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Richard Stark’s (Donald E. Westlake’s) The Hunter, aka Point Blank (1962)

Jan 18, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts

The following article was originally published in the fantastic Edgar-nominated anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell, who has kindly given us permission to re-print Duane Swierczynski’s essay here. Please support this wonderful and timely collection available wherever books are sold.

Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Yonkers and Albany. He attended colleges in New York state without graduating. Considered a writer’s writer by his peers, Westlake received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay, The Grifters, three Edgar Awards, and the Grand Master Award from the MysteryWriters of America. His first novel, The Mercenaries, was published in 1960. Thereafter Westlake wrote under his own name as well as several pseudonyms, in part to combat skepticism over his rapid rate of production. His pen names included Tucker Coe, Samuel Holt, EdwinWest, and Richard Stark. Under his own name, he invented the comic caper genre (The Fugitive Pigeon, 1965) and wrote a number of humorous novels about a luckless criminal named John Dortmunder. Meanwhile, as Richard Stark, he chronicled the brutal existence of career criminal Parker. Combining the two, Westlake’s comic caper novel, Jimmy the Kid (1974), features Dortmunder’s gang of bumbling kidnappers using a Richard Stark/Parker novel as a blueprint for a crime. Westlake wrote over one hundred novels, many of which were made into movies, The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, for example. The Hunter was filmed twice as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) and Payback (with Mel Gibson).

I discovered Richard Stark in Stephen King’s The Dark Half. In an afterword, King talked about how fictional tough guy writer George Stark was modeled on Donald E. Westlake’s “Richard Stark” alter ego. I was seventeen years old, and I remember thinking I really needed to track down some stuff by this Stark guy. He sounded like my kind of writer. But this was an Internet-less 1989, and I couldn’t find a single book by Stark, in print or used.

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Coming Soon

Jan 14, 2011 in Mulholland News

Ken Bruen’s Black Lens

A Novel in Serial Form.

Starting January 19th.

Noir for 2011 and beyond.

Art by Jonathan Santlofer

15 Comments

Hardboiled Academics

Jan 14, 2011 in Guest Posts

Sometime in 1995 or thereabouts, I reached that state achieved by so many doctoral students: the state of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. What was I doing? Why? And why hadn’t my wife murdered me yet?

Naturally, instead of addressing these questions head on—or focusing on my research—I discovered a sublime form of evasion. I read crime novels: Hammett, Chandler, Willeford, Richard Stark, Jonathan Latimer, and many others.

Needless to say, I was pretty impressed by these novels: sharp language, evocative characters, occasionally odd humor, and a cultural resonance of sorts. I thought it would be cool to write crime fiction rather than a treatise on early American fiction.

But even as a delusional grad student, I couldn’t quite fool myself into thinking that I could write gritty novels like my hard-living author-heroes. Real crime-fiction writers were ex-Pinkertons (Hammett), former cops (Wambaugh), lawyers (Higgins), journalists (Cain), criminals (E. Richard Johnson), or down-and-out, hard-drinking, washed-up businessmen (Chandler).

But then I had this other idea: I could be the lone academic among crime fiction writers, the oddball in Ivy among real men. (And it was mostly men that I was reading—this was before my love affair with Patricia Highsmith.) Boy was I wrong.

It turns out—recently, but going back, too—that there is a sordid underbelly of crime fiction crawling with card-carrying PhDs. If I had thrown a rock into the crowd at the Bouchercon mystery writers convention last October, I probably would’ve hit someone with a fancy graduate degree.

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Los Desaparecidos

Jan 13, 2011 in Short Stories

First published in The Southern Review

Andres

It was snowing again in Santiago. On the news the boats were out in Valparaíso Bay, the divers in the water. I sat on the couch watching the flakes fall into the Pacific. The gunwales all but covered, and the simple blue of the boat turning white. And when I close my eyes the television disappears and I see bodies falling from airplanes, helicopters circling in the night. The snow taps gently against my window. It has been thirty years, and now they wanted to rush.

