My top fiction and non-fiction reads of 2014

Time for me to present Pulp Curry readers with the list of my best reads for 2014. As is customary, I will start off by admitting, yet again, I feel I have not read nearly as much as I should have. My reading this year has been dominated by books for work, including material for freelance articles and the various literary festival panels I’ve been involved in. A considerable amount of my attention has also been directed to reading related to the non-fiction book I have been co-editing, Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950-1980, which is scheduled to be published in October 2015.

With all that said, here’s the top ten books I read in 2014. I’ve split my list in two this year – fiction and non-fiction.

My top fiction reads are as follows:

escape-dominique-manotti

Escape, Dominique Manotti 

I have long been interested in the political history in Italy in the seventies and eighties, the so-called ‘years of lead’, when left wing paramilitary groups and right wing extremists in the military and police were locked in a shadowy, violent conflict. Dominique Manotti’s Escape is set in the late eighties and deals with the aftermath of that conflict. Filippo is a common street hood that shares a prison cell with Carlos, a charismatic former Red Brigade member. On a whim, Filippo joins a successful escape attempt by Carlo. Carlo gives his former cellmate money and instructions to seek assistance from his ex-girlfriend, Lisa, now in exile in Paris. Carlos is subsequently killed in a bank heist. Lisa becomes obsessed with investigating Carlos’s death, which she believes was set up by right wing elements of the Italian state, keen to eliminate former Red Brigade members. Meanwhile, Filippo has relocated to France and written a novel based on his relationship with Carlos, which also inserts himself into the failed heist story. The book becomes the toast of the Paris literary establishment. It also arouses Lisa’s suspicions and, more dangerously, attracts the attention of certain senior members of the Italian state.

Good political crime fiction is hard to pull off, but Manotti strikes just the right balance. There’s political intrigue as well as some fantastic detail about the ‘years of lead’ and the strange emotional and political no man’s land inhabited by exiles like Lisa. Terrific stuff.

Forever

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

Published in 1974, The Forever War is a science fiction classic and I can see why. The story focuses on several members of an elite military task force assembled for a war against a mysterious alien race known as the Taurans. The soldiers travel via interconnected ‘collapsars’ that allow ships to cover thousands of light-years in a split second. The catch is, a two stretch of service for the soldiers is decades in earth time.

Haldeman fought in Vietnam and draws obvious parallels between that conflict and interstellar war. The campaign against the Taurans is vividly depicted, long stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional rapid burst of lethal combat against a largely unknown enemy. Haldeman’s take on the future earth, and the returned soldier’s alienation from it are also fascinating. I was a massive science fiction nut as teen, but that dropped away in my early twenties in favour of crime fiction. This book made me want to read more SF.

the-fever

The Fever, Megan Abbott

The Fever continues Abbott’s run of novels exploring the dark side of American suburbia and the unpredictable energy and chaos of young girls. A female student at the high school suffers what appears to be – but can’t be – an epileptic fit. The next day, one of her friends does the same, then another girl. Via the speed of social media, rumours, gossip, misrepresentations, innuendo spread like wildfire and soon the entire school community is in a state of complete panic. The media feeds the frenzy. Soon, the state medical authorities are involved but they are completely perplexed by what is happening.

As the father of a young girl, Abbott’s last three novels, The End of Everything, Dare Me, and now The Fever, have functioned as a sort of samizdat how-too parenting guide for me. Abbott’s take on the very noir lives led by young girls is razor sharp and it goes without saying The Fever is beautifully written. All that said, I think this is the weakest of the three recent novels and I’ll be interested to see where she takes her particular brand of suburban noir from here. Here’s hoping its something like her earlier books, This Song Is You and Die A Little.

Shake Him Till He rattles 2

Shake Him Till He Rattles, Malcolm Braly

Fawcett Gold Medal first published Shake Him Till He Rattles in 1963. The story is set in the San Francisco suburb of North Beach, ground zero of the West Coast beat scene in the early sixties. It centres on a horn-player called Cabiness, the target of some very unwelcome attention on the part of a junkie vice cop, Carver. Not only does Carver have it in for jazz musicians, he believes Cabiness is a major player in the North Beach drug scene and wants to turn him into his snitch. Cabiness is not a major criminal. He’s not a major anything, really. His only aim in life is to “smoke a little pot and blow my horn”, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Jean, who is getting tired of the scene.

