Friday, September 11, 2020

Syndicate Girl (Frank Kane, 1958)

It starts with a bang. Several bangs actually: a judge is assassinated, his wife witnesses the killing so she becomes collateral damage, a crooked cop frames a good cop for the hit, and finally - to make it sure I guess - the mobsters kill him and stage his death as a suicide.

And the best part is that all this mayhem is orchestrated by a woman. The woman! The titular Syndicate Girl who goes by the name of Mary Lister. She's a mob fixer and the top dog's messenger, later described as "more lethal than the atom bomb". Wow! Not often we come across such a badass heroine in these old paperbacks.

But on page 24 (after the job well done) she departs for the airport and we need to wait until page 167 for her to reappear. And when she does, we find her contemplating a cruise with her mafioso hubby because "the things are pretty quiet, and it's been a long time since we were away alone". And her man is planning to pull out of the rackets altogether.

So much for the atom bomb...

But anyway, our syndicate girl will never make that cruise. She packs her stuff and flies back to Jackson City to give this sleeper's remaining 25 pages at least some kind of a climax. Although, at this point, I pretty much stopped caring about how it finishes as long as it would be soon.

You may ask what happens in those 143 pages when she's not around? Nothing really worth reporting. Yet another Eliot Ness story about fighting corruption and ties between the politicians, mobsters, and media. Painfully slow and predictable.

This is my third or fourth Kane's non-Liddell book and I'm starting to lose my patience.

2/5

Facts:

Hero:
Mal Waters, a high-school football hero who went on to greater glory at Harvard law school, interrupted his studies to serve his time as a squadron leader in Korea and finally returned to his home town to become the D.A.

The bad guy(s):
Sylvan Murphy, top brains in the Syndicate. It was he who first saw the opportunities and advantages of organizing crime on a businesslike basis throughout the country.

I have to disagree with this. Especially after recently spending a week in Sicily where I visited No Mafia museum in Palermo.

Dames:
Besides Mary, there are several other tall and well-proportioned gals:
  • Rita - tall, breath-takingly proportioned redhead
  • Cora  - tall full-breasted brunette
  • Bonnie - tall, loosely put together in a way that flowed tantalizingly when she walked
  • Marta - tall for a girl, deep-breasted... full, even thick-lipped mouth
In all fairness, there actually is one cliche that the author manages to avoid. After being dumped by the cold and calculating Rita, our hero doesn't end up with Marta even though she's extremely honest, caring, understand, etc.

Location:
Fictional Jackson City

Body count:
6

Way too low considering that we get the first three corpses in the opening chapter and that the book is almost 200 pages long. Should definitely be more. If nothing else, the two top dogs and both henchmen survive this one.

Also worth mentioning is that the whole episode about Bonnie's death and framing Mel is a blatant copy&paste from Kane's Green Light for Death published ten years earlier. Almost two pages, word by word.

The object of desire:
There's a cancer eating at this town. You can cover it up, but that doesn't stop it from eating. The only way to fight it is to tear it out of by the roots. That's what I intend to do.

Blackouts:
He was dizzily aware of a sinking sensation, then the ground came up and hit him in the face.

He tried to turn over, the floor tiled sickeningly and he slid into a merciful black void which erased the white-hot flashes and the searing pain from his skull.
Joey stared down at him without expression. "I don't think he's likely to get telephonitis in the next hour."

Cool Blurbs:
She was as tough as the hoods she worked with - until she met a man who made her feel like a woman

Not that cool, I'll admit. But decided to include it because it's totally false. No sparks, except a few leaded ones, are flying between Mary and Mal.

Title:
Well, even though Mary is not really the heroine, the title "Syndicate Girl" is much more cool-sounding than "D.A. Boy"

Edition:
Dell B123, First Edition, First printing - December 1958

Cover:
By McGinnis. One of his rare ones with no long legs, but still no less astounding.

Cool lines:
The killer hesitated for a moment, as though debating the advisability of making sure of the second kill. Instead he sprinted across the lawn to a row of hemlocks that had been planted to insure privacy. He melted into the shadows, satisfied there was no immediate pursuit.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Green Light for Death (Frank Kane, 1949)

We are used to our private sleuths being efficient, but Johnny Liddell tops them all in this one. Check out the recap of his first day on this case:
  • It opens in the morgue where he identifies the body of his client/friend Nancy and meets the Detective Seargent Happy (I kid you not!) Lewis
  • Together they go to the police station where we meet Lewis' superior Chief Connors. He's an asshole. See how crooked he is in the 'cool lines' section below.
  • Liddell goes back to the morgue to have a chat with the medical examiner
  • An hour later we find him lounging at the bar with "the ease born of long experience". He's then joined by Happy and they decide to pay a visit to Nancy's roommate
  • The interview with the redheaded singer Lorna Matthews goes well. She's more than willing to cooperate and not before long Liddell starts calling her baby.
  • He invites himself to wait for her in her apartment while she'll be out working. But pretty soon receives a couple of phone calls that confirm his suspicion of the foul play. 
  • He's back in the Connors' office.
  • The meeting doesn't go well. He's off to have another drink and to get his shit together. But this reclusion is abruptly interrupted by a couple of thugs who invite him to go see their boss.
  • It's one of those "engraved in lead" invitations so he has no choice but to accept it. He meets their boss and he's an asshole too.
  • In order to avoid charges of justice obstruction, our hero needs a new client. So he walks straight into the local newspaper office and arranges that they hire him as a special correspondent.
  • Then he drives to the town's outskirts where the club of the aforementioned asshole #2 is located. This, btw,  also implies that after his arrival at the train station he also needed to arrange a car rental after checking into the hotel.
  • He stirs some troubles in the club 
  • And drives Lorna home.
  • After dropping her off, he finds an all-night drug store and calls Happy to ask him some questions. At five o'fucking clock in the morning!

