Monday, August 31, 2009


Richard Helms, Editor
Hardboiled/noir fiction is a distinctly American literary form, having seen its birth during the years leading up to Great Depression of the 1930’s, but it owes its traditions to ideals stretching back in literature to Malory's Le Morte d'Artur.
Following the horrors of World War I, Americans were yearning for escape through cheap fiction (and, to some extent, radio), and the pulp magazines were a perfect vehicle for the development of young writers.
Black Mask, the leading action/adventure pulp of the time, was published in New York and, along with other similar magazines such as Detective Stories and Dime Detective, provided nearly 200 million words of entertainment each year. Black Mask was founded in 1920, by H.L. Mencken, as sort of a funding device to support other, less lucrative magazines such as Smart Set. Mencken reportedly detested Black Mask, but he didn’t appear to mind the great financial success it experienced.
Nevertheless, Black Mask was sold after only six months to Gene Crowe and Pop Warner, the head of Warner Publishing. Phil Cody was named editor, and he recruited writers such as Dash Hammett, Frederick Nebel, and Erle Stanley Gardner to write for it. Later on, this magazine would attract talents as diverse as Paul Cain, and its brightest star, Raymond Chandler.
Chandler was far and away the elder statesman among this crowd, though a bit of a latecomer to the hardboiled literary form. He had cut his literary teeth on the works of authors such as Saki (H.H. Munro), and was accustomed to much tamer fare than he found in Black Mask, when he picked up the pulp on a trip west with his ailing wife Cissy. After reading the magazine, and several more like it, Chandler became convinced that he could write as well as the authors he had read. He crafted a short story entitled Blackmailers Don't Shoot, and sent it to Cap Shaw, who had assumed the editor's role. When it is said that he crafted the story, it should be noted that in his attempt to make it look as 'professional' as possible, he had taken pains to justify both margins - on a portable mechanical typewriter! The editors at Black Mask, intrigued by his efforts, published the story, and a giant was born.
Hammett, of course, had been a Pinkerton’s detective, and provided realistic, life-based backgrounds for his gritty, violent stories. It was at Black Mask that Hammett honed his individual style and introduced some of his most enduring characters in serialized books such as The Maltese Falcon, and Red Harvest.
Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for writing the Perry Mason series, but the watered down television versions (with Raymond Burr and Monte Markham, respectively, as Mason) which most people know him by belie the tough themes of the earlier editions of these books. In fact, many readers, drawn to Gardner’s seminal Perry Mason works by the television show, came away disappointed when they didn’t find “their” mental picture of Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake.
James M. Cain took a different route. Rather than writing private eye fiction, he tended to look at the psyche of desperate people, driven by unrestrained sexual urges. His The Postman Always Rings Twice is the most classic of Cain’s works, and remains an example of the genre to this day. Many have compared Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat, the sensational noir film from 1981, to Postman, with good reason.
Chandler disagreed deeply with many of his contemporaries' approaches to the hardboiled genre, feeling that they dwelt far too much on the seamy lives of dirty little people. His vision of the private eye novel was somewhat nobler, and it may be said with some assurance that most, if not all, private eye novelists since Chandler have, in some way, based their characters on his work.
Chandler wrote a great deal about his point of view, especially his outlook on the nature of the fiction private eye himself.
"He has a sense of character,” Chandler wrote, “or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly, and no man's insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be sorry you ever saw him. He talks as a man of his age talks -- that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness….The real life private eye is a sleazy little drudge from the Burns Agency, a strong-arm guy with no more personality than a blackjack. He has about as much moral stature as a stop and go sign."
He went on to state, however, that the PI of fiction "does not and could not exist. He is the personification of an attitude, the exaggeration of a possibility. The whole point is that a detective exists complete and entire and unchanged by anything that happens, that he is, as detective, outside the story and above it, and always will be. That is why he never gets the girl, never marries, never really has any private life, except insofar as he must eat and sleep and have a place to keep his clothes. His moral and intellectual force is that he gets nothing but his fee, for which he will if he can protect the innocent, guard the helpless, and destroy the wicked, and the fact that he must do this while earning a meagre living in a corrupt world is what makes him stand out."
Chandler’s view of the world in which the private eye travels was succinctly stated in the book title he always wanted to use, but never found the proper vehicle for, "Law is where you buy it."
The Chandler-style PI is a man of principle and ethics walking in a world of corruption and degradation. Everyone around him is cynical and conniving. Even the PI’s morals and ethics may seem a bit twisted to the casual observer, but they are rock-steady, and unshakable. He does not shape events as much as he is shaped by them, and while he can engage in deadly violence when needed, he is not a bully, or a cheap thug. There is nothing psychopathic about him.
Today, hardboiled writing is built around a set of assumptions about the world, and how people operate in it. The hardboiled detective is surrounded by corruption. The setting is almost always urban, since it is in large populations of people, densely packed into a confined space (or a “behavioral sink” as psychologists refer to it) that the most amoral acts of cruelty can flourish unchecked.
The corruption presented is often mirrored between both government agencies and crime syndicates, which are usually presented as equally above the law. Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential features corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, a story that presages the real corruption in the Rampart Division of that department which has filled the news recently. Of course, police corruption as a central feature in hardboiled literature is not a new thing, as crooked L.A. cops featured prominently in Chandler’s Lady In The Lake, sixty years ago.
Against this backdrop of sleaze, the hardboiled detective must find his quarry, and often mete out justice, while resisting the temptation to be consumed by the world about him. For that reason, he is almost always presented as a “loner”, socially isolated and alienated, bound by a code of honor and behavior which is foreign to his enemies. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is bound by this code to find and punish the killer of his partner, Miles Archer, whom he admits he really didn’t like much. Parker’s Spenser is constantly seduced by beautiful women, but resists their temptation in order to remain faithful to Susan Silverman. My own character Pat Gallegher is forced into a life of servitude to the loan shark Leduc, but tries to balance his life by performing his dangerous “favors”.
When the psychology of the hardboiled sleuth is understood fully, his actions, which often appear incongruent with his role as protector, become clearer. It is then that one comprehends the apparent brutality of Mike Hammer at the end of I, The Jury, and why he states so casually, “It was easy…
The trails blazed by Chandler and Hammett continue to be trod by modern detective writers. Robert B. Parker, who wrote his Ph.D dissertation on Raymond Chandler, followed it up by writing a very Chandler-esque PI in Spenser. The first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, might well have been a Philip Marlowe novel, simply by transposing the names. While it can also be said that the Spenser of, say, Hugger Mugger, has evolved strongly over the last thirty years, he still maintains the qualities that Chandler considered central to the private eye’s character. He is true to his ethics, a protector of the helpless, and a sucker for a sob story.
As Spenser was modeled after Chandler’s Marlowe, it is apparent that an entirely new generation of detective writers has modeled their creations after Parker’s refinements on the theme. For instance, it was Parker who introduced the concept of the detective’s ultra-violent, borderline psychopathic sidekick, in the form of Hawk. More recent writers, such as Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, and Back Alley Books’  Richard Helms, have adopted this device, in various forms. Crais’ detective, Elvis Cole, has Joe Pike. Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro have Bubba Rogowski. My protagonist Pat Gallegher makes frequent use of Scat Boudreaux, whom he has dubbed The Cannibal Commando.
Many hardboiled purists have complained that the addition of such characters has fundamentally changed the nature of the hardboiled hero, allowing him to engage in antisocial acts that are contrary to his nature, in a vicarious way, without becoming personally corrupted (or at least allowing himself to believe that he is not corrupted by his tacit conspiracy with the partner). Still, it appears that, at least in mainstream hardboiled detective fiction, the psychopathic pseudo-partner has become something of a fixture.
