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‘It’s not as if I’d expect you to tell me the truth, dear boy. My readers don’t give a damn about the truth. They just want a good story with someone they can cheer for. We could even make you look good.’ He glanced at Pyke and shrugged. ‘Or bad, if you wanted to be bad. Good or bad. Just not both at the same time. It confuses people. They can’t work out whether to shout for the man or rail against him.’

Anti-heroes and noir fiction detectives go hand in hand. That moral equator gets crossed so many times, the reader is left wondering if the book’s protagonist is possessing of any morality at all. The best kinds of anti-heroes, to my mind at least, are those who possess a sort of bruised romanticism. Once they believed in a better future, but the present has consistently disabused them of that notion. Death-dealing ‘antiheroes’, such as say John Rambo, launch themselves across that moral line without a second thought. For them killing is something that barely needs to be rationalized as a ‘necessary evil’.

It is obvious that the different forms of anti-hero makes for attractive protagonists in any genre, hence Elric, or Thomas Covenant in fantasy and the Stainless Steel Rat in science fiction. In The Last Days of Newgate, author Andrew Pepper suggests a very early progenitor of the trope – Machiavelli’s classic political satire The Prince. For the purposes of this novel, however, he meets the reader halfway, introducing us to a typical Private Eye type named Pyke, who happens to live in 1820’s London.

Of course Pyke is not known as a private detective in this era. Instead he plies his trade as a thief-taker working for the Bow Street Runners. He also enjoys a small sideline in selling on stolen goods that he was unable to secure a reward for recovering. In fact the very first page of this book has him being attacked by a criminal associate, an Irishman known as Michael Flynn in a double-cross. As this is sectarian London, with Daniel O’Connell’s calls for Catholic emancipation inspiring riots in the streets between Protestants and Irish immigrants. Merely knowing Michael Flynn is enough for Pyke to be suspected of unseemly behavior, but the captured criminal is not helping for confessing everything about his partner’s role in his fence operation.

It is a time of great change in London. In addition to the proposal to give rights to Catholics under British law, the politicians are also debating the creation of a Metropolitan police force. This would of course render the Bow Street Runners null and void. In what seems like his last job, an ordinary investigation lands Pyke in the middle of a gruesome murder. The victims are initially identified as a Protestant couple, which causes further riots within the city. Pyke realizes that a patsy suspect will be accused in order to sate the anger of a bloodthirsty public. In his pursuit of the truth, he has to journey from London to Belfast and back, not to mention the little matter of a jail break.

This book captures the pre-Victorian era with an impressive degree of period detail and mixes in a plot strongly reminiscent of Mike Hammer. Occasionally characters quote Machiavelli to let us know this is not low-brow material, but by the same token it is great fun to see Pepper ducking and weaving through the associations.

Most impressive is how the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is mapped onto the familiar themes of race hatred from American detective fiction. By doing so Pepper cleverly establishes the extent of the conflict between the two religions, with the British Home Secretary at one point casually stating I believe the Irish race to be an inferior one’.

This is also a book about the gulf between classes. Pyke’s ability to mingle with land owning aristocrats as well as pub brawlers marks him out as an anomaly. He enjoys partaking of laudanum and has little respect for women – but holds himself to an unusual moral code, despite being informed by his study of Machiavelli. In that he regards himself as superior to the men who rule Britain with an uncaring pragmatism, as well as the folk of his childhood whom he can barely relate to anymore.

This book is fascinating in its mixture of genres and informed by an incisive approach to the historical period.

She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea that we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.

The pleasure in reading noir fiction comes not so much from the plots, but from the manner in which the author plays with such familiar tropes, the use of language, the characters sketched in this genre of bitterness, frustrated desires and disappointment. Of James M. Cain’s fans, one obvious pair is the Coen Brothers, whose first film Blood Simple was a love letter to his stories of barren lives competing for survival.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic noir tale that manages to sum up the themes and tropes of the genre within a single slim volume.

Frank Chambers is a drifter, a bum and an ex-con, who wanders into a hot-dog diner twenty miles outside of L.A. to try and scam a free lunch. The owner Nick Papadakis is in need of a willing employee to help run the shop and indulges this drifter in order to convince him to take the job. Frank is not falling for the false concern of the Greek and is moments away from saying no when he sees Mrs Papadakis, Cora. From that moment on Frank wants nothing more than to make her his own.

