Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime, has done it again. He has discovered a great pulp fiction book that nobody knew about, or ever had the chance to read in this country. He is now publishing it and giving us all an opportunity to enjoy it. He did that with James M. Cain, no fewer than twice with Donald E. Westlake, Mickey Spillane, David Dodge, Roger Zelazny and Lester Dent.
And now Samuel Fuller. Wait, you say, the movie maker? One and the same. In 85 years, Fuller packed in enough living for a dozen lifetimes. He started as a journalist at the age of 12 and wrote novels his entire life. Of course, he is most famous for his work in Hollywood as a scriptwriter and then director, who had a direct impact on those who would follow, like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg.
Fuller not only fought in World War II but was among the American soldiers who liberated the Falkenau Nazi concentration camp, with him filming the horrors he saw on a little handheld camera.
"BRAINQUAKE is a noir gem, published on what would have been the author’s 102nd birthday. It is easily one of the best books Hard Case has released in its 10-year history and has one of the greatest first lines of any noir novel I have ever read..."
Darkness and realism found its way into Fuller’s work. If you love film noir, as I do, his noirs, including Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, are among the greatest ever made. As a small child, I somehow --- without adult supervision --- stumbled across the opening scene of The Naked Kiss where the prostitute pummels her drunken pimp with a handbag until her wig falls off revealing her bald head. With its jazz score and jerking camera movements, it scared the hell out of me and is still, to this day, one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen on film. My lifelong love affair with noir had begun.
So when I heard that BRAINQUAKE was Fuller’s last novel, written when he had fled Hollywood in disgust for exile in France, I was curious but somewhat suspicious, to say the least. The book had been published in French but never in Fuller’s country of birth. It was his widow, Christa, who contacted Ardai about the book. Fuller died in 1997 at the age of 85.
I had no reason to fear. BRAINQUAKE is a noir gem, published on what would have been the author’s 102nd birthday. It is easily one of the best books Hard Case has released in its 10-year history and has one of the greatest first lines of any noir novel I have ever read: “Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” Wow! I defy anybody to stop reading at that point. That simple opening is the literary equivalent of the aforementioned scene in The Naked Kiss that so impressed me as an eight-year-old.
The story is off and rolling, and like all great pulp fiction, you are in for a wild ride to the very end. As with the baby with the gun and bomb in its carriage, Fuller created a unique take on the age-old story of mob pickups and collections. Paul Page is a mob bagman of 10 years’ experience but suffers from what he calls “brainquakes.” A doctor describes them as “seizures, auditory and visual hallucinations, violent impulses. Never seen anything like it.” They are getting worse and will end in death eventually. The attacks come with Paul literally seeing pink or red and hearing a flute. They are terrifying.
Needless to say, Paul is a bit of a social misfit and loner. But before his father dies, he gets a sympathetic lady who works for the mob to get him his job. The pay is good, $500 a week to start with benefits, something many of us do not get these days, but she tells him the rules are stringent: “No girls. No wife. Not now, not ever. No friends. No ambition. No hobbies. No alcohol. No dope. No gambling. No debts. No talk when delivering the mail. No borrowing from the bag. No quitting. No selling your experiences after you retire. Never tell anybody you’re a bagman.”
So, of course, perhaps in the spirit of the great New Orleans group, The Soul Rebels Brass Band, and their song, “Drink a Little Poison (4 U Die),” Paul has to go and mess it up by falling in love. But he does it in a romantic way, leaving his lady a single rose and poem each and every day. How sweet! Naturally, he chooses not just any woman but a femme fatale and a deadly one at that, as deadly as a rattlesnake. Her name is Michelle, but Paul calls her “Ivory Face.” (Could Fuller have been pointing readers at the famous Ivory Soap commercials starring the woman who later became porn superstar Marilyn Chambers? Another image that was not reality.)
Fuller has created a classic femme fatale that will stick with you. Like all femmes, she is evil, but is exercising her power to get by in a man’s world --- something men routinely do and get away with. She runs a mean sting here. And I could see Jean Peters, who starred in Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, playing Michelle. Fuller also created one of the most memorable evil hit men of all time who calls himself Father Flanagan. (Again, an example of things not being what they seem or sound like: this fake priest is about as far from Spencer Tracy in Boys Town as you can get. You can almost see Fuller smiling as he wrote the name.)
In BRAINQUAKE, the action moves from New York to the houseboat of a French resistance hero on the Seine in Paris. The suspense builds and builds and builds, and you have no way of knowing how it will end, except for one noir truism that also applies to all of Fuller’s great film noir: nobody --- not even the most sympathetic character --- gets off easily. No matter how tough or easy your ride might be in life, fueled by your silly illusions and big plans, the ending is going to be hard. Count on it.
BRAINQUAKE is an excellent addition to the Hard Case Crime library. The famous W.P. Kinsella’s line was “If you build it, he will come.” Well, Charles Ardai proves that if you build a publishing house dedicated to pulp fiction, great books will result. Let us hope the tradition long continues.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on August 15, 2014