January 31, 2023

Cocktail Talk: Pit of Screams

guilty-creaturesThis quote’s from another story featured in one of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, edited as always by the indefatigable Martin Edwards (see a couple past British Library Crime Classics Cocktail Talks). This particular collection is called Guilty Creatures, and is roaming with mysteries that circle or feature or highlight or spotlight animals in some way. Being an animal-lover myself, it was an ideal mix of stories for me. Not a lot of Cocktail Talking as you might expect, and (also as you might expect in a collection featuring a range of stories from early-to-middle last century) with a few stories that don’t hit such a high mark, though many, many do. This particular story actually wasn’t one of my favs, but was fun in a way, and has the amazing title “Pit of Screams,” and has snakes playing a big part, and a warning on brandy and Champagne in the below quote that while I can’t agree with, I can certainly understand!

In Togarapore to this day they will tell you that the snakes hypnotized the Rajah so that he fell. But what do you think?

He was giddy from the drink and the sun? Yes, that’s another possible explanation. It is bad to drink brandy and Champagne at midday. But neither is correct. What really killed the Rajah was a tear running down the cheek of that girl wife.

I was a young man in those days, very strong and with hot blood. When I saw that tear I bent, unnoticed, and jerked his ankles so that he somersaulted like the rat he was into the Pit of Screams.

— Garnett Radicliffe, “Pit of Screams”

January 17, 2023

Cocktail Talk: Little Men, Big World

vanity-row-little-men-big-worldLast week, I had a Vanity Row Cocktail Talk (don’t miss that or past W.R. Burnett Cocktail Talks), the book that shares a cover in the swell Stark House two-books-in-one reprint with this week’s highlight, Little Men, Big World. After mentioning the book in said past Cocktail Talk, felt I should give it a moment of its own. So, here we are! Of the two books, I like them . . . both the same amount, which is a lot. This one jumps around more in narrative perspective, though it also circles again within crime and politics (more the former maybe) in a Midwestern city, with a few different characters from various sides of the scene taking the main role depending on the chapter and such. One of which is veteran newspaper man, Ben Reisman, who used to write the crime beat, but who now is a well-known columnist, though one who still desires to dig up a juicy story. And desires whiskey, too.

Sudden success some people said. Sudden success, after twenty-five years? And was this success? How about the plays he’d intended to writer, the novels? Reisman groaned and stared into his glass of Vichy water. The others were drinking whisky. He, too, liked whisky, and some nights he even got drunk. But the doc told him it would kill him and sometimes he was afraid. Why did he have to have ulcers? Young Downy did not have ulcers. Young Downy had pink cheeks and optimism. Not much in the way of brains. But what are brains? A liability.

–W.R. Burnett, Little Men, Big World

January 10, 2023

Cocktail Talk: Vanity Row

vanity-row-little-men-big-worldI’ve only (I think – but I may be still a little tired from New Year’s Eve) had one other W.R. Burnett Cocktail Talk, he being the writer whose very first book, Little Caesar, was an overnight sensation in 1928, being made into a movie that was also a sensation (and is great), after which he went on to write many novels, screenplays, and more. Including the book we’re quoting from today, Vanity Row, which is thankfully easily available in a two-books-in-one book from Stark House (the other book included is Little Men, Big World, also swell). Vanity Row takes place in an un-named middle-sized Midwestern city, and centers around the murder of one of the town’s movers-and-shakers, following along as police captain (and political chess piece) Roy Hargis tries to solve it, having his own life shaken up in the process. It’s dark and noir-y, showing political underbelly as it was (and is, at heart), moving rapidly around, and boasting a number of memorable moments and characters, including an English reporter named Wesson, highlighted below.

“What should follow perch, Lloyd?” he called to the little black-haired Welsh bartender.

“That a questions, Mr. Wesson, sir?” said Lloyd, hurrying back eagerly to talk. “A good brandy perhaps.”

“The very thing, Lloyd.”

