Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ask the Dust - John Fante

(If you want to skip the pointless rant, the actual review is at the bottom.)

Here's the thing about John Fante's Ask the Dust:

In 1977, The Runaways released their second album, Queens of Noise. By the time I was old enough to start searching out decent music The Runaways had pretty much been forgotten. I eventually came across Joan Jett, of course, but with so much music to dig through, so much junk covering the good stuff, I never had time to seriously investigate her back catalogue. She released a few decent rock anthems, fair enough, good stuff, so did a lot of other people.

In 1977 I was one year old. It wasn't until last year I got around to digging up Joan Jett's sordid past and discovered a song from the album called Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin.


I mean, come on people. Do you see that title? The song simply cannot fail to be excellent with a title like that. But because I was a babe in arms at the time and the music fell out of fashion, I was left digging through thousands of hours of mostly tedious and overrated music before I even discovered that the song existed. Why have you wasted so much of my life by not telling me there's a song called Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin?* Why would you do that to me? There's so much shit I've had to wade through, so much money spent on the wrong thing, when practically my entire life there's been a song with that title, but no-one thought to tell me.


So that's why society is wrong. It is wrong and it is shit, and it is obviously unfair I've had to spend half my life without knowing that there was a song called Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin. Somebody should have told me when I was sixteen, so that I didn't have to waste the next couple of years believing that Oasis were actually quite good.

And that's how I feel about Ask the Dust by John Fante. It was published in 1939. It was a huge influence on Charles Bukowski. I never heard of it until this year. Why have I had to wade through hundreds of shitty recomendations when this work of obvious genius was sitting there all the time? Why does so much shit get thrust into our faces, making it so hard to fight through the crowd and find the works of momentous truth and beauty on the other side? Why does society throw Coldplay and the Stereophonics at me, Chris Brown and Miley Cyrus, instead of genuine artists of skill and passion, whether they're to my taste or not?


If you don't know about John Fante, and you haven't read Ask the Dust, then read it. Especially if you like, for instance, Bukowski. Or perhaps I could place it somewhere between Hemingway and Steinbeck, and it was quite possibly also an influence on the likes of Chandler and Goodis. Not everyone will love it, of course, there's still the matter of taste. But that doesn't stop it being brilliant and everybody should know about it. Everybody. When they are of age, tell your children. Don't force it on them. But for God's sake, at least let them know it's out there.**

*It's not the Best Song Title of All Time, of course, because that award has been retired and given in all perpetuity to Je Suis un Teenage Zombie de la Outer Space, Baby, by Les Prostiputes. But it's a good candidate for runner up.

**It's a semi-autobiographical novel about a deluded aspiring writer in LA, struggling to cope with both failure and limited success, filled with poverty and dreams and his love-hate-love-hate infatuation with a crazy waitress. It's frequently funny but also filled with moments of genuine despair and terror at the bare facts of life in depression era USA, and also at the existential crisis at the heart of the creative life which the protagonist naiively romanticises but which the novel examines in usparing, highly critical detail. File under: Essential.

Further reference:
Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin
When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? Play from your fucking heart.
Stewart Lee: Talking Books
"The world of publishing is in crisis...No I haven't read it because I'm a forty year old man."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Number Thirteen Press

Okay, so the other thing I've been up to recently is setting up my own small e-publishing company: Number Thirteen Press has now officially launched.

True, there are plenty of small e-presses around at the moment. As the publishing industry goes through seismic upheaval, a lot of genre fiction is going electronic. The pulp/crime field is perhaps lead by Blasted Heath and New Pulp Press, both of which are marvellous. But there are plenty of others doing little great things. You know who they are.

The future of pulp fiction is electronic. It's all about cost. The original pulp paperbacks in the 50s and 60s were produced in massive quantities on the cheapest paper possible, and sold cheaply. Same with the old pulp magazines. But you can't do that anymore with physical books because of the economic models. The big players don't take any risks, they're all about the latest mega hit by the latest mega writer, and small (non-electronic) presses are on the tightest possible budgets. They make money on 1 book out of 10, and that pays for the other 9. 

So (mostly, the likes of Hard Case Crime apart) it's only in e-publishing that you'll find original, inventive, incredible fiction that takes risks. This goes for crime, horror, sci-fi, anything that pushes beyond the mainstream. Lee Child is all very well, but people want something different sometimes. Small presses can take risks.

But none of the other small presses are doing exactly what I would do. So why the hell not start my own?

Here's the idea: an initial list of 13 crime novellas (or short novels), published one per month, on the 13th of each month. Professional editing; stylish, distinctive covers.

