Wednesday, January 29, 2020

It's a Long Goodbye for P.I. Philip Marlowe in This Classic Novel from Raymond Chandler

This is the sixth and last of the full-length novels that Raymond Chandler wrote featuring his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe. It's also the most personal in that Chandler seems to have based two of the characters, Terry Lennox and Roger Wade, at least in part on himself.

At the book opens, Marlowe meets a man named Terry Lennox outside of a nightclub. Lennox is very drunk and his date drives off and leaves him. Marlowe, being a good samaritan, takes Lennox to his own home, sobers him up and then drives him home to the mansion that Lennox shares with his very promiscuous and extremely wealthy wife. On the basis of this incident, Marlowe and Lennox strike up a friendship of sorts and occasionally get together for drinks. Then one night, Lennox turns up and asks Marlow to give him a ride to Mexico, no questions asked.

Well, what are friends for?

Marlowe gives Lennox a ride and from that point, things generally go to hell in a handbasket. It's very difficult to say anything else about the plot of the novel without giving things away that the reader will want to find out for him or herself. This is, though, one of Chandler's best novels, full of the social commentary and great prose for which Chandler was so deservedly famous. This plot is actually a little less convoluted than some of the others and it's fun to watch it unfold. I finished the book this time around, after reading the other Chandler novels in order, regretting even more than ever the fact that there are only six of these novels along with a number of short stories. I could have used a lot more.

On a side note, this novel was published in 1953 and is set sometime around 1950. It was finally filmed by Robert Altman in 1973, starring Elliot Gould as Marlowe and the story is set in the early 1970s rather than the early 1950s. A lot of people like the movie a lot, but I've seen it twice and have never been able to warm up to it. Given the way that Humphrey Bogart inhabited the role of Marlowe and really made it his own, I just couldn't buy Gould as Marlowe. Also, Marlowe, who seemed to perfectly belong to the late 1940s and early '50s, seemed out of place in the 1970s--almost anachronistic. For my part, then, when I need a Philip Marlowe film fix, I'll stick with the Bogart version of "The Big Sleep," and I'm sure I'll be coming back to this and the other novels again and again in the coming years.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Michael Vickers Is a Stranger in His Own Home in This Hard Boiled Novel from Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett was known principally as a prolific writer of science fiction and she also wrote a number of screenplays. She worked on the screenplay for "The Big Sleep" and "Rio Bravo," among others, and at the end of her career worked on the screenplay for "The Empire Strikes Back." She ghost wrote this book in 1946 for the actor George Sanders. It's now been republished by Black Gat Books under Brackett's name.

The protagonist is a businessman named Michael Vickers. Four years earlier, Vickers disappeared in Mexico while on a fishing trip with three of his best friends. His body was never recovered and he has been presumed dead. Now, however, to the shock of virtually everyone he knows, Vickers suddenly returns on a night when his wife is throwing a party at their beach house.

When Vickers strolls nonchalantly into the party, he discovers that his wife has taken their boat out for a cruise. He makes himself at home and greets the three old friends with whom he had been in Mexico on that fateful night. He explains that someone hit him over the head and left him for dead. For a long time he lost his memory and had no idea who he was. During this period, he was effectively kidnapped and forced to work on a tramp freighter. He finally recovered his memory, made his escape, and found his way back home to California.

During his absence, all three of his "best friends," though married themselves, have been trying to make time with Vicker's very delectable wife, Angie. Vickers assumes that one of the three assaulted him in Mexico in order to have a chance with Angie. He also wonders if maybe his wife might have encouraged the attack.

Even before Vickers's wife returns to the party, one of the three men that Vickers suspects of attacking him turns up murdered, and Vickers becomes the principal subject. Is he a killer taking revenge? If so, does he have other targets in mind?

This is a very well done classic hard boiled mystery. Vickers is a very interesting protagonist, and the relationships that unfold between him, his wife, and the other survivors of the trip to Mexico are fun to watch unfold. More than seventy years after its original publication, this is still a book that fans of the hard boiled genre might want to seek out.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Perry Mason Tackles a Complex Case Involving a Drowning Duck

This is the twentieth Perry Mason novel, about a quarter of the way through the series. It's set in 1942, just as the U.S. has entered the Second World War, and as always, reflects the standards and the attitudes of its time.

As the book opens, Perry and his secretary are away from the office on vacation in Palm Springs. Why Perry and Della are vacationing together is something that the author doesn't bother to explain, but it turns out to be fortuitous when Mason is approached by a very wealthy local man, named Witherspoon, who has a strange request.

Witherspoon's daughter has fallen in love with a young, penniless college student named Marvin, who will soon be going off to fight in the war. Marvin and the daughter believe that he was kidnapped as a baby and was raised by the woman he thought was his mother, until she died making a deathbed confession about the kidnapping. However Witherspoon has conducted an investigation and knows that the story was false. The boy's father was hanged for murder years earlier and the mother made up the lie to spare the boy the embarrassment of knowing that he was the son of a convicted killer.

Witherspoon is determined to protect his family's good name at all cost and is determined that his daughter will not marry the son of a man rightfully convicted of murder. He has a copy of the trial transcript and wants Mason to review it. If Mason can convince Witherspoon that the man was wrongly convicted, Witherspoon will say nothing and will allow his daughter to marry Marvin. But if there's even a breath of suspicion left, Witherspoon will expose the secret and forbid the marriage.

