Author: Guest Post

Guest Post: The Problem with Literature

Posted October 3, 2013 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature / 0 Comments

Want to be the next Shakespeare? Forget literature. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to write enlightened literary fiction. He was writing the Elizabethan equivalent of daytime television – easily digestible, relatable stories (mostly stolen from elsewhere and given a quick spit and polish to make them look and sound new) that would appeal to an audience of mostly illiterate working-class people. He didn’t care about being a great artist or creating work that would last for centuries. He just wanted to make money.

I think modern literary authors forget that. They want to create art. They want to be taken seriously. God forbid their work be mistaken for trashy pulp fiction. God forbid it be accessible. True art, according to the modern literary author, is by nature elitist. In order to understand it, one must have more sophisticated tastes than the types of people who read mass-produced romances or pulpy sci-fi thrillers. One has to be discerning. Every great literary author wants to be remembered as the next iconic genius.

Except that our last iconic genius wrote exactly the kinds of fiction these aspiring greats treat with such derision. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth – these might be timeless classics, but to The Bard, they were how he paid the bills, and to the people who paid to see his plays performed, they were the equivalent of a good popcorn flick. We talk about Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, Dickens, Conan Doyle as though they were trying to create enduring works of highbrow literature. They weren’t; they were writers working at their trade. It just so happens that they were very good at it, which is why we still enjoy their work today. But they had no lofty aspirations, no desire to be seen as anything more than working writers. Oh, sure, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of two successive monarchs. I’m not denying that he was a master wordsmith and a well-regarded one at that. But to the people who crowded into the globe to watch his work play out on stage, he was nothing more than an entertainer. Not an artiste, not a figure of reverence. He wrote theatre for the masses. He was Elizabethan England’s answer to JK Rowling, not Vonnegut.

If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d probably be writing for some wildly successful primetime drama. Dickens and Conan Doyle, were they to stick to the serial formats they preferred, would probably find a home in graphic novels. Byron was something of a poseur, but he wrote his generation’s equivalent of Harlequin romances. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters? They’d have been penning this summer’s hottest chick lit. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing things that people will enjoy just because they’re fun. There’s nothing wrong with writing to entertain, to captivate, to thrill. And just because work is engaging and accessible, doesn’t mean it can’t also be challenging, thought-provoking and enduringly popular.

The Bard was a genius at his craft, no doubt about it. I just came home from a fantastically staged production of Macbeth, a play still enjoyed by audiences around the world centuries after Shakespeare’s death. I hope to one day pass on my love of Shakespeare to my children. But I’ll also pass on my love of fantasy novels, detective mysteries, cheesy sci-fi and even the odd paranormal romance. Why not? Fiction is meant to be fun. Sure, it can also be a lot of other things, but if we don’t enjoy reading it on some level, what’s the point?

If you’re writing for an audience of people who think enjoying fiction for its own sake is below them, you’ll never be the next Shakespeare, or the next Marlowe, or the next Dickens or Mark Twain or Agatha Christie or Jane Austen. Hell, you won’t even be the next JK Rowling (and believe me – someday, we’ll talk about her work with the same reverence we reserve for the works of long-dead white men today). Don’t focus on creating literature. Focus on creating great entertainment. Take your readers somewhere new. Give them a means of escaping. Take an old story and make it sing again. Make it fun, for heaven’s sakes, because I can guarantee you that five hundred years from now, we won’t be talking about dry and dusty tomes written by pretentious poseurs with delusions of grandeur. We’ll be talking about what was popular, just like we do now. We’ll be talking about theatre for the masses. We’ll be talking about this generation’s Shakespeares. And if you’re not willing to do what he did – to write for all people, to amuse, to engage, to entertain – then you’ll never be one of them.

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Guest Post: Paper Idols, or: You Should Never (Re-)read Your Heroes

Posted September 8, 2013 by Guest Post in Guest Posts / 2 Comments

Pawn of ProphecyAs a teenager, I was a voracious reader of fantasy. My father – a religious conservative who believed the only kinds of books worth reading were about religion or science – forbade me to indulge my habit, but undaunted, I would sneak novels about swords and sorcery home from the school library, hidden between my Physics and Chemistry textbooks; volumes about enchantresses, faeries, forbidden forests and knights in shining armour (with complimentary damsels in various degrees of distress, of course). I read on the bus to and from school, at lunchtime, under the covers at night, sometimes even in class under the desk, devouring every heroic epic, every saga of fallen heroes from far off, fantastical lands. My favourites I would borrow again and again, re-reading them until they were like old friends, the twists and turns of the tales within becoming worn and familiar, a comforting escape for a teenage girl who didn’t always understand or know how to deal with the everyday realities of her life.