Talking about a slow day in the office!

And we are not even halfway through. Thankfully, by now Mr. Kane had sorted out his misconceptions about the time/space constraints and so Liddell's second-day appointment book is much thinner. He sleeps until noon, meets his reporter sidekick, obtains a pint bottle of Cognac, uses it to extract some info from a beautiful blonde, has sex with her (the blonde not the bottle), attends a briefing with his happy cop sidekick, and goes back to his hotel to take a nap! It's 8.45pm.

As brief as this segment is, it does give us the craziest part of the book. Liddell comes across a photo of some unidentified guy and promptly decides to charter a plane to send it to the New York agency headquarter so they can help him with identification. Furthermore, it's imperative that this photo gets back quickly in order for his inside man doesn't get compromised, so he makes his booking a round trip!

So yeah, by now our hero is out of steam and the author is out of ideas. For the remaining 100 pages Johnny will gradually abandon logical thinking and subtle approach to the investigation and instead rely on brute force. The whole thing dissolves into a bit of a mess with a far-fetched premise, silly twist, and resolution that one can see coming way ahead. Kind of a sloppy imitation of Hammett's Red Harvest. One of those that give you the impression that the author did have some initial concept but was simply too lazy to develop it.

But in spite of all that or maybe because of all that, it works really well. Even if you can't appreciate the chaotic storytelling and find our hero's relentless (even though not always rational) pursue of justice a bit silly, you'll find plenty of charm in this one.

3.5/5

Facts:

Hero:
This is only the second one of the series and Liddell is still working for an Acme Agency (that could explain why he can afford to charter planes for his mail delivery, right?) but he already has quite a rep:

"So you're the guy Nancy did all the raving about. To hear her go on, you're a cross between Sam Spade and Ellery Queen with a little Superman thrown in one the side."

The bad guy(s):
"This guy Mike Lane. What about him?"
"Bad business. The local Lucky Luciano and Buggsy Siegel rolled up into one. He looks fat and soft but he's strictly rattlesnake."

You did catch the misspelling of Buggsy Siegel, didn't you?

Dames:
Redheaded nightclub singer Lorna Matthews aka The Red aka Baby.
Cigarette girl Verna Cross. Miss Chenango County 1952. Blondie.

Location:
Fictitious burg called Waterville. A nod to Red Harvest's Poisonville?

Body count:
7

Blackouts:
Two of them. First, his ass gets kicked by the hoodlums:

He knew he was slipping, fought to maintain consciousness. There was another blinding flash behind his ear and he sank quietly into the engulfing depths of the black blot.

And a chapter later by the cops:

He hardly felt the rabbit punch that felled him, dropped across the unconscious body on the floor as though the ground had been moved out from under him.

Title:
"What's the green light mean?"
"It means the guy's a stoolie or a flycop. The floor men are to keep an eye on him while he's in the joint. When he leaves, we signal the boss here, and he arranges for him to get taken care of."
Liddell nodded. "Green for death. That's what I thought."

And this deserves some explanation. There's a major counterfeit money operation taking place in the Villa Rouge nightclub. The way it works is that when the big-time hoodlums (you know, from Chi) come to the place for the first time, the yellow stage light marks them. This triggers their background check and they'll get either the red or green spotlight next time. You already know what the green means but red indicates to Casino croupiers to let them win on the (obviously) rigged roulette tables so they can cash out their (counterfeit) money. This convoluted gimmick serves the purpose that they never know who the seller of counterfeit money is.

So yes, the whole thing is a bit bonkers. Leaving aside the unfortunate choice of colors (green for death, red for money?), I wonder if it doesn't violate the basic principle of trust between criminals. I mean, would you really go into the counterfeit money laundry business with somebody you didn't know?

Dedicated to:
TO MY MOTHER
with my deepest affection and gratitude

Edition:
Dell #918

There's no printing info on my copy which is a bit confusing. You see, it's copyrighted in 1949 but the novel actually takes place around 1955. Did I read a science-fiction story? Is my copy some hard-to-find collector item with the erratum on pg 116?

I googled it a bit and noticed it had been republished several times and that it also came out as a serial. So maybe my Dell edition came out later and was slightly altered since there's no usual "unabridged" note on the cover.

Doesn't really matter. I'm including a cool cover of one Crack Detective stories issue here and you can download another one here.

