Welcome to Noir Journal #50, featuring Key West noir author Mike Dennis. Dennis's books include Setup on Front Street and The Ghosts of Havana, among others. M. C. Pastoret reviewed Setup in Noir Journal 45. Click here to read that review.
Let's begin NJ 50 with a guest post from Mike Dennis himself
MY FIRST TASTE OF NOIR
by Mike Dennis, 2012
Sometime around 1990, I read an interview with the actress Anjelica Huston. In it, she hyped her upcoming movie, The Grifters. I loved the title and Huston mentioned that it was from a novel by Jim Thompson.
In my sheltered world, I had never heard of the novel or Jim Thompson, but thanks to Black Lizard/Vintage Crime and their aggressive program of rereleasing old titles from the likes of Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, et al, I could run down to my local bookstore to stock up on these new editions and quickly get up to speed.
In addition to opening the gate to those great authors, the Huston interview did one more thing I'd never seen before. It mentioned the word "noir" in connection with fiction.
Now, I'd been a film noir fan for many years prior to this, but it never occurred to me to apply the term to books. Film noir carries the intoxicating images of wet city streets at night, awash in a dizzying mix of shadow and light. Detached losers sitting around shabby rooms thick with cigarette smoke and cheap whiskey, naked light bulbs hanging from ceilings, the smell of the doublecross forever lingering in the air.
But now, here it was in print! The same bleakness born of anti-modernism, the same utterly unpretentious tales told in the vernacular of the streets, and more importantly, the language of the reader. After centuries of sentimentality and humanism, an offshoot of literature had, unbeknownst to me, taken a turn in the 1930s and 40s toward hard tales of society's minor players who often wander through their lives unseen by most other people. These are not professional criminals, but rather ordinary joes and janes who get caught up in the backwater of their own poor choices. And when the fiddler is done, he must be paid.
I can't really say why I identify so thoroughly with these characters, or for that matter, with the authors who created them. My own life has been relatively charmed, unfettered by the desperate situations faced by most noir protagonists or their creators. All I know is that when I read The Grifters, along with all the noir novels that followed, they spoke to me. And I listened.
After writing a few starter novels, I eventually turned to noir. The Take was my first published novel and is noir in every sense. I then began a series called Key West Nocturnes, designed to lift the veil off Key West, revealing it as a true noir city, on a par with Los Angeles, New Orleans, or Miami.
The novels are all standalones, with the first being Setup On Front Street, about an ex-con returning to Key West to collect a debt. The second, The Ghosts Of Havana, begins as pure noir, but incorporates thriller elements into it as the book progresses. The third, Man-Slaughter, is noir from A to Z and is in the polishing stage as I write this.
reviewed by M. C. Pastoret
Maybe you’ve seen the ads: “Key West: Close to perfect. Far from normal.” Snorkeling around shipwrecked galleons in pristine waters. Pretty tourists and arty locals, carnival colors, sparkling nightlife and endless sunshine…. Sound nice? Well, Mike Dennis would like to invite you to another Key West altogether.
That’s where the tourists are buying their tee-shirts in shops that launder Russian mob money, while ordinary joes are left to get by, get away or get ahead as their luck allows. There’s Robbie, for one—just Robbie, the only name we get. He owns the Havana Club on Duval Street. After two years of a miserable economy and “not enough of every god-damned thing I need to stay above the waterline,” he works a little shy business on the side, with two burly “associates” to collect the vig.
One of Robbie’s latest customers is also his club’s singer, a hotheaded Cuban beauty named Olivia. Her final payment to Robbie—three grand—is due, but Robbie’s muscle finds Olivia dead in her dressing room, her throat cut and the money missing. Robbie, the cops and Elena, the dead girl’s sister, all suspect Victor, owner of the Wild Thing, the skanky strip joint where Olivia earned the vig to pay Robbie. Olivia had not only refused to stay on—she was Victor’s biggest draw—but insulted him, too, and Robbie thinks Victor had her killed for it. Victor denies it, of course. If Robbie lets it go, “I’d be opening myself up for every dipshit grifter to come after me.” Still, Victor’s involvement doesn’t fit when Robbie learns that Olivia’s apartment was very professionally trashed by someone searching for something other than the three grand.
Then Robbie extracts convincing evidence that while Victor got Robbie’s money, he did not in fact have Olivia killed. Another suspicion begins to dawn on Elena. Piece by piece, it comes together. Olivia and Elena are the granddaughters of a man who not only fought at the Bay of Pigs, but survived Castro’s brutal prison, too. He later made it to Miami and joined Alpha 66, a group of Bay of Pigs veterans intent on fostering unrest back in the Beard’s domain. The grandfather was murdered in 1964—throat cut, just like Olivia. It could be that he knew too much. About someone… or some thing.
