By Max Allan Collins
In the Biloxi heat, a Vietnam vet turned hitman carries out the orders of his fixer, looking for revenge, but finding sex, betrayal, and blackmail in its wake.
Quarry – With nothing left after the war, Quarry fell in with the Broker, a man with an eye for violent talent. Southeast Asia hardened Quarry’s emotions until killing became no big thing, but he still tries to walk the righteous path. But how far does that line bend when his freedom is at stake?
“I guess I’m not your knight in shining armor anymore.”
Woodrow Colton (Mr. Woody) – The head of the Dixie Mafia’s guarded cruelty is one of his worst kept secrets. Running a mini empire of strip clubs and brothels comes with its own set of complications though. Woody’s second in command, Jack Killian, has ambitions stretching beyond the boundaries of the sleepy tourist towns dotting the Gulf and Woody implores The Broker to send someone capable of correcting his problems.
“I am determined to make you feel at home, son… Have you ever been to Biloxi before?”
“Then trust me on this one, son. Take my word, you will thank me to your dying day.”
Luann – A teenage prostitute pretending to be twenty-one, addicted to television and bad decisions. Luann’s instincts have served her well, and she does more than just seduce a reluctant Quarry. She correctly reads her opportunity to blackmail him into action, hopefully ensuring her freedom from a doomed life and his abstention from her execution.
She turned her eyes towards me. Such a light blue. Such a lack of interest.
“If you want sex, I’m okay with it.”
Jack Killian – There’s something honest about Killian’s quick temper and simmering fury, something Quarry, though he’s been assigned to murder the underling, respects. But respect only goes so far when money and blood are on the line.
“Politicians in Biloxi like their bread buttered on both sides, and my knife works both ways.”
Wanda Colton – As Woody and Killian juxtapose the difference between blatant and obfuscated brutality, so do Woody’s wife Wanda and Luann pair the two powers of sexuality, Luann young and energetic, and Wanda calculated and measured. She uses her wiles it to lock Quarry to the same alibi, and ultimately protect her own deceptions.
She got off me and went into the bathroom and washed up and came back and gave me a businesslike look, her head tilted. “So do we have an understandin’?”
“How many men have you killed, Quarry?”
“Here or overseas?”
“Over a hundred.”
“I would guess a sniper gets pretty cold-blooded about it.”
“Killing from a distance can get easy. I’ve don’t close up and personal to. It’s messier.”
The reason Quarry’s Choice works so well is also the very reason it likely only appeals to a limited audience. Mid-seventies post Vietnam settings are rarely this realized however, present but not overwrought in hair styles, and cars, and songs, and even décor. Collins, as usual, does a masterful job of placing his characters in a historical world dictated by his rules and perceptions. In Road to Perdition, his seminal graphic novel of depression era mobsters, the overriding theme of fathers and sons and the protections they can and cannot provide each other swell to the story’s surface, and the Model Ts and the rural county roads help set us in a distinct time with moral and social boundaries. Here too, Collins firmly establishes his setting so as his characters navigate its deadliness, we don’t roll our eyes at another jaded mobster’s wife or a tired teenage stripper turned prostitute.
Quarry’s trip to the Deep South starts with a simple assignment; kill Jack Killian, the second in command of the Dixie Mafia, a small outpost of organized crime on the Gulf. But halfway through his assignment, he’s killed two men, a woman, and he’s only ensured himself a job with both his target and his contractor. It’s here where Quarry’s Choice excels, amid the violence and betrayals of characters unhindered by today’s moral compunctions, characters firmly strapped by the gender roles and off-kilt danger of a scarred nation reeling from its first major military loss. Collins uses the period to not only drive his plot but also to subjugate growing themes within more modern crime fiction. This creates a wonderfully tight and enjoying read, but does little to expand or test a genre full of similar wonderfully irreverent works.