Representing a completely different branch of hardboiled detectives is the group headed by such prototypes as Carroll John Daly's 'Three Gun' Terry and Race Williams. These were trigger-happy, borderline psychopathic, violent heroes, who spawned a legion of post-war offspring such as Mike Hammer, Nick Carter (the later version), and others. Unlike the educated, somewhat wordly, Chandleresque PIs (Lew Archer, Spenser, etc), these detectives seem to live by the code of shoot first and ask questions later. Or, as Scat Boudreaux tells Pat Gallegher in Wet Debt, perhaps not originally, but certainly in the vein of Williams and Hammer, "Shoot 'em all. Let God sort it out."
Modern society and technological innovation have presented new challenges to the hardboiled author. How is it possible to maintain the hardboiled PI’s almost feudal chivalry in an era of cell phones, supersonic transport, and the Internet? While traditionalists such as Parker have been hesitant to tackle this problem, other more recent authors, perhaps those who have never lived in a non-technological world, have taken these advancements in stride and have incorporated them easily into their plots.
For example, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski makes frequent use of not only cell phones and computers, but numerous online resources such as Nexis, Lexis, and other online information services.
Michael Connelly, in Angels Flight, has his L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch resort to genuine Internet sleuthing in an attempt to identify a child rapist. He enlists the aid of a department computer expert to find hidden accesses in Internet web pages, in a sequence that covers almost ten pages, and ultimately plays a dramatic role in the solution of the mystery.
John Sandford’s cross-genre detective Lucas Davenport uses a cell-phone, and not only uses a computer for work but writes computer strategy games as a side business.
Elvis Cole, Robert Crais’ L.A. private eye, is a frequent cell-phone user, though he hasn’t incorporated a great deal of computer technology into his work.
Dennis Lehane’s detecting partners Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro use both cell phones and computers, and since neither one can cook the microwave oven plays a central role in their lives.
Finally, in my own Shamus Award-nominated Cordite Wine, I dove headfirst into high-tech detection, allowing my sleuth, Eamon Gold, to employ mobile GPS tracking, online data-mining, and 2.4 gigahertz wireless television cameras to solve his case.
In his book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigation, Steven Kerry Brown devotes a great deal of space to the modern use of technological tools by private investigators. According to Brown, one of the deadliest sins a modern private eye can commit is to allow his cell phone battery to go dead. 
When asked how he was able to adapt so readily to the hardboiled genre, when he had spent virtually all his writing life producing “literary” fiction in the vein of Saki (H.H. Munro), Raymond Chandler stated that he had seen a central thread running through the hardboiled fiction of the era. His advice, he said, was to “…analyze, and imitate…”. Parker certainly followed this advice when he introduced his initially Marlowesque Spenser. As Spenser developed as a character, however, Parker broadened and innovated the genre to fit his own personality - and, many believe, even the ongoing conflicts and issues in his personal life. Latter day imitators, whose fictional sleuths often closely resembled Spenser at their introductions, have also diverged from Parker’s path, and it is reasonable to expect that a whole new generation of hardboiled detectives will emerge a quarter century from now, who look as different from Spenser as Spenser now looks from Marlowe.
Chandler might have advised writers to “…analyze and imitate….” , but he might well have added that they should “innovate”. Innovations should reflect the times in which this new breed of hardboiled detectives operate, which means including the conventions of those times. If hardboiled detectives operate in the twenty-first century, those conventions include satellite telephones, computers, high-tech transportation, and the Internet. As “…down these mean streets must walk a man who is not himself mean…” it is imperative to write hardboiled detectives who exist among the modern technological marvels of our new century, who are comfortable with these miracle machines and know how to exploit them, but who are not in turn corrupted by them.
It can be said that hardboiled private eye fiction is a formulaic literary form, and this would be a fair assessment. However, it was Chandler who established that the hardboiled plot is entirely secondary to the characterization of the people who populate it. A relatively simple plot, with few or no genuine puzzles, can ring brightly when brought to life with crisply written characters that say witty, sardonic things. Character development is the cornerstone of hardboiled detective fiction. Backstory should be avoided if possible, as it is more important for the reader to learn the character of the reader through what he does and says, rather than from his roots.
High Noon is not much more than a hardboiled detective (sheriff) novel set in a western town. Does that make it a western? Would that mean that Bad Day At Black Rock is a western, because of its setting (ignoring period)? Is it reasonable to say that the hardboiled ethos grew out of the saga of the Wild West hero? Probably so, and it is also probably no coincidence that hardboiled literature arose as the era of the penny dreadful was dying.
The penny dreadful gave way to the pulp magazine, and eventually provided us with Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, et al. The hardboiled detective, whether on the force or not, supplanted the western sheriff, but the internal integrity and motivation to overcome the corruption surrounding him/her was still the central feature of his/her character.
I strongly believe that it is necessary to separate hardboiled and noir, in order to preserve the heroic nature of the hardboiled protagonist. Both hardboiled and noir are character-driven, not driven by plot or setting.
The noir style is slightly harder to define. The noir novel is much more dependent on the weaknesses of the characters rather than their moral and ethical strengths. The seminal classic in this genre would almost have to be the already mentioned The Postman Always Rings Twice, by Cain, along with his Double Indemnity. However, other works also should be mentioned.The Asphalt Jungle is a terrific noir caper story, powered by the greed of the characters and the futility of their crime. The influence of Cain’s Postman, and Double Indemnity, on Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for Body Heat is unmistakable. The essence of the noir form is people doing evil for personal gain, almost always with a high, perhaps unacceptable price, and the effect their evil has on the dupe, or relatively innocent victim of the crime. The central characters of noir fiction are tragic anti-heroes, people with few moral scruples, poor judgment, and the ability to turn off their concern for others when the need arises.    
More recently, Elmore Leonard has established himself as the premier writer of modern noir fiction, at least in his grittier, less commercial works (such as Cat Chaser). Even the more commercial works, such as Get Shorty and Be Cool, contain many of the classic noir elements.
Noir, to me, is a story that explores just how deeply the characters can give in to their basest, most selfish impulses, almost to the extent that they are willing to ignore or even deny others their own humanity if those others stand in their way. Noir is about people doing things they'd never have thought they would do, only because their lives have taken a turn or series of turns that have left them with the opportunity to indulge their most corrupt desires, without any particular reason not to. Noir is gritty, sweaty, desperate, and even possibly hopeless, and someone in a noir story must necessarily be a condemned person.
Unlike hardboiled, which should feature a heroic, or perhaps anti-heroic, character with a clearly defined set of ethics and standards to which he adheres in the face of nearly overwhelming corruption around him, the noir protagonist gives in to the corruption. Rather than rising above the corruption, as the hardboiled hero does, the noir protagonist is destroyed by his acts, and ultimately loses everything.
In a sense, noir is a modern interpretation of the Greek tragedies, in which a single moment of weakness costs the tragic hero all he had previously accomplished. Dix Handley has to die at the end of The Asphalt Jungle, just as Walter Huff does in Double Indemnity, because if they were allowed to live, it would imply that they could give in to their animal natures and profit by them. Oedipus has to lose his kingdom, and his eyesight, because his own foolishness and -- to some extent -- bad fortune put him in a position to kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta. Ned Racine in Kasdan's Body Heat, still one of the best modern noir protagonists, has to go to prison, even though he was clearly duped by Maddie Walker the spider-woman, because in allowing himself to give in to his own weakness he committed the ultimate crime. Even Maddie pays, in the end, by leading a pointless, unproductive, boring life. She's acquired all her desires, but they prove to be bitter fruit.

