Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Mammoth Book Of Pulp Fiction (Part One)

The Mammoth Book Of Pulp Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski
August, 1996  Carroll & Graf

Back in late 2015 I was on a hardboiled kick and started in on Maxim Jakubowski’s colossal Mammoth Book Of Pulp Fiction, which is stuffed to the gills with hardboiled stories. At the time I envisioned a similarly-mammoth post reviewing each story in the anthology, but as these things go my hardboiled kick eventually faded away. I’ve had these reviews sitting around for a while, so figured I’d go ahead and post them now…then someday when I get back to the anthology I’ll do another post of reviews. Anyway, here are the stories I read:

“Too Many Have Lived” by Dashiel Hammett starts off the collection, from a 1933 issue of American Magazine. This tale, narrated by Hammett’s immortal private eye hero Sam Spade, didn’t appeal to me at all. It was something about Spade being hired to to look into a case about a missing guy or something, but I found it all so listless and padded that I gave it up posthaste.

“Flight To Nowhere” by Charles Williams is from a 1955 issue of Manhunt and was later expanded into novel form, published first as Scorpion Reef and then in paperback as Gulf Girl. Narrated by a war vet turned diver named Bill Manning, the story starts off very strong before it gets a little too bloated. In fact as I started to read the story I figured I’d find the unfortunately-scarce paperback, but gradually I decided the short story would suffice. “Flight To Nowhere” just gradually tapers off into too much exposition. It does however have an interesting opening and closing section that’s borderline metafictional.

Our narrator is approached by a hot young gal one day who says her name is Mrs. Shannon Wayne. She wants to hire him to retrieve an antique gun which she claims was accidentally dropped into the ocean. Manning suspects something’s up, and gets verification when the gun is easily found. After a few run-ins with some thugs, Manning finally learns there’s more to the woman’s story. Turns out her husband was a maritime insurance investigator who stumbled upon a cache of diamonds in a plane that crashed in the sea. His plan was to make off with it, but the local goon squad, under the command of Barclay, got wise – now he’s hiding in his home.

It all just gets bogged down as Manning and Shannon shuttle back and forth, gradually falling in love, while the mobsters track them. Occasional action scenes liven things up, like when our hero accidentally drowns a mobster who jumps him at the docks. There’s also a veritable heist as our hero springs Mr. Wayne from his house. But too much of it is relayed via dialog, and the rush of the opening section is soon diluted. Also, Williams fails to bring much to life. There’s a modicum of topical detail in the story; the finale plays out as a long section of all the characters on a yacht as it plies through the ocean, and Williams never once describes the scenery, the tang of the ocean spray, the feel of the sun on their backs.

“Black” by Paul Cain – From a 1932 issue of Black Mask, this short tale is narrated by the titular Black, who is like a go-to guy for criminals. I had a hard time getting into this one, which was like a Yojimbo riff, with Black playing competing gangs against one another, one led by a young guy and the other led by the dude’s stepfather.

“Finders Killers!” is by John D. MacDonald and comes from a 1953 issue of Detective Story Magazine. This is the first of MacDonald’s work I’ve ever read and I really enjoyed it. Narrated by an FBI agent named Russ Gandy, it features a snappy pace, good action, dialog, and plot. Our hero is just about to bust an infamous crook named Torran when his cover is blown; after which he’s asked to resign from the Bureau. Obsessed with catching the bad guy, Gandy gets his private eye license, buys a .357 (which he never even uses), and continues the case on his own.

Torran has just heisted a bunch of money but has disappeared, something he’s notorious for. Our hero, who has learned to think like his prey after hunting him so long, does his legwork and eventually traces him down Mexico way. The finale is like a Jim Thompson thing, taking place in a sunny patch of hell south of the border; the lone female character in the novel turns out to be the villain’s moll, and she’s dead like a few paragraphs after her introduction. The sole action scene has our hero blasting away with the girl’s .25 and recovering the stolen loot – which he uses to negotiate his return to the FBI. While it didn’t have a ton of action or anything lurid, “Finders Killers!” was very enjoyable and makes me want to read more of MacDonald’s books.

“Murder’s Mandate,” by WT Ballard, comes from a 1946 issue of Thrilling Detective Magazine and appears to be about a lawyer or something. I say “appears” because the story failed to draw me in (or perhaps I failed to be drawn in by the story) and I quickly abandoned it.

