Sunday, 9 August 2020

Low Action by Andrew Cartmel

My fifth Vinyl Detective novel has just been published and I hope you'll permit me the indulgence of discussing — and of course promoting — it here.

I'd like to reassure any prospective readers, however, that I won't be giving away any spoilers. You can read this post before you read the book, and no damage will be done...

Each of the Vinyl Detective stories tends to focus on a different genre of music, and for this excursion, Low Action, it's punk rock. 

The novels in the series often also involve a search for a rare recording — which in some cases mean one that was suppressed.

It was my friend the composer Joe Kraemer who came up with the sardonic suggestion that the rare record in this book had been pulled from the shelves because the playing on it was too good for a punk LP.

I loved that, added it to the plot, and duly set about my research and preparation for the story. The first step was to come up with a suitable name for the imaginary (all girl) punk band in the book.

Here's a selection of names that didn't make the cut: The Chuff, The Bints, The Scrubbers, The Kippers, The Duff, The Birds, The Muff, Bimbo Eruption, Bad Kissing, Unauthorised Nudity, Rough Garden and Lovely Furry Killing Machines — LFKM, a name that signified cats! 

The latter, inspired by a tweet from @LogBookGuy was far and away my favourite — thank you, @LogBookGuy! And I may well use it one day. But for plot reasons I settled on something else for the protagonists of this novel.

Another friend, the novelist Ben Aaronovitch, requested that one of the characters from his own novels make an appearance in my book, since he wanted to establish a backstory for that character as a punk. I was happy to oblige.

My research on the punk rock era proved invaluable. Not least because I discovered the importance of fanzines to the scene — and that gave me a character I hadn't had before, one who wrote and published (although publish is far too grand a word) an amateur magazine about the band in the book.

The other big influence on this novel was, oddly enough, Agatha Christie. The Vinyl Detective stories sometimes reflect my admiration for other crime writers. 

I've mentioned before how in the third book in the series, Victory Disc, I wanted to try my hand at the sort of unbearable, claustrophobic suspense that Cornell Woolrich was such a master of.

This time, as I say, it was Agatha Christie. In particular the brilliant way she would set up a whole panel of suspects for the role of murderer — all of whom were equally plausible as being innocent or guilty.

I hope I've had a fraction of the great Christie's success in pulling the wool over the eyes of the readers. 

And I hope you'll check the book out (literally check it out, of a library, if you like) and that you will enjoy it.

Oh, and as a special bonus and Easter egg, here is a little portion of the book that was cut from the final version:

"...make it look like an accident…”

“Make it look like an accident?” said Nevada. There was the deadly serious promise of mayhem in in her voice and my eyes immediately went to the large and bulbous glass sugar shaker on the table in front of us, because it looked like Monika was about half a second away from getting this smashed into her face. 

(Image credits: All are from my own collection, the Vinyl Detective covers from Titan Books and the copy of Peril at End House with the beautiful Tom Adams cover and the vintage Pocket Book of The Bride Wore Black with the equally lovely H. Lawrence Hoffman art are both scanned from the ones in my library.)

Sunday, 2 August 2020

The Wrecking Crew by Donald Hamilton

It's a terrific feeling to wake up in the morning and know there's a book you're in the middle of reading and looking forward to picking up again.

Last week I wrote about Donald Hamilton's Death of a Citizen, his first Matt Helm adventure. Thanks to the speedy response of a secondhand book seller – and, credit where it's due, to the readability of Hamilton's story — I am now in a position to discuss the next book in the series.

In that first book Matt Helm, a former assassin for his government in a time of war, was settled, staid and respectable; a married man with three children. I didn't expect that to last. 

In some ways it was too good to last — personally, I think having domestic normality to contrast with bloodthirsty action in a thriller provides an interesting dynamic and an ideal counterpoint.

But in the period that Hamilton wrote these books (the early 1960s) action heroes were invariably loners. The model of the secret agent who also has a home life wouldn't really surface until the James Cameron movie True Lies in 1994.

So I fully expected Matt Helm to be divested of his family by the end of the first book. Indeed, I half expected and was braced for them to be massacred by evil commie bad guys to send our hero on a revenge spree that would last for dozens of novels.

Fortunately, that didn't happen — bad things ensued, but none that bad. What Donald Hamilton came up with was much more interesting. Matt Helm's wife Beth had no idea of her husband's secret past...

And when she finds out, she just can't handle it. So she leaves him, taking their kids with her. Leading to Helm's bitter reflection, "she'd never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she'd merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who'd pushed the button over Hiroshima."

Indeed, this being the height of the Cold War, the thought of death by nuclear weapons is never far away. Leading Helm to consider how the sound of a siren could signify "a brush fire in a vacant lot... or an intercontinental missile with a hydrogen warhead zeroed in on your home town."