This is not to say there isn’t a disguised modernity here. On the contrary, the empowered women, Luann, the blackmailing little nymph wrapping Quarry around her finger, or Wanda, the sophisticated but sad empress, earn their keep among the bloody and testosterone filled pages. But the subtly of their power plays coupled with their limited page time (in Wanda’s case), may lead to an earlier exit for some of the less initiated.
Quarry’s Choice works because of all of the reasons pulp/crime fiction fans love. That this may be a barrier to others shouldn’t be a roadblock to its enjoyment. At under 300 pages, this swift and at times extremely witty novel is a breezy read on a hot summer day, enjoying Quarry fighting his way in and out of trouble while others are setting him up in their sights.
The Fade Out
By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
An actress strangled. A writer suffering from PTSD. A bungalow owned by a production company in its last gasp before the end of the studio system. The executives don’t care what happened, but maybe the writer does, and maybe he’s determined to find out, even if it means exposing his darkest secrets to a late 1940s Hollywoodland gripped by the Red Scare.
Charlie Parish – What war does to a man. A once promising screenwriter whose creative voice was silenced by the horrors of WW2. Already wracked by soldier’s guilt, he must find a way to cope with his complicity in letting the studio cover up Valeria’s death, knowing he was passed out drunk in the next room when it occurred.
“Well, I like you just fine. It’s just, I liked her too.”
“No … Not even close.”
Gil Mason – Another writer and early victim of Hollywood’s Red Scare, Gil was tagged as a commie and run out of town. He finds a way back in through his friend Charlie’s writer’s block. He needs to stay invisible. But spiraling alcoholism prevents his righteousness and talent from finding a better life.
“They take everything from me – Now they rape and kill this girl and --”
“They didn’t take everything from you, Gil.”
Victor Thursby – Studio head and possible sexual deviant with an eye for talent and a desire to keep his pictures on track and free of tabloid attention. His motives and morals remain hidden, perhaps even to himself.
“Why would you do that to yourself? You look like a child … Christ.”
Phil Brodsky – Head of the studio’s security, Brodsky understands a thing or two about discretion. In covering up Valeria’s death as a suicide, he is also charged with keeping everyone quiet, and he’ll do anything to keep the crickets chirping.
“Well think about that a bit harder next time, Asshole. You know how the old man feels about sympathizers.”
Valeria Sommers & Maya Silver – Two sides of the same coin. Valeria was murdered and Maya will replace her on set. Maya struggles to be something more than a sex toy for powerful men to get ahead, and within her trials, Valeria’s own tortured past is revealed.
“I don’t want to be famous, Charlie.”
“Then why’d you run off and join this circus?”
“Christ … I can’t even remember anymore.”
“Worse than the sick realization that someone was strangling this girl while he was passed out just twenty feet away, [is this]: He can’t call the police.”
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create another interesting, well wrought noir comic with absorbing characters and an original plot. The headline itself seems trite now. How do these two continuously challenge not only a comic genre that borders on hackneyed, but also push themselves to further heights?
Their latest work, The Fade Out, does just that. 1948 Los Angeles is perhaps the most overused setting in all of noir, but it’s also one of the most inspiring, and Brubaker skillfully renders it as the major set piece for the extensive research he has compiled on the era. No grizzled Marlowe-esque P.I.’s sleeping with dames, no drunken but good-hearted Bud White types on the beat, steaming for a fight or an arrest. Not here. The Fade Out steps away from the comfortable trappings of the police/P.I. procedural and embraces the murder mystery, delicately excluding the need for cops by putting his would-be hero in a compromising position from the onset, preventing him from relying on anyone other than himself to solve the inexplicable death of an up-and-coming starlet.
Appropriately, and unsurprisingly, Sean Phillips has cast the authenticity of 1940s LA as a major character. Nestled between the subtle dialogue panels and crying women, he delights viewers with cable cars, signage, and the pleasant accouterments of everyone’s favorite time in Hollywoodland. The suits, the dresses, the night clubs and drunken brawls, they are all here, and given loving treatment by one of the few masters of minimalism in comics today.