In the end, noir is a morality play, in which Everyman is tempted by the Serpent, and gives in, to his eternal regret. Noir is a recapitulation of the Genesis story of the Fall From Grace, and as such is an archetypal story structure pitting good against evil.
Noir stories make us examine our own beliefs and question just how large a potential payoff it would take for us to abandon those ethical and moral standards we pretend to hold sacred. There's a little bit of Dix Handley, Walter Huff, and Ned Racine in all of us. Noir allows us to measure ourselves against others who may be as weak as we are, and for that reason it should be disturbing.

City Council Resolution of NoirCon 2008


Welcoming NoirCon to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

WHEREAS, the first annual conference of NoirCon, a celebration of Philadelphia as a backdrop for Noir writing and history, will be held on April 3 through the 6 at the Society Hill Playhouse; and
WHEREAS, NoirCon will present panels of writers, journalists, attorneys, professors, artists and publishers who are active in confronting both noir fiction and non-fiction; and
WHEREAS, NoirCon will bring mystery fans, investigators and students of the Noir from all over the world to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to celebrate the shadowy side of life; and
WHEREAS, Irish author, Dr. Ken Bruen, will receive the first David L. Goodis Award, for his contributions in the tradition of Philadelphia's very own Noir author, David Goodis; and
WHEREAS, Publisher extraordinaire, Dennis McMillan, will receive the Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in cultivating and publishing Noir Fiction for more than a quarter of a century; now therefore , be it
RESOLVED BY THE COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, that we welcome NoirCon to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wishing it every success and many celebrations of the Noir in the future.
FURTHER RESOLVED, that an Engrossed copy of this resolution be presented to Deen Kogan and Louis M. Boxer, co-creators of NoirCon as an expression of the sincere admiration and appreciation of this legislative body.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Coffee Noir: Bigger is not necessarily better

