Saturday, September 15, 2007

OLD SCHOOLS OF HARD KNOCKS

THE BLUE CHEER By Ed Lynskey

Point Blank Press, 2007, ISBN: 9780809556670, $12.95

DEAD STREET By Mickey Spillane

Hard Case Crime, Oct. 30 2007, ISBN 0843957778

And

DAMN NEAR DEAD Edited by Duane Swierczynski

Busted Flush Press, 2006, ISBN 0976715759, $18

Lynskey’s second novel featuring PI Frank Johnson starts with a quite literal bang as the investigators quiet country home is attacked by a stinger rocket. Frank may be looking for the good life, but it seems that the bad just follows him around.

And from bad it gets worse. The rocket is only the start of Frank’s troubles, and soon he finds himself caught up in the affairs of a local hate group known as the Blue Cheer. A group that may have a stronger local support than Frank could begin to guess at.

There’s something endearing about Johnson that we’ve mentioned before; how he seems a kind of strange anachronism at times: an old school PI – replete with a hardass dry-wit and a distinctly Chandleresque dialect – who’s been thrown into the modern world quite unwillingly. Although Lynskey has calmed this down somewhat since The Dirt Brown Derby, that old school charm hangs around the narrative, keeping Frank a compelling character and adding a kind of odd interest that .

Its an approach that works, and decidedly more than it did in Lynskey’s first novel. Part of this seems to be the more active role that Johnson has in this tale. He’s not just a PI for hire, he’s taking his case personally. He’s more willing to push himself for not only the common good, but that of the people around him. His relationships with the townfolks and his closest neighbour (whose past is more than a little murky) make Johnson more than just another hardboiled PI, adding a more human dimension beyond the tough clich├ęs. Lynskey is bringing the old-school hardboiled books bang up to date in an exciting, compelling fashion, and more than that is continuing to evolve as a writer with each new book.

So its interesting to move from a writer homaging pulp influences at the start of his career, comparatively speaking, to a writer whose final crime novel (if not necessarily his last novel overall) has recently been released by Hard Case Crime, a brand whose very existence is predicated on the appeal of the old pulp novel lines.

If you want the real deal old-school hardboiled, you don’t need to look much further than Mickey Spillane. Love his works or loathe them – and he always provokes a reaction, even now – Spillane followed his own particular code when it came to walking those mean streets.

His characters were often tougher than Chandler’s or even Hammet’s, unapologetically violent and hard-headed in their attitudes. They were imperfect people, populating streets where the shadows often provided the most light. In his final crime novel, Dead Street, Spillane takes his mean streets and makes them even darker with the spin of old age. In this novel, the protagonists are battling their age as much as each other.

It shows most in the way the tale is spun. As with Lynskey’s novel, Spillane works in a recognisable modern setting but uses an old fashioned hard boiled voice to breathe life into it. There is talk of terrorism, nuclear weaponry and even the occasional cellphone, but the characters seem ill at ease to use these terms. Put it down to their age. These are the old ass kicking heroes who refused to lay down and die. Who are still walking the streets, even if the streets have changed over the years, become alien to the men who knew them so well. Unlike Lynskey, this is not an homage to the golden age of pulp, so much as a product. Spillane knows his voice, knows his audience, and his voice rings through with a period authenticity that both alienates his character from the modern world and cements his place in it.

It’s a fantastically hardboiled premise that Spillane employs – an old cop finds out the woman he loved is still alive. A woman he thought dead for decades, who once seemed his only reason to find joy in the world. And for all the life that her re-appearance brings back to him (even if she no longer remembers him, even if she’s become someone else) it draws him closer to the end of his own as well. Spillane doesn’t write about anything so simple as love here. It becomes about rebirth, about rediscovery. This old washed out cop rediscovers his younger self. As the book goes on, the prose becomes more obliquely pulp.

Your enjoyment probably varies depending on your opinion of Spillane and his particular approach. If you like his work, you’ll get a kick out of Dead Street. If you never got it, you won’t be converted. But it’s a read that does exactly what it sets out to do, and that’s Spillane’s signature. Its probably worth noting that the manuscript was prepared for release by Max Allan Collins, a productive crime writer who owes Spillane a massive debt of influence for his own series, and who manages to sensitively insert his work into the manuscript so that most people should have a hard time knowing where the editing work was done. Just the way it should be.

Ultimately, Spillane’s final novel is a twisting tale told with his typically snarling attitude. Like its character, it feels a little awkward in the modern world, but that only adds to its charm, making it a nod back to those days and a tip of the hat forward to a new way of writing the old pulps.

It’s the idea of an old man in a new world that formed the central theme of Duane Swierczynski’s anthology, Damn Near Dead, a book I’ve been dipping in and out of (the way you do with the best anthologies) since its release last year, but now seems the ideal time to mention it, tying in as it does with the old and new guard theme of this multi-book review.

“Geezer Noir” is the term coined, and it seems that Swierczynski managed to pip Spillane to the post in this regard. The novel deals with hardboiled characters – thugs, killers and criminals – in their silver years. In worlds that have changed and become alien to them. Like the protagonist of Dead Street, they still have this need to behave like they’re young, to maintain their own power and anger.

There is a breadth of style and content here, and its fascinating to observe the ways in which writers of various ages (the youngest author here, Dave White, is 28 while the oldest, John Harvey is… well, he has a few years on Dave White at least) approach the subject of growing old in a hardboiled world. There’s regret, recrimination and, in Simon Kernick’s snappy and clever Funeral for a Friend even a kind of rebirth. There’s deathly serious approaches to the subject, and there’s the more… unusual stylistic flourishes (Stuart MacBride gets to have some fun with Daphne McAndrews and the Smackhead Junkies, even daring to fly in the hardboiled face of the anthology and throw in a cookie recipe), which serve to highlight the many facets of the talent Swierczynski has assembled. From big names like Mark Billingham and John Harvey to up and comers like Dave White, Sarah Weinman and Ray Banks. Some of the authors have only published short stories. Some have huge backlists. Others are only now debuting. But all of them bring a unique voice to the twilight world of geezer noir making Damn Near Dead a fine introduction to a crew of writers who represent the old and new guard and whose insights into old age present it as anything but the expected dotage society might expect.

Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, 15/09/07