Carly's Reviews > Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to the "Worst" in Mystery Fiction

Gun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini
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really liked it
bookshelves: humor, mystery, netgalley, short-stories

If you're a mystery reader and a fan of "so bad it's good," then Gun In Cheek is the book for you. It's pretty much MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) for detective fiction. As any mystery reader knows, mysteries are extremely formulaic, with a special formula for each subgenre, from classic golden-age to cozy to gothic to hardboiled to spy fiction. With a good mystery, the formula is satisfying and any deviations are intriguing. With bad mysteries, the results can be utterly hilarious. Pronzini has coined a great term for these wonderfully terrible works: "alternative classic." Given that this book was first published before I was born, he invented the phrase long before "alternative facts" came along.

So what makes a good "alternative classic"? Part of it is the writing. Some of my favourites, starting with one from the editor himself:
"When would this phantasmagoria that was all too real reality end? He asked himself."
Bill Pronzini, The Stalker
"Her hips were beautifully arched and her breasts were like proud flags waving triumphantly. She carried them high and mighty."
Ed Noon, The Case of the Violent Virgin
"A hint of excitement hovered around Miss Kane, looking well in an afternoon frock and explaining that she had obtained a weekend leave and was looking forward to the party."
R.A.J. Walling, The Corpse Without a Clue
"All in the same motion, he snap-kicked the man in the right armpit! The knife clattered to the floor as Mace finished the slob off with a mule-kick to his scrotum. Looking like a goof who had just discovered that ice-cream cones are hollow, the man sagged to the floor."
Joseph Rosenberger, Kung Fu: The Year of the Tiger
"The old woman's breasts were balanced over her folded hands like the loaded scales of justice waiting for her final judgment."
Leslie Paige, Queen of Hearts
"Hope flared in her dark eyes as she grabbed the rope I had tossed to her drowning brain."
Naked Villainy, Carl G. Hodges
And consider this eloquent bit of dialogue:
"'Dan Turner squalling,' I yeeped. 'Flag your diapers to Sylvia Hempstead's igloo. There's been a croaking.'"
Robert Leslie Bellem, "Come Die for Me"
Attempts at introspection are also a great way to achieve an alternative classic. Take this epic bit of impending doom:
"When it had settled itself, unperceived, in its lurking place--the Hand stole out again--closed the window-door, re-locked it.
Hand or claw? Hand of man or woman or paw of beast? In the name of God--whose hand?"
Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Bat
And how's this for the start of a gothic?
"I know now that there must have been a touch of madness in me that raw October night as I went to Cemetery Key and the house of horror known as Stormhaven."
Jennifer Hale, Stormhaven
And there's a special way for detective fiction to achieve Alternative Classic status: the mysteries themselves. Sometimes it's a convoluted, incoherent mystery with a climax disturbingly similar to:


From bugged belly-buttons to murder by fire-extinguisher-nozzle-foam-in-ear to murder by embarrassment, there is an impressive variety of ridiculous creativity in the collection. I can't decide whether I prefer the man who becomes an evil avenger because he's so upset he went bald or the archaeologist who goes mad and wanders around in gloopy phosphorescent mud. There are the Death Rays, and Giant V-Rays, and "Crime Rays," and probably a few other rays I forgot about. (And yes, here's the obligatory M&W sketch.)



There are "blood-sucking, man-eating" bushes, a man born with the head of a wolf, and a half-spider half-octopus monster called the Red Crawl which turns out (naturally) to be a man in a costume and a mask. There are vampires who, when unmasked, prove to be costumed people complete with a vampire bat that is actually a "tiny monoplane" whose engine is "fitted with a silencer" that flies around "with the wheels tucked up inside the fuselage." But my favourite has to be the octopi. There are actually multiple stories involving a death-pit of octopi, which, we are told, are
"The world's most awful bundle of awfulness, a writhing, squirming mass of hell-fury, attaching itself to its victim with four hundred vacuum cups on its eight snaky legs [...] in short, it is the monster-supreme of earth or sea or Hell."