Wasting no time he manages to seduce the lonely former beauty queen from Iowa, discovering that she carries within her untapped frustrations that won’t simply settle for skipping out of town and living on the road. She sees Frank, despite her passionate love for him, as little more than a bum. Her solution to their problems is more elaborate. Kill the Greek and fake his death as an accident. Despite himself, Frank finds himself plotting Nick’s death.

This book races along to its grim finale, with its black, skewed morality never flagging for a moment. Cora is not quite Lady MacBeth, but her ambitions put the self-proclaimed smarts of Frank to shame. For a man who supposedly lives by his wits, he often manages to succumb to lust and fear often enough to be taken for a fool. Of course the most immoral character in this book of insensitive husbands, ex-cons and murderers is – a lawyer, named Katz, whose sole interest is in winning the cases he fights, regardless of the innocence, or guilt of the defendants.

The Postman Always Rings Twice has been favoured by Hollywood by adaptation to film more than once. It is easy to see why. This is a tightly plotted narrative, bound up in the self-pitying reflections of Frank, who makes for a willing confessor. It also dips into, controversial for its time, themes of sadism and rough sexuality, ensuring its place in the history books by having been banned.

Worth investigating for anyone interested in the genre.

A sixty-something desk clerk with a dishevelled stare and dark armpits told me to sign my name in the registration book. I blanked. He repeated I should sign my name. I couldn’t sign my full name, Mary Alice Baker. Nina was the first name that came to me, because it was exotic, foreign sounding. I couldn’t imagine a terrorist Nina. The sum total of my life to date would be my last name. I signed myself in as Nina Zero.

Let me tell you about a weird little incident that happened to me in Amsterdam. Oh don’t worry, it’s nothing like that. I broke the mould on visitors to that capital of lax morality by visiting comic stores to hunt down hard-to-get titles. In one store I asked the owner if he had any copies of Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. He directed me to accompany him downstairs to the basement. There I found a low-ceilinged room stuffed with long-boxes. The owner began to list the contents of each, naming companies I was familiar with and then he pointed to the fifth box along and said “those are Bad Girl comics”. The pattern repeated itself, with several other boxes being identified in the same way.

Bad girls? I really did not know what he meant. Female protagonists that act like pulp fiction tough guys, often written by men and parodying feminist heroines perhaps.

Mary Alice Baker starts this book as a ‘good girl’, but informs us that she soon learned how to be a ‘bad girl’. Living on a meagre wage from taking pictures of children for doting parents, Mary’s own family life is an abusive, dysfunctional nightmare. Her father rules the home with an iron fist, frequently taking out his frustrations on his children and long-suffering wife. Mary does not have much luck with the men in her life, as her boyfriend Wrex is an emotionally manipulative parasite, whose relationship with her is dependent on her allowing him to sleep in her bed.

Then he asks her one favour too many, deliver a package to a stranger at LAX Airport. Seconds later the man, and indeed the arrivals lounge, are blown to smithereens. Mary suddenly finds herself a suspected terrorist, her name and face decorating the front pages of newspapers across Los Angeles. One safety pin through her nose and a dye-job later and Nina Zero is born. She falls in with fame-hungry Warholian artists, even gets a crash course in becoming a private eye and decides to hunt down the party responsible for the bombing. Maybe put a few holes in Wrex as well if possible.

This novel has some fun with poking fun at the shallow LA art scene. Nina’s new flatmates are a paranoid film-maker who expresses contempt for Hollywood, but is desperate to get her own picture deal. Then there’s Billy b, an intense artist who likes to draw portraits of Elvis and Kim Basinger. Together they talk long into the night about the philosophy of kitsch, which Mary/Nina can only barely follow. When they discover she’s a suspected terrorist she becomes their goose with the golden egg.

The eagerness of the people in Mary’s life to stab her in the back allows for a certain amount of black humour. However, the sheer negativity of this book becomes tiresome. What’s more every man in Mary’s life treats her like crap. For all R.M. Eversz’s claims to the contrary, she seems less like a bad girl and more like a victim. This leads to the uncomfortable notion that the rough sex and the violence featured is itself meant to be entertaining. Personally I found it distressing. Compare Nina Zero to Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson avoided accusations of voyeurism by creating a character with genuine mental issues, as well as a fierce independence.  Eversz does not convince, Nina’s problems are solved by handing her a gun. She even points out to her abusive father at one point that while he has fists, she has the means to kill him now she has a weapon.

