Thursday, January 9, 2014

Favorite Books Read in 2013: Psycho-Noir, Grifters, and All-Around Bleakness

This year was a big transition year for me, with leaving my job at the bookstore to freelance full time. My routine is drastically different, and I’m still not used to it, which may be why I only completed about sixty books this year. Much like my life, the choices were all over the place. There was a pretty big emphasis on old-school crime and noir, but I also read some classics, plenty of non-fiction, and I even managed a few books actually published in 2013.

Regular readers might notice that I haven’t reviewed any of my favorites on the blog. It’s because of something I’ve mentioned before: I have the greatest difficulty writing about the books I love most. If they’re good enough to affect me in some big way, I find that hard to articulate. My goals for the coming year are not only to read more books and to read more books published in this century, but to better learn how to write about great writing. Luckily, I have some fellow bloggers who are modeling that for me.

These, then, are the books I read in 2013 that I enjoyed so much that I couldn’t find the words to tell you about them in any detail, but I’m going to try.

Last year’s round-up included McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and I liked it enough to seek out more from this underrated noir writer. After reading Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, I daresay Horace McCoy may be the best noir writer you’ve never read (if you haven’t). The book opens with Ralph Cotter making a prison break, assisted by Holiday, the sister of a fellow inmate. As soon as he’s free, Cotter is scheming, and the cons escalate as he attempts not just to make more money, but to climb socially, as he believes he is above … well, just about everyone. Cotter’s superiority complex is fascinating, as he can’t even walk down the street without feeling intense loathing for humanity, describing the noon-day crowd:

“ … girls and women with as many different shades of red gashes in their faces, through which teeth occasionally showed, as you have fingers and toes; and guys in linen coats and seersucker coats and shirtsleeves, all fetishests too, lip fetishes—cigars and cigarettes and toothpicks, these are the fetishes that could be seen and God knows how many that couldn’t, the most sinful of which was probably mediocrity: cheap, common, appalling people, the kind a war, happily, destroys. What is your immediate destiny, you loud little unweaned people? A two-dollar raise? A hamburger and a hump?”

“She was less than human, and aren’t we all.” - Joseph Downs in Corrosion.

I recently reviewed this psycho-noir from independent publisher DarkFuse for Hellnotes, where I agreed with others who have called Bassoff a cross between Jim Thompson and David Lynch, though I threw in Flannery O’Connor for good measure. The truth is, no string of literary comparisons are going to tell you enough, because this debut author has a singular voice, and he’s written a hell of a disturbing novel—one that digs down into the roots of depravity, violence, and obsession. (It’s just occurred to me that I could make an additional comparison: to Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, another book that grows more unsettling as history is revealed.) The book opens with Joseph Downs, a war veteran with a horribly-scarred face, having vehicle trouble in a small town he’d meant to pass through. Who Downs is, how he got that way, what he’s done, and what he will do, are all things that reveal the very origins of evil, and the repercussions of growing up damaged.

Zeroville by Steve Erickson (2007)

I’ve got to start noting why I purchase a particular book, especially if it’s a long while before I get to it. Sometimes I’m unsure if I nabbed an e-book because it was free, I read a great review, or it came up as a suggested read for fans of ___. I don’t know how Zeroville ended up in my hands, but I’m glad it did.

Film-obsessed Vikar Jerome arrives in Hollywood in 1969 at the same time as the Manson Murders, his shaved-and-tattooed head (bearing the images of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on opposing lobes) bewildering to people at a time when only bikers and circus freaks have tattoos.  Vikar is somewhat of a mystery, and it’s hard to tell at times if he’s brain-damaged. He has a tendency to blurt out bits of things at odd moments: quotes, pieces of film trivia, things he’s heard other people say. At times, they’re interpreted as genius, and there’s some resemblance to Kosinski’s Being There. The thing about Vikar is: he might be a genius. An insane one, but a genius nonetheless. There’s a good reason his friend refers to him as a cineautistic.

Like one of my favorite books, Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (perhaps a clue to how I found this novel), Zeroville turns the entirety of film history into a conspiracy of sorts, finding the connections between seemingly unrelated films and people. It’s crammed with film facts, but they’re fascinating rather than show-offish, dropped in wherever they make sense. (“ … he orders a chicken pot pie at Musso & Frank, where Billy Wilder used to lunch with Raymond Chandler while they were both writing Double Indemnity, both drinking heavily because they couldn’t stand each other.”) Real celebrities drift in and out of the book, some named, others as thinly-disguised fictitious versions of themselves that led me to want to find out more (Soledad Palladin, it turns out, is Zeroville’s version of Jess Franco’s muse Soledad Miranda). What have I left out? The birth of punk rock at CBGB’s, weird sex, the rise of independent film and the decline of the big Hollywood studios: all the things Vikar encounters as he goes from being a strange and difficult set designer to an acclaimed film editor, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s in what’s almost a crash-course on popular culture history. Add Zeroville to your to-read list, and after you’ve read it, you’ll end up with some things on your to-watch list.