Chief amongst those favourites for many years were the collective works of David Eddings. Eddings, a legend in the fantasy world, is a trope-codifier on par with the likes of Robert Jordan and Raymond E Feist – Christopher Paolini, of Eragon fame, credits him as a chief inspiration. With his wife, Leigh, Eddings co-authored almost half a dozen fantasy series, several companion novels and a standalone novel, The Redemption of Althalus, a high fantasy adventure about a thief who unwittingly becomes a kind of god. My younger self saved every spare penny from school lunches to buy Eddings’ books, including an omnibus edition of one of his trilogies, The Tamuli, a mammoth tome of more than 1500 pages, which I’ve read cover-to-cover at least half a dozen times. My first love, a boy I met in medical school, was a fan of Eddings – we would discuss his books between classes, savouring the best quips, the sharpest shows of wit, as I imagined myself the Velvet to his Silk.

Eddings is known not for the originality of his stories – which, in fact, rely heavily on standard high-fantasy tropes (something which is acknowledged with a nod and wink by the author) – but for his characters and their excellent banter. Their witty repartee transforms Eddings’ work from derivative cookie-cutter high fantasy into something special, something with heart: stories about people you want to meet and befriend, people whose lives and struggles seem relatable regardless of the fantastical setting in which their adventures take place. Ask any fantasy fan what they love about Eddings and they’ll gush enthusiastically about the lovable rogue, Prince Kheldar (alias Silk), daring international spy and man of many faces, or the deceptively brutish and incredibly dry Sir Ulath, equal parts hulking ur-Viking and deep-voiced philosopher. They’ll quote the banter between Belgarath and Polgara, the legendary father and daughter sorcerer team. They’ll acknowledge an argument lost with a wry, “that’s one for your side.”

Indeed, Eddings’ legacy – for he passed away in 2009, to the dismay of fantasy readers everywhere – is not his stories, nor even his prodigious body of work, but the wit with which he transformed fantasy archetypes into living, breathing, loveable characters. Their cleverness is timeless, enduring.

Or so I remembered.

In recent years, I’ve become less of a reader, burdened down by the trivialities and time-sinks that make up life in the digital age. But last year, bedridden with some kind of flu, I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years – I took down the five books of the Belgariad, Eddings’ first (and perhaps most celebrated) fantasy series from my shelf and decided to give them a re-read, for old times’ sakes. I opened Pawn of Prophecy, eagerly awaiting a return to that world of fast-talking con-artists with royal titles and wisecracking sorcerers disguised as tramps. I remembered with great fondness the sharpness and wit that animated the characters and slavered with anticipation at immersing myself in their world, delighting in their banter and sarcasm.

I think it was about a hundred pages in that I realised something: twenty-two-year-old me didn’t find David Eddings nearly as clever nor as witty as fifteen, or indeed, seventeen-year-old me had.

There’s an old saying: you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Perhaps you shouldn’t re-read them either. As I trudged down the worn and familiar paths of the Belgariad, I felt comfort – the comfort one feels upon returning to an old haunt and realising nothing has changed. But I also felt a little sadness, because the vim and vigour that had so delighted my teenage self-seemed somewhat stale now. The lines I once quoted and re-quoted to my friends and emblazoned upon my forum avatars didn’t seem to have the ring they’d had when I first read them, all those years ago. Try as I might, I couldn’t summon up the same sense of joy and wonder I’d felt when I’d first cracked open those pages in my school library at lunchtime, completely unaware of what surprises they might hold.

I finished the entire Belgariad, all five books, in a day. I enjoyed the series and will probably re-read it again in a year or two. But some of the magic – some of what made Eddings so special – is gone now. Perhaps I am too old, too jaded, too cynical to see it. Perhaps what was funny to me when I was fifteen years old just isn’t as funny now. Or perhaps Eddings’ famed wit was never all it was cracked up to be, and my younger self just bought into the hype more easily. Either way, whilst I still enjoyed visiting my old fantasy companions in their world of high drama and impossible adventure, the Eddings of my teenage years – that paragon of acerbic wit and humour – is forever gone to me. Perhaps he is waiting to be discovered by another teenager longing for an escape from a life she finds dull and dreary. I like to think so. I like to think that there will be others – perhaps even my children, some day – who will read his books and find him incredibly droll in the way I and so many before me did. But the magic, as it were, seems to have an expiration date, and for me, that date has come and passed.

Eddings will rightly be remembered as one of the titans of contemporary high fantasy – a man who took the old and familiar and breathed new life into them, a man who turned stories as old as time into something new and exciting. I treasure his books and always will. But they no longer occupy the place in my heart they once did. I no longer see them as the rare and spectacular works of wit that I did in my teenage years. They’re just stories – good stories, comfortable stories, even fun stories, but just stories nonetheless.