Coffee Noir: Bigger is not necessarily better

Coffee Noir is located at 1035 East 200 South in Salt Lake

Although spacious coffeehouses are great for hosting events and featuring artwork, they don’t indicate much about the quality of the café. Small cafés are great for grabbing coffee on the go or relaxing after work or school. Coffee Noir is one such café that proves bigger is not necessarily better.
Located at 1035 E 200 S, Coffee Noir popped up this past February and has been doing well ever since. It is a proud server of PT’s Coffee, which won Roast Magazine’s 2009 Roaster of the Year Award, and different coffees are featured each week. Although inside seating is limited, the front patio and side yard provide shaded places to sit and enjoy the outdoors or browse the internet with the café’s free Wi-Fi.
The menu has two categories: “coffee house traditions,” which includes basic espresso drinks, and the “frozen section,” where customers can find their favorite coffee drinks over ice. Fruit smoothies, hot chocolate, Italian sodas and steamers are also available. Snacks include fresh bagels, muffins, coffee cakes and cookies, plus a bottom shelf full of 50 cent treats.
Coffee Noir is open Mon-Fri 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sat-Sun 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Parking is readily available on the street, or bus line 220 will easily get you there.



A word of warning: there are scenes in this story that may be disturbing to some readers.

“From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

After six Baptist suicide bombers met their god in the fiery nave, aisles, apse, towers, and main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the cafés that crowded Fiftieth and Fifty-First Streets became de rigueur for writers,
artists, actors, news personalities, wealthy dilettantes, activists, dissidents, tourists, the Christian left, and wannabees. Young Muslim women, faces covered in black muslin, sipped ginger ale beside their Armani
suited, bearded partners, while students wearing Christ’s Commandos ® T-shirts argued about the morality of selling a watch that had lodged in a schoolgirl’s neck during an explosion on a school bus.
  “Well, the poor thing’s dead. The suicide bomber’s watch went to pay for the funeral.”
  “That would have been one heck of a funeral.”
  “It was.”
  Max Rosanna’s Café was always mobbed with those who needed to be seen and those who needed to see, and the outside tables closest to the stained glass door of the establishment were always on reserve for the titled, the famous, and those who could slip old Max a thousand dollar bill for a sweaty croissant and a flat white coffee. Max’s was directly across the street from the cathedral ruins, and Max had his contractors cement the shards of stained glass from the exploding cathedral into the floors and ceiling of the café. At night, lights strobing, Max’s would glitter like an old psychedelic dream.
  But it was spring, 11:00 AM, Friday, and the pioneers of the New Rebellion, the New Yorkers who would not show even a flicker of fear, wanted to be in the street. They were boarding their buses, riding their subways, sipping their coffees, eating their croissants and bialys, being seen at Max’s, and taking their chances.
  Leo Malkin couldn’t afford Max’s, but he had done some renovation work on the café for the fat man and was always guaranteed a table somewhere on the premises. But on this clear, clean, beatifically sunny
Friday morning, not a chair could be had; it was like trying to get into the Ginza Bar or the Peppermint Lounge in the middle of the last century.  Two bouncers kept the line of desperate patrons-to-be away from the patio of the café, which looked like an oasis of shadow under its awnings and umbrellas.
  After being patted, introduced to a soap opera star, and consoled by Max, Leo walked toward Sixth Avenue, toward the demolished RCA Building. Every café was mobbed, and the conversations buzzed like flies on the street. He passed a boy of around fourteen, who glared at him with absolute hatred. Leo nodded to him, which, admittedly, was a stupid reaction.  Maybe it’s because I look Jewish, but I could just as easily be Arab, and he looks Semitic.
  “Hey!” Leo shouted at the boy.
  The boy turned and stopped. He had delicate features, dark skin, big brown eyes, and coarse black hair cut in bowl fashion. He looked somehow familiar.
  “What’s with the look?”
  The boy was wearing jeans and a checkered work shirt; both were slightly too large for him. The jeans were rolled in heavy cuffs over his engineer boots, the shirt was long and wasn’t tucked in. The boy shook his
head and smiled a beautiful ragamuffin smile that somehow chilled Leo to the bone.
  And then the beautiful boy was gone, snapped back into the crowd.

