By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
BY WAY OF CONTRAST COMES FIVE SHOTSand a Funeral, a dull and cynical little book of poorly plotted, loosely interconnected mystery tales following the adventures of an almost preternaturally clichéd private eye. Dashiell Loveless is good with his fists, drives a powder-blue 1966 Galaxie 500 and keeps a bottle of Old Grand-Dad in his bottom drawer, but prefers to drink it while warming a stool at the H.M.S. Pandora (a not-too-subtle stand-in for L.A.'s own hipster hangout, the H.M.S. Bounty). Sound familiar? That's because this is not merely cliché; it's name-brand-dropping retro fun, and the fact that it's equally facile and dumb only makes it a better example of one of postmodernity's more worrisome and reactionary trends. In the old days, they left nostalgia for the old folks.
Five Shots was penned by Tom Fassbender and Jim Pascoe, who are also the founders of Ugly Town Productions, not just the book's publisher but -- so their publicity material claims -- a "creative idea house" specializing in "excitingwritten content." Perhaps it's because they imagine writing to be a simple question of content production (to be accompanied, of course, by slick retro packaging) that even the most devoted cigar-sucking, swing-dancing, vintage Ford Fairlanedriving fools will have a hard time finishing these stories.
NOT TO WORRY. THERE IS PLENTY OF LIFE yet in the mystery genre, despite Fassbender and Pascoe's resolute attempt to drain it. So proves Domenic Stansberry with his haunting Manifesto for the Dead. Stansberry's protagonist is aging crime novelist Jim Thompson at the end of his career in 1971. Booze, age and despair have rendered him so decrepit that the whores on Hollywood Boulevard mock him as he passes. The book begins with Thompson sitting at the bar at Musso's one afternoon, listening to a whisper from the bottom of his whiskey glass: "You're at the bottom of the pit, Jimmy . . . I can smell you decomposing."
But within minutes he bumps into Billy Miracle, a nickel-and-dime producer on the make who is shopping a screenplay about a love triangle and a killer that ends with "everyone get[ting] fucked." He wants Thompson to write a book based on the screenplay ("I'm thinking, if we have book interest, we can get movie interest too"), but can provide neither money nor the screenplay upfront. Thompson, desperate for work, takes the job.
A few mornings later he receives a visit from a nervous Okie looking for a man named Sydney Wicks. The Okie has the wrong address, and when a cop car cruises by, he turns and runs, leaving his car keys behind. Thompson finds the body of a young woman, apparently strangled, in the car's trunk. Drunk already, and suffering tremors "as if the world were tearing apart, the light disintegrating into the dark," Thompson is "overcome with an inexplicable guilt, as if he were the one responsible for the girl's death." He hides the car in a remote spot in the hills. Later that day, after ironing the deal out with Miracle back at Musso's, Thompson feels "the foreboding again, a trap about to spring. Planets misaligning, stars falling out of the sky."
His instincts are not wrong. Within a few chapters, Thompson wakes up, on the lawn of a Beverly Hills mansion, with no memories of the previous evening. The mansion turns out to belong to the big-shot producer who was supposedly backing Miracle's film project. And the big-shot producer turns out to have been beaten to death the night before. Thompson is set to take the fall, and his life is beginning to suspiciously parallel the plot of the book he's writing.
Despite its use of a historical figure as a character and its book-within-a-book structure, Manifesto for the Dead is for the most part a conservative noir. It has a booze-soaked antihero, plenty of testosterone and violence, a tight link between sex and death, all set in a nightmarishly decaying cityscape. Of Hollywood Boulevard he writes: "Darkness had descended, but the city was lit up, hazy as could be. The sky overhead was gray-black, smudged with yellow. Some drunks nearby hollered like animals . . . A woman sat on the corner, coughing blood." L.A. is "one long town with one long street. Stucco houses under a white sun that spun around other suns in a galaxy inside a universe black as black could be."
But Stansberry is not content with a this-worldly tale of suspense. He buries a sense of cosmic foreboding in nearly every line. Through a poetics of menace that at times takes on a positively hallucina- tory beauty, Stansberry exposes the Manichaean heart of noir. Thompson waits for a phone call from the mysterious Sydney Wicks in an East Hollywood bar: "It was a long time before the phone rang again. An eon. Three eons. The sun collapsed and was born again and every living thing turned to dust. Then it started all over, the creatures creeping up out of the big nothing, tigers with fish gills, birds with snake eyes, the whole ugly business. The jungle roared and squealed. The freeway thundered." There is not just emptiness and evil in the world; the world is evil and it is empty. And it is apparently collapsing. Another good omen for the millennium to come.