Modern Pulp

Gumshoe Blues

Gumshoe BluesGumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill is a short story/short collection of really fast-paced snapshots of a self-described private investigator named Peter Ord.  For the readers who are very fastidious about their categorizations, this would be considered modern noir – “Brit Grit.”  Under one hundred pages, this little copy is via Close to the Bone Publishing, which is  U.K. publishing house specializing in crime fiction and modern noir.  Their edition of Gumshoe Blues is from 2019.  I think Brazill had published some amount of this work in some other manner at some point previously, but I am not a biblio-historian.

Paul D. Brazill seems to be, and I say seems because I am hardly an expert in anything anymore, something of a good benchmarking standard in this genre. After reading Gumshoe Blues, its easy to see why. He has a really good style that matches the genre.  His mind’s-eye for scene and setting is sharp, as well.

I do not read a lot of this genre, but I am reading a bit more of it. Its become very challenging to get through any dense tomes with complicated plotlines and extreme character development. I do not have the time to invest in these works, at least, not currently. You may politely ask why not and I will mention that I have really upped my physical training for hung gar (I have 18 years of this training) and I have been spending a lot more time fishing. I have utterly lost track of where the TVs are in my home.  Anyway, reading fiction has kind of taken a backseat (BUT NEVER NON-FICTION).

Certainly, this genre is not for everyone. I am really enjoying the small print/publishers focusing on crime fiction. Long ago I became unimpressed with what “suspense/mystery” meant in the mass market LoBs. It seemed overrun by the same authors who, to an extent, seemed to be publishing the same novels? And yes, some of that is expected. Tropes and formulaic writing is the backbone of pulp media.  I still have a whole mess of such novels I want to read, do not get me wrong – I like reading! However, there is something refreshing and edgy and curious about what the small print/publishers are able to do for authors who do not want to compete with James Patterson.  This particular publisher and writer are working in a genre that is gritty and dark and definitely comes with warnings for readers.

One of the things I liked about Brazill’s writing is that his turn of phrase seems utterly seamless and smooth – nothing forced or awkward. I worry that many authors can really write “gritty crime” without making what should be noir and street-worthy somehow goofy and ridiculous. Brazill does really well with that and even injects a little wry humor. What’s more, though there has to be a lot of coarse language, it absolutely did not have that egregious display of gratuitous filth that some writers are unable to balance.

Gumshoe Blues is a short page-turner of snapshots of Peter Ord’s current life in Seatown.  It rains a lot, there are way too many seedy locations, and everyone seems to know everyone. Without describing every single aspect, Brazill has the reader follow along with Ord as Ord hangs out in pubs and clubs – and as a reader I found it quite convincing. I felt that feeling of not wanting to lean on the furniture, get too close to the walls, and cringing at the sticky floor. Its dark and smells like stale everything.

The writing is less about characters and more about snapshots of this genre. I enjoyed my time in Seatown, I guess, and hanging out with Peter was a unqiue experience. I am glad I read this – and I will probably try to read more by Brazill. Recommended for toughened readers, readers who don’t read for character relationships, and readers who laugh at tragi-comedy.

4 stars

The Room of White Fire

RWFI finished The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker (2017).  I have not read anything by this author. I expected a private investigator kind of novel, but got something closer in type to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stuff.

I wasn’t expecting great literature. However, I know this book won the Shamus Award and so I was thinking it would be above average.

The first quarter of the novel is very choppy; it also feels like a skeleton of a story, a draft. I didn’t like that at all. I can enjoy spare writing, but not unfinished writing. Eventually, I came to feel, because I had spent so much time with setting and characters, that maybe it was not quite so skeletal anymore.

The concept for the book is an attempt to make a story out of a PTSD-situation resulting from a black site involving torture and interrogation. There is a vague, but superficial, psychological tie-in, as well. This is where most of the novel’s development is located. The author puts most of his effort into the background of this; really working on the notions of patriotism, im/morality of torture, and wartime methods of interrogation.

Amazingly, and this is the main reason that this gets just two stars, the main character, Roland Ford, does not actually do any investigating. I mean, it seems like he does sometimes and it seems like he is thinking about the situation… but he does not actually do a blessed thing. Really. He re-traces his steps, mopes around, and generally just does nothing more than anyone would do. For someone who is ex-USMC, ex-police, and says “I’m good at finding things” – well, I would think he would be more competent than just to sit around and wait for clues to show up. His big investigative move was when he checked the laptop of the person he was looking for to find clues. Pure genius.

The only lead that he has for most of the book literally is one that walked over to him and engaged with him! (Sequoia).

The best thing that the author did was include the “Irregulars” – he keeps their backstory from us, but they are curious and interesting characters that make up for the dull main character.

I may read the next in the series. Readers who need a “throw-away” for a trip or a waiting room may find value here.