Cover:
Nice one by Victor Kalin. But couldn't resist adding yet another cover. Quite accurate btw as it depicts a scene in which Liddell breaks into "marijuana fueled orgy".

Cool lines:
Chief Connors' eyes stopped taking census of the flyspecks on the ceiling.

The cops in this town are so crooked they could hide behind a corkscrew without throwing a shadow.

The combination of her low-cut dress and Liddell's vantage point made the effect one of which Johnny eminently approved.

Back at the bar he ordered another brandy, tossed it off with a grimace. He was debating the advisibility of another to keep that one steady in his stomach when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

He cut off the sputtering from the other end by the simple expedient of dropping the receiver on the hook.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Desired (Carter Brown, 1959)

What the hell, let's quickly do another Carter Brown.

This one has a bit of Agatha Christie's feel about it. There is a closed group of unconventional characters and most of the action takes place in some secluded house. A thing to mention about this cast is that there's really no need for any of them to be particularly extraordinary. It does neither help nor hurt the story itself.

But, I guess, everything in Carter Brown universe must be over the top and it would be silly to complain about the lack of realism and sloppy characterization. Let's instead move on and take a look at our hero.

Al Wheeler certainly is no Hercule Poirot and resembles more of something like the clueless Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series. Especially in the first half which ends with the failure of his ingenious plan to lure the killer into a trap. During the ambush, our man messes things up, gets knocked off, and - upon awaking - discovers the additional corpse that he now needs to deal with. But the blow on his head seems to do him some good because he gets his shit together and starts a proper investigation.

So the second half is much better as the plot actually thickens and the pace accelerates to a memorable and bizarre ending. Wheeler makes yet another fuckup that results in a shootout and a bunch of fresh corpses. There's this shy, fragile, young secretary Ellen who was abused both physically and mentally before this climax and is now understandably shaken and terrified by the whole ordeal. And yet, the bloodbath makes her horny!!?! So guess how she and our hero decide to calm themselves down for half an hour that the law will need to get to the scene. Needles to say, the sex act will happen off the page.

And there's another instance of such sex & violence weirdness. Just as crazy as the one above.

Sexy Bella is needling and teasing our hero right from page one. But once she starts ridiculing his virility, he snaps and... basically starts raping her. The whole package - ripping off her clothes, twisting her arm, her struggling and crying... The whole page of such shit. He does regain his senses just in time and (I think) is ashamed of his attempt but then it comes: "What made you stop?" and "Maybe that'll teach you not to reject an unconditional surrender when a girl offers one!"

It's just stupid. Stupid for all the usual reasons but also because it's totally redundant since it adds nothing in terms of plot progressing or character development. Would argue that the book is not misogynistic and just as sexists as most of the pulpy stuff written in that period. So these isolated episodes don't feel genuinely mean or nasty, they are more like something thrown in with the intention of adding a bit of spice. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that stuff like this was encouraged by the publishers in order to stir some controversy that would boost sales.

In any case, it's a shame since it tarnishes otherwise more than a decent book.

3/5

Facts:

Hero:
Me, I'm a cop, but I look like a bum actor in search of a middle-aged matron worth her over-weight in diamonds.

The bad guy(s):
Tino Martens had been in the rackets since maybe the first time he whipped a diaper off the kid in the next cradle when the kid wasn't looking.

Dames:
Isobel Woods, Tom's daughter
A tall blonde, with her hair hanging down across one eye, and the build of a female Viking.

Ellen Mitchell, Tom's secretary
She had an intelligent, elfin face, and the kind of figure I started dreaming of way back when I first realized a honeymoon wasn't for eating.

And my favorite - Pearl, the ex-stripper, now Tom's spouse.
"I bet you look just the way Jean Harlow used to look," I said sincerely.

Location:
Fictitious Pine City

Body count:
6

Blackouts:
The usual stuff with explosions and pitch-black void:

Then the sky fell on my head, and the world drifted down around my face slowly, the pieces disintegrating in sharp, painful explosions of white light inside my skull. I could see the brilliant flashes and I knew the explosions had to be outside, but I felt the pain inside. Then suddenly it was all over, and I drifted comfortably in a pitch-black void, peaceful as the womb.

But the way he comes out afterward is pretty original:

I was still swaying gently, like a teen-ager exposed to rock and roll for the first time.

References:
"Was it Jung who said the mind is its own censor - that we live in the same world, but to each individual it's a different world, that no happening or incident is the same to any two people?"
"I wouldn't know," I told her. "I do know it was Wheeler who asked the question and you haven't answered it yet."

I put Ellington's "Indigos" on the hi-fi machine because it made superb mood music right then. Most of the song titles seemed an accurate forecast of my future - "Solitude" - "Autumn Leaves" - and the rest of them.

I was listening to this record while writing the review and really liked it. Just gloomy and melancholic enough for these strange covid-19 days

Title:
Not sure to whom this is supposed to refer. True, all three women are desired, but none of the killings is a crime of passion.

Edition:
Signet D2654, Third Printing

Cover:
By McGinnis. From that perspective, shouldn't the mirror reflect her body?

