I bring you an author totally new to me today, although he writes as if he was a pulp-fiction author from the forties or fifties, so, not for everyone, but a fabulous book.
Always the Dead by Stephen J. Golds
“Dare you read ‘Always the Dead’?
“I dared and I’ve been left reeling.
“This is the noirest of noirs. Truly shocking. Almost a horror novel as much as a thriller.
“Old school. Non PC. Violent. Vicious.
“From the gut-wrenching prologue, through the pornography of war, and the cracked psyche of PTSD, author Stephen Golds never pulls a punch. Neither does his black-hearted protagonist, Scott Kelly. Yet, amidst all the blood and guts and shit and vileness, is a dream-like use of imagery and language rare in stories like this.
“And the search for the woman he loves is as brutal as the language. Tainted love!
“Now I need a lie down!”
— Tina Baker, author of Call Me Mummy.
Los Angeles, California. 1949.
Scott Kelly is a World War Two Marine veteran and mob hitman confined to a Tuberculosis sanatorium suffering from consumption, flashbacks and nightmares from his experiences of The Battle of Okinawa and a botched hit for Bugsy Siegel.
When his movie actress girlfriend disappears, he bribes his way out of the sanatorium to search for her.
What follows is a frantic search, a manic murder spree, stolen contraband, and a briefcase full of cash.
A story that stretches from the war-torn beaches of Okinawa, all the way to the playground of the rich and famous, Palm Springs, California.
An exploration into the depths of L.A crime, PTSD, and twisted love.
A semi-fictional novel based around the disappearance of Jean Spangler.
About the author:
Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His novels are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone (Red Dog Press) Always the Dead (Close to the Bone) Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows and the forthcoming collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.
I thank the publisher (Close to the Bone Publishing) for providing me an ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.
The author, whose work I’d never read before, describes his book as a semi-fictional novel, and it is true that the details behind the disappearance of Jean Spangler shared in the novel correspond to those available in what seems to be an open case still. It is also, as many of the reviewers have said, a noir novel, a very dark one, taking us back to the pulp fiction novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties, more Mickey Spillane than Dashiell Hammet, although the obsession of the main character with Jean (his ‘twisted love’, quoting from the description) brought to mind many of the authors and the films of the period, James M. Cain included. Some readers might be more familiar with some film-noir movies based on those novels (The Postman Always Ring Twice, D.O.A, Kiss Me Deadly…) and also with some later neo-noir films (I kept thinking of Chinatown, but films adapting more recent novels set in the same period, like L.A. Confidential share in the same aesthetics and themes).
The plot seems pretty straightforward. A hitman (hoodlum, heavy, enforcer, or whatever term you prefer), Scott Kelly —seriously ill with tuberculosis and confined to a sanatorium in L.A.—, discovers that his on-and-off girlfriend (an aspiring actress, starlet, and good-time gal) has gone missing. Despite the risk to his health, he blackmails his way out of hospital and starts a desperate race against time (he becomes increasingly sick as time passes) to try to find her. A reviewer mentioned D.O.A. and there are similarities. There, the detective is fighting to try to find an antidote against a poison running through his veins before it kills him; here, Kelly is dying of his illness, that’s eating his lungs. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, he also suffers from PTSD (he fought in Okinawa during WWII, and saw pretty horrific things, as his flashbacks make only too clear, and to those experiences, he has added some recent traumas related to his work as a hitman, which only make matters worse). He follows some wrong clues and there are plenty of red herrings and incorrect information that keep making him waste more and more of the little time he has left. As it corresponds to the genre, there are plenty of nasty characters, betrayals, corrupt policemen, mafia bosses, illegal businesses (drugs), combined with memories of his past (good and bad), from his childhood in Ireland (before his family emigrated to the USA) and later in America, to the war, his marriage and divorce, his relationship with Jean, and some of his jobs for the mob. Although the story itself is fiction, many of the characters that make an appearance existed in real life and were involved (or at least were people of interest) in the case (even Kirk Douglas gets a mention).