When you place someone on a pedestal, you allow them room to fall. So it was for me. I still pull out my favourite books and re-read them every now and then, but with fewer expectations. Not every novel has to be the best novel one has ever read in order to have value. Sometimes, a story’s value is in the memories of a time when it helped you escape, when it was your refuge from a world that was too cold, too real for you. These days, Eddings’ novels are a reminder of a time when I needed just such an escape, and whilst they’ll never be the best I’ve ever read, I’ll always be glad I read them.

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Guest Post: Brief Overview of Pulp Fiction – Part 4 (1990’s & On)

Posted December 16, 2012 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature, Pulp / 0 Comments

There are currently many prolific authors working in crime fiction, whose names will not be mentioned, that occasionally find themselves labelled as noir by fans and critics alike and quite simply are not. They write about cops who have problems with their superiors or former military men with vengeance on their mind, they pile up the bodies and solve dark cases but they border on fantasy and as we’ve seen in the previous three parts to this overview true noirs are realistic and bleak with very few happy endings.

After assessing fifty years of noir and hard-boiled writing it becomes quite obvious that the fourth generation, the contemporary American hard-boiled and noir writer are yet to truly find their own unique voice or societal change to rail against.

If you accept that 9/11 changed the world completely in the same way that WWII and the threat of nuclear war did to previous generations we should expect a dramatic increase in distinct creative output from the next wave of authors.

What is clear is that, as with the rise in popularity of dystopian fiction, contemporary hard-boiled and noir authors are looking to their genre heritage and their countries past for settings and places to escape to. They are almost a lost generation, dreaming of a time when things were friendlier, less scary, less connected and invasive, that time when there was still some hope for the American Dream.

I discovered the work of Megan Abbott this year, she’s approximately 3 feet tall and specialises in reworking dark noir stories with a female centred twist. If you saw her on the street she’d probably be the last person you would imagine writing such dark novels. Her debut, Die A Little (2005), is set in 1950s LA and steeped in atmospheric suspense and voyeuristic appeal. She wrote four of these excellent period re-workings and then along came The End of Everything (2011) in which she updated her noir styling’s to teenaged girls in 1980s suburbia to amazing effect. It is a tale of lust, revenge, guilt, and my favourite four noir words; secrets, lies, passions and repressions.

Walter Mosley created the iconic hard-boiled hero Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) and went on to write ten more books about his black private detective in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, ending with Blonde Faith (2007). Utilising the style of Chandler and MacDonald Mosley manages to craft top quality hard-boiled mysteries and blend them with analysis of the social inequalities of the time.

George Pelecanos is one of the most famous names from this list, especially for his time writing for the HBO series The Wire. He came to prominence however for his D.C. Quartet, a series of four historical crime novels set in Washington D.C.. He also created two fantastic hard-boiled series featuring first Nick Stefanos in A Firing Offense (1991) and then the pairing of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn with Right as Rain (2001) which has built him a reputation for his gritty depiction of street life and a focus on hard-luck criminals.

James Ellroy, the King of Sinnuendo, the Demon Dog of American crime writing, knows how to write bleak noir filled with hard-boiled characters like nobody working today. His work is generally set in the 1950s and 1960s, featuring densely plotted criminal behaviour from all sides of the law with his tone relentlessly pessimistic. Perhaps his best work (or at the very least the best place to start) is L.A. Confidential (1990) and should be followed up with the first part of his Underworld USA trilogy American Tabloid (1995). But nobody can describe him better than he describes himself:

“Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I’m the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin’ family, if the name of your family is Manson.”

Another black private investigator, Lew Griffin, got his start in The Long-Legged Fly (1992) by James Sallis, a novel that starts in the 60s and moves through to the 90s and would lead to five more outings. Sallis has his own way of writing these hard-boiled private detectives, they’re complex and often poetic in their structure. He would go on to create another great of modern noir, Drive (2005) about an unnamed stunt driver who also works as a getaway driver for criminals.

Don Winslow might be most widely known for his brilliant and brutal modern noir Savages (2010) but he also created the surfing private detective Boone Daniels in The Dawn Patrol (2008). Winslow is known for his adrenaline-fueled novels and unique prose style, his subject matter is nothing ground breaking but he entertains like nobody else in the genre.

That leaves us with only Dennis Lehane to draw part four to a close. Lehane might just be best known for his psychological thrillers turned in to Oscar bait movies but his six Boston based noir thrillers featuring male/female investigation team Kenzie & Gennaro are some of the best in modern hard-boiled crime writing. Their first outing A Drink Before The War (1994) set a high standard to live up to but he reached incredibly bleak heights with Gone Baby, Gone (1998).

