Review: “Bloodlist” By P. N. Elrod (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I last read a vampire novel. And, after a bit of searching online, I happened to notice the cover of a rather cool-looking vampire-themed “film noir”-style novel by P. N. Elrod . However, it was the seventh in a series.

So, after some thought, I decided to start at the beginning of the series and – to my delight – a second-hand omnibus of the first three P.N.Elrod’s “Vampire Files” stories was also going fairly cheap. So, I thought that I’d take a look at the first novel in the series, “Bloodlist” (1990).

So, let’s take a look at “Bloodlist”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2003 Ace Books (US) paperback omnibus that contained the copy of “Bloodlist” (1990) that I read.

The novel begins in Chicago, in the summer of 1936. Former reporter Jack Fleming is having a bad night. After waking up near a lake with no memory of the past few days, he suddenly finds that he’s being chased by a car. After taking a glancing blow from the car, the driver gets out and shoots him in the back. However, to Jack’s surprise, the gunshot doesn’t really hurt and isn’t even vaguely fatal.

After giving the gunman the scare of his life, Jack takes his car and decides to look into why he can’t remember the past few days. And, more importantly, why he’s still alive too. But, after feeling a hunger for blood, the answer to that question seems pretty obvious…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 Not only is it a really cool vampire novel, but it’s also a fairly gripping “film noir”-style thriller novel too, with a decent helping of comedy, quirkiness, atmosphere and personality too 🙂 And it’s from the 1990s too 🙂 Seriously, it is awesome 🙂

Interestingly though, although this novel is sort of a detective novel, it’s actually more of a streamlined thriller than many of the classic hardboiled novels it takes inspiration from. It’s kind of like a mixture between a less gritty/ less old-fashioned version of Mickey Spillane’s “I, The Jury” with a few hints of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. In other words, if you’re expecting the kind of messy, puzzling, complex plot that you’d find in hardboiled classics like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” or Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window“, then you’re going to be disappointed.

Still, this streamlined plot works really well – since it makes the story a lot more gripping and readable (and a bit “cinematic” too). Interestingly though, although the novel certainly has a rather cool “film noir” atmosphere to it, it also contains traces of something a bit older and more quirkier.

This is mostly thanks to the inclusion of a British actor, private detective and master of disguse called Escott, who helps to lend the story a little bit more of an eccentric Victorian-style “Sherlock Holmes” atmosphere 🙂 Plus, although this novel wears it’s influences on it’s sleeve (with references to things like Black Mask and old Dracula movies), it is very much it’s own unique thing 🙂

Although this is more of a horror-themed novel than an actual horror novel, the novel’s depiction of vampirism is fairly interesting. In addition to the usual thing about vampires being allergic to sunlight, this novel does some rather interesting things – such as giving Jack the ability to turn invisible and walk through walls. This allows for some truly brilliant (and occasionally hilarious) set pieces, but also has a few clever limitations which help the story to remain suspenseful too. Jack is also able to remain a fairly sympathetic character since he mostly drinks animal blood and, on the one occasion he bites another person, doesn’t kill them.

In terms of the characters, this novel is pretty good. Although many of the characters are fairly stylised “film noir” characters (eg: the evil gangster, the nightclub singer with a heart of gold, the hardboiled detective etc..) they all have a lot of personality. Likewise, the story includes a few characters you probably wouldn’t find in traditional 1930s-50s hardboiled stories too, which helps keep things interesting too.

Interestingly, whilst Jack is still very much a hardboiled detective, he’s probably slightly more of a likeable and friendly character than the classic hardboiled detectives of the 1930s-50s (eg: Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade). Likewise, he contains just the right amount of moral ambiguity to make him an interesting character, whilst also ensuring that he doesn’t become too unsympathetic either.

The best character-based part of this novel is probably the friendship between Jack and Escott, which is the source of lots of dramatic moments, amusing lines of dialogue and other such things. Seriously, although the characters in this novel are a little bit stylised, this is part of the fun of this novel.

In terms of the writing, Elrod’s first-person narration is really good 🙂 It is matter-of-fact enough to make the story moderately fast-paced, whilst also still allowing the story to have a reasonably authentic “film noir”-style tone too. Likewise, the first-person narration also helps to give Jack a lot of extra characterisation too. Seriously, this novel is wonderfully readable.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really great. The omnibus edition of “Bloodlist” I read was a gloriously efficient 159 pages long. But, even accounting for the smaller print and larger page size in the omnibus, this novel is still a wonderfully streamlined and efficient story. Likewise, the story’s pacing is fairly good too, with the story never really slowing down or losing momentum. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced thriller, this novel moves along at a reasonable pace.

As for how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Seriously, this could pretty much be a modern novel. Whether it is the slightly more critical attitude towards the setting (similar to what you’d expect in a modern historical novel) or the fact that the novel’s writing style is also retro enough to be atmospheric whilst still being modern enough to still be easily readable today, this novel has aged really well.