What a wonderful moral!

While this book was a quick read, it left a bitter aftertaste. Not for everyone. Sadly I only figured out the meaning of the title after realizing the Warhol connection. And yes, a print of Elvis is actually shot.

“I didn’t mean to,” he finally blurted out, “but they were drownin’ you, and I was so scared…” He was quiet for a minute. “There sure is a lot of blood in people.”

Prior to reading this book I was only dimly aware of S.E. Hinton’s writing. I knew that she wrote young adult fiction and that her novels often had male protagonists involved in street gang life. I must confess though that was mostly due to Francis Ford Coppola having made a film of The Outsiders back in the eighties – and even that movie is not really all that well known today, except for its astonishingly prescient casting. Here’s a list of the young turks Coppola snapped up for the flick. Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and Ralph Macchio (he of Karate Kid fame).

Man Tom Cruise looks crazy in that trailer.

The story is told from the perspective of Ponyboy Curties, the youngest of three brothers who recently lost their parents in a car wreck. All three boys are Greasers, belonging to a gang of kids from the wrong side of the tracks who like to drink late into the night, roll drunks for change and rip off stores on occasion. They wear their hair long and slicked back. The only implement they hold more often than a comb is a flick knife. They also are the sworn enemies of the Socs, society kids from the wealthier part of town who cruise around in expensive cars looking for lone Greasers to pound.

The two gangs fight over narrow strips of turf and spends their day plotting revenge for various slights when they’re not getting drunk, or looking for a girl.

Ponyboy is different though. He gets good grades, likes to read and is not physically as strong as his brothers Darrel and Sodapop. Those are their legal names; apparently Poppa Curtis had a sense of humour. Darrel works two jobs to try and provide for the family. Ponyboy resents how the eldest brother put pressure on him to do better in school and not stay out too late at night. Soda has dropped out and is also working. He is less scholarly that the other two Curtis brothers and has no interest in going to college. All he wants to do is marry his sweetheart and party with the other Greasers, Dallas, Two-Bit, Steve and Johnny. Little Johnny Cade is the baby of the gang. All the other Greasers look on him like a little brother and try to protect him. After getting beatings from his dad for years, Johnny took a turn for the worse when a gang of Socs left him beaten and bloody on the wasteland bordering their respective territories. Ever since Johnny has been traumatized and highly strung, retreating further and further into himself.

Ponyboy and Johnny spend most of their time together. As the two physically weaker Greasers they tend to gang up on individual Socs during fights and are less outspoken than the rest of the gang. One night at a drive in Johnny snaps when Dallas begins harassing two Socs girls. Shamed by the younger Greaser’s words, Dallas takes off, leaving the two boys with Cherry Lane and Marcia. Ponyboy discovers an unlikely friend in Cherry, the two of them quickly bonding over their frustration with the gang life they are trapped by. She tells him that he is different, he can make something of himself, that even the Socs have it rough sometimes despite coming from privilege. Greasers feel too much, they decide, whereas Socs feel nothing at all, even in the heat of a rumble.

After they offer to walk the girls home though, a gang of Socs drive past, with Cherry’s boyfriend Bob in the car. Johnny and Ponyboy find themselves targeted by the rival gang and during that one terrible night everything quickly goes very wrong.

S.E. Hinton captures Ponyboy’s voice perfectly, with his musings on class differences and his frustrations with life slowly changing as he becomes more aware of what is really happening around him. She also describes the bond between the Greasers with great sympathy, with the friends trying to give one another what family has failed to provide.

There is perhaps an overly sentimental tone to the proceedings, with Cherry an unlikely greek chorus, but the bursts of violence lend it weight. This is a sad, bittersweet take on adolescence.

When I looked I saw a gray mess hung up in brambles. The moonlight was shining across the water and falling on a face, or what had been a face, but was more like a jack-o’-lantern now, swollen and round with dark sockets for eyes. There was a wad of hair on its head, like a chunk of dark lamb’s wool, and the body was swollen and twisted and without clothes. A woman.

