Harrowing Books of Varying Reputability

So the authorities of Teleport City asked me to write about twelve books that I love. It turns out that not only am I terrible at listing favorites, I am kind of terrible at following directions. I started with twelve books I loved and then it turned into twelve books by authors I love. Then, the next thing I know, I’m culling some of them because I sense a growing indefinable theme, a theme of frequently harrowing books of varying reputability and often sinister dealings. I blame all the film noir I’ve been watching lately. These books have a wide range of sensibility and style, but I am very fond of them all.


Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (First published in 1939)

The-Big-SleepIf I could write like Raymond Chandler, I would be as happy as General Sternwood watching people drink his brandy. As it is, like the General,  I’ll have to take my pleasure vicariously. Yeah, maybe, choosing The Big Sleep as my favorite is cliché, but along with clear prose and excellent metaphors, I say, “Excellent female characters” and “General Sternwood.” In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe is hired by Gen. Sternwood to deal with gambling debts his daughter, Carmen, has incurred to a rare book seller, Arthur Gwynn Geiger. But Geiger’s bookstore is a front for his pornography business, which I assume he uses to pay off his expensive Orientalist knick-knack habit. Carmen is in deep. Sternwood’s eldest daughter, Vivian, suspects her father has hired Marlowe to find a man named Sean Regan, who has disappeared. Marlowe does a lot of digging, everyone’s being blackmailed, and there is a lot of clean prose and seedy revelations. But despite the seedy revelations, there’s something that’s just so damn humane about Chandler’s work. Unfortunately for Marlowe, the best he ever does is break even, but he always makes me feel that breaking even isn’t so bad.


Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Innocent Mrs. Duff (First published in 1946)

duffA friend recently recommended I read Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. And then I read that Chandler admired Holding, saying, “For my money she’s the top suspense writer of them all.” So I put a hold on a copy of whatever they had at the library and picked up Quality Paperback Book Club’s The Innocent Mrs. Duff / The Blank Wall. While QPBC’s name isn’t pretty, it certainly was a quality paperback book. I am sorry to say that I’d never heard of Holding, though she was famous during her lifetime. From what I’ve read, Brooklyn-born Elisabeth Sanxay married George E. Holding, a British diplomat, and lived in groovy 1920s style, traveling throughout South America and the Caribbean. I also read she attended Miss Whitcombe’s School for Young Ladies, but clearly that is business to be addressed another time. Holding wrote romances and then, in 1929, she switched to crime fiction, writing nineteen novels in all, including The Blank Wall, which was adapted into, The Reckless Moment (1947), directed by Max Ophüls, and adapted again as, The Deep End (2001). The Innocent Mrs. Duff, was adapted into Jean-Pierre Mocky’s La Candide Madame Duff (2000).

In The Innocent Mrs. Duff, we ride along with husband, father, and huge jerk, Jacob Duff, as he descends into alcoholic madness. He believes his wife is a low-class embarrassment unworthy of him and that she is having an affair with the chauffeur. (The Big Sleep has already apprised us of the low character and rascally ways of chauffeurs). Duff decides to do something about it, first plotting to catch her out and then framing her. And since we spend all our time in Duff’s head, it is easy to see just how self-pitying, deluded, cruel, and narcissistic Duff is. He is also very good at fooling himself about his alcoholism. Holding does a remarkable job with an unreliable narrator, letting us see only through Duff’s eyes, but also letting us see exactly how everyone else thinks of him.


Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (First published in 1955)

ripThe Talented Mr. Ripley is the first book in a series of five. It’s been adapted into Purple Noon (1960) starring Alain Delon, and, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), with Matt Damon. Highsmith’s first novel was Strangers on a Train (1950), and the first of her books adapted to film, though without the homoeroticism. As Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar writes at Publisher’s Weekly, Highsmith’s protagonists are always confusing their passionate impulses, confusing murder, sex and love. Highsmith is a deadly precise, sly writer with more than a little sympathy for the devil. And Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is the sly sociopathic descendant of Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dixon Steele and the progenitor of Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan, and Lou Bloom. Ripley is as American as Jay Gatsby, but, unlike Gatsby, there’s always another act in Tom Ripley’s life. There’s alway another life he can steal, take over, exploit, or end for his own needs if he just works hard enough at not having to work at all.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, fancy New York shipping tycoon Herbert Greenleaf believes that Ripley is his son Dickie’s friend from way back, because that’s what Tom tells him, and hires Ripley to retrieve Dickie from Europe. Ripley takes the deal and goes to Italy, discovering that he kinda wants Dickie and that he definitely wants Dickie’s life. If only Dickie’s annoying friend, Marge would go away, because Marge has taken a strong dislike to Ripley, and it doesn’t seem to be jealousy. And through it all, I felt dread mixed with a strange concern that a man who has done many terrible things will be caught. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a dark vision of a poor boy made making good using only his brain, his gumption and his complete lack of empathy.


