Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Planet Hip-Hop has always overflowed with folks into various forms of
pulp culture. Over the years, I’ve interviewed many rap artists and
producers who shared their love for Star Wars, crime movies, karate
flicks and the novels of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Still, I was
surprised when Queensbridge legend Nas told me in 1999 that he had
once created a Black Pulp hero when he was a kid.
“I used to used to draw my own character called Sea God,” Nas told me.
“I copied the body of Conan the Barbarian, but had him standing on the
corner instead of in the forest.” Without a doubt, I’m sure Nas isn’t
the only one with a stash of drawings and/or writings detailing the
bugged adventures of urban champions.
Last year, when respected crime novelist/comic book writer Gary
Phillips invited me to contribute a short story to his latest project
Black Pulp (Pro Se, 2013), co-edited with Tommy Hancock, I immediately
thought of that long ago conversation with Nas and decided I too
wanted to create a hood hero.
Leaning back in my office chair, I closed my eyes and thought of my
own pulp filled childhood growing-up in Harlem: of listening to old
Shadow radio programs that were released on records, watching
blaxploitation and kung-fu flicks every weekend, devouring the
Marshall Rodgers/Steve Englehart’s version of Batman, discovering the
weird worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, watching
Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon serials on PBS and falling in love with the
work of pulp artist supreme Howard Chaykin, the dude George Lucas
requested to illustrate the first Star Wars comic book.
After an hour of drifting on those dusty memories, quicker than I
could say, “Batman and Robin, Green Hornet and Kato or Easy Rawlins
and Mouse,” my own pulp heroes Jaguar and Shep were born. The lead
character Coltrane (Jaguar) Jones owns a Harlem rap club called the
Bassment and drives through Harlem cool as Super Fly in a fly sports
car. His murderous friend Shep, who just got out of prison, becomes
his badass sidekick as the two self-appointed crime fighters go in
search of a music minded kidnapper.
Although I’ve never been big on constructing strict outlines for
fiction, I knew that I wanted the period to be 1988, the last year
Mayor Koch was in office. Crack was at its height, Public Enemy’s
brilliant It Takes a Nation of Millions was rockin’ the boulevards,
Dapper Dan was creating his bugged designer fashions and New York City
was still on the verge exploding.
Recalling Fab 5 Freddy, who also appears in the story, telling me
about the jazz/hip-hop shows he did with Max Roach at the Mudd Club in
the 1980s, the finished story told the tale of a be-bop lover trying
to rid b-boys and their music from the streets of Sugar Hill.
While working on the story, I consulted with my good friend Robert
(Bob) Morales, himself an accomplished comic book writer, co-creator
of the black Captain America graphic novel The Truth and a pulp
culture aficionado. Although he was working on a graphic novel about
Orson Welles at the time, he always found the time to talk. Once, when
I thought the Paul Pope/John Carpenter-Escape from New York inspired
climax might be too crazy, Bob reminded me, “It’s a pulp story…there’s
no such thing as too wild.”
So, after several weeks of calling Bob, sometimes a few times a day,
and writing, “Jaguar and the Jungleland Boogie” was finally finished.
Sadly, Bob Morales died suddenly on April 17, so I’d like to dedicate
the story to him.
In addition to my b-boy/be-bop tale, Black Pulp has a cool line-up of
creators of color that include famed novelist Walter Mosley, who
penned the introduction, Gar Anthony Heywood, Christopher Chambers,
Kimberly Richardson, Mel Odom and others.
Black Pulp: (UK)
Walter Mosley introduction:
On B-Boys and Pulp Culture: Black Pulp edited by Gary Phillips and Tommy Hancock
by Michael A. Gonzales
Sunday, 16 June 2013
A quick plug. Mr Suit (US $3.79) is now down to the price of £2.99 for the paperback. Here's the link.
Now, far more importanlty, here are some thoughts on Mulliner Nights.
Here’s a book that glitters. It sparkles with humour and the quality of writing and the pure pleasure that comes across in the telling of this collection of tales.
Mulliner hangs about in The Angler’s Rest chewing the fat, only there is no fat in the book, rather it’s all lean meat.
Whatever the subject, Mulliner can relate a tale of one of his relatives who has experienced something similar.
There are common threads that possibly relate to the gene pool: the wooing of a ladies, sturdy butlers, gentry, a slightly dizzying ineptitude, swirling messes and genius solutions.
As the blurb says, there are a range of subjects covered. Each of them seems rather implausible, but as soon as the tales begin they live and breathe like the best of them.
Reading these stories is as close to pure joy as you’ll find in a book.
