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Tag Archive: Chinatown


Review by C.J. Bunce

Crime stories are full of dark places and dark characters, characters like Waldo Lydecker in Vera Caspary’s Laura, Rebecca DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Jim Williams in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Barbara Sabich in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Catherine Trammell in Joe Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct, Noah Cross in Robert Towne’s Chinatown.  But what if you were to populate an entire story with only the most vile of these characters, everyone despicable, reprehensible, soulless.  Then you would have Richard Vine’s crime novel Soho Sins.

The New York City in Vine’s novel can’t really exist, and if it does it explains a lot about its perceived debauchery-filled subculture of million dollar art deals and even bigger real estate deals.  Most noir novels take you into places that dip into the dark, but along the way you meet a few “cool” characters, characters that have a trait or two you’d want to emulate, even if they are bad at their very core in a nice, pulp novel way.  That’s not the case in the Soho of Vine’s New York of two decades past (for those not familiar with New York, Soho is the lower Manhattan neighborhood known for its artist lofts and art galleries).  Nobody is personable, likeable, enviable, charming, or authentic.  And this ugliness means that as you forge ahead in a densely crafted 384 pages, the way Vine tells his story and the way he incorporates the shock and awe of the depravity, self-hatred, and apathy, is necessary to keep you engaged.  To Vine’s credit, it all works, complete with a couple of eleventh hour whoppers at the end of the tale.  Not bad at all for a first time novelist.

Vine takes you on a journey through New York City that illustrates in fine detail everything that is bad about the city, primarily in its wealthiest, seediest corners.  Vine brings his years of experience in the contemporary art world to provide a peep show peek into a world where artists and dealers live for no purpose other than to impress and outdo each other.  Our tour guide is a member of this vapid class, art dealer and real estate owner Jackson Wyeth, whose lack of true compassion and concern for anyone including himself at first make it difficult to tag along.  Vine partners him with an old friend, an ex-cop private eye named Hogan, who is a welcome relief from all the banality of the modern art trade and its actors, but ultimately, he and Wyeth are just two sides of a tarnished coin.  Hogan is after the murderer who shot Wyeth’s best friend Philip Oliver’s wife Angela, and Hogan uses Wyeth to introduce him to the art scene, a close-knit club, to prove whether or not Philip committed the murder.  And, by the way, Philip has already confessed to the crime.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Yesterday the international press reported that Facebook shut down an artificial intelligence experiment when two robots named Alice and Bob started to communicate with each other in a non-human dialect of their own.  Intended to test the robots’ ability to negotiate with each other, the programmers did not include coding that required their discussions to be intelligible to humans.  A new novel takes the story further as its two lead characters Ray and Ada, also robots, work together to carry out missions to kill businessmen in Los Angeles for a secret client.  Adam Christopher’s new sci-fi novel Killing is My Business is a 1960s noir story, only it’s a different kind of noir.  Not steampunk noir–maybe call it robot noir, it features Ray the robot, not a futuristic android or cyborg, he’s the last of the robots after their use came and went years before the story begins.  Ray was formerly programmed as a private investigator–he has the skill and resourcefulness of Chinatown’s Jake Gittes–only he’s been reprogrammed as a hitman.  He does his business in the city like any P.I. would back in the ’60s, and despite his obvious robotic appearance he still blends in.  It’s still Los Angeles, albeit a parallel Los Angeles, with gorgeous cars, a pulp novel’s worth of detective work, and, of course, plenty of murder to go around.

We read the story through Ray’s eyes and his analytical voice carries some of the innocence of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but mixed with the decisive actions of Robocop, only subtract the ethical subroutines.  He’s smart but a bit of a Pinocchio, somewhat naïve, and his handler Ada only gives him the information he needs to know to do the current job.  His limitation is a 24-hour recording memory, which is wiped when he returns to his alcove each night, but his morning briefings include relevant bits from his past jobs so he’s not completely a blank slate each day.  The stakes are raised if he doesn’t get home, and no, he doesn’t turn into a pumpkin, but he can fail like any machine.

When we meet Ray he thinks he’s embarked on another typical case, only a strange trend may be emerging:  Why are his targets turning up dead before he gets a chance to pull the trigger himself?  Killing is My Business is a mash-up of pulp noir and science fiction, but it’s also as much a robot’s horror tale.

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Cut Me In Ed McBain

Review by C.J. Bunce

Some writers know how to suck you right in from the first page.  Take the late author Evan Hunter aka Ed McBain.  In his 1953 novel The Proposition (published under another pseudonym, Hunt Collins) McBain gave his lead character Josh Blake a timeless voice that conjures a confident, put-upon literary agent melting in the sweltering summer city heat, trying to cut himself in on a big deal that will land him the good life–like a million dollar home and a big swimming pool.  Blake is like a mash-up between Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes in Chinatown and Nicholson’s Will Randall in the film Wolf–written decades before either character was created.  Think Gittes because of the pulp noir mystery, and Randall because we’re maneuvering the politics of the literary world.

Why single out a 1950s crime mystery by Ed McBain?  Because the folks at Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime found this gem, and have released it this year for the first time in more than 60 years.  Originally published as The Proposition by Hunt Collins, it was later published as Hunt Collins’ Cut Me In–a great title that fits the story much better.  The new edition, labeled as a McBain novel, features a classic style pulp cover by Robert McGinnis with a dead ringer for Suzanne Somers.  She sits by the pool, the pool that is the target of Josh Blake’s affection.  So if you’re like this reader, you’re seeing Nicholson and Somers play out this great movie that never was.

The Proposition paperback

And you can read the first chapter of Cut Me In right now.  First, just the facts.

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