Added to the cover gallery: A Portuguese edition of The Hunter

Rififi (Portugal) 19??

Title translation:?Hunter of Men


Added to the cover gallery: A Portuguese edition of The Mourner

Title translation:?The Statuette

News for week ending 2018-01-19 (open thread)

I seriously considered posting my review of?I, Tonya?here at VWOP instead of at?Trent goes off-topic.?I thought the film was very Westlakeian with its incompetent criminals and wry, dark humor.

Trent goes off-topic

Book review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner by Donald E. Westlake (HCC-132)

Jailed for a Joke

It isn’t easy going to jail for a practical joke. Of course, this particular joke left 20 cars wrecked on the highway and two politicians’ careers in tatters—so jail is where Harold Künt landed. Now he’s just trying to keep a low profile in the Big House. He wants no part of his fellow inmates’ plan to use an escape tunnel to rob two banks. But it’s too late; he’s in it up to his neck. And that neck may just wind up in a noose…

HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER is Donald E. Westlake at his funniest and his most ingenious, a rediscovered crime classic from the MWA Grand Master returning to stores for the first time in three decades.

Our protagonist is Harry Künt (with an umlaut, as he’ll be sure to tell you), an inveterate practical joker. He has been tortured his whole life by his name, which everyone mispronounces but which he won’t change because that would break his oblivious mother’s heart. His practical jokes are his way of lashing out at the world about his constant humiliation. He’s good at them, too, never getting caught. Until, of course, one day he does and ends up in jail because of it.

Once in prison, he is assigned a privileged work-duty slot in the prison’s gym, where the other prisoners with gym duty let him in on their little secret–when the gym was built, a secret passage into town was also built. This lucky crew can visit the outside world regularly.

But once they trust him with that secret, they let him in on another–they are planning on robbing two banks in town. Why not? They have the perfect alibi!

This completely terrifies Harry. He is not a hardened criminal, just a helpless sap who ended up in prison. If he tells anyone, it will go badly for him. If he doesn’t tell anyone, he is probably participating and at minimum an accomplice in a bank robbery. What will he do?

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner?is a deceptively complex book in a breezy comic crime wrapper, and I can’t write too much more about it without spoiling things I don’t want to spoil. One theme, that the reader will notice right away, is that of?agency. Harry is never in control of his own situation, to the point where he accidentally ends up in a situation where he may have to rob a bank. There are other important themes wrapped in and around that one, and the reader tracks their development as he tracks the planning for the robbery and other events. By its end,?Help I Am Being Held Prisoner?has more of an impact than one would expect in such a seemingly light-hearted affair.

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner?never should have gone out of print, and it’s terrific that Hard Case Crime has brought it back. Not to be missed.


News for week ending 2018-01-12 (open thread)

Over here, the big news is that you can now read the site on mobile devices. In other news…

Trent goes off-topic

TV review: “Bullet in the Face”

If you are visiting this site, chances are you like noir. If you are a fan of Donald Westlake’s catalog beyond the Parker novels, there is a good chance you also like comic crime. But what if you combined noir?and comic crime?

That’s just what happens in “Bullet in the Face,” a TV series that lasted for just one six-episode season but is available on video and streaming. Max E. Williams is Gunter Vogler, a murderous, sociopathic career criminal who works for Tannhauser (Eddie Izzard), one of two mafia kingpins fighting for control of?Brüteville, a city in a not-too-distant? dystopian future that reminded me of the out-of-time world in?Payback?(there is anachronistic technology) and the run-down cities of 2012’s?Dredd.

Gunter is grievously wounded during a jewelry-store robbery by, yes, a bullet in the face. When he wakes up, he finds that he has had cosmetic surgery, giving him the face of the cop that he killed during the robbery. To make matters even more complicated, he was given this surgery so that he could pretend to be this cop while having all of Gunter’s knowledge of the criminal underworld in order to take out the organizations of both Tannhauser, who betrayed him (after being betrayed himself…it’s complicated), and Tannhauser’s rival Racken (Eric Roberts). To make things ever?more complicated, he is assigned as partner to Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier), the original partner of the cop Gunter killed in the jewelry heist, who needless to say has some negative feelings toward Gunter.

Got all that?

“Bullet in the Face” is the creation of Alan Spencer, probably best known for the ’80s cop comedy “Sledge Hammer!,” a show I deeply love. There are some resemblances to that show–there’s a crazy cop, his straight-laced partner, and their boss, and of course the humor comes from the same mind. But Sledge was confined by his sense of justice–he was largely inspired by the Dirty Harry archetype, the cop prevented from giving criminals their just desserts by The System. You never know?what angle Gunter is playing–he loves to kill, his gangland mistress is pregnant and he scarily wants a child to raise to be like him, and he also strangely seems to relish solving crimes.

“Bullet in the Face” is hobbled out of the gate by attempting to cram a lot of plot points (I didn’t even summarize them all) and a complicated milieu into a half hour pilot, actually only twenty minutes after commercials and credits are factored in–it really could have used an hour premier. A lot of the jokes fall flat and some just left me scratching my head. On a personal level, I often had trouble understanding Gunter’s outrageous German accent. (This is a common problem for me as I have mild hearing loss–I also have a difficult time understanding Electra on Netflix’s “Daredevil.)

So with all that, I didn’t think the series was all that good. It was an unholy mess with an iffy hit-to-miss joke ratio.

