Tuesday, March 03, 2009

In a tough economy, turn to crime

It’s a tough economy at the moment and knowing the Peter Finch speech by heart doesn’t help.
While I’m not suggesting there’s a cure, there is a temporary measure that’s good for what ails.
Every once in awhile the stars align and a few egregious wrongs are made right. Rather than continuing to exhaust a mature trend (at a recent buying trip, a sales rep for a major U.S publisher said to me, “this book is sort of like Marley and Me only with a pig,”) some publishers are doing grand things indeed.
It’s too easy to credit Barack Obama with this, but some classic American crime writing of the highest order is back in print via Random House and the University of Chicago Press.
One of the coolest American imprints around, the renowned Black Lizard is bringing back the Hap and Leonard novels from east Texan crime writer and Edgar-award winner Joe R. Lansdale.
Hap and Leonard are the heroes in the series and they are as different from one another as two Texans could be. Leonard Pine is an old hippie trying to keep his head above water in the mid 80s and his best friend Hap Collins is a gay black Viet Nam veteran. In each of the first two novels Savage Season and Mucho Mojo, people from Leonard’s past present the pair with opportunity and curse in equal measure in a madcap spree thrill as good as anything Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen ever dreamed up.
Lansdale has a comic touch, but an equal ability to write stripped down hard boiled suspense, perhaps culminating with The Bottoms, an Edgar-award winning yarn out of print for now, but great swaths of work are coming back in 2009. He’s a born storyteller, as able to make one squeamish one minute and laugh out loud the next. No fan of hard boiled crime fiction will be led astray with the Hap and Leonard series.
Joe Lansdale has written comedy, horror, westerns, criticism and works for kids-in short he’s essential stuff. The rest of the Hap and Leonard novels are due in the spring and summer.
Black Lizard produces eye catching paperbacks and combined with a shot of something on ice; it’s a fine way to spend an evening.
Donald Westlake’s recent passing was noted everywhere, and his like won’t be seen again.
Westlake, like Joe Lansdale could do it all. He wrote seamless narrative and could establish a mood early and keep a book moving with style and ease. It’s trite to say, but if at gunpoint I had to pick one writer to stick to from front to finish, he’d be the guy. He wrote over one hundred books under a slew of pseudonyms, and while some of the work is out there, far too much of it is out of print. It’s a cruel irony given that fact that the appetite for James Patterson seems unquenchable, but that’s for another time.
Donald Westlake got started writing pulp in the early 60s and cranked it out so fast that he had to invent pseudonyms. Four books in a calendar year weren’t uncommon in the beginning.
I’ll forgo the accolades, as everything about Donald Westlake’s life and work is here, but to their eternal credit, the University of Chicago Press has brought back the first three Parker novels that Westlake wrote under the pen name Richard Stark. There’s more on the way very shortly.
Parker is anti-hero enough not to need a first name. In the Hunter, the first of six Parker novels, our guy does a stint in a California prison and takes vengeance on a mob fixer who cut him out of a big payday.
Parker’s amorality fits with the underworld in the same way as most bad guys fit with theirs. It’s natural enough that a redemptive quality almost has to present itself; such is the internal logic of the lone wolf’s circumstance. Countless gumshoes have played both sides of the line when they had to; but Westlake’s Parker creation did it very early and very well.
Film buffs will appreciate the job Lee Marvin did in Point Blank, based on the first Parker novel, as well as the Stephen Frears film, the Grifters, for which Westlake was nominated for an Academy Award as a screenwriter. Despite that, Westlake was rarely done right by Hollywood.
Though a giant of the genre, Westlake could write like the Devil. The recent Booker Prize winner John Banville writes the forward to the reissued Parker novels and has called him “existential man at his furthest extremity, confronting a world that is even more wicked and treacherous than he is.
As such he’s no different from the characters in Albert Camus or Franz Kafka. But Westlake’s people are a hell of a lot more fun to hang out with.

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