 I’ve read quite a few books under the Hard Case Crime imprint, but I aim to read them all. Grifter’s Game is the very first, and it’s a knockout. It’s a reprint of a classic crime novel originally titled Mona, and I’m pleased that the title was changed, because it allowed for more surprise. (The book’s second title is one I won’t even tell you, if you don’t know it. It’s practically a spoiler.) I was expecting something more along the lines of a traditional con story, which makes the book sort of a con in itself. It’s got all the trappings of a typical con: stolen heroin, piles of cash, fake names, and a super-sexy blonde. It’s also got some of the snappiest writing around. What takes this cool crime story into noir territory is what happens after the deal goes down, and anyone familiar with the genre will realize like I did about mid-way through: this is all going a bit too well. When things go wrong in Grifter’s Game, they go wronger than I believe I’ve ever read. The ending is a doozy, and one that kept me awake at night thinking about it. I think there’s a reason this book has never been filmed. Hollywood wouldn’t touch an ending like this with a ten-foot pole. Too bad, because no one would ever forget it.

A lot of high praise exists for the second book of Ellroy’s L.A Quartet, but my favorite blurb about it is from the The Detroit Press: “It’s Hieronymus Bosch between hard covers.” Imagine a triptych in stark black-and-white, painted with a noir brush, encompassing every bit of fear, filth, and seediness in 1950: jazz clubs, sex murders, the Red Scare, The Zoot Suit riots, police corruption, drugs, despair. Bosch painted nightmares, and that’s what this is. Ellroy wields language like a weapon, and holy smokes does he know how to use it. Real-life characters like Howard Hughes and gangster Mickey Cohen mingle with fictitious ones, and they make for nice distractions while Ellroy prepares a series of twists that feel like gut punches.

I wrote about this book as part of my Halloween round-up in October. I’ll quote myself.

“It takes a special writer to make something that is both frightening and beautiful at the same time. Like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal or the movies of David Lynch, Maistros’ The Sound of Building Coffins manages to find what’s lovely in life, while simultaneously, as Eliot said of John Webster, seeing the skull beneath the skin. The book takes place in New Orleans in 1891 (before jazz, if you can imagine the city without it), and deals with murder, possession, decay, infant death, prostitution, crime, and disease. The fact that there’s beauty in these things is due to Maistros’ writing, plus his ability to see the larger picture of death and birth. “

Some other standouts this year were Stephen King’s Joyland (2013), which got some grief for not fitting the Hard Case Crime imprint so well, but it still a nice novel, full of bittersweet nostalgia and some genuine creeps. It reminded me of the best of M. E. Kerr’s writing. Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons did all of the things Zola usually does to me (ripped my heart out, stomped on it some, wouldn’t stop until I cried). Christa Faust’s short “Cutman” was the most fun thing I read on a plane this year, and is largely responsible for my new-found boxing obsession.

Quite a cocktail of dark stuff, but that’s what I like. If you do too, consider subscribing to my blog, via RSS or one of the other options to the right. You can also like Book Dirt on Facebook (also to the right).

What kicked you in the gut in 2013?


  1. Yes, these are very dark, and I usually avoid dark. However... I want to read the James Ellroy books, and I think my husband has all of them. I have Grifter's Game. So I will start there. Also want to read Horace McCoy. and Zeroville sounds good. Always like books related to Hollywood or film industry.

    Interesting list. I especially like the mix of old and new books.

  2. I hope you read GRIFTER'S GAME. I can't get over it.

  3. Of these I only know the Ellroy (which I think is the best of his LA Quartet and was, in my view, a bigger influence on the structure of movie version of LA CONFIDENTIAL than the actusl source novel) but I will try and track down the others (only know the movie version of the McCoy starring James Cagney, which is OK, not great). Have a great year Kelly.

    1. I haven't seen the movie version, but from what I've heard, it's pretty mediocre. McCoy's style is what I really love, and style is hard to translate into film.

  4. Don't usually read dark stuff like this, Kelly, but you certainly have my curiosity up about Grifter's Game and I have to find a copy of it now!

  5. The McCoy and The Block are my faves, too.

  6. I thought Grifter's Game had a "Wow" ending. But then I read THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN by Gil Brewer. Eye brow raising? Gasp inducing? Jaw dropping? None of those overused phrases do it justice. Find a copy and read it. You haven't read noir until you read Brewer at his best.

    1. Wow, thanks for the suggestion. I know I have a HCC edition. Might have to read it out of order now.