Monday, November 28, 2011

It's a crime!

If you're the kind of person who thrives on contention, argument and bare-knuckle conflict (you know, you think that firecrackers and ant hills were made for each other), there are all sorts of things you can do to amuse yourself -- throw a T-bone into a pack of junk yard dogs, toss chum and sharks into a municipal swimming pool, put $2 price tags on plasma TVs on Black Friday or shove a pork barrel into a Congressional meeting. Or you could just ask fiction fans to define genres. When I attended a World Fantasy Convention, a panel discussion on science fiction vs fantasy led to a battle royal, and I don't mean a war of words. The only agreement was in the need for ice afterwards. You might get a similar reaction if you asked fans to define "crime fiction."

I used to engage in those sorts of futile literary arguments all the time, but not so much anymore. Back in the day, however, I was usually the intransigent force standing firm against the voices of reason and compromise; in the case of crime fiction, I define it pretty much the same way as the National Rifle Association interprets the Second Amendment -- very strictly, and with a tommy gun (metaphorically) close at hand.

Lists of the best crime writing are easy to come by, especially in this age of electronic flummery, but I eschew them in favor of The Armchair Detective Book of Lists edited by Kate Stine. A quick perusal of the Haycraft-Queen list, the Julian Symons list compiled for The Sunday Times, H.R.F Keating's 100 Best list, and the complementary lists submitted by the Crime Writers Association (British) and the Mystery Writers Association (American) reveal one obvious fact -- people are ready to call just about anything a crime novel. I beg to differ. First of all, no spy novels allowed, which eliminates The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Riddle of the Sands and From Russia with Love. I'm also giving the old heave-ho to the thriller Day of the Jackal, the adventure story Rogue Male, and Conan Doyle's best, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Just for good measure, so long to The Big Sleep, Rebecca and Murder on the Orient Express.

Mystery fans usually had daggers in their eyes (or hands) by this time, and none were at all mollified by the fact that I allowed The High Window, Tiger in the Smoke, Strangers on a Train, The Glass Key, The Grifters, The Third Man and the entire Lovejoy series of books. The ire of the fans (short for fanatics, of course) is understandable, expected and probably even deserved. So, what makes for a crime novel?

Before we look at what aspects are integral to the crime novel (as opposed to mystery or spy novels) we should consider what traits are not necessary for this peculiar and particular sub-genre:
Good guys/Bad guys
An investigation
Okay, that cuts out a lot of books that masquerade as crime novels in the best-of lists and in publishers lists. So, what is required? Some obvious, and some not so much:
To quote a detective named Zero: "There are no good guys; there are no bad guys -- it's just a bunch of guys." Whereas the heart of the mystery is morality, the core of the crime novel is, if not amorality, then ambiguity.

Detectives and police, other than in supporting roles, generally get in the way in the crime novel, as does any sort of investigation. An obvious example of that is The Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade finds himself tossed back and forth between the antics of criminals and adventurers Kaspar Gutman, Bridget O'Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo and gunsel Wilmer Cook. Everybody thinks Spade is investigating the whereabouts of the Black Bird, but all he's really doing is watching the principals of the crime, and even at the end, when he pegs duplicitous Bridget for the murder of partner Miles Archer, it's neither the result of investigation nor deduction, just an observation of an obvious crime he can't ignore, no matter how much he's tempted. The Maltese Falcon -- no investigation, no police other than knuckleheads  Polhaus and Dundy, and no justice, just the moral ambiguity of Bridget heading off to prison, only because the gunsel is not around to take the fall, and Gutman and Cairo are heading back to Constantinople. Plot and motivation rule, with Spade as a passive nemesis. Not the greatest detective or mystery novel, as some bill it, but certainly the greatest crime novel.