In some of their previous partnerships, we’ve seen Brubaker and Phillips tackle the modern crime tale in Criminal and combining the dark supernatural with noir in Fatale. Throughout both, we see strong characters and acute realism, but also, growing complexity. Brubaker’s yarns have always been interesting and multifaceted (See: Captain America), but it is a wholly different thing to touch on a multitude of characters, each with very limited panel time, and have the reader understand their value to the plot and at the same time, have them interesting enough to keep exploring. No doubt, Phillips’ closely rendered portraits help aid their urgency within the plot. At once repulsed and intrigued by Victor Thursby’s secret passage into his stars’ changing rooms, captivated by a two page flashback where Valerie and Maya commiserate on the audition process even though the reader knows one will die and the other will benefit, it is in these moments, the subtle characterization interspersed between the blood and fists that Brubaker’s universe comes alive.
The book’s only limitation is the same as Fatale’s. The episodic nature of single issues lessens the impact of key scenes and reveals without extensive re-reading. If only the entirety of the book could be eaten in one gulp, the way a proper pulp was always meant to be consumed. Understanding the economics of it all, it’d still be nice if twenty four issues of Fatale or the extent of The Fade Out were available in one sitting.
As it stands, we’re left waiting, wanting, trying to make sense of just who is that man standing with Ronnie Reagan, what does Clark Gable have to do with all of this, and of course, how and when will Gil and Charlie’s secrets unravel their friendship and ultimately their lives? Oh, and the murder too of course.
As with some of TDC’s previous reviews, those who are fans of the genre but not of comics would do well to see what the pillars of the community are doing. Creativity in the noir genre doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Not if Brubaker and Phillips have anything to say about it.
J. J. Sinisi
Are you an artist? Are you willing to get paid cash money for your illustrious talents (that was almost a pun but not quite)?
Welcome to TDC’s first artist calling! We’re looking for a talented and professional artist to bring the latest Street Light Story webcomic script to life. This is a three page story and if the collaboration goes well, there is opportunity for quarterly work. We will pay competitive rates.
Interested? Sure ya’ are. Send an introduction and sequential page samples to: firstname.lastname@example.org. In the spirit of sharing, the first page of this new script is attached here. And remember, head to the ‘Webcomics’ tab above to see what’s already been done and to get a sense of the style we’re looking for.
Now get drawing!
TDC Street Light Stories Presents:
By J. J. Sinisi
Panel 1: Close up of tense knuckles gripping steering wheel.
NARRATION: Sal Dobkin’s mind tallied calculations. A forty-three year old man was about 324 times more likely to die than the average seven year old.
Panel 2: Pull back a little. Looking over his shoulder, out at the windshield and the wipers swiping the rain. But the rain doesn’t exactly look like rain. Instead, they are numbers, raining in buckets.
NARRATION: The Force of Mortality.
Panel 3: Pull all the way out of the car. It eases down a suburban street, raining numbers.
NARRATION: His daughter Clara, a career woman in the field of risk management, had enumerated its precepts to him months ago.
NARRATION: Since the accident he couldn’t stop ruminating on it. It consumed him.
Panel 4: The car stops in front of a big attractive suburban house. The rain slims to little ones and zeroes, falling from the sky and fading before the ground.
NARRATION: He’d dream in the cold morning about his wife Sandra, sheathed in numbers. She was thirty seven when she passed. That wasn’t fair.
Panel 5: Low shot from behind, out of his back pocket we see a hammer hanging to the side. Beyond that is the mail box in the background, a faded 44 on the post.
NARRATION: His father appeared too, glasses a tilted figure eight atop his nose, a ninety year old man at his death, defying the odds.
Panel 6: Dark shot of Sal walking up the walkway of the house. The house is large in front of him, he is nearly a silhouette. All around him, the numbers fall like rain.
