Category Archives: Book Reviews

My top 10 reads of 2018

I reconciled myself long ago to the fact I will never get to the end of a year without thinking I have not read as much as I should have. That said, I have read some great books this year. Fiction and non-fiction, old books and new, in no particular order, here are my top ten reads for 2018.

Red Dragon, Thomas Harris

This year, I read a few bestsellers from the past to see if I can figure out what made them so successful, and this was my favourite. The book that introduced Hannibal Lector, it is a riveting rollercoaster ride into the serial killer mind. Beautifully written and acutely observed. Harris includes some incredible detail on forensics and police procedure without overdoing it. Red Dragon is the perfect mix of elevated airport novel and hardboiled crime story.

Twisted Clay, Frank Walford

Australian writer, Frank Walford’s 1933 account of a murderous young woman,  a pathological liar and sociopath, was banned in Australia until the late 1950s. The story, which contains patricide, sex work, suicide and the young female main character’s burgeoning awareness and enjoyment of her lesbian sexuality, is a wonderfully lurid read. One can only wonder what readers must have made of it in the 1930s. Not surprisingly, they seemed to like it as it was a bestseller in the UK and US, where it was published.… Read more

Book review: Beautiful Revolutionary

I first came across Melbourne author Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s work when she participated in a Noir at Bar event I helped organise last year. That night she read one of the tales from her short story collection, The Love of a Bad Man. It is tempting to view her debut novel, Beautiful Revolutionary, as an extension of that collection – twelve terrific stories told from the point of view of the lovers and wives of various bad men in history. Indeed, if I remember correctly, one of the pieces in The Love of a Bad Man concerned the Reverend Jim Jones, a very bad man and the central focus of Beautiful Revolutionary.

Woollett’s novel spans the period of history from the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June 1968 to the events that occurred in November 1978, when over 900 people died from drinking poison at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project, better known as ‘Jonestown’ in Guyana, founded by cult leader, Jim Jones. When I was younger, I remember Jonestown being described as a mass suicide but, as relatives of the dead have since pointed out, it was really a mass murder, as all but a few drank the poison under duress.

Although we never hear the story from his point of view, the book revolves around Jones, a self proclaimed socialist saviour, but also a sexual predator, quack faith healer and an increasingly unhinged demagogue.… Read more

Book review: Clarence Cooper Jr’s The Scene

San Francisco based crime writer Domenic Stansberry recently sent me a copy of a book he has just put out through his very cool looking small publisher, Molotov Editions. The book is a re-released edition ofThe Syndicate by a little known Black crime writer, Clarence Cooper Jr.

I hope to write about the Molotov Editions reprint of The Syndicate, the cover of which is included below, in a future post. For now, however, I want to talk about the Cooper novel I have read, The Scene, also published in 1960. And if The Scene is any guide I am pretty sure I will dig The Syndicate.

The book set in a nameless US city, and deals with the bleak, dead end lives of the junkies, prostitutes and criminals who populate an area of it, known as ‘the Scene’.

A myriad of characters shift in and out of the story: there’s Rudy Black, a ruthless, showy pimp and up and coming pusher, part of a network of dealers working for a mysterious criminal called ‘the Man’, who controls the flow of narcotics in the Scene: Black Bertha, who also deals to support her and her daughters but doesn’t use herself; and Miss Dalton, the Man’s loyal secretary.

The novel also focuses on two cops.… Read more

Pulp Friday: The Riot

I am rather partial to a good paperback movie tie-in. And I love Pan paperbacks. So this book from 1969, which I had never previously seen before stumbling across it in a second hand bookshop this week, presses all the right buttons.

The Riot, the only novel credit I have been able to find for Frank Elli, was first published in 1966. It is the story of a cynical con who finds himself thrown into the centre of a brutal hostage situation when the prison he is incarcerated in, erupts in a riot. Apparently the novel was based on an actual riot in an Arizona prison in which Elli, a former inmate of the prison, had been involved in. Kirkus Review called it ‘powerful storytelling. It’s a brutal, black vision in which the cynical despair is offset by a cool, shrug shouldered presentation.’ That doesn’t sound too bad.

It was filmed as Riot in 1969 by Buzz Kulik, a director who appears to have spent most of his career doing television, starring Jim Brown in the main role, and Gene hackman. As was often the case with prison films in the 1960s and 1970s, the production utilised real life prison inmate and staff at the Yuma Territorial Prison that it was filmed in.… Read more

Book review: Hard-Boiled Hollywood

I challenge anyone to get more than a few pages into Jon Lewis’s 2017 revisionist history of post-war Hollywood, without thinking about the parallels to Harvey Weinstein scandal, and all the terrible tales about America’s movie capital that have flowed from it. As Lewis’s book demonstrates, Hollywood – both in the temporal and fantasy sense (and both play a role in this book) was never any different. Arguably, it used to be far, far worse.

Lewis’s book doesn’t deliver a lot of new information or historical research about Hollywood. What it does deliver, in spades, is the meticulous collection, collation and synthesis of a huge amount of pre-existing research, media commentary and popular culture folk law, which he weaves together into a cogent and comprehensive overview of post-World War II Hollywood, and the various power players, criminals, film stars and fringe dwellers, and how they interacted with a studio system in the throws of major transition.

The book touches on lots of familiar names: Robert Mitchum and his famous drug bust; Frank Sinatra, already on the start of his trajectory towards conservatism, and his famous stoush with celebrity columnist, Lee Mortimer; the bullying, manipulative HUAC stooge, Cecile B DeMille; Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, and his close ties to the studio system, just to name a few.… Read more