The Baby in the Icebox: and Other Short Fiction, by James M. Cain

The Baby in the Icebox:
and Other Short Fiction
by James M. Cain
Publisher: Open Road Media
220 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publication: 1932)
Source: NetGalley

The name James M. Cain never registered on my radar, although I was already familiar with some of his work: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and what is often considered the epitome of film noir, “Double Indemnity”. Upon opening this I expected more of the same, but was surprised to see a greater variety and depth the Cain’s writing and fiction plots/genres. Several days after finishing this and I wish I had more of his work at hand to read, both the original stories that birthed those classic noir films and his other less known output.

This particular collection is an excellent primer on the scope of Cain’s writing, being split into three sections of form: dialogues, short stories, and one serial novella. Each section is preceded by an introduction to Cain’s use of the form, and a general introduction opens the entire collection. These introductory essays are skimmable if you are really just interested in the meat of the fiction, but they are useful in grounding you in why Cain wrote each style of fiction, the merits he viewed in each, and how they were received by critics and fans.

Throughout all the forms Cain has two clear strengths. First is creating a clear, compelling conflict or plot, regardless if large-scale like a crime in a film noir, or a simple, brief confrontation in a doorway. Second is his strength in writing dialogue and regional dialects, particularly of working class people. This shines most obviously in the brief dialogues that open this collection, but even within the short stories they dominate, stretching a bit longer, and broken up from time to time with narration describing the setting or actions. Yet, even these narrations, rendered in the first person, are strongly reminiscent of spoken word, a dialogue between the working class narrator, and the reader, who can easily imagine themselves as an unnamed character in the story, listening to a yarn in a diner over a coffee, or bar over beer.

In these dialogues and short stories the genre of crime or transgression appears from time to time, but many also do not approach anything as grandiose, focusing instead on small aspects of human emotion or psychology in a pure manner. These are Cain’s most literary moments, and the ones (based on the introductions) that he was most proud in writing. What is interesting is that Cain did not set out to write honest, emotional dialogue-laden fiction per se. That is simply the only writing he was able to create that appeared authentic and sincere. He had to become the character and ‘act’, writing as if he were not Cain at all, but an imagined personality, role-playing. The result is stories and dialogues that don’t come across as fictions necessarily, but honest, imperfect recollections, most wonderfully perhaps in the story that gives the collection its name.

The collection ends with a serial novella, a style that Cain did not have any artistic appreciation for, but simply used to pay the bills, much like a serious actor doing some light, mindless blockbuster. But Cain can’t help inject some artistry into the serial, shaping a genre that would translate into the film noir and eventually the French new wave. His serials turned out immensely popular, both with general readers and critics. The serial included was made once into a film that wasn’t particularly successful, which I haven’t seen, but it does lack the spice and sordidness of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” or the precision and tautness of “Double Indemnity”. Nonetheless it is a nice conclusion to the collection, bringing it round to the style of story Cain became most noted for popularly.

Although I am interested in reading more of Cain’s work, I appreciated the length this collection kept. By the end of the dialogues and starting the still dialogue-laden short stories, that style was beginning to wear on me, much as Cain found it did when trying to use it to such a degree in his novels. By making this a mixture of styles but allowing none to overstay their welcome, this collection found a great pace. The publisher is releasing a lot of Cain’s old work in ebook format, so once I obtain an actual reader I’ll be checking out some more titles that pique interest.

Four Stars out of Five

The Dirty Streets of Heaven, by Tad Williams

The Dirty Streets of Heaven,
by Tad Williams
(Boddy Dollar Series Book 1)
Publisher: DAW
ISBN: 0756407907
441 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
(Original Publ: September 2012)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

A shelf in my library holds the first two novels of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn epic fantasy series, but rather than start those I ended up getting another one of his books instead, in this case the first volume of an ‘urban fantasy’ series whose second book is about to be released. I knew nothing about this, and generally don’t enjoy urban fantasy as much as other parts of the genre.

