Sunday 28 May 2017

The Nerve-End Night: All These Condemned by John D. MacDonald

In some previous posts I've suggested that the crime novelist John D. MacDonald really began to hit his stride around the early 1960s. So it's salutary to read this small masterpiece, published in 1954, and discover not only that MacDonald is really cooking, but that he's already at the top of his game. 

Over the next few decades he would develop further in scope and depth, and perhaps pare down his story-telling technique, but his writing genius is already on display here, intact and complete. In fact, he's scarily good.

The title All These Condemned is taken from a quotation by Juvenal, from his 12th satire. Later MacDonald cheerfully confessed to faking this — there are only 10 satires by Juvenal. It is a multi-viewpoint novel, something of a speciality for the author.

It is a splintered collection of first person narratives with an ingenious, neat symmetry.  The characters are all wonderfully evoked — and impressively diverse. Two chapters are devoted to each, one chapter before and one after...

Before and after what? I hear you ask. The death of Wilma Ferris. Wilma is a ruthless tycoon. She has built an empire selling cosmetic products and she is a tough cookie, with "all the vulnerability of a meat axe."  Each of the people in the book is dependent on Wilma in some way or other — financially or emotionally. Sometimes both. 

All of them have been invited out to a weekend party in Wilma's cabin — it's actually more like a mansion in the woods — beside a lake. The book begins with the local authorities dragging the lake for Wilma's body. The small boats with their outboard motors are "rattling their tin thunder off the dawn mountains," using "grappling irons and hooks, looking like medieval torments." 

Wilma's body is soon found, and we  learn that her death is not an accidental drowning but murder. And we're off the to races.

MacDonald is sympathetic and scrupulous in the painstaking way he fleshes out his characters — even stupid little Mavis Dockerty (nee Mary Gort), who is besotted with Wilma, and easily manipulated by her. Mavis is brilliantly evoked, with MacDonald effortlessly slipping into her skin...

Mavis says things like "I would have been mortified to death" and "chew my nails right down to the hilt." She thinks her poor, hardworking husband has "got about as much romance as a toad in the grass." Wilma Ferris is using her as a weapon against her husband, but Mavis is too dim to see this.

Instead she hero-worships Wilma. Since they met she feels her life, "had kind of opened up. Like going down an alley for a long time and then coming out into a park." Indeed, although Mavis can't or won't see it, she has a powerful sexual crush on Wilma.

There is also the snobbish, inhibited Wallace Dorn, wearing "the disapproving expression of a master of hounds who has just seen a farmer shoot the fox." Or Randy Hess, Wilma's milksop of a financial advisor, who has made the fatal mistake of having an affair with his boss. He knows the weekend is going to be a catastrophe: "I undressed and lay in the darkness, feeling as if my nerves had poked out through my skin, waving in the night, sampling all the emotions that moved through the big house."

(It's passages like this which remind us that MacDonald was also a distinctive and able writer of science fiction.)

Then there's poor Paul Dockerty, husband of the dimwitted, besotted Mavis, who reflects on love: "it wasn't supposed to go away, like throwing away the pumpkins after Halloween." His view of Wilma Ferris is that "You've got to admire her. But sort of the way you admire a parade going by."

MacDonald was really flying when he did this book. He writes of the "dainty and absent-minded finesse" with which a preying mantis devours its mate; the "ponderous morality" of a dullard of a state trooper. Or how the obsequious Randy Hess has "the manner of a dog that... has made a mess on the rug and seeks to avoid punishment with hectic affability."

And then there's the virtuosic throw-away gags. Wilma "drives like a banshee with her hair on fire." The dance routine in a Hollywood musical has "sharp-shouldered chorus boys and a quarter ton of bare thighs." A cartoon safe falls out of a window on a cartoon passerby with "damp finality." 

Of course I won't give any hint of who the murderer turns out to be, but I will say the culprit is a Thomas Harris-style psychopath undergoing a "trial of strength" who talks of the killing as a "precise ritual". (Regular readers will know about my cherished theory that Harris is a big John D. MacDonald fan.) On the other hand, the juxtaposition of art and psychopathy is pure Charles Willeford.

But MacDonald really is in a league of his own, way above competitors or emulators. And this is a splendid, outstanding book.

I don't think it needed the last chapter, though,  with the good honest simple country cop (state trooper, actually — he of the ponderous morality). It spoils the symmetry (I'm starting to sound like the psychopath now!) and it reduces the quality of the book. But I sense the imposition of a banal editorial mind in this.

The penultimate chapter, what I think of as the real last chapter, is a striking anticipation of Robert Bloch's Psycho with the killer finally retreating unreachably into their own mind. Maybe the world, or at least America, wasn't ready for an ending like this yet.

(I'd like to acknowledge Steve Scott's excellent John D. MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold, which provided some valuable information. Image credits: the book cover art is from Good Reads, except for the 25 cent photographic cover and the early Gold Medal with a painting by James Meese, also 25 cents, which are from Lesbian Fun World, where the book has quite a profile, and the croquet balls cover, by William Schmidt, which is from Amazon and gives away the murder weapon. The stunning Robert McGinnis cover painting sans text is from Pinterest.)

Sunday 21 May 2017

The Vinyl Detective on Audio Books

Not long ago I caught a train to the English Midlands city of Leicester. There waiting for me was my friend Alan Ross. 

I hopped into his van and we set off, leaving the city behind and speeding for the countryside. 

Alan's van has a rather nice picture of John Coltrane on it. This is partly because, like me, Alan is a jazz nut. 

But, much more importantly, it's because he runs a superb record store in Leicester — Jazz House Records. It was an appropriate vehicle, because our mission today was very definitely vinyl related. (What's more, Alan actually appears as a character in Written in Dead Wax!)
We drove down winding sun-splashed country roads under the green canopies of trees until we reached a small village called Syston. 

