Lighten up Anita

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton

I am profoundly aware that I often read books in the wrong order. I’m not referring to books in a series here though – I always prefer to start from the beginning with them; instead I’m talking about influence.

This means for instance that it was forty years before I came to We by Yevgeny Zamyatkin (my review)- the 1924 Russian dystopia that so profoundly influenced Orwell’s 1984. I was really glad to have read both, and actually would probably have found 1984 derivative if read in the publication order. In this case, reading the influenced before the influencer allowed me to revel in both future visions.

Then for my first Season of the Living Dead on this blog back in 2009, I managed to read Twilight before LK Smith’s The Vampire Diaries (my review). The Vampire Diaries arguably paved the way for subsequent teen high-school paranormal romances, but didn’t grab my imagination the way Twilight did.

Affliction

Which brings me to Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton. I was prompted to read this book when a copy of Affliction was sent by the publisher to me.  Affliction turns out to be the 22nd (!) in a series of vampire novels featuring Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter.  Good for me then, that I just happened to have the first, the aforesaid Guilty Pleasures in my bookcase, as I couldn’t possibly dive in at volume 22.

But first, a caveat: I have read and loved some of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels set in the deep south (my review of the first here). Apart from all the vampire blood and gore, there is a rich vein of humour in these books, and Sookie is a kooky and lovable heroine. It didn’t take much research to find that the first Sookie book didn’t appear until eight years after Guilty Pleasures, which also predates Buffy. With Anita being a sort of paranormal Private Investigator, I thought there may be similarities too with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (my review of the first two here), but again The Dresden Files didn’t start until 2000.

Obviously I’ve read these books in the wrong order again, as Hamilton can probably claim to be the first in this particular sub-genre of paranormal urban fantasy writers. So how does Anita Blake hold up to those that follow …

guilty pleasures

I don’t date Vampires. I kill them.
My name is Anita Blake. Vampires call me the Executioner. What I call them isn’t repeatable.
Every since the Supreme Court granted the undead equal rights, most people think vampires are just ordinary folks with fangs. I know better. I’ve seen their victims. I carry the scars.
But now a serial killer is murdering vampires – and the most powerful bloodsucker in town wants me to find the killer.

Anita Blake lives and works in St Louis, Missouri.  Her primary job at the agency run by Bert is as an Animator – she can raise zombies, or put them to rest again. She’s also an expert in vampires. We don’t know the detail, but we know she bears a grudge against the bloodsuckers.  Her expertise in these areas though is very useful to the police; she’s on retainer and is often called in to murders where undead have been involved.

When vampires start being murdered, against her better judgement, she reluctantly agrees to investigate for the vampire grandmaster.  She’s better placed than most investigators to to this, for she is partially immune to the effects of a vampire’s gaze. She still knows better than to look them directly in the eyes.

It’s not clear whether it’s a vampire killing vampires, or one of the human anti-vampire activist groups.  Anita’s first port of call is to the club, Guilty Pleasures, run by vampire Jean-Claude – who has a definite attraction to her.  I suspect that Jean-Claude, who does remain alive at the end of the book, will play a big role in subsequent novels.

Jean-Claude, although masterful, is not the grandmaster of the vampires. That is Nikolaos – a thousand year old child vampire, whose powers are strong indeed. This evil girl is determined to let Anita know that the only reason she is alive is to solve the crimes.

Anita’s investigations also take her to a ‘freak’ party, where she masquerades as a new human vampire junkie – addicted to having some blood sucked from her.  Her escort for the night is Philip, a junkie trying to kick the habit.  He is strong and noble in protecting her, but things go wrong, the party is attacked and they escape. From there, it all gets terribly complicated between all the factions involved, the vampires, the hate-groups, the human servants, and the internal rivalries between the vamps.  Anyone who associates with Anita is at risk too.

We know that Anita will survive to tell at least another 21 tales, but how many others are going to die along with the way with her?  Frankly, it was all a bit grim, and there’s no let-up, no pause for breath. All the action takes place over just a few days and you wonder how Anita has the stamina for it.

Anita is a typical heroine. Super-tough and feisty, also petite – she has to punch above her weight being small. We get few details about what she does off-duty – this is a gal that lives for her job.  She narrates the story in a noir-ish style which, it feels, allows every noir cliché ever coined to be adapted to the world of vampires.

What Anita lacks though, and hence the book, is a sense of humour.  That’s what the other books I mentioned above have, and it allows us to take a breather from the action, and absorb all the complexities of the plot.  With Anita, it’s all bam, bam, bam – no pauses for a cup of joe with a friend, no chance to let off steam and allow another side of her personality to come through. Actually, she’s a bit whiny (mostly at herself, it must be admitted), but I didn’t warm to her the way I did Sookie.  It’s just non-stop action, with a few hours sleep to recover from the mounting number of injuries Anita accrues along the way.  The amount of pain this gal can sustain is superhuman – oh – maybe she is one?

