Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Books: Around The Horn

I’ve had my reasons for not updating the blog lately. (On the bright side, they’re good reasons. Very good.) Time to surface and recommend several recent books that span the decades. Two decades, anyway.

Joseph Koenig’s Really The Blues plays out in Paris, 1941. The Nazis have claimed the city, not that ex-pat jazzman Eddie Piron cares. His combo Eddie et Ses Anges performs every night at La Caverne Negre, and “as long as he had a steady gig, the world could keep going straight to hell.” He doesn’t even mind that the SS officers who are supposed to be stamping out the devil music he plays are now his steadiest customers. But when Eddie’s regular drummer turns up dead, the crime draws the attention of a particularly cunning Nazi officer new to the City of Light, one willing to squeeze Eddie to ferret out the truth. It’s Eddie’s bad luck that a fellow American abroad who knows the reason why the musician is in no hurry to return Stateside puts the screws to him at the same time. Eddie’s either going to have to stick his neck out for somebody, or stick it in a noose. The third act may lean on Inglourious Basterds-style heroics too much, but the book crackles with mood and energy throughout. Eddie Piron is a compelling protagonist, an aptly fractured guide to a fractured place.

Blacklist by Jerry Ludwig unspools in 1959 on the other side of the world, where shadows from the war still fall. David Weaver returns to Los Angeles after growing up in exile to bury his father, a screenwriter destroyed by the Communist witch hunt. David doesn’t expect a hero’s welcome, but he would appreciate work in the only business he knows. Opportunity comes courtesy of an unlikely source – Leo Vardian, his late father’s partner, who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and is now a successful director. A suspicious David takes the job mainly to return to the good graces of Leo’s daughter Jana, the only woman he’s ever loved. Hounding David’s chance at happiness is Brian McKenna, an FBI agent chafing at his Tinseltown tenure now that the Reds have been rounded up and agitating to serve at the right hand of J. Edgar Hoover. His potential ticket out comes in the form of a series of murders, every victim somehow tied to the blacklist – with David Weaver as likely avenging angel. Veteran TV writer Ludwig paints a vivid portrait of Los Angeles as a company town and smartly conveys the costs of the Red scare on an intimate level. He also creates some fascinating false history, like a choice cameo by Sterling Hayden and a description of “the only full-scale comedy John Garfield ever did” that sounds completely believable.

Linking both the 1940s and ‘50s is The 101 Best Film Noir Posters by Mark Fertig. Mark is a colleague at Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife Josie at a signing and reception this past weekend at Fantagraphics Books here in Seattle. For years Mark has curated the finest examples of the noir poster form at his blog Where Danger Lives, and he and Fantagraphics have turned that work into a stunning book. The posters are reproduced in all their lurid, breathtaking glory. My personal favorite may be Force of Evil, which abandons the fool’s errand of attempting to capture Marie Windsor’s sensuality in painted form and just shoehorns a photograph of her into the corner. Mark’s shrewd assessments of every film don’t shy away from controversy; he expresses his doubts about including Leave Her To Heaven, and (correctly, I think) calls D.O.A. “more noteworthy than good.” Clear shelf space, noir fans, because this book is an essential.