February 2006

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Damn the Man!

Balzac tells us one of the fundamental truths about ourselves: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.”

If only it were the other way around. Despite the immense popularity of crime, suspense, and thriller novels, it’s still a bitch to get them into print, and there’s no fortune to be had for most. For every colossus of crime, there are hundreds more either out there toiling in obscurity, or turning out great artful novels between shifts at their day jobs with little or no recognition.

That’s why it’s important for everyone, myself included, to push back from the fat table of mainstream publishing every so often and give some respect to the little guys. Small but mean, scrawny but suspiciously stubborn, they peer at us from the schoolyard every so often and you hear that whisper in the back of your mind, “Don’t fuck with that guy, man. He’s bad news.”

The small press is America, damn it. Without someone stepping up and saying, "To hell with it, print it," we’re screwed. From the pamphleteers in revolutionary New England right up to Ferlinghetti slapping together paperbacks at City Lights, putting together these small, potent volumes means something. It’s hard as hell to make a dent in this increasingly docile culture, let alone to let out a holler or a Howl. More recently, there was Black Sparrow Press, which kept a whole crowd of badasses like Bukowski in beer money and, more importantly, in the public consciousness. Henry Rollins’s 2.13.61 publishing could have remained a minor league vanity project but instead pushed the envelope with books from eccentrics like Nick Cave, Exene Cervenka, Iggy Pop, and even Henry Miller.

The greatest success story in recent memory has to be Charles Ardai and Max Phillips’s Hard Case Crime, which rescued books by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake and Ed McBain from fading to black. Hell, they even broke the sacrosanct bestseller’s list this year by convincing Stephen King to revel in all his pulp fiction glory. Isn’t it great when guts and brains come together?

So let us gather the flock and sing the praises of the small presses, the daring souls toiling out there on the edge of the abyss. Here’s to these hardheaded editors, their soft-skulled writers, and all the hardboiled readers digging them up from their shallow graves.

The publisher pushing books closest to my own heart is SoHo Press. Founded in 1986, the New York publisher is one of those small miracles in the publishing world, a group of dedicated bookies who publish without hope or agenda. They print the books they like. Damn the torpedoes, the critics, and the bookstore monopolies. Full speed ahead.

My great fondness comes from their SoHo Crime imprint, which steps way back from the clichéd detectives of Hollywood and spans the globe, bringing an enormous span of talent to bear. Their disparate detectives hail from all over the world and their books dig up bodies in the grimy streets of London, the sun-drenched coasts of Spain, the frozen beaches of Sweden, and as far away as Seoul, Korea.

There’s the rich, Ellroy-tinged gangland drama of truecrime, the most recent in Jake Arnott’s forty-year history of the London Underworld. In this one, mass-murderer Tony Meehan is ghostwriting true crime paperbacks, an actress deals with her own family drama, and lowlife Gaz Kelly is trying to score, all detailed in Arnott’s elegent staccato style.

I still think about the bad times now and then. It gives me the fear, to tell you the truth. I’m lucky to have got out when I did. Now I’ve got the lifestyle of a top-class villain with none of the danger. So I hope. I still keep looking over my shoulder. Plenty of faces out there with grudges to bear. Cozzers on the lookout to fit me up for something. I think of those boys shotgunned to death in the Range Rover. I see Beardsley’s face staring out at nothing, lying in a pool of his own blood.

Their series fiction is solid, too, led by Cara Black’s delicately menacing Aimée Leduc mysteries, which are as adept at mapping out Paris as Joyce is in mapping out Dublin. In her most recent outing, Murder in Montmartre, Leduc steps into the weird world of Montmartre with its odd mix of prostitutes and revolutionaries to solve the case of a rogue police shooting.

Martin Limon also has a great setting in The Door to Bitterness, the fourth of his books set in South Korea in the 1970s. George Sueno and Ernie Bascom are a couple of bumbling GI cops trying to negotiate the ravaged alleys of Seoul, here chasing the outlaw who whacked George upside the head to take his badge and his gun.

On a different vibe, there’s Rebecca Pawel, winner of the Edgar for Best First Novel for Death of a Nationalist and who has set her burgeoning series in the city of Grenada, Spain in 1945. Her fourth book in the series, The Summer Snow, finds investigator and grade-A son of a bitch Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon banished to the south to investigate the death of his rich aunt Rosalita, who was convinced the Communists were plotting against her.

On a much smaller and weirder scale, I got a book this month from Ramble House, a spit-and-bubblegum publishing house out of Shreveport, Louisiana run by Fender Tucker. The place has rescued some truly uncommon books from the slush pile like the literary works of Ed Wood, Jr., a compendium of newspaper articles about Jack the Ripper, and other potboilers from obscure or forgotten authors. Ian Woollen’s Stakeout on Millennium Drive is one of their first new offerings, an over-the-top mystery with some unusually peculiar characters. Set in Indianapolis, it ties together Randall Fleck, a corrupt assistant deputy Mayor, with Trixie, a stripper covered in biblical tattoos. I’m not sure the damn thing is healthy but Woolen’s undomesticated voice is effective and it makes for a hell of a tonic for mainstream burnout.

I have to give a shout out to the home team, too. For years, my criminal intentions have been mollified by trips to the High Crimes Bookstore in Boulder, Colorado. The place is an oasis of calm, a haven for criminal minds, and one of the best mystery bookstores between here and the ocean. The store was run for years by Tom and Enid Schantz, who sold the store in 2000 to focus their attention on the Rue Morgue Press. The small imprint focuses on the B-team authors of the 1930s through 1950s, and the books are another welcome relief from an overly futuristic present and a welcome reminder of a more civilized age.

Now, my absinthe is ready so you’ll have to do the rest of the homework on your own. Check the punk-rock aesthetic of Akashic Books, the out-of-print classics at the Poisoned Pen, the temperamental Brits at The Do-Not Press, or the thrilling short fiction at Crippen & Landrau. There’s a nicely comprehensive list of publishers at Kevin Burton Smith’s terrific online magazine, The Thrilling Detective, which deserves a nod of the fedora in its own right. Or be a real freak and start your own imprint. Someone has to do it.

Now get to it. I’m almost out of books and I don’t have all the time in the world, you know.

History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.

- Edward Gibbon