Here we parked outside a pair of tall white buildings — sort of overgrown cottages — with a kind of Moorish courtyard between them. This was the headquarters of White House Sound.

After being greeted at reception we were led through a series of large rooms where men and women sat at desks, listening on headphones as they read through large stacks of print out. On each desk was a wooden spindle running through the central holes of a stack of silver discs — CDs.

Down carpeted corridors we went to a small room packed with recording gear and computer screens, attended by an affable sound engineer. In an adjoining booth a large window allowed us to see walls covered with acoustic-baffle foam panels, a hanging microphone, and a dedicated actor intently reading the words of my novel.

All the words of my novel. W.F. Howes, the company that is doing the Vinyl Detective audio books, prides itself on recording unabridged versions. In fact, they go under the name Whole Story Audio Books.

That's what those men and women were doing with their headphones — those stacks of paper were the entire text of the books which had been recorded. They were diligently checking that every single word had been accurately captured.

I'm a lucky fellow to have my Vinyl Detective novels being produced by these guys. The first one, Written in Dead Wax was narrated by Ben Allen, the second, The Run-Out Groove has just been completed with Finlay Robertson doing the narration. Ben was a terrific choice, Finlay better still.

Written in Dead Wax on audio is available here in the UK and here in the US. The Run Out Groove will be unleashed on the world in ten days time, available here and here.

Thank you for listening.

(Image credits: The CD covers for the audio books are from Whole Story Audio Books for Written in Dead Wax, and Amazon for The Run Out Groove. The shots of White House Sound are from their website. The pic of Alan and his trusty van is by me.)

Sunday 14 May 2017

The Run-Out Groove by Andrew Cartmel

This week saw publication of my second Vinyl Detective novel, The Run-Out Groove. Normally I would have been far too modest to blog about it, but my friend, who just happens to be a bestselling novelist, insisted I should. So, since he knows his stuff.

In case you haven't read my first book, this series follows the adventures of a record collector turned sleuth. (And be warned, this post contains spoilers about Written in Dead Wax.) If you have read the first one, there are a couple of differences this time around...

For a start, the previous adventure recounted the search for a rare jazz record, so it was immersed in that particular musical world. This time around it's rock music, in particular the British psychedelic or "prog" (for progressive) rock of the 1960s.

In fact, when I began working on The Run-Out Groove I had a very specific inspiration in mind from that scene. The brilliant and ill-fated Syd Barrett, a founder member of Pink Floyd. Barrett was a fascinating and tragic figure and I knew this was potentially powerful material.

So I reached for the biography of Syd Barrett I'd had knocking around the house for several years... and realised I'd donated it to a charity shop just the previous week. Ah well.

This was no bad thing. The notion of a musical genius who became an acid casualty was all I really needed. It was enough of a seed for that element of the story.

But the really big difference between The Run-Out Groove and Written in Dead Wax is that Nevada, the fun loving femme fatale from the first book, has now moved in with our hero and they are an item.

Was this a risk? Changing the Vinyl Detective from an archetypical loner shamus to half of a detective duo? Not really, I knew this could work because I was following in the footsteps of giants. Specifically the footsteps of the wonderful Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett was one of the greatest crime novelists of them all. And among his finest creations are the urbane Nick and Nora Charles, a husband and wife mystery-solving team. They featured in Hammett's 1934 novel The Thin Man and thereafter in an enduring and wildly popular series of movies.

Let's hope the Vinyl Detective and Nevada have some of that longevity and durability...

Oh, and since my friend is insisting I promote my new book, you can buy it here if you're in the USA, or here if you're in the UK. 

Or, indeed, if you'd like a signed copy, leave a message for me in the comment section of this post and we'll see if we can work something out.

Happy reading.

(Image credits: The rather lovely and elegant Thin Man cover is from a little known internet book seller called Amazon. All the other images are from my own collection. The gorgeously gaudy pink and blue creations were commissioned by me from a very talented designer called James King before I got my book deal with Titan, and was toying with the idea of self-publishing.)

Sunday 7 May 2017

Elle by Verhoeven, Birke & Dijan

Paul Verhoven’s latest movie is a very strange affair. I like Verhoven's work a great deal. Indeed, to my mind, he is one of our greatest living directors. 

It's a great shame that his career stalled with Showgirls, a film that could have been a hit if only he and his screenwriter Joe Eszterhas — one of the most talented writers in the industry — had bothered to make us care about their characters.

But they didn't, and Showgirls pretty much put paid to their careers, at least in America. After some years of decline, both men found work in European films, though Verhoeven has very much had the best of it, with his excellent World War 2 drama Black Book (2006).

Now Verhoven is back with a film made in France called Elle. It is written for the screen by the American David Birke, based on the novel by Philippe Dijan — who also wrote the book on which Betty Blue was based.

As I said, Elle is a curious item. I have become used to defending Verhoven against the critical establishment who loathe his mainstream films like Basic Instinct, Robocop (masterpieces), Total Recall (a near masterpiece masterpiece) and Starship Troopers (hilarious and audacious).

Now I find that the critical establishment is embracing Verhoven and celebrating him for a film which I loathe. The situation is almost surreal. But I went to see my Elle anticipating that it would be something terrific, and it was a staggering disappointment. 

The film is being touted as an Hitchcockian thriller but really it’s a badly judged black comedy with a heavy line in sexual violence.  It’s dull, it’s pointless, and it goes on forever. I felt ashamed of myself for wasting my time in a darkened cinema. And it was a beautiful day, too… 

There is a really lovely grey cat in it, though, called Marty. But even Marty can’t rescue this.

(Image credits: Imp Awards.)