Helm is a long way from his own New Mexico home town in The Wrecking Crew (the title refers to the shadowy government agency for whom he works). He's travelled to Sweden to put the "touch" on — i.e. kill — a Soviet agent. The plot of this novel doesn't feature any breathtaking twist to rival that of the first book.

But there are other pleasures. Hamilton has the good sense to make his stories slowly cumulative, carrying just enough over from previous adventures to enrich the mix and give his hero some depth and reality. Hence those jaundiced reflections about his ex-wife.

And whereas the femme fatale in the first book was sort of unconvincingly and synthetically foreign, here we have a cast of more much authentic Swedes. Perhaps because, like his hero, Hamilton has Swedish ancestry, he's taken his research seriously.

Helm's cover story is that he's a photographer for a magazine (in the first book he was both a writer and a photographer) and clearly Donald Hamilton knows this craft. He has some fascinating things to say, as asides, about the difference between black and white and colour film in low light conditions.

And there's the great observation, as Helm deliberately destroys a roll of film by exposing it to daylight, that "There's nothing as permanent and irrevocable as fogging a film, except killing a man."

And, sure enough, men — and women — get killed in the course of this taut, compact suspense novel. But you won't guess which ones.

Donald Hamilton isn't quite in the class of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams, but he is very, very good. His plots are precision engineered and often ingenious, and he writes well: "We... were driven in to town, leaving the plane standing alone in the arctic wasteland with only the cold wind for company."

And there are moments of cool, offhand profundity in his characterisation, like the woman who says her husband "couldn't always be bothered with being kind."

Hamilton's female characters are particularly memorable, and often informed with the sardonic humour which is one of his most appealing features. 

Take Lou Taylor, for instance, the woman with the above-mentioned husband: "she wasn't exactly from Sexville, as the cats back home would put it," but she is nevertheless appealing with her "taut, shorn, dark leanness."

Or there's Elin von Hoffmann who is "something to make you weep for your wasted life."

Matt Helm himself is a "bright, ruthless guy" with a "diabolical soul" who'd "once survived a war mainly by putting no faith whatever in the power of coincidence."

Cynical, fast moving, satisfyingly evocative and occasionally very thrilling indeed, The Wrecking Crew is a strong sequel to Death of a Citizen.

But I'm already moving ahead — and looking forward to — book three in the series.

(Image credits: My starting point, as usual, was Good Reads. The British Gold Medal back cover is from Existential Ennui. The Gold Medal 40c front and back cover is from eBay seller kenz430, the 95c is a stock image from ABE. The Fawcett $1.50 is also a stock image from ABE. The Coronet edition with the film strips is also from ABE, although that particular copy is apparently no longer listed. The later Coronet edition with the green Matt Helm logo at the top is from GD Price on ABE. The Serie Noir French translation is from Les Livre on ABE. The front and back cover of the Turkish edition is from Collectybles on eBay.)

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm was the American answer to James Bond — a spy empowered to kill enemies of the state. But if he's remembered now, it's all too likely to be in connection with the brief series of films that were made of the books.

These, too, were the American answer to Bond —  they sought to top the more extravagant and fantastical elements of the 007 franchise and they were terribly camp. My memories of them are of flying saucers and go-go dancers and Dean Martin looking none too convincing holding a submachine gun.

(There's a clip from one of these Matt Helm movies in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

But it's unjust to judge books by the films they spawned. The Matt Helm novels were the creations of Donald Hamilton, a writer who was similar to Elmore Leonard in that, while he would become a major figure in suspense fiction, he spent the better part of the 1950s writing Westerns. 

Indeed, his hero Matt Helm is also a writer of Westerns, living with his wife and kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a good place for a creator of Westerns to reside). He is peacefully settled into a routine and mundane existence.

But during the Second World War, Helm had been a secret agent — in fact an assassin. And when we first meet him, in the opening pages of Death of a Citizen, he is at a cocktail party where he recognises a beautiful woman called Tina, who had fought at his side  — "our world had been young and savage and alive, instead of being old and civilised and dead."

Tina gives him a wordless signal that she's still active and not to blow her cover, leaving Helm's head spinning with memories of the two of them "making love... in a ditch in the rain, while uniformed men beat the dripping bushes all around us."

To her credit, Helm's wife Beth immediately senses that something is up. But there's no way that she can stop what's coming. Before you know it, Helm is compelled to help Tina dispose of a corpse — an enemy operative — and they are on the run together across a memorably described southwestern wilderness.

Tina is sort of generically foreign and exotic — Hamilton can't seem to make up his mind if she's French or German, or what the hell she is. 
 
