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Pimp for the Dead - Hardboiled & Noir

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Okay, this should be fun, the idea is to list authors/titles/series that fall into the realm of hardboiled or noir. This is purely subjective, but let's try to be exclusive and elitist rather than have a list that includes Matlock and Monk (both of whom I enjoy, but they're a damn long ways from being hardboiled). I'll start with the stuff I know best, the pulps and the post-pulp paperback boom of the 1950s. If it's a series character from the 1960s - 1990s, I'm probably hip to the series. Post 2010 I'm completely lost, I'm sure that there's some good new material being written, I just haven't a clue as to where to look other than Hardcase Crime. So anyway, let's begin: 

Hailing from the pulps, obviously Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler always start lists like this, but in the Department of Didja Know, we have the early work of Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Day Keene, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, James Hadley Chase, and Bruno Fischer. With the exception of Woolrich, who remained true to his roots throughout his career, all of these writers tended to mellow out as their popularity increased. The chroniclers of the exploits of Perry Mason and Travis McGee were far different writers in their early years. James M. Cain was always an anomaly, published and marketed as mainstream it's hard to imagine books such as Sinful Woman, Jealous Woman, and The Postman Always Rings Twice being pushed as mainstream offerings, just as it's hard to imagine James M. Cain not featuring more prominently in discussions of the "Great American Novelist". As for guys like Bruno Fischer and Day Keene, they made their bones writing for publications such as Dime Mystery Magazine, Dime Detective and in Fischer's case under pseudonyms like Harrison Storm and Russell Gray in Terror Tales and Horror Stories where he popularized the weird menace genre which was essentially hard-boiled dialed up to eleven.

As the pulps died off after WWII, and were replaced by the digest magazines and paperback originals, we had a whole new generation of writers rise to prominence, I'll be back with a list covering the fabulous fifties after UFC Fight Night. ;-)

 

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Damn, I spaced this out entirely... Sorry about that... Let's get five or six guys covered today and go from there... Disclaimer: Y'all shouldn't need me to tell you about Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, and Erle Stanley Gardner, so I won't.

Let's start with David Goodis, a man whose outlook on life was so bleak and depressing that he made Cornell Woolrich seem like Big Gay Al from South Park. It was said of Goodis that he didn't really write novels as much as he did compose lengthy suicide notes. There's an almost claustrophobic, clinging sense of despair that permeates his novels to the point that many readers may find him a bit hard to take. A couple of his novels are so good that they're worth the discomfort of reading them  (Nightfall, Shoot the Piano Player), as for the others, there's the same sort of enjoyment one gets after they stop banging on their hand with a hammer. Yes, the cessation of pain feels great, but upon further reflection you're hard pressed to explain why you were hitting yourself with a hammer in the first place.

Image result for david goodisRelated image

What happens when a "serious" novelist turns his hand to genre fiction? Well, usually the result is pretty dire as we usually have a jerk who thinks he's above all this in the first place and has the ivory tower of academe jammed so tightly up his ass that he squeaks when he walks. The antithesis of this sorry situation can be summed up by one name, Chester Himes. If you don't know who Chester Himes was, stop reading this board, look up Himes on Wiki and then play follow the links until you feel comfortable enough to discuss his fiction, the Harlem novels and his serious work. The thing is once you swap out the loathsome creature that I described above with a black guy who did seven and half years in prison for armed robbery and started selling short stories when still on the inside and suddenly you're talking about one of the great writers of the 20th century. No, I don't mean one of the great hard-boiled or noir writers, I mean one of the great writers, period.

While every word Himes wrote is worth reading, for our purposes here we'll restrict things to his Harlem novels featuring the two detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. The titles that you want to look for are: A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill, All Shot Up, The Big Gold Dream, The Heat's On, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Blind Man with a Pistol. If your only exposure to Himes thus far is the film of Cotton Comes to Harlem, that's like assuming Lawnmower Man adequately covers the works of Stephen King. Not that it's a bad film, and there's certainly plenty of mordant, gallows humor in the novels, but the film ratchets the funny stuff up to the nth degree, (in order to capitalize on what Godfrey Cambridge did best), so much so that the humor gets in the way of the story. 

Image result for chester himes books

"You want to know what the life of a working mystery writer is really like?  Gil Brewer could tell you.  He could tell you about the taste of success and fame that never quite becomes a meal; the shattered dreams and lost hopes, the loneliness, the rejections and failures and empty promises, the lies and deceit, the bitterness, the self-doubts, the dry spells and dried-up markets, the constant and painful grubbing for enough money to make ends meet.  He could tell you about all of that, and much more. He would, too, if he were still alive. But he isn’t.

    Gil Brewer drank himself to death on the second day of January, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-three, at the age of sixty." - Bill Pronzini

It takes a great deal of chutzpah to title a book something like The Bitch or Nude on Thin Ice in today's marketplace. Imagine the stones it took to do so in the 1950s! But that was Gil Brewer, for slightly more than a decade, arguably the best hard-boiled writer of them all. Starting in 1951 with the trifecta of Satan is a Woman, So Rich, So Dead, and 13 French Street all for Gold Medal books, Brewer established himself from the get-go as a major talent. Literally, everything he published in that decade is pure gold, his work in the 1960s as the alcoholism that would eventually kill him took hold was a good deal more hit or miss. Monetary need forced him to write some pretty uninspired novels under his own name and a number of dubious projects as a ghostwriter. Probably the worst are adaptations of things like It Takes a Thief or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Brewer narrowly missed out being selected to ghost the (in)famous Executioner series, the publisher wanted to use him, but series creator Don Pendleton (likely  jealous of how much better Brewer was than himself), vetoed the idea. Sadly, this would have been a major source of income, likely enough to escape the black cloud of poverty that hung over him throughout the last years of his life. 

Nude.jpgSatan.jpgWild.jpgPlay_hard.jpg

Well, there's a trio to start with, let me check through my files on Benjamin Appel, Peter Rabe, and Bruno Fischer as the next three...

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Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place is a fine piece of noir and much better than the (still quite good) film adaptation.

Her Expendable Man is just as good, though perhaps less hard boiled.

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