Friday, September 27, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: Interlude - THE FAILS (so far)

I've said it before, but one of the nice things about writing these particular posts is that it gives me a valid excuse to revisit some great old books from my past - some of which I haven't cracked open in twenty years or more. And therein lies the problem. Because it turns out that a few of those I once considered great reads are in fact just the opposite. Which is kind of understandable - after all, I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago. Nobody is. Added to which, I'm now in the fortunate position of being able to call myself a professional author, and as a result I know a little more about the craft of writing than I did back then. So occasionally I'm sitting down and rereading one of these books and find myself amazed by the bad writing decisions that jump out at me.

Of course, that doesn't mean I can't post about them - after all, we can't like everything we read - but on the other hand I did insert the word GREAT before 'FORGOTTEN' THRILLERS, which limits me somewhat. (And yes, I know many of the books I've reviewed fall short of greatness, but in my mind they've gotta be good, at least.) And to be perfectly honest, it's not a whole lot of fun writing a thousand words or so about a book I don't like. I know critics do it on a regular basis, but I've never claimed to be a critic. But by the same token, I don't want to totally ignore them either. So instead I thought it might be an idea to do an interim post to explain why certain books have failed to make the grade, and get all the badness out of the way in one go. (Don't worry, normal service will resume shortly - still plenty more books to go yet.)

So first, let's deal with the elephant in the room that is Ira Levin, who also happens to be one of my very favourite suspense authors. Now when I originally set out to do this series I knew Levin would be in there somewhere, and I was planning to focus on either THIS PERFECT DAY or SON OF ROSEMARY. In the end it wasn't much of a choice and I went for the former, mainly because it fulfills the criteria I put in place from the start. It's pretty damn great, it's an oft-neglected part of Levin's bibliography, and it's a thriller (kind of). So that's three for three right there.

And in direct contrast, we have SON OF ROSEMARY. Which isn't great - not by any stretch of the imagination. I can't really classify it as a thriller either, because there's not a whole lot of suspense in the book. And while it fits the 'Forgotten' criteria well enough, there's a fairly good reason for that. The story takes place 30 years after the original, and it turns out Rosemary has been in a coma for most of that time. She wakes to find her son, Andy, is a globally-revered prophet who's finally bringing peace to the world and who's planning to unite all of mankind in a special celebration on New Year's Eve, 2000. Or is he? Rosemary has her doubts...

It's quite remarkable how Levin gets everything wrong with this one, yet it's like watching a car crash - you can't take your eyes away. Where before, Levin always trod a fine line between satire and straight thrills with his novels, in this one he goes totally OTT and delivers what can only be described as a spoof of his earlier work. And you have to ask yourself why. What on earth possessed him? And then there's the ending, which I refuse to give away here, but let's just say Levin's conclusion breaks one of the absolute golden rules of writing. Admittedly, I never thought this book was all that fantastic to begin with, but I'd hoped it might not be as bad as I remembered. I was wrong. It's enjoyably bad, but still bad nonetheless.

Moving on, we have GOD IS AN EXECUTIONER, a revenge thriller by Tom Barling. Now I do love that title, I have to admit. It's great. And I also like the retro simplicity of the cover design. The black and red text. The simple image of dog tags and blood. I also recall enjoying this one a hell of a lot when I first picked it up half a lifetime ago, but upon rereading it recently I was at a loss as to why. It stars Matthew Pepper, a Vietnam veteran turned successful businessman, whose wife and son are kidnapped by a gang of terrorists. With the police thinking him guilty of their murder, Pepper resolves to get them back using any means necessary and soon discovers an old enemy from that war might be tying up loose ends...

Now this one started badly and just got progressively worse. For example, the first chapter begins with Pepper dreaming about an event from his Vietnam past. In great detail. With dialogue and everything. Because that's how people dream, isn't it? You never dream that the guy standing next to you has just turned into your sister and sprouted antlers, or that your foot's morphed into a bowl of trifle. No, dreams always make complete logical sense with a beginning, a middle and an end. Like this one. What's worse is this particular 'dream' lasts for most of the chapter - and it's a long chapter too.