For the crime novel, criminals are essential, but they need not be masterminds, or even competent.  In fact, it may help the plot for them to be small fries in thrall to an organization as ruthless as the Mafia or Wal-Mart. Such is the case in The Grifters by Jim Thompson, where Lilly Dillon works for bookie Bobo Justus. The plot is propelled by Lilly's conflict with Bobo, who thinks she's cheating him, and by Lilly's competition with her weak-willed son's moll for his affections. The novel is infused with crime, criminals, victims, criminals as victims, motivation and the moral ambiguity of the crime novel universe that guarantees there will be no justice, at least not a justice based in a lawful morality. The philosophy of the crime universe is not one of good vs evil, or even of evil vs eviler; the crime philosophy sets aside the concepts of good and evil more deftly than ever did Frederick Nietzsche, who might be considered the patron saint of the crime novel. The Nietzschean race of the television series Andromeda, based on an idea by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, perfectly embody the moral orientation of the crime novel -- "I'm on your side, as long as it's my side too; situations may change, but I don't -- I'm always on my side."

While spies might be considered just as morally ambiguous as the crime novel's protagonists, they really are not; they are agents of constituted authority, possessors of a rigid morality oriented to lawful order, even when they act in chaotic-unlawful ways. You can get an idea of the part played by moral philosophy in the crime novel from the graph to the right. Characters like James Bond, Quiller, Matt Helm and Harry Palmer are going to be either Lawful Good or Lawful Chaotic, for their goals, no matter their actions, always support society. Likewise, Sherlock Holmes is going to bounce between Lawful Good (Hound of the Baskervilles), Chaotic Good (The Adventure of the Devil's Foot) and Lawful Evil (The Final Problem). Contrast that with Sam Spade's nature as Lawful Neutral or Lilly Dillion's Neutral Evil. Killers like Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr Ripley) and Dexter Morgan (from Jeff Lindsay's popular crime novel series) fall into a neutral crack in the universe as well, this time Chaotic Neutral, because their actions neither advance nor retard the course of society; one of Tom Ripley's victims nails the dichotomy  between the mystery/detective/spy universe and the crime universe when he exclaims, "I cannot understand your total disconnection with the truth of things!" There lies the great divide, that which singles out the crime novel as a unique sub-genre to the mystery.

Crime novels are much more difficult to write than other kinds of mystery novels, not so much in the plotting, characterization, motivation or atmosphere, but in the conclusion. Even in a crime novel, where many of the rules go right out the window, the conclusion must still be satisfying to the reader. That's not always an easy task when main characters may be hoods, where everyone may die, where the innocent and the guilty are equally liable to end up in prison, or on a marble slab. When it's handled wrong, you just shake your head, drop the book in disgust and wonder why you wasted your time; when done right, even brilliantly, you have a novel that can be just as cathartic as any morality play by Christie, Chandler, Fleming, P.D. James or Conan Doyle. A toast, then, to crime...and the criminal in all of us.

A small Christmas gift to crime fiction and noir fans:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Encounter with the Borderland

"The House on the Borderland (1908)—perhaps the greatest of all Mr. Hodgson’s works—tells of a lonely and evilly regarded house in Ireland which forms a focus for hideous other-world forces and sustains a siege by blasphemous hybrid anomalies from a hidden abyss below. The wanderings of the narrator’s spirit through limitless light-years of cosmic space and kalpas of eternity, and its witnessing of the solar system’s final destruction, constitute something almost unique in standard literature. And everywhere there is manifest the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery. But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water."
-- H.P. Lovecraft,  Supernatural Horror in Literature

It's sometime in the early 1970's, I've taken another of those solitary jobs that allow a college student plenty of time to  study or write -- this time, a night watchman at a construction site beyond the back of beyond -- and I've found an Ace-published book entitled The House on the Borderland, and, as it turned out, it was probably not the best choice of reading material. The author, William Hope Hodgson, was new to me, but  seemed to be endorsed by H.P. Lovecraft, a writer I encountered about a decade earlier. Even though I knew nothing about Hodgson, I knew he was not a current, or even a recent writer, seeing as how Lovecraft died in the late 1930s. Later, during a flurry of pre-computer literary exploration I discovered the book was written in 1905, just twelve years before the author died during the Great War; it was also when I started accumulating ("I have that title, but not that edition"), much to my pocketbook's loss. Of course, now that we live in the age of infernal computers, you don't have to even buy the book to read it:

The story of The House on the Borderland is deceptively simple. In the year 1877 (Hodgson's birth year), two Englishmen, Tonnison and Berreggnog, are on holiday, tramping in the wilds of Ireland, fishing near the village of Kraighton (near where Hodgson's  Anglican priest father was once posted), when they come upon the ruins of a solitary house perched above a vast chasm. They find an old parchment diary bound in leather, water-damaged in places, but the spidery handwriting is still legible, and the remainder of the book consists of the men reading it to each other. The old man who lived in the house before its ruination is unnamed, so is known only as the Recluse. His only companions are his sister, Mary, who is his housekeeper, and his faithful dog Pepper. The diary entries recount intrusions of other dimensions into our own, and the slippage of  the Recluse into other realms of existence, such as the Arena under the Black Sun surrounded by representations of Gods Known and Unknown. It is this aspect which was rather faithfully captured on the cover of the Ace Books edition.

The wraparound cover by British publisher Panther captures the moment of the diary's discovery by the Englishmen, as well as the lingering menace of the haunted region, the brooding atmosphere. Hodgson has no shortage of atmosphere in this book.

As I read read the novel in that lonely work site,  surrounded by miles of darkness, with the wind and distant animal sounds letting me know just how alone I was, the skill of Hodgson's narrative power assaulted me. It was easy to forget I was reading a book, easy to forget what I read was a secondhand account by two fictional characters of an equally fictional Recluse; sinking into the book as into quicksand, I had the illusion the words might be my own, and the weird experiences as well. Avid readers know well this feeling of getting lost in a book, but, as with everything, there is a proper time and place.

The eerie other dimensions to which the Recluse is transported have their terrors, particularly the savage monsters found in the Pit, vicious swinish creatures that continually assault the defenses of the House on the Borderland. Sphere, another British publisher, chose a representation of one of the deadly and enigmatic beasts for the cover of its edition. While it is not a bad likeness based upon the Recluse's descriptions, it is, perhaps, a little...tame.

The House itself almost becomes a character, a bit in the same way Poe's House of Usher becomes a character in sharing a fractured soul with doomed Roderick Usher. When the Recluse bought the house in (apparently) the 1700s, it was already old and possessed a bad reputation. The habitation of the Recluse, however, moves the manifestations beyond the realm of provincial ghost stories, triggering a cosmic breakthrough. The House goes from merely being poised between this world and others to being an actual gateway, and the thing about gateways is that they don't just swing one way. And the House seems to develop a consciousness. Because of age and water damage, the found manuscript is full of lacunae, and because it's a personal document, it's necessarily unfinished. However, Hodgson uses these lapses to great effect, hinting at vast cosmic mysteries and the pains of long lost love.

The House on the Borderland is not a lengthy tome, and at 650 wpm (ah, the joys of youth) I was able to read it in a single sitting. And then it was time make my rounds, to circumnavigate that cold and lonely work site, surrounded by walls sheer and unfinished, by skeletal buildings, by massive shadowy machines that seemed to lurk in ambush; the darkness pressed close, like a solid choking fog. Yes, when one is alone, there are books to read and books not to read, lest fiction and reality if one were caught on the borderland. I should have studied the Calculus that night.

William Hope Hodgson

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Unique Powers

If you read any science fiction at all during the 1950s & 1960s, you've seen the astonishing work of artist Richard M. Powers (24 February 1921 - 9 March 1996). His style was arresting and unique, and he was allowed freedom of expression and design by publishers -- particularly Ian Ballantine -- such as was no other artist. So stunning was his work that he shaped the world of mass market paperbacks for more than two generations, and inspired both writers and other illustrators. If Powers is less known today than he should be, it's possibly because publishing is less individual in nature now and more corporate; also, although there is still a strong following for surrealism among collectors, those who purchase mass market paperbacks have been so bombarded by photo-realism and photography they won't respond to anything else.