The humour drips from the situations and the characters so that I doubt there are many who could read them with a straight face or, indeed, without blurting out the odd titter. Wodehouse can bring a smile simply through his choice of a name.
The sharp wit and repartee is ever present.
The simile is raised to the level of art.
What is particularly pleasing is the way it feels like the author could sit at a typewriter all day, day after day, and produce page after page of the most perfect prose as easily as he might breathe or eat strawberries.
If there are faults in this one, I can’t find them and I don’t really care. Spot them and please don’t bother to point them out to this reviewer as I would rather keep the memory of pure pleasure with me for as long as I can.
Chapter 8. Strychnine In The Soup.
Mulliner Nights Kindle (US)
Thursday, 13 June 2013
In the film 'Notes On A Scandal', Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchette) is a beautiful teacher who arrives to work in a secondary school early on in her career. She immediately incurs the suspicion of Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench), a rather long in the tooth battle-axe who isn’t far from retirement.
Barbara tells the story via her regular diary entries. At the beginning, they’re nothing out of the ordinary, but as the plot unfolds a sinister, bitter undertone is slowly revealed.
Sheba and Barbara become friends. It’s a relationship that is to become extremely twisted given Barbara’s unhealthy motives.
As their friendship grows, Barbara soon manages to worm her way into Sheba’s family life and begins to sense feelings in her friend that might not actually be there.
When Barbara discovers that a Sheba is having a sexual relationship with an under-age pupil, things heat up and the plot thickens nicely.
I really enjoyed this flick.
The setting had me feeling nostalgia for my own North London days, but it also had me thinking of older films, often French noir – very unsettling, slightly claustrophobic, tense and complex.
It’s all helped by some extremely good performances by all. The two main characters are extremely well played and caused my loyalties to split as morals melted and blurred along the way.
There’s a creepy tension to the plot and a real sense of the pain of the two women from their very different perspectives that makes this well worth a watch.
A great way to spend a Saturday night.
Friday, 7 June 2013
A Healthy Fear Of Man (US) is the second in a series of Paul Little books. I must confess to have skipped the first, but that puts me in the position of being able to highly recommend this book whether you read ‘The Science Of Paul’ or not. This book has very strong legs and can definitely stand alone.
PAUL LITTLE has inherited his grandfather’s house and land and is living in it as a total outcast. When visitors arrive, he does his best to shun them no matter what their intentions. There’s a little girl (GILLY) who want to fish in his pond, there’s a young African lady (LUISA) who wants to give him free meals from the church and there’s an old-timer and ex-sheriff (BO). He does his best to keep them away, but for various reasons they refuse to listen.
The good news for Paul is that he’s finally coming close to finding peace in his life, even if that means barely surviving from what he can eat from the land and has lost any real need to keep his personal hygiene routines up to scratch. The bad news is that Gilly is found dead in his pond one morning and he’s the main suspect, predominantly because he’s black and living in a backward county in North Carolina.
Bo, indebted to Paul’s grandfather for saving his life way back, joins Paul in his attempt to clear his name and Louisa has a big heart that means she can’t help but join the team.
What follows is a series of brutal encounters as corrupt politicians, vengeful brothers, loose policemen and wild drug dealers are all sucked into the action as Paul stirs up the muddy waters.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s thought provoking and gripping at the same time.
Aaron Philip Clark can really handle plot and back up his ideas with well-written action sequences. As the novel plays out, he keeps a steady hand and right through to the end.
What I found particularly impressive, though, was the opening third of the book where things are set up. It’s a wonderful beginning, where Paul Little has cut himself off from the world to find an uneasy peace. He’s become a scavenger, but his life experience has prepared him well for the hardships he encounters. He stays away from people, for it is people who add complication to life. Relationships are tough, so in keeping people away, he’s safer and life is easier. And being alone is safe; by avoiding others he is able to keep his darker self under wraps:
‘I once had a beast inside me, one whose nature at times even eluded me, but since being on the land it appears the beast has been beaten into submission and these days it is still.’
Paul has a fear that when he gets close to people, what he has is contagious:
‘People around me...they catch hell – they catch it like a sickness.’
Unfortunately for Paul, he’s all too human. Isolation isn’t going to work because people aren’t going to leave him alone. This means he forms attachments to people and develops feelings for them in spite of his intentions. As soon as these feelings take root, he is returned to the complications of social existence With these building relationships come responsibilities, so when Paul tries to find out who killed Gilly, he is eventually more motivated by finding the murderer for her rather for the sake of his freedom.
