Undercover: Viva la muerte (02/10/77)

The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from ‘Black Mask’ Magazine (1920-1951) edited with an introduction by Herbert Ruhm (Vintage, $2.45). “John Teel had never thought of murder. Objectively or otherwise. He was a commonplace little man. Dumpy, middle-aged, untidy, with a reddish nose and blue veins lining his rather puffy face. He’d been married 16 years. His wife’s name was Martha. She was 38. John Teel thought she was very good-looking. He was in love with her.” Thus the opening of the gem of this collection, “Killer Come Home,” an eight-page combination of a Thurber marital fable and first-class film noir, written by Curt Hamlin in 1948. All Hamlin wants to do is establish the possibility of violence in ordinary life and tell us what it feels like: nasty, brutish and short, just like “Killer Come Home.” Little else here is so effective; plots are silly, tough-guy detectives often ludicrous, and slang used mostly as a substitute for the building of mood and atmosphere. Ruhm, in his useful introduction, makes much of the idea that Black Mask detective-story writers brought the vernacular back into American literature, but only Raymond Chandler (whose story “Goldfish” is a second highlight of the book) knew how to use it: carefully. The slang phrases in his writing don’t seem to have dated, because he built contexts for them; to most of his colleagues, on the evidence of The Hard-Boiled Detective, slang was no more than a way to sound tough and a mechanistic means to verisimilitude, and probably that’s why most of the writing here now seems utterly contrived.

The Blue Hammer by Ross MacDonald (Knopf, $7.95), The Cavanaugh Quest by Thomas Gifford (Putnam, $8.95) and The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block (Dell, $1.25). The latest Lew Archer all-crime-is-rooted-in-the-past mystery, and two imitations. In The Blue Hammer the reader is not only always ahead of the detective but, one suspects, often ahead of the author; the book may be superior to MacDonald’s two recent failures, The Underground Man and Sleeping Beauty, but not so much as to make much difference. Clearly, after a brilliant series of psychoanalytic thrillers, the theme has gone stale on MacDonald. Gifford, author of The Wind Chill Factor, has produced a better book than The Blue Hammer, but perhaps only because he brings a freshness of locale (Minnesota) and hero (he can’t very well use Lew Archer) to a plot that any MacDonald-reader will suss out in an hour or so. Still, Gifford’s ability to render horror is intact; this can be a very scary book, even a disturbing one. The Sins of the Fathers, on the other hand, is merely a blood bath, with necrophilia thrown in, all to prove that psychic repression and lying to your kids lead to no good. You learn something new every day.
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The Face of Battle by John Keegan (Viking, $10.95). This book is interesting because it treats battle as a major form of human activity rather than an aspect of military history. Keegan, by analyzing three battles (English vs. French at Agincourt in 1415, English vs. French at Waterloo in 1815 and English vs. German at the Somme in 1916), attempts to understand what happens to men in battle, and also to make the reader feel battle as a crucible of extreme but still rational behavior. He is also describing, along the way, the history of technology and mass society; each of his battles took place in northwestern Europe, each involved white Christians, and as Keegan moves across the centuries the increase in killing power and in the space the battles demand is staggering. Fascinatingly, though, no fundamental change in the nature of battle seems to take place: it remains a field of human action in which confusion, nerve and horror are predominant. The flaw of the book, and it is a serious one, is that Keegan writes exclusively from the British point of view; he seems to have examined few German or French sources, and only once, as far as I could see, does he really attempt to determine what a given battle was like for anyone but an Englishman. As a result, the other side never seems quite real—certainly not as real as the English—and a sense of reality, of human actuality, is what this book at its best means to deliver.

The Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard (Penguin, $1.95), The Black Death by Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr (Dutton, $8.95) and The Tuesday Blade by Bob Ottum (Simon and Schuster, $7.95). Three protean movie scenarios. In the first, pointless nonsense about a big wind that comes from nowhere and finally returns from whence it came, more or less, I would guess, in the manner of Ballard’s big drought and big flood, which you can find in other Penguins, if you really want to. In the second, an unknowing girl brings the plague from the West to New York City, whereupon the bacillus proceeds to devour Manhattan. The CIA suspects a Cuban plot to off the permanent government (what? what?)—i.e., this is the ultimate New York masochist-survival fantasy. The hero is the head of New York City’s Bureau of Preventable Diseases—so, by some odd coincidence, is one of the authors. And finally, in The Tuesday Blade, the current literary (and cinematic) castration mania is carried to its extreme: a female Jack-the-Ripper stalks the streets of disease-ridden New York, chopping pimps. She’s just mixed up, though. Secret message of the first book: writers are running out of natural disasters. Secret message of the second: the New York City Bureau of Preventable Diseases needs more government funding, Secret message of the third: feminism kills.


Rolling Stone, February 10, 1977


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