Also adding an earlier Signet edition cover painted by Baryé Phillips. A bit more accurate because the book actually opens with a car crash.

Cool lines:
Around one-thirty in the afternoon, Doc Murphy bounced into the apartment. He ripped off the bandages with the loving tenderness of a barracuda shark taking a sample bite out of a well-upholstered girl swimmer.
"Huh!" he grunted when the last bandage had been torn off. "The most amazing thing about you, Wheeler, is that you're healthy!"
"It's just clean living, Doc," I said modestly. "I live by the rules - the three W's - you know, wine, women and willful smoking."

Tino admired the excellent manicure job on his fingernails for a moment, then looked up at me with his big St. Bernard eyes.
"One of these days I might find the time for it," he said pleasantly. "It could be kind of amusing."
"Time for what?" I said. "Another manicure you don't need?"
"To take you apart, copper," he smiled thinly. "See what kind of sawdust comes running out."
"You said that deliberately," I told him reproachfully. "Now you know I won't sleep nights."

She bent over her typewriter, pounding the keys like they were part of my face. I lit a cigarette and though profound thoughts about life - like a good woman is never hard to find - it's the bad ones who are so hard to get.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Murder in the Key Club (Carter Brown, 1962)

After the three long covid-19 lockdown months live snooker is finally back on TV! Meaning I can only spare my time for simple quick reads and there are not many that fit the bill better than Carter Brown's novels.

As usual, it follows the three-act structure. First, our hero Rick Holman, the top showbiz fixer, gets hired as a sort of bodyguard by Carter Stanton, a sleazy night club and dirty magazine owner. And promptly gets a list of the usual suspects:

"Your editor, your wife, your sleeping partner, and your horn player," I said. "Anybody else?"

Yes, there will be a few more. One of them none other than the (did he do it?) butler! So the second act, the "rising action" section will be spent by our hero interviewing the suspects and trying to get laid. This brings us to the conclusion, the mandatory roundup climax. And to be perfectly honest, it's a bit silly affair. Check it out:

Stanton comes up with an ingenious plan of throwing a big, orgy-like party with all the above suspects invited. At its height, he announces his willingness to smooth things over in a civilized manner with whoever his potential killer may be. So he intends to discreetly turn off the lights and meet his nemesis in the study room. Of course, he neglects to inform the crowd that our Mr. Fixer will be waiting there as well and will - oh, well - fix the issue with the sucker one way or the other.

We all know that nothing good ever happens in crime novels once the lights are off, right?

And obviously, such a silly proposition not only insults the would-be killer's intelligence but it also makes us question Stanton's judgment in hiring Holman in the first place. You see, this asshole never misses an opportunity to remind our hero about the exuberant daily rate he's paying for his top services. Wouldn't he be better (cheaper) off to simply hire a muscle-man to wait in his study room? You decide. For my liking, the whole thing is a bit too much tongue in cheek.

But it's still cool. Nothing spectacularly good nor bad. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it manages not to get too silly most of the time. But, once again, I've found the puritanical take on sex interesting and it reminded me a lot of Spillane and his adolescent portrayal of women (see the 'dames' section). Ridiculous to the point where the actual act of sex is completely inferred:

"This is quite comfortable, really," she said in a drowsy voice. "Why don't you come on down?"
By the time I'd lit a cigarette, she was snoring gently.

Kind of a "look but don't touch" approach that I guess would be laughable even for the young adults these days. However, there's no problem with visceral violence:

He gave Stanton one barrel of the sawn-off shotgun, held tight in his hands, at point-blank range.
The little fat man spun aimlessly for a moment like a rag doll, then sprawled limply on his back across the carpet. Where his face had been, there was only a crimson horror.

So yeah, Carter Brown's books are products of their time. I don't think they've aged badly, let's just say they've aged in a particular way. There's still a lot of charm in them if one bothers to look for it. And without getting too philosophical about it, I can only finish this by saying that I still enjoy picking them up every now and then.

3/5

Facts:

Hero:
"What was it Aginos of Stellar Productions called you? - an iconoclast? Yeah, that's it - an iconoclast. A breaker of idols, right? A nice way of saying a guy is just goddamned rude the whole time, right? But then, I guess when you've built a reputation as the Mr. Fixit of show biz the way you have, you can afford to be goddamn rude the whole time?"

"How about you, Mr. Holman? - how do you chisel a living?"
"I'm an industrial consultant," I said.
"It doesn't sound exactly exciting!" There was a quizzical look in her eyes, "You look like something different - a cross between a con man and a bouncer, maybe?"

The bad guy(s):
There's an aging mobster:

"That means it's pretty dirty money," I said, dutifully lowering the volume. "Meyer's name is synonymous with about every big-time syndicate racket in the last thirty years."

And his muscle-man:

He was a kid and older than despair, both at the same time. Maybe all of twenty-two, white-faced, with dark eyes that jeered at the basic conception of humanity. In the old days they would have called him a torpedo, and these days they'd call him a psychopath. Either way, it added up to the same thing - an instrument of death, quick, competent, and professional. Just looking at him could make my scalp prickle uneasily.