All in all, this novel is really awesome 🙂 It’s a hardboiled “film noir” detective story about vampires that was written in the 1990s. You don’t get much better than this 🙂 It’s a streamlined, gripping novel that contains a really great blend of atmosphere, thrills and humour.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “I, The Jury” By Mickey Spillane (Novel)

Whilst waiting for some books to arrive, I decided to look around my room for something to read in the meantime. And, to my surprise, I stumbled across an omnibus of three of Mickey Spillane’s “Mike Hammer” novels.

According to the reciept that was still in the book, I’d bought it about eight or nine years ago, presumably because of the connection to the film noir genre. But, at the time, I didn’t read more the first ten pages or so of it for some reason.

So, because it’s been a while since I’ve read an old-school noir detective novel (the only two I’ve read recently are Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” and Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon), I thought that I’d check out Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury”.

So, let’s take a look at “I, The Jury”. Needless to say, this review will contain some plot SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 Allison & Busby (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the copy of “I, The Jury” that I read.

The novel begins with tough guy New York P.I. Mike Hammer finding that his old war buddy Jack has been shot. Mike’s friend on the police force, Pat Chambers, is already at the crime scene and isn’t entirely impressed when Mike swears bloody vengeance against whoever killed Jack.

Still, despite Mike’s murderous speech about what he’s going to do to the culprit, Pat and Mike are friends. So, they decide to see who can get to the killer first. Will Pat arrest the murderer? Or will Mike get there first and dispense harsh vigilante “justice” with his .45?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it isn’t perfect, this story is surprisingly gripping. Although I knew that pulp novels/ noir detective novels were a precursor to the modern thriller novel, nowhere is this clearer than in this novel. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way that is still grippingly readable even today, but it also contains a brilliantly thrilling premise too.

Although I’ll talk more about the writing style later, one of the things that makes “I, The Jury” so gripping in comparison to other noir detective novels from around the same time is just how streamlined the plot is.

Yes, there’s still the traditional complicated web of criminal intrigue, but this is slightly more of a background detail and it is also explained more clearly than it would be in, say, a Raymond Chandler novel. In other words, the plot of this old novel reads a lot more like a noir-influenced modern thriller than a classic noir detective novel.

Yet, at the same time, this novel is about as noir as you can get. In fact, whilst reading the first couple of chapters, I actually began to wonder whether it was a parody of the noir detective genre… until I realised that all of the parodies were probably based on novels like this one.

Yes, this novel might lack some of the atmosphere and descriptive depth of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel, but if you want to see a distilled, somewhat simplified version of the noir genre (warts and all), then this book might be worth a read.

But, saying all of this, the story’s simplified plot works really well on some levels. Although most classic noir detective writers tried to show the complicated, messy reality of crime and detection, this novel has a much more stylised plot that ensures that the reader is never confused. In other words, it’s written more like a modern thriller novel. Every now and then, there will be a moment of drama or violence that helps to keep the story moving quickly. Likewise, there are even occasional recaps where Mike sits down and thinks about the case.

In terms of the writing style, it is surprisingly similar to the “matter of fact” style that you’d expect to see in a modern thriller novel. The novel is narrated by Mike Hammer and, as such, the narration is the kind of gruff, fast-paced “tough guy” narration that goes well with this kind of character.

Yes, this does rob the story of some of the descriptive atmosphere of other vintage noir detective novels (seriously, many of the relatively few detailed descriptions in this novel are of women that Mike is attracted to). But, it means that this story’s writing style is a lot more readable and fast-paced than the average vintage noir detective novel.

As for the characters, let’s just say that it’s a well-known fact that Spillane originally envisaged Mike Hammer as a comic book character. If you’re expecting complex, well-written, realistic characters here – then you’re going to be disappointed. In other words, the characters are a collection of stereotypes. And, yes, “stereotypes” is probably the right word to use.

Whether it is the cartoonishly “hyper-manly macho man” protagonist, pretty much all of the story’s female characters and/or the utterly cringe-worthy way that the story’s African-American characters are depicted, “stereotypes” is probably the best word to describe the characters in this novel. Yes, it’s a novel from 1947. But, novels with more nuanced and well-written characters existed back then too.

Thematically, this novel is rather interesting. In essence, it is an exploration of the subject of vigilanteism. The whole novel is spent following Mike’s quest for brutal vengeance, and the various ways he justifies this to himself, his police friends and the reader. Yet, when he does eventually find the killer and get revenge, the scene in question is shown to be grimly depressing rather than celebratory (despite Mike’s pronouncement that killing the criminal was “easy”). It’s a really clever way of emphasising that Mike is basically no better than the criminals he rails against.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. Not only is this novel filled with carefully-placed moments of drama which ensure that the story never really slows down too much. But, in the omnibus I read, the novel is a gloriously efficient 147 pages in length too 🙂 Seriously, I say this in many of my reviews, but I really miss the days when short novels were popular 🙂

As for how well this seventy-two year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the writing style is almost comparable to more modern thrillers and the story is still extremely gripping when read today. On the other hand, this novel is absolutely saturated with the very worst attitudes of 1940s America (eg: sexism, racism, homophobia etc..) and will be fairly cringe-worthy when read today.