Dorothy B. Hughes, In A Lonely Place (First published in 1947)

lonelyI first discovered Dorothy B. Hughes long after I had seen In A Lonely Place many, many times. I was working at bookstore and reading some of the Feminist Press’s Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series when the store was slow. The series’ intent was to publicize and preserve women’s writing that was out of print or at risk of disappearing. I read Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager (1941), Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (1931), and started Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957). And I think the first Hughes’ book I read was The Blackbirders (1943), the story of a young woman named Julie who is fleeing Nazi-occupied Paris—carrying a smuggled diamond necklace—only to discover that mysterious agents have followed her to New York. Hughes wrote all kinds of things, genre and not. She had a background in journalism and wrote literary criticism. She even won the Yale Younger Poets series in 1931. And she wrote a variety of crime novels and thrillers.

In 1963, Hughes retired after writing, The Expendable Man, about a doctor on a cross country trip who picks up the wrong young woman hitchhiking. I actually highly recommend The Expendable Man. It seems like it relies on a twist, but it’s so much more. Right now, though, my favorite book of hers is, In A Lonely Place. The Feminist Press reissued it in 2003 after having been out of print forever. It’s the basis for the Nicholas Ray film starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. In the film, Dix Steele is a failing screenwriter who might or might not be a murderer. (And yes, I think think Hughes knew exactly what she was doing when she named her protagonist, “Dix Steele”). But the novel is much darker than the film with one of the best controlled unreliable narrators I’ve ever read.

Dix Steel is up there in loathsomeness with Jacob Duff, but far less sympathetic than Tom Ripley. In the novel, there’s no doubt about Steele. He’s a predator from page one. He poses as a crime writer to get money from his Uncle Fergus and lives in the house of a man he doesn’t like very much. He’s a WWII vet who takes on the identity of a dead man. He’s infatuated with Laurel Grey, a probably bisexual woman who lives in the apartment across from his. She’s the femme fatale, but only in Dix’s story where women are ruining everything. Dix’s friend Brub is investigating a string of murders believed to have been committed by the same man and Dix offers to help out. But Laurel and Brub’s wife Sylvia aren’t so sure about Dix and Dix is either barely under control or not under control at all.


Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived In The Castle (First published in1962)

we_have_always_lived_in_the_castleShirley Jackson is one of the most talented and underrated American writers. She is rightly famous for her short story, “The Lottery” (1948), a story used to traumatize children while ostensibly warning them about the dangers of conformity since time immemorial. And The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is a masterpiece, no doubt about it. But there’s just something about her last complete novel, We Have Always Lived In The Castle that gets me. It’s her most Flannery O’Connor book: gothic, darkly funny and perfect in its prose. Merricat Blackwood and her sister Constance are orphans. Their parents had been poisoned by arsenic mixed with sugar that they sprinkled on blackberries at dinner. Their uncle Julian survived arsenic-laced blackberries, but was disabled and confined to his room by it. Merricat survived because she had been sent to their room without dinner. And Constance didn’t eat the sugar. Constance was arrested and acquitted, but the townspeople still believe she murdered her own parents. Unable to bear the looks she receives, Constance will only leave the house to take walks in the garden. And so the family relies on Merricat picking up groceries and library books in town once a week. Harassed by local children, Merricat protects their house with sympathetic magic. And Merricat has been content with this arrangement But changes are coming and Merricat does not hold with change, particularly not in the form of Cousin Charles coming to visit and wooing Constance. (I have suspecions, but no proof, that the film Spiderbaby (1967) was based on or influenced by, We Have Always Lived In The Castle).