 Ikrima Margalit walked jauntily down Fiftieth Street, the distant sun warm on his face, his ultra-light explosive vest more like a silk handkerchief than a vest constructed of material that would make a belt loaded  with C-4 look like a New Year’s Eve sparkler. He carried no detectable shrapnel, no old fashioned (yet effective) ball bearings, no nails, screws, nuts, or thick wire. His very bones would pierce the nonbelievers. He would explode like a claymore mine, and, somehow, God in his mercy  would turn the very sidewalk, cars, and streetlights into killing, cleansing objects of death. Those who understood such things used to call acetone peroxide Mother of Satan because it was so unstable; but this new explosive was stable as a table, and it was called Mother of God after the blessed Virgin.
  To his right and across the street was the old Macy’s building; to his left was the noisy line of cafés his mother called temples of corruption. They didn’t look like anything but cafés, and the people sitting around sipping
coffee and smoking kef were young and happy and pretty. The air smelled perfumed. The hydrogen-powered cars whispered past, as if in slow motion; every once in a while a driver would honk his horn in dumb rage and desperation and would be automatically fined. It was a perfect day, and young Ikrima could feel God so very close to him, could almost hear him between the noise of conversation, the susurration of tires, and the occasional honking horns and sirens. Ikrima knew exactly where God was. His mother had told him that He was just on the other side of the vest that was now like part of his body, part of his very being; and right next to his skin was Paradise, and there, in Paradise, being looked after by the perfect virgin houris were all his friends and heroes, including his blessed father. His mother was on this side of Paradise, with him; and although Ikrima was shivering, as if cold, as if his clothes were cold and wet, he wasn’t afraid.
  His mobile rang, a tick-tock melody, the very latest song from Memri.
  “Hello, Momma.”
  “Hello, Ike, my blessed son. Tell me where you are?”
  “I’m at the place. It’s just up ahead, and I can see the fat man you told me about, the one who is corruption to corruption.”
  “Yes,my son.”
  “I am almost there, Momma, but I see two girls. They are Muslims, Momma. Dressed in—”
  “They are not,” his mother said. “Whatever their dress. Now tell me when you are ready.”
  “Now, Momma. I love you and will see you with God in Paradise.”
  “Yes, my darling, yes,” and Ikrima Margalit pressed the little button of a detonator and became light, exploding, exposing light. He flew to his God in a million pieces. The ground exploded and shards of glass and cement and steel flew like missiles into flesh. The fat man Max exploded in the light, as did everyone around him, and Ikrima joined the houris in self-abnegating love, vengeance, and honor.

  Ikrima’s mother Dafna stood in the living room of her commission apartment on 184th Street. She was in her early forties, yet still considered beautiful and shapely. She held the tiny mobile phone to her ear, but
the connection was dead; all she could hear was the scratching of her coarse black hair against the earpiece. Her son was suddenly, just-this minute dead, immolated in the holy cleansing fire of jihad. One minute
she was with him, speaking with him—Oh, my darling, how I love you—and the next minute she was listening to her own breathing while her beautiful, precious, brave son made his instant transit to God. He would not be tempted and seduced by life; he was the most precious of God’s martyrs. She dropped the phone and bowed to Allah, who made her simultaneity of grief and poignant joy possible. She felt an overwhelming warmth in her loins, as if she were truly being touched by God. She felt a buzzing in her ears, as if God was speaking directly to her, whispering to her like electricity; and she bowed to Him in the East, then fell to her knees in prayer. She nodded, finished, and stood up, shouting joy at the top of her lungs. Her neighbors pounded on her door, which she opened so that she might accept their congratulations; and they sang, “This is not a grieving tent. This is a congratulation tent.” She and her beautiful son Ikrima would soon be together in Paradise. He had done his duty, his last act of devotion. Soon she would do her own divine duty; but first Dafna had to work, for it was Friday, and all her clients paid her on Friday. Shecleaned townhouses, condominiums, and co-ops on the Upper East Side inside the Wall of Safety. Once she had collected her money—everyone paid in universal, which was as good as cash—she would go to the Martyrs’ Center and pay for her order of posters, bracelets, calendars, wall hangings, fridge magnets, and watches, which all contained pictures of her martyred son. Then, as a last act of faith, contrition, and celebration, the Martyrs’ Center would distribute the trinkets and keepsakes along with baskets of food and medicine to everyone in her building.
  Thus did Dafna accept her neighbors’ well wishes, tears, laugher, encouragement, cakes, and coffee; then she politely shooed everyone out of her apartment, took off her favorite crepe linen abaya with chamoisette
fringes, hung it in the closet on a pink, cushioned hanger, and donned her own explosive vest. Dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and a coarse black hijab that covered her hair and fastened under her chin, she left for work.

  Leo Malkin wasn’t going to work today. His manager Sam Feinstein had arrived at Mrs. Edelman’s penthouse at eight sharp with a plumber and a carpenter to renovate her bathroom.  Mrs. Edelman was one of Leo’s best customers, for she owned four slum apartment buildings that needed constant maintenance. Sam knew what to do and didn’t need Leo’s help, even though he insisted on calling Leo every five minutes for authorization. Sam did most of the work these days and would oversee five jobs today. Leo concentrated on bringing in new customers, keeping his distributors sweet, taking care of the books, and hiring helpers and tradesmen for Sam. Although it wouldn’t buy him a Roller or a condo inside the wall, it was a living.

  His Aunt Martha had willed him a lifetime tenancy in a three bedroom walk-up on West Seventy-Ninth Street, which boasted “glimpses” of Broadway. Leo couldn’t sell the condo, nor could he redecorate or renovate without permission from the estate’s attorneys; and as he had no children who could inherit, the condo would probably end up going to a distant cousin . . . or, more likely, to the lawyers.His ex-wife Cheryl loved the flat, as she called it; and when she left him two months ago, she told him it was harder leaving the flat than leaving him.
  Leo loved Cheryl and was devoted to her—obsessed with her; but for all his pleading and coaxing and acting out, she had left him for a tall, lanky, flat-chested, curly-haired woman named Nandy. Now how the hell could you fight that? He tried, oh, Lord, had he tried. He had even swallowed his pride and accepted Cheryl’s invitation that they all live together for a while as an experiment. Cheryl, for her part,was oh, so solicitous in every way. She gave him her body whenever he asked, she always invited him to go out with her and Nandy, and she even urged Leo to sleep with Nandy, which he did. After that, he felt tainted, hollowed out by the empty pain of grief, which he located in his solar plexus. He lost twenty pounds. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and asked them to leave. They joined a commune somewhere on the Lower East Side and became sub deacons of the First Church of the Epiphany.
  Leo walked along the edge of Central Park until he came to Seventy-Ninth Street. His house cleaner Dafna would be cleaning his apartment today. Since he usually wasn’t at home when she cleaned (she was pretty, and Leo didn’t want to chance a lawsuit), he always left her money and a note on the dining room table. She had her own set of keys.
  But he definitely wanted to see Dafna today.
  He had heard the explosion at Max Rosanna’s Café, went back to see the carnage, the explosions of flesh and fragmentation of bone, the wounded and limbless, the dead and dying. He scanned his mobile for police reports of the suicide bomber: the perpetrator was a boy (or perhaps a girl, the announcer said) with a bowl haircut and checkered shirt (according to video from a nearby street cam); and Leo remembered the beautiful boy he had passed on the street, remembered the look of hatred and scorn, and remembered seeing him once before—for Leo never ever forgot a face.
  Leo had seen the boy when he had interviewed Dafna at his condo.
  He quickened his pace.
  Of course, the chances were long that Dafna wouldn’t be working today.

