deleuze on crime fiction: the brilliance of james gunn’s deadlier than the male

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Gilles Deleuze, The Philosophy of Crime Novels1


La
Série Noire is celebrating a momentous occasion—its release of #1000. The coherence, the idea of this collection owes everything to its editor. Of course everyone knew something about cops, criminals, and their relationship, even if it was only from reading the papers, or the knowledge of special reports. But literature is like consciousness, it always lags behind. These things had not yet found their contemporary literary expression, or they hadn’t attained the status of common-place in literature. The credit for closing this gap at a particularly favorable moment goes to Marcel Duhamel.2 Malraux had this insight to offer in his preface to the translation of Sanctuary: "Faulkner knows very well that detectives don’t exist; that police power stems neither from psychology nor from clarity of vision, but from informants; and that it’s not Moustachu or Tapinois, the modest thinkers of the Quai des Orfevres, who bring about the apprehension of the murderer on the loose, but rank-and-file cops"…. La Série Noire was above all an adaptation of Sanctuary for a mass market (look at Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish), and a generalization of Malraux’s preface.

In the old conception of the detective novel, we would be shown a genius detective devoting the whole power of his mind to the search and discovery of the truth. The idea of truth in the classic detective novel was totally philosophical, that is, it was the product of the effort and the operations of the mind. So it is that police investigation modeled itself on philosophical inquiry, and conversely, gave to philosophy an unusual object to elucidate: crime.

 

There were two schools of truth: 1) the French school (Descartes), where truth is a question of some fundamental intellectual intuition, from which the rest is rigorously deduced; and 2) the English school (Hobbes), according to which truth is always induced from something else, interpreted from sensory indices. In a word, deduction and induction. The detective novel reproduced this duality, though in a movement which was proper to the literary genre, and has produced famous examples of each. The English school: Conan Doyle gave us Sherlock Holmes, the masterful interpreter of signs, the inductive genius. The French school: Gaboriau gave us Tabaret and Lecoq; and Gaston Leroux, Rouletabille, who with "a circle between the two lobes of his forehead," is always invoking "the right track of reason" and explicitly opposing his theory of certainty to the inductive method, the Anglo-Saxon theory of signs.

 

The criminal side of the affair can also be quite interesting. By a metaphysical law of reflection, the cop is no more extraordinary than the criminal—he, too, professes allegiance to justice and truth and the powers of deduction and induction. And so you have the possibility of two series of novels: the hero of the first is the detective, and the hero of the second is the criminal. With Rouletabille and Cheri-Bibi, Leroux brought each series to its perfection. But never the twain shall meet: they are the motors for two different series (they could never meet without one of them looking ridiculous; cf Leblanc’s attempt to put Arsene Lupin together with Sherlock Holmes).’ Rouletabille and Cheri-Bibi: Each is the double of the other, they have the same destiny, the same pain, the same quest for the truth. This is the destiny and quest of Oedipus (Rouletabille is destined to kill his father; Cheri-Bibi attends a performance of Oedipus and shouts: "He’s just like me!"). After philosophy, Greek tragedy.

 

Still we mustn’t be too surprised that the crime novel so faithfully reproduces Greek tragedy, since Oedipus is always called on to indicate any such coincidence. While it is the only Greek tragedy that already has this detective structure, we should marvel that Sophocles’s Oedipus is a detective, and not that the detective novel has remained Oedipal. We should give credit where credit is due: to Leroux, a phenomenal novelist in French literature, who had a genius for striking phrases: "not the hands, not the hands," "the ugliest of men," "Fatal-itas," "men who open doors and men who shut traps," "a circle between two lobes," etc.

 

But the birth of La Série Noire has been the death of the detective novel, properly speaking. To be sure, the great majority of novels in the collection have been content to change the detective’s way of doing things (he drinks, he’s in love, he’s restless) but keep the same structure: the surprise ending that brings all the characters together for the final explanation that fingers one of them as the guilty party. Nothing new there.

 

What the new literary use and exploitation of cops and criminals taught us is that police activity has nothing to do with a metaphysical or scientific search for the truth. Police work no more resembles scientific inquiry than a telephone call from an informant, inter-police relations, or mechanisms of torture resemble metaphysics. As a general rule, there are two distinct cases: 1) the professional murder, where the police know immediately more or less who is responsible; and 2) the sexual murder, where the guilty party could be anyone. But in either case the problem is not framed in terms of truth. It is rather an astonishing compensation of error. The suspect, known to the cops but never charged, is either nabbed in some other domain than his usual sphere of criminal activity (whence the American schema of the untouchable gangster, who is arrested and deported for tax fraud); or he is provoked, forced to show himself, as they lie in wait for him.

 

With La Série Noire, we’ve become accustomed to the sort of cop who dives right in, come what may, regardless of the errors he may commit, but confident that something will emerge. At the other extreme, we’ve been allowed to watch the meticulous preparation of a sting operation, and the domino effect of little errors that loom ever larger as the moment of reckoning approaches (it’s in this sense that La Série Noire influenced cinema). The totally innocent reader is shocked in the end by so many errors committed on both sides. Even when the cops themselves are hatching a nasty plot, they make so many blunders, they defy belief.

 

This is because the truth is in no way the ambient element of the investigation: not for a moment does one believe that this compensation of errors aims for the discovery of the truth as its final objective. On the contrary, this compensation has its own dimension, its own sufficiency, a kind of equilibrium or the reestablishment of it, a process of restitution that allows a society, at the limits of cynicism, to hide what it wants to hide, reveal what it wants to reveal, deny all evidence, and champion the improbable. The killer still at large may be killed for his own errors, and the police may have to sacrifice one of their own for still other errors, and so it is that these compensations have no other object than to perpetuate an equilibrium that represents a society in its entirety at the heights of its power of falsehood.