In fact, every time Pepper closes his eyes for more than a few seconds we're treated to another unnecessary 'Nam flashback. All the way through the book. And Barling's writing style is very confusing too. There are a lot of action sequences in the story and I had to constantly reread most of them because I had no idea what was going on. And the various character motivations are also blurry. Characters walk in an out of the story without reason, and don't get me started on the hopeless dialogue. Also, the main villain of the piece - who's known as 'the man with two noses', yes really - is purposely left unnamed for the entirety of the book and I still can't figure out why. There are just too many things that don't make sense in this book and I was left scratching my head when I finished it. To be honest, I still am. This is a very very odd book, and not in a good way.

Man, what a waste of a good title.

What's next? THAI HORSE by William Diehl. Now I really like William Diehl. Back in the eighties and nineties he specialised in producing gritty intelligent thrillers, and I always made a habit of picking up his newest as soon as it came out and rarely came away disappointed. So when I came up with this blog series, I always knew I'd be focusing on one of his and for a long time I thought it was going to be THAI HORSE. Until I read it again. Oh, dear. I had a vague memory of this being a really gripping men-on-a-mission thriller with a conflicted hero in the leader role. Turns out I was only half right. Actually, less than half. Maybe a quarter.

The book centres on an ex-Vietnam vet (yes, another one) and ex-spy called Hatcher, who having been betrayed on a previous job, has spent a number of years in one of the most brutal prisons in South America. Upon his release, he's called back into action by his old CIA handler to find a man named Cody, a former friend of Hatcher's, who was supposedly killed in Vietnam. Word is he's still alive and his General father, who's dying of cancer, would like to see him one last time. And Hatcher is considered the only man capable of finding him. As he journeys to Hong Kong and Bangkok in search of his missing friend, Hatcher is forced to come to terms with parts of his violent past he'd thought were long buried...

Now this one's not too bad, but the reason it didn't make the grade was that it's simply nowhere near as good as I remember. The pacing's pretty skewed for a start, and there are too many unnecessary flashbacks for my liking. And far, far too many sub-plots. I can usually keep up with the most complex of plots, but this one got a little too convoluted for me. I came away thinking the book could have been so much better with a stronger editor. However, I was impressed with the first section of the novel, with Hatcher stuck in this hellhole of a prison where speech is verboten. It's a great character piece detailing Hatcher's slow descent into madness and I found it totally absorbing. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is kind of a letdown after such a strong start.

There's plenty of action and thrills, but it's kind of all over the place. And the final section, where the tension should really be ratcheted up to the next level, is brought to a grinding halt when the main characters go on a long hunt for a rogue tiger in a Bangkok suburb (don't ask), which has no connection to the plot at all. I was skipping page after page at this point, which is not good news when you're approaching the end of a novel. Nevertheless, I still rate William Diehl quite highly and will very shortly be posting about one of his books that didn't let me down.

Next up we've got THE FOX IS CRAZY TOO, a non-fiction account of little-known seventies skyjacker and bank robber, Garrett Trapnell, by Eliot Asinof. It's a really gripping read about a fascinating character who made a career out of robbing banks, conning people, getting caught and then getting away again. But the thing is, I'd already focused on a bio written in the thriller format with THE HUNTER by Christopher Keane, and both books had me asking myself the same questions. That is, how much of what I'm reading is true and how much is completely made up?

I mean, it's all fascinating stuff, to be sure. Trapnell was a guy with a high IQ and a bipolar disorder who got off on screwing The Man at every opportunity. Which basically meant robbing banks and financial institutions, often by just walking in the door with a slip of paper and walking out with a bag of money. After a spate of these, he'd settle down with a new woman (often marrying them whilst forgetting to divorce the previous ones), set up a new life for himself, then get bored and start robbing again. And each time he got caught he'd claim temporary insanity, get transferred to a mental institution where he'd usually be diagnosed as a schizophrenic, whereupon he'd either escape or get released and then proceed to go through the whole cycle again.