My encounter with Richard Powers was years ago at an American Booksellers Association convention, where he was empaneled with science fiction writers and artists. I had been invited to cover the event for a small trade magazine I then edited. I wanted to meet the artist I had admired for such a long time, as well as writer Larry Niven, another member of the panel; as far as the other artists and writers scheduled, they could come if they wanted, but I had no strong feelings, one way or another. But those two, yes, very much, and, honestly, Powers more than Niven, for I had met Niven before, and would again. 

What brings Richard Powers to my immediate attention after all these years is a recent acquisition of first edition paperbacks. The scans on this page are some of the treasures that found their way to me. One of the innovations ushered in by Powers was the use of both the cover and back of the book to showcase the artwork. A case in point is this wraparound art for Damon Knight's Hell's Pavement, published in 1955 by Lion Books. As you can see, one of Powers' fortes was conjuring landscapes that were alien in the extreme. There is a certainly irony in this as the uncle who mentored him was a landscape painter, though painting billboards put bread on the table

Richard Powers received formal training at the University of Illinois' School of Fine Art. After a stint at the Army Signal Corps' studio in NYC during WW2, he studied under New England artist Jay Connaway, a painter known for landscapes and seascapes, and I think we see something of that influence in this full cover wraparound for the Ballantine edition of Out of the Deeps (1953) by John Wyndham, a British writer more famous for his novel Day of the Triffids (1951), which was made into an okay film in 1966 by Allied Artists and a better serial by the BBC in 1981. Ballantine gave Powers full control over art, design and typography, to stunning effect.

The panel discussion at the ABA convention took place before a large audience, mostly science fiction enthusiasts, as well as a smattering of publishers, writers, artists and distributors. Now, 1990 seems so very long ago, and a different world, not just for the end of the Cold War and apartheid, or the start of the Gulf War and the IMDB, but in science fiction as well -- Ballard published The Atrocity Exhibition, and the now-raging sub-genre of steampunk got a big boost with Gibson's & Sterling's The Difference Engine; giants like Silverberg, Pohl, Leiber and Le Guin were experiencing new heights of popularity; and Powers was back from Jamaica, where he had lived since the late 1960s, after the death of his wife, concentrating on gallery work. When the subject of book cover art arose, discussion inevitably turned to styles, motifs and trends. When Powers drew upon his vast and protean experiences in publishing, one of the younger artists remarked that times, tastes and standards had changed, which was why Powers' work was no longer popular. Powers took the affront with grace and wit and did not break the whelp's nose, and I was too far away to throw anything. Later, privately, when I asked about it, Powers just smiled shyly and shrugged.

This cover for Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953) is another example of Powers taking full control of the publishing process, creating a full wraparound cover, designing the typeface for the title and author credit, as well as creating a "void" in the art on the reverse so the description of this novel of human mutations can be displayed in white print. The main portion of the painting is extremely dramatic and a close examination reveals that many of the novel's thematic elements were incorporated with various levels of subtlety on and around the gripping right hand. Of all the publishers with whom Powers worked, Ian Ballantine was the most permissive, and the more freedom he was given, the more liberties he took.

Although Powers eventually returned to providing covers for some paperback books in the 1970s & 1980s, most of his work was for better paying companies such as Easton Press, and in some instances he convinced publishers to use paintings he had previously created for gallery sales as covers for hardbacks. He also provided work for periodicals, record albums (and compact discs), comic books, advertising, brochures, collectible plates and porcelain figures, calendars and convention guides; and his original paintings are still very popular in gallery sales and auctions. He was fully employed and vitally involved in art and publishing right up to 1996, when he died from an aneurysm.