 

This same process of restitution, equilibrium or compensation also appears in Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, for example). The greatest novel of this kind, and the most admirable in every respect, is not part of La Série Noire: it’s Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes, which develops an incredible compensation of errors whose keynotes are an Aeschylean equilibrium and an Oedipal quest.

 

From a literary point of view, La Série Noire made the power of falsehood the primary detective element. And this entails another consequence: clearly, the relation between cop and criminal is no longer one of metaphysical reflection. The interpenetration is real, and the complicity deep and compensatory. Fair’s fair, quid pro quo, they exchange favors and no less frequently betrayals on the one side and the other. We are always led back to the great trinity of falsehood: informant-corruption-torture. But it goes without saying that the cops do not of their own accord initiate this disquieting complicity. The metaphysical reflection of the old detective novel has given way to a mirroring of the other. A society indeed reflects itself to itself in its police and its criminals, even while it protects itself from them by means of a fundamental deep complicity between them.

 

We know that a capitalist society more willingly pardons rape, murder, or kidnapping than a bounced check, which is its only theological crime, the crime against spirit. We know very well that important political dealings entail any number of scandals and real crimes; conversely, we know that crime is organized in business-like fashion, with structures as precise as a board of directors or managers. La Série Noire introduced us to a politics-crime combo that, despite the evidence of History past and present, had not been given a contemporary literary expression.

 

The Kefauver report,4 and especially the book by Turkus, Societe anonyme pour assassinats, were the source of inspiration for many of the texts in La Série Noire. Many writers did little more than plagiarize them, or rather they turned them into popular novels. Whether it’s the Trujillo regime, or Battista, or Hitler, or Franco—what will be next when everyone is talking about Ben Barka—that begets a hybrid that is properly Série Noire; whether it’s Asturias writing a novel of genius: M. le President,5 or whether it’s people sitting around trying to figure out the secret of this unity of the grotesque and the terrifying, the terrible and the clownish, which binds together political power, economic power, crime and police activity—it’s all already in Suetonius, Shakespeare, Jarry, Asturias: La Série Noire has recycled it all. Have we really made any progress in understanding this hybrid of the grotesque and terrifying which, under the right circumstances, could determine the fate of us all?

 

So it is that La Série Noire has transformed our imaginings, our evaluations of the police. It was high time. Was it good for us to participate as "active readers" in the old detective novel, and thereby lose our grip on reality and thus our power of indignation? Indignation wells up in us because of reality, or because of masterful works of art. La Série Noire indeed seems to have pastiched every great novelist: imitation Faulkner, but also imitation Steinbeck, imitation Caldwell, imitation Asturias. And it followed the trends: first American, then it rediscovered French crime.

 

True, La Série Noire is full of stereotypes: the puerile presentation of sexuality, or what about the eyes of the killers (only Chase managed to lend a particular cold life to his killers, who are headstrong and non-conformist). But its greatness belongs to Duhamel’s idea, which remains the driving force behind recent releases: a reorganization of the vision of the world that every honest person has concerning cops and criminals.

 

Clearly, a new realism is insufficient to make good literature. In bad literature, the real as such is the object of stereotypes, puerile notions, and cheap fantasies, worse than any imaginative imbecile could dream up. But more profound than either the real or the imaginary is parody. La Série Noire may have suffered from an over-abundant production, but it has kept a unity, a tendency, which periodically found expression in a beautiful work (the contemporary success of James Bond, who was never integrated into La Série Noire, seems to represent a serious literary regression, though compensated for by the cinema, a return to a rosy conception of the secret agent).

 

The most beautiful works of La Série Noire are those in which the real finds its proper parody, such that in its turn the parody shows us directions in the real which we would not have found otherwise. These are some of the great works of parody, though in different modes: Chase’s Miss Shumway Waves a Wand; Williams’s The Diamond Bikini; or Hime’s negro novels, which always have extraordinary moments. Parody is a category that goes beyond real and imaginary. And let’s not forget #50: James Gunn’s Deadlier than the Male.

 

The trend in those days was American: it was said that certain novelists were writing under American pseudonyms. Deadlier than the Male is a marvelous work: the power of falsehood at its height, an old woman pursuing an assassin by smell, a murder attempt in the dunes—what a parody, you would have to read it—or reread it—to believe it. Who is James Gunn anyway? Only a single work in La Série Noire appeared under his name. So now that La Série Noire is celebrating the release of #1000, and is re-releasing many older works, and as a tribute to Marcel Duhamel, I humbly request the re-release of my personal favorite: #50.

 

Notes:

 

1. Arts et Loisirs, no. 18, 26 janvier-1 fevrier, 1966.

2. In 1945, the novelist Marcel Duhamel created "La Série Noire" at Gallimard; it is a series dedicated to the crime novel, which he headed till 1977.

3. Maurice Leblanc, Arsene Lupin contre Sherlock Holmes, 1908, reedited by Livre de Poche.

4. In 1952, a democratic senator issued a report on organized crime in America.

5. M. le President (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

 

—from Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. Edited by David Lapoujade. Translated by Michael Taormina. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series (2004), pp 81–85.


 

lines from the pulps: james gunn’s deadlier than the male


"She had a full-breasted figure in the Biblical style, the kind that suggests camels and water-jars."

 

There’s sex-talk!

Mrs. Krantz perked up. "About the new one?" she asked avidly.

Mrs. Pollicker nodded. "He smells," she said. "All the time. Like an animal."

Mrs. Krantz opened her mouth with a wet smack of ecstasy. "Oh, my, ain’t you human!”