Why 13? Well, I figured if you're going to publish one book every single month, you want to avoid the beginning and end of the month, what with Christmas, New Year and other holidays. So in the middle of the month is the 13th. Then I thought about Black Friday by David Goodis, and it all seemed to fit into place. Also, being part of an exclusive and regular list can only help sales for all the books. Why not buy the set?

So all I need now are the manuscripts. If you think you've got something I might like, check out and send it in. I want pulp crime novellas, but all those terms are taken at their broadest possible meaning and I'd rather take a look and not like it than potentially miss out. So send it in, and tell your brother/sister/cousin/friend with the manuscript in their bottom drawer to send that in, too.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

He Died With His Eyes Open - Derek Raymond

Technically this is a police procedural, but the unnamed protagonist in the first of the Factory series has more in common with a classic hardboiled private detective. He works alone, on cases nobody else cares about. He is dedicated to his job because he thinks it matters when somebody is murdered, even though no-one else gives a damn. It's his one redeeming feature as he drinks his way through the sleazy underbelly of London.

And London is important. He couldn't really be a private detective, because the UK doesn't have real private detectives, not in this mold. But London is one of the trio of voices in this book, each more damned than the last. The unnamed detective is a no good piece-of-shit, lacking personal or proffesional ambition, who happens to think that the cases referred to the Department for Unexplained Deaths (ie. cases not worth devoting serious resources to) might just matter, even if only to him and the dead man. Nobody else who knew the corpse in life expresses much regret at his death. But London, London is also a no good piece-of-shit town. London has a voice just as vivid, and it's a voice which damns its occupants precisely because it doesn't care. London prefers to leave its inhabitants to their own miserable company. An uncaring and neglectful father who watches its children swirl down the drain without lifting a finger, tainting the lives of everybody who breathes its poisonous air, watching them piss their lives away in desperate alcoholic fugs, or drown in the backstreet violence of its dingy alleyways.

Derek Raymond has been called the Godfather of British noir or somesuch, and I don't remember reading any older British fiction this dark. The thing that really drags this book into the depths is the third voice. In a trick he would repeat throughout the Factory series, the voice of the dead man is given equal weight to the city and the detective. As the policeman listens to a number of tapes the victim recorded before his grisly and brutal murder, we are dragged into both the life and death of a man who was himself desperate and damned. He is a failure, a miserable drunk abandoned by his family and everything he might once have wanted to live for. As he narrates his movement towards death and the detective sleazes his way deeper into the dead man's story, the true loneliness at the heart of the existence of each is played out both in the present and the past. The detective insinuates his way into the dead man's life, into his bed, and ultimately into a bizarre and tortuous meta-sacrifice, almost a ritual claiming of equality between the dead and the damned of a heartless city awash with alcohol and violence.

Derek Raymond carried a notion of the Black Novel, which would address: 

‘the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle – the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfulfillable, and where defeat is certain.' 

This quote seems to encapsulate the black heart of noir and few writers have come as close to actualising such a book as Raymond does here. An incredible novel, as dark as any I've yet come across. If you like noir then read this book, because this is it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

I know what you're thinking...

Did he fire six shots? Or only five Who's counting?

No, what you're thinking is (probably not, but roll with me on this) apart from watching inutterably cool French crime films and reading the odd Scudder, what the hell has Chris Black been up to these last several months?

Well to tell you the truth, in all this excitement

In fact, what I've been doing is getting myself a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. A year ago I would have told you I didn't really believe in Creative Writing degrees. The odd course, a bit of friendly advice and/or a good editor, sure. But a degree? Hmmm, no. Especially for genre writers. I mean, literary writers who just want to churn out the same boring stuff that many of them have been churning out for the last 15 years (thank God literary fiction is finally picking up after some dull, dull times), but a crime writer? Horror writer? Science Friction? Not sure about that, my friend.

Has my opinion changed?  Hey. I gots to know

Well I guess I'll blog about that sometime real soon. In the meantime the way I approached the course - since I don't really write many shorts I started a number of novels and novellas instead - means I have lots of really exciting, high class projects that all remain unfinished. So what I'll mainly be doing over the summer is drinking gin-based cocktails finishing some of them up and trying to get them out to the public. In the meantime I'm really behind on posting reviews on here, and boy have I read some humdingers, so there will be some very short sharp reviews of my favourite crime, pulp and noir, new and old, starting with Paul Brazill* later this week (making a public promise to force action, classic lazy blogger technique).