Shake Him Till He Rattles is one of the many pulp novels I read for Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950-1980. It is also one of the best and easily holds its own with a lot of crime contemporary crime fiction. It is a well written, shrewdly observed tale. The characters, the way they speak, the descriptions of the drug milieu and jail, are vivid and real. The book is one of three Malcolm Braly, once called ‘the patron saint of losers’, wrote in jail, where he spent seventeen of his first forty years for various burglary related offences. Braly’s On The Yard, about his time in prison is now on my to-read list.

Any+Cold+Jordan

Any Cold Jordon, David Bottoms

Drifter Billy Parker plays guitar in a country-and-western bar in rural Florida. He hates what he does and the people who come to see him play, has a complicated relationship with his wife and drinks too much. In short, his life is going nowhere fast. That is until an acquaintance, Jack Nolan, a Vietnam vet with a shadowy past, asks him whether he wants to make money. Parker needs the money to finance his share of a bar he wants to buy. The downside is that the scheme is very illegal and, potentially, very dangerous.

Long out of print, my copy of Any Cold Jordan came via New Jersey crime writer Wallace Stroby, who strongly recommended it. I can see why. It was published in 1980, long before the inundation of books termed ‘rural noir’ and packed with meth labs, dying towns and dysfunctional communities. Any Cold Jordon has some of these elements, but they are beautiful understated and take the reader in a completely unpredictable direction. It is also a wonderful piece of prose.

Whitstable(frontcover)

Whistable, Stephen Volk

This novella was given to my by my partner, Angela Savage, who knows I am a big Hammer Horror fan and thought I might get a kick out of a story based on the life of Peter Cushing. Whistable takes place in 1971, Cushing’s wife has recently passed away and he is distraught at the prospect of living without her. Going for a walk one day, he is approached by a boy who recognises him from his film roles as the the famous vampire-hunter Doctor Van Helsing. The boy wants Cushing’s help because he believes his stepfather is a vampire

Whistable is a wonderful read. The writing is dark and beautiful and Volk deftly mixes fiction with numerous factual elements, including some wonderful inside stories about the life of Cushing. A must read for anyone who love the actor and his Hammer horror films.

long-way-home-pbk

Long Way Home, Eva Dolan

Dolan’s debut novel (I believe a second has just been released), Long Way Home is set in a suburban satellite town in the heart of rural East England and opens with the discovery of a corpse of an adult male in the burnt out remains of a backyard shed. John Doe was a migrant farm labourer of Eastern European decent, part of the army of semi-illegal workers who have flooded into the area, with all the resulting problems and social tensions. That makes it a job for the Hate Crimes Unit of the local Peterborough plod, and introduces the two main characters, themselves immigrants, DI Zigic, a third generation Serb living in the town, and his offsider, Ferrier, a young policewoman of Portuguese decent.

I don’t usually like books like Long Way Home, but several elements elevated it from being just another police procedural. The plot is sophisticated and deeply researched. Dolan’s pacing is near flawless, helped by a vivid sense of her main characters and the way they interact. Also the writing is first class. Long Way Home is a deceptively hardboiled story that feels like the work of a much more experienced author.

My best non-fiction reads for 2014 are as follows:

goodis

Goodis: A Life in Black and White, Philippe Garnier

Goodis is seen as the pre-eminent noir writers of his era. After years churning out stories for pulp magazines, by the late forties Goodis had hit the big time – a screenwriting contract with Warner Bros. and a hit movie, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on his 1946 novel of the same name. But within a couple of years he had tossed it all away, returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, moved back in with his parents and mentally ill brother and spent the next two decades churning out pulp novels. When Goodis died in 1967, he had been almost completely forgotten in his home country and none of his 18 novels were in print in the US.

The ebb and flow of literary fame is just one element running through French born, Los Angeles-based journalist Philippe Garnier’s biography of David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White, translated from the French and published in English in 2014 for the first time in thirty years. What motivated Goodis to deliberately embrace obscurity? Garnier doesn’t really get to the bottom of the mystery, but his attempt to unravel it is a wonderful journey. Goodis: A Life in Black and White is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of pulp and noir fiction.