2 stars

The Gray Man

The Gray ManThe Gray Man by Mark Greaney is the ninth novel that I have read that was originally published in 2009.  Its not purposeful. It is, however, the first in the Gray Man series of novels and the first I have read by Mark Greaney.  Greaney has been the collaborator/writer for the Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013) franchise of novels. I have read none of those.

Let it be said from the start that this novel is not great literature. This is pure entertainment.  In a different era, such a novel would be referred to as pulp. Now, “pulp” originally meant the low-quality paper that was used to print magazines and novels in the first chunk of the twentieth century. This cheap paper was used to print entertainment fiction for the masses.  Increased literacy, cheap entertainment, increasingly efficient methods to print all contributed to the proliferation of what is now known as “pulp fiction.”  None of it was ever intended to be wholesome, scholarly pondersome literature.

Nowadays, we have changed the quality of paper and the multitude of media entertainment is humongous. However, I still refer to certain “genres” of novels as pulp. Because much of the pulp fiction found in that long ago era was science fiction, detective stories, action/adventure stories, boys’ fiction, and smut.  While the paper is a bit crisper now, some novels are still pulp.

The thing is, just because it is pulp does not mean that readers should snub it, act righteously indignant around it, or treat it as sub-par.  Novels, all novels, are meant for entertainment. If, in any novel, there is a secondary by-product of moralizing, or sharing a plight, or drawing attention to some social/moral issue – that is still secondary. Otherwise, well, it would be a thesis, an article, a commentary, a letter. (Of course, this is not a complete universal, but try not to be extremist.)

I like pulp novels, since I like all novels – more or less. There is something very much like brain-candy in these fluffy, superficial, fast-reading, over-the-top, wild, outrageous novels. I think the word is “fun.”  So, I do own a large collection of Doc Savage, The Executioner, Fu Manchu, The Saint, and Nick Carter novels.  Not all pulp novels are also good novels. Some are horribly written and even their novelty as pulp is thin.

Luckily, The Gray Man is a very good pulp novel. Its a whole lot of fun in 465 really fast-turning pages. Why? Because even though this novel should be slushy and aggravating – it just is not. I do not know how, exactly, Greaney is able to withhold from crossing into the whole “takes it too far” – but he does. And we are left with a quite polished novel that – oddly enough – respects the reader enough not to stereotype them.

Because there exists the stereotype that all readers of action/adventure thrillers are over-testosteroned, barely literate, ultra-patriotic, simple-minded buffoons. Scarily, some of the readers are comfortable accepting this as their type…in stereo. It is easy to see which books follow that stereotype – the writing talks down to the reader. There is nothing complex at all, yet everything is repetitive. The sentences become clipped phrases. The amount of gore, sex, foul language is amped up. And, finally, the plot is weak but at the end of the day the flag waves around a pile of spent rifle shells and the hero goes home with at least two buxom blondes on his arms.

If at gunpoint, I would tell you the truth, and that is:  I was highly entertained by this novel. It is such a fast read! Hey – there is not. one. typo. This is exceedingly rare these days. Also, I think the author knows he is not competing with Calvino or Nabokov – and he is okay with it, but that does not mean he does not write this genre novel to the best of his ability. It’s action, but somehow not slushy as one might expect.

Totally a non-stop action thriller. It has some cussing, a bunch of gore, but no sex. So, its definitely rated-R.  The main character sustains an injury during a fight that made me cringe in my seat and I instinctively was holding my hand over my side for awhile. This is good:  it shows the author writes convincingly.  Now, the fact that the character continues onward and does anything he does after that?  Well, let us say that in pulp novels, like in movies, you have to suspend disbelief.  The Gray Man is nearly indestructible, I guess. But you knew he would be. We like to grind our heroes up – a lot – in these sorts of stories. Why is this? Heroes are also, apparently, gluttons for punishment and can endure damn near anything. (Cp. Batman, Wolverine, et al.)

The author balances a lot of characters fairly well.  They are not multi-faceted and heavily nuanced, but they do play their rôle consistently.  The main character is oddly likeable… even if he seems indestructible. And the plot of the novel, well, it feels familiar. I mean, there are a LOT of plot points that we have already seen in a variety of movies, novels, and newspaper headlines. Yes, one would expect this to make this novel an eye-roll inducing mess of tropes and tired stories.  Somehow, though, Greaney does enough balancing to make it fun and interesting – if not new. New, I reckon, really is not always better.

Lastly, Greaney’s lines on page 400 ratify him as someone who knows something about these topics.

Justine had seen fistfights on television action shows.  This was nothing of that.  The movements were faster, more brutal, crueler.  There was no ballet or poetry in the relationship between the adversaries, no choreography. No, it was unyielding surface on unyielding surface, the jerking reactions and the grunts and cries of wild beasts, labored breathing from exertion and panic. The sounds of cracking impacts and the frenzy of a combat so pitiless, she was sure all the men would tear to pieces in the street in front of her.