NARRATION: His dad’s number was probably even higher, given his time in the service.
Panel 7: Sal’s feet, he walks up a little step in front of the door.
Panel 8 (and 9 combined): Glen Anderson opens the door. He’s a perfectly average middle age white guy. Receding hairline, thin but not fit, wrinkled but not old. The back of Sal’s head is visible, curly gray hair. He’s wearing a collared shirt, as is Glen. They are two normal men on a normal night.
SAL: You’re forty three right?
GLEN: What are you doing here, Sal?
SAL: Just answer the question.
GLEN: I don’t have to talk to you. You’re not even allowed to be here. That’s what the court said.
END Page 1 of 3.
Double Hooks: A stagnant ex-athlete is forced into a life of crime by his unwillingness to make decisions. An ill-tempered vampire questions too much and hides too little, threatening to change the world.
Long before glittering vampires and bad boy werewolves were saving chaste girls without an opinion as to who they wanted to lose their virginity to, dark and terrible bloodsuckers roamed the fictional streets of New York City, getting blown in bathrooms and eating people’s tongues out. A quintet of novels, one for each festering borough, showed the world of noir just what cross-genre really meant. Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt wasn’t a misunderstood creature of the night, nor was he a nosferatu, cringing at the harsh daylight from the safety of his warrens, scaring the locals in Coney Island. He was grit, he was noir, he was the best and worst elements of Huston’s other original, and slightly better adjusted protagonist, Hank Thompson. Both men inhabited worlds rife with conflict and simmering with danger and hate.
If I saw something once that I can't explain, that doesn't make them real. And if a trick of the dark gave me a chill, that doesn't make them real. And if a madman says what's at the core of us all is a senseless, flapping quiver of black shade, that's just one more reason not to believe.
The thing of it is, Pitt and Thompson aren’t Huston’s best heroes, though they may be his best known. As the two men grind through eight books of beatings and baseball bats, eye gouges and broken knees, perhaps Huston’s most impressive feat, aside from somehow making us believe his malnourished and fading vampire is part of a larger community of infected psychopaths or that his onetime big league hopeful athlete is resourceful enough to evade and overcome a city full of gangsters, is the remarkable sense of place imparted throughout all his works. Sure, Huston lived as a California transplant and bartender, the most intrinsic type of New York there can be, for over a decade. But his Manhattan breathes in the obscure Inwood Hill Park, up in Harlem and divorced from the staid literary trappings of midtown. His Brooklyn rots in the alleyways on Mermaid Ave and not in Park Slope or Bed Stuy. His characters rummage through a city readers know but can’t possibly understand to such a level of detail, not unless they grew up there and worked there, and even then, they’d probably be hard pressed to name all of the exotic locales his characters have their teeth beat in. It’s not so much a tour of the city as it is an invitation down the dark side streets people pretend to ignore as they hustle their way to someplace safer.
Think about a night like that often enough, you'll ask yourself a lot of questions. Most of them about yourself. The kind of person you are. What you'll do and why and when you'll do it. What you believe in. What you really believe in.
The brutality of Joe Pitt’s trials and Hank Thompson’s tribulations aside, there’s a tenderness that Huston curates within them, his wonderful ability to keep us caring about a pair of people who, ostensibly both turn into homicidal street enforcers. But much like Tom Pitt’s novel Hustle (which TDC reviewed here back in November), the urgency of Joe’s next drink of blood and Hank’s need to get away from the terror he’s unwittingly stepped into, is never more than a few moments, or pages away. This necessity, to fill these characters’ great chasms of emptiness, becomes all encompassing and inform bad decisions at a rate the heroes cannot possibly overcome. In the gritty little lines between Hank’s gruesome discoveries of his dead friends or Joe’s hunger for blood ravaging his guts, we see desperation, deep hollow sadness, and most of all, the horrors of addiction and complacency and how they can move a person.
One day, when I am a braver man, I will tell her these things, and then I will look her in the eye tell her I love her and ask her to be only mine. But until that day, we're just friends.