Jacks and Jokers

Jacks and Jokers, Matthew Condon

Meticulously researched, broad in its historical scope, Jacks and Jokers is the second book in Condon’s examination of police corruption in Queensland from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, and part of a wave of recent books that are redefining Australian true crime writing. The narrative spine of Jacks and Jokers is the career of Terry Lewis. Lewis joined the Queensland police force at twenty and rose to be commissioner before the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 80s, which led to his trial and conviction on various charges, including accepting vast amounts in bribes to protect vice and illegal gambling.

Reading Jack and Jokers I couldn’t help but think of the sentiments expressed by Eric Hobsbawm in his excellent history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, about the ways in which late capitalism has created a break between contemporary perception and memories and events of the past. ‘Most young men and women,’ he wrote, ‘grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.’ Jack and Jokers is an essential history of a period of Queensland’s development that has been much talked about and often parodied, but little known or understood, both in and outside of the Sunshine State.

Kings Cross

Kings Cross: A Biography, Louis Nowra

Kings Cross has a special place in Australian popular culture. One of my favourite fictional private investigators, Cliff Hardy, the creation of Sydney author Peter Corris, has done his fair share of time knocking around the Cross. In the sixties and early seventies, Kings Cross was the subject of a number of risqué local pulp novels, many of which I have collected. Kings Cross: A Biography is an attempt to explore the reality and myths of an area that has exercised a considerable hold over our nation’s imagination. Nowra, who has lived in Kings Cross since 1990, is no stranger to the area’s darker side and has absolutely no desire to play it down. And the book is all the better for it. Nowra delves into the Cross’s reputation as a centre for sly grog, prostitution and police corruption. But he also examines other aspects of its history, including the fact that from the thirties to the sixties it became one of the few places in the country were alternative sexualities and lifestyles were openly tolerated. It had a thriving communist scene and was a haven for Italian, Greek and Jewish migrants, as well as Germans refugees escaping the Nazism.

I learnt so much from this book. It left me asking, where are Melbourne’s from the ground up social histories? Where is the equivalent book on St Kilda?

Ephemera from the 1971 film, Get Carter

Michael Caine and Geraldine Moffat

Michael Caine as Jack Carter and Geraldine Moffat who played Glenda

Following on my essay earlier this week in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Ted Lewis, his Jack Carter books and the film adaption of the first book, Get Carter (which you can check out here if you if you are interested), I thought readers might be interested in a selection of ephemera from the books and film.

The 1971 movie, directed by Mike Hodges, does not need any introduction here. While it is by no means the best british crime movie ever made, as some would claim, it is a good one and has been very influential, in terms of plot, characterisation and visual feel.

Enjoy.

Get Carter movie poster version 1

Get Carter

Get carter poster 1973

Get Carter poster 2

Get Carter poster 1999

Michael Caine and Ian Hendry behind the scenes

Behind the scenes shot featuring Michael Caine and Ian Hendry

Michael-Caine, Petra-Markham-Rosmarie-Dunham-Dorothy-White1

Michael Caine with the female cast of Get Carter (courtesy of the official Ian Hendry website)

Ian Hendry with Michael Caine and producer Michael Klinger, Newcastle upon Tyne (courtesy of the official Ian Hendry website)

Get Carter US lobby card 1972

1972 US lobby card featuring Caine and Alun Armstrong

Get Carter, 1971 lobby card, featuring Britt Ekland

Jack's Return Home, Michael Joseph, 1970

Jack’s Return Home, Michael Joseph, 1970

Carter, Pan Books, 1970

Carter, Pan Books, 1971

Giallo caine

An Italian giallo version of Ted Lewis’s novel, Get Carter

Get Carter s

Album Cover to Get Carter score by Roy Budd

Caine and Moffat

Caine and Moffat redux

Carter Village

For those who are interested, there are a lot more terrific behind the scenes images from Get Carter here on the official Ian Hendry website.

Get Carter, again

Ted 71 on set of GC

British author Ted Lewis on the set of the 1971 film, Get Carter

It is impossible to discuss British author Ted Lewis’s 1970 novel, Jacks Return Home, without mentioning its better-known 1971 film adaptation,Get Carter. Rarely has such an influential crime novel dwelt so deeply in the shadow of its cinematic adaptation. In the wake of the movie’s success, the book was quickly retitled Get Carter (which is how I’ll refer to it) and the main character forever associated with British actor Michael Caine, then at the height of his preternaturally long acting career, in a snappy suit and tie, grimly looking over the barrel of a shotgun.