Dames:
In this one, babes are called "houris" which is a name for a pet or bunny (or whatever you call them) that Stanton uses for centerfold models in his magazine. Paula is the dumb one:

"She's built just fine," I said coldly. "But every time she opens her mouth, nothing comes out."
"You go for the intellectual kind of broad?" He nodded quickly.

Indeed he does. Meet Nina the intellectual houri:

A tall blonde... with an easy, graceful walk... small but sharply defined breasts... long graceful legs... every movement she made exuded an explosive exciting vitality... sharp, intelligent planes of her face... sparkingly alert hazel eyes

And let's not forget Stanton's wife Melissa:

She was a tall, statuesque redhead with calculating, cobalt-blue eyes, and her controlled sensual mouth was made to be savaged.

Location:
Another no-name city in Carter Brown's faux American crime world.

Body count:
4

The object of desire:
"That's why I hired you, Holman. You've got to find out who wants to kill me so bad, and stop them before they try again with real bullets!"

Blackouts:
I was doing just fine, right up until I reached the tenth stair - then the whole second story of the house caved in on my head.

Title:
Cool sounding but inaccurate. Although Stanton owns a club with such name, none of the four murders takes place there.

Edition:
Signet S2140. First printing, June 1962

Cover:
Nice monochromatic painting by McGinnis. A bit Sin City-ish, isn't it? Not sure which houri is she supposed to be. Combination of Nina and Melissa?

Cool lines:
The first impression was of a second-hand missile salesman who'd always be safely out of the district before you tried your first blast-off from a homemade launching pad.

He grinned, showing the white horsey teeth that looked more like piano keys than anything else, and he had about four octaves bunched in his mouth.

Monday, June 15, 2020

I'll Kill You Next (Adam Knight, 1954)

Page 100 and our hero still has no tangible results or clues other than pathetic whining "he wasn't the type" on the investigation of his friend's alleged suicide. But Steve shouldn't be too surprised really because for the better part of the book he's just running around like a headless chicken and gets knocked out every now and then. And to be a bit mean, his lack of progress can easily be attributed to a somehow bizarre approach to interviewing his suspects which is basically, to threaten them with calling the cops in case they don't cooperate. What a sissy...

So now he gets frustrated (along with the reader) and changes his M.O. He's yelling at women, slaps them, pushes them around in order to get some useful information. A bit mean and nasty and of course totally redundant stuff. This is not the type of hard-boiled prose we love and appreciate. What an asshole...

It just doesn't work. Not only the unlikeable protagonist and non-moving plot but also the whole pace is off, It keeps breaking the flow and dialogue with over-descriptive bullshit about everything and nothing (usually about women's anatomy). Flat, without any real edge or tension to it, repetitious and dull dialogue with no snappy badass one-liners.

Try it if you need to battle insomnia.

2/5

Facts:

Hero:
"Detective," I said. "My name is Steve Conacher and I'm an investigator, a skip-tracer."

Dames:
There are several and my favorite was Kate with her refrigerated eyes. But the main one is Vicki who resembles the great American sex machine:

Her body was a masterpiece of planning, even under the casual red robe. In the quick moment of her leaving, in the flash of her hips and legs across the room, her whole frame sang of sex, an easy, rhythmic movement that would set the wolves howling on any street in the world.

Location:
New York

Body count:
2

The object of desire:
Then listen, sweetheart, I'm not in this for kicks, for laughs, for small talk and corny routines. Mike Smith was one of my best friends. Somebody murdered Mike. Somebody wanted him out of the way, don't you see? I'm going to find that person and kick his face in for killing a nice guy like Mike.

Which is cool and we all dig a bit of vendetta every now and then. But it becomes comical when he almost gets hired as a recruiter in order to find the cartoonist talented enough to step in the big shoes of his deceased friend. You see, Steve used to hang out a lot with this artistic crowd which somehow makes him an expert.

Blackouts:
Well, he's pretty incompetent to be honest so he gets the shit kicked out of him no less than four times. None of them very memorable. If I would have to vote, I'd go for the first one. Thwacking thud?

#1 - I turned to bring Gwen back into focus. But I never made it.
Because she hit me with a thousand pounds of lead. She dropped it on my head, a thwacking thud that sent hot needles of pain into my eyes.
I was out cold.

#2- Somebody had thrown a building at me. The blackness waved and rolled around my head as I fought to open my eyes.
I never quite made it. Somebody walloped me again.
And this time, the blackness became permanent.

#3 - And I stepped into another smack in the face.
...I awoke in a bucket of black.

#4 - The noises above me were welling up in a monstrous cacophony of confusion. I heard many voices, many steps. Before my eyes closed it seemed that the room was suddenly filled with people.
"Easy, sister," somebody was saying. "Take it easy."
I passed out on that line.

References:
There's a bunch of references to various cartoonists but most of them seem a bit forced and the whole thing sometimes feels little pretentious and patronizing, But here's a couple with which we are more familiar:

I released the pressure a bit. "Who wrote that continuity for you?"
"A friend of mine-" she said, "Ernest Hemingway."
"Weathering?"
"John," she said. "John Steinbeck."
"Weathering?" I asked again. "Or some other punk?"
"Gardner," she said. "Erle Stanley."
"You're wasting my time, Katie."

