A Year In Books – September

The Jugger – Richard Stark
The House on the Borderland – William Hope Hodgson
Cockfighter – Charles Willeford
I Am Spartacus – Kirk Douglas
The Gulag Rats – K.N Kostov
Everybody Kills Somebody, Sometime – Robert J. Randisi

Also On The Pile

Augustus Seton, The Collected Chronicles – William Meikle
Alexander’s Heirs – Edward M. Anson

The Jugger – Richard Stark

Richard Stark is one of my favourite crime writers – for that matter one of my favourite writers regardless of genre – and the Parker books in particular are a hard-boiled joy.

In the Jugger, the sixth Parker novel, Parker finds himself reluctantly cast in the role of detective (after a fashion) when an old colleague is killed. Not that Parker cares particularly, but the death of a former safecracker (or jugger) leads to intrigue, blackmail and murder.

Unlike the previous books in the series, there is no heist, no professional job for Parker to undertake, but rather a very personal and professional danger, one which Parker, understandably, is keen to avoid. But when it does raise its head, Parker deals with it in that same cold-blooded and ultra-professional way that is his hallmark.

In some ways, The Jugger strays into Jim Thompson territory with its portrait of a corrupt, one-horse town and the main antagonist Captain Abner Younger might be seen as a distant relation of Thompson’s Lou Ford (although lacking Ford’s charisma and fierce intelligence).

Filled with lean, clipped prose and moving at a swift narrative pace, The Jugger is a fine addition to the series and one that ends on (for Parker) a shocking note, wiping out much that has gone before in the previous books and leaving him, as he has always ultimately been, a man alone.

The House On The Borderland – William Hope Hodgson

Perhaps not as well known these days as he should be, William Hope Hodgson was one of the 20th century’s most influential writers of weird fiction, not least because of his influence on H. P Lovecraft, who said of The House On The Borderland; “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality this book would be a classic of the first water.”

Presented as a lost manuscript discovered by two English gentlemen in the ruins of an old house in Ireland, The House On The Borderland tells a strange and disturbing story of shifting realities, of a universe spiralling down to its ultimate end and, to use the HPL vernacular, cosmic horror.

The manuscript describes the experience of the previous owner of the House, only referred to as the Recluse, and his encounters with strange pig-like creatures from another dimension, his surreal journey through the end of the universe and the ultimately untold fate that befalls him.

It’s a short but intense and vivid book and one which grips like a vice. Hodgson’s description of a dying universe are striking and horrific, the attack of the pig-creatures comes across as a prototypical version of Night of the Living Dead and a waking nightmare atmosphere permeates throughout.

In truth, it might have been a little churlish of Lovecraft to mention the ‘commonplace sentimentality’ of The House On The Borderland and, as it stands, the mentions of the lost love of the Recluse add a much needed note of humanity to what otherwise might have been an essay in cosmic abstraction. Certainly compared to the somewhat mawkish romance that pervades Hodgson’s unwieldy classic The Night Land, the romance here is a low-key one (due in part to the narrative device of ‘the lost pages’, so that what might have otherwise bogged down the book becomes a grace note rather than, as with The Night Land, the fundamental engine of the novel.

A stunning work and essential Hodgson.

Cockfighter – Charles Willeford

Silent Frank Mansfield is a cockfighter, one of the finest trainers of fighting birds in the South, and a man with a driving ambition to be crowned Cockfighter of the Year, a rare and intensely coveted award. An award he desires so much that he has taken a vow of silence until he wins it.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Charles Willeford’s remarkable novel, detailing Frank’s failures and triumphs, loves and losses as he works towards his ultimate goal. Yet there is so much more to Cockfighter than its seemingly straightforward and simplistic plot. This is Southern Gothic at its most intense, filled with detail, memorable characters and with the sights, sounds and smells of a brutal sport beloved by those involved in it.

In some ways an utterly cruel novel – the animals that Frank trains to fight are, ultimately, doomed to die, scratching, pecking and slashing at one another in little fenced-off pits – Cockfighter nevertheless is a compelling story and one which, by the end, offers a sympathetic portrait of what, for most people, is an utterly alien world.

Like Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood or the works of Eudora Welty this is the American South shorn of Hollywood’s rose tint and yet, paradoxically, almost a love letter to the sport of cockfighting and to the South in general, a world where a handshake represents an unbreakable agreement and honour, above all, is the thing that defines a man.

A fine and intense slice of Southern Gothic.

I Am Spartacus: Making A Film, Breaking The Blacklist – Kirk Douglas

I confess that I have a soft spot for Hollywood epics – Ben Hur, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra – those films that rewrote the past in glorious Technicolor, almost invariably featured British accents for the Romans, American accents for their opponents and, always, a cast of thousands.

