of course there are plenty of wonderfully messed up male detectives, from Robbie Coltrane’s a-bit-too-criminal psychologist Cracker to John Hannah’s portayal of Ian Rankin’s hardened Edinburgh detective John Rebus to Idris Elba as the brilliant but troubled John Luther whose ability to enter the criminal mind leaves him badly scarred. This is also the case with quirky genius Tony Hill in Wire in the Blood, based on one series by the prolific Scottish author Val McDermid. Then there’s the wonderfully twisted odd couple Dalziel & Pascoe, one bent the other a bit too straight, based on the novels of Reginald Hill.
My latest discovery while browsing the stacks was another Lynda La Plante series, Trial and Retribution, which has got some of the darkest crimes and wonderfully shocking scenes I’ve ever seen on TV (particularly one unforgettable bit in which Richard Grant playing a tortured manic schizoid presents DI Pat North with a little gift – a scene that made my wife leap off the couch and run around the house screaming), together with the usual assortment of battered, flawed detectives. We chain watched all five seasons, and can’t wait ’til more come out. In the meantime, I’ve just checked out Case Histories, based on the novels by Kate Atkinson. Not quite as dark, but it looks good. There’s also the cold case squad in Waking the Dead, and what I’ve seen so far compares well with the best American crime drama.
Fans of gritty crime psychodrama will find many other fine British series in our catalog, from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, standalones based on Minette Walters’ The Sculptress or Val McDermid’s Place of Execution, and the wonderfully perplexing mini-series, Collision. (And yes, of course, we have Miss Marple too).
“You know what I really love a book to have?” she asked me.
“About 20 sequels!!”
We were counting through Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books, but she’d already read all 18, and was getting desperate. In fact, she’d also been through our If You Like Janet Evanovich list, and looked through a few other library’s lists as well. Some readers are just voracious like that. It was time to bring in the big guns. In my experience, even the most well-read fan of lady detectives will have missed some of the following extensive series; maybe you have too.
If you’ve fallen behind, now is a great time to get caught up with Sue Grafton’s alphabetic Kinsey Millhone books; having kicked off the series with A Is for Alibi way back in 1982, Grafton is up to V, (that’s 22 titles, if you’re counting) and the series that started as contemporary is now charmingly historical: remember the 80s? No email, no cell phones – sounds like heaven. What I want to know is, what will Z stand for? After 26 books, will it all add up to “zero”?
1982 was also the year that Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski made her first apperance in Indemnity Only. Last year Paretsky was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America (Grafton got her own Grand Master in 2009), and the righteous Chicagoan Warshawski’s 15th case – Breakdown – more than lives up to the honor.
By 1982, Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series was already five years old, having debuted in 1977 with Edwin of the Iron Shoes. All these years later, McCone is still going strong in her 29th outing – City of Whispers. It has been fascinating to watch McCone mature over 35 years, and gut wrenching to witness some of her narrow escapes.
Linda Barnes’ dozen Boston-based mysteries featuring the towering redhead Carlotta Carlyle span two decades. This series seems to have reached its end, though one never knows; even Sherlock Holmes came back from the dead, and Carlotta is still alive and kicking ass.
Laura Lippman’s excellent series featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan is closing in on a dozen books, although her eleventh title – The Girl in the Green Raincoat – has thrown her a real curveball: she’s having a baby. This should get really interesting.
And there we are – seven authors, 120 great mysteries. Have a great year!
Advancing through my Alphabet of Crime, I pause at the E’s to share a couple of the best hardboiled mystery writers around: Loren Estleman and James Ellroy.
The use of the term “hard-boiled” to describe fiction – borrowed from an early 20th-century expression for experienced tough guys – may date from February 17, 1929 when the New York Times described the nameless hero of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as “a detective as ruthless, as hard-boiled as the criminals he pursues.” From that day to this, hard-boiled crime fiction has been staking its claim to the mean streets, depicting crime in all its sordid, squalid anti-grandeur.
A prolific writer with over 70 mysteries, westerns and historical novels to his name, Loren Estleman is probably best known for his series featuring sardonic gumshoe Amos Walker beating the mean streets — or boulevards of broken dreams — of Detroit. Walker has seen it all and disapproves of most of it, according to a personal code of honor that some may call old-fashioned, but not to his face. Estleman’s series has sharp dialogue, swift action, and that great old Raymond Chandleresque world-weariness as bracing, smoky and smooth as a shot of whiskey. There are over twenty of these; try American Detective, 19th in the series, in which Walker races the police to find a murdered heiress’s supposed killer. Or if you’re commitment phobic, take Walker for a test drive in the newly published Amos Walker: the complete story collection. (I suspect some of these stories will wind up in Thrilling Tales some day soon).
From whiskey to battery acid; if Loren Estleman works in the foggy grays of classic hardboiled detective fiction, than James Ellroy paints it pitch black. Often referred to as “the mad dog” of American crime fiction, Ellroy pulls no punches in his exceedingly dark prose, an acknowledged product of his own difficult childhood. When he was ten, Ellroy’s own mother was strangled and dumped by an unknown killer; while plenty of hardboiled novels show a detective exorcising their personal demons, things get a bit more intense when it is the author’s own demons coming out on the page. Not for the faint of heart, Ellroy is nevertheless a truly great crime writer who uses his prose like a hammer (and maybe a few other implements) to give his fictional murders the same horrifying and disturbing impact that they have in in real life, fulfilling the original naturalistic intent of hardboiled fiction to show that homicide was not a matter of butlers, drawing rooms and tidy denouments. Try The Black Dahlia, first of a quartet of Los Angeles books (the others are The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz), inspired by the ghastly 1947 unsolved murder that shocked the nation – and obsessed young Ellroy.