Mrs. Pollicker stood up straight. "I rather think it is primitive," she said, pleased.

Plus there’s violence! 


Danny took his knife out of his pocket. He had something to say and he meant to move quickly, but his reactions were slow. The red-headed man struck him full in his open mouth, so hard that he smashed his jaw and teeth, and Danny’s mind was full of flashes and darkness. His head hit against the wall, and the red-headed man hit him again. Danny fell forward with his arms around the man’s legs, and the red-headed man brought his arm up in almost an incidental gesture to the side of Danny’s head. After that Danny did not think any more at all, not just because he was unconscious, but because he was dead.

—from James Gunn, Deadlier Than The Male (1950), the source for the legendary 1947 Robert Wise film noir Born to Kill, starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney.

cain’s credo


Son of a college dean, newspaperman, novelist,
screenwriter & Shakespeare worshipper.

I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics…. Schools don’t help the novelist but they do the critic; using as mucilage the simplifications that the school hypothesis affords him, he can paste labels wherever convenience is served by pasting labels, and although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammet in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammet-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself.


“holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books”—james ellroy’s road to writing


ellroy.jpg image by tomasutpen

Portrait of the artist as a young dipshit.

INTERVIEWER


Is that when you started writing—after your father died?


ELLROY


The first thing I did after he died was snag his last three Social Security checks, forge his signature, and cash them at a liquor store. From ’65 to ’75, I drank and used drugs. I fantasized. I swallowed amphetamine inhalers. I masturbated compulsively. I got into fights. I boxed—though I was terrible at it—and I broke into houses. I’d steal girls’ panties, I’d jack off, grab cash out of wallets and purses. The method was easy: you call a house and if nobody answers, that means nobody’s home. I’d stick my long, skinny arms in a pet access door and flip the latch, or find a window that was loose and raise it open. Everybody has pills and alcohol. I’d pop a Seconal, drink four fingers of Scotch, eat some cheese out of the fridge, steal a ten-dollar bill, then leave a window ajar and skedaddle. I did time in county jail for useless misdemeanors. I was arrested once for burglary, but it got popped down to misdemeanor trespassing.


The press thinks that I’m a larger-than-life guy. Yes, that’s true. But a lot of the shit written about me discusses this part of my life disproportionately.


INTERVIEWER


Aren’t you responsible for this? You’ve written a lot about this period, and you frequently talk about it in interviews.


ELLROY


I’ve told many journalists that I’ve done time in county jail, that I’ve broken and entered, that I was a voyeur. But I also told them that I spent much more time reading than I ever did stealing and peeping. They never mention that. It’s a lot sexier to write about my mother, her death, my wild youth, and my jail time than it is to say that Ellroy holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books.


INTERVIEWER


Still, writing couldn’t have been exactly in the forefront of your mind at the time.


ELLROY


But it was. I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist. I just didn’t think that I would write crime novels. I thought that I would be a literary writer, whose creative duty is to describe the world as it is. The problem is that I never enjoyed books like that. I only enjoyed crime stories. So more than anything, this fascination with writing was an issue of identity. I had a fantasy of what it meant to be a writer: the sports cars, the clothes, the women.


But I think what appealed to me most about it was that I could assume the identity of what I really loved to do, which was to read. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a novel. I didn’t live in the world of graduate writing schools. I wasn’t part of any scene or creative community. I happened to love crime novels more than anything, so I wrote a crime novel first. I didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories, and only later write a novel. I never liked reading short stories, so why the fuck should I want to write one? I only wanted to write novels.


—from “James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201.” Interviewed by Nathaniel Rich. The Paris Review. Issue 190, Fall 2009

lines from the pulps: “her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her”

The opening chapter of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:

[postman-always-rings-cain-def-8834613.jpg]

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

That was when I hit this Twin Oaks Tavern. It was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California. There was a lunchroom part, and over that a house part, where they lived, and off to one side a filling station, and out back a half dozen shacks that they called an auto court. I blew in there in a hurry and began looking down the road. When the Greek showed, I asked if a guy had been by in a Cadillac. He was to pick me up here, I said, and we were to have lunch. Not today, said the Greek. He layed a place at one of the tables and asked me what I was going to have. I said orange juice, corn flakes, fried eggs and bacon, enchilada, flapjacks, and coffee. Pretty soon he came out with the orange juice and the corn flakes.


"Hold on, now. One thing I got to tell you. If this guy don’t show up, you’ll have to trust me for it. This was to be on him, and I’m kind of short, myself."


"Hokay, fill’m up."


I saw he was on, and quit talking about the guy in the Cadillac. Pretty soon I saw he wanted something.


"What you do, what kind of work, hey?"


"Oh, one thing and another, one thing and another. Why?"


"How old you?"


"Twenty-four."


"Young fellow, hey? I could use young fellow right now. In my business."


"Nice place you got here."


"Air. Is a nice. No fog, like in a Los Angeles. No fog at all. Nice, a clear, all a time nice a clear."


"Must be swell at night. I can smell it now."

"Sleep fine. You understand automobile? Fix’m up?"


"Sure. I’m a born mechanic."


He gave me some more about the air, and how healthy he’s been since he bought this place, and how he can’t figure it out, why his help won’t stay with him. I can figure it out, but I stay with the grub.


"Hey? You think you like it here?"


By that time I had put down the rest of the coffee, and lit the cigar he gave me. "I tell you how it is. I got a couple of other propositions, that’s my trouble. But I’ll think about it. I sure will do that all right."


Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.


"Meet my wife."