Lots of people take martial arts as a hobby. Many have learned CQB and H2H in the military. But I think Hollywood and MMA/UFC have really changed how people view combat. Have you ever – truly – been in combat where your life was actually on the line? Not point-sparring, not sport fighting, not cage matches. Not for pay. Because yes, real hand-to-hand combat is ugly and gross. Real kung fu is not acrobatic or flowery. The fact that Mark describes a fight thusly verifies to me that he does know a little something about it. I gave Mark a star for this paragraph alone.

Overall, readers can burn through these pages! Fast reading full of action and double-crossing and excitement. Fans of Batman, Transporter, Wolverine, The Executioner should enjoy this one. But, I think, many folks not normally into reading this “genre” would find some entertainment here, too.

4 stars

Subterranean

SubterraneanI finished another novel today. I read Subterranean by James Rollins. Hopefully, someday, somehow, the computer (aka: hate machine) will magically be fixed. Otherwise, I will soon run out of books to read. Seriously. And I have a lot of books.

According to the author’s site, this is his first novel, published in 1999. The synopsis is:  Beneath the ice at the bottom of the Earth is a magnificent subterranean labyrinth, a place of breathtaking wonders – and terrors beyond imagining. A team of specialists led by archaeologist Ashley Carter has been hand-picked to explore this secret place and to uncover the riches it holds. But they are not the first to venture here – and those they follow did not return. There are mysteries here older than time, and revelations that could change the world. But there are also things that should not be disturbed – and a devastating truth that could doom Ashley and the expedition: they are not alone.

Well, I was not thrilled with the book because the “bad guy” is the Egyptian Muslim dude. He’s a terrorist. Shock. And he has no qualms about killing a Navy SEAL, a young boy, or womenfolk. This stereotypical characterization is annoying.  Anyway, the other major problem that I had with the book was a mystical device. One of the main characters has an undeveloped innate ability to communicate telepathically with a species of natives in the underground world.  Its straight out of Darth Vader-meets-Spock. And, basically, while I can suspend a lot of skepticism, this was too much. For this story, anyway. There was plenty going on without having to bring in more “stuff.”

As far as the setting – the scenery and the descriptions are vivid, but I couldn’t get a mental image of anything. I felt like anytime the characters were in a tight claustrophobic place, I had mistook it for a wide open canyon. And vice versa. It was hard to negotiate the subterranean world – although I suspect the author had the place all laid out nicely in his imagination. There were some minor storyline problems…. the main character, Ashley, falls in love with the other main character. They only really know each other for a short time before they are madly in love with each other. And frankly, with them being lost, stranded, and embattled deep underground, I really doubt this is a valid plot device. Its understandable, but it does make the reader go: “oh c’mon!”

Finally, my last complaint is that it sort of just ended. There was a page and a half of “epilogue” which is way too hasty. I guess, there were a bunch of obvious questions that were not answered (e.g. is Ashley pregnant?)  Still, for a first novel, this wasn’t too bad. It just had some things that I wasn’t prepared to swallow hook-line-and-sinker.

3 stars

Contest

ContestThe other book I read before the resurrection of the computer was Contest by Matthew Reilly.  The back reads:

Dr. Stephen Swain has found himself locked in the after-hours darkness of the New York Public Library. It isn’t a mistake. He’s been entombed in the historic sanctuary for a reason—as the guest of an unknown host, chosen for a night of fun and games. He’s unprepared. He’s afraid. And he’s not alone. Six other contestants roam the black halls, room by room, floor by floor, in the dead silence. Each strapped with an explosive set to detonate should they escape before the night is over. The terms are simple: seven players enter—only one will leave.

I believe that this is Reilly’s first novel. It was published by Macmillan in 2000. He purposefully writes action stories that are supposed to be fast-paced. For example, the main character’s wife is dead. We don’t learn anything else about her or her death or whatever so the story isn’t bogged down with irrelevant backstory. What the reader needs to know are just the facts that represent the play-by-play. And even though we do not develop any deep relationship-bond with any of the characters, the reader can still enjoy the plot. Unfortunately, there are some writing choices that don’t make much sense. Reilly focuses on about three of the seven contestants. The other four are brief mentions, rare appearances, and drive-by events. This makes the reader wonder – if Reilly wanted to write a fast-paced book and only wanted to deal with 4 or 5 characters, why have so many contestants? Also, it annoyed me that the selection of the library for the place of the contest was random. I felt there should have been a reason given as to why it was selected over many other “labyrinths.”

None of the above really bothered me. What bothered me were the aliens. Yes. Aliens. So you think you’re reading something out of a true crime, police procedural, mystery novel – and then BAM! – aliens. And not a nice variety of them either. The contestants are all aliens and are nothing but beastly monsters. They aren’t really precision killers, they just maul their prey in bloodbaths. I wasn’t real happy to be reading sci-fi suddenly. I love science fiction, but I didn’t pick a sci-fi book on purpose.

2 stars