But then there’s the fact that I sat down thinking I’d watch one episode to kill some time and ended up watching all six episodes in one sitting. It is strangely compelling, never boring, and definitely outrageous. And, for the most part, it’s the outrageous moments that work the best–it’s very gory and there’s a lot of explicit sexual humor, both of which are among the funniest elements of the show. This is not Dortmunder-style comic crime.

Unfortunately, the series ended just as it seemed to be hitting its stride. The world, the players, and their dynamics were established and the story was rolling, and then, BOOM! It’s over.

This is one of the few shows or movies that I didn’t care for on first viewing that I will probably watch again, because I have the feeling that some things that didn’t work for me on first viewing may work better now that I’ve been steeped in its universe for a bit. And I may do something I almost?never do and give it a third spin with the commentary on, just because I know Alan Spencer is a funny guy (he has a cameo stealing a severed head) and I’d like to hear what was going through his head when he created something as strange and out-there as “Bullet in the Face.”

The Mobile World of Parker

I have taken advantage of some improvements to WordPress to make?The Violent World of Parker site much easier to view on mobile devices. It isn’t perfect and is somewhat limited, but at least you can read it, which you really couldn’t before without either terrific eyesight or a magnifying glass.

If you notice anything terribly wrong or weird about it, let me know. I doubt I can do too much to fix it, but I can try.

Book review: A Song to Die For by Mike Blakely

Creed Mason had come so close. He’d had a top ten country hit with his partner Dixie Houston and their band Dixie Creed, and their future looked bright. But then he’d been drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he saw some horrific things, killed a man, and ended up with a gruesome bullet wound that got him sent first to Japan for a long recovery and then to Texas, USA.

It’s now 1975. His old partner Dixie has gone on to huge solo success and wants nothing to do with him. Creed is trying to make it on his own in the burgeoning Austin music scene as part of the nascent Outlaw Country movement. Willie Nelson (just called Willie here, but it’s Willie Nelson) recommends Creed for a plum gig–band leader and lead guitarist for Luster Burnett, a country music legend who vanished entirely from pubic life many years prior but who is now eyeing a comeback.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the innocent niece of a Vegas mafia kingpin witnesses her uncle and his psychotic son Franco murdering one of their henchman who had fallen out of favor. She flees to Austin, hoping to get help from one of her former University of Texas sorority sisters. However, both end up dead as Franco tries to tie up loose ends.

Trying to find answers in these deaths is Texas Ranger Hooley Johnson, a curmudgeon approaching retirement age who nonetheless is deeply affected by the waste of two innocent lives with so much potential. Hooley is begrudgingly partnered with Mel Doolittle, a young, black, intelligent but wet-behind-the-ears FBI man from the Vegas office.

?A Song to Die For is neat–these two tales, the two musicians trying to make a comeback and the crime story, run parallel with no crossover until very late in the book. For most of it, it’s like reading two entertaining novels in different genres simultaneously, keeping the reader wondering and guessing about when and how the two paths will cross.

The fun is enhanced by Blakely’s writing style. He does not spend a lot of time describing things. Does a scene take place in a honky tonk? He’ll give enough detail to add some character, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Everyone who hasn’t been in one has seen them on TV or in movies and knows what they look like–why describe every spiderweb or initial carved into the bar? This efficiency helps the pages go by quickly, with a lot more action packed in than one would expect even in a book that crosses the 400-page mark.

The story is not always realistic, but Blakely’s exercise of his artistic license is well-deployed. It’s doubtful that a crackerjack band could come together as quickly as it does here, and Blakely knows this because he’s a musician himself with several albums to his credit, but it’s necessary to keep the two stories in sync, and who wants to read about months of practice?

It was fun for me to read about my town of Austin back in the ’70s, which was a pretty legendary time around here–I wasn’t around but people still talk about it. (It’s also nice that for the most part the geography is rendered correctly!) I’d like to see Blakely, who primarily writes Westerns and is a Spur award winner, tell a few more tales about my town in that time. He’s got plenty of good characters who could appear in another music story, another crime story, or another combination of the two.

A Song to Die For is an under-the-radar gem that lovers of music and/or crime fiction will enjoy, and those who know Austin will get an extra kick out of it. Worth checking out.

By the way:?“Written in the Dust,” Creed Mason’s one hit song, is based on one of Mike Blakely’s own songs. I caught a couple of other Easter eggs, and I’m sure there are some I missed.

News for week ending 2018-01-05 (open thread)

This week I went off-topic, launching what I hope will be a fun new place for me and anyone else to hang out. Also:

At Trent goes off-topic

The Westlake Review marks a milestone

I’ve promoted it on several occasions, and it’s linked in the sidebar, but it’s possible that some of you here aren’t familiar with The Westlake Review.

Fred Fitch (totally his real name) set out to read and review all of Donald Westlake’s novels, with the exception of pseudonymous sleaze titles. And as of shortly before the end of 2017, he has, along with a passel of Westlake’s nonfiction and short stories.

Fred’s style is very different from mine. While I typically start with a plot teaser and then write just a few paragraphs on the book, he goes for in-depth analysis of the characters, themes, and how everything fits into the larger Westlake canon. His pieces aren’t really book reviews, but essays on the books. As a general rule, it’s better if you’ve read the book before you’ve read the piece on it.

If you haven’t bookmarked The Westlake Review yet, you should. As with VWOP, the posts often don’t age much as the books we write about were published some time ago, so there is oodles of great reading material in the archives.

So if you haven’t checked out The Westlake Review, you should. If you have, go back over there and say congratulations!