Drifting with the Detective
I’m the first to admit it. I’m a Luddite. The King Luddite. I don’t token to technology. Never have. From the first time my uncle bought us a Vic-20 for Christmas when I was little. I don’t play video games, I’ve never even owned a gaming system. And don’t get me started on eBooks. That’s been a battle for aeons. Part of it is, I love books. I love the feel of books. I love the smell of books. I love the occasional paper cut from a book. I’m the guy whose carryon at the airport is too heavy because it has like five books in it. It took Dan Taylor getting me to edit for ePub that got me to even think about eBooks. So, I’m learning to love the tablet, and I’m delving into the world that’s out there. We’re likely going to spend the next few weeks with eBooks. As Bette Davis says, hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
I’m a hardboiled fanatic. That’s been pretty well established around here I think. You say Hammett, I say how high. And that falls all the way back to pulps as well. One of the earliest books I remember owning was a Doc Savage Bantam reprint of THE THOUSAND-HEADED MAN. Coverless. Beaten. Pulped. My last plane trip wasn’t complete without Edgar Wallace’s THE RINGER. Reprints of the Phantom Detective are always the best birthday gift. And part of that pulp experience is just that, the pulp. But there’s a wild dirty world of pulp out there in eBook form. Not just self-published, but publishers as well, such as Beat to a Pulp, that are throwing out a lot of new fiction. I grabbed a few of their Drifter Detective novellas a few weeks ago, THE GIRLS OF BUNKER PINES by Garnett Elliott and WIDE SPOT IN THE ROAD by Wayne D. Dundee. Coming in at roughly 40pages each, they are interesting little vignettes in the life of one Jack Laramie, ex-GI, now PI, in the heat of 1950s Texas. Like all good pulp detectives, Jack Laramie has his gimmick. As the series title drifter detective alludes to, Laramie is a mobile detective, living out of a horse trailer he tows from city to city, finding work. Further, he totes his grandfather’s weapon, another Beat to a Pulp character, hearkening back to the old Lone Ranger/Green Hornet relationship, Reid to Laramie.
For me, modern pulp and hardboiled falls on a delicate balance. I think back to how I felt ten years ago (so long!) when Hard Case Crime first started publishing, mixing new novels set in the present, classic reprints, and new novels set in 1950s time frames. What I found was that a lot of the new novels set in the past didn’t work as well for me. We’ve talked about Ellroy here, but for all his faults, his THE BLACK DAHLIA is a wild, vibrant, extravagant, and not what you expected at all when you first found it. It is brutal. It is pulpy. It is hardboiled. Compared to, Max Allan Collins’ Nate Heller novel on the same subject, ANGEL IN BLACK, which comes off as more of a pastiche, a historical piece, mimicking the time rather than reflecting it, and giving an almost romantic/wistful sheen, even in a nasty piece of fiction. It’s a faithful recreation, but it’s not original. Ellroy is original. When I think of the names that burst out of the hardboiled crowd – Jim Thompson, Wade Miller, Gil Brewer, David Goodis – they are writing about their today, their here and now. It’s what makes Christa Faust’s MONEY SHOT and David J. Schow’s GUN WORK so much more effective than say Max Phillips’ FADE TO BLONDE in that sense. It’s the immediacy.
So, where does that leave poor old Jack Laramie then? Actually, not too bad. Elliott in GIRLS shows some nice bravado in his language. It’s a quick frenetic trip that reads quick and brutal, somewhat akin to some of Paul Cain’s work in SEVEN SLAYERS. The story takes place over a few disparate days spread over a month, but the time ellipses keep it burning quick. He paints his 50s Texas in broad strokes, the grifter plot relying on the very 50s fear of nuclear war and yes, fallout shelters, but it never seems forced, the story flowing naturally out of it. A plus too for developing Laramie’s character in those some short sharp strokes. The novella is short, and coming into a series at book #3, it can be difficult for the reader, but there was a real life and in for Laramie. Dundee’s WIDE SPOT, the next book in the series, is much more descriptive and languid in its language. Dry. WIDE SPOT is dry. Where the weeks of GIRLS runs together, the less than twelve hours of WIDE SPOT seem to linger. The opening chapters, the set-up, are well-written, gripping, working in some interesting character rifts for Laramie and his soon to be willing accomplice. But once the action starts, it falters. I’d liked Laramie enough from GIRLS to stick with it, but if this had been my first book, I might not have. I am curious, since Elliott had written the first three Laramies, how Dundee came to write the fourth. I couldn’t find an explanation. His style is very much different from Elliott.
I think the biggest issue I had with both books was the anticlimactic conclusions to both. The tension built up by both authors is largely dissipated over the closing few pages. GIRLS not as much, but even then, the violence is neither as compelling nor as cathartic as I would have liked from the lead. WIDE SPOT simply fades away into the sunset, no frisson at all. It may be that I anticipated too much in what would be delivered, but I wanted just that extra push more. Explosion, not diffusion.
Which isn’t to say I don’t recommend them. On the contrary, for quick pulp nibbles to take away a half hour, you could do a lot worse. A lot worse.
Check out these books and more at: http://www.beattoapulp.com/