Valmer

Here is where it all started to fall apart. The wind coming up off the ocean, the grass moving on the low tableland, and the rocks in front of me like charcoal in the darkening air. My son, Andres, rode the small brown pony, wearing the rifle on his back, the woven leather strap across his chest. He called to the dogs, and the dogs were barking and leading the sheep down the mountain. The snow came then, riding in on the wind, until the flakes seemed to make their own paths, blowing down in streams like animals on a game trail.

The sheep moved as they usually did, oblivious to the storm. “Keep them together,” I yelled, my words lost to the wind. My son was ten years old, eleven in a few months when he would be old enough to work in town with his mother. But for now he could only help me with the herd. He could stand on the saddle and ride flat out for a kilometer or more. He did tricks like they do at the rodeos: riding backwards, hanging sideways, shooting cans off fence posts. He said he’d like to be a gaucho one day. He’d like to wear bombachas and feel the wind cling to the wool and press the material along his legs. He’d like to be in shows and ride trick ponies. “You won’t have to work the estancia, and Mom can come back from the factory,” Andres said during late nights, the smoke from the wood stove clinging to the walls, bitterly cold air blowing in under the door.

We came to the bottom of the mountain, the land flat in front of us. Already the snow was clinging to the blades, and when I got down off the horse and looked back at where we’d been, the grass cracked like brittle twigs beneath my boots.

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To Outline, Or Not To Outline…That Is The Question

Jan 13, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

I am often asked whether or not I write an outline or a synopsis for the novels I write. To date, the answer has always been “No, no outline, no synopsis,” and I think that will always be the answer. Writing a novel—for me—seems to be a spontaneous and organic thing, constantly changing, constantly in flux, and in this way I seem to be able to surprise myself with the twists and turns that a plot can take, even as I write it. I can change my mind. I can change the ending. The guilty party in A Quiet Belief in Angels became someone else entirely merely fifteen pages from the end of the book.

However, there are two constants for me; two things I always establish before I begin a novel. The time and place, just as one concept, is vitally important. A serial killer novel set in the Depression era is going to be an entirely different novel from a Washington-based contemporary political conspiracy. So the era and locale are vital. But, even more important for me, is the mood and atmosphere with which I want to imbue a story. How do I want readers to feel when they are reading the book? How do I want them to remember the book long after they have finished it?

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Manhattan, 3 AM

Jan 12, 2011 in Guest Posts, Short Stories

My friend and I smoke Buddha, get zen, wait half an hour for the F, take it to Rockefeller Center, and skate uptown. Below monoliths, on stone sidewalks, Paine Webber benches a bust tonight. Last resort: the CBS Building. The back plaza Security rarely checks. Half the lamps dying. A homeless man on the corner edge of the granite block. Not moving. A pack of four, hoods up and pants low, flipping tricks under what’s left of the bright lights.

They see us. A static charge hangs in the air so tactile I almost want to reach out. Burst it in a photo flash. We keep our distance. Skate the dark. Two against one. Dead silence in the city of noise. Watching us sweat it out. Then one of them gets back on his board and the rest follow suit. Continue reading ›

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Noir in Snow

Jan 11, 2011 in Books, Film

Mont Blanc tunnel Throughout the opening three days of the Courmayeur Noir in Fest, snow plows were busy clearing the streets of the picture postcard ski resort, creating mini mountains and snow walls of up to 10 ft high on either side of the narrow roads, which the delegates had to maneuver their way through between visits to the Palanoir complex where the films were shown and the rustic, wooden Jardin de l’Ange which served as a showcase for the literary events and press conferences. The icy roads occasioned many a spectacular slip and fall, and also a broken wrist for Stefania, the head of the Hospitality service. A heavy price to pay for the spectacular beauty of the festival’s Alpine landscapes…

