by Perry “The Professor” O’Dickle
Catalina Eddy, A Novel in Three Decades, Daniel Pyne, Blue Rider Press, 2017
Basil’s War, Stephen Hunter, Mysterious Press, 2021
Primarily utilized in YA fiction, the novella is perhaps underrated as a form ideally suited for the terse, largely cinematic, action focused prose that characterizes much of crime fiction. Ranging from approximately 120 to 200 pages, the novella shares qualities with the screenplay in that its length is more or less analogues to a 90 or 120 minute feature as well as with its emphasis on dialogue in developing the story. Pulp fiction’s breezy, sly, ironic, idiomatic, sardonic, satirical, prone to hyperbole style of storytelling, couched largely in the American vernacular, constitutes much of its entertainment value. Pulp fiction has always been about the reading experience as entertainment. Driven by the action needed to keep the reader’s attention and the constraints of its length, the novella doesn’t have time to waste with aimless ruminations, flabby Freudian conjecture, or Clancy Bloat, aka geek bait (really just footnotes inserted into the narrative), that invariably activates the “cut-to-the-chase” mode to scan the page looking for something germane to jump out. The crisp concision of the novella is its charm, a quick easygoing read demanding no more than a suspension of belief in the turning of a page.
As per example, the successful utilization of the novella as a medium for pulp fiction is well illustrated in the two books under review, Catalina Eddy, A Novel in Three Decades by Daniel Pyne (Blue Rider Press, 2017), and Basil’s War by Stephen Hunter (Mysterious Press, 2021).
Catalina Eddy is in effect three novellas under one cover: 1. The Big Empty, taking place in 1954, 132pp; 2. Losertown, in 1987, 170pp; 3. Portuguese Bend, 2016, 168pp. All the action in each time frame begins in the June gloom following the May gray of the Southern California coastal climate. The Catalina eddy is a weather pattern feature (as one of the characters explains), and weather is the ground against which these stories are set, how it influences moods as a gripe about something you can’t do anything about, a SoCal regional trope much as was Raymond Chandler’s Santa Ana winds.
Heavy in irony, pulp references and allusions, Catalina Eddy might be classified as meta-pulp. The tough guy narration of The Big Empty, a play on The Big Sleep, has a Chandleresque sense of place (LA) although the prose style is more reminiscent of a later generation lean and mean PI pulps. If there is any doubt as to its ironic undercurrent, the PI’s name is Lovely. TV reportage of the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll that open the first novella serves as a political time stamp, as does Reagan’s war on drugs and California politics in Losertown aka San Diego, and the new century’s dysfunction of obscene wealth contrasted with the corruption, greed, and poverty that it is built upon, set in the contemporaneous Portuguese Bend.
The Big Empty, also a nod to Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, employs many PI tropes: the PI gets his phone messages at an Asian grocers, his office is a counter in a coffee shop, hangs out in a jazz club, in love with the chanteuse, and so on—he may be a tough guy but he’s a soft touch. Pulp fiction aficionados will likely get all the PI nods and nudges. The ironic twist is that the de rigueur body the PI stumbles upon also happens to be that of his ex-wife. In the process of investigating her murder, he encounters a religious cult and a government protected scientist who is a serial killer. The Big Empty offers a cleanly delineated, no frills narrative, all straight lines and right angles as if it were a kind of pulp Cubism.
Losertown opens on a Deputy US Attorney briefing his new boss, an evil Nixon appointed female US Attorney ideologue, as well as the affair he’s having with a married FBI agent. Of the three novellas, this is the most subtly nuanced. A drug bust of a wealthy former surfer and smuggler is used to pressure the mayor of Losertown. The twist is that the man they bust is innocent of the charges and has to endure the inept politically framed machinations of the government that lead to the death of his partner and the destruction of everything he has. Throw in a firefight with a rightwing nut job and a subtle resolution revelation at the end to tie things up and you have a nicely framed story. Pyne’s screenwriter chops serve him well here. He doesn’t miss a beat.
