Showing posts with label James Crumley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James Crumley. Show all posts

08 September 2015

Noir and the Returning War Vet Sub-Genre

by Paul D. Marks

My name is Paul and I’m a film noir addict.

If I don’t get my fix of noir “I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me.”*

Fodder for another piece is why I’m so addicted to noir. For this piece I want to talk about a specific sub-genre of noir, the returning veteran. My latest book, Vortex (released 9/1), comes under this category.

The story originally went to a different publisher, a publisher of mystery-thriller novellas. somewhere_in_the_night_xlgUnfortunately they went belly up. But in talking with that first publisher, my pitch was to do a story—homage might be too strong a word, but yeah, let’s call it an homage—about a vet returning from the war in Afghanistan a la some of the classic film noir movies like Somewhere in the Night, The Blue Dahlia (written by Raymond Chandler), Ride the Pink Horse, and Act of Violence, etc., and books like David Goodis’ Down There, whose main character had been one of Merrill’s Marauders, or from later, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, both inspired by the Viet Nam War.

Hey, even Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is a returning World War II vet, who helped liberate the concentration camps.

47694-devil-in-a-blue-dress-0-150-0-225-cropMy favorite short story of any genre is Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home, about a disaffected WWI vet returning home and how he can no longer relate to anyone or anything. Close to that is Mayday by Fitzgerald. Both were written in the aftermath of World War I. Neither could be classified as noir, but they have a sort of hopeless noir sensibility.

When the vets in all of these stories come home it’s usually not all mom and apple pie.

There are arguments in some circles as to whether film noir is a post war movement or whether it was a result of (mostly) homefront conditions during the war. I think both sides are right, but ultimately I don’t think it matters. For me, the quintessential film noir is Double Indemnity, which came out on September 6, 1944, almost exactly 71 years ago from today. As the war still had a good year and half to go, this would preclude it from being a post-war movie.
But, of course, the Neff charac20_robert_stone_dog_soldierster (Huff in the book) is not a returning vet. Still, this film is (for me) the pinnacle of all noir movies and the jumping off point for the true noir cycle. Then, with the war ending, came a string of movies about returning vets, including those mentioned above. But not all were noir. The Best Years of Our Lives, Till the End of Time and others dealt with the difficult adjustments many vets faced on returning home in a non-noir way.

The war changed American society in a variety of ways. We lost our innocence as a country. Soldiers had seen things no one should have to see. Many came back cynical. Black soldiers came back wanting full rights for the country they had fought for. Women, Rosie the Riveters, weren’t so sure they wanted to be only housewives anymore.

And the Hells Angels motorcycle club (gang) was formed in Fontana, California (not far from LA, the noir capital of the world), in 1948 (just three years after the war) by disaffected World War II vets.

Many soldiers came back from the war who, if not physically wounded, were psychically wounded. Shell shock, combat fatigue, PTSD, “invisible” diseases but diseases that, nonetheless, tear at a man’s soul. Soldiers coming back from Korea were “forgotten,” those returning home from Viet Nam were often called “baby killers”. Those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are often depressed and alienated. One recent study says that roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day, more than any previous generation of war vets.

It’s from there that the creative process began and I started to create characters and situations in Vortex. Call it an updating of the returning war vet noir genre.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]Vortex is the story of Zach Tanner, a recently returned Afghan war vet, who finds more trouble here than there. In his words, he went to “hell and back and back to hell again,” upon returning home. But that latest hell is one of his own making. A quagmire of quicksand that he’s sinking deeply into and struggling hard to get out of. And that predicament is fueled by his own greed. He’s also bringing his girlfriend, Jess, down into the mire with him. They’re on the run, careening down Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, being chased by a flashy red Camaro, when Jess says to him:

“What’re you doing?” Jessie said, clutching the handhold.
“We have to get out of here.”
“Talk to them, Zach.”
“We can’t go back, Jess. Don’t you understand, they’ll kill us.”
“They’re your friends.”
“Yeah.” The first rule of war is know your enemy. And I knew mine, too well—or maybe not well enough.

They’re on the run—from Zach’s best friends, or should I say former best friends. And now it’s up to Zach to get himself and Jess out of trouble, while at the same time trying to make sense of a world that has changed radically for him. A world that he now perceives differently because of what he saw and did in the war.

Zach and Jess are part of a generation that’s grown up on unreal reality shows that give them a false expectation of what success is and how to achieve it. A generation that watched the Bling Ring climb to fame and success by breaking into celebrities’ homes and stealing from them. And though some got minor  punishments they also got movies made about them and a couple starred in their own “reality” shows. That’s the quick and easy way to the top of the American Dream that many of Zach’s friends feel entitled to. They fall out when Zach realizes that getting something for nothing isn’t meaningful and when he wants more meaning and purpose in his life now.

Unfortunately, that’s what Zach’s friends still want when he returns home, that quick ride to the top at any cost. But after recuperating for some time in a hospital with plenty of time to think it’s no longer what he wants. Still, he’s part of their plan and even though he wants out, like quicksand they pull him in and under and won’t let him escape.