But so what. A lot of great writers have a wonderful sense of place in their works. Chandler had LA and Izzo had Marseille, so sure, give New York to Huston. And addiction and complacency? Been there plenty of times. What else does Huston have?
Theme. The man does more with theme in his first ten pages than most noir writers do in two hundred. Caught Stealing, his first novel and the first in the Hank Thompson Trilogy, layers on the thematic elements so thick it threatens to strangle the reader. Hank is an ex-baseball prospect whose budding career was done in by an ill-fated attempt at stealing third base and then further shattered by a terrible car accident. Now, alone and adrift in the big city, miles away from his California home, he’s tasked with watching a neighbor’s cat, and unwittingly the cash the neighbor’s stolen from local thugs. From there, an on-the-rails action adventure rolls from the station but this idea of having something taken, of the world asserting its violence to rob a person of their virtue, or their possessions, or their girl, or their parents, of having everything taken before its time, pervades the entire novel.
Hank’s problems don’t get any better after he leaves New York, and in book two, Six Bad Things, and book three, A Very Dangerous Man, the story and thematic elements shift, but he never relinquishes his fundamental essence of where this unique character comes from, whether it’s calling his parents or escorting a young baseball phenom around casinos, Hank’s a hard wired good fellow, despite the car chases and murdering, the best of which is a brutal fight in a scalding hot shower with a tweaker in a mobile home.
I fall back to the floor and he kicks me a few times in the back and the legs, then he gets down on his knees straddling my body, and pummels my arms and torso as I try to cover my face. And then he’s done.
A deepening conspiracy in a clan driven vampyre [sic] society defines the outside-looking-in loss of control Joe Pitt struggles against in the five novels comprising Huston’s Joe Pitt Case Books. Each clan comprises different types of vampyres, each with their own philosophy on life, death, and the ascendency of their race. Huston does an elegant job of sliding the pieces around the board but still giving his character agency within the plot machinations. Whatever horror tropes threatening to pull these novels down, secret societies, unknown super naturals just below the surface of real life, a plan to subjugate the human race, they are all beaten into obscurity by Pitt’s daily, and at times hourly, struggle to survive a political game so much bigger than him all he can do is gnaw at his superiors ankles to see what happens. Reservations about the fantasy content of these novels go unrealized, they are noir and Huston never lets us forget it.
With a squeeze and a twist and a pull I could mash her radius and ulna and tear her hand from her arm and drop it I her lap and walk out with her screams as a soundtrack.
I chose these two series to review not because I think they are the best examples of Huston’s work (The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of the Dead is probably tops there), but because I hate vampire stories. I mean, really hate them. Hate them so much I almost reconsider submitting my writing to sources that actually accept vampire stories. And as far as Hank Thompson is concerned, outside of the PI, I’m not sure there’s a more played out noir plot than wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet in both instances, Charlie Huston is able to bend expectations and challenge genre boundaries. That is what’s most impressive about Huston. A lack of innovation can threaten any industry, any pursuit, adapt or die and all of that. With Huston in its corner, crime fiction has an ally for life against complacency.
TDC Buckshot Reviews,
Written by JJ Sinisi
A hired professional killer teeters on the edge of moral corruption and must try to stem the loss of his humanity against a backdrop of deceit and corruption.
“If you ask me, every man, at every moment of his life, whatever he does, should be ready to face death.”
“I like her. She’s good for me. Asks no questions, has no expectations. No idea what goes on in her head. Suits me just fine.”
“Are you telling me you whacked this guy before you read his damn notes? Before you even knew he was a cop?!”
“You were right. It wasn’t easy.”
“If you really think about it, we’re all murderers one way or another. Any life, whatever it is, requires a kind of permanent violence to take its place in the world; it can only blossom at the expense of other living things.”