Portuguese Bend is probably the most lyrical of the three novellas, thanks in part to Susan Sontag’s writing on photography, as its protagonist is a freelance crime photographer working for the Long Beach Police Department, a nod to Arthur Fellig aka Weegee, who has an intuitive feel for framing his crime scene shots verging on artistic genius. A doctored photo leads the photographer to suspect the cover up of a shootout that left a female undercover cop paralyzed from the waist down. Enter the wheelchair and shades of Ironsides, the cop and the photographer team up to get to the bottom of a murder that involves crooked cops and a homicide detective by the name of Terry Lennox (!). The title, Portuguese Bend, refers to a geographical feature on the southern coast of the Palos Verde peninsula, incidentally the wealthiest zip code in the US, located west of the urban sprawl of the greater Los Angeles area, and where the Catalina eddy wind pattern is often centered. There’s a pop feel to the last story in this masterful triptych of crime fiction, a certain ineffable casualness in the pacing and attention to the characters who, despite the flying bullets and impossible situations, get to ride off into the sunset, a Southern California sunset once the coastal fog clears.
Each novella evokes a style consistent to the era in which they are set: classic first person voiceover, law & order procedural, and HD Widescreen pilot. Additionally, the device of having a peripheral character in one novella become a central figure in a subsequent story works as a subtle linkage connecting a sequence of well told tales.
Daniel Pyne is the author of five novels, including Catalina Eddy, and a raft of TV and screen writing credits, among them Miami Vice and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Stephen Hunter’s Basil’s War from Mysterious Press hit the stands yesterday (5/4/21). Its 288 printed pages doesn’t qualify it as a novella, but the wide margins, line spacing and font size would argue for fewer pages in manuscript (perhaps by 88?). But no matter, Basil’s War is a gem, a scrumptious hors d’ oeuvre from the author of the Bob Lee Swagger sniper franchise, and a perfect example of the succinctness and directness a novella demands.
Basil St. Florian, a British playboy and wealthy ne’er-do-well, a kind of ginger David Niven now serving in British Army Intelligence, possesses just the right mix of duplicity and audacity to make him, in the later years of World War II, a perfect spy. His mission is to track down a handwritten manuscript from the 17th century which holds a clue to the identity of a mole in the British cryptography section at Bletchley Hall, and for which he must parachute behind enemy lines, get to Paris, photograph the manuscript, which he does (of course), all the while staying one step of the SS and German intelligence, and somehow getting back to HQ in London with the goods. The novel follows a fairly straightforward story arc, replicating the tone of popular fiction of that day as is found in the G8 & His Flying Aces adventures, except that it is British, very British, and very droll (a French loan word).
One of the tells of a potentially good story is an E. B. White opening (“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”), usually the first sentence, but at least within in the space of the first few paragraphs. Basil’s War opens tantalizingly with tantalizing dialogue. The reader is transported to a boudoir and the arch repartee of its two occupants, male and female, one of whom but not both could be David Niven or Maureen O’Hara. The depiction is that of a Hollywood war movie in grainy black and white. But it is wit and sparkling language that powers Basil’s War as the action slaloms between the mission briefing and the actuality of getting to Paris, paced cinematically so that there is always new information or new action. The technical and period details are authoritative but not overwhelmingly so and key to the clever denouement. The witty ironic dialogue with a touch of Wildean bite could have been lifted from a Noel Coward play. All of it is amusing, quite accurate, and very well done.
The reader must wonder at one point whether the author had as much enjoyment in writing it as the reader has in reading it. The added bonus is that Basil’s War is a master’s class on how to write succinctly with the spare deftness of a journalist’s touch. As a former film critic for The Washington Post, Hunter is knowledgeable in the art of storytelling employed by the cinema, how the action unfolds with each revelation, building to the surprise resolution in perfectly timed steps. Besides the writing, which is terrific, the plot lines are tied together with cunning plot turns appropriate for all those who wish to experience their guilty pleasures. A number of famous names from that period are provided with cameo appearances, among them Winston Churchill and Alan Turing, and a well-known film couple that dropping a dime on would spoil the clincher. If there is such a thing as proof to the pudding, i.e., the novella, it is found in these pages.
Stephen Hunter, former film critic for The Washington Post, is the chief honcho of the successful Bob Lee Swagger franchise, and a Pulitzer Prize recipient for Criticism in 2003.
A shout out to Dave of Dave’s Pulp And Mystery Reads for his amazing pulp bibliographic blog which has done wonders for my reading list.
Also to The Thrilling Detective’s Kevin Burton Smith for a really terrific site focused on the permutations of the iconic private eye.
And last but not least, the guys at the Paperback Warrior blog and podcast for their expert commentary on various and sundry aspects of paperback novels.