The Jardin de l’Ange was packed for the lengthy conversation between Michael Connelly, this year’s winner of the Raymond Chandler Award, and leading Italian crime writer Carlo Lucarelli. It turned out to be a fascinating encounter in which the dialogue flowed, despite the inevitable simultaneous translation delays. Many of Mike’s fascinating answers to the obligatory questions were of course no surprise for English-speakers in the audience but Lucarelli did manage to extract some great nuggets, such as the admission that the character of Harry Bosch was in fact inspired by a combination of the real life story of James Ellroy and Sjowall & Wahloo’s Martin Beck. Not coincidentally, Maj Sjowall was also in town, hearty despite her age and here for the reissue of THE LOCKED ROOM in Italy. Sadly, she no longer writes these says, but was accessible, puckish and most alert to recent developments in crime fiction (she is definitely not a fan of the Stieg Larsson books, for example…). One of the curious highlights of the Connelly event was a bizarre intervention from the floor from the irrepressible Italian author Andrea G. Pinketts, one of the more colorful (for want of another word…) personalities of the local crime scene, who insisted on thanking Michael for having assisted him in once seducing a young woman on a beach, as she had observed him reading THE POET, and, from the title of Mike’s novel, had assumed Andrea was a particularly sensitive man as a result! We also learned that Mike had recently been able to view a rough cut of the forthcoming movie of THE LINCOLN LAWYER, with Matthew McConnaughey as Mickey Haller, and is genuinely proud of the adaptation; the film will be released in spring 2011. On the Friday evening, Connelly was presented with the award, a replica of the legendary Brasher Doubloon, prior to the evening’s screening of the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO, directed by Mark Romanek and featuring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Although barely on the borderlines of noir, this is a measured and moving film with a quiet beauty and sadness (and which I’d seen at the opening of the London Film Festival in October) and I was shocked later in the week to see it ignored by the jury.

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James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

Jan 10, 2011 in Books, Film, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Mulholland News

The following article was originally published in the fantastic Edgar-nominated anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell, who has  kindly given us permission to re-print Joe R. Lansdale’s essay here. Please support this wonderful and timely collection available wherever books are sold.

Born in Annapolis, James M. Cain (1892–1977) studied at Washington College, in Chesterton, Maryland, earning his B.A. and master’s there. He worked as a journalist, screenwriter, and novelist. His novels are often mentioned in the same breath with those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as a key contributor to the so called hard-boiled school of crime fiction. Cain resisted that label, however, stating that he belonged “to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise.” Several of Cain’s novels were adapted into films. Three—The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941)—are considered classics of the American screen. Cain’s post World War II works include The Butterfly (1947), a story of incest and murder set in Kentucky, as well as his personal favorite, a Depression hobo novel, The Moth (1948). In 1970, he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

James M. Cain was the master of hard-boiled prose, lean clean dialogue shiny as a new dime. He wrote like a demon on holiday, sexed up and hung over, and he changed the landscape of literature as surely as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler. But as Tom Wolfe wrote: “Nobody has quite pulled if off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler.”

In fact, Chandler thought very little of Cain and then adapted one of his best books into BillyWilder’s noir film Double Indemnity. The dialogue is snappier than Cain’s, and some of the scenes have a kind of high poetry about them. But Cain’s fiction stands quite well on its own and has about it a kind of working man’s muscular poetry, soaked in sweat and hormones so ripe you can almost smell it.

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My Dark Places (with sincere apologies to James Ellroy)

Jan 07, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

DraftingHead bent, sketching hit men on a title page, I do my best to let the blur of the convention fall away. A line forms: three people deep, clutching copies of my new graphic novel and waiting for my angular signature and brief sketch to scar their pure, untainted book. Using skills honed while penciling to music at drafting tables, I tune out noise to ensure each book’s owner receives a drawing on par with the level of quality poured into the book—a sequential history of the rise and fall of Murder, Incorporated—and with the research still living in my head, nothing will tear focus from the page, ink and line…

…Until a voice breaks through, stopping my pen, promising one hell of a story. A relative’s connection to one of the book’s gangsters, a momentary brush with Lansky, Lepke, Bugsy, or Waxey. Important enough to tell yet definitely not the first time it’s been told, performed with beats and banter so pitch-perfect either or both have been rehearsed several times before. A story, personal and dear, heard in the neighborhood and carried across the nation to bring a place, an act, a crime to those that have yet to cross its dark, dangerous path.