But she, too, is memorably described, both in retrospect as a "bedraggled fury" killing a German officer in the "wet woods at Kronheim" during the war, and in the present "stretching and yawning like a waking cat" on the first morning of their new adventure together.

But Matt Helm has no illusions about Tina. "She wasn't a person in whom one could place one's childlike and innocent trust."

He tells Tina, "I'm bound to be unfaithful to my wife before I'm through with you... Let's get it over with so I can stop wrestling with my conscience."

Tina says, "I do not think you are wrestling very hard." Helm shrugs and replies, "It's not much of a conscience."
  
Besides showing Donald Hamilton's gift for sardonic wit, the fact that Helm so casually betrays his wife is a bracing, cynical shock, and oddly elevates the book to a more mature and serious level.

What ensues is a well paced and entertaining thriller populated with vivid and often amusingly evoked characters, and possessed of a really terrific plot twist.

It also features some things I found quite hard to take, which is fair enough. In a book so full of violent action and killing there should at least be a sense of consequence and loss...

And incidentally the "death" of the citizen in the title refers to the fact that Matt Helm can never return to the routine normality of his old life after undergoing the events in this story.

To give you some idea of how impressed I was with novel, I am going straight online to look for the next book in the series. 

(I just discovered that Titan Books have laudably reprinted the entire Matt Helm series. I tend to hold Titan in high regard — they also publish my Vinyl Detective novels.)

(Image credits: The Hodder Fawcett/Coronet copy with the lingerie clad model loading the gun on the front cover — so objectified that her head has been removed — and the back cover with its rose and perfume bottle, are scanned from the copy I read. The others are mostly from Good Reads. With these exceptions... The earlier Coronet with the film frames on the cover is from Existential Ennui. The red Fawcett back cover is from Flickr. The entirely imaginary but very nicely done movie tie-in with Steve McQueen posited in the role of Matt Helm is from an excellent post at Hazard Publishing and is © 2014 N. David Bauer. The Fawcett white $2.50 cover is from Grave Tapping. The Fawcett black $3.50 cover is from the Nick Carter and Carter Brown blog.)

Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Towering Inferno by Stirling Silliphant

I know, I know... posting about a Western, and now a disaster movie. 

Well, if you steered clear of The Towering Inferno all your life because it looks like a cheesy piece of mainstream Hollywood junk, then you're in good company.

Or, at least you're in my company, because I've been avoiding this movie since 1974 for exactly that reason. What changed my mind?

Well, the fact that it was written by Stirling Silliphant. 
 
Silliphant (odd name, I know) was a dismayingly prolific screenwriter, which makes it easy to assume he's just no good. In fact he's a distinctive and intriguing talent. 

He worked extensively in television on the ground breaking shows Naked City and Route 66, then moved to Hollywood where he won an Oscar for his script for In the Heat of the Night. But let's come back to Stirling Silliphant in a moment. 
 
The Towering Inferno came about when two major movie studios discovered that they had each bought similar novels about a massive fire ravaging a glass skyscraper...

The novels were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson. 20th Century Fox bought The Glass Inferno and Warner Bros. bought The Tower.

They had each spent a lot of money to acquire these books and were going to spend vastly more on making two virtually identical movies. This potentially bankrupting collision was avoided by one of the rare outbreaks of common sense in Hollywood history.

Fox and Warner decided to pool their resources and collaborate on making a single blockbuster film. So The Tower and The Glass Inferno were combined to form The Towering Inferno.

The picture was directed by John Guillermin, a Brit with an interesting track record (The Blue Max, Shaft in Africa) and produced by Irwin Allen, famed in his day for spectacles, schlock and science fiction (coincidentally, Scortia and Robinson who wrote The Glass Inferno also had backgrounds in science fiction).

Irwin Allen, whose career would be all downhill from The Towering Inferno, also takes a credit on the film for directing the action sequences.

The directing of the movie as a whole ranges from effective to incompetent. And in those action sequences which Allen was so eager to lay claim to, it's sometimes difficult to even know what is happening, at least in the DVD print that I watched.

The screenplay, however, is a different matter. It is ferociously proficient. Recalling his work on the movie in an interview Stirling Silliphant said, "You have to deal with the logistics of the physical action... what you are not doing is writing. What you are doing is juggling."

That is, juggling the large cast of characters. Interestingly, when he was planning the screenplay Silliphant even treated the fire as a character — "my favourite character in the script" — and gave it a name.

And the end result, despite the cheesy trappings of the movie, is gripping and unpredictable — you won't be able to guess who lives and who dies.

But Silliphant's writing was not just a masterful exercise in logistics, he also crafted some superb dialogue. The fire chief O'Halloran, played by Steve McQueen, talks about what death traps these skyscrapers are and how he's sick of "eating smoke and pulling out bodies."

