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.

The Death of the Detective: A Novel, by Mark Smith *****

deathofadetectiveMark Smith is one helluva writer. The Death of the Detective is complex yet hazy, with a million details both enumerated and obfuscated, not unlike a day in Chicago, the city in which it is set. All told, an enormously satisfying read. Tremendous thanks go to Net Galley and Brash Books for the DRC.

The time period is the post-war era. With the Great Depression well behind it and World War II a recent triumph, the USA is at the pinnacle of its wealth and worldwide power. The Death of the Detective is spun around the lives of a handful of men , all in Chicago during this time period, men whose lives intersect and then trail away from each other, sometimes joining again, and sometimes not. The style is a lot like that last sentence, compound sentences that last a long time and yet build up to something rather than becoming unwieldy. I have never read a voice like his before.

But back to our story. First we have the protagonist, Magnuson. He is retired from his life as the head of a locally famous security firm, and life has not been the same after his wife died. He is depressed. He’s invited old friends over to play cards and perhaps talk about their glory days, but the evening is ruined, because one of them has invited a man he detests without consulting Magnuson first. He is so irritated that eventually he abandons his guests and goes to bed. If only he would stay there!

Next up we have Farquarson, at least for a short time. Farquarson is a wealthy old man, and a mean one. Perhaps it is fortunate that he is dying. Unfortunately, he has just enough time and evil intent to send out a number of extremely unkind messages, some of them whispered, others sent as poison pen letters through the US mail. Once he is gone, his parting actions send things spinning in all sorts of directions, disrupting and ending the lives of good and decent people…and others’ also.

In addition there is Cavan. Cavan has lived his life in the self-absorbed, irresponsible, idly dilettantish manner of a sole heir to a vast fortune. After all, Farquarson has no children, and he is the only nephew. He spends and drinks recklessly while planning his scholarly (and expensive) trip to Africa. His field is anthropology, and his budget is one he assumes to be bottomless. What a surprise he has awaiting him.

Finally, we have our assassin. The man would probably be considered bipolar today; he has delusions of grandeur and a lot of other strange notions too. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital, but then getting over the wall is sometimes just a matter of persistence and athletic ability. Once he is out, he takes on a number of identities, foremost among them, Death. How fortunate, then, that he has wandered into a murder mystery where he can be useful.

At times, Smith’s noir fiction is reminiscent of the late, great Donald Westlake. At one point I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud over a wry turn of events.

Smith’s well-braided story also pulls in additional supporting players with more limited roles. We have a klatch of criminals, members of an organized syndicate, and we also have some hoods that want in and will do terrible things to prove themselves. We have local cops. We also have an assortment of young people associated with Cavan, as well as ordinary people across whose paths our story marches.

Because we’re all in this together, ultimately.

One thing of which the prospective reader should be aware is that the main characters are all Caucasian, and they are generally racist. The “N” word drops in now and then, and although its use is entirely consistent with the characters who are either using it out loud or thinking it—think of white Chicago businessmen and cops during the 1950s and 1960s—it is jarring. Perhaps it would have been more offensive simply to assume, as many writers still do, that characters in the story are all Caucasian; yet I think I would have enjoyed the novel more without that particular word, and perhaps with fewer racist statements and thoughts by the characters involved. This is my sole complaint about what is otherwise a truly outstanding mystery.

Smith is brilliant at conveying the emotions and thoughts of his characters through action. This reviewer was hooked at the end of the first paragraph, when the man in the diner cut his meat and then stole the knife. Smith’s internal dialogues are lengthy but so well done that rather than reacting with impatience, the reader must instead feel as if she is getting extra time with a remarkable story for no extra cost. His facility with figurative language, particularly simile, metaphor, and repetition are so skillful that I found myself flagging pages to share with students I no longer teach. It was both wondrous and disappointing.

I no longer have my students, but I have you, reader, and unlike most of them, you read what I have to say by choice. Pay attention! Sit up straight! Spit out your gum! Oh hell, I’m sorry; I forgot myself for a moment.

What I really want to point out is that not only do I consider this book well worth your time and money, but it was nominated for a National Book Award, and the author has an impressive list of credentials. But had he not, I would still recommend this amazing novel on its own merits. Originally released in 2007, it was re-released February 3, 2015. Get it and enjoy!