It was a real thrill listening to Richard Powers talk about his long career and the many people he had known, and the chance to meet and speak with him, however briefly, is really what sticks most in my mind about that trek to Las Vegas for the ABA convention. One thing I've leaned from a life lived in the pages of books is that it's generally very easy to meet an author; sometimes you can't avoid them, no matter how much you try (just surrender or commit harakiri if approached by the author of a self-help  or how-to-gamble book -- there's no escape), but artists are much more difficult to track down, especially the good ones. During Powers' paperback heyday, artists were never credited and were discouraged from leaving a personal mark on the art, so it's an indication of Powers' influence that a goodly number of his covers may be identified by the word "POWERS" placed discretely within the design.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

To Live & Die in Istanbul...or is it Constantinople?

A good city for a murder is London where, according to detective fiction published since the 19th Century, one third of the city is trying to murder another third, while the remaining third solves the crime. And there's New York, where the NYPD will track you down; and Los Angeles, where Harry Bosch of the LAPD will not let you get away with anything; and San Francisco, more known for private eyes than competent police, except Harry Callahan, and the team of Lieutenant Stone and Inspector Keller. Paris is okay for a murder, but only if you're's just the way they are. Other cities have their charms (even Magoddy, Arkansas, I suppose), but for an off-the-beaten-path murder you might consider Istanbul.

Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey (that distinction belongs to Ankara) but it is the most important city in the country economically and culturally. When first founded, it was called Byzantium, from which we derive "Byzantine," the most common term for the Eastern Roman Empire as well as a description of all plots and plans having a complex or duplicitous twist. Byzantium was also very much an allegory for William Yeats, but that's a discussion for another time. Later, it was called Constantinople, after Emperor Constantine, even after its conquest by the Turks in A.D. 1453, a name which persisted through the 1930s when the Turks finally said, "Enough is enough! Call it what we call it -- Istanbul."

No matter what you call it, it's an exotic city, all modern and bright and electrical on one hand, while, on the other, retaining narrow streets, ancient citadels, thronged bazaars, and a nature that can be downright...byzantine. Even when the action of a story is not set directly in Istanbul, just mentioning it can lend an aura of mystery. In both Graham Greene's Stamboul Train and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express the plot never really leaves the train, but the Istanbul terminus creates a journey into darkness. The Orient Express linked London with Constantinople in 1883, a fact which annoyed me to no end when researching The Quest for the Copper Scroll, which is set in 1882. Because of that, my characters had to journey to Constantinople via steamer out of Liverpool, a long trek which involved stops in Malta, Italy and Greece -- picturesque, yes, but annoying because all locations had to be researched, not to mention steamer schedules. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon mentioned Constantinople as the home of the old General who had rooked Casper Gutman and company of the Black Bird, becoming an ending and a beginning.

One of the greatest books set partly in Istanbul is Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios (or Coffin for Dimitrios in the USA) which details a mystery writer's quest for the real nature of a mysterious man who turns up dead in the Istanbul morgue. Though the novel's plot soon propels it to Athens and beyond, as the writer tracks down clue after clue, Ambler's descriptions of the city and its people are some of the best put down on paper. Personally, I think The Mask of Dimitrios is one of Eric Ambler's greatest works, even better than another good book of his set in the intrigue of Istanbul -- The Light of Day, one of those books also with an American alias (Topkapi...named for the film made from the book). In it, a man is hired to drive a car from Athens to Istanbul, but is arrested for drug transportation, and the only way he manages to avoid one of those notorious Turkish prisons (not really as bad as portrayed in Midnight Express) is to fall in with a group of odd ducks planning to rob an Istanbul museum.

An exciting and well written book set almost entirely in Istanbul and its environs is From Russia With Love by former WW2 spy Ian Fleming, one of the best in the series about Bond...James Bond (voted one of film's most famous catchphrases by the AFI), 007, the spy licensed to kill for Her Majesty's Secret Service. Like all the Bond books, this one was made into a film, but, despite its accolades and the presence of Rosa Kleb and Grant, I consider it the weakest of the Sean Connery outings; still it's far above the films made by the pretenders who followed, for, just as there can only be one Highlander, there can only be one Bond, and for both roles there can be only one Connery. As a book, though, From Russia with Love is the best of Fleming's work. Fleming generally loses himself in sport (as he did in Strangway's card game in Doctor No and the put-by-put description of the golf game in Goldfinger), but in From Russia with Love, Fleming sticks to the story and its characters, and Istanbul. Considering what an ace job Fleming did with Istanbul, it's a little surprising he did not include Istanbul in his travelogue book Thrilling Cities, but since those were originally commissioned essays for newspapers, he may not have had a choice.

