Friday, December 16, 2016

CRIMINAL INTENT 1: Novellas by Marcia Muller, Ed Gorman and Bill Pronzini (Dark Harvest 1993): FFB Muller/Pronzini Week

The first (and last) volume in an attempt to replicate in crime fiction what publisher Dark Harvest had done so successfully in horror (and borderline suspense) fiction: original anthologies divided into thirds, each featuring new work from three notable writers in the fields, as Night Visions (in nine anthologies so fondly remembered that Subterranean Press briefly revived it for three more volumes a decade later). The uninspired jacket (illustration by Nikita Tkachuk, design uncredited) on this one might not've helped sales, but otherwise it's hard to see why such a good start didn't lead to more volumes in the series. No editor credited, but Ed Gorman does thank Muller and Pronzini for copy-editing and suggestions on his novella. Unlike most of the Night Visions volumes, no paperback edition was offered. More's the pity.

Marcia Muller: "The Wall"
Ed Gorman: "Moonchasers"
Bill Pronzini:  "Kinsmen"

Executive summary: 
You will not be sorry to have spent the time reading any of these three novellas, and they all involve young people being messed over by utterly corrupt elders, occasionally with the help of other young people but mostly through the abuse of the authority the primary villains have managed to be granted. All three involve beleaguered mothers, single or in one case would be better off single. Peripheral culture/counter-culture figures into each story, as does tough economic times and how that afflicts particularly suburban and exurban/small-town California and Iowa (a certain married couple of writers are Californians, and a certain third writer called Iowa his home). The men are particularly keen to give credit to their influences in their stories, particularly Ed's (where he slyly names a character after busy actor Ray Danton); "Moonchasers" manages to make its protagonist even more autobiographical than "Nameless Detective" Bill, the protagonist of Pronzini's story and much of his work, and Rae Kelleher, the assistant to the also heavily autobiographically-flavored Sharon McCone of Marcia Muller's best-known and most voluminous series of stories. 

Publication since this volume: 
Muller's McCone and Friends (Crippen & Landru 1999)
Gorman's Moonchasers and Other Stories (Forge Books 2000)
Pronzini's 2013 Cemetery Dance Books volume Kinsmen, though how the 70-page novella is offered at 180pp I'm not sure, unless the 1996 novel reworked from the novella, Sentinels, is somehow also involved in the later volume. 
All three are available as eBooks, the Muller in the collection (which also has an audiobook). 

The Muller is apparently the first story told from the point of view of the young (latter 20s), newly-fledged field investigator/private eye Rae Kelleher, the mentee of Sharon McCone, the veteran of a long and impressive series of novels; as noted above, a collection gathering stories written from the perspectives of other members of the All Souls Legal Cooperative, where McCone is based in the earlier novels, includes this novella. Kelleher does her best to apply what's she's learned from McCone and her other colleagues at All Souls, as well as some of her experience in private security work before that, and she finds she needs to summon her inner resources more thoroughly than she expected, as McCone is busy or distracted a fair amount of the time during the several days over which the story occurs. Kelleher is engaged to find a missing teenaged girl, who has vanished leaving no real clue as to how or why, aside from the titular wall, which bears images and mementos of rather recondite's up in her bedroom as apparently a sort of therapy. Her shady boyfriend, her single mother and fraternal aunt, and at least two sorts of work-bosses play roles in what has happened to her and those around her...Kelleher sometimes says things in her internal monolog that I find less than convincing, but only rarely (I think I see where Muller is fleshing out her character as she goes along, as opposed to the more fully-realized McCone of the novels and stories I've read); Rae also learns some hard lessons in the nature of law vs. justice by the story's end. Muller has a way with the flatly declarative observation from her characters that can be slyly double-bottomed, and usually by the character's intent. It's also notable that both McCone and Kelleher, with some of the limitations societal brainwashing and physical facts impose, have a strong sense of agency that sometimes surprises the male characters they have to deal with, and that some (not all) the women they meet lack...or feel that they do. 

