Posts tagged ‘pulp fiction’
September 21, 2018
Review published on September 21, 2018.
Whichever version of Head Games you choose to read, the novel or the graphic novel, you’re getting a juicy slice of Americana to feast on. I decided to tackle both books because I thought it would be interesting to read one straight after the other (starting with the novel, which was written first, so that the images in the graphic retelling weren’t influencing my idea of the characters in the novel). Head Games is noir with a touch of humour, in fact I may be underplaying that a bit because I suspect McDonald was having a lot of fun writing this novel and turning it into a graphic read too. Still, Head Games has that hard-boiled feel to it, in the best tradition of the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s. A treat for fans of the classic adventure thriller but there are a few knowing twists along the way that gives the give the books an edgy feel.
As McDonald put it in the introduction to the graphic novel, “….you’ll be riding shotgun in a ‘fifty-seven ragtop Bel Air….” [with Hector Lassiter]. That’s because Head Games has revolution, grave robbing, betrayal, ambush, a treasure map, a secret society, political corruption and a host of shoot outs. It’s an homage to a golden age of crime writing with a modern twist – there is so much fun to be had in these pages for fans of the classic American crime story and noir cinema.
It’s rare to get a chance to compare the original novel with the graphic rendition, these two seem apt for the experiment but to be very boring about it, you get the same kick, the same excitement from both (there are a few differences I’ve noted below). Head Games has a double meaning, it refers to the skullduggery in the plot (sorry!) but also to the fact that this novel is a bit of a mind game for the reader too. The main protagonist Hector Lassiter is a writer, he’s also the narrator of most of the novel, so we see things through his eyes but maybe we should take some of the things he says with a pinch of salt? It’s a playful format.
It’s 1957, South of the border. Three men are sitting at a table in a seedy cantina in Ciudad Juarez. There’s Eskin ‘Bud’ Fisk, a short-sighted reporter, poet, here to interview Hector Lassiter, a playwright and crime novelist turned screenwriter. Then there is Bill Wade, a mercenary, con man and a drunk. Wade pulls a bundle out of his duffel bag and unwraps the skull of Mexican general and bandit Pancho Villa. Lassiter knows in his water that the skull, with wisps of hair still attached, really is that of the general. Not least because of the mandibular prognathism (pronounced jawbone, an under-bite). Lassiter tells Wade to put it away before they attract attention. The locals would happily kill three gringos for such a prize and it wouldn’t be a pleasant end. Wade’s idea is for Lassiter to smuggle the skull across the border into the good old US of A. He has a buyer lined up, probably the guy who organised the grave robbing theft in the first place thirty years ago – Senator Prescott Bush. He is prepared to pay $80,000 (rumour has it that he personally stole the head of Geronimo some time past). The men should have been paying attention to what was coming because four Federales burst into the bar waving shotguns.
Lassiter just has time to get Fiske down when the shooting starts. In the gunfight Wade, ironically, gets his head blown off and Bud Fiske, the young journalist, saves Lassiter’s life. The problem is Federales usually come in a big posse so they need to get out of town sharpish. The two men torch Wade’s car as a distraction and flee. Across the border, they head for Lassiter’s house, not that he spends much time here, there are bad memories. That’s where they run into three more armed men. Most likely theory is that the good senator decided to reduce costs by having the skull repossessed by the hired help. Fiske and Lassiter give up the skull but this is only the beginning of the trouble. More than one person out there wants that skull badly! Including a couple of supposedly long dead bloodthirsty hombres.
There’s a healthy dose of violence and killing that follows, pretty much starting form the point I left off. Burned out cars riddled with bullets, amateur bounty hunters, stone cold killers, more grave robbing, sleazy politicians and bent spies not to mention the Skull and Bones secret society, an early forerunner of the “deep state”.
Lassiter and Fiske detour to Venice California where Orson Welles is filming Touch of Evil (one of the great noir movies). Lassiter knows Welles but he’s a big ‘friend’ of the Kraut, aka Marlene Dietrich. I won’t tell you what this is all about but it reinforced the noir credentials of the novel and adds to the playfulness of the story. When Welles is jealous about Marlene he abuses Lassiter, who notes as he leaves the set:
“I heard Marlena say to Welles, ‘Stop it you fool what does it matter what you say about him? He’s a man…..that’s all.’”
Thus insinuating himself into film history as the last line of the movie is:
“He was some kind of a man….What does it matter what you say about people?” [Tanya/Dietrich]
It’s a nice in joke/conceit. Lassiter also picks up a girl friend, Mexican beauty, Alicia Vicente.
Both the novel and the graphic novel have potted histories that add a bit of background colour (although it’s in black and white in the graphic novel): Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango in 1878, and was a bandit by the age of 17, having killed the man who attacked and raped his sister. In his early twenties he changed his name to Villa and became a robin hood style bandit. Originally fated by the Americans, General Black Jack Pershing was impressed when he was sent to parley with the Mexican Revolutionary, Villa, in 1913. In 1916, Villa’s men were blamed for a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, killing local inhabitants. Pershing was sent south to catch Villa dead or alive, a mission that was called off when the war in Europe ramped up. It wasn’t until Villa had retired that he was gunned down in the street, shot in the back, in 1923. His body was dug up in 1926 and the head taken, it was rumoured to contain a map to Villa’s treasure.