After his murder, his widow fled to Key West to live anonymously and away from the Cuban exile movement. She brought with her a secret she believed would keep her family safe from her husband’s fate. When her own long life draws to a close, she seeks to pass that secret on to her granddaughters, and leaves them the keys to a safe deposit box in Las Vegas that holds an item she believes is better than insurance for her family. But it seems that the secret is already well known to a few shadowy figures. Rather than have it revealed, they will go to any lengths to bury it with all the other ghosts of the revolutionary past.
So did Alpha 66 butcher Olivia? And if they did, why? When “grudges are passed on through the generations,” Elena can’t believe that Olivia’s murder is not linked to her grandfather’s. But that doesn’t explain the men posing as Federal agents who beat Robbie senseless looking for something Olivia might have had. Or the “government man” from Washington named Hackett, who’d been CIA on the Key during the Cuban missile crisis. Or the real FBI agent who reveals that Hackett is a renegade with his sights fixed on Robbie. The imperative of “national security” is waved in Robbie’s face like a cudgel. And somehow it’s all because of that thing in the box in Vegas. Elena is determined to get it; Robbie agrees to help her: If only they can get to the box before everyone else gets to them….
This is one complicated plot, and Dennis serves up plenty of tension and some classic suspense elements to hold it together. There’s the desperate quest for a thing that men grown old, yet no less vigilant, will kill to possess. And yes, the ghosts of long-ago crimes haunt on into the present. But Dennis has another level of tension at work here as the political becomes all too personal for Robbie. He only thinks he understands his motive in helping Elena: “She had a target pinned to her lovely, ample chest…. It dawned on me that it was entirely possible she would end up like her sister, her bloody hand grasping for the last drops of life as they flowed out of her neck. No one else could help her right now…. Only me. I wasn’t there for Olivia. I had to be there for Elena.”
But where does that leave Trish, the love of his life, “who knows me inside and out,” a woman who can take the raw truth and give it right back? “All I ever wanted to do was run my bar, hold Trish close to me, and get my three dimes back from Victor. But what I got was a one-way ticket on a slow ride into the fucking quicksand.” Can he save Elena yet resist her allure, turn away from her cocoa-colored eyes, “that walk that the best Cuban girls have”? And can they both survive the knowledge of what they find in that box—something with the power to rewrite history itself?
The Ghosts of Havana is the second in Mike Dennis’ Key West Nocturnes series. It is not a sequel, but if you’ve read Setup on Front Street (and if you haven’t, you should), you will recognize in this noir territory some familiar names and places, like Ortega, the police lieutenant who has mellowed some since we last saw him; Ryder, the FBI agent, hardened and sharpened by the years; the Whitney and DeLima families, casting their influence down the generations; and that tourist-free Old Town joint Mambo’s, with its enticing Cuban food and its “nightly assembly of grifters, gamblers, and B&E boys.” As he did in Setup, Dennis adds deft touches to even minor characters like Blaine, one of Robbie’s “associates” who packs a suitcase of books when he heads out on a job, and can while away a stakeout droning on about Steinbeck “and some guy named Chandler.”
Those ads for Key West? They beckon you to “come as you are.” It’s even better advice when Mike Dennis is your tour guide.
Now Ann Snuggs briefly reviews a Mike Dennis short story she enjoyed--not Key West Noir, but Vegas Noir.
For those who have never read Mike Dennis and want a quick sample of his writing, these is no better intro than the short story, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Eyes."
Using a plot line as old as the human race - male swept away by female and participating in a setup he knows is wrong - Dennis tells the tale of drab, plodding, everyman Harry, sucked into crime by the exquisite Petra of the mesmerizing blue eyes, who just needs a little favor and will, of course, pay Harry to help her. As if he wouldn't follow her anywhere for free!
With the art of a skilled raconteur who always freshens a familiar yarn, Dennis uses a sparkling flow of vivid wording to bring Harry and Petra to life in this highly enjoyable short story.
About Mike Dennis
Thirty years of playing music isn’t exactly the best training for an author. Thirty years of writing would be more like it. But playing music is what I did, so that’s what I had to work with. . . . To read more about Mike Dennis, click here.
And take a look at Mike Dennis's Web Site.
Let's end with a couple more covers of Mike Dennis books.