Upon starting to read it I discovered I didn’t want to put it down, perhaps because I am more unfamiliar with books like it, so it seemed truly fresh. The novel is a fantasy featuring angels and demons in present-day history, but the heart of it is noir crime fiction, complete with witty, snarky, and at times jaded first-person narration, double crosses, and sultry femme fatales. Rather than each of these elements being grounded firmly in an urban crime ‘reality’ it is built around a fantastic realm constructed by Williams.

This realm is one of the afterlife, and the battle/competition between heaven and hell. But not in any particular religious sense. The afterlife here is really nothing more than a second existence with different physics and even less freedom. The deceased, or reborn as it were, are judged and placed on team heaven or hell in an afterlife that is full of rules and assumptions, but more uncertainties than their previous Earth-bound life. Moreover, souls aren’t much changed, not all the good are squeaky clean, and perhaps the damned have a bit of love still within them.

The uncertainties of this post existence for the characters makes this Williams-constructed universe intriguing, and makes one eager to see what more is revealed about the truth behind it in future volumes. For this one, many of the mysteries will remain unanswered beyond the immediate plot driving the protagonist/narrator.

I appreciated the narrator and his humor, though at times like many noirs, it can go a bit over the top. The characters were interesting and the action entertaining. The one negative reaction I had to the novel was the unnecessary repetitiveness of some of the narrator’s observations. He reminds the reader numerous times about certain character traits or thoughts as if to drive home a rationalization for particular actions or inactions. With each new time the reader is reminded it starts feeling more an excuse of forcing plot points to occur.

Many will be disappointed in this novel if they approach it expecting a fantasy – even if unfamiliar with Williams’ high-fantasy and going into this as pure urban fantasy. If you enjoy crime novels and don’t mind the concept of them existing in a made up world that bridges the Earthly and spiritual realms then I suspect you would like it, for its tone and soul are noir all the way.

Four Stars out of Five

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

10112885Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 140006788X
602 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

A novel that combines cult cinema with a literary thriller, I had high hopes when winning this one and it didn’t disappoint. I hadn’t read Pessl before or even heard of her previous novel, which received many accolades, but after this I’m excited about reading more of her.

I intentionally read this one slowly, savoring it in the darkest hours of night, relishing the mysteries and eerieness of its pages. For its length, it’s actually a quick read, but I found that leaving the story at various points despite wanting to know the truth behind it all as much as the protagonist only added to the novel’s haunting power.

Night Film is hauntingly real, yet on the fringe of bizarre and disbelief, much like the films of the fictional director the story centers around. Having watched cult films for years, even searching for those rarities that are spoken of with reverence and whispers of warning: a film banned for being too intense, a film surrounded by stories of oddities and curses. This is the world of the characters of Night Film.

The mood and realism of Night Film is augmented by the novel’s inclusion of faux web pages. letters, and other items that are interspersed in chunks at various points. At first I looked at this with wariness that it was a gimmick, and it is arguable that their inclusion is unnecessary – that the information within them could have been conveyed within the ‘normal’ text of the novel. Yet, I realize not without the same effect on the reader. Nothing compares to a chilling phrase ending a paragraph followed by turning the page to a creepy photograph.

The plot you can gather from the blurb, and to give any more details would spoil the book. Suffice it to say the novel proceeds on several levels through layers and layers of partial truths and shadows. At the end the protagonist and reader are given an answer, but much like the films of the fictional director in the story, those answers will have a certain measure of ambiguity. What is important, is the journey to them.

While Night Film is dark, and creepy, it is not scary. It is not pessimistically dark, it is not sad. It is just an extremely effective atmospheric thriller that resides on the edges of the supernatural and the unknown. In some ways it is like a Stephen King story – though a very different writing style. The absolute highlight of the novel comes toward the end in a series of chapter-less pages describing a harrowing journey into the heart of the novel’s themes and structure. The rest of the novel was enjoyable, this part was just utterly wonderful.

With mysterious characters and subtle revelations made throughout the novel it is also a book that could be reread with a fresh take and appreciation. It’s curious to wonder how filmable the book would be, given its subject. It may be possible, but I think it could take a director like the one invented here to pull it off.

