crime and almost no punishment whatsoever, part 1

In the past couple of years I’ve been reading a lot of the Hard Case Crime novels. They have a very distinct visual design, with lurid cover paintings and white spines with bold red lettering and the signature yellow ribbon on the front saying “Hard Case.” The first one I read was The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King, and it’s actually almost completely unlike the rest of the run; I suspect he just gave them a short novel he had lying around to give them a little name buzz when they were first starting. The Colorado Kid is about an unsolved murder, and it’s one of the most philosophically disturbing books I’ve ever read. Like The Name of the Rose, it’s an un-mystery: it methodically crushes our assumptions about mystery stories. But whereas Rose comes off, in the end, as an unforgivably long and involved postmodern joke, The Colorado Kid frustrates your expectations in a way that simply leaves you unsettled about the nature of storytelling. It’s hard to say more than that without spoiling it, but obviously I liked it.

After I read that book, I decided to give others in the series a chance, which, again, was probably the point of signing King on in the first place. I don’t normally read mysteries — they have a clockwork sameness I don’t care for — but these are really crime novels mis-shelved. Mostly they’re reprints of paperback quickies from the ’50s and sometimes the early ’60s, and so they don’t belong to the Hammett/Chandler/Cain era, but rather to the era of the great Hitchcock films — Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo — and they deal with many of the same themes, especially, of course, the evil lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface of postwar American life. But where Hitchcock always went for the bizarre, the elaborate, and the Freudian, these novels tend to be about quickly-sketched, clearly defined, and quite concrete problems — revenge, lust for a wicked woman, being framed for a crime, pulling a heist. A lot of the characters in these novels are ex-military, and the war, though it’s rarely described directly, seems to have made these young men tough. Then they come home to a peaceful, prosperous life, a world of family sedans and ranch houses and tour buses and roadside diners, and they tend to become, often unwillingly, an element of havoc in that world.

There’s a fairly simple code in these books — the guy who just wants to make good but is forced into an evil situation by others will usually come out on top, but the guy who jumps at a quick score (whether money or a woman) is usually screwed. (This is different, of course, from Hammett’s code, which was roughly, you’d better be a bad motherfucker ’cause people are looking to take you.) The ending is thus usually predictable, but these old guys write such a lean, intense story that it’s a pleasure just getting there.

Here’s the first paragraph from Say It With Bullets, which I’ve just finished:

“At the overnight stop in North Platte, Nebraska, Bill Wayne didn’t copy the other tourists in the party when they bought postcards to mail to friends. He was running a little low on friends these days. Once he had classed five guys as friends but they had picked up a habit of doing things behind his back, like shooting at it. The only wish-you-were-here postcard he wanted to send them was a picture of a cemetery.”

Awful, right? All the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and full of corny jokes. But this is great pop writing — its approach is direct and its emotions are genuine. Already, in four sentences, everything you need to get the story moving is in play. This guy is part of a tour group, but he’s different from the rest of them. Five guys he used to trust have been trying to kill him. And he wants to return the favor. It’s the whole initial impetus of the plot, economically condensed into one short paragraph.

This is how popular writing could be — spare, efficient, cognizant of its limitations and modest in its ambitions. Not octilogies of fantasy novels comprised, as Randall in Clerks II noted, primarily of walking. Not fat, sausage-like novels crammed with military geekporn — twenty-page descriptions of submarines, for Christ’s sake. And not lousy “mysteries” that are hardly mysterious at all and can only be distinguished from one another by the rococo quirks of their detectives.

The crime stories that have come my way on DVD recently have not been quite so modest or efficient; there’s always been a healthy dose of fatalistic philosophy in crime fiction, but the criminal in Grosse Pointe Blank is seriously lost in malaise, to the point that he is no longer even interested in being a criminal.

I saw this odd little comedy ten years ago when it came out, and I remember thinking it was all right but not great, that it leaned too much on its over-clever premise — a hit man goes to his decade high school reunion, reconnects with the girl he loved and his humanity. I still think there’s no getting around the high-concept feel, and the plot device of Dan Aykroyd’s character wanting to start a “hit man’s union” doesn’t help.

But seeing it again, I feel like the movie has a few things going for it. The dialogue is clean and sharp as cracked ice, and the writers nail three subtly different variations on rapid-fire patter: the acid-laced argot of Martin Blank (John Cusack) and his arch-rival (the Aykroyd character), the uneasy, searching wit of friendships rejoined after a long time (Jeremy Piven slips easily into the role of co-conspirator at the godawful reunion), and the magic and soreness of returning to a love long-lost but never abandoned. This is all very lightweight — the moment you start to think about it, it floats away like a dream — but that makes the elegant handling all the more impressive.

The film also benefits from some quietly intelligent direction from George Armitage. In one of the opening scenes, Martin is preparing to make a hit, and we see him setting up with a long-range rifle at a high window. Down below on the sidewalk, some VIP comes out of a hotel, surrounded by bodyguards. Suddenly a bike messenger appears, zipping down the street. He draws a gun. And in a very nice tracking move through Martin’s roost, we see the bike messenger through one window, follow Martin as he sidesteps across the room keeping a bead on the unseen cyclist through the wall, and see the bike messenger again through a second window across the room, still in Martin’s sights. This, and the hit, are all accomplished while Martin is talking calmly on the phone, and the blase way he goes about his work reflects the understated professional competence of the direction.

I also like the way Armitage — or Cusack, who co-wrote the script and co-produced — plays with musical cues. The released soundtrack CD is a collection of Eighties underground favorites, and it’s easy to think that the film regards all of them with equal nostalgic favor. But the film lures us into humming along to the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun,” only to have Martin turn off the radio in irritation. It’s a nice little warning: Don’t think we’re going to let you be sentimental, even about having been cooler than the kids who were listening to the Bangles.

Grosse Pointe Blank also beat both Analyze This and The Sopranos, by about two years, to the idea of a killer needing a shrink. The relationship between Martin and his therapist (Alan Arkin) is funnier than DeNiro and Crystal’s played-out tough Italian/nervous Jew schtick — okay, no surprise there, but it’s also just as good, in its limited time, as The Sopranos in capturing the therapist’s terror at his client’s violence, even as he struggles to dispense good advice. Arkin’s Dr. Oatman is a full character, however briefly sketched — afraid of Martin, but unable to keep from snapping at him when he demands the impossible.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Grosse Pointe Blank is that, although it’s light as a feather, it manages to conjure a remarkable amount of melancholy and doubt, and also to redeem a lot of that doubt. Its characters, mostly in their late twenties, are as lost as any in a Douglas Coupland novel, but each of them is held together tightly, each is a packet of crackling, barely controlled energy and possibility, each is ready to explode and re-form into something new. Like the Futurists, these characters seem to believe they can outrun their existential fears through sheer energy and movement — they talk a million miles a minute, furiously building solid ground directly ahead of their feet and not looking back. I don’t know, even by the end, if they’ll succeed or not, but watching the attempt is pretty exhilirating.

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