Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Last Good Kiss [1978]

Most practitioners of gumshoe pulp, the most dominant sub-genre of hardboiled novels, build their bibliography with one PI; James Crumley, who’s credited with reviving this quintessential American school of literature in the post-Vietnam era, had two private eyes in his oeuvre, and none with a name as minimalist as Marlow, Space, Archer, Hammer et al – C.W. Sughrue and Milo Milodragovitch. The Last Good Kiss, the masterful 1st novel to feature Sughrue, boasts of one of the greatest first chapters in a novel that I’ve ever read. The jaded, weary, cynical, dogged, laconic and beer-guzzling PI crisscrossing America in El Camino chasing Trahearne, an alcoholic and ageing poet, who’s in an cross-country binge drinking ride, blurred the lines between crime fiction and existential road novels, and would surely have made even Jack Kerouac proud. At the run-down bar where Sughrue finally catches up with the man he’s been chasing, he’s convinced by the lady who runs the place to take up a job that verges in the absurd, viz. to find her daughter Betty Sue who’s been missing for 10 years now. While the sordid world of Trahearne, comprising of his half-crazy mother, his enticing and headstrong ex-wife, and his incredibly lovely wife who both the mother and the ex-wife deplores, seems far removed from the seemingly ephemeral he starts ghosts from the past, any experience reader would suspect that they’re bound to converge at some point, and they do so through Crumley’s absorbing prose which infused this violent, gritty, murky and morally ambivalent tale with the kind of poetic existentialism and understated melancholia that’s a rarity in this genre. The most fascinating aspect of this complex and magnificently realized slow-burning thriller is that, despite being populated with generic archetypes and sardonic wisecracks, it was so much more – anti-buddy novel, examination of the scars of wartime horrors, compelling exploration of marital dysfunction, a tale of unreconciled memories and demons from the past, bleakly beautiful love story, and an enthralling rendition of the vast American landscape.

Author: James Crumley
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir/Detective Novel/Road Novel/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Doomsters [1958]

With his 7th Lew Archer novel, The Doomsters, Ross Macdonald went for a distinct change in theme and style, and that was immediately palpable vis-à-vis the two other Archer novels that I’d read prior to this, viz. The Way Some People Die and The Barbarous Coast. The latter two novels, fashioned in the vein of Hammett and Chandler who he idolized, were heavily peopled and plotted, were drenched in acerbic but impersonal black humour, and focused on the seedy and seamy urban underbelly; here, on the other hand, the scope was incredibly tight both locationally and in terms of characters, the narrative was heavily laced with elements of guilt and bitter memories, and the mood was incredibly grim and bleak, making it seem closer to a Shakespearean tragedy as opposed to gumshoe noir. The novel makes a rather strange start when Archer is awakened in the middle of the night by Carl Hallman, an enormous self-pitying man who’s oblivious of his own strength (who reminded me of an eerily similar character in Farewell, My Lovely) who’s just run off from a mental asylum. Over rare moments of lucidity for this otherwise deeply disturbed guy, he expresses his intent to hire Archer to investigate the death of his influential father, and possible foul play by his elder brother who’s inherited significant wealth thanks to that and the potentially crooked family doctor. He makes acquaintance of Carl’s fragile and grief-stricken wife Mildred, who arouses a complex set of feelings in him, and with her takes the trip to the Hallman family’s sprawling ranch. There he unwittingly becomes witness to grotesque familial dysfunction, and a series of murders that he finds unable to stop in spite of his growing involvement in this murky affair, albeit in the face of utter resentment of those around him, including Carl’s brazenly provocative sister-in-law, and the obnoxious and morally bankrupt Sheriff. The tale is filled with sorrow, mental illness, bad choices, rotten breaks, memories, and a pervading sense of doom that almost placed this beyond the confines of quintessential hardboiled literature.

Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Crime Thriller/Hardboiled Literature/Roman Noir/Detective Novel/Mystery
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Fast One [1933]

