Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: Shooting Star & Spiderweb by Robert Bloch

If the private detective is the modern incarnation of the cowboy and the city the stand-in for the western town, what are we supposed to make of a PI who wears an eye patch in Hollywood? That is the first question upon seeing the cover of Shooting Star, Hard Case Crime's first (and not last?) foray into flip books, or doubles. Oh, and of course, who is that woman on the cover?

In Shooting Star, Mark Clayton is the PI (pirate?) who has a PI license and takes odd jobs whenever his job as an agent is slow. Clayton is asked by a friend to clear the name of one Dick Ryan, cowboy movie star, now murdered. You see, Clayton's friend, Harry Bannock, bought the rights to the films and is prepping them for television distribution. The only problem is that pot was found with Ryan, sullying the name of the once-clean star and Bannock's future profits.

This is the first Robert Bloch book I have ever read. I knew his name because of the novel, and later movie, Psycho. Honestly, there were parts of this story that slowed me down, trudging along. The topic was never too bad, it was the pace. It all goes back to expectations: when you get a Hard Case Crime novel, you expect fast paced material. Bloch's prose was slower, delving into the minds of the characters more than standard pulp fiction.

The best thing about Shooting Star was the ending where the culprit is revealed and I didn't really see it coming.

The flip side of this twofer is Spiderweb (1954) and this one hooked me right off the bat. Eddie Haines is about to kill himself when a C-note slides under the door. Before he knows it, he is in collusion with Professor Otto Hermann, con-man to the stars (this book is also set in Hollywood). Hermann gives Haines an alias under which Haines helps reel in suckers and relieve them of their money. But the desperate man Hermann lured away from death has a soul, and a conscience. And it is here where the story gets really interesting because Hermann has the goods on Haines and blackmails him. It's what Haines does next that provides the book its soul.

I enjoyed both books mainly because of their historical peek into 1950s Hollywood. Shooting Star, with its character Bannock and his transitioning to television, was pretty interesting to read. You got to hand it to Bloch: he had Bannock see the future pretty clearly. The ending of Star is much better than the ending of Web but Web is, I think, a more entertaining read. Bloch, I've read, loved Hollywood and wrote about it often. It shows. He has a knowledge only insiders have and it infuses both books with life.

What I Learned as a Writer: The one thing that did shine in both books is Bloch's prose. It's typical pulp prose, strong and muscular. Professor Hermann did come across a bit over-the-top but that's part of his charm. Bloch's use of action verbs and sentence fragments keeps the reader on edge and propels him forward. Characters never 'walked', they strode or paced.

Another aspect of Bloch's writing is his limited use of attributions like 'said' or 'asked.' He wrote his paragraphs in such a way that you don't need them to follow what's going on. It keeps the author out of the way and allows the characters to speak for themselves.

One of my favorite passages is this paragraph from Shooting Star:

This was Broadway. Not Broadway, New York. Broadway in L.A.; just a knife's throw from Main and a blind stagger from Olive. Bumway. Skidway. Wrongway. The kind of a street you find in every big city. Even in that nice eastern city where the newspaper doesn't want to contaminate its readers with sordid stories of unpleasant people.

I can just see the old grainy black-and-white film with a tough guy voiceover.

There's a quote from Stephen King inside the front cover of Spiderweb: "Perhaps the finest psychological horror writer." On the flip side, Peter Straub writes "Robert Bloch is one of the all-time masters." These quotes are obviously true but I'm guessing King and Straub were not referring to these books when they wrote those quotes. What these quotes, along with these good, but not great, crime novels tell me is that I need to read Psycho and other horror novels by Robert Bloch and find out what all the fuss is about.

P.S. (to Charles Ardai): please let this not be the last Hard Case Crime double novel.

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