The story is told in the first-person by Scott, and his is a very harsh, cynical, and bitter voice, although he can be lyrical and beautifully descriptive when it comes to thinking about Jean, their love story (that is not without its very dark moments), and also some of the good old times (although there aren’t many). As usual for this genre, he is sharp and articulate, although in his case this is fully justified, as he loved books and had planned to go back to school and become a writer when he returned from the war, although fate had other ideas. The chronological narrative, following Kelly’s investigation, is disrupted by detailed and beautifully descriptive (although often horrific) flashbacks of his war experience and other events, and these episodes become more and more prominent as his health deteriorates. Kelly is not a character easy to like. Quite the opposite. For me, it was a bit of a process. To begin with, we learn that he is suffering from PTSD, is very ill, and his girlfriend has disappeared, so it was inevitable to feel sorry for him. But as we get to follow him, see how he behaves and interacts with others, and get to experience more and more of his flashbacks (some that seem to put into question his own discourse and his self-perception), it becomes more and more difficult to find anything positive in him (other than his sheer determination to get to the end of his investigation). Before we reach the end, we get glimpses of a different Scott, buried deep behind his bravado and his hard exterior, but I wouldn’t go as far as to talk about redemption. I’ve never minded having a ‘bad’ character as the protagonist of a novel, as long as s/he is interesting and consistent, and Kelly fits the bill. Some of the other characters aren’t quite as complex as Kelly, although Golds always adds some details that make them memorable, and if I had to choose one of the characters as my favourite, it would have to be Rudy, the driver for a mob boss. He is, in many ways, the kind of person Kelly would have become if he hadn’t jumped in at the deep end, although… (Sorry, I’ll leave it there to avoid spoilers). As for Jean… She is a bit like Laura, the protagonist of the 1944 Otto Preminger film of the same name: each person who talks about her seems to have a different opinion of her, and we get a variety of versions: harlot, loving, manipulative, talented, beautiful, disloyal, caring, greedy… She combines the two typical images of the women in film-noir, the virginal maiden, and the deadly femme-fatale. Who she really was is something left open to interpretation, as we never get to hear her own voice directly. In a way, she is a figure that resists all interpretations, at least those of the men who knew her, and, in some cases, thought they were in love with her. What made her so alluring? Was it her skill at becoming the woman each one of those men wanted or needed? Perhaps.
I’ve referred to Kelly’s narrative voice, and the writing reflects perfectly his persona. I’ve seen the novel described as ‘retro-noir’, and if one didn’t know this had been just published, it would be difficult to tell that this wasn’t written in the historical period is set in. That means the book does not adapt or adopt current p.c. standards. Quite the opposite. There are abusive epithets used to describe all races and ethnic minorities (I kept thinking about Roth’s The Human Stain and the incident that triggers that story, because yes, that is one of the words used here as well, but in this case intentionally as a slur, even if the protagonist doesn’t see it that way), there is violence galore (in the current narration but also, and much more disturbing at times, in the episodes Kelly experiences in flashback), and it’s difficult to think of a possible trigger not included in this novel (I can’t remember specific episodes of harm to animals, but, otherwise, there is domestic violence, murder, rape, children’s deaths, various forms of abuse… You name it, it’s likely to be there). So, be warned. It is by no means an easy read. On the other hand, it is very well-written. The descriptions of the flashbacks are cinematic (unfortunately, in some cases, and I think that although this would make a great movie, it would require a very strong stomach to watch it) and the author manages to make us see and feel all the experiences as if we were there (even his illness); there are some exquisite reflections and use of lyrical language at times; some insightful and wise passages; some witty and darkly humorous asides; some fantastic dialogue; there is a beautiful symmetry in the overall story, and an underlying sense of fate/karma at work, that I really liked.
I loved the ending (I’m referring to the epilogue, although the ending itself makes perfect sense as well, and it is, perhaps, even more in keeping with the genre), but I can’t say anything else without revealing too much.
I’ve selected a few fragments from the novel, although, as usual, I recommend prospective readers to check a sample to see if the writing style fits their taste (although the above warning applies here as well, because the novel jumps straight into a flashback, so there is nothing gradual about it):
Pulling a trigger on people tends to change your world view. Conversation and small talk can be difficult and seem altogether worthless when you have seen how easily the human body comes apart, how simple it is to switch someone’s lights out.
One night I sat at the dining table until the early hours of the morning, listening to the sounds of the emptiness. I realized that I had survived the war only by returning as a ghost. A deal I’d made with the devil. A ghost that haunted my own home.
I listened to the sound of her high heels as she walked down the green tiled floor to the front entrance, thinking to myself that the women who are the best at walking away are always the ones you need the most.
Dexter was the kind of guy who constantly wrote checks with his fat mouth that his weak spine couldn’t cash.
This is a great semi-fictional historical novel, retro-noir, that I recommend to anybody who loves the original noir and pulp-fiction stories (that had their heyday from the thirties to the fifties of the XX century in the United States), films, or later neo-noir reimaginings, and don’t mind the dark aspects and conventions of the genre. This is not a novel adapted to current writing practice or sensibilities, and I’d recommend caution to anybody who is looking for a light, feel-good, and politically correct reading experience. The writing and the characters are first class, and the novel pulls no punches, so if you’re ready for a memorable reading experience and are not worried about the less savoury aspects of the plot and use of language, jump right in. I intend to investigate Gold’s writing further, that’s for sure.
Thanks to the author and the publisher for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep safe and keep smiling. ♥