Natsuo Kirino, Out (First published 1997)

outI’m not sure I can say that I love Out, but I respect it mightily and I think about it a lot. And I’m not sure how I feel or what I think about the ending but it is harrowing and effective. From what I’ve read, Out was considered shocking in Japan not only for its almost clinically detailed gore in particular scenes or its depiction of the lives of women in conetmporary Japan, but that a woman would write such a dark book. Natsuo Kirino is Mariko Hashioka’s pen name and, like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Kirino got her start writing romance novels before turing to psychological thrillers and crime fiction. Out is set in a twilight world of middle-aged suburban women trying to make ends meet and Brazilian immigrants trying to make a better life working second shift at a factory that makes pre-packaged bento lunches for sale at convenience stores. Sure, there are yakuza and former yakuza, but most of the people in this world are middle aged Japanese women and Brazilian men. Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie and Yayoi are more or less friendly, but their real bond is that they make an efficient team on the line.

All of them are struggling with their lives. Kuniko has run up impossible debt. Yoshie is trapped caring for her bed-ridden mother-in-law and her own daughter. Masako is estranged from her husband and son. And she’s left her previous job after alienating everyone with her skill and competence. Yayoi’s husband spends all his time and money at a hostess bar. One night, enraged, Yayoi kills her husband. Realizing she can’t get rid of the body on her own, she calls the leader of their factory line, Masako, for help. Masako enlists Yoshie’s help. Kuniko blunders in and they pay her to help. The women dismember Yayoi’s husband in her bathtub, wrap the parts in garbage bags and divide him up between them to dispose of all over town. But one of the pieces is found and the police investigate. The owner of the hostess bar is the prime suspect and he begins searching for the real killer. And he is a man who is afraid of his own frightening sexual desires. Making things more complicated, a former yakuza with a sketchy new loan business figures out who has committed the crime and offers the women more money to dispose of the occasional body. In a suburban world of desperate, working poor middle-aged women and Brazilian guest workers marginalized by their difference, Out details how good or innocent or decent people can end up doing terrible things. A very good book, but a harrowing one.


Joe R. Lansdale, Mucho Mojo (First published in 1994)

halChampion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale is one of my favorite writers. In fact, I have testified to his champeen-ness to anyone I could corner. Well, not really, but I have hassled a couple friends about reading him. Lansdale has written comics I love (Jonah Hex). He has written episodes of animated television I love (Batman: The Animated Series; Superman: The Animated Series). His short stories have been adapted into movies (Bubba Ho-Tep) and tv (Masters of Horror, “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road”) that I love. My favorite film of 2014 was adapted from one of his books (Cold In July). And his tale of a dystopian drive-in, The Drive-In, is one of two books that nearly made me throw up while riding public transportation. But I’m not here to talk about his excellence in horror. I’m here to talk about his excellence in getting me to read mysteries. While I don’t think Mucho Mojo was the first Lansdale book I read, though it might’ve been, it was the the one that got me into Hap & Leonard series and into mysteries in general, something even Chandler never really did. Of course, Mucho Mojo bills itself as a “novel of suspense” and Hap and Leonard are not ordinary detectives. (Though who is lately?)

Hap and Leonard are a couple of friends living in East Texas who either try to help someone out and get into trouble or just plain get into trouble. Hap is a fairly liberal white guy who works a wide variety of jobs. Leonard Pine is an gay, African-American veteran who is a little more conservative than Hap and has fewer qualms about employing violence to take care of horrific problems. Together they represent one of the pleasures in life—two friends over thirty-five giving each other shit while trying to do the right thing. Mucho Mojo begins with Leonard interrupting Hap at his job planting stakes on a rose farm to tell him that Leonard’s uncle has passed away. While cleaning out Uncle Chester’s attic, Leonard and Hap discover something ugly and terrible, something they have to make right. I am very partial to Lansdale’s prose. He’s funny, but he makes a lot of mundane and even crude things beautiful. And he always makes horrific things horrific. One of the reasons I chose Mucho Mojo is that the last few paragraphs of the book are among my favorite writing anywhere.


Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch (First published in 1992)

rum-punchI might like Leonard a smidge less than Lansdale, but it’s really a matter of snails and oysters. A few years from now, I might prefer Leonard to Lansdale. And knowing that Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard tv series is supposed to come out in 2016 is easing some of the pain I feel right now when I miss Justified , a television series adapted from Leonard’s short story, “Fire In The Hole.” In his crazy long career, Leonard’s written both excellent Westerns and excellent crime books, many of which have been adapted into films of varying quality: 3:10 To Yuma; Hombre; Stick; Mr. Majestyk; Get Shorty; Out Of Sight; Jackie Brown; etc. I’m probably most fond of Out Of Sight and Rum Punch, but today I’m just a little more fond of Rum Punch. It turns out a forty-four year old African American flight attendant pulling off the perfect heist is just as satisfying as two guys who are over thirty-five giving each other shit. Jackie Burke is caught transporting cash for gun-runner Ordell Robbie. Robbie handles Burke’s bail through bail bondsman Max Cherry, and has thoughts of killing Burke once she’s out of custody to save himself. Meanwhile, Cherry is lonesome, sick of being a bail bondsman and attracted to Burke. And Burke has some ideas about how she could get away with her life, her freedom and a lot of money. I feel I should note that this book is not harrowing and has no dismemberment or close examination of human evil or the inevitable corruption of innocence.


Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian; Or, The Evening Redness In The West (First published in 1985)

bmBlood Meridian is harrowing, a close examination of human evil and possibly the inevitable corruption of innocence. Its prose is apocalyptically wrought and definitely Melvillian. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy recasts a teenager’s journey west as a journey into a hell of humanity’s own making. The protagonist meets up with Judge Holden at a tent revival in 1840s Nacogdoches, Texas. The judge is a very Ahab character who might strike the sun if it offended him, but would take much more pleasure leading other people into doing it. The kid joins a group of US irregulars intent on seizing Mexican land for the United States. Captured by Mexican forces, the kid’s given the choice of being tried or joining the Glanton Gang, a brutal group of “scalphunters,” people who killed Native Americans for a bounty. Chihuahua state supports the gang in clearing out the Apache. The gang are relentlessly awful, as history attests. And the judge appears to have a sinister hold over each man, manipulating and provoking them to cruelty. It is a brutal and beautifully written meditation on history, violence and sin. I knew the book had me when the Judge has his followers make their own gunpowder in a hellish landscape and I did not immediately think of Captain Kirk reasoning out making gunpowder on that planet where alien powers make him fight the Gorn captain.


Herman Melville, Benito Cereno in Pierre; Israel Potter; The Piazza Tales; The Confidence-Man; Billy Budd; Uncollected Prose (First published in 1855)

melvI intended to write about Moby-Dick because it is my official favorite book. Before I read Moby-Dick, I never had an answer for questions like, “Which book would you choose if you were abducted by space ladies and they only let you choose one book to read on their planet of liturgical dance, space happenings and spontaneous prose poems?” But I think that Melville’s novella Benito Cereno fits better with the other books in this particular list. Benito Cereno was originally serialized in Putnam’s Magazine and then collected in Melville’s 1856 book of short stories, The Piazza Tales, along with “Bartelby The Scrivener,” which has grown ever funnier to me as I gain more experience of the world. Captain Amaso Delano, a Massachusets man and captain of a seal-hunting ship encounters the San Dominick off the coast of Chile in 1799. The San Dominick appears to be almost drifting and does not raise its colors after sighting Delano’s ship. Delano recognizes the San Dominick as a Spanish cargo ship, the kind that often carries slaves. While his first mate is wary, Delano is concerned for the welfare of the San Dominick and orders a boat made ready with provisions and proposes to deliver the goods himself. When he arrives, Delano finds most of the Spanish crew and half of the West African slaves onboard have died from disease. The ship’s captain, Benito Cereno, is aloof and reticent, attended by his concerned and solicitous Senegalese servant, Babo. Cereno is concerned about the disorder he sees, including the surviving West Africans being on deck. but seeing Babo’s solicitude, Delano accepts Cereno’s reassurances that the West Africans are so comfortable with their lot as slaves that he doesn’t need to keep the survivors below deck. Indeed the West Africans have been engaged in such industry as cleaning and sharpening hatchets and doing some repairs. Delano remains with Cereno for an entire day in order to help with repairs and hear the whole story.

Normally I would not worry all that much about “spoiling” a story, but I’m just warning you that I am going write things now that some people might see as spoilers and other people might see as enticements. Melville is sly writer and prone to irony. He approaches his readers with seeming earnestness, but never trust Melville’s narrators to be doing what they say they are doing. In Benito Cereno, Melville doesn’t use an unreliable narrator, so much as a snide one who is bursting to tell us what is really going on, but instead drops hints that Delano might be a fool. And Benito Cereno bears him out. Delano totally misreads his situation. What he has blundered into is the aftermath not of a natural disaster, but a successful slave revolt. Babo controls the ship and has extracted a promise from Cereno to return the surviving West Africans to Senegal. Delano misinterprets everything he sees, because he sees what he wants to, because he himself is flattered by the image of the doting slave who willingly cares for his white master, and beause he cannot imagine an upending of a natural social order with very nice white people like himself on top. Now this could be a simple tale of irony and horror, but, because it is Melville, it’s more complicated. While Melville portrays horror in the killing of the Spanish crew, he is not on Delano or Cereno’s side. His narrator openly disrespects Delano and isn’t so keen on Cereno, either. He’s written a novella about the horrifying effects of slavery disguised as an adventure tale, like Moby-Dick is an meditation on everything from the whaling industry, contemporary life and God disguised as an adventure tale.