She didn’t look at me. I nodded at the Greek, gave my cigar a kind of wave, and that was all. She went out with the dishes, and so far as he and I were concerned, she hadn’t even been there. I left, then, but in five minutes I was back, to leave a message for the guy in the Cadillac. It took me a half hour to get sold on the job, but at the end of it I was in the filling station, fixing flats.


"What’s your name, hey?"


"Frank Chambers."


"Nick Papadakis, mine."


We shook hands, and he went. In a minute I heard him singing. He had a swell voice. From the filling station I could just get a good view of the kitchen.

lines from pulp fiction: “outside was the city, and it had halitosis”

Donald E. Westlake, The Mercenaries (1960)

Clay is a hit man – he organizes ‘accidents’ for his boss Ed Ganolese. Ed is into vice and drugs, lining his pockets every time anyone wants a girl or a fix. Trouble hits Ed when his pusher, Billy-Billy, gets himself hooked. And goes on the run. Clay must arrange an ‘accident’, but first he has to find him. But there’s someone else looking for Billy-Billy. Someone even bigger and with more muscle than Ed. Which causes Ed even bigger problems… (from the jacket copy)  

 

 

 

Outside was the city, and it had halitosis. The air was hot and damp, and breathing was a conscious matter. 

I thought about Grimes, and the boys he would probably have somewhere across the street, waiting for me to lead them to Billy-Billy Cantell. I was the only one moving on either sidewalk, and most of the windows across the way were dark, except for a couple of night owls on the upper floors. Cars were parked along both sides of the street, though they’d all be gone in a little over four hours, at eight in the morning, when the no-parking ban goes into effect. In daylight, most of these cars would be two or three different colors, pastels, pinks and blues and all the other nursery shades, but now, in the hot darkness of almost-four in the morning, they were all black. Even the chrome spattered all over them looked subdued. 

There was one street light on this side, way down to my left, and one across the street, off to my right. Grimes’ boys would probably be in one of the cars parked directly across the way, in the blackness just out of reach of both street lights. 

My street, in the West 80’s, is a one-way east. The parking garage where I keep my Mercedes is down at the western end of the block, with entrances both on my street and on Columbus Avenue. If a cop was planning to tail me, and he was in the middle of this block, aimed at Central Park, and I was to go out the Columbus Avenue way and head straight downtown, that cop would have to circle all the way around the block to get where I’d started from. It shouldn’t be too tough to avoid being tailed.

I plodded down the street toward the garage, and as soon as I moved, the sweat broke out all over me. I could feel the drops gathering on my forehead, getting ready for the straight run down through my eyebrows and into my eyes. Under the charcoal grayness of my suit, my white shirt was already sticking to me, and my tie was a hunk of warm rope around my neck. It was too hot and muggy to move, or to think, or to go running out of an air-conditioned apartment and look all over New York for a two-bit hophead with friends. 

An orange cab cruised by, the dim yellow vacancy light lit on its top, and it looked like a big, wide-mouth, toothy fish, mooching around in the seaweed at the ocean’s floor. That was a nice cooling thought, and I clung to it for a minute, until I got a look at the cabby behind the wheel. He looked twice as hot as I felt, and my shirt, in sympathy with him, got a tighter grip on my back. 

 I walked into the garage office, and the Puerto Rican kid who works nights was sitting there behind the desk, reading a comic book. He grinned and nodded at me and went away, without having said a word, to get my car. 

The office was hot and bright yellow. The kid had left the comic book open on the desk and I leafed through it while I waited for him to come back. The lettering in the balloons was all in Spanish, but you don’t need the lettering to read a comic book. What was that the comic-book publisher was quoted as saying? “We are retooling for illiteracy.” I flipped the pages over and looked at the pictures. 

The Mercedes hummed down the ramp and the kid climbed out, looking happy. It didn’t matter to him that he didn’t own any of the cars in this building. Just so he got the chance to drive them up and down the ramps, he was happy. How many Puerto Rican kids get the opportunity to drive a Mercedes-Benz 190SL?

 

more from stewart meyer’s the lotus crew

 

 

 
                                                                                            

DR.

      NOVA

                                                                                            

 

 

 l Not Too Long Ago, N.Y.C.—-l

 

 

 

 

T lit a thick reefer of golden-red Jamaican and looked out the window at a perpetually teeming Sheridan Square. He hadn’t been out of the joint long enough to adjust to having so many options and didn’t know what to do first. He was about to throw on his jacket and take a walk when the buzzer sounded. That was rare. The bell plate downstairs was a dummy. In order to ring you had to remove the plate and connect two wires underneath. It was either Alvira or one of the Rastas bringing him some cake from the ganja shops. Praise Jah. He glanced at a mirror that afforded full view of the front stoop. It was Alvira.

 

T clicked into his business personality as he buzzed the door open. Mr. Sparks waited for footsteps on the stairs.

 

“Alvira, I thought you stepped out of the circle, m’man.

 

You’re two days late.”

 

“Yeah, I had a little blowout while you were gone, T. Figured I committed myself to being a good boy once we start, so I’d party one last time for—”

 

“You have a habit?”

 

“Naw. Didn’t run that long. Just three or four days. I feel fine, baby. I’m ready to go. You have the number set up yet?”

 

T shrugged and passed Alvira the reefer. “You know what makes a pro in this business, Alvira?” he said with convic­tion. “A dealer does not use. That’s either a law of physics or it should be, dig?” Tommy’s sharp liquid brown eyes, were fixed on his friend.

 

Alvira had his own thoughts on the matter, but outwardly he agreed. He had no business contradicting T. When it came to the trade, T was usually right. Out of sheer respect for his partner’s financial expertise, Alvira nodded emphat­ically.

 

“I remember a cool that worked for me years ago uptown, back when 1 was running that Doublesmile bag.