It's a great story which not only recounts an interesting, if tragic, life but also points a finger at a large loophole in the American legal system - the temporary insanity plea - while also questioning the validity of using psychiatric testimony in the courtroom. But the problem is that great sections of the book are written as though the author was actually there with Trapnell, which clearly wasn't the case. I'm sure the main events that he recounts actually took place, but the large chunks of dialogue contained in the book are also presented as fact, which I find very hard to believe - assuming the conversations took place at all. It's one of those odd 'in-between' books: works fine as a thriller, not so convincing as a biography. Added to which, it was all a little too similar to THE HUNTER for me to want to review it in detail. But that said, if you can find a cheap copy online I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

Okay, BALEFIRE by Kenneth Goddard is next. This one I remember reading in my late teens while I was on holiday somewhere along the English coast, possibly Bognor Regis. And I bought it for two reasons. 1) I loved that stark white cover with the two eyes looking out. And 2) the cover blurb compared it to THE DAY OF THE JACKAL - which was one of my favourites, even back then. And while it clearly didn't equal Frederick Forsyth's classic novel, it still produced the goods as far as I was concerned. At least, it did back then.

The novel concerns itself with a professional terrorist named Thanatos who's been hired by a group of bad guys to single-handedly wreak havoc on the small city of Huntingdon Beach on the California coast as a demonstration against the coming LA Olympics. This he does by taking on the police department in a well-orchestrated series of attacks that soon leaves the city reeling. Fortunately, a team of police investigators and crime-lab specialists eventually realize it's all the work of one man and work against a tight deadline in an attempt to bring him down before the opening ceremony begins...

Again, this isn't a bad novel at all. The author, who was actually a police forensic scientist himself, gets all the details right, which is a good start. But I found my eyes glazing over at various points in the narrative as the same thing kept happening over and over again. Thanatos would strike, kill a cop or two, make it look as though angry citizens were the culprits, then disappear, ready to do the same thing again. And you just know he's not going to get caught until the very end, mainly because he's the only villain and without him there's no book. He is a great villain, though. He kills, mutilates and rapes his way through the narrative to the point where the reader's desperate to see him get his comeuppance, hoping that he'll suffer in the same way his victims suffered. Yet when his end does come I was left thinking, 'Huh? That's it?' Believe me, 'anticlimactic' doesn't cover it adequately enough. Still, not a bad little novel - but once again, nowhere near as good as I remembered.

And finally we've got THE SUMMER SOLDIER by Nicholas Guild. And this is another bad one. So bad, in fact, that I gave up on it about three-quarters of the way through, which is very rare for me. But by that point I'd simply had enough and just didn't care anymore.

The plot, what there is of it, isn't too dissimilar to Barling's GOD IS AN EXECUTIONER either, which is fitting as it's just as awful in its own way. Ray Guinness, an academic at a local college, arrives home to find his wife dead from a house fire - although it soon becomes clear she was murdered beforehand. And it's not long before the police suspect Guinness of being the man behind it, despite his being happily married and having no motive whatsoever (but let's not worry about little details like that, eh?). It also turns out that Guinness is a 'man with a past,' and that he was once a ruthless hitman for Britain's MI6, now retired. And he already knows the murderer too: a guy named Vlasov, whose wife was killed accidentally by Guinness seven years before. And with Guinness's wife having met the same fate, the stage is now set for a duel to the death...

Oh dear, oh dear. This one just goes on forever. It's only 280 pages or so, but it feels double that because so little actually happens. In fact, there's just so much wrong with this one that I can't believe I ever thought it worth a second look. I'll give you an example. By the time the story opens Guinness's wife's body has already been taken away and we see Guinness inspecting the fire damage while a policeman waits to take him to a hotel. Fine. The second chapter has him sitting in a diner while he thinks about his wife. O-o-kay. Then in the third and fourth chapters he thinks back to how he got recruited by MI6 all those years ago and how he handled his first assignment for them. So at this point we're already on page 64 and nothing's happened. The plot's basically just stopped and we're stuck in deep flashback territory.