Mason thus faces several seemingly impossible tasks, the most important of which is saving the young lovers from the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of the girl's father. It won't be easy. More people are going to die, a poor little duck is going to be put in mortal danger, and in the end, only Perry Mason could sort out all the complex strands of this mystery.

All in all, it's a fairly typical Mason story, save for the fact that it does not take place in L.A. Perry will not see all that much time in court, but will ultimately wind up in a judge's chamber trying to explain all the evidence in a way that won't leave the judge and the readers shaking their heads in dismay. A fun read.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE Is an Excellent Early Novel from Wallace Stroby

This is an excellent early novel from Wallace Stroby who would go on to write the Crissa Stone series, which remains one of my all-time favorites. The protagonist here is Harry Rane, a former New Jersey state trooper. The woman he loves has gone off to Seattle "to think things over," and Harry is left to bide his time, medicating himself with whatever will help him make it through the night, while praying that she ultimately decides to come back to him.

While killing time, Harry goes to work for a P.I. firm owned by another ex-trooper and takes on a case involving a woman named Nikki Ellis, a former "adult entertainer." Nikki was once in a relationship with a thug named Johnny Harrow. Shortly after Harrow went away to prison for attempted murder, Nikki gave birth to their son and, in an effort to do what was best for the child, gave it up for adoption.

The problem is that she didn't consult Johnny about her decision and he's furious about it. Now, after seven years, Harrow is out of prison two years early and is on his way back to Jersey to claim what's his and to settle some old scores with Nikki and with a mobster he once worked for, among others. He has dreams of tracking down and taking his son and riding off into the sunset once he's accomplished his objectives. Nikki comes to the agency, desperately afraid that somehow, Harrow will break the code of secrecy that was supposed to surround the adoption process and find her son. She wants Harry to protect her and to ensure that Harrow won't find the boy.

It's going to be a lot harder than it sounds. Harrow is totally amoral, very resourceful and seems to have a powerful patron who just might be able to break through the red tape and find the boy. Harrow casually disposes of anyone who stands in his path, and before the dust has settled, Harry Ranes will be his number one target.

This is a very bleak, hard-boiled novel with desperate characters living on the thin edge of disaster. The story moves at a rapid clip and one of the things that struck me most about the book was the humanity of the characters, Harry and Nikki in particular. These are real, believable people, trapped in circumstances that threaten to overwhelm them at almost any moment. You care for them immediately and that significantly ratchets up the tension in the novel. All of it builds to a stunning climax and this book demonstrates all over again why Wallace Stroby is one of the true bright lights in contemporary crime fiction. A must for fans of the hard-boiled genre.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Boston P. I. Spenser Puts Together a Gang to Clean Up a Small Arizona Town

The twenty-eighth Spenser novel finds the intrepid Boston detective on the road again. A beautiful blonde widow named Mary Lou Buckman has hired Spenser to get the person or persons who recently killed her husband.

The Buckmans owned a business in the small, fictional resort community of Potshot, near the Sawtooth Mountains, about fifty miles south of Phoenix, Arizona. The former mining community has become a haven for wealthy Californians seeking to escape the rat race, but trouble has found them, nonetheless. A gang of cretins and thugs, led by a charismatic man known as the Preacher, has taken over the old mining grounds in the hills outside of Potshot. The bad guys are extorting money from the town's business people and are otherwise terrorizing the community. People are leaving town; real estate prices are plummeting, and Potshot is going to hell in a handbasket.

Buckman's husband, Steve, had attempted to stand up against the gang and one of its leaders had publicly threatened him and warned him that he was "a dead man." When Buckman is shot to death, everyone in Potshot simply assumes that the Preacher or one of his henchmen was responsible. But the local police chief is useless. He's intimidated by the gang and is cowed into taking no action to investigate the murder or to bring the killers to justice. Thus the widow has no place to turn other than Spenser.

Spenser travels out to Potshot to get the lay of the land and quickly concludes that this job is too big for one man, even if the one man is Spenser himself and even if he has his faithful sidekick, Hawk, to assist him. So Spenser recruits his own gang, comprised of killers and other tough guys that readers will readily recognize from earlier Spenser novels. The gang, seven in all, heads out to Potshot, determined to clean up the town and run out the bad guys. Once they get there, however, the situation suddenly becomes a lot more complicated and even more dangerous than Spenser had imagined.

This is an entertaining novel which owes a great deal to "The Magnificent Seven." It's an atypical Spenser novel in that all of the action takes place far from his home turf, and the book is really as much of a western as it is a typical detective novel. But Spenser is the same, wise-cracking tough guy that readers of the series have come to expect and even though the whole scenario is beyond belief, it's still a quick fun read.

As always, at least in my opinion, the principal downside of the book is Spenser's constant mooning over the impossibly irritating Susan Silverman. Even though the action takes place far from Boston, there's still way too much interaction between the two, and the dialog between them is sappy, silly, and annoying in the extreme. As always in these novels, if you skim all the scenes with Susan, you are bound to enjoy the book all that much more.