The bartender returned with the brandy. “Didn’t you say one night you’ve never been in Cardiff, sir?” Lloyd treated Wesson with exaggerated deference which was very unusual for him. He was considered an expert bartender and for that reason was kept on, but he was a surly, fantastical character. There had been many complaints about him from patrons.

–W.R. Burnett, Vanity Row

December 20, 2022

Cocktail Talk: The Boat Race Murder

settling-scoresI’ve only yet had one other Cocktail Talk (The Case of Oscar Brodski Cocktail Talk, from the Blood on the Tracks anthology) from a British Library Crime Classics collection, though I hope to have more. These collections (there are a fair amount now, themed often in various ways) bring together some more famous, some less famous, some oft anthologized, some mostly forgotten mystery and crime stories written by British authors mainly in the early part of the last century. They’re loads of fun. Not all the stories are top shelf, but I haven’t read one yet (and I have three of the collections now) that didn’t have some merit. In them, better-known names (the awesome Arthur Conan Doyle for one) sit alongside lesser-known authors, some of whom were renowned during their times, then faded from public knowledge as years passed. As happens! Just today, I was reading the collection called Settling Scores, which contains murders and crimes around various types of sports and sporting events: tennis, golf, squash, boxing, and more, including rowing, which is where our Cocktail Talk comes from, as might be guessed from the story’s title, “The Boat Race Murder.” It was written by David Winser, who had a burgeoning writing career (and doctoring career) cut tragically short by a bomb in WWII. The series editor (and well-known mystery writer in his own right) Martin Edwards provides helpful bios for each author, along with picking the stories. You might think, “sports,” and expect a lack of Cocktail Talking (training and all) – I didn’t expect to find a quote quite right myself. But then came across the below, which is perfect.

You must try and picture a fizz night at Ranelagh. Someone, the coach or some other old Blue, had suddenly produced a dozen bottles of Champagne, and the coach has said that the crew’s been going so well that it damn well deserves the filthy stuff. Actually, as he and everyone else knows, the main purpose of the fizz is to stop the crew getting stale.

–David Winser, The Boat Race Murder

December 13, 2022

Cocktail Talk: Black Wings Has My Angel, Part IV

black-wingsIt wasn’t that long ago (weirdly, it was like five-and-a-half years ago, so maybe long ago in some ways? Your call) that I had a series of Cocktail Talks from the Elliott Chaze book Black Wings Has My Angel (read Part I, Part II, and Part III to learn more, see more, drink more). And today, when I woke with the desire to re-read the book (as one does with good books), and then began reading, I was again mystified that the book isn’t better know. Perhaps it’s better known now than five years ago, as another reprint in English has come out – for a long time, too long, the only recent versions were in French. It’s such a classic literary noir novel, and so well-written, it baffles me. Possibly it’s because he didn’t write a lot of books, period, and definitely that I know of, not another in this vein at this level. I’m still trying to track down other books by him, so might be wrong-footing that. But he wasn’t prolific as, say, Jim Thompson or David Goodis (who he shares some commonalities with, in this book if not others I’ve yet to read) in the novel knocking out department, and wasn’t a pulp mag story filler like Day Keene, having I’m guessing higher aspirations, and also a day job as a newspaper person. Maybe it’s that lighter output, but heck, maybe it’s just fate. Whatever, if you lean noir-y, and haven’t read this, you should. There’s more about the book in those old posts, but short story: criminal, femme fatale (both mains carrying layers), crime (with a murder, cold-blooded), the high-life, the lam-life, and bleak moments, written incredibly well. And booze. Especially I.W. Harper whiskey, which you could sip while reading. Enough of it that when I decided to have one more Cocktail Talk from the book, well, I.W. had to be a highlight.

The bartender wore a phony gay-nineties mustache and a checked vest, and he was drunk enough himself to slosh the stuff around generously. Two I. W. Harpers painted the room prettily. I got a kick out of being in a crowd of people who were out to enjoy themselves. There were pictures over the bar of John K. Sullivan and of Gentleman Jim Corbett both stripped to the waist and wearing the kind of pants you see on tightwire performers and ballet dancers.