I’ll reserve special mention for another Brit, Philip Kerr, the creator of the Bernie Gunther novels. These books are a fantastic throwback to classic hard-boiled novels. Bernie starts as a private detective in Berlin as Hitler is consolidating his power and witnesses some truly awful things. His first three adventures are collected as Berlin Noir (1989 to 1991) and are well worth your time.

This is a guest post by blahblahblahtobyYou can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.

There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;

The 1930’s – 1940’s

The 1950’s

The 1960’s – 1980’s

The 1990’s – Onwards

Guest Post: Brief Overview of Pulp Fiction – Part 3 (1960’s-1980’s)

Posted December 9, 2012 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature, Pulp / 0 Comments

It’s a terribly clichéd expression to use as a title for this chapter I know but when looking at the evolution of hard-boiled and noir fiction it’s hard not to take in to consideration the fact that socially and politically America was in turmoil like never before.

In part two we acknowledged that the bleak outlook adopted by the second generation of noir authors, such as Jim Thompson, was a reflection of societal fears regarding Communism and nuclear war as they moved away from the prohibition era writing of Hammett and Chandler but as the 60s came around the audience for these books found themselves disconnected from the next generation who had radical ideas for changing the world.

The growth in popularity of television, the baby boomers, the Vietnam war, a President assassinated and that guy Nixon are just some of the major changes in American culture which saw the market for the bleakest noir fiction dwindle in size.

First there was the closure of several paperback original imprints whilst the ones that remained tended to focus on recurring characters rather than taking chances on original pulp work, then there was the splintering of the world of noir as it suddenly became a more diverse place. From the 70s onwards we’ve been treated to books about serial killers, forensics experts, hardened cops working within the departmental structure, and the redemption of the lone wolf. Not to mention females, homosexuals, non-whites and just about everything a writer desperate to stand out from the crowd could think of in between.

As mentioned previously several of the second generation of hard-boiled and noir writers kept writing after the death of the paperback original. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were perfectly suited to repeat adventures throughout the 60s and 70s (Blue Hammer the 18th Archer in ‘76 and Black Alley the final real Hammer in ’96) and sat alongside the newcomers as wisened old heads ready to guide the next generation.

One of the most important names in the history of the genre is Lawrence Block, he got started writing short stories during the heady days of the paperback originals (some of which are collected in the highly enjoyable Lost Weekends and One Night Stands) and had his first novels published in the early 60s. Amongst his mixed bag of early work the superb and disturbing Mona AKA Grifter’s Game (1961) has the distinction of being the first novel republished by the excellent Hard Case Crime imprint. He is a man that appears to have adapted quite readily to the need for recurring protagonists with no fewer than six different series created by him since the mid 60s. The Sins of the Fathers (1976) marks the debut of perhaps his most popular character, Matt Scudder.

Swedish born American Donald Hamilton is someone that isn’t so readily known in the 21st century but his character Matt Helm was created for Gold Medal Books in Death of a Citizen (1960) and ran for 27 books until The Damagers (1993.) Helm is a no-nonsense kind of guy, working as an undercover counter-terrorist agent he narrates his escapades with a detached, dead pan style include the many fights, torture sequences and sexual conquests.

“Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told.”

Donald Westlake was an incredibly prolific author in the genre who used many pseudonyms to divide up his different work. His most famous being Richard Stark, creator of the hard-boiled Parker, a ruthless master thief willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Parker first appeared in The Hunter (1962) and went on to star in a further 23 novels until Dirty Money (2008).

The Deep Blue Good-Bye (1964) marked the debut of hard-boiled detective Travis McGee. His creator John D. MacDonald would write one book per year until The Lonely Silver Rain (1985) brought the sequence to a close after 21 adventures. McGee is known for being a misogynist, a character that has dated quite badly and can easily offend some readers. MacDonald has an easygoing approach to the series, his detective lives on a houseboat and would prefer to lounge around drinking to solving crimes, that belies the intricate plotting he uses and misogyny aside this is a great series of third generation hard-boiled fiction.

Robert B. Parker wrote his Ph.D dissertation on Hammett, Chandler and Ross MacDonald and went on to create his own legendary private eye, Spenser in The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). Parker is known for his modern approach to the classics of the genre and including series characters from minority backgrounds as more than just punchbags for his protagonist. Sixkill (2011) was the 40th Spenser outing and was the last novel he finished before his death, making Spenser The Rolling Stones of hard-boiled fiction.

Joseph Hansen is best known for his ground breaking series of crime novels starring his most iconic creation, Dave Brandstetter, an openly gay insurance investigator who still embodied the tough, no-nonsense personality of the classic hardboiled private investigator type of protagonist. His first outing was Fadeout (1970) and he went on to appear in eleven more novels until A Country of Old Men (1991).