The dialogue is pure hard-boiled heaven – snappy, witty, cutting. There are echoes of the road movie and a great sense of place as the novel shifts from location to location. Lassiter is a great character and some of the set pieces are solid gold. As a bonus the novel contains a readers’ guide, a short story and an essay on Lassiter.
The novel has a breakneck pace but the graphic novel ramps it up a bit – spare, crisp and action packed. The drawings reinforce the dark atmosphere and the text bubbles are sparingly used, which is an indication of the clever visual interpretation of the original but the hard-boiled style is maintained. The images lead you to the double meaning of Head Games pretty quickly. I loved the sequence in Venice, CA, where the opening shot of Touch of Evil (one of the most iconic movie scenes) is recreated in the graphic novel – it’s a nice doffing of the cap to Welles and the masterpiece of the cinema. The shot of Wade reaching for the skull in the duffel bag makes his face look like a skull presaging his coming end. There are a few heads that get blown off in this story! The simplified story here is more direct than the novel but essentially the same. I’d have no problem recommending the novel or the graphic novel depending on your taste, both are entertaining and exciting reads.
November 29, 2016
Not the end of something?
By Craig McDonald
In autumn 2007, HEAD GAMES was published by Ben Leroy and Bleak House books.
It went on to earn best first novel nominations for the Edgar Award, the Anthony, and the Sélection du prix polar Saint-Maur en Poche in France, among others.
It also launched a series of ten novels featuring protagonist Hector Lassiter, pulp magazine writer, crime novelist and sometimes screenwriter.
Betimes Books has just published the climactic novel in the series, THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH, set in Nashville about a year after HEAD GAMES, and bringing back several characters from that first novel.
CHORDS was always envisioned as a kind of HEAD GAMES sequel and definitive circle-closer.
I actually wrote the “last” Lassiter novel many, many years ago, much of it in situ in Nashville, Tennessee. I interviewed various songwriters and sat in on sound-checks to gather source material and atmosphere.
But mostly, I focused on putting a capstone on the Hector Lassiter saga.
Few are the mystery series in my experience that round out with the fulfillment of a charted character arc or larger story.
Most series simply trail off into oblivion because of soft sales, or the death of their author.
If the series is particularly popular, when the creator dies, some other writer is brought in to keep churning out inferior, never quite satisfying continuations, again toward no planned end.
There are very few exceptions to this rule of the never-ending series.
Most of those that occur still don’t typically deliver a unified story arc carried to a planned climax built toward across the span of the series.
More often, some poor author gets a dire diagnosis and so races the clock to close out their series before they too are “closed out.”
Others elect to do something mirroring Agatha Christie’s strategy of writing a series closer well ahead of time, then holding it in reserve for posthumous publication.
(Though in the Dame’s case, even killing off her character didn’t stop others from publishing further Poirot novels following the appearance of CURTAIN.)
I’ve long acknowledged James Sallis’ cycle of Lew Griffin novels as the inspiration for the Lassiter series.
Sallis wrote an interconnected and finite series of novels that together tell a larger story and build to a final revelation regarding his central protagonist.
With the Lassiter series, I wanted to do something similar: Construct a series toward a known end, allowing each book to stand alone, more or less, but in sum telling a much larger story regarding the character of Hector Lassiter and his eventual fate.
It was an audacious or perhaps even foolish goal to write a whole series ahead of any contract commitments. Certainly, given what I now know of the vagaries and failings of much of the publishing industry, it was a very naïve and hopeful thing for a baseline cynic like myself to undertake.
Yet I wrote first drafts of the novels in the series in the space of about three months per title, back-to-back, working toward the known conclusion of this last, Nashville-set series-closer.
The later entries in the series were mostly well into composition before the second novel, TOROS & TORSOS, was even contracted for publication by Bleak House Books.
Please let me run a highlighter over that point: Most of the series, including the last volume, was virtually written before the second book reached the galley stage some time in the summer of 2008.
There was never any guarantee the books would all see print. There was every chance the project might stall around book four or five and the rest of the novels would remain in limbo.
But the series has hung in there, collecting an international audience through translations in Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Korean and Mongolian, among others.
In English language form, the Lassiter series currently encompasses four different publishers.
HEAD GAMES was also quickly optioned for graphic novel adaptation by First Second Books, prior to its Bleak House publication. I wrote the script for that project over a weekend nearly ten years ago (the art came much more slowly).
Next October, nearly ten years to the day that HEAD GAMES the novel was released, HEAD GAMES the graphic novel will at last appear.
A short story collection will also follow next year from Betimes Books, which now prints uniform editions of the entire series.
The short story collection will feature a never-before-published Lassiter novella set in the 1920s that roughly approaches the word count found in HEAD GAMES.
So while THREE CHORDS does represent the climax of the Hector Lassiter series as originally set forth, the Lassiter saga still has some moves left.
Hector has opened remarkable doors for me and provided international travel opportunities for my family.
He is forever there somewhere in my head, sometimes whispering in my ear. When you write this much about a single character for so long, you actually begin to see the world through his eyes.
Telling this storyteller’s story has resulted in years of wonderful correspondence and conversation with readers of all ages, nationalities and interests who’ve followed his saga.
I very much look forward to hearing the reactions to this “last” Hector Lassiter novel.
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