The Postman Always Rings Twice****

thepostmanalwaysringstwiceWell, they do say karma’s a bitch.

I fell heir to a first edition hard cover copy of this classic 1934 crime fiction. It’s too well worn to be a collector’s item, so instead of selling it, I decided to just enjoy holding a book in my hands that could have been held, hypothetically, by my great-grandparents. I think I enjoyed the crispy yellow pages and the old school print more than I enjoyed the story itself.  With wide margins and plenty of dialogue, it was a quick read, and before the weekend was over I’d finished it.

Our protagonist, Frank, is a drifter that does odd jobs and occasional crimes as he travels through Mexico and the Western USA; the story itself is set in California. He comes to an out-of-the-way place where a Greek immigrant and his wife run a small roadside restaurant. The owner is interested in expanding the business to include car repair, and hopes that a free meal and a bed for the night will lure Frank to stick around and work for him. Instead, Frank stays and finds a white-hot attraction to Cora, the owner’s wife. The two of them make love like cats in a pillowcase, snarling and biting and tearing at each other, and they like it so well that they decide to kill the Greek guy so they can do it together forever.

Those that don’t follow history may not know that at the time this story was published, U.S. xenophobia toward immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was at its pinnacle. Jim Crow and the Klan had silenced any open dissent from African-Americans with a reign of terror, but it was somewhat commonplace for Caucasians, who were by far the largest group in terms of population and certainly in terms of power and money, to make nasty assumptions and references about people from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the surrounding area.

So it’s within that context that Cora declares that although her husband Nick loves her and treats her really well, he repulses her because he’s “a little soft greasy guy with kinky hair”. He wants her to have his baby, and she doesn’t want to touch him. She’d hate to go back to turning tricks, but she would far prefer to be with fair, blonde-haired Frank than Nick Papadakis.

The story arc here is flawless, and I can see how it became a classic, but it has many aspects that haven’t aged well. There are nasty remarks about Mexicans; Cora urgently wants Frank to know that she’s white, even though her hair is dark. She isn’t “Mex”. And although I understand that some people do like rough sex, I had to take a deep breath when Frank became aroused and showed it by blacking Cora’s eye for her.

Right. So you see what I mean.

The way the story is plotted is ingenious, and the characters are consistent all the way through; the ending is brilliantly conceived and executed.

For me, though, one reading is enough.

A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.

Love for Lydia, by H.E. Bates*****

loveforlydiaHE Bates wrote before, during, and after World War II. Many readers came to his work after seeing a televised version of it.  It was different for me. I am fond of excellent fiction, military history, and short stories, and when I cruised Net Galley and found The Flying Officer X and Other Stories, I took a chance and scored a copy. Once I had read those, I knew I would want to read more of his work when I could. So although I came to this outstanding novel in a different way than most readers, I have to tell you that I loved it every bit as much as they did. Thank you Net Galley and Bloomsbury Reader for the complimentary DRC.  I read multiple books at a time, and I feel a bit sorry for others I read at the same time I read this, because almost everything else looks shabby next to Bates’s work. Those that enjoy great literary fiction, romance, and historical fiction—which this technically isn’t, since it was written during that time rather than later, but the feeling it generates is similar—should get a copy. Once the reader opens it, she is destined to be lost to all other purposes until the last page is turned.

This spellbinding story will be released digitally Thursday, May 12, 2016.

The setting is a small town in Britain, a town with a tannery and small farms. One great house surrounded by beautiful gardens stands aloof from the rest; it houses two elderly single women and their alcoholic brother.

Then Lydia, their niece, comes to live with them.

Lydia’s arrival is cloaked in mystery. She doesn’t talk about her mother. The aunts encourage the belief that Lydia is an orphan, but we later learn that isn’t really true. And at first Lydia, who has been cocooned so carefully that she has no social graces nor any real wardrobe, futzing around in clothing that looks suspiciously like that of her elderly aunts, really needs a trustworthy young mentor close to her own age. After having eyed the local population, the aunts send for the protagonist, young Mr. Richards, whose family fortunes have slid to terrible places. Once the proud owners of considerable farmland, the Richards family is now cramped in a noisy flat that shares a wall—and the attendant noises and smells—with the tannery.

Perhaps the thing the aunts like most about young Richards is his great fondness for flowers, an unusual trait in a young man at the party-animal age. He endears himself to the aunt that gives her attention to the landscaping, commenting on the traits of flowers and making suggestions that create an instant bond between young man and old lady, but Richards is unprepared for what awaits him.

The aunts want him to meet Lydia, and they wonder whether he might take her skating on the lake. He agrees to do so. Lydia has never skated and starts out as if she were a colt trying to navigate a frozen surface, all arms and legs floundering, falling. So he is unprepared for the grace and dignity that soon possess her. They fall in love, and young love proves to be the school of hard knocks for our young man, as it is for so many.

None of this brief outline can provide Bates’s magical facility with words. This blog has reviewed hundreds of books—all read and reviewed by me—and this is one that stands out and that has stood the test of time. Bates transports us to a place we have never been and makes us feel we know it, and its inhabitants, intimately. He also lights on issues like social class and the way those with lifelong privilege might treat those without. But this is not a social justice campaign, it’s a brilliant work of fiction that sizzles in places and scorches in others. Character development is spectacularly done; I have had my nose in half a dozen books since I finished reading this one, yet I still think of Blackie, of Tom, of Nancy, of Alex, and oh of course, of Lydia. The ending is bittersweet yet strangely satisfying.

The vocabulary level that makes for such tremendous depth of character and setting also requires a strong facility for the English language on the part of the reader. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, I don’t recommend handing this novel to your love-struck sixteen-year-old as summer reading unless he or she reads at the college level.

I dare you to find a more engaging love story than this one.