An Introduction to Pure Sweet Hell and Catch a Fallen Starlet
A Stark House Mystery, 2004
The operative words here are "Hold on."
In one of the most famous bits of plotting advice ever given to aspiring mystery writers, Raymond Chandler once cracked, "When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand."
Were Ronald Douglas Sanderson asked for similar advice, he probably would have offered something along the lines of, "When in doubt have a bleeding man come crashing through the window with a gun in his hand, followed by a crooked cop, a dope fiend of dubious sexual orientation and ethnicity, and a chaste young white girl unaware that her twin sister is a alcoholic nymphomaniac laying dead in the closet."
Sanderson was born in 1922 in Kent, England, and passed away in 2002 in Alicante, Spain, where he had lived for many decades. He served in the RAF during WWII, and later emigrated to Canada with the intention of studying at Montreal's McGill University. He worked as a waiter, a clerk in a jewelry store and a nightclub singer, which lead to his employment as a presenter of musical radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He soon began writing radio plays and documentaries for them, as well.
If he's remembered at all by the reading public, it's among paperback and crime fiction aficionados, for the two dozen or so hard, fast novels he wrote as, alternately, Malcolm Douglas, Douglas Sanderson and Martin Brett. Nobody would ever mistake him for a long lost literary giant, and most of his books have lapsed into obscurity (an error this volume hopes to begin to correct), but his twisted and often nasty tales of obsession stand up amazingly well, even forty or fifty years later, and still pack a visceral wallop that's hard to deny.
Sanderson's specialty was a sort of baroque noir. His books were twitchy, neurotic pulp fiction; jacked-up kaleidoscopic whirls of desperate, gloriously flawed characters, audacious coincidence and almost impressionistic action scenes punctuated by jarring explosions of violence and sex that would only finally make sense at the very end. And sometimes not even then.
For Sanderson's heroes, invariably damaged young men searching for some sort of salvation, redemption or at least the chance to live another day, there was never going to be any easy solution or any real refuge -- not in the elegiac romanticism of Chandler nor in the terse, clean hardboiled heroics of Dashiell Hammett. The books were definitely downers, electro-shock therapy for the Cold War era's numerous psychoses and obsessions. The plots read like a shotgun marriage between Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane -- on speed.
Nor were they particularly enlightened reads. Sanderson, along with many of his contemporaries, was clearly working out major issues. Some of the attitudes expressed are way past their expiry date and were, arguably, jaw-droppingly politically incorrect even back then: racial and homophobic slurs abound, and women are seldom depicted in their best light. Yet there's a vibrancy and heady energy to these hard, unforgiving tomes of barely articulated anger that hold their own even now.
In 1952, while living in Montreal, Sanderson published his first novel, Dark Passions Subdue, a literary work he claimed was "a puritan ode to repressed homosexuality." It didn't exactly set the world on fire, selling only a few thousand copies, so he went searching for a more profitable genre. Keenly aware of the nearby American market, where Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer books were selling millions, Sanderson decided to take a stab at crime fiction.
The story goes that he visited a local drugstore, scanned the back cover blurbs of a few Spillane paperbacks on the rack and went home to see if he could write one. His first effort, Exit in Green (1953), a thriller set in a small Québecois village in the Laurentians met with some success, and was soon followed by several other noirish thrillers, including Hot Freeze (1954), which introduced Montreal private eye Mike Garfin. Garfin would be Sanderson's only series character, but he was typical of most of Sanderson's protagonists not so much a Chandleresque white knight as a bête noire. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, far closer to Hammer: obsessive, driven, angry, capable of great brutality and violence if provoked, but also capable of great loyalty. But these characters lacked the unflappable macho indestructibility of Spillane's detective/avenger it's not uncommon for a Sanderson hero, in the midst of everything, to faint. From exhaustion, hunger, from too much drink this odd vulnerability added a much needed human touch to the narrative which, in a Sanderson book, was always perilously close to going completely off the rails.
His work sold well enough in North America, but it was the Europeans, particularly the French, who really took Sanderson to heart. There, critics praised his work for its Existential bleakness, reveling in what they saw as his unflinching depiction of the noir underbelly of American Puritanism. Fifteen of his novels were eventually translated and published as part of the prestigious Série Noire.
Pure Sweet Hell, first published in 1957 by Fawcett Gold Medal, was written under the Malcolm Douglas pen name, and it's a real trip, literally. The action, which takes places in a series of bars, back alleys and bordellos in a hot, humid Spanish port town, reaches almost-surrealistic, nightmarish dimensions. The protagonist is Bishop, an "agency man" going undercover as a small-time cocaine smuggler to nab the mysterious Mr. Big of the local drug trade. But things go real wrong real fast, and soon Bishop is out in the cold, his only local contact murdered, on the run from both the police and rival gangs -- not to mention Banjo Kelly, a spunky American photojournalist, and Pepita, an amorous Spanish whore, both of whom have designs on the handsome G-man. Along the way there are numerous killings, betrayals, a little genital mutilation and some prime evidence that frequently, inconveniently disappears. It's an almost perfect example of Sanderson's M.O.
And 1960's Catch a Fallen Starlet by Douglas Sanderson and published by Avon, bears the same hallmark. Like a master jazz man or Jerry Lee Lewis playing Great Balls of Fire, Sanderson could rework the same motifs over and over again, and always make it seem fresh and new. Once again, Sanderson follows an ostensibly good (but far from perfect) man into a colorful setting and once again he flips that world over, exposing the place where the dark and nasty things thrive. The setting, as the title may suggest, is Hollywood itself, and Sanderson seems to take special delight in transforming the dream factory into a hell of ego and naked ambition fueled by greed, alcohol and narcotics, a virtue-free zone where wet-mouthed actresses chase "the gangster scum of the country" and actors "flout the Mann Act and import their own underage protegees." Into this maelstrom wanders Al Dufferin, a disgraced and despised alcoholic screenwriter once married to "America's sweetheart" and largely blamed by the public at large for the circumstances which led to her tragic death. Returned to his hometown after a few years of self-imposed exile in New York, working for the then-new television industry, Al's not back long before Barry Kevin, the washed-up actor who lured him back to town with promises of a job is discovered beaten to death. It doesn't take long before Al is dodging a murder frame-up, pursued by the law, assorted murderous thugs and the usual cast of Sanderson deviants, the violence mounting to Grand Guignol proportions. It's enough to make a guy jump off the wagon.
And that's the thing with Sanderson's characters, even his "heroes" they may be unsavory and unsympathetic, deserving victims of their own worst instincts and base weaknesses. You may not like them or even understand them, but you'll sure want to know what happens to them.
And you'll keep reading because, like Sanderson's protagonists, once you're caught in that nightmare world, it's damn hard to get out.
But don't take my word for it -- see for yourself. Pour yourself
a stiff one, and grab hold of this volume with both hands. You'll
need a good solid grip -- it's going to be a hell of a ride.
Pure Sweet Hell and Catch a Fallen Starlet
A Stark House Mystery, 2004
Care to drop me a line? Go ahead, punk. Make my day.
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