It's not until we reach the 100-page mark that another character comes along and gets the ball rolling again, by which time it's far too late. The damage has already been done. And the worst isn't even over yet, because there are more flashbacks to come. There's one instance when Guinness starts reminiscing about his first marriage to a lady called Kathleen, who upon finding out what her husband really did for a living quite wisely took their baby daughter and left him. But what could have easily been condensed into several pages lasts two or three chapters. And even that wouldn't be so bad if Kathleen were to make an appearance later in the story, but she doesn't. I checked. I flicked through the rest of the book looking for another mention of her name and there's nothing. So yet again we're given another flashback that has no effect on the plot whatsoever.

And that's not mentioning the endless introspection from Guinness all the way through the book. Dear God, it's like trudging though molasses. It really is. Page after page goes by with no dialogue at all, and what little dialogue there is doesn't flow because Guild inserts more internal monologue in between each snippet, in order to let you know what the character feels about what's just been said. Yeah, thanks for that, Nick. And then there's the problem of the Ray Guinness character himself. Now I like an anti-hero as much as the next reader, but Guinness essentially comes across as a psychopath in this book. In fact, it got to the point where I was starting to root for the villain as he had a pretty clear and sympathetic reason for wanting revenge on Guinness - and that's the point where I gave up on the novel. When you're rooting for the 'bad guy' to kill the lead character, then clearly the author's not doing his job properly and it's time to move on.

So that just about wraps it all up - six books from my past where my memory decided to play tricks on me. And I'm sure it'll continue to confound me, so don't be surprised if another post like this one appears in due course. Hopefully not for quite some time yet, though, as I much prefer blogging about the good books than I do the bad ones...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THIS PERFECT DAY by Ira Levin

It's hard to believe but Ira Levin - arguably one of the finest suspense authors of the 20th Century - wrote only seven novels over the space of forty-five years. And they aren't long, hefty tomes either - in fact, one of them's so short it should really be classed as a novella. But even so that still averages out at about one book every six years or so, which isn't something too many authors can get away with. However, each book was a major best-seller, and the guy was a playwright and songwriter in his spare time, so I guess he had an excuse for not producing more. And seven out of forty-five is stlll a better ratio than Thomas Harris, who, assuming he hasn't retired, has managed to eke out a grand total of five novels over a similar time frame.

But let's put aside quantity for a moment and focus on the quality. Just take a glance at these titles: A KISS BEFORE DYING, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Not bad, eh? And each one's a perfect example of storytelling at its finest, with intricate plots that have been painstakingly worked out to the nth degree. In fact, that first one - a blistering account of a young psychopath who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants - I still count amongst the greatest thriller novels ever written.

And the other three aren't exactly chopped liver either, with each one having imprinted itself onto the public's consciousness in one form or another. The modern Manhattan setting of ROSEMARY'S BABY, for instance, enabled Levin to bring horror fiction screaming into the 20th Century and ended up being so successful that it paved the way for a certain Stephen King to make his own mark on the genre ten years later. Thanks to THE STEPFORD WIVES ('one of those rare novels whose very title may well become part of the vocabulary' - original jacket copy), 'Stepford' quickly entered the American lexicon as a catch-all term for conformism and submission. And the wonderfully titled THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, with its biological engineering-based plot device, doesn't seem quite so farfetched today as it did back in the seventies.

And all four were also turned into movies - some more than once (A KISS BEFORE DYING, THE STEPFORD WIVES), some superbly (ROSEMARY'S BABY, A KISS BEFORE DYING), some badly (both remakes), and one indifferently (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL - which is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, and any movie where the combined ages of the three lead actors surpasses 200 gets my immediate respect). But with the exception of the two remakes all were financially successful, so perhaps it's easy to see why Levin didn't feel compelled to write a book a year like the rest of us poor scribblers.