One modern writer who has grabbed Istanbul by the throat is Barbara Nadel, a former West End actress turned author. She has written (and is still at it) an extensive series of mysteries set in Istanbul, featuring Inspector Cetin Ikmen of the Istanbul Police Department. Miss Nadel did not just happen to choose Istanbul as an interesting setting for some books; instead, it appears the books arose from her love of the city and its people. More than thirty years ago, she started trekking to Istanbul, one of those students with a backpack one sees all over Europe when the schools set loose the inmates, and she kept coming back; when she retired from the stage for the life of a writer, Istanbul was a natural choice. The advantage of a series in a city like Istanbul is that each book can explore a facet of the city -- the Jewish Quarter, a modern office building or a street out of time. In a city like Istanbul, the chain-smoking Inspector Ikmen is never lacking for work.

Not all books about Istanbul involve murders, spies or screams in the night. There is no end to nonfiction published about the city, and a great many of those are travel tomes, some written by people who have actually visited Istanbul. While I've read my share of those, from Edmondo di Amicus' 1878 observations in Constantinople (my copy is a first, bought from a UK seller, but nowadays you can read the same thing in Google Books -- technology stinks) to the latest output from Lonely Planet. One of my favorite books in this vein, however, is A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat by Jeremy Seal. First, I have to say, a fez is cool...I'm wholly in agreement with the Doctor on that. Also, one of the joys of this book, aside from observations of Istanbul and Turkey made through unjaded eyes, is observing the changes wrought in this young man's life by the journey. He starts out very much a worrywart: when will we get there, how will I get around, where will I eat, where will I stay, what if no one speaks English...and the list goes on and on till you wish you could reach into the book and just slap Jeremy; by the time you close the book, your guide is all grown up and not at all worried about what will happen beyond the bend in the road. This book was published in 1996, and I feel it was this quest that enabled Seal to become the very adept traveller and travel writer he is today.

There are lots more books about or set in Istanbul/Constantinople than mentioned above, but these were a few of my favorites. If I ever get around to publishing Quest for the Copper Scroll, there will be one other to join the crowd. Until then, here's a little slide show I made for those who want to experience something of the mystery, intrigue and beauty of Istanbul...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I Dug Dig Allen

When I enlisted in the military many years ago, I learned two awful truths of life:
  1. When you join the Army, you can't take anything with you but the clothes you have on, and a razor.
  2. When you're gone, there is nothing to prevent your mom from having a big yard sale.

Since my pack-rat/hoarding genes were already well developed, even at that tender age, it was a big yard sale, perhaps the biggest in Chula Vista, or so my mother joked. Yes, she joked, I wept. I returned from defending the American way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to discover I was destitute of all but a few of my most prized possessions -- face it, there are just some things you can't even give away, no matter how much she tried. Gone were boxes of comic books; full runs of Analog SF, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, F&SF and other magazines; sets of Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare and Galsworthy; board games, the earliest simulation games and lots of the old 3M Bookshelf Games; and many other acquisitions of a misspent youth. Not that I blame my mom, of her (and the rest of the world) they were just stuff. Among the MIA was my collection of Dig Allen, Space Explorer books. Never heard of them? You're not alone.

Back in the middle of the last century idealism had not died, nor had the idea of American exceptionalism, and when mixed with our "Space Race" against the Soviet Union it resulted in a very optimistic, very aggressive juvenile literature focused on a future that was egalitarian and progressive, yet still retained much of the rugged individualism admired by Theodore Roosevelt. Penned by veteran writer Joseph Greene and published by Golden Press, the adventures of Digby "Dig" Allen, Space Explorer took place in a solar system that, although impossible with today's knowledge, was scientifically feasible: Venus was a jungle planet, Mars was habitable and the "twilight zone" of Mercury could be colonized. The six books which comprise the series were published from 1959 to 1962, and I remember as late as the 1970s debating that the surface of Venus could possibly be a sea of petroleum -- wouldn't that have been a downer for OPEC if true?