Also, I without the device of Harris’s Tru-blood – the synthetic blood that allows vampires to live alongside humans without the risk of bloodlust killing them all, even if vampires were real, they couldn’t be given equal rights to live alongside humans safely.  Given all their superhuman powers, unless the blood thing could be resolved, Anita’s world can’t exist – they have to remain underground.  That’s what makes the later series work.

While this first novel in the series did keep me reading until the end, I didn’t bond enough with Anita to want to read more of this series.  She does have legions of fans though. Do let me know if you think I should give her another chance. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton, Headline paperback, 327 pages.
Affliction (Anita Blake Vampire Hunter 22), pub July 2nd, 2013, Headline hardback.

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Hollywood Noir down Mexico Way

Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, translated from the Spanish by Tanya Huntingdon.

bitter drink

Whenever I read some noir, I know I should read lots more, for I love it, but I get distracted onto other things – I think it’s a dead cert that’ll happen this time too.  Meanwhile, although this slim novel is no masterpiece, I did enjoy it for its little dose of Hollywood glamour.

The tale is set around the filming of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, and starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr with Sue Lyon.  Tennesse Williams’ play tells the story of a defrocked Episcopal priest scraping the bottom of the barrel as a tour guide to a coachload of Baptist women in Mexico.

The Night of the Iguana - movie poster by Howard Terpning

The filming took place in Mismaloya, Mexico and put the town of Puerto Vallarta on the map. It was notorious for two things in particular: firstly, the still-married Burton, fresh off the set of Cleopatra, brought the still-married Liz Taylor with him on location; and secondly, the fact that John Huston had gold plated revolvers made for the acting leads, each with silver bullets engraved with their colleagues’ names.

So much for reality. Haghenbeck takes the already colourful facts, and weaves a story around them centred on a Beatnik detective Sunny Pascal, a Mexican working in Hollywood, who is hired to be in charge of security on set and keeping the cast out of trouble too.  The set, its cast and crew, are awash with booze, and the town is full of tension so when someone ends up with one of those silver bullets in them, it’s not a surprise. Things will only get worse once the Mexican Mafia turn up.

Sunny doesn’t seem to be much of a security guy – he seems to spend most of his time getting beaten up – he successfully deflects the worst attention from the shenanigans of the film’s stars though. How much is luck and how much is judgement isn’t always clear, but he does know how to make things go away.  Nearly everyone seems to like Sunny, and when not getting beaten up, he’s usually to be found propping up the bar on the set knocking back a few cocktails, which brings me to a major feature of this book…

Cocktails!  Each of the 26 short chapters is titled after one, which will make an appearance in the main story later.  Preceding that is the recipe and a potted history of each cocktail’s development, so that’s 26 pages out of 147 in total devoted to cocktails.  This made the story rather slight, and I doubt I’d have read this book if it hadn’t been about the film and its stars – indeed I’d love to see the film now.

The author is a fan of Chandler, and a lot of Sunny’s dialogue echoes that of Philip Marlowe – sometimes cheesy (but with tongue in cheek) – of course I don’t know how much of the cheesiness is in the translation.  It was fun though (6.5/10).

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I received a review copy of this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Bitter Drink by FG Haghenbeck, pub 2012 by Amazon Crossing, 147 pages.
Night of the Iguana [1964] [DVD]

For blacker than black, read super-noir

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Scene: A diner in Central City, Texas; it’s the early 1950s.  A man walks up to the counter to pay his bill…

The proprietor shoved back my money and laid a couple of cigars on top of it. He thanked me again for taking his son in hand.
‘He’s a different boy now, Lou,’ he said, kind of running his words together like foreigners do. ‘Stays in nights; gets along fine in school. And always he talks about you – what a good man is Deputy Lou Ford.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said. ‘Just talk to him. Showed him a little interest. Anyone else could have done as much.’
‘Only you,’ he said. ‘Because you are good, you make others so.’

This is our first glimpse of Deputy Lou Ford, a respected and stalwart member of the community.  A police officer so at ease with himself and his job, that he doesn’t even carry a gun.  He has a beautiful girlfriend Amy who wants to marry him, he has a house. surely he has everything he wants?

But Lou’s outward persona is just a façade. Inside he harbours deep, dark secrets of the murderous kind. Lou is the only one left in his family.  Only he now knows the truth of what happened with his adoptive brother Mike, it killed his Dad.

Then one day, Lou gets the opportunity to avenge his brother, to get back at the man who was responsible for getting Mike pushed off a girder. The sickness that he has successfully hidden all these years bubbles up to the surface, but Lou believes that he can get away with it.  However best laid plans …

It doesn’t take many pages for us to get the measure of Lou, he’s told us his secret by page 15, and from then on in, we know how the story is going to end – but not how.  The suspense is killing!

Reading Lou’s story, I immediately wondered whether he was the prototype for Jeff Lindsay’s ‘Dexter’ (a forensic blood spatter expert who only murders criminals as an avenging force), but whereas Dexter’s sickness is channelled, Lou’s takes over.  There’s certainly no humour in Thompson’s novel either, it’s blacker than black noir through and through.