So what about the other three? - I hear you ask. Well, there's SLIVER from 1991, written a full fifteen years after BOYS FROM BRAZIL. And it's not too bad - the pages certainly fly by without too much trouble - but it's not that great either (although the less said about the movie version the better). Then there's SON OF ROSEMARY from 1997, the critically slated and frankly unnecessary sequel to his most popular novel. I actually have a soft spot for it myself, and believe there's more to that infamous ending than you see at first glance, but even I have to admit Levin was well past his peak with this one. His heyday was really back in the sixties and seventies, back when he really could do no wrong.

And right smack-dab in the middle of this peak period - 1970, to be precise - came the book I'm here to tell you about: THIS PERFECT DAY. It's certainly the least well-known of Levin's novels, and that's possibly because it doesn't fit neatly into the 'suspense' or 'thriller' categories that made his name. Instead, THIS PERFECT DAY is Levin's attempt at a serious futuristic dystopian novel - to go alongside such works as Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

The story's set in a future where uniformity is the norm, and the world is governed by a single supercomputer know as UniComp, which controls and regulates every single aspect of the citizens' lives - including what job they'll be doing, where they live, when they eat, what they eat, who they marry, whether they can reproduce or not, and so on. And everybody dies at age 62. There's only one language, and thanks to eugenics all the previous ethnic groups have now been merged into one race, known as 'the Family', so everybody pretty much looks the same too. There are only four names for men (Karl, Li, Bob & Jesus), and four for women (Anna, Mary, Peace & Yin). And once a month everyone is given an injection of drugs - or a 'treatment' - to ensure any negative feelings of rebellion or individualism are kept locked up in the subconscious where they belong. No need to think, people - leave it all to UniComp.

The lead character is a chap named Li RM35M4419, whom we meet first at the age of six. But his grandfather, who's old enough to still retain a certain amount of cynicism and individuality, gives him the illegal nickname of Chip (as in 'a chip off the old block') and tries to pass these same qualities onto the boy at every opportunity. 'Try wanting something, Chip,' he suggests at one point, 'Try a day or two before your next treatment. That's when it's easiest; to want things, to worry about things...' As Chip grows up he tries, but all too often the drugs win out and it's not long before he's back to square one again.

For much of the book we follow Chip's growth as he matures into adulthood. He works in genetic science in some capacity and as the years pass he goes through a variety of girlfriends, each one no different from the last. And while on the surface he's a 'good Family member' like the rest of the walking dead, he does occasionally commit minor subversive acts that suggest there's something in there that the drugs can't totally subdue. These odd character 'faults' soon bring him to the attention of a secret group of likeminded nonconformists who meet in an old museum to smoke and have sex, and show him a way to avoid his regular treatments without alerting UniComp, so that he can start feeling stronger emotions again.

Upon finally 'waking up' to his true potential, Chip becomes attracted to another one in the group, Lilac, and starts seriously questioning the way this 'perfect' society functions. Finding old maps in the museum, they discover that there might be a few small islands dotted around that are entirely free of UniComp's influence...

Other than one pretty major misstep two-thirds of the way in, Levin's THIS PERFECT DAY is an enthralling novel that succeeds on just about every level. It's accessible and exciting enough to work as popular genre fiction, but it also stands up remarkably well against its more 'literary' counterparts mentioned above. It also helps that Levin's really more concerned with ideas than anything else. And in contrast to the other major dystopian novels, he does a much better job at predicting a possible future based on our own world history. We already live in a society where the computer takes up a large part of our daily existence, whether it be in the form of a laptop or a smart phone, so how many more steps until they start making decisions for us too? And the insistence on 'socially acceptable behaviour' that lays at the heart of the novel is only a few steps beyond the 'politically-correct' world we live in now.