But, on a slightly more cheerful note, at least some of the novel’s old-timey slang is absolutely hilarious when read today (eg: in a move that would probably impress Sigmund Freud, Mike Hammer keeps referring to his gun as a “rod”). So, yes, this book hasn’t aged entirely well…

All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t a perfect novel by any stretch of the imagination, it is a lean, gripping thriller that is astonishingly readable for a novel of this vintage. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, the plot is a little simplistic when compared to other classic noir detective novels and many parts of this story are utterly cringe-worthy when read today. But, despite all of these flaws, this novel still works reasonably well as a thriller.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

Four Thoughts About Making Noir Comics, Fiction And Art

2015 Artwork Noir Genre article sketch

Although this is an article about art and writing – as well as working out how to work in genres you have little experience of, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games and Youtube videos for a while. There’s a reason for this which I hope will become clear after a couple of paragraphs.

A day or two before I wrote this article, I was watching random Youtube videos when I happened to stumble across a series of “let’s play” videos of a creepy film noir-themed horror game called “White Night”. The art in the game is almost completely in black and white (well, technically speaking, the game’s colour palette consists of black, white and small amounts of orange, yellow and sepia) and it looks like something from a comic book – seriously, it looks amazing.

Although the game probably needs a faster computer than mine to run and although it’s probably still slightly too expensive for my tastes, I was absolutely fascinated by it. It also made me realise that the noir genre is one of those genres that I absolutely love, but have seen relatively few examples of. It’s a really cool genre, but one that I have relatively little experience in.

So, looking at the game footage and remembering the few other examples of film noir and hardboiled crime fiction (by Raymond Chandler, Warren Ellis, Sarah Dunant and Mike Carey) that I’ve read, I thought that I’d see if I could work out any basic tips which might be helpful if you know even less about the genre than I do.

1) Simplicity: One of the defining features of the noir genre is probably simplicity. Whether it’s simple monochrome art in comics or the kind of basic, stripped-down first-person narration that can be found in hardboiled crime novels, the noir genre is all about simplicity.

Although the storylines might be complex (if I remember rightly, Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” has a slightly confusing ending), everything in a noir story or comic is presented in a very simple way.

After all, the genre started out as a form of easily-accessible popular entertainment. Whether it was old American “dime novels” which were intended to be cheap and widely sold (likewise, old hardboiled crime novels were called “pulp fiction, since these novels were printed on cheap pulp paper) or old low-budget popular crime movies, the noir genre was originally intended as a form of widely-distributed popular entertainment rather than an “arty” niche genre.

As such, if you’re making something in the noir genre, then you should probably make sure that everything is presented in a fairly simple (but not stupid) way.

2) Contrasts: Visually, at least, the noir genre is a genre of contrasts. Whether it’s high-contrast B&W art in comics or films that mostly take place at night (which makes things like streetlights, stage lighting or car headlights stand out even more), the noir genre has a high level of visual contrast.

Likewise, in hardboiled crime fiction – there’s often a high level of contrast too. For example, in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”, you’ve got this fairly ‘ordinary’ detective who ends up hanging out with some fairly rich and aristocratic people during his investigation.

So, whether it’s visually or in terms of the setting you use, you need to include a decent level of contrast if you’re working in the noir genre.

3) Ambiguity: Although the noir genre often revolves around solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice, it’s often a surprisingly ambiguous genre. Compared to other types of old crime fiction, the noir/hardboiled genre often tends to take a much more nuanced and realistic look at the world.

For example, although the detective may end up solving the murder mystery at the centre of the story, he or she will often end up meeting a wide cast of shady characters along the way. These characters are often presented as interesting characters in their own right and the reader is often left to come up with their own judgements about these characters.

Likewise, the detectives in these stories are often private detectives and will sometimes even end up breaking the law themselves during the course of their investigations. However, this wasn’t really a first for the noir genre – since Sherlock Holmes did this way before the noir genre was even invented.

4) Ordinary strangeness: Finally, one of the really cool things about the noir genre is that it often features subtly “strange” things.

It’s a genre that is, at it’s heart, about the co-existence of the “strange” and the “ordinary”. If you want a less subtle modern example of this, then check out a really cool, and hilariously funny, novel (seriously, it’s in my top three novels of all time) called “Crooked Little Vein” by Warren Ellis.

Of course, back in the days when the noir genre was being formed – the threshold for what was considered strange was a lot lower than it is now. As such, things like a golden falcon, a house with a very large greenhouse etc… were seen as ‘strange’ in a way that they probably wouldn’t be these days.

Even so, a good noir story or comic should include a certain level of strangeness. Whether it’s slightly strange characters, locations or background items, your noir story should contain a few examples of “ordinary” strangeness.

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Anyway, I hope this was useful 🙂