Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fiction: Halo in Blood

(Howard Browne, No Exit Press, 1988 (originally 1946))
No Exit Press is a publishing house in Great Britain that specializes in crime and detection novels. Nowadays they publish new fiction as well as reprints of classics well remembered and forgotten, but when they first brought Halo In Blood out, they were still specializing in reprints of mostly forgotten authors and books — “those classic crime novels by the contemporaries of Chandler and Hammett that typified the ‘Hardboiled’ heyday of American Crime Fiction.” Cheaply printed and bound with cheap cover graphics but graced with Weegee-like photos on their covers, the books published by No Exit back in the 1980s might fall apart easily when read (much like the original printings, probably), but boy, do they make for good reading.
Halo in Blood originally appeared in 1946 under the pen name John Evans, one of many names Howard Browne used in his early days. Born in Omaha, Nebraska on 15 April 1908, Browne dropped out of high school in his senior year and hitched to Chicago, where he worked numerous and varied jobs and even got married in 1931 (to Esther Levy) before breaking into the pulp market with his short stories and, eventually, becoming the editor of such magazines (amongst others, Mammoth Detective and Amazing Stories). To both fill the magazine and his bankbook, Howard wrote under many pen names, selling his own stories to his magazine without letting the publisher know. In regards to his rather obvious influences in style, Browne has bluntly written “I imitated Chandler instead of Hammett because he was....a better writer.”
He went on to write four Pine novels, including Halo for Brass, which is considered an early entry in that contemporary culture studies sub-genre “modern lesbian literature” due to its (sexless) plot in which Paul Pine follows a trial of dead lesbians in his search for the vanished daughter of a Nebraska couple. Brown’s attitude towards his writing was often rather cavalier, as can be seen by the fact that once the book was set at the printer, he would throw away his first draft. Writing for money, once the product was out and the dough was there, it was time to move on. Product or not, he wrote well.
Browne eventually heard the call of Hollywood, where he earned his living doing scripts for such television programs as Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip, Playhouse 90, Mission: Impossible and Simon & Simon, as well as the occasional outing into films with Portrait of a Mobster (1961), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and Capone (1975). Around 1975 he retired from the industry for the sunny shores of San Diego, where he taught screenwriting at UCSD and died October 28th, 1999.
Halo in Blood begins more like a satire of Raymond Chandler than an imitation or homage. In the end it becomes a little bit of everything but actually holding together rather well. Pine, a cynical and hardened private dick with principals (know the type?) has to figure his way through a convoluted web of events almost too complicated to review in short. Accidentally witnessing a funeral of some John Doe at which only twelve clergyman show up, he is soon hired to dig the dirt on the thug boyfriend of a rich man’s daughter, has problems with the local gangster big-shot and unappreciative cops, and almost gets dusted while delivering a $25,000 ransom of fake bills. The body count rises with every turn he takes, and sometimes only luck alone seems to keep him from going six feet under himself, but at the end everything not only ties together but does so believably.
Using short sentences that clearly describe and project mood and personality, Browne not only can toss out hardboiled one-liners as good as anyone, but he can plot a lot better than most. Unlike Chandler, Browne was not one to leave any loose ends or maybes flying around at the end of the last paragraph, no matter how confusing the story might be. For all the separate directions Halo In Blood seemingly goes in, it ends neatly, first seemingly in the direction of (the dreadful) Poodle Springs* only to twist itself at the last second into a harder-hearted Maltese Falcon. Halo in Blood is one of those books that one has problems putting down after starting, and is definitely a worthwhile read for fans of detective fiction.

*It must be added that this book may not have been so dreadful had Chandler finished it before dying, instead of it being padded by some hack.