Ed Gorman's story involves two kids, Tom and Barney, who might (particularly Tom) remind various people of the young Ed Gorman, stuck in a small town in Iowa, not bad teen boys but capable of mischief in the past, not much appreciated outside their families for their intelligence or sensitivity, though also as insensitive as any adolescent (and too many adults) are likely to be at times. They love their fiction magazines, Gold Medal paperbacks, Robert Mitchum's films, and similar work that allows them to see beyond their small town and its limited ability to engage or reward them, even as they try and fail to get dates and otherwise move toward manhood. Their greatest antagonist is an erratic arrested-development case who is on the local police force; at story's beginning they and he are at an uncomfortable standoff, as the bully mocks them whenever he sees them but dares not do much more; things get more serious, taking a number of turns. Gorman dedicates the story to Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, William Goldman, Earl Hamner, Jr. (he of The Homecoming and Spencer's Mountain and The Waltons, among much else including Twilight Zone episodes), the scripters of American Graffiti, Stephen King and Robert McCammon...which I think leaves out at least two important antecedents in Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury. As much as this story owes to Tom and Huck and Jim, Penrod and Sam, and Boys and Girls Together (a few years earlier in their lives)  it owes no little to the kids in such stories as "The Black Ferris" and even more to the family dynamics and characters of Sturgeon's "It"...and like the Sturgeon, has an immediacy and brilliance of detail that puts it ahead of Bradbury or King's similar work, or the film; for example, a vignette, later called back to, involving a dying hawk the boys try to help will get under your skin in a way King often reaches for without quite achieving, because Gorman was a better reporter of just how that would go. Perhaps the best of the three novellas, in a good might just dig the deepest.

Pronzini's Nameless has another missing daughter to find, this one a young adult college student, on a road trip with her new boyfriend, and they seem to have disappeared in or shortly after visiting a small town in the far northeastern part of California, near the corner bordering Oregon to the north and Nevada to the east...the kind of insular small town in the mountains which isn't too unlike similar enclaves in the Appalachians and the Ozarks, or around (if somewhat less makeshift than those near) the Salton Sea...the kind of people who inspired We Always Lie to Strangers and similar studies and compilations. The conversations tend to be a bit more clipped here than in the Muller or the Gorman, a bit more in the hardboiled tradition but not cartoonishly so by any means; the portrayals of the cast of too often cagy witnesses and other characters is also quite believable. This 1993 work does touch on the Christian Identity militias and similar expressions of racism and similar chauvinism already making themselves felt in the Far West as well as Mountain and Central Time Zones, and in their East Coast enclaves as well, though two years before the most destructive single example of their terrorism, bombing the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City--somehow still not The Day That Changed America that 9/11/01 was, thanks to the self-importance of some people. (After all, "only' one tenth as many people were slaughtered, if more young children than in NYC or Arlington or rural Penna...and They Weren't As Important!) Or, put another way, the soil of Trumpism has been accumulating for a very long time...

A deft trio, a procedural, a Bildungsroman, and a fair-play fact, a certain amount of all three in all three. It really is hard to believe that this book didn't do well enough to encourage further volumes...perhaps also a lack of enthusiasm in the marketplace for novellas was at play, or Dark Harvest's relative lack of connection with the crime-fiction audience. But you really can do much worse indeed than this fine collection of original stories. 

Please see other entries here for
Marcia Muller
Ed Gorman
Bill Pronzini

and for the reset of this week's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Sergio(Tipping My Fedora) said...

Don;t have this one but sounds great. I shall look into it ...

George said...

I'll have to track down a copy of CRIMINAL INTENT. I have a few DARK HARVEST books and enjoyed them. I like your choices of Pronzini's NAMELESS novels, although my favorite Pronzini novel is SNOWBOUND.

Todd Mason said...

That's the Nameless novel expanded from "Kinsmen"--haven't read SENTINELS yet..

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, I particularly like the sound of the Gorman and Pronzini novellas, probably for their intensity. Although, barring couple of Westerns by Ed Gorman, I haven't read any of the authors.

Todd Mason said...

i suspect that you can find some texts online, Prashant...just a matter of the time-investment. You'll be hard-pressed to find much better writers in crime fiction...and a few other areas...

Bill Pronzini said...

Very nice review, Todd. Thanks from Marcia and me for all the kind words.

Todd Mason said...

Not at all...thanks for checking in, and your benisons. I've been reading your work with pleasure since the mid '70s, and finally caught up with Marcia with TROPHIES AND DEAD THINGS when it was still new...and, as I mentioned here in my obituary post, first started reading Ed Gorman with his interview of Algis Budrys in SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW in 1978...