Silliphant reminisced amusingly about dealing with the egos of his two leading men, McQueen and Paul Newman. (Look at the publicity material for the film, which has been cunningly designed so that they both appear to be getting top billing.) But he concludes,
"Despite this, The Towering Inferno did emerge as a powerful and engrossing film."
 
And he's right. But regarding the competition between McQueen and Newman, there is really no contest. Steve McQueen is easily the best thing in the movie, impressive — low key and believable and tremendously watchable. 

Admittedly his role as the fire chief was a hell of a lot more interesting that Newman's part as the architect... but it is Steve McQueen's naturalistic, understated, contained acting style which really triumphs, making Paul Newman look outmoded and cumbersome by comparison.

I watched this film expecting it to launch me on a mini-festival of movies written by Stirling Silliphant. In fact, it looks more likely to set me off on a retrospective of pictures starring Steve McQueen, a great actor and a major movie star in his day, now mostly forgotten...

At the conclusion of The Towering Inferno there is great satisfaction in seeing the fire finally snuffed out. 

But, for me, the big emotional moment was discovering that Jennifer Jones's cat had been safely rescued — even though the rescuer was an actor called O.J. Simpson...

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)

Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Tall T by Elmore Leonard and Burt Kennedy

I know, I know, it's not like me to be writing about Westerns... 

But I love a good Western as much as any other genre, especially when it's as well written and well directed as this little low-budget gem from cult film maker Budd Boetticher (pronounced "Betticker").

Budd Boetticher did an excellent job directing The Tall T but the movie's crucial strengths lie in a skilful screenplay by Burt Kennedy based on a strong and efficient little short story by Elmore Leonard.

Yes, that Elmore Leonard. Before he moved on to crime fiction he made a respectable career writing memorable Westerns.

In this case, a story called The Captives. The interesting names in the movie — Rintoon, Tenvoorde — originate with Leonard. Indeed Burt Kennedy is gratifyingly faithful to Leonard's material.

Basically The Tall T is the story of some bad men — very bad men — who want to rob a stage coach. But they get the wrong stage coach. 

Instead of the regular vehicle, which is set to be carrying a large sum in payroll cash, they accidentally swoop on an unscheduled coach, specially commissioned by a honeymoon couple. 

Also hitching a ride on the stage coach is hardbitten loner Brennan (Randolph Scott) and the doomed bad guys take him prisoner along with the honeymooners.

They're doomed because Brennan is a classic Elmore Leonard hero — intelligent, practical and ruthless.  

Having blown their chance at the payroll robbery, the gang of thieves led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) come up with the scheme of ransoming the honeymoon bride Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), who is the daughter of a rich man.

So they take Doretta and Brennan as their captives, hence the title of Leonard's story. Doretta's cowardly heel of a husband Willard (John Hubbard) has only married her for her money and is only too pleased to act as a cooperative  bag man between the kidnappers and his wealthy father in law. (Much good it does him.)

The Tall T came out in 1957. In an interview many years later Elmore Leonard said it was his favourite among his Western movies. "Richard Boone recited the lines just the way I heard them when I wrote the story." 

He was, however, quite dismissive of the material that Burt Kennedy added to the screenplay, padding his original story: "it takes about 20 minutes to get going."

But in fact these early sequences add enormously to the power of the film. Because it begins with Brennan riding into an isolated stage coach station out in the wilderness. 

Here he knows the station master and the man's young son, a typical cute freckle faced little Hollywood urchin. Brennan promises to buy the kid some candy.

But when he gets back on that ill fated stage coach he finds that Usher's gang have murdered the station master and his little boy and put their bodies "down the well".

This sort of horrific offhand cruelty is almost unprecedented in a Hollywood movie of the period. The Tall T has a succinct savagery which gives it real stature.

The original Elmore Leonard tale builds up a powerful feeling of dread as we wait for Usher's gang to execute Brennan and Doretta — they're going to kill them even if they get the ransom. 

The story exerted an almost sickening suspense even though I knew how it turned out because I've seen the movie (and, let's face it, because I know Elmore Leonard).

Of course, Brennan manages to turn the table on their captors, and in a surprisingly ferocious fashion. He gets a shotgun under the chin of one and pulls the trigger... "Don't look at him," he tells Doretta.

The Tall T is hard hitting, vivid, and years ahead of its time. Apart from the quality of the writing, directing and acting (Richard Boone is particularly fine), there's memorably beautiful photography by Charles Lawton which is pin-sharp on the Blu-ray.

This is one of half a dozen Budd Boetticher Westerns that are said to be classics. If any of the others are as good as this, I'll report back to you. 

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)