"Your imagination demands a big, broad and flat-headed gentleman to play detective for you. Admit it, girl."
"Not quite, Uncle Luke. Maybe I'm the Ellery Queen type."
"Upper class," I smiled. "Out of my league."

Title:
It's cool sounding (or is it?) but has no real connection to the story. I'm including the scan of the back cover which may give it some meaning... but the whole text is fabricated. None of it is part of the book. Don't we just love these old pulp publishers?

Edition:
Signet 1276, First Printing, February 1956

Cover:
Another great one by Robert Maguire, although not as iconic as the one he did for Knight's another Steve Conacher yarn Stone Cold Blonde. It makes you kind of sad that such great artwork was wasted on such mediocre books.

And, as the title, the cover is also totally inaccurate. No woman gets killed in this one.

Cool lines:
Nothing really cool, but here are some WTFs that you might try to decipher:

His cadaverous face was strangely handsome, in the way that a thin girl might be handsome.

Weathering lived in a sloppy hole, two small cubicles and a bath, as disorganized as a Bohemian nightmare, as upset as a schizophrenic bride.

She spoke softly, too low for her usual speech pattern. Her words carried a strong alcoholic quality.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Ed McBain's Mystery Book #1 (1960)

With the abundance of covid-19 time on my hands, I'm (yet again) sorting and categorizing my movies and books. I finally got around to tackle the petabytes of stuff downloaded over the years and have re-discovered a bunch of interesting stuff in the process. When I came across this one, I thought it would make a fitting choice to wrap up the recent cops killing and hatings posts.

Ross Macdonald was also a big reason to select it and Midnight Blue is - as expected - an excellent Lew Archer story written by the grandmaster with his distinctly elegant style and theme of messed up middle-class families. It keeps sidetracking the reader into obvious conclusions but finishes with a good old crime of passion. Sad and tragic with no winners once after Archer finishes his investigation. Not the most original or surprising ending, but I still liked it a lot for its fast-moving pace and more than a decent ratio of pages/corpse.

I'd known Anthony Boucher only by name before reading On A Day Unknown but this will soon change. Brilliant stuff, although I must admit that my knee-jerk reaction after reading a couple of pages was "For fuck's sake, not one of those". British (!) true-crime (!!) police procedural (!!!) - "The case was a splendid challenge to a pathologist."

But soon my dismay turned into curiosity and by the fifth page, I was enjoying this immensely. It's a tender and tragic love story of two lost souls taking place in England during the war years. The Canadian Indian soldier and a local British girl: 

"At first," said Sangret, "when I slept with Joan I used to have connexions with her sometimes two or three times a night and later on sometimes not at all." They had reached a state of intense need to be with each other even in the absence of sexual hunger - which may be one definition of love.

And you can imagine what the connextions are, don't you? If not, this will clarify things:

We started kissing and cuddling and I asked her if she would 'go with me.' I mean by this that I wanted to have connexions with her. She did not refuse in any way and I had connexions with her. I did not use a French letter and I just did it the natural way.

(Throughout, both in his long statement to the police and later on the witness stand, connexions is the normally monosyllabic Sangret's only word for sexual intercourse. One imagines that it was suggested by a police stenographer.)

There's not a single line of dialogue! The whole thing is written as court transcripts compiled from various testimonies that are complemented with the narrator's witty comments and observations (he was, however, totally and literally illiterate). Very original and very funny but also sad and poignant

The next one is Fletcher Flora. I liked his story As I Lie Dead from the Masters of Noir #1 but have since read a couple of his other things and wasn't much impressed. And after It was All the Girl had to Live For Now - Somebody Else's Death I'm even less impressed. Apart from its cool title, this is totally forgettable. Probably something Mr. Fletcher put together quickly to cover his rent:

A hitman (of sorts) shoots a politician during the rally because the guy had ruined his girlfriend's father. It then finishes with some wisdom about the revenge not solving anything and "he understood with silent and assured despair that he had killed two people from the window upstairs".

Richard S. Prather's Film Strip was no disappointment really because I pretty much knew what to expect. I just cannot get into his Shell Scott. His brand of cozy crime mixed with hard-boiled style doesn't work for me and I find its juvenile humor silly and sometimes idiotic and offensive. I mean, a teenage kid could call his girlfriend "my dear little imbecile" and maybe some of his friends would find it funny and laugh at it. But coming from a grown-up with white hair?

It begins with the "little imbecile" performing a private striptease for Shell on the beach while there's a murder in progress on a nearby cliff. It will also end the same way because the ridiculous plan to trap the murderer will go wrong. Shell is cornered by the killer in an empty movie theater and our exhibitionist cannot think of a better way to distract him so that Shell can take him over. Enough said...