Celebrity: Growing Up Brady - I was A Teenage Greg

(Barry Williams w/Chris Kreski, Harper Books, 1992)
Actually, I don't know what is more perverse: that this book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for over three months or that when I stumbled upon it at the Salvation Army I not only bought it, but read it as well. But truth be told, I too as a child sat in front of the tube back in the early seventies and faithfully watched the program, as I did many a program I find embarrassing nowadays. (Were I to stumble upon a book about Gilligan's Island that promised to be "packed with juicy tidbits," I would probably buy that secondhand as well — ditto with Batman, Happy Days and Hogan's Heroes.)
Williams has a rather breezy, easy-to-read and dryly humorous writing style that makes this rather thin book entertaining enough, but it is hardly "packed" at all, and nothing revealed is so surprising that the reader remembers it a day later. A few kisses and dates are told of, but if he is to be believed, no banging went on anywhere. So he smoked pot once or twice and even (shock!) got called in unexpectedly to shoot a few scenes once when he had toked... he survived his paranoia and never did it again. I mean, isn't that normal for every working teenager?What the book actually does is support the concept that the kids playing the Brady Kids were really just as nice off the set as they were on, and that no one really had any deep dark secrets at all — but seeing that they still seem to be on good terms with each other, it is doubtful Williams would get down to the real nasty nitty-gritty anyway.
He does go into the "feud" between Daddy Brady (Robert Reed) and the shows producer, but refrains from ever taking sides, which is probably why Reed was willing to write the forward. Still, Williams doesn't really have to say anything, for the few of Reed's memos of complaints that are reprinted pretty much make Reed sound like a pretentious twit — why talk about art (or reality, for that matter) when doing a TV show like The Brady Bunch?
Williams, on the other hand, seems to have had a much more down-to-earth approach to the whole thing. He was an actor and it was a job—a fun job at that. As he sees it, what doomed the show in the end was when everyone got more interested in having a bigger cut of the financial pie. If the show or its numerous follow-up spin-offs were tacky, he's the first to admit it.
The last third of the book is padded with descriptions of plots and special guest stars of every episode. Odd how few of them I can remember — I guess I've smoked pot more often than Williams.
All in all, a fun read but as fluffy as the show. Kitty Kelly this guy ain't.

(Taken from the web.)
Top: The book cover. Bottom: Greg, then and now.

Celebrity: Sex Lives of the Hollywood Goddesses

(Nigel Cawthorne, 1997, Prion)
An enjoyable, sleazy little romp through the scandalous sex lives of the classic film divas of yesterday, greatly enhanced by Cawthorne’s dryly humorous writing style. Unlike most books of this sort, Sex Lives not only features an index for easy reference to the smutty actions of one’s favorite wet-dream of the past, but includes a rare (for this sort of publication) lengthy bibliography to attest for its reliability.... although the sight of such books as Sewlyn Ford’s The Casting Couch amongst the list does cast a slightly fetid shadow upon any proposed factualness.
Peppered with direct quotes and bitchy first-hand gossip, the book tells us exactly what we always suspected: all the great stars were either lesbian or bisexual sluts who really knew how to have a fucking fun time fucking around. And, as we all know, so much fun leads to ruin, disappointment and an unhappy, dissatisfying twilight of old age.... if only we had so much fun.
This particular volume in the writer's wonderfully trashy Sex Lives series — Hollywood goddesses have received two volumes to date, but Cawthorne has also tackled painters, popes, composers famous gays, famous lesbians, etc. etc. — includes almost every well-known story of the silent and golden age, from Clara Bow's games of "tag football" with the UCLA football team to Lana Turner's inability to play a good mom, to a variety of lesser known ones, such as that of Rita Hayworth's loving dad and Garbo's inability to make decisions. Sometimes the sordidness of the events makes one feel a bit base for wallowing so deeply (but superficially) in the sorrow of others, but such socially redeeming feelings are quickly tossed aside and forgotten as one dirty fact after the other is laid naked on the table, spread eagle and open — just the way we like it.

(All found on the web.)
A still from the film Heedless Moths (1921) starring the forgotten silent star Audrey Munson, who had one of the first nude scenes in film history in the film Inspiration (1915). She ended her days in a nuthouse.
A young and nude Louise Brooks...
Jean Harlow relaxing.
Ava Gardner almost as relaxed...

Fiction: The Vengeance Man

(Dan J. Marlowe, Black Lizard Books, 1988, USA)
The best laid plans of mice and men can, well, fuck-up royally.
Another short, sweet, and typically hardboiled story from a mostly forgotten master of anti-hero prose. Dan J. Marlowe, who died in 1987 at the age of 73, is said to have supposedly worked in accounting, insurance and public relations before turning to writing at the age of 43 after the death of his wife. A prolific writer, he specialized in cynical page-turners populated by amoral and violent anti-heroes whose status as the "sympathetic" character was gained primarily by the fact that they were the nucleus of the story or because everyone else around them was even less likable.