Not that anything else Lewis wrote was particularly successful. As British crime writer Ray Banks observed in a piece on the site The Rap Sheet: “As far as forgotten books go, you could make a claim for pretty much anything Ted Lewis wrote.” But what Lewis lacked in sales, his books, particularly Get Carter, made up for in the glowing praise of crime writers, nearly all of it posthumous.

Get Carter and its subsequent prequels, Jack Carters Law (1974) and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon (1977), have recently been rereleased by Syndicate Books, which marks the first time they have been available in North America for 40 years. The blurbs at the beginning of the new versions represent a who’s who of muscular crime fiction: Dennis Lehane, David Peace, Derek Raymond, James Sallis, Stuart Neville, and John Williams. Williams, author of The Cardiff Trilogy, describes Get Carter as “the finest English crime novel ever written.” Raymond and Peace credit him not only with influencing their work but also with kick-starting noir fiction in the UK.

You can read the rest of my essay on Ted Lewis and the influence of his Jack Carter books, at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

More information about the re-released Jack Carter trilogy is available on the Syndicate Books site.

Pulp Friday: Shake Him Till He Rattles

Shake Him Till He rattles 2Drifting between a very cool girl and a very warm one… A funky nighttime love story, so vivid you can taste it, hear it, feel it…

Today’s Pulp Friday is a story of sexual jealously, drug use, lost opportunities and jazz, set in the San Francisco suburb of North Beach, ground zero of the West Coast beat scene in the early sixties.

Fawcett Gold Medal first published Shake Him Till He Rattles in 1963. The story centres on a horn-playing beatnik called Cabiness, the target of some very unwelcome attention on the part of a junkie vice cop, Carver. Not only does Carver have it in for jazz musicians, he believes Cabiness is a major player in the North Beach drug scene and wants to turn him into his snitch.

Cabiness is not a major criminal. He’s not a major anything, really. His only aim in life is to “smoke a little pot and blow my horn”, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Jean, who is getting tired of the scene. She hassles him about wasting his talent. To which he replies: “Music is just music until you start trying to sell it; then it changes in a lot of ways. A lot of things change. You end up with a product…. I’d have to be some other person, Change myself in some ways. You dig?”

Shake Him Till He Rattles is a superior piece of pulp fiction, a well written, shrewdly observed tale. The characters, the way they speak, the descriptions of the drug milieu and jail, are vivid and real, as is the writing about jazz, something most pulp books dealing with beat culture pay only cursory attention to in order to signify a cultural time and place.

The author, Malcolm Braly, once called ‘the patron saint of losers’, obviously had first hand knowledge of what he was writing about. Abandoned by his parents, he spent his youth in foster homes and institutions for delinquent children. By the time he was forty, Braly had spent seventeen years in various jails for burglary related offences.

Shake Him Till He Rattles was one of three novels Braly wrote behind bars. The others include Felony Tank (1961) and It’s Cold Out There (1966). Upon his release in 1965 he began his known best book, On The Yard, about his time in prison. Prison authorities threatened to revoke his parole when they found out what he was doing and he completed it in secret. It was published upon the end of his parole in 1967. He died in a car accident at the age of fifty-four.

Adventures in noir land

Pumpkin-JPEG

It has been a while since I’ve posted here on Pulp Curry. This is because I’ve spent the last few weeks travelling in the US. I spent time in New York and Washington DC. I also visited the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, the home of Edgar Allen Poe, David Goodis and, every two years, one of the most interesting literary festivals I have experienced, NoirCon.

NoirCon is not your common or garden-variety festival. No way. And that is a very good thing.

First of all, the focus is firmly on noir, mainly fiction, but also film, poetry or whatever (and that last category, ‘whatever’, encapsulates some pretty bizarre material). I’m not saying there’s not a place for broader events that include a wider range of contributors and crime fiction sub-genres. But it’s also great to sit in a room of people who are, for once, more or less, all on the same page in terms of their love of noir, and not have to feel you have to justify or explain the focus.

Second, although it’s not exactly an exclusive event, neither does it try to be any bigger than need be. I get the feeling that while organiser, Lou Boxer, does his best to come up with new presenters and topics, he’s happy for the event not to get out of control or stray beyond the noir remit.

