Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Malice in the Middle

At Ransom Notes I'm talking marital woes, most not my own, the kind that lead to spousal disposal with extreme prejudice. I read a great book a couple weeks ago, Misadventure by Millard Kaufman that features such a union and while the set up is hardly unique, the book's gleeful sleazy-ness is bracing like a strong cuppa in the morning. Kaufman died during the editing stages of the book, only his second though he was in his early nineties, and geez it makes me wonder why I tend to dismiss the elderly the same way I do the very young - what do they know? Millard - I apologize and thanks for underscoring my prejudice. I'd blush writing some of this stuff.

McSweeney's is not the first publisher I turn to for crime fiction, but Ima have to go back through their catalog more carefully. And speaking of those folks, I'd like to say that I was reminded how nice it is to read a quality book and I'm talking about the book - the binding, the pages, the jacket. The words make the book, but the craft and quality of the physical tome made it seem like, I dunno, a spa-day for book junkies. It was easily the best feeling book I've read since the Dennis McMillan published and edited Measures of Poison.

Okay, enough fruitiness. The set-up: Jack, our protagonist of questionable character, succumbs to the wiles of a married woman in the first few pages and not many more after she's hit him up to help her get rid of her husband. Of course her husband is abusive and deserves it. He also happens to be obscenely rich and successful and that's the real appeal - killing your betters, those who have, because of their moral deficiencies, obtained what should be yours - of her offer. But Jack's delicate sensibilities are offended and he stalls on committing to anything rash.

Next thing he knows, the idiots who own the company Jack works for have a buyout offer from the very man he's supposed to be plotting to kill and Jack has to take a meeting with his quarry. Turns out he's been sold a lie, go figure. He's a charming man who wears his success with grace and even better, recognizes in Jack a great potential that Jack's philistine bosses can't see. Jack starts working for him directly, being trusted with sensitive and important assignments (like bribing the family of the fourteen year old Mexican immigrant girl he's infatuated all to hell with) that Jack correctly guesses are trial runs for the big job which turns out to be... wait for it... you don't need me to spell this out for you, do you?

Yeah, you've read this kind of thing before, like John Ridley's scorching debut Stray Dogs, (basis for Oliver Stone's U-Turn - remember when Jennifer Lopez was sought after by the likes of directors like Steven Soderbergh and Bob Rafelson?) as well as the first and best three films from John Dahl - Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. It's as much a staple as playing both sides against the elusive middle. Think of it as marital Yojimbo.

While this is only Kaufman's second novel, (better believe I'm going to look for Bowl of Cherries now), he was a successful screenwriter for decades even picking up a couple of Academy noms for Bad Day at Black Rock and Take the High Ground! He was also the front for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo on the noir classic Deadly is the Female. Trumbo wrote many scripts while blacklisted using a number of fronts. One of my favorites of these is The Prowler which is not available on DVD, but I was fortunate enough to catch when Eddie Muller brought it to the St. Louis International Film Festival a couple of years ago.

Martin Ritt, (Hud, Hombre), directed a good film about the blacklist, 1976's The Front starring Zero Mostel as a blacklisted writer and Woody Allen as his titular prop. Allen's character brought before the HUAC boards at the end delivers a great balance of nebbish and backbone in his final suggestion for them. "Go fuck yourselves."


Gonzalo B said...

John Brandon’s Arkansas is another McSweeney’s title that could fit in with the crime titles in a bookstore. You can read more about it here: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/books/arkansas/

jedidiah ayres said...

Gonzalo - I remember picking up Arkansas a couple years back and thinking it looked pretty good. I'm reading his new one Citrus County right now. It's pretty good, Ima have ta go back and pick up Arkansas. Thanks for the tip

pattinase (abbott) said...

Loved those early Dahl films. This sounds terrific. Always think of snotty elitism when I think of McSweeney's but clearly snotty elites can write well.