Helen Nielsen's Confession plunges the reader into the midst of an angry mob that is about to lynch a couple of kids accused of hit and run. They break down under pressure and the boy signs the confession. During this riot, we get the full picture of what had happened in flashbacks. Well written, tight, and tense. Works well on both narrative and emotional level. But the happy ending and simplistic morality message spoiled it for me a bit. I think that the girl's "betrayal" would be more effective (shocking?) if the couple were older people and not some teenage kids eloping to Vegas to get married.

Hard Sell from Craig Rice is great. Fuck Shell Scott, this is the kind of humor that I like:

He found himself looking at a large man with iron-gray hair, blue eyes, and a prominent chin. The man looked so healthy that Malone wanted to turn away again.

Or, if you're not convinced, this (note that von Flanagan is a cop!):

Malone agreed. "You don't seem to be taking much of an interest in this one. Something wrong?"
"Plenty," von Flanagan said. "For one thing, it's an impossible one to solve. For another, I don't want to solve it"
"Why not?"
Von Flanagan shook his head wearily. "Malone" he said, "have you ever had a run-in with a magazine salesman? Have you ever had one of those little monsters stick his foot in your door and tell you how much you needed his rotten magazines? Have you, Malone?"
Malone nodded.
"They should kill every last one of them," von Flanagan said. "I mean it, Malone. Anybody kills a magazine salesman he deserves a medal."

Great stuff. Outrageous! One cannot but like the main protagonist Malone "the little lawyer" and admire his efficiency as he solves this one by mainly drinking at the bar and making some phone calls along the way.

With two double ryes under his belt and a pair of beer chasers keeping them company, Malone felt in condition to use the phone. 

Admittedly, the "suicide" solution is a bit bonkers and I'm not sure I really got it but I don't care. Like Mr. Boucher, Mr. Rice is another one on my radar from now on.

Moving on. Before the main feature, there's a cool intermezzo. A "special report" on the history of forgery and counterfeit titled Reasonable Fascimile, written by Rex Lardner. Educational I guess, but foremost funny. Quite a tongue in cheek stuff like this:

The earliest counterfeiters, who clipped coins and made new ones from the shavings, had their ears
clipped when caught. King Canute decreed that their hands should be cut off. The Romans deprived counterfeiters of their citizenship and then removed their ears and noses. Later, these steps not considered sufficiently discouraging, their ears, noses, hands, and feet were cut off and what was left was served to hungry lions. One presumes they were hungry.

It finishes on the resigned note that there's a bunch of counterfeited merchandise being sold these days but not much can be done to prevent this. It kind of makes you long for the days of good old King Canute.

McBain's 87th precinct novelette The Empty Hours is the main part of this digest and, I guess, it was its main selling point. But I won't spend much time on it because I don't want to repeat myself when it comes to this serial. But it is a bit paradoxical that in this one the police procedural methods actually hinder the story and make it less plausible.

For example, as we are approaching the end, cops are still (a week or so after the crime) for some reason interrogating the victims' neighbors and informers even though they have plenty of hard evidence and other leads to pursue. And btw, there's a description of a line-up that is more or less copy/paste-ed from the Cop Hater. And similar to that one, here too they find the solution by fluke.

The last story is Richard Matheson's chilling The Faces. A little psychological gem about the abuse and mental illness that (I believe) says that some people simply shouldn't have kids.

A good choice to finish this interesting collection with a flavor of horror.

4.5/5

Facts:

Dames:
From Midnight Blue:
She had on a plain white blouse, which was full of her.

From the Empty Hours:
She moved with an expert femininity, a calculated unconscious fluidity of flesh that suggested availability and yet was totally respectable. She seemed to have devoted a lifetime to learning the ways and wiles of the female and now practiced them with facility and charm. 

Body count:
3 + 2 + 1 (discounting of course the spiritual dead) + 1 + 1 + 3 + 0 (discounting the counterfiters devoured by hungry lions) + 2 + 1 = 14

References:
"On A Day Unknown" of course retells the story of Georg Büchner's Woyzcek (so now we also know from where the Boucher pseudonym is coming from). But even though I've seen Herzog's film, I must admit I didn't make the connection until once this play is explicitly mentioned at the end. 

Cover:
Pretty cool. It could be portraiting a scene from either The Empty Hours or Film Strip. But since none of the tough guys has white hair, I would lean more to the former.

Cool lines:
From Midnight Blue:
She touched her thin breast absently, pathetically, as if perhaps she hadn't been much needed in the past.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Killer Cop aka My Old Man's Badge (Ferguson Findley, 1950)

One of those that count on the reader to not pay much attention. You know the type. Books that we read on our morning commute in autopilot mode, craving coffee, and still half-asleep. Incapable or just too lazy to be bothered by the obvious story flaws and inconsistencies.

But in these strange covid-19 times I have plenty of time so I did pay attention and here's how the plot thickens in this one:
  1. Cops receive an anonymous letter tipping them that the cop killer from the past is back in town.
  2. The letter's paper analysis reveals its poor quality. It must be used in one of the cheap hotels around Bovery.
  3. They decide that the best way to handle this affair would be to send a man undercover.
  4. They do. This man, our hero, tracks down the guy who's selling the paper.
  5. This guy also runs the dope racket with a small gang of three misfits.
  6. And one of them just has to be the wanted cop killer.
Mind you, this is just the beginning. It gets crazier.