I hope Pessl writes future novels like this one, or that she is just as talented dealing with other themes or styles. Heartily recommend.

Five Stars out of Five

The Suburban Abyss, by Cathryn Grant

The Suburban Abyss, by Cathryn Grant
Publisher: D2C Perspectives
ISBN: 9780985765774
392 pages, paperback
Published November 2012
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

One of the aspects of many Hitchcock’s films is his ability to identify and relate the terrifying in the everyday and familiar, most notably in “Shadow of a Doubt”. I immediately thought of this when reading the summary for the novel and the description of ‘making the mundane menacing’. Unfortunately I was largely disappointed with the novel, it is an intriguing concept, but the execution failed for me.

The novel focuses on three households as they deal with an intrusive building project adjacent to their homes. Annoyance and minor suburban strife slowly envelope each of their private lives and inter-relations until a moment (near the end) when it erupts in murder. One problem arises in the slow build to the eventual catastrophe, it is a prolonged and not terribly interesting journey to get there. While Grant flirts with some interesting themes here and there, such as the nature of communication, privacy, friends, and strangers, she doesn’t dwell with them long, moving directly into a stream of conversation to reassert character traits already familiar, and moving one inch forward into the plot.

Conversations. The dialogue in the novel kept me from liking it fairly well as a simple entertaining read. To her credit, Grant does make each character unique and she does well in making them think and carry out actions that establish their psychology well. But they are all unreliable, lying to themselves above all, and the occasional inconsistencies make it hard to tell if they are subtle indications of the character’s underlying instability, or errors on the author’s part. They each blurt out statements and questions that appear absurdly rude, they do this a lot. I suspect this makes it easier to get plot points out to the reader, but it makes the characters appear very unrealistic.

Perhaps this behavior goes into the whole ‘menace in the mundane’ idea, but this becomes the problem with that kind of tactic when making a story. Exaggerating the mundane to to make it menacing and interesting also makes it seem unbelievable and forced. Or worse, if it fails in that, it remains mundane, and bores. There is a fine artistic line in making it work, but I simply didn’t see that here.

At the end I’m sure many will disagree with me and find this a rewarding entertaining read. There is ironic humor, a bit of romance, a bit of crime, characters who may be in situations that are familiar, etc. Grant has been published in Ellery Queen & Hitchock’s magazines and has gained other recognition for her short work. I realize that this novel has no aspect that couldn’t have been done just as well in a novella/novelette and I think could have been much more impactful and interesting in that form with an editor.

Two  Stars out of Five

Lexicon, by Max Barry

Lexicon, by Max Barry
Publisher: Penguin Books
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published June 2013
Source: NetGalley

Words matter. I first learned about this novel through words, the written words within columns by the Kirkus Reviews and the New York Times about exciting 2013 summer reads. Words can be used to convince. The details in these reviews persuaded me that “Lexicon” has a good chance of being a story I would greatly enjoy, and that it would be conveyed in a manner that would be unique and compelling.

Lexicon is a novel generally about words, language, the process of drawing meaning from symbols. It is also about how words can be used, manipulated, and selectively disseminated to persuade, to control. Words can be weapons; in the case of the plot here, quite literally, in a world where modern-day ‘sorcerers’ that are naturally captivating and persuasive are trained in the lexicon and practice of wielding words. They call themselves “poets’ and adopt names of famous literary figures, and their abilities impart them great power. Like all powers, the power over language can corrupt.

The story begins by jumping directly into taut action. Fantasy in a strict sense, sci-fi in its use of biological and psychological explanations for apparent ‘magic’, the novel mostly feels like a thriller. The reader is dropped into the action immediately and it hardly lets up until the conclusion. Through this Barry does extraordinarily well in keeping detailed explanations from the reader, allowing one to adapt to the ‘universe’ of the story and its internal ‘rules’ , letting one gradually figure out what is going on, which characters are ‘good’, which are ‘bad’, and that such a dichotomy may not even really exist. Yet the reader never feels lost or misled.