Paul Little has a very positive view of human life, even though on the surface it may seem bleak. We’re all capable of making rash decisions or of acting entirely by animal impulse. Eventually, some people are going to end up getting caught when they’ve lost it:
‘For some, all it takes is one bad day, one bad decision – a crime of passion is what the cops call it, others call it temporary insanity – I call it human nature.’
A Healthy Fear Of Man is a serious book that’s a hell of a lot of fun to read.
I may be reaching here, but I was reminded of Ralph Ellison and his ‘Invisible Man’ in the early stages. Clark may have even offered a tiny reference point here as Paul Little talks about advice his grandfather gave him about being a black man:
‘You’ve got to keep invisible, boy. Stay out of the law’s view. They can’t kill what they can’t see.’
If Paul Little is being invisible, can he still have an impact upon a society where justice is multi-faceted, the law is corrupt, where people are struggling to get by and where racism is prevalent?
The biggest message in the book, the way I see it, is to all of us.
Should we go about congratulating ourselves on the progress the world has made over the years? Has racism been put to bed so that the world lives together as one happy family? In nations where laws are set and seem equal on the surface, is this equality carried through in all pockets of that nation?
Of course not. We need to be vigilant, active and avoid complacency. Take me, for example. I write about a black author and cite Ellison - is that something I need to check myself for (I still think that cap fits, though, and maybe you could let me know).
The book points a finger at the Southern States of the US and challenges them to find out whether the New South with all of the rosy connotations, isn’t just the Old South with a flaking coat of paint.
Which is where I find myself going out of my depth.
It’s a great book. One to be enjoyed and to be considered. Very good indeed.
Wednesday, 5 June 2013
If you’re the author of a well-loved character and that character has aged along with his or her fans, how can a new story idea be effectively written? The idea of James Bond limping around with a Zimmer frame and needing the toilet every half an hour isn’t immediately appealing.
Over the last year, I’ve read 3 books that have taken on this problem by writing from the point of view of the protagonist introducing a story, then retelling it as if it were just another book in the series.
George Pelecanos did it with ‘What It Was’, Reed Farrel Coleman in ‘Onion Street’ and Lawrence Block in ‘A Drop Of The Hard Stuff’. I must say that in all these instances, the result has been a delight and so the method must work.
I must confess that when I read the first few pages of ‘A Drop Of The Hard Stuff’ I had a slightly negative reaction. The preface seemed a little clunky and contrived and I wondered if Mr Block had finally written a Scudder novel that I wasn’t going to enjoy. That’s a huge thing to say and I want to berate myself already for typing those words. It’s a simple thing to correct the error of my ways, however, as the book took off as soon as the story proper began.
Matt Scudder hooks up with a man he used to know (High-Low Jack) when they grew up together in the Bronx. In part it has that feel of an old movie where 2 men take very different ways (think O’Brien’s priest to Cagney’s gangster). They grew up on the same side of the tracks, but somehow ended up on different trains.
A number of years later their paths cross at an AA meeting.
It turns out that Jack is much further advanced in the AA programme than Matt; Matt is about to complete his first year sober and Jack is already at the ninth-step of the famous twelve-step program.
Being at the twelfth step means that High-Low Jack is working on making amends, seeking out those he’s harmed over the years and apologising.
It turns out that Jack has been in prison and has led the life of a low-life. He’s got a lot to make up for, including a murder.
Unfortunately, while trying to put the world to rights Jack ends up scaring someone into killing him. Jack’s sponsor, a step-Nazi, feels responsible for the death and asks Matt to investigate.
The story unfolds with the usual ease, like Mr Block has simply pushed cruise control. The writing is smooth, the hooks sharp and catching and the story utterly captivating.
As with all Matt Scudder books, the case itself is only half of the story. The other half is Scudder’s day to day life and his thought processes.
In this book, much of the focus is upon the ups and downs of a reformed alcoholic. Booze features heavily in the book in a variety of ways and I found this aspect of the novel really interesting.
There’s a line-up of brilliantly written characters, including some old favourites, there’s a love interest or 2 and there’s the usual fun and games with word-play.
My early worries were completely unfounded. It’s a special book. I’d recommend it to all Scudder fans (though I don’t think they’ll need telling), to all fans of detective fiction and to anyone who loves a strong story or wants to have a very real sense of where a book is set.
I’d also suggest that this would be a good place to start if you’re thinking of meeting Matt Scudder. I think it would leave you hungry for more and looking for the first of the Scudder (‘The Sins Of The Fathers’) books and every one since.
A terrific read.
Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Great news in today that the superb anthology has now raised a total of $1,754.69 to the Protect organisation.
This is an amazing achievement and I'd like to celebrate it by mentioning that if you buy a copy you'll be helping do even more good.