Reading this book was interesting, as it is an extended version of a previously published short story by Joe R. Lansdale titled Mad Dog Summer.  As such this is a murder mystery for which I already know the outcome. Of course this is Lansdale, so I simply could not keep away.

Our story begins with Harry Crane, now an old man in a retirement home, reminiscing about his childhood in East Texas back in 1933. Jacob his father was the local barber and constable for the area. His mother May Lynn was a strikingly beautiful woman who chose to marry a man whose views against the segregation of blacks and whites guaranteed a difficult life for her. Then one evening Harry and his sister Tom discover a body tied to a tree with barbed wire.

Lansdale excels at this exposure of childhood innocence to the violence of the adult world. Harry cannot understand why only his father cares about the dead woman. Slowly he learns that for the worthies of the town, such as Old Man Nation, the only good black is a dead black. Racism infects every level of the community and Harry’s father can barely hold back the tide. Soon the local Ku Klux Klan are agitating for a lynching and Doc Stephenson refuses to even help with an autopsy.

While the search for the killer continues, Harry dreams at night of the terrifying figure known as the Goat Man. He thinks he saw the half-goat creature in the forest that evening after he found the body, standing in the middle of the path behind him staring at the Crane children. Harry is convinced that the mythical Goat Man is the killer, but no one believes that it even exists.

Revisiting this story Lansdale introduces new characters and broadens the characters of the Crane parents. He excels at describing the wounded nobility of figures such as Constable Crane, trying to do the right thing while fighting against the tide of intolerance that persists in his community. An added dimension is given to his relationship with his wife with the introduction of Red, a former rival for her attentions. Lansdale also includes the character of Harry’s grandmother, who takes an interest in the murder case.

New scenes such as the autopsy of Jelda May Sykes help to broaden the themes of the novel, with Jacob being forced to travel to a neighbouring town to consult with a black doctor as Doc Stephenson refuses to treat the body for fear of upsetting the local whites. It is a credit to Lansdale’s abilities as a writer that even during a sequence describing the carving up of a corpse he manages to rise a chuckle, when Doc Tinn explains to the astonished Jacob the properties of the clitoris. It is this reliance on gallows humour that I appreciate most in Lansdale’s writing, combined with a matter-of-fact view on morality.

Knowing the identity of the murderer allowed me to concentrate on the language and imagery of the novel. Lansdale is a master of quick dialogue and captures the innocent perspective of a child perfectly. Recommended for fans of a decent murder mystery.

I sat there, chest damp, exposed and chilled. The room was entombed in darkness: the hour of night when not so much as a squeaky brake disturbed the silence. But I had seen something in an instant, a single flash. A child lying next to me in the bed. Grinning, eyes narrowed in mischievous glee, chewing its fingers, wondering if it would be caught in a naughty, practical joke. I sighed. Of course – it had been my Friend.

“Are you there?” I whispered. “Are you there?”

For years I had an interest in therapy, the theories of Freud, Lacan and Jung. It’s no accident that one of my favourite writers is Slavoj Zizek, himself a Lacanian. The relationship between an analyst and a patient is an interesting one. Freud talked about the phenomenon of transference, how the analysand will often attempt to circumvent the process of therapy by attempting to become involved with them emotionally.

Today I find aspects of blogging culture, which of course I am a part of, interesting for how its plays with notions of inviting strangers into our personal lives. This blog, the circumstances of my application for residency in Australia and the lengths I am willing to go to while waiting by reviewing a book each day, is itself a function of this new culture. How honest are we to our blog readers though, to the people in our lives, to the care professionals who sit with us to discuss our issues? As a part of society we are so practiced in the art of playing roles that it is difficult to relinquish them, even when our honesty is essential.

Justin Evans’ book rests on the question of a child’s honesty. George Davies is still recovering from the loss of his father, who died mysteriously after a trip to Honduras. With academics for parents, George never really had a chance in the schoolyard. His vocabulary is overly developed, he can speak German and Latin and his conversation is more suited to a discussion of scholarly pursuits than the aggressive banter of the boys of his age. In short, he is desperately lonely and needs a friend. Then one night George spies a face starring at him, suspended in mid-air. Shortly after that he begins to hear voices calling his name and finally the spectre of a boy comes for him to show him visions of the afterlife.

