Gun in Cheek: A Study of Alternative Crime Fiction (1982)
by Bill Pronzini
Hardcover: Coward McCann & Geoghegan, 1982; trade paperback: Mysterious Press, 1987.
Gun in Cheek is Bill Pronzini’s backhanded salute to the “Best of the Worst,” books and stories that pushed the envelope of language to the breaking point and beyond. The blurb on the back says it all:
Gun in Cheek is a delightful exploration of what the author refers to as “alternative crime fiction.” Less kindly put, it is a unique crash course in the worst English and American crime fiction of the twentieth century. Every category of mystery fiction is represented: the private eye, the stately home, the arch-villain, the gentleman sleuth, the amateur spy, and many others who have blossomed from the genre. Within these categories, in what can only be called a labor of love, Bill Pronzini discusses, digests, and shares the best of the worst — adding a wonderfully comprehensive bibliography for advanced and dedicated devotees. Gun in Cheek is an amusing and pleasurable reading experience as well as an enlightening guide to hardboiled potboilers.
But they’re not all hardboiled. Gladys Mitchell is Pronzini’s target in Chapter Five: “Mitchell’s prose is of the eccentric variety, to put it mildly — something of a cross between Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, with a dollop or two of Saki, or maybe John Collier, thrown in — and, like garlic and rutabagas, is an acquired taste.”
Of course, Pronzini’s criticism is supported by only one example: The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop. Nevertheless, as Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) says of Pronzini in his Introduction, “He has obviously read and digested everything ever written in the genre by anyone anywhere,” so his judgment in these matters is to be respected.
Gothic mysteries are examined in Chapter Ten, which begins with a famous Donald Westlake quote: “A gothic is a story about a girl who gets a house”; but the variations rung in on the Gothic theme can go far afield, as Pronzini amply demonstrates.
Ed McBain feigns injury in the Introduction, wounded by Pronzini’s ignoring some of the bad writing McBain himself was guilty of, and produces examples of his own as proof that even the best writers can nod now and then over their typewriters — and what does this say about editors?
Pronzini discusses some works at great length, such as (in Chapter Seven) The Dragon Strikes Back by Tom Roan (1936), an extravaganza so over the top that it leaves Pronzini wishing its author had produced more of the same.
(Incidentally, if Ian Fleming ever denied having cribbed from The Dragon Strikes Back when he wrote Doctor No, he must have been lying, especially with its element of a renegade group trying to initiate a world war among the superpowers — how many times have those drearily formulaic Bond films used that very notion?)
Chapter Four affectionately deals with Phoenix Press, whose stable of “alternative” authors boggles the mind, and among whom was Harry Stephen Keeler, “the once-popular ‘wild man’ of the mystery, who seems to have been cheerfully daft and whose plots defy logic and the suspension of ANYONE’S disbelief.”
(Sidebar: Keeler offered his plotting schemes for sale to the public. That’s a lot like you teaching your cat Tiddles to play Chopin’s ‘Piano Concerto in F Minor’ : No matter how good he gets at chording, his feet will never reach the foot pedals — and Keeler’s “feet” never did.)
You’ll probably enjoy Gun in Cheek, but three cautions:
? One (for parents): There is some coarse language.
? Two: Spoiler Alerts, for Pronzini happily reveals the endings in a few cases.
? Three: Don’t try to read this book in one sitting because it just might make you dizzy — with laughter.
Introduction by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)
“Without Malice, A Forethought” by Bill Pronzini
1. Wanna Woo-Woo?
“Someone standing inside the body of the black cat would be able to fire a revolver through its mouth!”
2. The Eyes Have It
“He was dead, all right. He had been shot, poisoned, stabbed, and strangled. Either somebody had really had it in for him or four people had killed him. Or else it was the cleverest suicide I’d ever heard of.”
3. Cheez It, the Cops!
“Since when did you get around to using all those two-syllable words?”
4. The Saga of the Risen Phoenix
“A sudden thought bounced her heart to her larynx.”
5. The Goonbarrow and Other Jolly Old Corpses
“In plain English, Patterson,” said Pye, “nix on the gats!”
6. Dogs, Swine, Skunks, and Assorted Asses
“And here I slave over a hot tommygun all day!”
“Think of it! A pretty girl to cuddle up to on cold nights and her shirt-tail to keep your feet warm. Bully, my boy, bully! Maybe a couple of little dingy-dingies coming along to call you ‘papa’.”
8. The Vanishing Cracksman, the Norman Conquest, and the Death Merchant
“The vicissitudes of a capricious fate are indeed inconsistent and incommensurable!”
9. In the Name of God — WHOSE HAND?
“Your toe went up the staircase?”
10. The Idiot Heroine in the Attic
“In the warm glow of happiness that enveloped her, the caption on the billboard did not strike her as even faintly ominous. It said, ‘Fly Now — Pay Later’.”
11. Don’t Tell Me You’ve Got a Heater in Your Girdle, Madam!
“My jaw bounced off the back of my skull and I wallowed in the softness of a cloud. I groped around for my brain and after a couple of years it came back from San Francisco and said ‘Get up!’”
12. Ante-Bellem Days; or, “My Roscoe Sneezed: Ka-chee!”
“Drop that corpse, you fool!”
Note: This review previously appeared on Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File blog and is reproduced with permission.