Marlowe's novels generally clocked in well-below 200 pages and were published as paperback originals by such firms as Gold Medal or Avon. Amongst his large, mostly out-of-print oeuvre is at least one accepted classic of the genre, 1962's The Name of the Game is Death, which introduced the anti-hero safe-cracker/criminal/killer Earl Drake. The main character in a long series of product, Earl Drake was toned down book-by-book and eventually mutated into a U.S. secret agent. (As to be expected in such a case, the early novels in the series are the best.)
The Vengeance Man, however, does not seem to have been edited by anyone who desired any toning down, for it is truly a cold-hearted piece of noir in which each character seems to be just as amoral and self-centered as the next. The title and the blurb on the back cover are actually both rather misleading, for although the novel's hero is driven in part by a desire of vengeance, his true driving force owes a lot more to Horatio Alger. For though triggered by a need of vengeance, his motivating force after killing his cheating wife and emotionally destroying his hated father-in-law, is a perversely corrupted desire of financial improvement, of gaining an important position in the state apparatus – in other words, his desire of wealth and position and moving up the ladder in the world. And in the corrupt South Carolina world in which he slithers, it seems the only way to get what one wants is to go over bodies. Everyone has a hidden agenda, and though he is able to keep himself free and alive thanks to an incriminating film he has locked up in a safety deposit box, in the end he proves no match for the forces around him. Why bother with Camus’ The Stranger; in The Vengeance Man, you get the same central thematic idea with a lot more violence, sex and death but with much less pretentiousness.

The reprint from Black Lizard Books and a photo of the author, taken from this website here, where a short but highly interesting biography of the man can be also found.

Non-Fiction: The Playboy Advisor Revisited

(Playboy Press, 1969)
Nice book. Or, more to the point, nice illustrations. The guy who did them, Bob Post, utilizes a technique reminiscent of that quintessential pop style used by The Beatles in their fab film Yellow Submarine. But this time around, instead the fab four being chased by Blue Meanies, the drawings primarily show men in the pursuit of women.
Playboy magazine’s version of Dear Abby has been a popular feature of the magazine since it was first incorporated back in 1960. Unlike Ask Xavier in the publication’s major competition Penthouse, the advisor has always focused less purely on sex and has instead tried to be an “urbane and sophisticated arbiter of taste, manners and morals.” Like many such advice columns, a large number of questions seem to reveal a general lack of experience, common sense or knowledge — but then, this book is from the 60s, and most of the readers do seem to be in their twenties and coming from relatively sheltered backgrounds. The concept of someone nowadays seriously asking “When is the best time to have sexual intercourse — morning, noon or night?” is only conceivable if the question is meant as a joke. But back then, in the age when nice African Americans still called themselves “Negroes” and women were “chicks,” “babes” or “coeds” who wouldn’t have sex until marriage (unless, of course, they were hippies), such questions were serious business.
Actually, as mundane and unsophisticated as most of the questions are, the advisor has a consistent high quality of answers. True, more than a couple have suffered due to the changes in time and attitudes, but for the most part the answers are all well thought out, level-headed and relatively “urbane.” But as good as the answers are, most of the questions remain fairly boring, so the book in general is something less than a page-turner. More sex and technique might have been in order, and less questions like “Whatever possessed my grandfather to wear spats?” or “What do they give men in nudist camps to prevent them from getting erections?”
But the book does have nice illustrations…

(Top) One of the most recognizable logos in the world; (Bottom) an example of Bob Post's work found on the web.

Pop Culture:Strange Sisters, The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1949-1969

(Jaye Zimet, Viking Studio, 1999)
One of those great books that are tremendously fun to flip through because of all the reproductions but that are read much too quickly due to a dearth of any real text.
The title says it all, the book being a presentation of some two hundred covers of the various lesbian pulp novels that the author has collected over the years
she is one dedicated lady) augmented by a forward by Ann Bannon (an early lesbian pulp author) and with a brief introduction to the subject by the collector herself. One really gets the feeling that Zimet must have blown a fortune on e-bay, seeing that many of these books can easily reach 3 digits when up for auction.
Strange Sisters
was the first publication ever that featured such a fine collection of such cover art, and it is an obvious labour of love and patience. The covers are amazing pieces, ranging to unbelievably tasteless to absolutely beautiful to ridiculously dated to timelessly immortal; more than one tantalizing cover actually succeeds in making one want to read the original novel — if that were only possible. Perhaps the collection is a bit too padded by too many volumes of actual pornographic publications,
rather than the more innocent (though often just as sleazy) pulp publications meant for a more general distribution, but all covers are tantalizing eye candy. Still, this volume would be much more interesting and exciting if it were also to include a bit more background information about the various publishers, writers, plots and — most glaringly absent — the artists themselves. True, Zimet does occasionally include such information, but she does so both much too seldom and much too skimpily. The inclusion of more such information would take this book beyond the mere range of simply entertaining and put into the even more satisfying realm of informationally entertaining. As it is, the publication remains simply an engagingly fun coffee table book when it deserves to be much more… but then, in all likelihood Zimet cannot supply more info than she does simply because more info is not available.
An excellent website on the subject (not by the book’s author) is also entitled Strange Sisters. The cover art featured on the website, like that in Zimet’s book, sends me into fits of jealousy… although any collection of fine paperback art sends me into fits of jealousy.