Levin also does a great job of pacing the book, and lays his plans out in clear language on the contents page. Part one is titled, 'Growing Up.' Part two is 'Coming Alive.' Part three is 'Getting Away,' and the final part is 'Fighting Back.' Like a good magician showing his open palms at the beginning of a trick, Levin shows us what he's got planned: this is what's going to happen, then this, then that. But none of it takes place in the manner the reader expects - Levin's too great a storyteller to do the obvious. Anytime the reader expects Chip to go one way, events conspire to force him in another direction.

The author also utilizes his patented technique of itemising the particulars of everyday life to denote the passing of time - very important in a novel covering a thirty year period - thus adding that extra element of realism to an otherwise fantastic story. He used the same method with ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES - just one of the many ways Levin sucks you into the narrative and makes you believe it. And, of course, there's the arch dialogue, which is often clever without being showy. Such as when Chip's grandfather, Papa Jan - perhaps the most likeable character in the story - takes a very young Chip for a walk in the park near the start of the book:

     He was always saying things vigorously and with enthusiasm and yet giving Chip the feeling that he didn't mean them at all, that he meant in fact their exact opposites. On that subject of names, for instance:
     'Marvelous! Wonderful!' he said. 'Four names for boys, four names for girls. What could be more friction-free, more everyone-the-same? Everybody would name boys after Christ, Marx, Wood, or Wei anyway, wouldn't they?'
     'Yes,' Chip said.
     'Of course!' Papa Jan said. 'And if Uni gives out four names for boys it has to give out four names for girls too, right? Listen, in my day - are you listening? - in my day there were over twenty different names for boys alone. And in my father's time there were even more, maybe forty or fifty! Isn't that ridiculous? All those different names when members themselves are exactly the same and interchangeable? Isn't that the silliest thing you ever heard of?'
     And Chip nodded, confused, feeling that Papa Jan meant the opposite, that somehow it wasn't silly and ridiculous to have forty or fifty different names for boys alone.

And at other times the dialogue is intentionally hilarious in its banality, as when a drug-free and clear-thinking Chip needs to gain access to a closed-off section of the airport and has to dumb down in order to pass himself off as a normal brain-dead worker:

     He (Chip) false-touched a scanner and went into a room where coveralls, ordinary ones, hung on hooks, and two members were taking off orange ones. 'Hello,' he said.
     'Hello,' they both said.
     He went to a closet door and slid it open; a floor polisher and bottles of green liquid were inside.
     'Where are the cuvs?' he asked.
     'In there,' one of the members said, nodding at another closet.
     He went to it and opened it. Orange coveralls were on shelves, orange toeguards, pairs of heavy orange gloves.
     'Where did you come from?' the member asked.
     'RUS50937.' he said, taking a pair of coveralls and a pair of toeguards. 'We kept the cuvs in there.'
     'They're supposed to be in there,' the member said, closing white overalls.
     'I've been in Rus,' the other member, a woman, said, 'I had two assignments there; first four years and then three years.'
     He took his time putting on the toeguards, finishing as the two members chuted their orange coveralls and went out.

Great stuff indeed. Because it's during these sections that you can picture a whole society of male and female Homer Simpsons talking meaningless crap to one another for all eternity, and that, folks, is a very scary concept.

Ah, but all is not perfect in THIS PERFECT DAY - after all, didn't I mention a major misstep a few paragraphs ago? I'll try to keep the details as vague as I can so as not to spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way in, there's a scene where Chip and a previous girlfriend have a major blowup and he ends up raping her. Naturally, the woman is pretty traumatised by the incident, not to mention very angry. And Chip immediately feels guilty and gets teary-eyed, as well he should. But the problem arises the next morning when this woman, who's previously been portrayed as an intelligent person with strong character and a healthy amount of common sense, decides the rape wasn't as bad as all that really, and that maybe Chip deserves a second chance.

What? Seriously, Ira? Is that what happens after a woman's raped? Because I kind of doubt it myself. I have to say it's a real puzzler of a scene - especially coming from Levin, who's always specialized in creating believable and strong female characters. Is this really the same guy who gave us the tough, resourceful Ellen from A KISS BEFORE DYING (in the early 'fifties, no less!), or Joanna from THE STEPFORD WIVES, or even Kay from SLIVER? Because on this evidence it seems hard to believe.