 

“Yeah, before you went to the can. That had to be three years ago.

 

“Yeah. So this cool would meet me once a week, and I’d pass him the medicine all bagged and ready. Fifties, with the Doublesmile logo stamped on each sealed quarter-gram bag. He’d hand me the cake from the last bunch, and I’d hand him the new material. I never once counted the cake, Alvira. It was always on the money. This was cookin’ for maybe six months. The two of us were splitting over four grand weekly behind this number, so I just assumed I was the best friend this cool ever had and he’d never fuck me over, you know? So one day 1 show and he’s got the shorts. Some riff about his wife’s sick and he dropped two grand on specialists. But while he’s talkin’ I can sense his condi­tion. I figured he just had a little blowout like the one you’re talkin’ about . . . ”

 

Alvira flushed.

 

” … So I told him we’d split the shorts and handed him his next week’s material as if everything was natch. I never saw him next week. Alvira. Never seen him since. Imagine blowin’ that kind of weekly turn for a lousy burn.”

 

“Pretty shortsighted,” Alvira conceded.

 

“Fuckin’ stupid is what it is. But when a man’s usin’ he’s not there anymore. You ask him a question and Jones an­swers for him. Tell him to expel Jones and he says, ‘What Jones?’ I been in the game too long for that sound, Alvira. I don’t want to hear it from anyone. Certainly not a friend.”

 

Alvira’s eyes tightened. “If youre worrying about me, T, I’m steppin’ out of the box. I know myself. If I say I’m gonna do it right, that’s what’ll happen. I didn’t try’n hide my blowout, and I didn’t do it on credit.” Alvira looked towards the door. “If I’m going to worry you let’s chill it out right now—”

 

T put his open palm up in a bid for silence. “Don’t talk Iike that, Alvira. I set this up for the two of us, and that’s the way the play stays. I trust you. That’s rare on this planet, but I do. God knows why. Just an instinct I guess. If I’m soundin’ down on you its because I know our friend Mr. Jones too well. 1 don’t want him workin’ against us. You’re gonna have to face some tasty schmooz in this game. Every time we reup material well have to sample it. Extreme caution is in order or Jones will make his pres­ence felt. Believe me.”

 

I hear you.”

 

”This is a chance for us to take some real steps forward, Alvira. We’ll triple our cake on the first play, and youll get acquainted with my supply people so you can negotiate fu­ture buys without me. We’ll be sittin’ right if this goes down. Think about it.”

 

“Oh, hey, I think about it all the time.”

 

Alvira broke eye contact to fumble for a match. He lit a Three Castles and sat back, relieved that T had turned his attention to preparing another reefer.

 

A slight tremble passed through Alvira, and he recog­nized the modulation of his system from opiated to mild yen. A gentle hunger, not a fierce need. Another few days and he’d’ve found himself in trouble.

 

“Here, Alvira, this reefer’s laced with freebase. Should distract you from the blowout blues.”

 

Alvira sat back comfortably in a soft blue chair by the window, dreaming about his first sniff in the school yard long ago. He’d felt better at once, as if some great abstract adjustment had been made. Boyhood chalk on the street for years. A lot of time had passed since hed played handball on the factory wall, watching the workers perform their ted­iums through bleak dirt-smoked windows. Alvira swore hed never end up like that. It’d be like doing time without a conviction.

 

“Alvira, you seem miles away. Dreamin’ about all the cake you’re gonna make?”

 

“Just dreamin’, actually, about a pinch of powder to the wind on a gray afternoon years ago,”

 

T knew the ritual. A pinch of powder to the wind for the souls who’ve slid into Endless Nod 

 

chapter two of stewart meyer’s the lotus crew

 

A high school junkie’s reading list: a “Library of the Damned. Crowley, De Quincey, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Coleridge. Getting weary of the antique, they slid into Alexander Trocchi, Leroy Street, Piri Thomas, Malcolm X. They almost gagged on Burroughs but got it down. Burroughs was good to chill out on.” 

N 

 

l—Child of Nova—l 

 

 

John Jacob Pennington, age sixteen, had basic universal knowledge down to two self-evident premises. First: high school is a stone drag. Small wonder so many educated people committed suicide. Second: one thing made it toler­able. The goodness. With a little powdered cool he could calmly sit right through the most tedious pedantic fits his teachers could invoke. He didn’t have to doodle or move his legs furiously back and forth or in any way tip his mitt to the fact that he was bored beyond reason by the asinine assumptions, the condescending smuggery, of his learned instructors. JJ’s mind absorbed basic paradox gracefully. He knew that nobody really knows anything. Was that a secret? Had somebody forgotten to tell them? The teachers re­minded JJ of ex-cons in that there was a dreary institutional predictability to them. Every ex-con he knew preconceived the same things in similar ways; stock questions and stock answers. Teachers were a notch below, actually. They were so busy cross-referencing and analyzing that they missed what was happening right under their noses.

 

JJ scratched his crotch and flipped pages of the book he was reading. It was study-hall period, and he’d just administered a healthy bang of Dr. Nova in a deserted balcony abovethe auditorium. Now he’d be able to sit it out. Study-hall was one of the few periods JJ liked. It allowed him to read what he wanted. First he’d burned down various histories of Hannibal. Baddest warrior the world has ever seen, and dark like JJ. But history couldn’t hold him. Who really knows what happened back then? People can’t agree on what happened five minutes ago right in front of their faces.