Any story of a professional hitman is a sexy one. Indeed, on a boring plane ride out of South America and back to civilization, The Killer and one of his few associates, Mariano, discuss the assassin’s place in pop culture. Mariano, Godson to a cartel kingpin, laments the treatment of drug dealers in movie culture. They are the dirtbags, he says, and it’s the hitmen the masses go wide eyed for. The Killer’s response? The difference between real life and movies is that in real life, the hitmen don’t always die in the end.
It’s an interesting revelation and one which defines a book that attempts at all times to circumvent the preconceived notions of a genre replete with every size and shape of hired professional murderers. This is not a hitman who plays by a set of rules he never deviates from. Nor is he someone who won’t target innocents, or who cares about the well being of non-combatants. Expedition of the job is of utmost importance, second only to survival. At various points, the easiest and smartest way out of a situation, be it to prevent getting caught or simply helping a cover story, is the route taken. If a hit needs to be made an example of, he’s shot in the bed with his lover, and she is off’ed too, because, well, witnesses. In the climax of the first issue, The Killer attempts to snipe a target, and his scope is repeatedly filled by obstacles: body guards, wives, friends, innocents on the street. He shoots his way through all of them to resolve his prey.
“Man’s history is just an endless list of atrocities and we’re not even through with it.”
The difficult part for the writer in all of this, and one that Matz handles with startling ease, is making the reader actually care what happens to this deplorable man. To open, we find a professional unraveling, unable to decipher friend from foe, no longer capable, or willing, to make any decision that doesn’t directly relate to his survival and finishing a job. Indeed it is the main character’s attempt at healing, of unwinding and resetting, that draws the reader further into his mind and ultimately, forces the most basic question of the book to surface. Do we hate this man for his depravity, or can we empathize with his feelings if not his actions?
The Killer opines about conquistadors and European aggressors and about the subjugation of the Native Americans and about crocodiles. Killers, all of them. Loners. Survivors. Being well learned and self aware gives him the vision to see his kind has existed from before recorded history and will live on after all of the other sheep have been led to the slaughter.
“Sometimes I think it’d be fun to shoot them all. But that’d be dumb. I mean, where’s the profit? Shit. I’m losing it again.”
Though this book is up to four collections long, I encourage you to take it a little at a time, as each volume provides a glimpse into the building up or breaking down of The Killer’s mental state. His girlfriend, whom initially seems like nothing more than a secondary character bound to be shot in the wrong firefight, actually serves a much greater role. She becomes us, the lucid and very curious side of the regular person who is both intrigued and at times frightened by the implications of this man’s very existence. Through her eyes, the eyes of his protégé Mariano, and other friends and enemies, the various collections of this book gain their distinct identities and should be handled as wonderfully contained yarns, yet episodic in nature.
“In this job, the toughest part is the loneliness. You can meet people but you can never get too close … But I don’t know how different it is from regular people’s lives.”
Though it comes as no surprise, the art compliments the story’s erratic state of mind. Paris is at all times lovingly detailed as only someone with intimate knowledge of its side streets and byways, or with meticulous care for his craft, could possible execute. I suspect Luc Jacamon has ample stock in both. Particularly striking are his lighting choices, monochromatic pallets help understate quiet moments and highlight the few times love and lust supersede the heavy dose of death this book brokers in.
Ultimately do we cheer for this man to succeed, or do we quietly hope for a dramatic downfall? Matz makes sure neither of those questions is easy to address, and yet both are easy to answer. Yes and yes. We want to see more, we want him to avenge his double crosses, to sniff out the traps, and similarly, in some way, we hope he gets his in the end. Because if he does, we get to go to bed at night thinking justice trumps all, and we have nothing to do with any of the horrible things we’ve all endorsed just by living and surviving.
“There is a God for everyone. There is a fair reward and the same punishment for all, paradise and hell.”
J. J. Sinisi
Blog Author Bios:
J. J. Sinisi started TDC and is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating and reviewing crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Mag, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive and others.