Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction from John Wooley and Laurie Moore

John Wooley, a mainstay of the Forgotten Horrors crew of writers and researchers, comes from an additional background of original novels and the editing of retrospective collections of crime-and-horror fiction. The following entry, recapping a newspaper column of mine from 2002 -- speaking of retrospectives -- places one of the Wooley anthologies in context with a then-new novel from ace storyteller Laurie Moore. Both Wooley's Roscoes in the Night and Moore's The Wild Orchid Society can be found at Amazon-dot-Com. And herewith:

The past and the future of hard-boiled crime -- the fictional variety, that is, comfortably distanced from any Real World concerns -- are amply well represented in a pair of mass-market books from storytellers well known to Texas.
Sales have proved brisk enough to require a second printing of Oklahoma-based John Wooley's Roscoes in the Night -- a restoration to prominence for the Depression-into-wartime author Robert Leslie Bellem.

Meanwhile, Laurie Moore's The Wild Orchid Society (Five Star; $25.95) is gaining ground as a sequel to the Fort Worth lawyer's The Lady Godiva Murder.What is most remarkable about the close-in-time arrival of these books -- each from an independent publisher, each distinguished by a maverick streak of a sort that the mainstream publishing industry avoids at all costs -- is how much they share in common.
Bellem's prose from 1934-1950, as resurrected by Wooley from such periodicals as Spicy Detective Stories and Hollywood Detective, seethes with violence and erotic encounters. Bellem's macho attitudes (as expressed through his main character, a private detective named Dan Turner) might most charitably be considered quaint today.

Which scarcely matters. The very cover of Roscoes in the Night (Adventure House; $17.95), as reproduced from a pulp magazine in which Dan Turner had been a recurring character, bespeaks a throwback to an age that could not be bothered with social correctness, nor with apologies for lack of same. The scale of gender politics could never have been balanced by sending Dan Turner, or his creator, away for Sensitivity Counseling.
These things take time to evolve, and the only appropriate answer to hard-boiled fiction from the masculine sector is its equivalent from a womanly viewpoint. And I don't mean the thin-blooded daintiness of Agatha Christie.

Laurie Moore is hardly the first woman to meet the good ol' boys' club of crime authors, thoroughly well-armed, on their traditional turf. But she may be the contender most thoroughly aware of the No. 1 rule of hard-boiled talespinning: Anything can happen to anybody at any moment. More crucially, Moore understands that virile adventure need not be the exclusive province of the men-folk, and never mind the gender-specific nature of that adjective.Robert Leslie Bellem had his Dan Turner, who ranged Hollywood as a sleuth-for-hire during the glory days of Old Hollywood. Laurie Moore has her Cezanne Martin, a Fort Worth homicide detective who, like Dan Turner before her, has the damnedest habit of barging in on situations that might better be left undisturbed. Such qualities course through the dream-stream of popular fiction, and they are invariably more appealing than infallible heroism.
The Wild Orchid Society finds Cezanne Martin, fresh off a triumphant case whose sleazier particulars have embarrassed her superiors, busted to cold-case duty. Of course, the moment one of Moore's characters lays hands upon a dormant investigation, you know the thing is bound to re-heat itself to a rolling boil. There follows a connection to a perverse community, led by a predatory sadist who hasn't any better sense than to equate mayhem with entertainment. The detective hasn't any better sense than to infiltrate this den of deviants -- a fortunate thing, too, for without her fools-rush-in gumption there'd be no story worth the telling.
Had Moore found herself at large in the day of Robert Leslie Bellem, she'd probably have given the established writers of that era a run for their money. She might have found it necessary to assume a masculine-sounding pseudonym, or to employ a male character as her protagonist. She would have found, perhaps, a readier market for her fiction - the pulp magazines' circulation ran past the tens of millions -- and when the pulps died out during the 1950s she'd probably have retrenched successfully into the new realm of paperback-novel originals.

Moore's entrepreneurial nature - as a practicing attorney, a self-starting novelist and a credentialed peace officer -- dictates that she must create a professional environment in which she, and her storytelling muse, can thrive.
Bellem, by contrast, probably could not survive if he should re-surface as an author of the competitive here-and-now. The pulp magazines in which Bellem held forth were like found money for a writer with the simple ability to make a typewriter smoke. And when the pulps cratered, as John Wooley writes in an introduction to Roscoes in the Night, "guys like [Bellem] had to look for other sources of income." The operative phrase here is look for, as opposed to creating one's moneymaking device. (Bellem retrenched into early-day network television, as a writer and editor.)

Each of these books stands on its merits, and on its vivid, verbose evocation of a time and a place. Their proximity to one another underscores the lasting nature of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction. That the books also should share ties to Fort Worth -- where Moore bases her parallel careers, and where Wooley is a mainstay of the Cowtown Society of Western Music - only intensifies their appeal to a readership attuned to rooting for the home team.

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