True Crime: In the Name of Satan

(Wensley Clarkson, St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1997, USA)
Another true crime book written before the entire case had even gone through the system and become yesterday's news and thus less commercially viable. Not much depth to be found in the writing, as is normal of a Wensley Clarkson quickie, but the book is as readable as the crime is sordid and unbelievable.
The most interesting and disturbing aspect of the crime is that after the fact, everything plays out like a real-life version of The River's Edge, the favorite film of the three bored youths who do the killing. That the local cops are too lazy to take the case seriously and prefer writing off Elyse as a runaway is easy to understand — cops are cops after all — but one does swallow hard when one realizes that dozens of kids knew her to be dead (and probably knew where her body was to be found) but no one came forward.
Elyse, a young fun-loving girl in her teens, a party-loving virgin just beginning to explore her boundaries, gets killed by three local outsiders and losers — schoolmates — out to make a sacrifice to Satan. As normal, the case leaves more questions than answers in its wake, with no easy solutions to be found. What drives bored teenager boys to kill (and possibly rape) a teenage girl they know? (Or, as on-line sources now say, have sex with her corpse.) Death metal? The lack of parental guidance? Drugs? The Internet? Satan? A lack of proper parental guidance?
Dunno, but all the kids involved come across as being similar to a huge number of other faceless kids who eventually grew up to become normal functioning adults, so what went wrong? Methinks that the youngest, Joseph Fiorella, is simply a self-centered, amoral psychopath with leadership tendencies who happened to find a few weak, confused, pliable souls. And, as to be expected since he is probably the most innately amoral, asocial and least likely to change, he gets the lightest sentence.
(Since the publication, the three young killers are serving 25 years to life, Fiorella’s pot-dealing brother Anthony shot and killed a cop, and Elyse’s parents have twice tried to sue the death metal group Slayer claiming that the group’s music incited the boys to kill.)

The cover and a photo of the victim, looking just like anyone's teenage daughter. Do you know where your child is right now?

Fiction: The Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakehell

(Guillaume Apollinaire, Wordswoth Classic Erotica, 1995)
A pleasant, trifling little surprise. Guillaume Apollinaire (1880- 1918) is a name well-known to anyone who has ever studied the history of modern painting, literature or French culture as being one of the early mover and shakers in the Paris avante garde art scene of the turn of the century, where he was an influential critic and friend of many a famous painter. The illegitimate son of Polish aristocracy, the few literary works he published during his brief life, including the novella The Poet Assassinated (1916) and a book of experimental poems entitled Alcohols (1913), were stylistic milestones and pivotal representations of Cubist and Futurist literature, and it is even claimed that he alone coined the name "Surrealism" to describe his play The Breasts of Tiresias (1917). Truth be told, however, outside and inside of France, nowadays, more people have probably heard of him, if only fleetingly, than they have read him.
This early novella, written in 1907 when the young man was strapped for cash, may not be a very good example of his influence or historical importance, but it definitely is more fun to breeze through than his serious stuff, and at least one can say afterwards that, "Yes, I have read Apollinaire."
Simply put, The Amorous Exploits of a Young Rakewell is pornography lite. Displaying a slight, easy-to-read style, Apollinaire’s tiny volume descriptively narrates the sexual awakening and plentiful adventures of a young man of the upper classes during a summer spent at his family's country estate. A precocious and (as to be expected) well-hung teenager, he works his way through a selection of servants, his aunt and both his sisters, as well as eavesdropping to the confessions of various family members to a visiting priest, before becoming the (unacknowledged) father of numerous children. Nothing new to be found here, and hardly a "masterpiece of early 20th century erotic literature," as the publishers hail the book, but it is definitely much more enjoyable and humorous than most of the smut one stumbles upon.
Illustrations: (Top) The currently available reprint; (Bottom) the good man himself.