*Cancelled since Guns of Brixton doesn't seem to be currently available. I believe something is happening on that front so I'll post a review at the more appropriate time. Replaced with Derek Raymond who's also totally Brit Grit, an anyway I'll have a review of Mr Brazill's latest very soon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dance at the Slaughterhouse

She nodded. “ ‘That’s him,’ I said. ‘That’s Leveque.’ They bring me back here and I got to let them into his room. They walked in and I walked in after them. ‘You can go now, Mrs. Eigen.’ ‘That’s all right,’ I said. ‘I’ll stay.’ Because some of them are all right but some of them would steal the money off a dead man’s eyes. Is that the expression?”
“The pennies off a dead man’s eyes. Pennies, not money.”
Dance at the Slaughterhouse
-Lawrence Block

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

I didn’t want one now, but there are the ones you want and the ones you need, and this came under the latter heading. I poured a short shot into the water glass and shuddered when I swallowed it. It didn’t stay down either, but it fixed things so the next one did. And then I could swallow another couple of aspirins with another half-glass of water, and this time they stayed swallowed.
If I’d been drunk when I was born . . . 
 When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
-Lawrence Block

Monday, June 2, 2014

Eight MiIllion Ways to Die

You could call it hustling a buck, except that I don’t hustle a whole lot. The work finds me. I turn down more than I handle, and the jobs I accept are ones I can’t think of a way to turn down. Right now I was wondering what this woman wanted from me, and what excuse I’d find to say no.

'I don’t know what to call it,' I told her. 'You could say that I do favors for friends.'

Her face lit up. She’d been doing a lot of smiling ever since she walked in the door but this was the first smile that got as far as her eyes. 'Well, hell, that’s perfect,' she said. 'I could use a favor. As far as that goes, I could use a friend.'
 Eight Million Ways to Die
-Lawrence Block

The Devil Knows You're Dead

Now and then I'd needed a gun, and he'd provided one without question, and refused to take any money for it. Sitting in his office, talking on the phone with the old-fashioned rotary dial, I'd looked over at the safe and figured I'd get the gun from Mick.

He'd have furnished it with no questions asked. But now I'd have to get it from somewhere else.

Because now he would know what I wanted it for. He might provide it, but my asking for it would be an abuse of our friendship. And that is something I take seriously. Like sobriety, or suicide.

The Devil Knows Your Dead
-Lawrence Block

I started the Scudder Week on a Friday. I did this because I hadn't really thought about it. If you're going to do a week, start it on the Monday for God' sake. But then, Friday to Thursday is seven days.

I decided to do a Scudder week because I was reading him at the moment, and because I'd seen the trailer just out for the film, but also because I'd had a conversation about him recently. Specifically: his titles are shit.

Or so is the opinion of someone who's opinion on matters crime and PI is worth noting, because he's a published noir PI author himself. He loves Block as a writer and in fact, as a lecturer, annually gives a lecture deconstructing noir/mystery novels based on a Scudder title as the perfect exemplar of the form he himself writes. Still, he reckons all the Scudder titles are shit. To be honest, Devil Knows You're Dead is okay, but most of them are pretty bad. A Walk Among the Tombstones? Sounds like a western, and not a very original one. A Ticket to the Boneyard and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse are rubbish. So's A Stab in the Dark.

Mr Block himself blogged recently about the rhythm of the titles, and it's true. Blah (blah) di-di blah (blah). Each one sounds distinctly like a Scudder title.It doesn't make them individually good though. I suppose there is the problem of writing as many books as Mr Block has. It's fine as a young writer to come up with three or four great titles that will define your ouvre, but coming up with thirty more could be tricky.

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is good. It's taken from a song.

Eight Million Ways to Die, however, is brilliant. Referencing the population of New York, the book in which his own alcoloholism is dealt with head on while also investigating murder is perfectly titled. It's very Scudder - bleak, philosophical, raising more questions than answers. In the books, Scudder doesn't answer many questions. Sometimes the who, how and small why of the murder, but never the big Why. There's another quote in The Devil Knows You're Dead where a woman says the murder feels wrong on a cosmic level, that the victim wasn't supposed to die like that, and therefore 'we're all in danger'. In most of the cases he deals with, Scudder seems to feel that something is basically wrong with the universe. He does his little bit to put it right, and he knows he makes sod all difference in the end. But he still does it, and everybody still dies and that's what the title means: eight million people in his beloved New York is just eight million deaths happening now, or waiting to happen, but unavoidable and unexplainable, each in their own way. He can solve the particulars of one, but never the reason of many, including his own. Managing alcoholism through the rest of the Scudder titles is as important to him as solving a tiny (murderous) piece of the puzzle of life. It's all he can control, so he must but the title illustrates that control is an illusion. So is safety. We are all dying right now despite all his best efforts. In encapsulating so perfectly such a great, dark and bleak yet persistant character, Eight Million Ways to Die is one of my all time favourite book titles.