 

The next phase of his reading career began with that cantankerous and kinky Englishman, the Beast. Crowley! The book was called Diary of a Drug Fiend, a title hard to resist. So, sitting in MartinLutherKing Jr.Memorial Park on the corner of Dumont Avenue and Miller in East New York, JJ exposed himself to genteel blanco bohemianisms. “Prudence, I have some lovely heroin you might enjoy.” Sheeea-zit, Jim! It boggle the mind. JJ told Furman Whittle about Crowley, and a new regime kicked in. Drug literature. Together they braved dusty bloodless corridors of those bone-dry pavilions of illiteracy: libraries, most of them on college campuses, as what they were seeking had an air of contraband. This was their discovery after asking a maternal librarian for a copy of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by De Quincey and receiving instead a verbose lecture that she didn’t want mistaken for a verbal reprimand but, given her tact, had all the qualities of one. Evoking such passionate outpourings from so contained a creature further ignited their hungry young appetites.

 

Down in the coal room under JJ’s building, where they hung out like the Mighty Mezz cloistered away from all those petty Earthlings up there, they started to build their own book collection. A slumbum Library of the Damned. Crowley, De Quincey, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Coleridge. Getting weary of the antique, they slid into Alexander Trocchi, Leroy Street, Piri Thomas, Malcolm X. They almost gagged on Burroughs but got it down. Burroughs was good to chill out on. Just like Billie Holiday was good to nod out on. A thick stolen Webster’s dictionary cleared up the mysteries of words. Without the slightest effort their reading vocabularies were becoming immense. They could pull up some erudite verbiage and baffle Mr. Fob to the bone.

 

JJ was snapped out of his study hall dream-reading session by a sharp, obtrusive voice. A subtle bark, if there is such a thing.  

 

 

“Reading Coleridge, are you, John Jacob?”

 

Lazy eyes looked up into the face of none other than Mr.

 

Fob, a stiff disciplinarian and renowned imposer of sophomore English, JJ had recently concluded it was not the material that was dead but the delivery boy.

 

“Yesssa,’ JJ let out, perched over a copy of Kubla Khan, propping the lids open.

 

“You look very tired, John Jacob. Are you getting enough sleep these days?”  

 

“Yesssa.”

 

“Well, see that you’re alert for my class. You are among my brighter students, and I expect your performance to reflect that fact. Say, are you high on something?”

 

“Noooosssa!”

 

Mr. Fob did not look convinced. “John Jacob, if you al-low yourself to use narcotics, you will be betraying the natural gifts God gave you. No one on drugs ever amounted to anything. You’re not sheltered. You should know that.”

 

“Yessssa.” Shit, good thing Mr. Fob hadn’t laid his sound on Coleridge, or there’d be no Kubla Khan.

 

Mr. Fob sat down, making his bulky form ridiculous by squeezing it into the undersized seat. “Please roll up your sleeves for me, John Jacob,’ he barked softly, eyes knowing and smug. He wrinkled his face like a jewel appraiser. “I’ve seen needle marks. If you have none I’ll apologize, but—”

 

“Yesssssa,” JJ, eyes painfully wide open, rolled up both sleeves of his cotton pastel-blue shirt. The arms were spanking clean, and he turned them over slowly so Mr. Fob could verify this. JJ never hit his arms. Like wearing a sign for the heat. As juicy as those lines were, he let them be.

 

“Well, they look clean to me,” Mr. Fob said astutely, eyes straining through Coke-bottle wire rims. “But that doesn’t mean you haven’t taken pills or drunk something.”

 

“Noooosssa. Jus’ no sleep las’ ni’. I was playin’ basketball an’ the guys aks me t’ hang out’n sing late. We was hittin’ fows an’ bows all ni’, sa. Dass all.”

 

“Well, all right. Your eyes say something else, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Say, are you in the glee club?”

 

“Ohh, noooossa. I c’n on’y sing fows an’ bows wi’ m’frien’s. I don’ likes t’be singin’ nothin’ else.”

 

Mr. Fob’s exasperated sigh marked the end of the conversation. He rose to his feet, shook his head, and went on to educate someone else.

 

beating the law in the lower east side, 1980: “all you have to do with cops is be comprehensible”

Stewart Meyer’s novel The Lotus Crew tells the story of the junkie Alvira and his gangster-connected partner Tommy in the merciless world of New York City’s Lower East Side, circa 1980 or so. The pair known for selling the best heroin in New York, but after being betrayed by a fellow crew member, they take revenge to restore their vision of order on the streets. From the dust jacket of the original Grove Press edition (which I own, and you, whoever you are, probably don’t!):

 

Alphabet City. Bounded by Avenue A to the West and Avenue D to the East, New York‘s Lower East Side is an urban jungle of abandoned buildings teeming with shadows and junkie life. What turns a war zone of gutten tenements into a buzzing market place complete with scoring pads and shooting galleries, bag men and steerers controlling the unceasing flow of traffic is a precious beige powder packaged in machine-tucked glassine bags. They come stamped with a logo and are shrink-sealed in plastic. The name of the game is heroin, and in Lotus Land heroin is serious business.

 

A homage to William S. Burroughs — can one write a novel about heroin without it reading as a homage to El Hombre Invisible? — Burroughs himself said that "The Lotus Crew is a superbly crafted novel that says the most basic things about power, corruption, loyalty, and the total need of heroin addiction. Stewart Meyer is a writer to watch; The Lotus Crew is better than a move."

 

The opening chapter:

 


 

l—Walk The Plankl

They can smell yen on a Caucasian. Both vendadors and police have a sixth sense for it and know you’re out of synch, tense, anxious about essentials. You are down on Earth with one thought: to keep it brief. You don’t care how overt your obsessiveness becomes to Earthlings. Puny exploited sacks of shit and pus. How could they understand anything?

Delancey Street crackled shameless like a neon leper colony. It was a dismal October afternoon in the year 1982. A cold mist abstracted the street.