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I will say that I'm not sure Pronzini necessarily gives the writers credit. While it made them no less entertaining to read, quite a few of the stories struck me as intentional parody, such as Joseph Rosenberger's confrontation in a warehouse filled with "Musical Panda Dolls" between the protagonist--named the Death Merchant--and a killer. I thoroughly enjoyed it all, but I did read it in small doses-- you can only take so much "alternative classic" at a time. If any of this sounded entertaining to you, I can promise that Gun in Cheek has more where it came from. Take the opportunity to savor, down to the last bugged belly-button and twenty-pound attack octopi.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Dover Publications, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

Cross-posted on BookLikes.
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Reading Progress

April 18, 2017 – Started Reading
April 18, 2017 – Shelved
April 18, 2017 –
page 20
7.35% "Nice. It's like MST3K for detective fiction."
April 26, 2017 –
page 17
6.25% ""When would this phantasmagoria that was all too real reality end? He asked himself."
Bill Pronzini, The Stalker"
April 26, 2017 –
page 25
9.19% ""He rushed to the canal, sobbing, and, with a prayer, uttered as much to the Lady in Black as to God Himself, threw himself into the water. Happily, in his despair, the poor child had forgotten that he knew how to swim."
Gaston Leroux, The Perfume of the Lady in Black"
April 26, 2017 –
page 66
24.26% ""The next day dawned bright and clear on my empty stomach."
Ed Noon, Meanwhile Back at the Morgue"
April 26, 2017 –
page 67
24.63% ""Her hips were beautifully arched and her breasts were like proud flags waving triumphantly. She carried them high and mighty."
Ed Noon, The Case of the Violent Virgin"
April 27, 2017 –
page 67
24.63% ""She … unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt."
Ed Noon, The Horrible Man"
April 27, 2017 –
page 67
24.63% ""'Obviously!' she crackled, laying a whip across me and then turning with a sexy flounce she vanished through the glass doors, dragger her hatbox and portmanteau behind her. And my mind."
Ed Noon, Shoot It Again, Sam!"
April 27, 2017 –
page 67
24.63% ""Dolores came around the bed with the speed of a big ape… she descended on me like a tree full of the same apes she looked like."
Ed Noon, The Tall Dolores"
April 27, 2017 –
page 70
25.74% "[About Ross H. Spencer] "The problem with gimmicks like this is that they tend to lose their novelty after a while.
Pretty soon readers will start looking for a two-sentence paragraph.
Or a set of quotation marks.
Or a comma.
Or a plot.""
April 30, 2017 –
page 83
30.51% ""I am caught between the past and the future like a wriggling worm in a vise. Seen through shimmering quicksilver.
The present is nonexistent, the here and now is never.
I either exist in the past in memory or base my future on what the past has been. But this is useless.
For there are X factors over which I have no control and I cannot forsee the future even dimly."
Earle Basinsky, The Big Steal"
April 30, 2017 –
page 98
36.03% ""Murder is like a horse race. You start out with a lot of suspects, you look into their records, but you never are sure which one of them is the winner, or as it happens, the murderer. A dark horse you didn't think of might be the one who crosses the line!"
Sidney E Porcelain, The Purple Pony Murders"
April 30, 2017 –
page 98
36.03% ""The desk calendar said March 24th. It could have said any other day and the same thing might have happened. That is, I could have become mixed with the painted skull. Still if I had just skipped March 24th--say been on a big party and not sobered up--maybe I would have missed a lot of unpleasant things. Well, I didn't miss March 24th, so I didn't miss the darned skull."
Carl Shannon, Lady, That's My Skull"
April 30, 2017 –
page 101
37.13% ""A sudden thought bounced her heart to her larynx."
[Missing her brain entirely, one presumes?]
James O'Hanlon, Murder at Horsthief"
April 30, 2017 –
page 115
42.28% ""A hint of excitement hovered around Miss Kane, looking well in an afternoon frock and explaining that she had obtained a weekend leave and was looking forward to the party."
R.A.J. Walling, The Corpse Without a Clue
[And what an eloquent sense of excitement it is!]"
April 30, 2017 –
page 123
45.22% ""'Suddenly I saw everything green for a second, and then everything went out in a green flash. It was a wonderful, liquid green, like the sea over a sandbank. It was just a long flash, very quick and sharp, and then I found I could see nothing at all. Everything is black now, the black of an intense green. I thought I'd been struck by lightning. Wasn't it silly of me?'
'My poor, brave little woman.'"
-William Le Quex"
April 30, 2017 –
page 125
45.96% ""Of how many women can it be truly said that they are worthy of their underclothes?"
--Sydney Horler"
April 30, 2017 –
page 146
53.68% ""[The book-asserted evil genius] had made the fatal blunder of hiding himself in a room that had only one exit. He had reasoned that if his secret room had two entrances instead of one, it would double the chances of his being reached and captured."