 She took her money from the envelope on Mr. Malkin’s dining room table and left her keys; after all, she wouldn’t be coming back there again.  She contemplated just leaving without cleaning, but she had been paid to do a job; and she was not going to leave this world owing anybody anything.  Except God.To Him she owed everything. Before she started cleaning, however, she took advantage of the privacy of Mr. Malkin’s home to adjust her explosive vest just one last time. It was too tight around her breasts; she had pulled it tight purposely to be reminded of the closeness of Heaven and her son Ikrima; but it hurt her nipples, as her son had when he suckled. She went into Mr. Malkin’s marble bathroom, which was due to be washed down with stronger detergent, and took off her hijab and work shirt. She loosened the vest, rubbed under her breasts,
which were itchy, and then prayed and carefully checked and retied the vest, taking special care that the detonator wire wouldn’t catch when she moved her arms, bent over, or arched her back. Then she prayed and thanked God for giving her this opportunity to please him. She would do her allotted tasks, and then without a backward turn, without even going to the toilet, changing her clothes, or washing her face, she would blow herself into Paradise on a crowded street during the rush hour.
   Such was her plan . . . until she felt the profane heat of someone’s eyes staring at her. She screamed as Leo Malkin grabbed her, pinning her arms behind her back. He was breathing heavily, like an animal, she thought wildly. He smelled of tar and sweat and burning; he smelled bestial, like the streets, like Hell, like darkness.
  “Don’t move,” he said, shushing her, squeezing her, and Dafna prayed, for surely this stinking pig of a man was going to rape her, bloody her vagina, which had not felt the monstrosity of a man since her husband
died for God. She tried to wrench free of him, pull away just long enough to detonate her vest and blow this eructation of a building into dust and entrails; but Leo was implacably strong and disgustingly erect. She closed her eyes tight, waiting for the inevitable. If he loosened his grip for an instant, she would send him to Hell…while she would be carried by winds of fire into Paradise.
  But he pulled the wiring away from her vest in one quick, smooth movement (after all, he was an electrician), and she sobbed as he relaxed his grip. He held her, as if this could become an impossible, tender moment.  She felt his erection pressing hard against her, felt a terrible, ugly, guilty warmth suffusing her groin. She would give herself up to him. She wouldn’t fight. She would be a statue: unfeeling, unyielding marble.  There would be another day for her to join her son and husband as a martyr, and what was going to happen to her now, the horror of the next few moments, would purify her as a martyr.
  Perhaps, just perhaps . . . she might escape, run away, repair her vest, hand out gifts, explode into Heaven.
  Abruptly, he released her.
  “Take the vest off,” he said.
  “Not with you watching me.”
  “Either that, or I’ll take it off for you.”
  She nodded and removed the vest, handing it to him while she covered her breasts with her right arm. He turned away from her and, standing in the bathroom doorway, said, “Put your shirt back on.” She did and he
demanded she give him the detonator, which she had tried to hide from him. “I saw your son,” he said.
  “My son? Where. . . ?”
  “On his way to Max’s. I know what he did. And so do you, don’t you.”
  Dafna met his gaze, would not avert her eyes.
 “Your son looked at me the same way you are now,” Leo said. “How could you . . . why?”
  And she smiled at him, just as her son had.
 “Let me pass, Mr. Malkin, or do you wish to see my breasts again and humiliate yourself ?”
  Leo stepped aside, and as Dafna walked past him, she felt an inexplicable regret. She felt an urge to succor and comfort the beast, to give herself to him. Dread and claustrophobia followed her into the elevator and
into the street.
  If she had her vest, she would have pressed the detonator.
  But her last filthy thoughts would forever bar her from the ecstasy of Heaven. She had consigned herself to the humiliation her son and husband had escaped.

  Holding the vest to his chest, Leo paced back and forth in the living room.  He was still breathing heavily,was still excited, guilty, humiliated.Why had he allowed her to pass? To walk away? To procure another vest and murder innocents? He laughed at his thoughts, for there were no innocents, except little babies perhaps; but not much of the world was lost when little babies fell back into the darkness from whence they came. Leo took off his shirt, loosened the straps of Dafna’s vest, and then put it on, shrugging into it as if it was an old, comfortable sweater. He pieced the wiring back together, just a few twists, and made sure the connections were solid. The wiring was blue coat, which was virtually undetectable. He put on his shirt, slipped the detonator into the side pocket of his trousers, and walked out of his condo.
  He left the door wide open.
  It would be a good long walk downtown along Broadway, past the upmarketshops and bistros, past the checkpoints, and into the midtown/downtown safety zones. Safely pacing, heels clicking on pavement,
pushing through the crowds, walking in a straight line, fully focused, Leo and his vest, wires, and detonator went unnoticed. His mobile buzzed and vibrated insistently in his pocket, but he ignored it.
  He was calmness itself.  He walked to the First Church of the Epiphany on Tenth Street without incident. The church was a confection of Gothic Revival style and Stanford White design. He admired it and then walked inside, where he admired its famous and magnificent mural by John Le Farge. He stood veiled in crimson light from the great stained glass windows above the nave and waited. Cheryl and Nandy would surely be arriving soon, and Leo would greet them with loving kindness and personally guide them into the blinding light and exploding stillness of ascension.