James Crumley is a self-declared heir to the Chandler tradition, he defines his own sensibility as conditioned by the disillusionments of the Vietnam War and his vision of justice less clear-cut. His protagonists are environmentalists and sustained by eccentric alliances with criminals and other misfits. Described as the literary offspring of Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson he was another author who found success outside of America long before the Americans took to him. His book The Last Good Kiss (1978) features the alcoholic ex-army officer turned private detective, C.W. Sughrue, as it’s protagonist and has been labelled as the most important crime novel of the last 50 years, influencing much of what will be described as the fourth generation of hard-boiled and noir writing. The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) is the only one of his novels to be acknowledged with an award.

I’ll now break my own rules and mention briefly the British author Derek Raymond. In 1984 he wrote the first book in The Factory Series, He Died With His Eyes Open, a book that seems to have captured both the hard-boiled spirit of Chandler and the blackest, bleakest noir poetics of David Goodis in one wonderful novel. Whilst he wasn’t American he is the closest I have found to true hard-boiled and noir fiction outside of America and deserves to be read by all fans of the genre.

Part four will bring us right up to date with a quick look at some of the shining lights in contemporary American hard-boiled and noir fiction.

This is a guest post by blahblahblahtobyYou can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.

There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;

The 1930’s – 1940’s

The 1950’s

The 1960’s – 1980’s

The 1990’s – Onward


Guest Post: Brief Overview of Pulp Fiction – Part 2 (1950’s)

Posted December 2, 2012 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature, Pulp / 0 Comments

In part one we looked at the birth of the genre as a more realistic type of literature in reaction to the traditional whodunit from Britain. The cynical approach towards life of the protagonist summing up the attitude of the hard-boiled hero and how the worlds of noir novels are never happy places where things go right.

We looked at Hammett and Chandler and Cain, the three pillars of the style that all who followed evolved from. Now we move on to the second generation of hard-boiled men who took advantage of a new publishing idea and the post WWII atmosphere of paranoia and fear.

Fawcett publications created the Gold Medal Books imprint in 1949 with the idea of publishing pulp novels directly to paperback formats. Paperback originals were published for the first time under this new imprint and very quickly became the home of noir fiction, the dark brand of crime writing that would go on to capture the mood of the general public.

At the end of WWII a new fear was brewing in the minds of America; images of nuclear warfare were embedded on the consciousness of a generation of people and McCarthyism via the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings instilled a previously unknown universal paranoia to the people.

These two key developments combined to provide a hotbed for bleak, raw, sleazy, deranged, violent, uncompromising, chilling, and warped, existentially horrific noir fiction with novels selling in excess of one million copies on a regular basis and spawning numerous copycat publishing imprints.

The first name from this second generation is one a lot of people are already familiar with, Mickey Spillane; his first Mike Hammer novel was I, The Jury (1947) and continued to write in to the 50s yet it wasn’t until the end of the era that he really came in to his own. Kiss Me Deadly (1952) was the basis for the iconic film noir of the same name and serves as a great introduction to a protagonist who is a complete and unashamed misogynist, unafraid of offending anyone, in stories that you jump on and ride like the wind through intrigue, fist fights, witty dialogue, sexual encounters and the inevitable denouement.

The other name that regularly gets mentioned as the obvious hardboiled heir to Chandler and Hammett is Ross MacDonald. The Moving Target (1949) was the first appearance of Lew Archer, a PI that would last through 18 novels to The Blue Hammer (1976). This series longevity alone makes MacDonald stand out from the field of hard-boiled authors but the growth of the character and the evolution of writing style from Chandler copycat to a writer who was as comfortable with poetic imagery and psychological insight as witty putdowns and biting sarcasm marks him as one of the true greats of the genre.

Gil Brewer is something of a forgotten man but he was prolific and popular in his time, having over 30 novels published in the new paperback original format. But to those in the know Gil Brewer is a treasure trove of 50s noir goodness. His protagonists are ex-soldiers, ex-cops, drifters, convicts, blue-collar workers, charterboat captains, unorthodox private detectives, even a sculptor.  The plots range from searches for stolen gold and sunken treasure to savage indictments of the effects of lust, greed, and murder to chilling psychological studies of disturbed personalities. The Vengeful Virgin (1958) that was recently republished by Hard Case Crime and The Red Scarf (1955) are amongst the standout titles from his bibliography.

Another man you could make the same statements about is Day Keene, the pair seems to go hand in hand infact. Even more prolific than Brewer, Keene has left a lasting legacy of entertaining noir stories that occasionally border on genius. Hard Case have also reissued a Keene novel in Home Is The Sailor (1952), you may also enjoy To Kiss or Kill (1951) and Dead Dolls Don’t Talk (1959).