With an internally consistent, exciting plot and complex, relatable characters the novel would qualify already as a great easy ‘summer’ read. However, it is also filled with interesting psychological ideas about how we as human beings gather, receive, process, and project information – in terms of the individual, social network platforms, the government, and the media. Through it all it becomes clear that Barry has an intense love and respect for language: its beauty, its power, its potential for abuse, and the myriad dangers associated with either limiting how information is conveyed/received or easing restrictions on access to private information.

In this final aspect it reminds me of themes found in other fantasy literature, such as Le Guin’s Earthsea series, where the knowledge of someone’s private name gives a wizard complete control over that being. This is of course an old concept in the myths of sorcerers and magic. Yet recent news of extensive data gathering on people by governments and corporations in the name of ‘safety’ or ‘efficiency’ remind us that this concept symbolized in mythology is quite the reality.

Five  Stars out of Five

The Orphanmaster: A Novel of Early Manhattan, by Jean Zimmerman

16171279The Orphanmaster: A Novel of Early Manhattan, by Jean Zimmerman
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 014312353X
432 pages, paperback
Published April 2013
Source: Goodread’s First-Reads

There are aspects of this novel that are really great, and yet it also has serious problems. It itself throughout as a mixture of genres – historical, mystery, horror, romance – yet is packaged as a literary work. This hodgepodge creates problems, yet somehow the work as a whole came out better for me than any of its individual component attributes on their own. At the end of the read, despite its many deep flaws, I have to admit it was entertaining, though by no means literary.

The book clearly is strongest in its historical nature, due to Zimmerman’s expertise in the setting. She has thus crafted a history lesson in the guise of a tale. Sometimes the history is incorporated into the text well, in the form of rich details or dialogue. But at other moments the history is given in thick packets of text as if the narrator has suddenly turned history professor, recounting the great events on Earth in the year of our Lord 1663…

And the narrator… the story is told in third person omniscient, but shifts views within single pages between various characters, speaking as if the voice were from the era of the setting, but then explaining things in modern terms as if the reader were incapable of realizing what simple Latin phrases were. The voice is one moment deathly serious, describing some horrific grisly detail, but then switches to describe something else tongue-in-cheek, even breaking the fourth wall to gently poke the reader. The voice employed by Zimmerman is therefore just too inconsistent.

Beyond the fascinating historical details of the novel lie some moments of true horror, featuring the Native American wittika (wendigo) mythology. Zimmerman is really adept at writing the horrific. I found the passages of these moments to be chilling and creepy without being exploitation or gratuitous. Unfortunately, she fails at the mystery genre. The story is certainly a thriller or suspenseful, but there is little mystery. The party responsible for the murder is obvious a few chapters in.

This fault largely arises from the fact that the characters are all very flat and fail to change appreciably. It is almost like they come from a role-playing game: Chaotic good, chaotic evil, neutral good, lawful neutral, etc. Guess which falls into the serial killer category. With character’s ‘alignment’ so obvious and unswerving, the mystery fizzles.

Yet, despite these issues, I still enjoyed it a fair amount. The ride was interesting when I got past the ever-shifting voice, the historical aspects made new information still accessible, and the well-written suspense and horror of it made me look past the awkward romantic aspects that simply occur with little development or believability. Finally, the female protagonist, and believably rendered despite the 1663-context was uniquely interesting.

I’m not surprised at all to see this novel has been optioned for a movie. It is a Hollywood type plot through-and-through, with its mixture of genre that can have something to please everyone in the crowd. Zimmerman even writes as if it were a screenplay with action of the screen. Surrounding her dialogue, she alternates between detailed complex sentences and short phrases lacking complete grammar to convey atmosphere, as if they are stage directions.

If Zimmerman writes another novel I might give it a read depending what the genre is. I think she could easily fix the issues of this novel with more editing – and perhaps focusing on two genres rather than multiple.

Two-and-a-half  Stars out of Five