“Cigarette Girl” is by James M. Cain and comes from a 1952 issue of Manhunt. Cain is another famous crime author I’ve never read. Narrated by a guy named Jack Conner, it’s more of a love story. Our narrator is a composer or some such who visits a honky tonk dive in another city to check out some song one of his musicians claims was stolen from him, or something. But in the bar he meets up with the titular character, a lovely young lady who turns out to be on the run from the local mob. This is a shorty, breezy tale which doesn’t offer much in the way of fireworks but does work as a character piece. Unlike the MacDonald story it didn’t make me want to seek out more of Cain’s work, though. 

“The Getaway” is by Gil Brewer, late in his career, from a 1976 issue of Mystery. This short tale, told in third-person, is about a Mafia hitman named Vincenti who has been hired to take out one of the top dons in Florida. He pulls off the job, saving at the last moment a damsel who claims to have been an abused toy of the don. She’s also a pilot and flies them to safety on her small plane. But then she reveals she was really the don’s daughter, and the code of Mafia requires that she kill her father’s killer, even if she herself dies. They crash into a cliff, the end.

Nowhere up to the standards of Brewer’s earlier work, “The Getaway” could in fact have been written by anyone else. It was interesting though to see a writer from the hardboiled era in the mid-‘70s, with a generally sleazy feel encompassing everything. Also of note is that Brewer employs the term “soldato” a few times, as in a Mafia enforcer; Soldato was the title of a mid-’70s Lancer Books series for which Brewer wrote the third and fourth volumes, as “Al Conroy.”

“Preview Of Murder” by Robert Leslie Bellem comes courtesy a 1949 issue of Thrilling Detective Magazine. I really enjoyed this goofy novella, which is narrated by a PI named Nick Ransom, who tells his tale in what was apparently Bellem’s trademark goofy style. The tough-guy patter in this one is up there with Gannon, with the same bizarre syntax and vocabulary. Bellem was quite prolific in the pulps and it sounds like all of his stories had this same skewed vibe.

A former movie stuntman, Ransom now works as a private eye in Hollywood; this case has him called up by a crippled recluse who turns out to be Ransom’s old pal from the movie days, fifteen years before. Once a marquee name, Ronald Barclay is now confined to a wheelchair, missing both legs and one arm. He lives in a hovel of an apartment building and refuses to allow anyone to see his face; the entire world has thought him dead, but it turns out he’s been living under an assumed name.

The first half of this long story is played out via expository dialog, but it’s such bonkers dialog that you can’t complain. And Ransom is such a hardboiled bastard of a protagonist, narrating the tale with tough guy aplomb, that you wish it would just keep going on and on. But like the Charles Williams story above it kind of fizzles out after a while; Barclay ends up dead, as does the old man who runs the apartment building, and our hero is shuttling around Los Angeles trying to make sense of it all. 

Bellem has all of his pulp cliches firmly in check; the story features an almost token appearance by a sexy babe, this being a former starlet now married to Barclay’s old enemy, a studio bigwig. The lady, who moonbathes nude, comes on strong to our hero, who gives her the bum’s rush. But what starts out as a bizarre tale about a mutilated movie star seeking revenge turns into a rather standard murder mystery, with all of the interesting characters shuffled off the page and Ransom instead chasing after some punk kid. Still though, Bellem’s style is so goofy and memorable that I hope to read more of him someday.

“Forever After” is by Jim Thompson himself and comes from a 1960 issue of Shock. Short and punchy, “Forever After” apparently aims to live up to the title of the magazine. This third-person narrative is about a woman named Ardis Clinton who is stuck in a loveless marriage to a clout named Bill. As we meet her Ardis is priming her young stud, a peabrained roughneck named Tony, for the kill: Tony is to hide in the shower and hack Bill to pieces with an axe when he comes home. Bill sticks to a tedious routine and Ardis is certain the plan will work perfectly.

And it does, but problems ensue when Ardis insists that Tony hit her to make it look real – her plan is to mask it all as a robbery. With great reluctance Tony hits her…and knocks her flat. When Ardis comes to the cops are there, and they flat-out accuse her of a setup, planning to kill her husband. Why are they so glib? Turns out Tony hit Ardis so hard that she’s suffered fatal injuries and may go any second. She sends them away, goes to sleep…and wakes up in hell. In a surreal finale along the lines of his earlier novel The Getaway, Thompson finishes the tale with Ardis finding herself spending eternity in Bill as he goes along his same tedious routines.