Charles Willeford is the author who found fame in the 80s with his Hoke Mosely series but he published High Priest of California (1953) at the start of the boom in paperback sales and quickly followed it up with Pick-Up (1955) whilst still enlisted in the air force. Charles Willeford, in his best works, puts art, aesthetic sensibility, critical acumen, morality, and American ideology on a dramatic collision course, he was known for his quirky nature and eccentric characters and his juxtaposition of humour and violence is said to have influenced a young Quentin Tarantino (but then what didn’t?)

The other big Charles of the period was Charles Williams and he really was a BIG Charles. In 1951 his debut novel sold over one million copies in a time when one hundred thousand was the norm and in 1953 he became the first paperback original to be reviewed by The New York Times. Widely praised by critics Charles Williams is to the paperback originals what Hammett was to the 30s. He is known for frequently satirizing his male protagonists’ points of view, while implicitly reassessing the traditional genre figure of the femme fatale.

As mentioned previously about Woolrich, Williams was always more popular in France and only A Touch of Death (1954) and River Girl AKA The Catfish Tangle (1953) appear to be in print in English, a fact made even more shocking by the following statement made by pulp historian Woody Haut:

“So prolific and accomplished a writer was Charles Williams that he single-handedly made many subsequent pulp culture novels seem like little more than parodies.”

David Goodis is perhaps my personal favourite from this period (again he is widely available in French but not so much in English) his novels depicting the bleakness and darkness of lives in free fall, his words a statement of frustration, telling tales of gloom, depression and despair. Noir at its blackest. Down There AKA Shoot The Piano Player (1956) and Cassidy’s Girl (1951) represent him at his peak.

I’ve saved the biggest name, arguably the best writer of the bunch and possibly the most prolific for last, Jim Thompson. There are no good guys in Thompson’s literature; everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply biding time until able to be so. His style and prose elevated his work above well written genre pieces and in to literature which resulted in him being dismissed as just another pulp writer by those that read the paperback originals. The Killer Inside Me (1954), is perhaps his most famous work and represents the first time the reader was treated to an intimate portrait of a psychotic mind whilst The Grifters (1963) was his most successful movie adaptation.

Part three will take a look at the end of the popularity of paperback originals and what happened to crime fiction in the 60s and 70s.

This is a guest post by blahblahblahtobyYou can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.

There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;

The 1930’s – 1940’s

The 1950’s

The 1960’s – 1980’s

The 1990’s – Onwards


Guest Post: Brief Overview of Pulp Fiction – Part 1 (1930’s and 1940’s)

Posted November 25, 2012 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature, Pulp / 11 Comments

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and the success of his great detective spawned an entire genre of detective fiction that imitates to some degree or another to this date. The light-hearted and relatively straightforward approach towards solving crime reached its pinnacle in what has become known as The Golden Age of crime fiction, the 1920s and 1930s. The large majority of the authors writing in this popular style of fiction were British and this was reflected in the settings and general sense of manners contained within.

The inter-war years were a difficult time both socially and politically and this change in society saw crime fiction edge towards what was a more realistic, and more depressing tone with content that would almost certainly shock the characters found within an Agatha Christie novel. The pioneers for this movement towards realism were, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans and this style became known as hard-boiled.

Taking its name from the style of preparing eggs that leaves the hard shell intact and the yolk fully solidified, the protagonists of hard-boiled fiction are tough skinned, street wise, sharp tongued and ready to solve a mystery with violence if necessary (and it almost always is.)

These are cops, private detectives, ordinary citizens coming up against prohibition gangsters, organised crime, crooked cops, and looking to stand up for what is morally correct. One lone man against an entire system; grown cynical and expecting the worst of people but hoping for the best, he’s the kind of guy who’s seen every horror and will surely see worse before he solves this case.
Hard-boiled is a naturalistic style of writing combined with a cynical, world-weary attitude. This evolved in to Noir fiction, a genre that is if anything even darker; it’s protagonists are usually morally suspect at best and at worst are degenerates, psychopaths and cold blooded murderers.

The most succinct and accurate definition of the difference between the two styles is this:

Noir is the world. Hard-boiled is the character. You can have Noir without the Hard-boiled, but not the other way around.

Carroll John Daly is credited with creating the first hard-boiled story for Black Mask magazine in the 1920s and his first hard-boiled novel Snarl of the Beast (1927) marks the first of, what I shall deem, the essentials of the genre. At the time Daly was the most popular author of the genre he essentially started but he has since been unfairly labelled a hack (the writers opinion only) for simply not being of the same quality as the famous authors he inspired.

