Wednesday, January 16, 2013

That Son of a Gun Pronzini! A Review of Son of Gun in Cheek (1987)

Bill Pronzini at the time of
Son of Gun in Cheek
I just got my copy of Marcia Muller's and Bill Pronzini's The Bughouse Affair and will be reviewing it soon.

Meanwhile I finally got round to reading Bill Pronzini's Son of Gun in Cheek (1987), the follow-up to his classic, Edgar-nominated study of "alternative" crime fiction (stuff so bad it's good"), Gun in Cheek.

I should have read this a long time ago.  Like its predecessor it's very funny and genuinely informative too.  I can't recommend it enough.

Gun in Cheek was originally published just over thirty years ago, in 1982.  It was reprinted in 1987 by Mysterious Press, who also published Son the same year.

Why both these books haven't been reprinted since I don't know, but that's publishing for you.

Pronzini cheerfully admits that Son is a "hugger-mugger," but, he adds, it's a "funny hugger-mugger."  And he's right.

even cheekier than Gun in Cheek!
There are discussions (with lots of ripe quotations) of astoundingly bad books, be they hard-boiled or drawing-room mysteries, and also of classically awful book titles, blurbs and mystery films.

Pronzini also takes a look at sex--bad sex, of course--in mystery fiction (it's not hard to find this chapter, it's called Sex, Sex and More Sex!) and the works of two alternative masters, the hard-boiled Michael Avallone and the--well, it's hard to say what he is, exactly--Harry Stephen Keeler.

As for the novels Pronzini discusses, my personal "favorite" is his exploration of the astoundingly abysmal The Face of Stone (1952), by Sydney Horler. 

Horler was a truly awful thriller writer, inexplicably popular in England.  I will defend the thriller king Edgar Wallace to the death but as a writer Horler was utterly hopeless (actually he seems to have been so as a person as well).

As Pronzini puts it: "Sydney Horler was, as they used to say in the old days, a caution.  An outspoken caution, a priggish caution, a racist caution, an elitist caution, and an alternative caution."

I don't mince words about Horler because Horler never minced words about--anything.  Offended by a review Dorothy L. Sayers gave one of his books, Horler struck back in print in a characteristic fashion.

"I know I haven't the brains to write a proper detective novel," he declared huffily, "but there is no class of literature for which I feel a deeper personal loathing."

Not altogether surprising that attitude, really, from the man who, according to Pronzini (and he's right!) "devised some of the most illogical and inane plots ever committed to paper."

not Stephen (see left), but Sydney Horler
I really enjoyed as well Pronzini's chapter on "the very first, and certainly the greatest, of the schlock [publishing] houses," The Macaulay Company.  Some of these Macaulay books have to be, well, read, to be believed--if you dare!

There are great quotations from alternative masterworks scattered all though the book (Pronzini  likens them to gold nuggets and himself to a prospector), such as this one from James Corbett's The Merrivale Mystery (1929):

The look on Stephen's face was distinctly unpleasant.  It contained all the malignity of hate, all the malevolence of evil, and even at a normal moment the features were not prepossessing.

The chapter on hard-boiled author Michael Avallone (the "nabob of non-sequiturs," among titles Pronzini bestows upon him) is fascinating.  I might have thought that Avallone was deliberately writing the way he wrote as a spoof, but apparently not (some of his books, by the way, are available to Kindle on Amazon at really low prices; I have purchased several).

Sometimes "he outdoes himself," in the alternative writing way, declares Pronzini of Avallone:

Usually when he's dealing with one of his favorite subjects.
Baseball.
Old movies.
Patriotism and/or right-wing politics.
Breasts.
Nobody writes about breasts the way Avallone does, with such flair, such reverence, such passion.  Not that he neglects thighs, of course.  Or calves.  Or hips.
Or faces.
Eyes, noses, cheeks, lips.  Even ears.  Described lovingly, eloquently, innovatively. 

You'll have to read the book and see for yourselves, people.  This is a family blog, dammit.

In his chapter on mystery book titles, Pronzini ruminates on the good old days, when mystery publishers demanded that titles always have such giveaway words as murder, death, body, corpse, case, mystery, etc., so readers would have no doubt the book was actually a murder mystery (god forbid they mistakenly have stumbled on something else).

Who knew?
I've noticed this phenomenon myself.  For example, I was struck when I found that the American publishers of Anthony Gilbert's Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1942) had changed her splendid, evocative title to Mystery in the Woodshed.  How dense can you get?  Or were they afraid that the first title made it sound like a sex novel?

Pronzini laments that no one ever used the titles Death Takes a Stroll Down Memory Lane or Murder Invites Some Friends Over for a Few Beers.  I agree!  But they did use, amazingly, Murder Does Light Housekeeping (I'm seeing a skeleton in a cap and apron, wielding a feather duster).  Also Death Turns a Trick and Murder Makes Us Gay.

Mysterious Press calls Son of Gun in Cheek, like its predecessor, "an affectionate guide" to alternative crime fiction.  It really is too.  Pronzini's love for and knowledge of the crime and mystery genre shines through every page.  You can tell he really enjoyed these books--if not quite in the way their authors may have intended!

You'll enjoy Son of Gun in Cheek--exactly as its author intended.  Get youself a copy, and laugh and learn.

                                                **************************************

A note on the Edgar nominations that came out today.  Four books were nominated: the popular Books to Die For (everyone knew that was coming) and In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero (edited by Otto Penzler) and two monographs by academics, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

I always felt Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, a book on three now-obscure Golden Age British mystery writers, would be a tough sell to awards committees, but a tremendous amount of research went into the book and it does address, in an original way I think, big issues about the nature and transformation of English mystery writing in the years from 1920 to 1960.  I had hoped an Edgar nomination would encourage some people to read Masters.  I hope they still will read it, along with the Edgar nominees.  I'd like to reach more people with the ideas found in Masters.

The good words about Masters from such great names in the field as Jon L. Breen, Doug Greene and Al Hubin has been encouraging, and I'm very passionate about writing mystery genre history and will keep at it.  The Todd Downing book will be out soon (I will let you know just when) and I hope to get my broader study of the genre completed this year.  And I might have another surprise or two up my sleeve!

Look for another posting soon, for Friday's forgotten book.  It's by the spouse of a famous mystery writer, not himself that known for mystery writing....

4 comments:

  1. I still refer to both Gun in Cheek books. Lots of fun reading. I've even started my own alternative classics collection made up of books by Paul Haggard, James Corbett, Amelia Reynolds Long, Michael Avallone (who wrote some pretty good books despite his unique use of words) and a whole lot of Phoenix Press writers.

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  2. John, yeah, I was looking at one of these Avallone books and it has a certain zip to it, despite the, erm, exuberant prose.

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  3. Poor Inez Oellrichs. "Murder Makes Us Gay" is a (now) unfortunate title and her 1947 mystery novel "Murder Helps" involves her detective selling "Super Dicks"...which, of course, is a candy bar.

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  4. LOL. So, just who was Inez anyway, I wonder?

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