But what is escape? Zach and Jess hide out down at the Salton Sea, in the desert near Palm Springs. A once promising resort community that’s now dilapidated and going to hell, the underbelly of the American Dream. Built to be a waterfront paradise, it’s now a wasteland of dead fish and dead end streets.

As Zach, the narrator says, “The American Dream crashed and burned right here at the Salton Sea.”
And that’s where Zach finds himself. Now he must extricate himself from a mess largely of his own making and find some kind of equilibrium in a changed world. Will he?

I hope Vortex does a decent job of carrying on the returning war vet sub-genre.  I think these two quotes from Robert Stone and Ernest Hemingway epitomize that genre, even if they’re not noir per se.

“At first Krebs...did not want to talk about the war at all.  Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.” ―Ernest Hemingway, Soldier’s Home

“If you haven't fought for your life for something you want, you don't know what's life all about.” ―Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers

*Quoted from “The Dark Corner,” written by Jay Dratler, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Leo Rosten, directed by Henry Hathaway


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28 July 2015

The Book Report: Tapping the Source and The Last Good Kiss

by Paul D. Marks

Today I want to talk about a couple of books that you may or may not know. A lot of people do seem to know them. On the other hand, they’re still obscure to many.

Nunn-Crumley Collage D1The books are “Tapping the Source” by Kem Nunn and “The Last Good Kiss” by James Crumley. Several decades ago a friend of mine in the WGAw turned me onto these books, telling me how terrific they were. Thank you, Elliot.

He told me about both at the same time. Both sounded good, so I rushed out to get them (this was in the olden days when you had to actually go somewhere to buy a book). And I read them right away.
I was blown away by “Tapping the Source”. And I liked “The Last Good Kiss,” a lot, but maybe because I so fell in love with Tapping, Kiss paled by comparison. I know this is sacrilege to some. But hey, that’s what makes horse races.

“Tapping the Source” is Nunn’s first novel and with it he pretty much invented his own genre: surf noir. I guess I’m not the only one who likes it since it was a finalist for the National Book Award.

nunnIt’s the story of a pretty na├»ve and innocent kid from Bakersfield, California—Buck Owens country—who travels to Huntington Beach, CA, the surf capital of the world, in search of his sister. There, he gets involved with a bunch of mysterious and maybe evil bikers and sees the dark side of “surf city”. This definitely ain’t the Beach Boys world of surf, sun and California Girls.

I liked this book so much that I wanted to option the film rights for it. I had them checked out, but they had already been optioned/bought. That had to be at least 25 years ago, probably more, a lot more. But to this day there is still no movie version of this story. It is, however, said that “Point Break,” with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves was, uh, inspired by “Tapping the Source”. The story is different and imho not nearly as good.

Nunn went on to write several other books, including a couple that fall into the surf noir category. He also did the Hollywood thing, writing/producing for “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy,” and creating the series “John from Cincinnati,” set in Imperial Beach down near the Mexican border.

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Crumley’s hardboiled “The Last Good Kiss” starts out heading in one direction and quickly makes a U-turn, slamming around a dark, noir corner. PI C.W. Sughrue is hired to find Abraham Trahearne before he drinks himself to death.

And he finds him, on the first page of the book:

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
―James Crumley, “The Last Good Kiss”

So there wouldn’t be much of a story if there weren’t complications, would there? So: Trahearne gets shot in the ass in the bar. And while waiting for him to recuperate, Sughrue is hired to look into the ten year old disappearance of the bar owner’s daughter.

6a00d8341d1add53ef010534c5f1a1970b-800wi
The novel weaves through the darkest corners of some of the darkest streets in America. A hard drinking, tough Viet Nam vet, a man with a moral code, Sughrue is a PI for the 1970s. And maybe, just maybe for the 21st century as well.

“Stories are like snapshots, pictures snatched out of time, with clean hard edges. But this was life, and life always begins and ends in a bloody muddle, womb to tomb, just one big mess, a can of worms left to rot in the sun.”
―James Crumley, “The Last Good Kiss”

Men’s Journal named “The Last Good Kiss” #12 on its list of Top 15 Thrillers of All Time and George Pelacanos put it at #3 on his list of Five Most Important Crime novels.

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If Nunn is known for surf noir, Crumley is the granddaddy of post Viet-Nam hardboiled PI’s. He influenced many current writers, but, like Nunn, never had the big breakthrough that brought him a wide mainstream audience. They’re both like that little band that you love, but only you and a small cult of other loyal followers or groupies love or know about. And in some ways if that band or those authors, in this case Nunn and Crumley, were to get discovered by the masses you would feel a loss. Crumley died in 2008, but he’s left behind an impressive collection of novels and short stories worth checking out.

So, if you haven’t read these books or aren’t familiar with these authors maybe you’d want to check them out. If you are familiar with them, maybe it’s time to revisit them. I’d love to hear your opinions.

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A couple items of BSP:

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller coming September 1st.
...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end. 
      —D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
Akashic Fade Out Annoucement D1a-ab -- w full date


Fade Out: flash fiction story coming on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder, Monday (big surprise, huh?), August 17th. Here’s the link, but my story won’t be live till 8/17:  http://www.akashicbooks.com/tag/mondays-are-murder/

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*Crumley B/W photo is free to share and use per Bing.com useage rights.
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