Monday, 5 September 2011

FADE TO BLONDE BY MAX PHILLIPS

Whoever Max Phillips is* (I used to be one of those reviewers who did a lot of research, but that just meant my reviews wound up being regurgitated facts and subconscious plagiarism so now I make like Jack Spader and wait for a review to be dictated to me. By ghosts) he does a damned fine job of writing a vintage piece of noir, set in the seamy margins of the film business sometime in the 1950s, as far as I can tell from internal references. He goes straight for Chandler/Hammett territory and for the most part delivers a convincing period piece, right down to the somewhat rambling, episodic middle-acts that both the aforementioned masters often delivered, moving their sleuths from one seedy venue to another explosive confrontation to get the pieces in place for the final blow. Still, there are times when it's clear from certain mannerisms in the dialogue (especially the ploy of making 70% of a sentence? A question) that the writer has lived through the 2000s.

That's a minor complaint, because Phillips certainly delivers on most other fronts with a variety of colourful character, all sorts of sordid set-pieces and bursts of frantic action. There's a dame, and she's bad news for everyone around, especially herself. There's a hood, but we don't know everything about him until it's almost too late. There's a patsy, but the dame and the hood don't have his full measure. Various gangsters, crooks, lowlifes, minor functionaries, film world nobodies & used-to-be-somebodies and so forth prowl around the edges of the narrative darting in for quick bits of snappy dialogue and plot advancement. If anything, this novel is a bit too crowded for its 220 or so pages.

A bigger complaint is that the protagonist just doesn't add up. A failed screen writer and sometime-boxer, sometime bit-actor, he lived through some frightening moments in the second world war, but he's also well-read in a hard-bitten sort of way (he likes Chekhov and Stephen Crane, Hemingway tires him out). None of this really explains why he's such a fucking psycho. When anyone else would have been happy to get in a couple of solid punches and wind their opponent long enough to make a clean getaway, Corson will go for the jugular, every single time. Excessive violence is his only action mode and even in the tough circles he moves around in, he is known to be a bit of a wild card. Only, we're never given sufficient reasons why this is so.

So there you have it. Lots of good one-liners, a suitably sordid plot and a pretty good stab at old-fashioned noir entertainment through degradation even if there is an attempt to let a little sunshine through at the every end. Not something that I'll include in my list of all-time favourites, but by no means a bad way to spend your time and money.

*So I did my research afterwards, and he's one of the people running Hard Case crime. A bit cheeky to make one of his own books the second in the series, but at least it's obvious that this is an operation run by people who know a thing or two about their chosen area of operation. Also he gets huge points from me for this interview answer:

GM: Ray Corson, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe and Jeff Markham are in a bar and get into a drunken brawl. Who’s going to win?
MP: Jules Maigret glares at them over his beer and they all slink out in shame.

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