–Elliott Chaze, Black Wings Has My Angel

December 5, 2022

Cocktail Talk: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity James M. CainI’ve had a few James M. Cain Cocktail Talks here, which makes pretty swell sense, as he is a noir master, and I like those kinds of books lots, lots I tell you. It’s mad to think that perhaps the most classic of the Cain classics (though opinions may vary, with good reason), The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, came out within a year of each other, or very close. What a whammo one two punch in the brain that was! The other day I had an urge to pick up a book that I could read probably in a single day, at the most two, and I reached for the latter of that deadly duo, Double Indemnity. It’d been a bit since I’d re-read a Cain, and also, it’s just not a very long book, my copy clocks in at 125 pages, and it moves scenically, emotionally, crazily, so quickly through its tale of murder, insurance fraud, and madness (in a way). Such good pacing, and such a master class in economical writing, if there are people who haven’t read it, well, they should! Calculating (to say it mildly) narrator, femme fatale, sideways sort-of hero (or crime solver), multiple crimes, maybe the noir-est ending out there, what a book! And what a quote below about not being able to get stinko!

I didn’t dare call her up, because for all I knew even now her wires might be tapped. I did that night what I had done the other two nights, while I was waiting on the inquest, I got stinko, or tried to. I knocked off a quart of Cognac, but it didn’t have any effect. My legs felt funny, and my ears rang, but my eyes kept staring at the dark, and my mind kept pounding on it, what I was going to do. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t even get drunk.

–James M. Cain, Double Indemnity

November 29, 2022

Cocktail Talk: The Heart of the Matter

graham-greene-heart-of-the-matterOur recent Graham Greene Cocktail Talking (don’t miss The Comedians Cocktail Talk and This Gun for Hire Cocktail Talk, plus more Graham Greene’s from the past) continues, this time with The Heart of the Matter, which I recently re-read, and in which they drink a lot of Pink Gins, and sweat a lot, too. It’s a classic in the more serious Greene vein, steeped in immaculate, elegant, prose, alongside delving into the interactions and motivations of the main character, including a deep look in his Catholic beliefs and how they cause in a way part of the action to unfurl. Not for the faint of reading heart, neccessarily. But for those who like gin!

“What about you, darling?” He turned quickly away from her and began to fix two more Pink Gins. There was a tacit understanding between them that ‘liquor helped;’ growing more miserable with every glass one hoped for the moment of relief.

“You don’t really want to know about me.”

“Of course I do, darling. What sort of a day have you had?”

“Ticki, why are you such a coward? Why don’t you tell me it’s all off?”

“All off?”

“You know what I mean – the passage. You’ve been talking and talking since you came in about the Esperanca. There’s a Portuguese ship in once a fortnight. You don’t talk that way every time. I’m not a child, Ticki. Why don’t you say straight out – you can’t go?”

He grinned miserably at his glass, twisting it round and round to let the Angostura cling along the curve.

 

–Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

November 15, 2022

Cocktail Talk: Passing Strange

passing-strange-airdIt’s strange and not strange that I haven’t had any Cocktail Talks from Catherine Aird, a master in the British small town mystery genre (though really, that qualification probably does her a disservice, as she’s just pretty masterful). I read a short story of hers not but a few years back in some anthology or other which escapes me, after which I picked up the first book she wrote (A Religious Body), which I loved, and since then have been slowly filling out my Aird library, and liking all the books. Featuring Detective Inspector C.D. Sloan, who operates in the made-up (but very familiar in a way) English region of Calleshire, working with the slightly bumbling, but funny, Detective Constable Crosby, they solve many well-crafted small English village murders. But, while pubs always show up, there haven’t been many/any Cocktail Talking moments in the books I’ve read, until the below quote from Passing Strange (where a murder happens at a flower show!), a quote which I found delightful, and relatable, too!

By closing time he had been fortified by an unusual quantity of beer. He had had to concentrate quite hard when the time came to leave the King’s Head. The little flight of steps which had presented no problem at all when he had arrived demanded careful negotiation when he left.

— Catherine Arid, Passing Strange

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