Hot on the heels of Daly was Dashiell Hammett, the former Pinkerton operative turned author, who between 1929 and 1934 published the only novels he ever wrote. At least two of which are widely considered masterpieces of the genre. Red Harvest (1929) featuring the unnamed detective known as The Continental Op and perhaps his most famous work The Maltese Falcon (1930); it’s PI Sam Spade is credited as being the archetype that all other hard-boiled detectives are based on, with his personal detachment from the case and unflinching devotion to ensuring justice his strongest characteristics.

The man who would follow in his footsteps, Raymond Chandler, said of him:

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse…He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

A more obscure name with an essential of the genre crops up next, Raoul Whitfield; his debut novel Green Ice (1930) was described by Dashiell Hammett as “280 pages of naked action pounded into tough compactness by staccato, hammerlike writing” but he never seemed to live up to his early success and retired from writing fiction only a few years later.

There are three names that everybody mentions when discussing this period of early hard-boiled American fiction. Hammett is the first, his Maltese Falcon regularly winning polls for best hard-boiled novel also, but to his name you will also find added the words Chandler and Cain.

Raymond Chandler decided to try his hand at writing after losing his job during the Depression and in the process seemed to capture America the way that America wants to be remembered. His hero is Philip Marlowe, his beat is L.A., a brave warrior in the Sam Spade mould but with a softer underbelly. In his classic debut The Big Sleep (1939) we find a PI who likes to drink, is handy in a fight and cynically wisecracks his way through most situations but this is also a man who plays chess, reads poetry and has philosophical questions playing on his mind. The generally acknowledge highpoint in Chandler’s (and Marlowe’s) career would come later with The Long Goodbye (1953) and demonstrates the literary nature of the genre, author and character.

James M. Cain on the other hand was largely active in the noir category; in his major works his characters were not detectives but men corrupted by sex and money. Double Indemnity (1943) is the story of an insurance agent who plots against his employers to get a woman and some money. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) features a mixture of sexuality and violence in a love triangle situation.

With the big names out of the way I will share two more important figures in the formative years of this genre that are a lot harder to find and therefore more obscure.

Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote with some success under the pseudonym William Irish, is virtually out of print today but his importance on the development of the genre remains. His work more often that not evoked despair and cynicism in the everyday life scenarios and as was the case with the bleaker examples of the genre was more popular in France than America. If you can find them, I recommend The Bride Wore Black (1940) and The Black Angel (1943) as good starting points.

Dorothy B. Hughes is another essential early noir author that few people have heard of. Her In A Lonely Place (1947) has recently been republished as a Penguin Modern Classic and quite rightly so, is a fine example of her tightly plotted and tense approach towards noir and features a truly heinous protagonist in Dix Steele. Amongst her other work The Blackbirder (1943) is a story of fear, paranoia and dread.

In Part Two I’ll be taking a look at the second generation of authors who worked during the boom in paperback fiction of the 1950s.

This is a guest post by blahblahblahtobyYou can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.

There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;

The 1930’s – 1940’s

The 1950’s

The 1960’s – 1980’s 

The 1990’s – Onwards


Guest Review: The Angel’s Game

Posted September 11, 2012 by Guest Post in Crime, Guest Posts, Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Guest Review: The Angel’s GameTitle: The Angel’s Game (Goodreads)
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translator: Lucia Graves
Series: Cemetery of Forgotten Books #2
Published: Knopf Doubleday, 2008
Pages: 531
Genres: Crime, Historical Fiction
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The Angel’s Game is the prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. This book is set in the gothic city of Barcelona in the 1900’s. It tells the story of David Martin, who one day dreams of becoming a serious writer. He gets his break when he is asked to write a fictional series under a pseudonym. Earning a modest wage, he decides buy an abandoned Tower house, which he has had his eye on for a while, but soon finds out it has a dark history. Over the years David starts to feeling unsatisfied with his writing career and decides to take a big risk and write his own novel. It was during that time that unforeseen circumstances had arisen, leaving David feel betrayed, depressed and in poor health when he is approached by mysterious French publisher who offers him a deal that will change his life forever.

This is my 2nd attempt at reading The Angel’s Game and I’m glad I made the decision to re-read it. Through this attempt I came to realise what a beautifully written book this is with a clever plot and the adorable characters that I have grown to love, which I had completely overlooked during my first read. I think part of the reason was the fact that I read it not long after reading Shadow of the Wind, which happens to be my all time favourite book. I believe my view of this book may have been overshadowed by its previous one. I desperately wanted the author to create another Shadow of the Wind and I was disappointed when it didn’t live up to my expectations.