Third, not everything works. There were some great sessions, some not so great sessions, and some that completely didn’t work. The eclectic mix of events and presenters and the fact that not everything comes off exactly as might be planned, is part of what I liked so much about NoirCon. It gives the event an unpredictable and spontaneous feel and pretty much everyone in the room is down with this and happy to go with the flow.

The highlights for me were as follows:

Prowler alert

A screening of the remastered print of the 1951 ‘bad cop’ film noir, The Prowler, starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes. Directed by Joseph Losey and written by blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who worked under a pseudonym, the film has long been unavailable and was only recently been restored by the US Film Noir Foundation. The screening was followed by a Q&A with head of the Foundation, Eddie Muller, who talked about the film’s background, why he enjoyed interviewing Keyes so much, and gave an impassioned defence of why it is important to preserve films in their original 35mm format.

B-Noir

A terrific panel titled ‘Cheerleaders, Rodeo Clowns, Wrestlers and Sideshow Stars: the Deadly Serious World of B Noir’. This examined some of the strange territory being covered in noir fiction and included two of my favourite US crime writers, Megan Abbott and Wallace Stroby, as well as Christa Faust and a writer who I need to read, Dennis Tafoya.

My daddy was a baaaaad man

Ex-Los Angeles police force detective Steve Hodel gave a presentation on the painstaking investigation he has carried out into one of the most infamous murders in US history, the Black Dahlia. He presented chilling evidence that fairly conclusively identified the culprit, his own father. A fascinating story of evil close to home that involved at various points, Man Ray and the surrealists, John Huston, a house built by the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and various other rich, white, weird members of Los Angeles bohemian society in the late forties and early fifties. Hodel gave a second presentation a couple of days later that his father was also the man behind the Zodiac killings, which I found far less convincing. But, as I said, not everything works.

Beyond black

An insightful and, at times, hilarious panel on bad behaviour and outright evil in the work of Patricia Highsmith and Flannery O’Connor. I consider myself a Highsmith fan but have never read O’Conner. After listening to the panellists I realised this has to change.

Seventies décor and a full service bar

The NoirCon awards dinner was terrific. Eddie Muller and Japanese writer Fuminori Nakamura got gongs. But more entertaining was the venue, the banquet hall of Philadelphia’s Sheet Metal Workers Local. The seventies décor felt like being in a mash up of the set of the Deer Hunter and The Shining. Former members of the local even tended bar and didn’t rely on their spirit measures when pouring cocktails.

Port Richmond Books and what followed

The final session of NoirCon was held at the largest and one of the best second hand bookshop I’ve even had the pleasure of visiting, Port Richmond Books. Piles of books, many of them disorganised, an entire room of pulp paperback fiction, winding corridors that ended in an abandoned Wurlitzer jukebox covered in more books, what is not to love for the serious second hand book collector? Afterwards, a number of us retired to one of the local watering holes, Donna’s Bar, for beer, pirogues by the plateful and great conversation.

Sir/madam will you please be my friend?

The main highlight of NoirCon was meeting crime writers and bloggers I’d only known previously from social media, as well as a heap of new people. I especially enjoyed meeting Jedidiah Ayres, Scott Adlerberg, Duane Sweircznksi, David James Keaton (who should change his name to his Twitter handle, Spidefrogged, it’s much cooler) and his partner Amy Lueck, Kate Laity, Mark Krajnak, Jen Conley, Jonathon Woods, Kieran Shea, Patti Abbott, Rob Hart, Nik Korpon, the always suave Peter Rozovsky, Philadelphia legend and Edgar Allen Poe specialist, Edward Pettit, Dennis Tafoya, Erik Arneson, Wallace Stroby (who was nice enough to let me interview him for a future issue of Crime Factory), Jeff Wong, Mike Dennis and of course, Lou Boxer.

The good lord willing and the river don’t rise, reckon I might try and make it back to NoirCon in 2016. And this time I might try and present. I think NoirCon folk might be interested in a panel on fifties/sixties Australian pulp fiction…

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B noir panel

The band

Looking like a folk band

Petit

Edward Pettit & his supernatural shadow

piss up

Sunday afternoon, Donna’s Bar

Laity

UK crime writer, Kate Laity

Port Richmond

The magnificent chaos of Port Richmond Books