Thinking about it, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was part of the reason why this book was out of print for so many years after its initial publication. Maybe Levin reread the thing, got to that morning-after scene and thought, 'Shit, what the hell was I thinking?' and decided to simply let the book go quietly out of print instead. Who knows - it's certainly possible. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

Anyway, assuming one can get past that serious blunder, anybody reading this book will find much to enjoy. They'll witness a master suspense writer spreading his wings a little and showing the 'big boys' what he can do. And there's a definite conclusion to the story too - a good one with plenty of suspense - which you don't often get in these kinds of novels. But Levin doesn't wrap everything up neatly with a ribbon either. The reader's still left with enough loose ends to be left thinking about the book for awhile afterwards, which is really all anybody can ask for in a novel.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: BLUE CITY by Ross MacDonald

Ask any serious crime fiction aficionado to make a list of the genre's most influential novels and I'll wager Dashiell Hammett's RED HARVEST will be somewhere near the top. If not at the very top. First published in 1929, this violent tale of a nameless private detective who decides to clean up a corrupt town by setting the various controlling factions against each other set the bar for generations of writers and moviemakers to come, and was even listed in TIME's list of 100 Most Important Books of the 20th Century. I know it's the most important book in my life, and has been ever since I picked up a tattered paperback copy at a used book sale half a lifetime ago. I generally make a point of rereading it every couple of years and always come away satisfied - it's one of those novels that simply works on every level.

For some reason (possibly due to rights issues) there's never been a straight movie adaptation of the book, but in 1960 the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, poached the basic plot (as well as the man-with-no-name protagonist) for his samurai western YOJIMBO, and a classic movie was born. The great Italian director, Sergio Leone, then did the same four years later with A FISTFUL FOR DOLLARS, which not only launched Clint Eastwood's career but spawned a whole sub-genre of Spaghetti Westerns to boot. Thirty years after that, Walter Hill then made his own loose version - LAST MAN STANDING, starring Bruce Willis - and this time went so far as to set it in the same time frame as the original novel. And if you look closely, you can also find similar homages in the Coen Brothers' MILLER'S CROSSING and the first half of George Miller's MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME.

But the book's influence hasn't just been restricted to the cinema. Over the years, a number of crime authors have also used the book's basic premise as a starting point for their own novels. For instance, the late, great Donald Westlake made no secret of his admiration for Hammett's masterpiece and used the 'cleaning-up-the-corrupt-town' formula on at least two occasions. The first, a fairly hard-boiled P.I. thriller called KILLING TIME, shows a youngish writer still learning his craft, but is still enjoyable for all that. But his second attempt, BUTCHER'S MOON, written under his Richard Stark persona and starring his series character Parker, is a total success and still stands as one of the high-points in that much-loved series.

In 1970, Britain's Ted Lewis also took a stab at it, making the protagonist of his version a mob enforcer and changing the setting to Doncaster, England. The resulting novel, JACK'S RETURN HOME, is not only an excellent piece of work in its own right, but spawned two prequels and one of the best gangster movies ever made: GET CARTER.

And then there's BLUE CITY by Ross MacDonald - the focus of this post, if you remember. MacDonald, of course, is better known these days for his long running series of novels starring private eye, Lew Archer (beginning with THE MOVING TARGET in 1949). But he also wrote several standalone thrillers before that, and this little gem from 1947 was one of them.

Originally published under the author's real name, Kenneth Millar, BLUE CITY is written in first-person from the viewpoint of John Weather, a twenty-two-year old veteran who returns to his home town after the war only to discover his estranged father was murdered two years previously, and that nobody seems particularly interested in tracking down the killer. So Weather immediately takes it upon himself to uncover the truth and soon finds himself mixing it up with a variety of drug dealers, enforcers, pimps, hookers, crime bosses, shady businessmen, local government officials and a crooked police force. Not to mention a stepmother he never even knew existed. And all of them have their own reasons for wanted the past to stay dead and buried...