As with Moby-Dick, Melville based the story on a historical account, in this case, Captain Amasa Delano’s encounter with the Spanish slave ship, Tryal. The historical Delano himself was personally anti-slavery, but professionally pro-contract. Once he became aware that the West Africans aboard the Tryal had liberated themselves, Captain Delano took it upon himself to attack the Tryal and re-enslave the survivors. In historical detail, the story was almost entirely as Melville presents it, but the incident took place in 1805, while Melville moved it back to 1799. This shift in time gives the slave revolt onboard the San Dominick resonance with the revolution that transformed Saint-Domingue into the Republic of Haiti, a revolution the United States advocated for at the time. Benito Cereno was published by Putnam at just the time that the magazine had declared itself pro-Abolition. You can read more about Delano and the Tryal in Greg Gandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: Picador, 2015).


Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase (First published 1982)

wscWhile Murakami is very different from Melville, A Wild Sheep Chase does have a chapter dedicated to a whale’s penis, and Melville does write much on a sperm whale’s penis in Moby-Dick. But unlike Melville, Murakami is more inspired by jazz, cats, Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler. I’ve read that Albert Camus was inspired by American crime novels, and Murakami seems to take after both American crime fiction and Existentialist* novelists inspired by American crime fiction. I am particularly fond of the concise, casually surreal weirdness of Murakami’s short stories and A Wild Sheep Chase has a little more of that than some of his other longer length works. (It has less concentrated weirdness than Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, though). Where a Lovecraftian protagonist has an existential crisis of deep cosmological implications in the face of non-Yankee white people, Murakami’s protagonists take things like Sheep Men as they come, even if there is only one Sheep Man. A Wild Sheep Chase‘s nameless protagonist’s boss orders him to find a sheep with a star on its back, or else. As he searches for the sheep, the protagonist is beset by a man who dresses in a sheep costume, mysterious correspondence from his friend the Rat, and a woman who must “block” her ears to protect us all from their exquisite beauty. And all of this is just a little bit noir: a sick old man who wants to recover his potency; a mysterious photograph; an almost fatally beautiful woman. In his passivity, the protagonist is a little bit of Camus’ Mersault, but he’s also a little bit Chandler’s Philip Marlow. And the book itself is a bit like if Chandler’s crime novels concerned missing sheep and if what Raymond Carver talked about was perfect ears when he talked about love.

*I am aware that Camus really didn’t like being called “Existentialist,” but it really works well in my sentence.


Norvell Page, The Spider: Robot Titans of Gotham (First published 1935)

scan0007The Spider is my favorite pulp hero. Fellow pulp hero Operator #5, while living in an exciting USA invaded by the Purple Army, seems kind of bland personally. I’m sure that blandness is an asset in his life as a secret agent, but just slides off me. The Shadow himself is very exciting, but does he wear false fangs, a prosthetic hump and a long white wig as well as his broad brimmed hat and deadly pistols? No, he does not. But the Spider does. Doc Savage surrounds himself with a little too much comic relief, though I don’t begrudge him whatever he needs to do after saving the world so many times. There is nothing comic about Dick Wentworth or his alter ego, the Spider. The Spider greets life’s cruel ironies with a grim, mirthless laugh as robots run wild through New York City or a mysterious power holds the United States hostage with threats of poisonous vampire bats. It is kinda insane. And Wentworth’s fiance, Nita van Sloan is pretty swank herself. Sometimes she dons the fangs and cape and burns the Spider’s mark into the heads of villains as a warning to others. Then she and Dick Wentworth retire to his Manhattan penthouse as he plays piano to reveal the true depth of his feeling, express the sadness that they can never marry because of his job, and purge the horror that he has seen. The Spider still has the power to astound me with the mad schemes he faces, the absolutely massive death toll, and the Spider’s own ruthlessness.