Perhaps no other author today has done so much to keep alive the “Pulp Fiction” genre than Ed Gorman. Not only as an award winning author ( Spur Award for Best Short Fiction, “The Face” in 1992. His fiction collection Cages was nominated for the 1995 Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection. His collection The Dark Fantastic was nominated for the same award in 2001.) but as archivist, historian, and commentator. He has written in the fields of terror/horror, speculative fiction, and of course hardboiled/noir crime fiction.
His Sam McCain novels are perhaps my favorites … but I have not only a soft spot for crime fiction but also a nostalgic bent for the ‘50s. McCain embodies all the traits we love of the hardboiled detective; he’s smart, quick with a quip, educated, but struggling for a buck, honest and honorable (at least to his own personal code), he’s personally brave, almost chivalrous, and like a bulldog at unraveling a mystery.
But, he is also dichotomous in that he is a little guy at just over five and a half feet, and thus, not one to quickly get in a fight. He was never a cop or a soldier, doesn’t “really” hate authority, has dinner at least once a week with mom and dad, loves rock and roll, not jazz, isn’t a big drinker. Instead of that ‘30s-‘40s fedora-wearing, zoot-suited PI, driving a Model ‘A’ or some other piece of Detroit iron with running boards, McCain loves ‘50s hotrods. McCain is a recent law school grad who gets his PI license to make ends meet and broaden his prospects.
Also, to break the mold of most pulp/hardboiled crime fiction, his mysteries don’t take place in a large city (L.A., Chicago, N.Y. or their fictionally renamed likenesses). Instead, the stories take place, mainly, in a small Iowa town where McCain grew up. And to further break the mold, the crimes McCain ends up investigating aren’t stolen pearls or bank robberies, or the theft of historical artifacts. They are crimes to take the sheen off of the nostalgia shown in the popular media for the ‘50s. This isn’t Happy Days. This isn’t American Graffiti. This is not the ‘50s of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best.
Instead, Gorman takes for his themes the real crimes of the ’50s. Gorman writes about the social ills of the decade, some of which are still with us today. Racial inequality and bigotry, male chauvinism, and the lack of women’s rights, union busting, red baiting, and McCarthyism and the large parts of the country that were still in the grips of poverty.
Yes, boys and girls, our country had bigger problems than Elvis getting drafted, the Edsel, and getting a date for the sock hop on Saturday night. Here’s Gorman’s words:
“Part of the reason I started writing the Sam McCain novels was because I was sick of hearing about how wonderful the decade of the Fifties was. …. By then even the Republicans knew better. If you were white, Christian, middle-class, straight and white collar the decade was probably more decent to you than not. But given the racism, sexism, Communist witch hunts, union-busting and large pockets of poverty, not even Ozzie’s dopey smile could make the excluded Happy.”
Now don’t get the idea these stories are sermons. They aren’t. They just deal with ‘the real picture’ of the decade that is often painted as the American Ideal. The books, while remaining great mysteries and giving a long overdue update to the genre, are humorous and Sam’s dialogue is as sharp and cynical as Philip Marlowe’s. The mysteries are as puzzling as anything in the genre, the characters are very real and very true to their time and place, and he manages to expose social ills as well as Dashiell Hammett did. In short, Ed Gorman is one of the gems in these fictional fields.
The first novel is titled The Day The Music Died, and is set against the backdrop of the tragic plane crash in Iowa that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. The story opens with McCain and his high school sweetheart Pamela Forrest leaving The Surf Ballroom, having just witnessed Holly’s last show. They get in McCain’s ‘51 Ford convertible with the custom skirts, louvered hood and special weave top. With that description, Gorman takes the genre out of the jazz age and into the world of rock and roll.
On the trip home to Black River Falls through the same snowstorm that would kill the legends, McCain and Pamela argue over the radio station, she wants to listen to Perry Como, and McCain loves Buddy Holly. Pamela is also in love with someone else, but McCain will carry his flame for her through the snowstorm and through the series, just like he has since the 4th grade.
The next morning about 5 a.m McCain gets woken up by his employer, Judge Esme Anne Whitney, a wealth scion of the small town. Her nephew is holed up on his estate, drunk and threatening suicide. McCain is to keep it quiet since the local Chief of Police is the new money in the town and the enemy socially and politically of the judge. When McCain arrives and makes his way inside, he discovers that Kenny’s wife is dead, shot, and Kenny admits to shooting her, then promptly kills himself.
Before putting the gun to his head, Kenny admits to the murder. He tells McCain that Susan was running around on him and wanted a divorce, he got drunk and must have shot her. But after Kenny kills himself, the story and the evidence don’t add up for McCain even though the local chief, the “hillbilly’ Sykes, wants to gloat over a Whitney being a wife murderer and a suicide.
McCain starts to investigate and along the way to solving the mystery he uncovers the prevalent racist attitudes of the town, tries to discover an unsafe abortionist who just may be involved, a cultish artistic couple and their “open marriage” all the while pursuing Pamela while being pursued himself by a girl who has loved him just as long as he has loved Pamela.
The plot is beautiful, and introduces the reader to McCain, an honest voice of the ‘50s and one of the smartest and most likable PIs you’ll ever meet. Gorman’s writing style will trap you, even if you don’t want to be trapped. The Day The Music Died is both dark poetry and a great, engrossing read.
The second book included in this bundle is Wake Up Little Susie, and is really a prequel, taking place two years earlier, in 1957 on the day Ford Introduced its new “revolutionary” Edsel automobile. When the district attorney’s wife is found in the trunk of a new Edsel in the local car lot, McCain follows the clues to uncover the real killer while the local police try to discourage him, and aim to ‘hang’ the obvious suspect which will feed their political needs as well as their cruelty and small-mindedness.
If you are familiar with Gorman then you’ll want to get these two books in eBook form, and if you haven’t read him before, then this is the perfect opportunity to dive into one of the best crime writers working today.