Spartacus, released in 1960, is one of my favourites.

Starring Kirk Douglas in the title role, it also featured such acting luminaries as Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis and was directed by Stanley Kubrick.

I Am Spartacus tells the story of how the film was made, the difficulties faced by Douglas as both producer and star, not least of which had to do with the anti-communist atmosphere of America in the 1950’s in that bizarre and fear-drenched time which has become known as the McCarthy Era.

Part of the problem in bringing Spartacus to the screen was due to the fact that the original source material – the novel by Howard Fast – was written by a novelist who refused to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo who himself refused to be cowed by the HUAC. Both men would serve time in prison as a result and both found themselves on a notorious Blacklist which ruined the lives of so many creative individuals.

Add to this spiralling costs (Spartacus cost what was then the staggering sum of twelve million dollars) numerous rewrites (Fast’s original screenplay proved unusable) a change of director (Anthony Mann, better known as a director of – very wonderful – westerns, was replaced by Kubrick early on), reshoots to give the finished film more sweep and spectacle, a major cast change (Jean Simmons replaced the German actor Sabine Bethmann), the odd temperamental star (Charles Laughton was dismissive of virtually every aspect of the movie) and the enormous emotional strain that Douglas found himself under during the whole process, and it is a wonder that Spartacus reached the screen at all, let alone that it has emerged as a true classic of American cinema.

Although Douglas covered the making of Spartacus in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, I Am Spartacus is still a fascinating read, not least because of Douglas’ decision to put Dalton Trumbo’s name on the finished product as screenwriter. It was a decision that could have ruined his career, since anti-communist feeling remained high in America and in Hollywood. His courage and determination to give Trumbo his fair due resulted in a shattering of the Blacklist as others followed suit, bringing back into the Hollywood fold many writers and directors who had either been forced abroad or, in the case of Trumbo, forced to write under pen-names in order to continue to work and support their families.

A fascinating portrait of how films are made and a testament to the singular vision and courage of its star.

The Gulag Rats – K.N Kostov

The 1970s and early 80s saw an explosion of paperback publishing in the UK, truly a golden age of British pulp. Westerns, horror, historicals of every shape form and fashion from ancient Rome to the Second World War and beyond. The main things these novels had in common was that they were short, pacey and, generally speaking, extremely violent.

One of the writers prominent in the field was Charles Whiting who wrote under a variety of pen names, most (in)famously Leo Kessler, chronicling the exploits of SS Panzer Division Wotan and, as K.N Kostov, the exploits of Soviet Punishment Battalion 333.

The Gulag Rats is the second Punishment Battalion novel and sees the titular Gulag Rats (political prisoners, common criminals and various gutter sweepings pressed into military service against the invading Nazis as cannon fodder) pursuing the fleeing forces of the Third Reich into Poland and finding themselves involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Graphic violence abounds, as indeed does torture and rape, characterisation is sketchy but serviceable and the pace never flags.

It’s not a classic of British pulp by any stretch of the imagination and, indeed, Whiting/Kessler/ Kostov/ et al wrote other and better novels in his prolific career (he is credited with some 350 novels and apparently wrote at least six a year at his most productive) but if you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned war novel that won’t tax the mind or take too much time to read, you could do worse.

Everybody Kills Somebody, Sometime – Robert J. Randisi

Set in Las Vegas in the early 1960s, Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime is the first of Robert Randisi’s Rat Pack Mysteries, featuring reluctant investigator Eddie Gianelli and an all star supporting cast including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and walks on from John F Kennedy and Angie Dickinson.

When Dino starts getting anonymous threatening notes, Frank, as Chairman of the Board, seeks the help of Sands Casino pit boss Eddie Gianelli – aka Eddie G – since Eddie knows Vegas like the back of his hand. Cue savage beatings, beautiful dames, attempted and actual murder, all set against the bacchanal of the Rat Pack’s legendary Las Vegas Sands performances and the filming of Ocean’s 11.

A free-wheeling and hard boiled mixture of fact, fantasy and fiction, all with that Rat Pack cool, Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime is a hugely entertaining novel and Eddie G is a worthy addition to the tough guy canon.

Also on the pile:

Augustus Seton, The Collected Chronicles – William Meikle

A dozen tales of sword and sorcery featuring the titular sell-sword and set in Scotland in the late 1500s. Good modern pulp that knows its roots and available at a bargain price in e-book form. (Check out Amazon).

Alexander’s Heirs – Edward M. Anson

An extremely accessible account of the struggle for empire that followed the death of Alexander the Great. Edward Anson manages to untangle what is a very tangled history of warfare, treachery, murder and politics. Barry C. Jacobsen recently described the age of the Diadochi as ‘the Macedonian Game of Thrones’, a fairly accurate description.

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