May 1, 2016 Booklist 9 #mysterymonth
historical moment, exposing slices of time from a perspective
that is all those things history usually isn’t: intimate, individual,
In a Lonely Place. By Dorothy B. Hughes. 1947. o.p.
The movie version of Hughes’ novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is widely considered one of the best
film noirs of all time, but it is a pale imitation of the novel,
in which ex-airman and blocked screenwriter Dix Steele isn’t
just accused of killing several women; he actually is the killer.
You just can’t get any closer to the dark heart of postwar noir
than this premise, which hits all the bases: a successful screenwriter goes to war and comes home a blocked writer turned
serial killer who walks the streets of L.A. at night searching
for prey—city streets, psychic dislocation, sex morphed into
violence. Hughes’ novel is a brilliant mood piece as well as a
psychologically acute study of a misogynist, and it also features
two strong female characters, who figure out that Dix is the
killer. Though technically out of print, the book is available in
multiple editions from most online sites.
Isle of Joy. By Don Winslow. 1996. Arrow, $9.95
This early Winslow thriller finds a disaffected spy hired to
keep a Swiss starlet out of a philandering Massachusetts senator’s bed and then forced to deal with the fallout when the
starlet winds up dead. Yes, the senator is a fictional version of
JFK, but the heart of this superb book is Winslow’s stunning
portrait of New York. With that irresistible blending of nostalgia and crisp detail one finds in the classic black-and-white
photographs of the era, Winslow portrays New York at the tipping point when postwar society meets the bohemian era. Jazz,
sex, glamour, politics, and murder in the 1950s—alienation on
Kiss Me Deadly. By Mickey Spillane. 1952. o.p.
Like Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, Spillane’s sixth Mike Hammer novel was also made into a landmark film noir (starring
Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer), but unlike the watered-down
treatment Hughes received, the Robert Aldrich–directed version of Kiss Me Deadly improves on the book and certainly
enhances the mood of postwar malaise—specifically, in the
form of paranoia about the atomic age. In the book, Spillane
hunts for a suitcase full of Mafia money; in the movie, the
suitcase is a dirty bomb, and there’s even a kind of mushroom
cloud at the end. Weird but very creepy and full of spectacular
L.A. location shots. The book is fine as a vintage tough-guy
Hammer novel, but the movie kicks it up a notch. Fun fact:
the Kefauver Commission, investigating corrupting influences
in the 1950s, declared the film a menace to American youth.
Years later, Kiss Me Deadly was selected by the National Film
Registry for preservation and cited as being “culturally, histori-
cally or aesthetically significant.”
The Last Embrace. By Denise Hamilton. 2008. Scribner,
It’s 1949, and Lily Kessler, former OSS spy, is in Los Angeles
to look for the sister of her late fiancé. Lily finds the missing Kitty quickly enough, but she is in the morgue, the first victim of
a Black Dahlia–like serial killer who seems to be preying on the
residents of a Hollywood boardinghouse. Combining a staple of
women’s melodrama (career girls in a boardinghouse) with an
edgy evocation of postwar, hard-boiled L.A., à la James Ellroy,
Hamilton makes this unlikely combination of sweet and savory
work very well.
Night Life. By David C. Taylor. 2015. Forge, $25.99
Cynical WWII vet Michael Cassidy gives his Broadway-produc-er father the cold shoulder and becomes a cop, the maverick kind
who’s willing to throw a fellow cop out a window if it feels right.
Cigarettes, booze, lots of neon, jazz on 52nd Street, celebs at Toots
Shor’s, a spy or two, dead bodies turning up between drinks—like
Don Winslow in Isle of Joy (1996), Taylor nails the New York noir
atmosphere, vividly capturing the menace beneath the glamour
(but oh those martinis at Shor’s sound great). The series continues
with Night Work, set during Castro’s visit to New York in 1960.
Stardust. By Joseph Kanon. 2009. Washington Square, $17
In his fifth novel, Kanon returns to his signature theme, the
postwar world and the lingering effects of the so-called Good War
on those who fought it and those who endured its horrors. This
time, though, he moves from Berlin (The Good German, 2001,
and Leaving Berlin, 2015) and Venice (Alibi, 2005) to Hollywood,
where Ben Collier is overseeing production of an army documentary on the death camps and investigating his brother’s suspicious
death. The latter effort throws him into contact with the German
Jewish expat community, the labor troubles in Hollywood, and
the beginnings of HUAC’s reign of terror. Noir sensibility amid
the tinkling cocktail glasses of Tinseltown.
Washington Shadow. By Aly Monroe. 2011. IPG/John Murray,
Peter Cotton, released from the British army at the end of
the war, signs on with the intelligence service and is sent to
Washington, D.C., with a team of economists (including John
Maynard Keynes) to beg relief money from the U.S. Cotton’s
real assignment, however, is to get the lowdown on what the
Americans will do to replace the disbanded OSS. The plot unwinds in fairly typical fashion (some spies, a doomed romance),
but Monroe captures the mood of the era—relief, ennui, and
uncertainty, all pickled in alcohol—with unfailing accuracy.