With Red Harvest and The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett had created possibly the two greatest hardboiled novels – Depression-era tales of urban corruption, political one-upmanship, gang violence and one dogged man’s sly maneuvering through this sordid jungle by playing one party against the other. Even before I started reading Fast One – the solitary, and for a long time out-of-print, novel created out of 5 novelettes originally published in Black Mask, and written by the largely forgotten pulp writer Paul Cain (nom de plume for George Caryl Sims, who, incidentally, used the pseudonym Peter Ruric during his career as a screenwriter in Hollywood) – I was immediately reminded of the Hammett masterpieces thanks to their thematic likeness. Seeped in the kind of gangster-politician-police nexus which snowballed and proliferated during the Prohibition Era and the aftermaths of the Great Depression, this was like a classic, quintessential American Gangster novel laced with grit, grime and grunge in a steaming hardboiled oven. Filled with curt dialogues, stripped to bare bones narration, explosive violence, misanthropic world-view, and an incredibly etched, weather-beaten, edgy, tough and smart son-of-a-gun as its protagonist, this was an engrossing book with its complex, intertwined and blazingly realized storyline. Gerry Kells is a former enforcer for the mob who’s moved from NYC to LA; he’s made some money through gambling, and is happy lying low and playing by himself, even if he’s earned considerable reputation among the hoodlums as well as political brass for his ability to get things done. However, when he’s unwittingly and against his wishes made a pawn to nefarious machinations and power struggles, he takes control in the only way he knows – through brutally and clinically wreaking havoc on all those involved, and which turns out, as the increasingly violent and superbly chronicled tale proceeds, gloriously self-destructive. Cain’s ability to evoke aspects like love, camaraderie and honour, in a crazy world populated with amoral politicians, double-crossing gangsters, corrupt cops and psychotic henchmen, made this all the more fascinating.

Author: Paul Cain
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Political Thriller/Gangster Novel/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Ghunpoka (Woodworm) [1959]

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, best known for his pulpy crime series featuring hardboiled police detective Shabor Dasgupta, has dabbled in a varied range of genres and themes, including children’s fiction. This diversified style has possibly made his bibliography particularly attractive to filmmakers. It’s surprising, therefore, that his first published novel, Ghunpoka (which translates to ‘termite’), a rare and captivating examination of existential crisis in the canon of Bengali literature, hasn’t been converted into a movie yet. The novel starts with its protagonist Shyam having just quit from his plush, secured and well-paying job in a reputed firm where he was in line for the big post, on account of a harsh word used by his boss. For someone who was habituated to disciplined existence, terrific self-confidence and even a dash of smugness, taking exceptional care of his external appearance, and living in a cocoon where the vagaries of the outside world failed to touch him, the transition post the loss of his job turns out to be so striking that he turns into a different individual in a matter of days – someone who’s stopped giving a damn, and whose dynamism is now replaced with extreme stasis, ennui, directionlessnes and urban alienation. And so his appearance becomes shabby, his apartment turns into a derelict heap of garbage, he roams the streets of the bustling metropolis of Calcutta like a man for whom nothing holds any value or meaning any more, whiles his time in packed buses and trams making wry observations of his fellow passengers, and has even lost interest in carnal pleasures which was a key facet of his life earlier. He develops a darkly funny acquaintance with a self-pitying man at the pice hotel he frequents, and meets a couple of friends from his former life, but they too fail to affect him. Only when, near the end, he suddenly finds himself looking at a lady who he possibly held a candle for in the past, does he finally find himself moving out of inaction – however, given how far he’s moved from his sense of being, it might just be too late for him to turn back.

Author: Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay
Genre: Existentialist Drama/Psychological Drama/Urban Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Grifters [1963]

Jim Thompson, the cult writer of nihilistic hardboiled pulp and best known for the blistering novel The Killer Inside Me, was given the absolutely appropriate moniker “Dime-Store Dostoevsky” by a peer of his – and that perfectly elucidates his delicious roman noir The Grifters. The book, which was adapted into an excellent neo-noir film by Stephen Frears, had at its core the elemental human failings of greed and jealousy, which played out like a saucy yet slow-burning tragedy through a mutually self-destructive ménage à trois. The book’s three central characters are of differing dubiousness but all are in the business of making a quick buck – Roy Dillon, a 25-year old short con artist who’s officially a salesman and is living out of a washed-out hotel in LA to maintain that front; Lily Dillon, Roy’s estranged and still attractive mother who’s entangled neck-deep with the mob and is looking for a way out before it’s too late; Moira Langtry, a sultry, self-serving blonde in a casual affair with Roy and who wants to make it big before her striking looks begin to fade. Characters like these are best suited to work out their cons, angles and grifts alone, and hence there’s bound to be a murder or two when they dance together – and that’s essentially how things pan out here. Roy, upon being hit in the gut by the barrel of a rifle, starts hemorrhaging internally – consequently when his mom, whose relation with her mob boss is going south, appears in the scene, she wants to take care of him, and starts to shoo Moira away – which the latter doesn’t like; and Roy, torn between these two captivating ladies, is faced with some difficult choices that could very well decide his fate. The author wonderfully portrayed the evolving chemistry between the three, with the POC continually shifting between them; he also provided, through the racy narrative, some gold plated stuff on the subtle art of con, with all its nuances, red herrings and pitfalls, making this all the more fun to read.

Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime Drama/Roman Noir
Language: English
Country: US