Alvira’s eyes periscoped over the rim of his gray sun-glasses, and he took in the social order of the park like a demented anthropologist. No need to approach anyone. The monkey would take care of it.

"Senor, the Toilet is open. Open an’ smokin’, poppa. Yus’ sit on thee bench an’ hab j’muny ready." Moving with metronomically correct loose-skeleton boogie-bebob gestures, the touter attempted to usher Alvira over to the bench where Toilet was operating, extending a wiry Latin arm with tracks along the main vein.

Alvira saw the three-man crew; one guy fanning bags, one taking cake, another looking mean. An evolving population of mostly blanco junkies waited impatiently to get near the bagman for their play and haul ass away from the muggers and cops who make their daily bread tormenting lotus users. Of course, being heat on junk turf is no breeze. Nobody backs down. A slumbum will not drop his dick in public. If he does he can’t pick it up.

"Lookin’ for Black Sunday, B. You see’m around?"

"Sunday close. Cops take their bags. On’y got Toilet, poppa. On’a muny On’a muny." The touter drew the fingers of his left hand together, kissed the tips, blew the kiss to God for creating such baaad shit. "No’sing touch Toilet out here, m’man. It’s a monster. Be suckin’ j’toes on uno bag."

"Thanks, man, I’ll pass and take a walk. If I don’t see Black Sunday I’ll be back."

The thin lines of his conquistador moustache parted like a Venus’s-flytrap as he smiled. "Buy dummies f’sho’ go down that way." He pointed towards Rivington Street, across the park.

So that’s where they were! Handy Carbona had told Alvira that the Sunday crew had no set spot but moved around the area from Houston Street to Forsyth, from ChrystieStreetPark to Allen Street. Their boss was a blue-eyed Puerto Rican named Kono, who was the only one you could safely hand money to.

"Ba hondo!"

"Fao! Fao!"

"Agua! Ba hondo!"

They both turned as the cry spread through the park. Best not to make any sudden moves. Alvira walked slowly away from the touter and sat on a far bench. The Tactical prowler stood ten feet from the bench where Toilet had been operating. Customers and vendadors acting nonchalant, preoccupied, fooling no one. The moments crept by. They should all whip out Bibles and go into theopathic convulsions, Alvira thought. All you have to do with cops is be comprehensible.

"Red light! Keep walkin’!"

Alvira lit a cigarette and watched with mounting impatience, eyes watery, skin crawling. The sweat under his arms felt like harsh acid, lungs tight as if from a severe flu. If he didn’t score soon he’d be farting butterscotch.

Two uniforms emerged from the prowler and began to hassle the Toilet crew. It’s protocol to stash all bags when the lookouts cry out, so everyone was clean. But the cops were going to do their paper shit, their "warrant check," just to tie up the festivities. They did not appear to notice Alvira. He got up and walked slowly away from the bad news.

Might as well check Rivington Street. Sure enough, as he neared the bodega another touter smelled his yen.

"Black Sunday! Inside, secon’ floor," the man said. Alvira passed and went into the bodega, bought a container of coffee. He’d heard Sunday worked outside, not in buildings. He’d also heard people passed Black Sunday dummies. Only buy from Kono. Alvira watched for a few minutes. Business was thriving. Must be the real thing.

The touter gave him a strange look but stepped aside. A thick honcho inside was not as polite.

"Got tracks, m’ man?"

"No tracks," Alvira said. "I sniff."

The man smirked. "No good, B. J’bad company." The honcho lifted his arm to signal for assistance, and Alvira saw another man move to surround him. "Spleet now, dig?"

"Wait, m’man, listen. Handy Carbona told me to look for Kono and score Sunday if I want to get straight. I used to score from Dr. Nova in this building, but I been away. You know Carbona?"

The honcho grinned. "Dude was on m ‘program. Gulp mo’ Jesus jizz than any ten men." He called off his backup. "Why’nt j’say Handy sent j’? Go up. Hab j’muny ready."

Alvira walked farther into the shadowy abandoned building. Another crew worker sat on the stairs with a shotgun resting across his fat lap. He was talking to a wiry blood. "Blancos ain’t no good on musical instruments, man. They should stick to calculators and typewriters." He looked up at Alvira. "Secon’ floor on the left."

On the way up, it hit Alvira that something wasn’t right.

Just as vendadors and la hara smell yen, the junkie smells a ripoff or bust. Not the scents he was getting. Something, some small detail, was off. Alvira’s left hand moved into ms jacket pocket, where he slid the safety off his Raven. 25 automatic. There was a round in the chamber. Whatever was off he’d cool. 

read the rest of chapter one

scenes from secret libraries: louise welsh’s the cutting room

 

immoral filth by a filthy immoralist: just the sort
of reading a sex murdered would bone up on…
(atrocious pun purely accidental)

Welsh’s debut novel, The Cutting Room (2002), quickly found an enthusiastic readership who claimed it for the ranks of the literary crime genre. Some readers, however, remained uncomfortable with aspects of the book. Auctioneer Rilke comes across a set of disturbing photographs while clearing a house in his native Glasgow. The pictures appear to show a woman before and after she is murdered for the sexual gratification of, among others, the recently deceased owner of the house. Feeling compelled to seek out the truth about both parties, and what really happened, Rilke sets out on a journey which takes him via contacts in the second hand trade through to some decidedly dangerous customers operating in a much shadier criminal underworld.  (from Lousie Welsh’s British Council page) 

 

The ladder to the attic was folded against the ceiling, as Miss McKindless had described. I found a pole behind the door and hooked it down. I could see why the old lady would find access impossible. I hadn’t mentioned it, but despite my height, I’m not good at altitude. I put my foot on the first rung, the aluminium rattle sounding loud against the silence of the house, and climbed. The trap had a Yale and a mortise lock. I struggled for a minute or two, holding the ladder with one hand, fumbling around in my pockets for the keys with the other, changing hands, finding the keys, then searching for the right ones in the anonymous jumble. The ground started to slip away. I reeled against the ladder, realising I was about to lose balance, then a key turned smoothly in the mortise, the Yale beside it clicked home, I pushed open the trap door and hauled myself in.