Before proceeding, it's worth mentioning right away that everyone drinks excessively in this one. Billie even eats her breakfast with whiskey! So you cannot help to think that maybe the author too had a slight drinking problem and was unable to keep the coherent story going for more than a couple of chapters. Not saying he did but such issues would certainly help explain the occasional switch from the first to the third narration. Or needlessly establishing a character that would be soon dropped without much explanation.

It seems like the editor (huh?) was losing patience as well the more he or she neared the end. We are treated with some hilarious stuff. Check this - our hero is chasing the bad guy and frantically shouting at witnesses "Where did he go?" but there's big blood trail splattered on the floor clearly pointing the direction.

Even our hero is not immune to the fatigue as this goes on. At one point, when weighting his options and assessing the possibilities of progressing the investigation, he simply abandons the idea and instead takes a nap:

It was interesting to think about, but I went to sleep instead.

Brilliant! And it had the potential to be one of those great little silly books. But it just doesn't know when to stop. Instead of wrapping it up with some sort of a bang, it goes on and on and on. True, even more silliness will follow but the whole thing is less and less amusing and more and more boring with every page you turn.

So I wouldn't recommend it for your commuting literature. You may fall asleep and miss your stop.

2.5/5

Facts:

Hero:
Johnny, the cop, who "prowls the Greenwich Village streets"

Dames:
Billie, the junkie night club singer:

If she was the Billie Bloomer who was expected, the bartender's observation of "everything's in the right place" was entirely correct. There was plenty of it, too, so much that Tony mentally asked himself, "True or false?" She dropped one of her gloves on the floor as she hung her coat in the almost empty check room. As she bent over to pick it up, he saw the answer was "true."

She's cool but the Countess de Callene is even cooler. Too bad she appears in just one scene and her character serves no purpose other than having sex with our hero:

"Do you think I'm pretty?" she wanted to know.
Well, she was. For all I could tell, she was a dope taker and a tramp and God knows what, but she looked darned good, sitting there in that room wearing nothing but a sheet, and I told her so.

Not really important, but it turns out she's not really of royal blood. And has a bit odd sense of humor:

"Were you born in Brooklyn?" I asked. "So was I."
"That makes us practically cousins, so we can't get married. All our children would be idiots, or Ptolemies, or born with two heads. I can't stand two-headed kids. Come over here and have another martini."

Wouldn't be fair not to mention his darling fiance nurse Mary. A typical girl next door, not interesting at all. But, unlike Countess, she does have an important role. For some strange but highly convenient coincidence, one of the bad guys is wounded and ends up in the hospital where she works. You know - "of all the hospitals in NYC she walks in mine",  And there's more. Upon realizing this guy is Johnny's suspect, she promptly decides to inject the poor sucker with a truth serum!!

Location:
New York

Body count:
It opens with a couple of corpses (see below) but this happens in the story that establishes our hero. Not linked directly to the main story so we can safely exclude them from the body count. In this prologue, we also witness the demise of Johnny's parents. We'll skip the mother but his cop dad's death is pivotal to the story so it definitely counts.

Besides the old guy, there are four more violent deaths, so the grand total is 5.

Muddy's death is the best one by far. When Johnny finds him dying "with the purple-lipped hole in his chest, where a wide knife had been slipped between his ribs" he asks him "What's wrong?"

The object of desire:
Johhny wants to find his father's killer but there's also a subplot that involves a shitload of heroin:

"We've got a nice little deal all arranged, Murphy. Couple of kilos of pure heroin, and I mean pure. It'll be worth a million dollars to us when we get it and cut it down."

Btw - cops have no problem with letting this deal go through so that they can get closer to the cop killer!

Blackouts:
Almost:

I dove across the table and had my fingers at his throat when Cookie knocked me on the head with the butt of his gun and I went limp. He didn't knock me out, but I pretended to fade away. It gave me a chance to think what to do next.

References:
One of the bad guys has issues with Irish lads so a cop provokes him by playing Molly Malone.

Here's the Sinead O'Connor's version. Always lovely to hear this sad and beautiful song.

Cool Blurbs:
"She Lived For Love - He Killed For It"

Which sounds cool but has nothing to do whatsoever with the story. Shouldn't be surprised really... published by Monarch.

Title:
Also misleading. Our hero kills only in the first paragraph and in the last sentence.

Edition:
Monarch Books #114, April 1959

Cover:
Pretty cool one. Even accurate in case it depicts the scene in which Johnny and the Countess meet. Obviously, before the two-headed kids stuff happens...

Illustration not credited. Any ideas?

Cool lines:
Great opening paragraph:

Smith & Wesson's Police-Model .38 is the smoothest-working revolver ever made, and yet I was having trouble breaking the cylinder to get rid of the five empties. It wasn't the gun's fault. It was mine. My hand was shaking as though I had been on the booze for three months, or as though I was a rookie cop who had just killed a couple of men.
Which I was.