At only 165 pages, BLUE CITY is the very definition of a lean and mean thriller. The whole book takes place over a 24-hour period too, which only adds to the frantic pace. It's also an extremely angry book, starring a young man with a big hate on for the post-war depravity and small-town corruption he sees all around him. A view the author clearly shared at the time of writing. As MacDonald wrote in a 1952 letter to his publisher, '(Blue City) was about a town where I had suffered, and several of the characters were based on people I hated.'

Considering it was only his third novel, it's a remarkably confident book. The pace and plot remain strong throughout and MacDonald's great descriptive powers are already in evidence, such as when Weather goes into a pool hall and spots the guy he's there to meet: - 'He had white hair and a goose-flesh face as white as typewriter paper. The outer corners of his pale-pink eyes drooped towards the corner of his mouth, as if his face had been parted in the middle and combed downwards.' - Now that's some nice imagery there. Granted, it's a little pulpy and those two metaphors are a little too Chandler-esque for their own good, but it's still concise and well-written and gives the reader just enough visual information to picture the guy.

MacDonald's gift for snappy dialogue is also present right from the start. Weather's barely gotten off the bus when he decides to grab a beer in the nearest bar, and then he's forced to wait while the bartender (named Henry) tries to impress a couple of female customers:

     I rapped on the bar with a quarter.
     'Somebody's getting impatient,' Henry said. 'When somebody gets impatient that makes me nervous. When I'm nervous I'm no damn good for anything at all.'
     'A bottle of beer,' I said.
     'Look at my hand,' Henry said. 'It's trembling like a leaf.' He held out a big gray hand and smiled down at it. 'Beer, you say?'
     'If this place is still in business.'
     He took a bottle out of the cooler, uncapped it, and shuffled along the bar towards me.
     He looked at me with potential dislike. 'What's the matter, you got no sense of humor?'
     'Sure, but I checked it in another town. Go right on being sidesplitting for your friends.'
     'You're a stranger in town, aren't you? Maybe you just don't know how we talk around here.'
     'I'm learning fast.'
     'You can't learn too fast.'
     'Do you serve glasses with your beer? I'll have one.'
     'Olive or maraschino?'
     'Just dip your thumb in it when you pour it.'
     'Pour it yourself.'

It's a great scene, with the dialogue treading a fine line between realism and movie-talk. However, there are other instances where MacDonald breaks the barrier and goes entirely Hollywood, producing the kind of dialogue you'd expect from a Bogart and Bacall movie. Such as this exchange between Weather and a dance-hall girl named Carla:

     'A nice boy like you,' she recited, ' shouldn't be sitting all by his lonesome.'
     'A nice girl like you shouldn't be wasting her time on a guy like me.'
     'Why? What's the matter with you? I think you're kind of cute.'
     'You flatter me.'
     'Sure. Now that I've flattered you, you can buy me a drink.'
     I said: 'The approach abrupt. Do I look well heeled?'
     'Appearances are so deceptive.'
     'In your case, for example. You've got your face made up to suit this joint. Protective coloration, they call it in biology.'
     'Kid me some more,' she said flatly. 'You can if you buy me a drink. Biology is a very interesting subject.'
     'I like my biology experimental. Not cut and dried.'

Now that's a nice little exchange but its cleverness almost works against the novel. It's a little too knowing, with each character sounding like they're playing a role rather than just being themselves. Because I'm pretty sure nobody ever talked like that in real life, not even in the forties. 'The approach abrupt'? I mean, come on. And it also highlights another minor problem, which is that Weather is clearly portrayed as someone a lot older than his years. Halfway through the book, I had to go back to the first few pages and make sure I'd read it right that he was only twenty-two. I can't speak for anybody else, but I know for a fact that I was never that cool or eloquent at that age. Not even when I was drunk.

But those little quibbles aside, BLUE CITY still holds up as a fantastic little thriller from a master of the genre, and therefore gets my full recommendation.