  

I stood for a minute in the dark, half crouched, my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath, then, unsure of the height of the ceiling, cautiously straightened and felt for the light switch. 

  

I was standing in a long, thin room perhaps half the length of the house. Bare floorboards, clean for an attic. The ceiling began midway up the walls, angling to a peak. Three small windows that would let in a little light during the day. Along the right-hand wall were racks of metal shelving holding tidily stacked cardboard boxes. The left wall was covered in waist-high, dark oak bookcases, books neatly arranged. In the centre were a plain office desk and chair, to their left a high-backed armchair, comfortable but scruffy, inherited from some other room, beside it a bottle of malt, Lagavulin. Dead man’s drink. I unscrewed the cap and inhaled a quick scent of iodine and peat which caught the back of my throat. It was the good stuff, right enough. There was no cup so I took the end of my shirt and rubbed it along the mouth of the bottle before taking a good slug. I was curious about the contents of the cardboard boxes but turned first to the bookcase. 

 

It is revealing how people arrange their books. I was once in a house where the couple, man and wife, committed collectors of first editions, had placed every book in a sealed plastic bag, then on the shelves, spine in, pages out. `That way they won’t get sun-damaged,’ they explained. Others arrange books according to height, the tallest first, top shelf, left-hand corner, tapering down to the tiniest at the very bottom. Me, I have them willy-nilly, on suitcase, shelf and floor.

 

Mr McKindless had employed the age-old method of alphabetical by author, with the occasional grouping of publisher. Regimented over three shelves was a large collection of Olympia Press. Little green and white paperbacks pressed together – The Sex Life of Robinson Crusoe, Stradella, White Thighs, The Chariot of Flesh, With Open Mouth … I have always admired Maurice Girodias. He founded the Olympia Press some time in the 1950s in Paris. Pornography was in the family, but before he put his profits into a hotel and lost he was a master of the art. Girodias would invent (un)suitable titles, advertise them as available for sale, and then, depending on the response to his advertisements, commission a writer to produce the book. Many a penurious writer subsisted on his cheques and not a few successful ones lost their royalties. He claimed that some tourists came to the city simply to purchase his titles. I agreed. The Olympia Press concentrated on the avant-garde, particularly sex, and people will travel further than Paris for that. Like many collectors McKindless seemed to have been compelled to own every title. I scanned through the novels. Yes, here it was, the first edition of Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch in its slip case. I had never handled one before. All the Henry Miller was here, too.

 

The Olympia novels were just a start. Shelves and shelves of erotic fiction. It was a library that would fetch something. I took a rough note, glad it wasn’t me who would have to manoeuvre the boxes down the ladder. Here was the private man. The personality I had missed below stairs, confined to the attic like a mad Victorian relative.

 

I pulled open the drawer to the desk and had a look inside. Stationery, some nice pens, nothing much. Out of habit my fingers skimmed the underside of the drawer. There was something taped there. I took out my penknife and slit it free. A simple white card. GPM camera-Z Cryptic. I replaced the drawer and slipped the card into my pocket. I considered stopping. Almost left right there. It was the whisky that drew me back. One moredrink, leave the van in the driveway till morning, last orders at the Melrose, then a walk through the park and see what gave. It was the good stuff. A reward for working so hard, being clever enough to arrange a big deal, a pat on the back from me to me. I should know myself: that bottle was too full and I was too empty. I took it with me and started on box number one, the kind of thing all good citizens leave behind, paperwork, old documents, things that really could have been thrown away and kept for why? The next two boxes were pretty much the same, old magazines, records, more paper, my progress was slowing, the bottle halfway lower in its mark than when I began. One more box I decided – leave it on an even number, while I could still negotiate the ladder. At first it looked like more of the same. The general detritus of life, bumf, short for bum fodder, bills filed then kept to no purpose, bank statements – all showing an impressive balance – insurance policies never claimed on.

 

To anyone watching, my investigations would have appeared haphazard, but I have the skill of the searcher. Without looking I can sort silk from cotton velvet, cashmere from angora, I can tell with my finger tips an etching from a print. And I can turn base metal into gold. I think that if there is anything good in a box I will find it. Who knows what’s passed me by?

 

It was an envelope. Just a buff-coloured, thick-papered, document envelope. Straight away I knew it held photographs. I could feel them, the weight, the uniform size, photos not good enough for an album. Two thick rubber bands secured the folds, one pink, one blue. Pink for a girl. Blue for a boy. I pulled the bands off, slipping them tight round my wrist, they caught in the hairs of my arm, swift visions of mad nights. I kept them there, a taut reminder, and slid the photographs into my hand.

 

Mr McKindless is wearing a white shirt and bow tie. His hair has lost some of its Brylcreemed bounce, it lies damp and plastered across his forehead. His attention is focused on the young girl in his arms. She is pretty, pale-faced and lipsticked. Her head thrown backwards in his embrace, her dark curls, ringlets almost, tumbling away from her face. She is naked except for suspenders and stockings, and seems almost asleep. McKindless looks as if he is talking, trying to rouse her. Still she gazes, sleepy and smiling, not at him but towards the man who is entering her…

 

—Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room