Monday, November 20, 2017

Street of No Return – David Goodis
I never heard of David Goodis, but the Library of America saw fit to publish a volume with five of his noir novels. Does he deserve to rub elbows with the greats? – that question is the main subject of this review. Street is competently written, and has some fairly good scenes, but structurally it’s all over the place. And it’s unconvincing. Things begin to tip toward the ridiculous when it’s revealed that the main character, a derelict named Whitey, was once a famous crooner. What caused his downfall? – a woman, of course. In his heyday (when Whitey was Gene Lindell), he attended a stag party; in the midst of exceedingly gross acts a woman performs a languid dance in which she doesn’t remove a bit of clothing (which the unruly audience accepts without objections). For Gene it’s no less than instantaneous attraction on a combustible scale. He intercepts her as she leaves her dressing room, and five minutes later, as they sit in a cab, we get lines like this: “She took a deep straining breath, as if fighting for air. ‘I’ve heard them tell about things like this, the way it happens so fast, but I never believed it.’ ” Well, nothing happened, and I didn’t believe any of it; and since I already wasn’t enjoying the book that much, when things got dumb I refused to go any further. Street was originally published as a Gold Medal paperback, and no doubt it had a lurid cover. It may have delivered what some readers wanted, but it’s not literature. The Library of America has a thing for crime writers (Chandler, Cain, Hammett are represented). Chandler was a nice prose stylist, but his plotting was a mess. In the case of Cain and Hammett, they both came out with one successful novel; the rest of their output was mostly hack work. I recently read a Continental Op story by Hammett. In the beginning it clearly states that the murdered man’s girlfriend was not in his will. Yet, at the end, a comment is made about the three-quarters of a million dollars that she will inherit. This is sloppy, careless writing, and it’s not worth bothering with. Yet, along with Hammett’s Complete Novels, the Library of America includes another volume devoted to his Crime Stories and Other Writings.

Death and the Good Life – Richard Hugo
Hugo was an acclaimed poet. He wrote his only novel two years before his death in 1982, and for his foray into fiction he chose to write a mystery. Which is a pity, for when the book isn’t deep into sleuthing it has a refreshing quality, mostly deriving from the first person narrator’s jaunty voice. But mysteries have a long tradition regarding how a crime is solved. It’s a bad tradition, dependent on convoluted plots, an overabundance of suspects, gunplay, an accumulation of corpses. And, worst of all, red herrings – the reader is deliberately misled. Hugo employs all these cliches, and the book becomes just another mediocre contribution to the genre. Actually, it’s worse than most in that Al Barnes confronts the murderer and for five pages he tells her why and how she killed five people. But later, in a Eureka moment, the truth is revealed to him, and he then confronts the real murderers and for eight pages he tells them why and how they committed six murders (it comes to six when you add the woman Al first accused). It was all far-fetched and labored. Two blurbs on the back cover are from writers, and both, while praising Death, comment on their feelings for Hugo. And a preface by James Welch is an ode to his friendship with the man. I guess affection trumps one’s critical faculties. Of this novel, Welch writes that Hugo was “tickled pink when it was accepted for publication back in 1980.” Yet it wasn’t until 1991 (nine years after his death) that a Livingston, Montana operation called Clark Street Press put out a paperback edition of Death. What publishing house made that first acceptance and why didn’t they follow through? That, it turns out, is the only mystery I care about.

A Very Good Hater – Reginald Hill
This was a random selection pulled from the shelves of a university library. I didn’t recognize the author’s name, and it was a hardcover edition without a dust jacket (and therefore no blurbs). The title was interesting, and so were the opening lines, so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did. Hater sort of falls in the same mystery category as the two previous novels I reviewed, but it’s the “sort of” that makes all the difference. What lifts this book above the others is that Hill respects the reader’s intelligence and avoids hackneyed formulas. The novel opens with a question: Is the man coming out of the lift of a London hotel a former Nazi SS officer named Hebbel? And, if so, does he deserve to die for what he did twenty years ago? In the intricate cat and mouse game that ensues everyone has hidden motives, and the author puts it to the reader to figure out what lies behind people’s actions. But he doesn’t lead us on wild goose chases. We know what the main character (who was one of Hebbel’s victims) knows. However, Goldsmith is both deceived and a deceiver, so even he can’t be relied on for the truth. The question of whether Housman is Hebbel begins to take a back seat. What we get are multiple character studies; mainly of Goldsmith, but also of his POW buddy Templewood. Who the hater is, and why he hates, is unveiled in the book’s closing pages, and we leave him as he embarks on a carefully-constructed path of revenge. I was beginning to lose faith in mysteries, but this book asserts how satisfying and engrossing they can be. So who is the talented Mr. Hill? A bit of research revealed that he was England’s grand master of the genre. I wonder if, in his enormous output, I happened upon one of his best. We’ll see, because I’ll be reading more of his work.

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