Capping my pen, I stop to listen. Hell; I’ve always got time for a story.

A personal crime story, like a comic book, is best experienced and traded (in my humble opinion). Picked up in a convention bar or at a panel, possibly accumulated while reading an interview, the personal crime story is perfect when related by one familiar with its native streets. “I knew a guy that knew a guy” proves poor comparison to Uncle Maury, black sheep of the family, who not only knew the guy but also delivered corned beef to his Flatbush Avenue apartment every Thursday afternoon. The story carries weight from the place it was born, evolving not only from those involved, but from the streets, avenues, and city around it.

Detroit Murder CityYears ago, living in Detroit, my friends and I prided ourselves on the fact that we hailed from the Murder Capital of the World (spoken with Honor Capitals, as if discussing the President of the United States). Detroit was dangerous, which meant we, in turn, were dangerous despite the fact that the lot of us were, in fact, short, nervous, and Jewish. But despite the truth, when it came to tales of murder, gangland crimes, or urban intrigue, every Shlomo, Dov, and Heshy in North Oak Park, Michigan, claimed to be the god-given successor to the Purple Gang itself.

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A Conversation with Scott Phillips

Jan 06, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Scott Phillips is the author of three of the most highly acclaimed crime novels of recent years. His debut novel, The Ice Harvest, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the California Book Award, a Silver Medal for Best First Fiction, and was a finalist for the Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize and the Anthony Award. It is now a major motion picture from Focus Features. Its followup The Walkaway continued his success, with The New York Times calling it “wicked fun.” His third novel, Cottonwood, is now out in paperback.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, where much of his first two books are set, Scott lived for many years in Paris, and then in Southern California, where he worked on screenplays. Those who frequent Showtime in the middle of the night may see his name on Crosscut (1996). He now lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year’s best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sophie lives with her husband and two teenage children near San Francisco, California.

SL: A while back we were talking about whether every writer secretly wants to be a musician. You, and a few other writers I admire, keep wandering over into other media like untethered goats. Why do you think we’re so distractible? I mean, symptom or cause?

SP: It’s that urge to use a different part of the brain, I think. And there’s also the urge to make money, and sometimes other media just beckon. I’m doing a novel in France called Nocturne le Vendredi, which is going to be a TV movie sometime in the next couple of years, so there’s an example of a project existing in two media at once. And then I’ve been playing music as long as I’ve been writing, but in my case it’s mostly been closer to performance art than real music, because I’m not very talented. I’m very envious of my friends who are real musicians, though.

I also go back and forth between genres, which is something you do as well. Do you think you’d go nuts writing the same kind of book over and over again, the way some people do quite successfully?

SL: Uh, yeah . . . and I’m amazed that not everyone feels this way. I was talking to some writing friends, and the question came up: if a publisher offered you a million dollars a book, with the stipulation that you could write only in that genre, would you take it? Truly, I don’t think I could do it.

I have attention challenges. But I have to say, some of the most fascinating people I know are unfocused. Or scattershot-focused. Or going in ten directions at once. Really, I think part of the problem is that all the language we have to describe such a state is pejorative . . . I have a friend who takes a lot of work to keep up with; he’s probably unintelligible to the casual listener. But he’s made the point that by trying to medicate kids (and adults) into a state of uniform mental processing, we bridle and quash the skills that are necessary for certain endeavors — among them writing. Which is not to say that beautiful writing only unfurls from an unquiet mind . . . but that such a state of affairs should not, for some, be discouraged or mended.

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