Monday, May 30, 2016

Tracing Skip Tracer (1977)

Hey! Did I just dream this? Or did I really see this obscure bit of Canadian nastiness?

It was a bleak, decidedly non-glamourous, low-budget character study released in 1977 that did zip and was (mostly) immediately forgotten, featuring a cast of unknowns and starring David Peterson (who?) as John Collins, a low-key, taciturn debt collector "hero" prowling the streets of a gloriously seedy Vancouver, hunting down deadbeats.

Make no mistake -- Collins is no goody two-shoes. In fact, he's a cold, heartless son of a bitch.

Or maybe just an asshole, as a commenter on IMDB put it.

But however you put it, it's that trait that has made him the top skip tracer for GSC, a Vancouver loan company.

In the course of this fragmented and episodic little gem, Collins must deal with an ambitious young associate, viscious death threats, physical violence, and a suicidal debtor, not to mention severe job burnout. All this while vying for GSC's coveted "Man of the Year" award for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. And discovering that maybe, just maybe, he is human after all.

Yeah, it sounds like a downer.

And it is.

But oh, what a downer.

This is noir in its essence. No fedoras, no fancy lighting tricks, no smoke machines, no jaw-dropping camera work -- just a bleak, no-frills x-ray of a man's soul as he circles the drain.

Despite it's obscurity (it did very little box office during its short theatrical release in Canada, and it aired maybe twice on British television back in the early eighties), it continues to rate highly among those lucky few who have seen it. Peterson's performance as Collins has been praised as being "wonderfully sustained," and the film itself has been compared to everything from Across 110th Street and Superfly to On the Waterfront and, of course, Repo Man, while Collins' obsession with tracking down and collecting from one elusive skip has been likened -- I shit thee not -- to Ahab's quest in Moby Dick. Me? For some reason it reminded me of Drive, that Ryan Gosling flick from a few years ago, based on the James Sallis' book.

But whatever, Skip Tracer's got a pretty good rep for a cheap little flick that hardly anyone saw.

It's too bad it's not available on DVD. I saw it years and years ago on VHS, rented from some hole-in-the-wall Montreal video store back in the mid-eighties that seemed to have a lot of videos of dubious provenance. Yet it's haunted me ever since.

Was it as cheap-looking as I remember it? Was it as unapologetically morose and bleak? As creepy and unsettling? I'm almost afraid to find out, but I'd really love to know.

Alas, as far as anyone can tell, the film was never released on DVD or Blu-Ray. And of course, it never occurred to me, when I was updating this entry on Thrilling Detective, that it might be on YouTube.

Turns out it is. Now to see how much I've misremembered...

Monday, May 23, 2016

Don't Call It a Bargain!

You see 'em everywhere online.

These big, dirt cheap e-compilations of novels and short stories by some of the better known (but not A-list) authors of the genre. Twenty-Five Hard-Boiled Classics, Volume Eight! The Amazing Sherlock Holmes and Watson Megapack! Gritty Crime from the Pulps, Collection 15! Five More Great Awesome and Amazing Crime Novels by Whomever!

Stories or complete novels by some really great and/or popular P.I. writers. William Campbell Gault, Thomas B. Dewey, Robert Leslie Bellem, Stewart Sterling, Spencer Dean, John Carroll Daly, George Harmon Coxe, Norbert Davis, Raoul Whitfield and the like.

Some of the writers in these books are personal favourites; some are of historical interest; some are just fun to read. But what they do all have in common is that the authors (or more importantly their copyrights) are all dead.

Which means some publisher can grab a bunch of stories and squirt out an ebook without ever having to pay any of the writers a cent. Amazon and the other online enablers are littered with these things, generally selling them for as little as 99 cents.

Yeah, I know the price is right, but I’m not a fan.

There are some publishers who do reprints right: they offer class, not crass. They edit, they commission artwork, they introduce new and relevant material into the mix. They treat the material with respect. They curate. They care. They actually edit. Outfits like Hard Case Crime, Stark House, Crippen & Landru -- they do it right. (And let's have a moment of silence for the late, great Rue Morgue, who rescued so many classics from obscurity. Tom and Enid? Thank you. Particularly for the Norbert Davis stuff).

Mind you, all of these publishers charged more than 99 cents a book. But their books were worth it. Well worth it.

These cheesy public domain hit-and-run e-compilations, though? At 99 cents, they can ship an awful lot of units, without ever having to pay anyone a damn cent. At 99 cents, you might even call it a steal.

But I think they devalue, if not outright disrespect, the act of writing and creativity, and lower the reader’s expectations of what writing is truly worth. It may look like a boon to non-discerning readers, but in the long run it hurts both writers and readers.

Or at least the ones who can tell the difference between shit and Shinola. Believe it or not, there are still some of us out here. Even in the era of La Donald.

But beyond the dubious ethics, if not legality, of these books, these quickie cyber-turds are poorly curated (if at all), often lack any thematic or editorial cohesion, generally sport lousy generic covers, and are often riddled with typographical and formatting errors. So we're not exactly talking quality control here. I also doubt any effort is made to share the profits with or obtain the cooperation of the estates of any of the now deceased authors. And often they mix in stories by their own “authors” to make it look like they’re in the same league; another rather dubious tactic.

Erle Stanley Gardner. Joe Phlegminski, Jr.. William Campbell Gault. Which of these things is not like the others?


What prompted this? A reader of my site recently contacted me, asking me to explain a story by Thomas B. Dewey that he'd just read in one of these collections. He complained that it just didn't make any sense.

Now, Dewey's one of those P.I. writers I really like, and his plots are generally well-constructed, with all the loose ends neatly tied up; solid, dependable fare that's always a bit more clever and insightful than you expect. I know this because I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the last few years, in preparation for that book I’m working on.

But I hadn't read that specific story in decades. So I told him it’s possible it didn’t make sense because the publisher had inadvertently left out part of the story. I’ve seen this happen before with these sort of collections. The publisher grabs (or scans) a bunch of old stories and slaps ‘em together for a quick buck, without any real editing.

In fact, this particular publisher apparently expects typos and errors, because when I checked out the free sample, I noticed that they apologize for typos  right on their copyright pages. Think about that. What sort of legit publisher apologizes in advance for errors? "Don't worry about them," they say, in essence, "We'll probably fix 'em with the next upload."

But these bottom feeders can’t just lay it off on poorly scanned source material (assuming they actually scanned the original material -- I suspect many of these clowns simply rip off their fellow e-scavengers. Besides, looking at the copyright page, it was clear they’re fully capable of introducing plenty of their own errors. So if they don't even bother to edit their own material, should we really expect them to be any more conscientious with other people's work? Especially if those authors have already shuffled off this mortal coil?

And if they can't be bothered to treat their authors right, what do you think they'll care about treating you right?

So it’s not exactly a stretch to believe the "publisher" may have lost a few paragraphs along the way. Ooops.

So, yeah, the price may be right, but as both a reader and a writer, I just think these guys are all wrong.