George’s new friend tells him many things and hints to a conspiracy lying behind the death of his father. He alleges that a family friend, Tom Harris, is responsible for convincing Paul Davies to travel to Honduras. This was all part of a plot to steal away George’s mother and kill her husband. Slowly but surely the young boy becomes convinced and sets about trying to prove that his father was murdered.

Justin Evans begins this story with the adult George Davies entering therapy following the birth of his own child, years after the events described during his childhood in the early 80s. He feels a strange sense of revulsion at the thought of being close to his son, one that deeply alarms his wife. George’s therapist encourages him to write about what happened to him following the death of his father. She argues that the things he heard and saw where the hallucinations of a deeply disturbed eleven-year old. However, the exercise of writing allows George to revisit his feelings from that dark period of his life, including the suspicion that maybe he was not a troubled boy in need of medication. Perhaps he was possessed by a demonic doppelganger.

This is a gripping debut from Justin Evans. He gives equal attention to the development of the psychiatric perspective of the events, as well as the mystical interpretation. The question of whether George is indeed mad, possessed, or simply a compulsive liar remains ambiguous. The character of George’s sceptical mother is well-realized, a liberal feminist whose studies into critical theory are curtailed by the glass ceiling in the academic system. Her son’s resentment of her growing affection for another man is cleverly drawn out. I just felt the ending slightly predictable, but overall this is a very interesting novel.

Think William Blatty’s The Exorcist, with a stronger understanding of psychology.

‘Pacino can play Jewish. Okay. You don’t like Pacino, how about Jack Lemmon? Richard Dreyfuss?

‘Jack Lemmon’s too old…’

‘Dustin Hoffman…’

‘I dunno…I was thinking, I was thinking Michael Douglas. I want somebody who’s more, like sexy.’

There’s something about kitchens. MasterChef is all the rage in Australia at the moment. You have a dozen celebrity chefs per television channel, cooking books are the perfect gift for Christmas and Jamie Oliver is the finest political mind of this generation. Apparently.

Course there’s the other side of kitchens. I used to work with chefs wired on something-or-other at night. I came to understand this was simply an aspect of the culture. Anthony Bourdain is a writer who likes to play with the seamier side of the restaurant scene and Bone In The Throat is a post-Sopranos tale of protection rackets, wire-taps and media-savvy Mafiosi.

Harvey is a man with a dream. A dream of owning and running a fine cuisine restaurant, that specialises in fish dishes. Unfortunately Harvey has a few problems. He’s in debt to the local mob and Sally Wig may look ridiculous with his hairpiece, but he does enjoy bouncing the would-be restaurateur’s head off furnishings when he is late with his payments. Not only that, but Harvey is a stool-pidgeon for the feds, having agreed to take part in a sting to take down Sally and his outfit. In fact there’s nothing real about the restaurant at all – it’s a front for a federal investigation into racketeering. A man can dream though, right?

Harvey’s staff are not doing too good either. The chef has a heroin habit and sous-chef Tommy is embarrassed by his family connection to Sally. In fact the only reason he has his job is due to his uncle putting pressure on Harvey. Now Sally wants a favour and Tommy knows that ‘favours’, can quickly get out of hand. Throw some messy affairs among the floor-staff and you’ve got a whole heap of trouble brewing at the Dreadnought Grill.

Bourdain’s has an amusing central gimmick to this yarn. A character’s moral worth is measured by their interest in food. Tommy and the chef are both frustrated foodie’s trapped by their respective circumstances. They see the local mobsters pouring money into joints that specialise in fried calamari and dishes swamped in red sauce. Restaurants that would not know a fresh tomato if they saw it on a shelf, or how to de-bone a fish!

Unfortunately if you’ve watched any episodes of The Sopranos you probably already know how the story goes. The personal failings and love lives of characters receive more attention than actual crimes, until a sudden explosion of violence occurs every now and then to shock the reader into paying attention. The banter is quick and sometimes funny, but mostly repetitive cursing.

The book opens with a prologue revealing that one of the characters has died, washed up on a shoreline. When the identity of the floater is finally revealed, I had already forgotten about that particularly plot thread.

Passable fare, but nothing especially interesting.

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