True Crime: The Want-Ad Killer

(Ann Rule, Signet, 1988)
The 1988 updated edition of a book originally published in 1983 under the name of Andy Stack. Updated or not, it is still not one of Ann Rule’s better books, which isn’t saying much, seeing that she never really writes that well anyway.
The Want-Ad Killer tells the story of Harvey Louis Carignan, yet another highly intelligent mass murderer who specialized in raping and killing young women, mostly teenage girls. Actually, the title of the book bares little relationship to Carignan’s actual crimes, for most of his murders were of women that had nothing to do with the want-ad that first brought him to the attention of the Washington police. Long before that advertisement and the resulting murder of teenager Kathy Sue Miller, a legal loophole successfully saved the killer’s neck from hanging for murder in Anchorage, Alaska, allowing him to move onto Washington and Minnesota (and possibly Canada, Oregon, California and a variety of other states) to continue what he liked doing most: raping women with hammer handles, getting forced oral sex and bashing in brains. Whatever it really was that made him what he is we will never know, but there is no doubt that Carignan grew up to be an evil, woman-hating, messed-up man. Hard to believe that such an ugly man, complete with extreme, uncontrollable nervous twitching and incessant sweating could be found attractive by anybody, but the man even married twice, beating his wives regularly both times.
His legal defense in the end was insanity, based on the idea that he was such a fanatical believer in God that he was sick in the head. Like the good Reverend Oral Roberts, it seems God would speak to Harvey, but whereas God has usually told Roberts to collect money, Harvey was usually told to kill them whores. It took far too long to get this man behind bars — Harvey, not Oral — and though he was finally found guilty, he probably got away with untold numerous other unproven murders.
Sentenced to a total of 150 years in 1975 in Minnesota, a state in which no criminal can serve more than 40 years no longer how long he is sentenced, he has another 8 years to go before he can give your daughter a ride...
For a short but interesting on-line interview of the man, go here.

"True" Sleaze: Some Like It Dark

(By Kipp Washington as told to Leo Guild, Holloway House, 1977)
The cover presented here is that of the currently available edition. It is, regrettably, far less attractive than the cover to the 1977 edition, but seeing that the book has a 1966 copyright date, there might actually be even older versions of the book floating around out there.
The 1977 edition cover is splashed with the less-than-true blurb that “Kipp Washington’s memoirs are the most erotic since The Happy Hooker,” an obvious attempt on the part of Holloway House to cash in on the popularity of other (similar but white) “true” hooker story popular at that time. Actually, the story is not very erotic at all, and almost lends itself to being believable simply due to the amount of tragic — or at least less than pleasant — events that happen to “Kipp Washington.” But if the story were true, it seems that she wouldn’t have had anything to lose by naming real names, instead of relying on pseudonyms. Without any concrete details, the men she mentions could be any of a thousand.
Somewhere in the book she briefly talks to some shrink (of one of her johns) who briefly asks her “why?”, and that is a question one keeps returning to again and again when reading her “bio.” She comes across as too intelligent to let herself be trapped in a career that she herself sees as futureless. That she is black and thus disadvantaged may be true, especially considering the time that the book takes place in. But she herself seems to make many a mistake on purpose, destroying paths that might have taken her somewhere better, cutting off chances that could offer a better future. If she is still alive today, one has a hard time imagining that she is living comfortably — especially if she never learned to make better decisions.
Her distaste for men of her own color seems odd, and comes across almost as an indirect way of expressing her own self-hate and dislike of her own race, an attitude totally contrary to her constant statements of being proud to be black. There is a lot of sex in this book, but hardly titillating. In fact, the sex described, even when said to be “good,” is less than prick hardening, often moving more in the direction of depressing. Want porno? Look somewhere else. Want a story that goes nowhere? Look here.
For all her bragging about what prices she gets, she often sounds like those strung-out hustlers one occasionally reads about that claim they earn $400 a day but still eat out of trash cans and sleep on the street. Okay, she’s not on drugs and has definitely situated herself better and lives a relatively comfortable life, but somehow it all rings hollow, more ego-boosting than real, even id she probably is far from the street.
The “autobiography of a black call girl” the book might be, but the story, despite the depressing parts, seems only half told. No photos, regrettably, the good looking babe on the cover (of the 1977 edition) being “posed by professional model.” Unlike Miss Hollander, Kipp obviously really did hope for middle-class normality one day — and, if she was real, maybe even has finally gotten it. Considering the number of other semi-sleazy “true” life stories told to Leo Guild, including The Senator’s Whore, The Black Shrink, Black Bait and The Loves of Liberace, it is easy to think that this book is actually just fiction.
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