A. E. Apple, Mr. Chang's Crime Ray"
May 20, 2017 –
page 156
57.35% ""Like a giant diver from the depths, it was waiting. Suddenly, a tentacle, as large around at the butt as the calf of a man's leg, shot forward. Like a giant feeler, it tapped the man on the shoulder [...] [An octopus] is the world's most awful bundle of awfulness, a writhing, squirming mass of hell-fury [...] in short, it is the monster-supreme of earth or sea or Hell."
Tom Roan, The Dragon Strikes Back"
May 20, 2017 –
page 177
65.07% ""The fire extinguishers. There are two of them on the floor. They stuck a gag in her mouth to keep her from screaming, struck a nozzle in each ear while they held her down and turned the extinguishers on. The report called it a mass brain hemorrhage induced by some outside force. Well, there's your outside force and that's just what it would induce."
Ennis Willie, The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster"
May 20, 2017 –
page 181
66.54% ""All in the same motion, he snap-kicked the man in the right armpit! The knife clattered to the floor as Mace finished the slob off with a mule-kick to his scrotum. Looking like a goof who had just discovered that ice-cream cones are hollow, the man sagged to the floor."
Joseph Rosenberger, Kung Fu: The Year of the Tiger"
May 20, 2017 –
page 189
69.49% ""When it had settled itself, unperceived, in its lurking place--the Hand stole out again--closed the window-door, re-locked it.
Hand or claw? Hand of man or woman or paw of beast? In the name of God--whose hand?"
Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Bat"
May 20, 2017 –
page 191
70.22% ""Why clutter a perfectly bad melodrama with logic and plausibility?""
May 20, 2017 –
page 199
73.16% ""I know now that there must have been a touch of madness in me that raw October night as I went to Cemetery Key and the house of horror known as Stormhaven."
--Jennifer Hale, Stormhaven"
May 20, 2017 –
page 200
73.53% ""Despite the best efforts of the feminist movement, [Gothic heroines] still faint at moments of high melodrama and are still prone to what Lee Wright [...] characterizes as 'the idiot heroine in the attic' syndrome; that is, when they encounter a [...] plot device that common sense tells them is fraught with danger, they invariably enter the room, or unlock the door, or do whatever else is contrary to logic.""
May 20, 2017 –
page 206
75.74% ""The old woman's breasts were balanced over her folded hands like the loaded scales of justice waiting for her final judgment."
--Leslie Paige, Queen of Hearts"
May 20, 2017 –
page 208
76.47% "Oh, you did not just call Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters) a writer of Alternative Classics. Didn't you pick up on the fact that her books are an intentional spoof?"
May 20, 2017 –
page 217
79.78% ""She said slowly, working it out as she spoke, 'Then you were right and my nymphomania is psychical and not physioogical as I thought [...] But now--the compulsion is gone. It's been seventy hours since I drugged myself and I'm still sane. My mind hasn't cracked as I thought it would. Bread pills!"
--Bruce Elliott, You'll Die Laughing"
May 20, 2017 –
page 219
80.51% ""Hope flared in her dark eyes as she grabbed the rope I had tossed to her drowning brain."
Naked Villainy, Carl G. Hodges"
May 20, 2017 –
page 223
81.99% ""I sat beside her in the Traxton's Parisian Room and let the edges of my eyes siphon up the pleasure of her tall, slender figure in a blue evening gown which made a low-bridged criss-cross right above where the meat on a chicken is whitest."
Decoy, Michael Morgan"
May 20, 2017 –
page 224
82.35% ""I wanted to see the murderer of that beautiful creature seated in the gas chamber. I wanted it so bad my saliva glands throbbed."
Michael Morgan, Decoy"
May 20, 2017 –
page 225
82.72% ""She laid a hand on my arm and I knew I really had her in the palm of my hand because her face was contorted."
Decoy, Michael Morgan"
May 20, 2017 –
page 231
84.93% ""The shock of the separation with Sue permeated through Bironico's senses. He wanted to lash out at these snotty women libbers, who poisoned the atmosphere with their hysterical hostility, and just think, Sue bought the crap, he concluded. His angry thoughts roamed all over the deck. He was a casualty in this war of liberation; and Sue was a willing rifle-person. The dumb bitch!"
William L. Rivera, Panic Walks Alone"
May 20, 2017 –
page 239
87.87% ""'Dan Turner squalling,' I yeeped. 'Flag your diapers to Sylvia Hempstead's igloo. There's been a croaking.'"
--Robert Leslie Bellem, "Come Die for Me""
May 20, 2017 – Shelved as: humor
May 20, 2017 – Shelved as: netgalley
May 20, 2017 – Shelved as: mystery
May 20, 2017 – Shelved as: short-stories
May 20, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by carol. (new)

carol. Good heavens, those quotes are awful.


Carly Impressively awful. Amazingly awful. And there are many more where they came from. Ed Noon alone could fill a book.


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