CAFÉ CULTURE appeared in ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE in January 2007.  Reprinted with the permission of Jack Dann.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

DAYLIGHT NOIR by Raymond Chandler, Catharine Corman and Jonathan Lethem

At the opening of The Lady In The Lake, Raymond Chandler writes: “The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.” Here’s Los Angeles playing the role of a Utopia—rubber sidewalks!—always on the verge of being rescinded, and melted back down in favor of guns or vehicles. If California’s place in American history is as a destination that is therefore also an ending, a dream-voyage’s foreclosure before tipping into the Pacific, Manifest Destiny become Manifest Distress, then Los Angeles is a bluff, a tenuous proposition, a place built so quickly that everyone’s nerves are still jangled from its sudden appearance and the obligation to act as though it actually exists. Notice Chandler’s first hesitation—the Treloar “was, and is,” on Olive—might his readers fear it had moved?
While we’re conducting this interrogation, who is that hatless pale man anyway, watching the work? He only has a face like a building superintendent, though of course there’s nothing in this remark that prevents him actually being one. More important, perhaps, is the man describing the man, the man obviously also watching, the Chandler-Marlowe presence that suffuses the scene in its omnipresent-unacknowledged, pale-shading-to-invisible way. What’s his stake in the Treloar and its rubber sidewalk? Hard to say, except that in Chandler the hardboiled style becomes above all a way of seeing, not so far from photography itself. Philip Marlowe’s ease of access across boundaries, his passage again and again into the scenes of love, strife and murder that fill Chandler’s books, reveal him as a kind of camera, or ghost. Making his elusive visitations, Marlowe becomes a presence whose movements, though momentarily subject to the holding actions of policemen or of human desire, are ultimately too lightly bound by these strictures to be more than briefly delayed. “Murder-a-day Marlowe” has always got another appointment to keep, another room or street to occupy in his insomniac catalogue of the false permanence of human arrangements. And, since this is Los Angeles, what he witnesses in the flash-bulb sunlight, the visionary, hallucinatory sunlight, is also the false permanence of the places these human lives have come to occupy, and the false indifference of those places to the human catastrophes enacted within their walls and borders. If architecture is fate, then it is Marlowe’s fate to enumerate the pensive dooms of Los Angeles, the fatal, gorgeous pretenses of glamour and ease, the bogus histories reenacted in the dumb, paste-and-spangles cocktail of style. Remove the dead bodies, and the living ones, as Catherine Corman has done in her own supremely evocative catalogue of haunted places, and the force of Chandler’s insight becomes even more terrifyingly urgent: these streets and buildings we have erected in order to give order to our solitudes, to keep them from being piled unbearably atop one another, they are actively trying to forget us. And what is a ghost, finally, but a kind of building superintendent? At least until the whole place is disassembled and converted into vehicles and guns.
Jonathan Lethem

Click here to pre-order Daylight Noir, Catherine Corman's book of photographs of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, due out October 31. You can see more from the series


The isle’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, countered popular Western imports during the ’50s and ’60s by exploiting the competition’s pulpy traits with its mukokeseki akushun (”borderless action”) films. Fusing hardboiled, Franco-American noir to modes as disparate as the rebel thriller and the Western, this action-oriented set includes titles by icons Seijun Suzuki and Takashi Nomura.

WHERE DO I GET THAT by Jay Gertzman

Where Do I Get That: The Book Stores on Desolation Row
When congressional committees in the 1950s investigated juvenile delinquency or the ways adult men indulged themselves in violence, thievery, prostitution, or drunken carousing, they blamed the popular mass entertainments and the downtown locations or main stems, where people came to enjoy let off steam. Easy scapegoats were the urban newsstand, drug store, cigar store, movie house, back date or “tourist” book store, and the magazines and books displayed there. People who, because young, working class, under-educated, under-employed, “under-privileged,” or sexually “deviant,” were under the eye of the moral entrepreneur. They were thought more likely to be negatively influenced by sensational reading material than “well-adjusted,” white collar, married, home owning Americans. Here’s an image of a Times Square bookstore in 1954:

situated where the heaviest foot traffic would be, at the grinder movie house showing the strippers, on Broadway (actually, just across the street from the taxi dance hall in Kubrick's Killer's Kiss). The perfect place to pick up a Goodis, John D Macdonald, Wade Miller, Benjamin Appel, or Willeford paperback.

Newsstands were the inevitable site of the “paperback revolution. Publishers, following the lead of Robert DeGraff of Pocket Books, had long treated books as magazines. The first purchase was by impulse. After that, readers chose what was similar to whatever had turned them on in the first purchase. The packaging (blurbs, cover, adverts) of Beacon, Newsstand, Chicago Paperback House is high pressure advertising that appeals to a common denominator (I won’t say “lowest”) of motives for reading. By 1950, with a saturated market, the tawdry image with which even firms such as Pocket, New American Library, and Bantam were increasingly being tarred made writers wonder if their books would even be accepted for review by established critics let alone sell well enough to fetch adequate royalties. Pressure from moralists meant pressure on news dealers. They would send whole shipments back if local authorities cited one or two titles. Therefore self-censorship became a chief method of maintaining a symbolic relationship with the moral authorities. Both the publisher-distributor and the moralist, therefore, continued to identify sex with shame and guilt, and violence (as well as prurience) with the larger category of indecency. Minor adjustments having been made, the sensationalism continues.