For the times, the books were plausible, and they were very exciting. Of course, juvenile series were nothing new -- the Stratmeyer Syndicate had for decades produced the likes of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and others. In fact, it was hoped this new series, with its focus on space, the new frontier would be even bigger. Unfortunately, that was just not in the stars.



Instead of hundreds of titles, we have only these six, although there is a rumor that Greene may have scripted a seventh that was never published. The books just did not sell as well as had been hoped, not enough to justify further investment by the publisher. Golden Press cut its losses and went on to other projects.


Though I don't know what the print runs were, they were not large. That is why, now, if you want to collect this series, as short as it is, doing so will cost some coin. Between the Internet and EBay, you can track down anything, and it's no different with the Dig Allen series, though it may take some searching. And when you do find your copies, try not to let your jaw hit the ground. For a decent copy, it may be around $50 or so, which is rather steep considering what books in other kid-lit series can be had for. Of course, it depends upon your motivation.

Now, there is an afterword to this mawkish little foray into my lost past. Years ago, I was browsing through the Chula Vista Book Store (now long gone, unfortunately) when I spied the spine of a familiar book. I reached up, pulled it from the shelf, and was thrilled to see it was a copy of Lost City of Uranus, the sixth and final book in the series. I could start to rebuild. I called the Wife over and launched into an overlong and tedious description of the series, the plot, and why this book was important to me. As her eyes glazed over (even those who love me are not immune), I told her, "I had this book when I was a kid." She wandered off, some sort of self-preservation urge, I guess, leaving me with my new found treasure. I opened the book. Inside, written in a childish hand was...

Ralph Vaughan
Telephone: GR-4-1107

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

If the Guy's a Loser, It Must be Noir

Crime fiction is more popular than ever, and many people seem fascinated by that sub-genre called "noir," which is French for "dark". Film Noir came out of the depression and cynicism that followed WW2, portraying a world of stark contrasts, of desperate characters driven to desperate deeds, but fictional noir started before we even had a name for it, back in the hardboiled detective pulps that flourished after the conclusion of that other war to make the worlds safe for democracy. It rode alongside the standard detective story, but stayed away from the more traditional (English) mystery story. Sure there were detectives and policemen and bank managers and maybe even an heiress or two, but they were all seen from the other side, as through a glass darkly, by grifters and swindlers and peroxide blondes. Such stories were the red-headed step children of the mystery and suspense genres, but things have gotten a little better for them. Somewhat.

I admit to a certain fondness for the sub-genre despite its shady rep with critics. Mystery writer, critic and publisher Otto Penzler wrote of it: "Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed; they may not die, but they probably should." Be that as it may, and despite my tremendous admiration for Otto (his encyclopedia is still my go-to for everything mysterious), my attraction for noir fiction remains unabated. So it was a good day when I happened across Wall Street Noir issued by Akashic Books. Even before it became infested with dissidents, Wall Street was the perfect place for grifters and swindlers, for desperate capers and ill-gotten gains, with perhaps a peroxide blonde or an illicit affair with a trophy wife along the way. The stories were quite varied in style (one was even in the form of a comic strip), but editor Peter Spiegelman maintained a high level of quality. Being from the area, I was also interested in San Diego Noir, which contains the only story I've ever found set in National City, a hotbed of gangs and noir if there ever was one; I had hoped to find a story with a Chula Vista venue, but I guess the only thing dark about my town are the intellects in City Hall. The series started in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir, and exploded from there to include most major American cities and many foreign settings; the series is still going strong. I have to admit that Otto is correct about noir characters being losers in the end, but who doesn't like a good story of darkness, morality and justice now and then?