You can find out lots about the book and the idea behind it at http://the-lost-children.blogspot.co.uk/
Just in case it's slipped your mind or, in case you're hearing about the project for the first time, here's the line-up:
PROTECTORS includes a foreword by rock critic Dave Marsh, and fiction by Patti Abbott, Ian Ayris, Ray Banks, Nigel Bird, Michael A. Black, Tony Black, R. Thomas Brown, Ken Bruen, Bill Cameron, Jen Conley, Charles de Lint, Wayne D. Dundee, Chad Eagleton, Les Edgerton, Andrew Fader, Matthew C. Funk, Roxane Gay, Edward A. Grainger, Glenn G. Gray, Jane Hammons, Amber Keller, Joe R. Lansdale, Frank Larnerd, Gary Lovisi, Mike Miner, Zak Mucha, Dan O'Shea, George Pelecanos, Thomas Pluck, Richard Prosch, Keith Rawson, James Reasoner, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, Gerald So, Josh Stallings, Charlie Stella, Andrew Vachss, Steve Weddle, Dave White, and Chet Williamson.
It's available in the US via Amazon, as well as in the UK.
It's also available as a paperback.
Thanks for the support.
Monday, 27 May 2013
I like the idea of a prequel when it relates to something I really enjoy. Private Investigators certainly come into that category. The next book on my list is ‘A Drop Of The Hard Stuff’, where I hope I’m going to find out a little more about one of my favourite characters, Lawrence Block’s creation Matt Scudder.
This time around it was another New York detective, Moe Prager, who I was getting to know better. As well as the similarities between Prager and Scudder, there are also big differences. Prager is from Brooklyn and he’s Jewish, which are 2 aspects of his being that make him very distinctive.
In ‘Onion Street’, Prager sits with his daughter and tells her about how he became a cop.
We know early on that it has something to do with his best friend in college, Bobby Friedman, and that there’s going to be plenty to tell. In part, his thought processes relate to ‘what might have been’ if life hadn’t followed the path it did.
Bobby Friedman is the son of a radical, communist, immigrant family. He’s the exception among a college crowd who have been politicised by America’s role in Vietnam and the possibility that they might be drafted in that he’s very much into free enterprise, dabbling here and there in anything that will make him money.
On the night that Moe bails Bobby out of jail (due to suspicions about the death his girlfriend), Moe finds his own girlfriend (Mindy) in a terrible state. The only things he can get from her are sex and a warning to stay away from Bobby.
The next day, a car attempts to kill Bobby and it’s a good job for him that Moe has ignored Mindy’s warning.
Before Moe can get to the bottom of things, he finds out that Mindy is in a coma having been attacked in the street.
The warning she gave him and the unusual string of events leave Moe desperate to find Mindy’s attacker and also to find out the truth.
As he investigates, he becomes entwined in business that is extremely dangerous. People around him seem to get hurt or killed as he follows his instincts and each open door leads him into a darker and more sinister corridor. It’s not long before his own life is in jeopardy and he has to rely on his street-smarts to help him get through his speedy transition to adulthood. Unfortunately for him, his street-smarts aren’t quite what he thought they were:
“You grow up in Brooklyn, you like to think you’re tough, that your skin is thick and concrete hard and that you come out of the womb all grown up and prepared for anything life can through at you; [but] I wasn’t any tougher or any more prepared for the darts life throws at you than a Kansas farm boy.”
Getting to know Moe in his early years is often a treat. He’s feeling his way the best way he can and his decisions aren’t always as sensible as his older self might make. This does create a slight difficulty for author and reader in that young Moe needs to go through long thinking processes from time to time, and this sometimes has a circular feel to it. It does also lead to several incidents where the reader seems well ahead of the would-be detective. That said, we’re not in the hands of the protagonist but in the care of a skilled author and the way the labyrinth has been built and then navigated keeps things moving along pretty nicely.
As the plot twists and turns, any sense that there might be a predictable ending to the book has gone and all bets on working what might happen are off. What I can tell you is that Moe sticks to the task admirably and it’s clear that he’s a natural.
There’s a lot to enjoy here. I love the little Jewish asides which are inserted to add a strong flavour to the piece. I also really like the sense of Brooklyn and what it might have been in 1967 and it does feel like it is a crucial element to both this story and to Moe’s future. It’s also fascinating seeing a young man start off on his journey into police and detective work, especially when this path emerges so organically from circumstance.
It’s a book that many Moe fans will enjoy. It’s also one that newcomers might find interesting and, in case they don’t already know, there’s a lot to come if they become hooked. Onion Street may not be my favourite Moe Prager investigation, but I'm more than glad I joined him on this journey.