My opinion of Cristina, David’s love interest, remained the same in both reads. I had an instant dislike to her and I couldn’t see what was so appealing in David’s eyes. She seemed a cold and distant character with no personality to her. She caused a significant amount of distress to David’s emotional state and I couldn’t see any reasoning for it.

The mystery surrounding the Tower house and Andreas Corelli was complex and strange. I felt it was not one to rush through as the answer was not spelt out to you in black and white. There were many layers, and characters that were introduced to you towards the end that I found the need to slow my pace to get the gist of what was happening. I can’t say that I could give you a definite answer, even after the 2nd read, but it made me question whether David was of sane mind and reliable? Or were the events took place due to something supernatural?Or both? Nonetheless it was extremely suspenseful and had me glued to the pages.

It is rare for me to re-read a book as I was of the opinion that I had a good memory. But going into this book again I was surprised to realise how much of the earlier parts I had completely forgotten, and they were the most entertaining, dramatic and moving parts of the book. Barcelona itself was a character all of its own. Carlos has a magical way of describing its haunting beauty and provided the perfect atmosphere to this mysterious tale. I came to adore David assistant, Isabella, who was a feisty, bossy and determined character and some of the best and light hearted moments involved the interaction between Isabelle and David. Their playful and passionate conversations and sarcastic remarks were so amusing and a pleasure to read. And I can’t go further without mentioning the wise and compassionate Senor Sempere from Sempere & Sons book shop, who knew David like no other and was a father figure. He provided him comfort at really hard time and the books to fuel his brain.

This book is an amazing story and I’m so pleased that I gave it another go with a clear and open mind. I can’t say that it is as good as The Shadow of the Wind but nonetheless it a thrilling read with many elements to it. I’m sure if I read it again I would find something new and exciting that will surprise me. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I believe it is worth reading.

Original Rating:  

Re-Read Rating:  


This is a guest post by Mish; when she is not reading she is busy moderating that Aussie Readers group on Goodreads. Big thanks to her for this post and doing a read a long with me of The Angel’s Game.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Posted May 23, 2012 by Guest Post in Erotica, Guest Posts / 20 Comments

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. JamesTitle: Fifty Shades of Grey (Goodreads)
Author: E.L. James
Series: Fifty Shades #1
Published: Vintage, 2011
Pages: 528
Genres: Erotica
Buy: Amazon (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I first came to hear about Fifty Shades of Grey through blog posts and friends, and couldn’t believe all the hype and excitement this book was creating amongst the reading world. It was phenomenon. I read several romances and erotica in the past so I became curious. I think the only thing that I was holding me back was the BDSM relationship. I’ve hardly read any books that involve BDSM, so I was slightly a bit nervous. But curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a go.

Now that I’ve read it, I’d have to say it was the worst book I have ever read and I want my 2 weeks back. When a few people mentioned that it was mommy porn, I should’ve taken their comment seriously, and not just waved it off as a silly and biased comment toward this genre. By the end of it, that is exactly how it felt.

The sex scenes were continuous, repetitive and boring; one scene, after the other, going through the motion of sex with a little variation of positions or setting but it was all the same – Porn. There was nothing sexy about it. It lacked any passion, class or emotion and I was numb the whole way through. As far as the BDSM was concerned, there was nothing new that I haven’t read previously. It was more talk and negotiation on how far Ana will go than the act itself. There were a few bondage sessions here and there but it was very light.

The writing was pathetic and utterly ridiculous, which made the characters unlikable. Ana is meant to be this intelligent, 22 year old literary student but her personality didn’t match to her persona. The constant use of these juvenile words and phrases such as ‘Inner Goddess’ or ‘talking to the Subconscious’ or ‘Holy Fuck’ almost made me want throw the book against the wall. She would gush or blush over the most so trivial things and came across as being an immature and stupid lady. It’s how I would expect a young teenager to act.

Christian on the other hand, I had an instant dislike him immediately. He’s a deranged and twisted character who likes to dominate every aspect of Ana’s life, not only in the bed; he would question her on how often she would eat, stalk her and set out rules on he would like her to act/behave around him – otherwise she would be punished (BDSM style). I felt the author tried very hard to make him seem appealing or sexy by Ana gushing and being aroused over his looks, charm, sexual comments but his behaviour was a complete turn off and he sounded creepier to me. I honestly can’t understand what women can see that is so appealing in Christian’s character!?!

All in all I think this series could be a great introduction to the genre, if you are new and interested in reading erotica as they ‘flying of the self’ and most people are raving about it. But unfortunately, it didn’t work for me and I have no intention of continuing the series in the future.

This is a guest post by Mish; when she is not reading she is busy moderating that Aussie Readers group on Goodreads. Big thanks to her for this post and being the first guest blogger on Literary Exploration.