So did the symbiotic relationship between publisher and moralist. Complaints by moralists and adjustments by erotica producers kept these apparent adversaries in business. The morphing of the 50s erotic story into the "adult" soft core sex novel of the 60s is an example.
Times Square, and especially Forty-Second Street with its movie marquees like two ranks of leering soldiers one on each side of the street, were as renowned for noise as for neon. In the 30s and 40s there were pushcart hawkers, sandwich sign men, and paperboys, barkers for Burlesque shows and dime museums. Sellers ofThe Daily WorkerThe New Masses, and Social Justice added their voices. Sidewalk peddlers and their shills offered watches, radio parts, medicines, and razor blades. Vegetables and fruits spilled from pushcarts. During World War II,Times Square, the hub, or “main stem,” of subway, bus, and train traffic, vibrated to the swinging and swaying energies of GIs and their willing “Victory Girls.” “Pansies” and “androgynes,” taxi dance halls, and newsstands with girlie magazines and spicy detective stories gave 42nd Street especially the sound and look of the pre-war “Nickel Empire,” Coney Island.
In the late 40s and 50s auctions and bargain sales were held in ground floor auditoriums open to the street, music blared from record stores, and shoe shine boys shouted their trade. In the 60s and 70s “flyboys” handed out notices for the peep shows, prostitutes and drug dealers propositioned likely marks, and three-card monte games were everywhere. Alcoholics and bag ladies muttered; evangelist preachers were on their soap boxes day and night. Rotten fruit, cheap perfume, marijuana, greasy hamburgers, and car exhaust were, in one decade or another, typical air borne attention getters.
In 1954, the Board of Estimate responded to the complaints of the Times and the Merchants Association with more zoning changes which prevented new businesses of the most space-hugging, noisy, and garish types. The changes were also aimed at reducing the non sex-related outlets which had sprung up as satellites of the theaters, movies, and dance halls: “shooting galleries, skee-ball and amusement centers,” open-front stores and juice stands, sidewalk cafes, flower salesmen, ground floor auction rooms, record shops and taxi dance halls broadcasting loud music to attract attention, “lurid, sexy, and sadistic movie advertisements,” “gift shops of a junky nature,” and, mirabile dictu, “live turtle emporiums.” Are turtles sleazy? Maybe it was the decals on their shells. In any event, what took their place were the general-interest book stores,
which, because they carried hard boiled detective stories, non fiction about “sinful cities of the world,” and erotica (hot stuff under the counter), were called “tourist bookstores.” Prurient curiosity drew men from all parts of the US, and the five boroughs.
These outlets did bring with them the nuisance sounds of loudspeakers, barkers, peddlers, and bootblacks. Their customers were common people of all ages, be they white, black, brown, or yellow. The echoes of resentment they felt toward the disdainful owners and managers of upscale clothing stores, play houses, hotels, and financial institutions surely can be heard in the bitter voices of New Yorkers who despise the Giuliani-time banishment of all honky-tonk from Times Square.
The racial, class, ethnic, and national make up of that parade contributed to make a “Felliniesque” mystique out of the sleaze. It fascinated writers such as Jack Kerouac (The Town and the City, 1950) and William Burroughs, who befriended street hustler Herbert Huncke. Kerouac wrote of the inter-racial, zoot-suited or dungareed “cats and characters.” He and Alan Ginsberg found the late-night derelicts at the Pokerino mysteriously enduring, and archetypically Beat. Street life equally fascinated photographer Rudolph Burckhardt, who did two short documentaries on 42nd Street. The first, in 1967, captures a mostly Caucasian, conventionally dressed crowd; the second, in 1976, shows much more of an underclass Black and Hispanic counter culture. Adult Book Stores, Live Peeps, “Love Teams,” and flamboyant macks had replaced a more varied, midway type carnival with novelty and magic shops, dime museums, and juice stands.

Don de Lillo’s Running Dog (1978) depicts a scene in which “everybody’s in costume. Cowboys, bikers, drag queens, punk rockers, decoy cops, Moonies, gypsies, Salvation army regulars, process evangelists in dark capes, skinhead Krishna chanters in saffron robes and tennis sneakers, . . . glitter and trash everywhere. Hot pants, blonde wigs, slouch hats, silver boots. . . . Priests, doormen, movie ushers, French sailors, West Point cadets, waitresses in dirndls, Shriners wearing fezzes.” Michael Perkins (1984) tells us about “the hard-eyed young hustlers in tight jeans, the pimps, chicken hawks, skinny whores in high heels, transvestites, panhandlers and red-eyed bottle babies, bag ladies, drug dealers, junkies, derelicts, crazies, peddlers and small-change con men.
The title of this piece is an over statement, and an indulgence. One thing clear in Bob Dylan’s great song is the contrast between high and low, culture and vulgarity, refined and common. Cinderella, Ophelia, Romeo, Einstein, T S Eliot, Casanova are all outlawed, or having their faces rearranged (if they are lucky, by Bob Dylan). Respectable? You’d better leave. It’s going to rain, and the Carnival is starting. Dr Filth—he could be anyone. At midnight, the homeland security troops will come and it’ll be kerosene for anyone who knows more than they do. Wait, it’s already happened. Giuliani. Disney. Corp Bloomberg.