“The Bloody Tide” is by Day Keene, another well-respected crime author I’ve never read, and comes from a 1950 issue of Black Mask. Slightly reminiscent of Charles Williams’s story above, this one’s narrated by a dude named Charlie White who just got out of prison, having done time for transporting illegal shipments on his boat. He did it all for his kind-hearted wife, but ran afoul of a femme fatale named Zo whom he apparently had an affair with. He gets out of prison determined to go straight, but instead of wife Beth he finds Zo waiting to pick him up.

Only after he’s drunk on rum, hours later in Florida, does Charlie find a note in his pocket, written by Beth and apparently sent to the prison for him. She says she’ll be waiting for him, and an excited Charlie rushes out to tell Zo he’s splitting – only to find her dead. Immediately after this our pal is knocked into dreamland. When he comes to he realizes he’s been set up for Zo’s murder. He decides to do something about it, but first he reconnects with his estranged wife over in Tampa. Beth is one of those wives that only exist in fiction, totally understanding and supportive, even if Charlie’s now wanted for the murder of his mistress.

I say this one’s similar to “Flight To Nowhere” because it starts off strong but gradually peters out. You start off the tale expecting this great revenge story, but instead Charlie goes off to stay on a remote island he owns with Beth, to hide in the attic of their abandoned cottage there – only to find it filled with a bunch of “wetbacks.” When he comes to from a sound beating, having been dumped in the harbor (the long swim to safety no problem for our hero, who we learn was a frogman in WWII), Charlie realizes who the villain has been all along, leading to a lame finale in which Charlie and Beth are under the man’s gun, only for the cops to come out of the woodwork and arrest him.

“Death Comes Gift-Wrapped” by William P. McGivern, is short tale I can’t remember about a cop in love with a nightclub singer or somesuch, who tries to go crooked to support the lifestyle she demands.

“The Girl Behind the Hedge” by Mickey Spillane, is another slight story I forgot as soon as I finished it, which is mostly a tale one character tells another about how he got vengeance on an enemy. Since this guy was a love ‘em and leave ‘em playboy, our storyteller made the dude fall in love with a mentally handicapped girl, and when the playboy discovered this he killed himself.

“We Are All Dead” is by Bruno Fischer and from a 1955 issue of Manhunt. This novella is a masterpiece of noir plotting and is my favorite story in the collection. Taking the old pulp clich√© of a heist gone bad, it’s about a group of criminals turning against each other after one of their own died on the caper. Narrated by a career criminal in his 30s named Johnny Worth, the story moves at a fast clip, indicative of Fischer’s mastery of the craft. In a heist planned by professorial Oscar, the getaway driver is shot and Oscar finishes him off with a knife, saying it’s the only way to keep the heat off them.

The remaining four heisters split off with their share of the twenty-two thousand; besides Johnny and Oscar, one of them’s a family man and the other is an oldschool goon. Meanwhile our narrator stays with Oscar, trying not to lust over Oscar’s latest buxom gal, Stella. Then another good-looking lady, Allie, shows up, claiming to be the wife of the dead getaway driver. Not that she’s blackmailing them, but she thinks she’s entitled to her departed husband’s share of the loot. Meanwhile a cop is trying to bring them down; Oscar’s “fingerprints” are all over the job. 

The story becomes more of a tension-laden piece as the members of the heist team begin dying off one by one. But who is killing them? Meanwhile Johnny has become infatuated with Allie, who has become Oscar’s woman…and Stella has become Johnny’s woman. Fischer writes the tale so you have no choice but to finish it in one sitting. It all culminates with Johnny and Oscar against one another, and features a morbid, downbeat ending which bears out the title, Johnny writing his story from the death house.


Brian Drake said...

I have good memories of this collection but I must admit scratching my head at some of your summaries, as I don't clearly recall the stories anymore--after all, I read them over 20 years ago. But this was the tome I turned to when I started writing crime fiction to learn the basics and sample some of the better names in the group. It started my Paul Cain obsession, too, with "Black". Read it again and then maybe a third time later on. You'll get all the pieces eventually, and realize it's one of his very best. I love the darn thing.

allan said...

I am also new to John D. MacDonald, having found a small pile of paperbacks a few months back. I took four of his non-McGee books on a recent vacation and was thoroughly pleased with what I read. "The Drowner" was superb. ... Now I want to read all the MacDonald I can get my hands on.