The entire novel is told by Lou. He tells us his mind, what he’s really thinking –  when outwardly, he’s the patient lawman.  Even when the net is starting to close in on him, he’s sure they can’t pin anything on him, ever deluding himself. Lou tells us, with obvious relish in the detail, about each blow he strikes in his killing spree.

Thompson’s protagonist is a nasty piece of work, the most amoral man I’ve met in a book since the last noir novel I read which was published just a few years before this one – (Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon). But Thompson’s killer is, in a way, worse than Simenon’s because he is an officer of the law!

Whereas James M Cain can lay claim to having created the biggest femme fatale in crime fiction – that is Phyllis Nirdinger in Double Indemnity, published a few years earlier, I think Jim Thompson has come very close to the ultimate male equivalent with Deputy Lou Ford, and has instilled in me a need to read more of his books, which means I have to award it (10/10).

P.S. I’ve now ordered the DVD of the 2010 film – Will report back.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (originally published in 1952, paperback).
The Killer Inside Me [DVD]– directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson.
Further noir reading & viewing:
Double Indemnityby James M Cain
Dirty Snow (New York Review Books Classics)by Georges Simenon
Darkly Dreaming Dexterby Jeff Lindsay
Dexter : Complete Season 1 [DVD]

The case of the nasty young man

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon

For most of us, Simenon is famous, justly, for his creation of Maigret, the pipe-smoking French detective that appeared in over a hundred novels and short stories from the 1930s to early 70s. The Maigret novels are light and the detective is a delight, but Simenon also wrote many other novels that are very different in tone – La neige était sale – Dirty Snow (1948) being one of them.

Dirty Snow was written in the USA after Simenon had left France in 1945 where he was under some suspicion for being a collaborator, having negotiated German film rights during the occupation.  His observations of living in occupied France obviously influenced the writing of this novel which is set in an unspecified occupied country – it could be France, it could be Germany itself…

Dirty Snow is the story of one young man’s fall.  Frank Friedmaier is nineteen. Fatherless, he lives with his mother Lotte who runs a whorehouse in an apartment block,  tolerated by the other residents as she caters mainly to the town’s oppressors which keeps the attention away from them.  Frank is itching to show that he can play with the big boys at Timo’s – the bar they all frequent. He decides it’s time to make his first kill …

And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of viriginity hardly more disturbing than the first. And, like the first, it wasn’t premeditated. It just happened. As though a moment comes when it’s both necessary and natural to make a decision that has long since been made.
No one had pushed him to do it. No one had laughed at him. Besides, only fools let themselves be influenced by their friends.
For weeks, perhaps months, he had kept saying to himself, because he had felt within himself a sort of inferiority. ‘I’ll have to try …’
Not in a fight. That would have been against his nature. To have it count, it seemed to him, it would have to be done in cold blood.

And so by page four we know where we are with Frank.  He chooses and kills his prey, but tellingly, also allows himself to be seen in the locality by Holst, a neighbour.  However, he intuitively senses that Holst won’t tell.  Blooded and with a gun in his pocket, Frank becomes fearless, but it is one callous and totally despicable act that I won’t say any more about, that will make him feared and lead to his downfall.

The second half of the book follows Frank’s few weeks under interrogation. Yes, he was caught – hoorah!  After an initial beating, the interrogation is carried out by an old gentleman who takes his time with Frank to winkle out every single thing he knows about all of the people in his life, playing mind games with him, never telling him what he was arrested for. The sleep-deprived and starving Frank remains strong, determined to make it last as long as possible until the day he’s ready.

Told entirely from Frank’s perspective, this novel is really bleak. He is an amoral piece of scum; friendless, increasingly cold and emotionless.  In the nurture versus nature debate, undoubtedly, his lack of a father figure in his life, and his over-protective mother have both helped to make him what he becomes.

Simenon takes us down all the way with Frank, but allows him one little glimpse of what could have been, before he meets his end.  Maybe writing the book in the sunshine of Tucson, Arizona, Simenon needed to come up for air before ending it.  I amongst others, (see Lizzies Literary Life review here), would have preferred that he stayed down – Frank didn’t deserve it.

The afterword by William T Vollmann was interesting – after positioning Dirty Snow as ultimate noir more akin to Chekov than Chandler, he compares Frank to characters in Middlemarch by George Eliot – in their failure to meet their potential – which was surprising, yet I could sort of see the sense in it.  Personally, I was reminded throughout by Pinkie in Brighton Rock by Graham Greene – another very nasty young man, (and due for a re-read). The book also brought to mind Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada which I read earlier this year and reviewed here in terms of the sense of living under suspicion.

The Maigret books, yet wonderful, are as a mere bagatelle in comparison with this look into the abyss from Simenon. (10/10)

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948) trans Marc Romano and Louise Varèse, pub NYRB, 257 pages including afterword.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics) by George Eliot
Alone in Berlinby Hans Fallada