Thursday, April 30, 2020

Never Kill a Cop (Lee Costigan, 1959)

The last couple of posts were way too long and I blame this on my regained enthusiasm after neglecting this blog for three years. I'll try to keep this one shorter, but it's a shame because it would deserve a more thorough review.

Terrific police procedural with its main storyline intertwining with another one told from the perpetrator's point of view. So not much of a mystery, but there's plenty of action, intrigues, romance, and even humor to make it a real page-turner. Great pace too as the whole thing is finished over three days. And btw, chapters are titled by days and timespans within them which is something I always like to see.

It all ties well together, and technical details - that are more often than not totally overplayed in the police procedural genre - are balanced nicely in just the right dosages. We have technical wonders of IBM computer (along with stacks of punching cards of course), polygraph test, ballistic lab stuff, and basically loads of hard work and determination that pays off in the end. The investigation doesn't simply follow from point A to point B, but instead, there are many bum leads and realistic obstacles like the little episode in which a cop runs out of gas when driving to pick up some major witness! Did I mention there was some humor in this one? And see the "Bad guy" section of the facts below for more.

I do have a few minor complaints. Negro/nigger words are used too often, although it needs to be said that such language is utilized strictly as a characterization tool (nice(r) guys would say blackfella or colored guy) and for making the novel more realistic. I hope. I certainly didn't get an impression there was anything racist about it.

It wouldn't suffer much from 20-odd pages trimming and a slight ending rewrite. I don't think that the asshole pimp Lucas should break that easily. But at that point, we are over page 200 so probably Mr. Costigan just wanted to wrap it up. Like I'm doing now.

Short enough?

4/5

Facts:

Hero:
Detective Lieutenant Johnny Cristo is the guy we follow around mostly but in some ways, the hero in this one would be the entire police precinct. I especially liked Eleanor, "the diminutive little lady", who runs the IBM mainframe.

Bad guy(s):
Syndicate running Old Man is the top dog and the main villains are the ex-pimp Frank Lucas - "a graduate of Sing Sing, an alumnus of San Quentin" and his henchman Marthusian.

But the real star is Fenton the hitman. We get some idea of him upon his first appearance:

There was no stamp of the Syndicate upon him. There was something odd, though, something strangely fanatic in his face.
It was his eyes. They were dark, luminous, and they seemed never to blink. Frank Lucas had once seen a movie in which John Brown had stormed the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Fenton reminded him of John Brown.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that he steals the entire show but he's definitely a cherry on the cake. Some piece of work this guy is. The polar opposite of the usual professional hitman. Not very bright since he kills a cop at the airport toilet right upon his arrival and later  - even worse - kills a wrong guy. And why you may ask? Well, he simply picks his target's address from the phonebook, and there happened to be a couple of guys with the same name. So forget the usual stuff about the hit preparation like the long surveillance and gathering info about the target's habits and so on. All that Fenton requires is the name, the address and a piece of advice from the newspaper's horoscope (!!):

Today is a propitious one for action which you may have been holding off for days or even months. Act today to buttress your position at work, in financial dealings or in matters of love.

Not exactly a psychopath. To one of his victims he looks like "a Midwest farmer dressed for a church breakfast".

It's hilarious to read about the troubles he's putting his employees through. Even though he's told numerous times to back off until things cool down after the cop-killing fuck-up, he doesn't even consider giving up. When Lucas suggests to hide him in one of his establishments (since he's a pimp, you can imagine what they would be), Fenton flatly rejects such an idea because he's a religious man and won't stay in "them" houses. And he's no drinking man either which drives Marthusian crazy later when he chaperones him.

Dames:
There's Johnny's love interest Terry and she's cool and for some strange reason, I wasn't too bothered with the "I love You" crap after their one-night stand.

And we have seductress stewardess Sally with "curves that seemed to move with a life of their own" and "stacked like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield". But she's around only briefly for an interview and to give our Johnny boy some ideas...

Finally, there's Mrs. Lucas. She is mentioned for the first time when her husband is introduced:

There was a man with a record as long as his arm, and a woman with a record barely shorter... The man's name was Frank Lucas and the woman was his wife.

And:

He had a pretty wife, younger than himself, intelligent and elastic enough to hide her past.

And finally, for the only time when she briefly makes an appearance, she's described as a "stylish woman of statuesque proportions".

But unfortunately, that's it. Intriguing (elastic!?) with great potential but not used at all. It would be cool to find a prequel to this book centered around her and Fenton.

Location:
I can't remember it explicitly named so it would be one of those 87th presinct "the city in these pages is imaginary".

Body count:
3 (+ 1 Fentom's victim that is not directly related)

Object of desire:
Finding a cop killer

Blackouts:
None

References:
Did Frank see Michael Curtiz's Santa Fe Trail and Fenton reminded him of Raymond Massey?

Cool Blurbs:
No notable blurbs but I'm including the back cover scan anyway because I find it funny to see an ad about book related to Jesus Christ on the back of a pulp paperback. Bad sales?

Title: 
Another one that's pretty self-explanatory.

Dedicated to:
"To Ann"

Edition:
Pocket Book #1256,  2nd printing, November 1959

Cover:
Nice one. No credits, but according to pulpcovers.com, done by Darrel Greene.

Cool lines:
There's a nice and somehow tender subplot concerning one cop whose wife is getting sick and tired of him never been around and is about to leave him. So, it was nice to read this in the epilogue:

Motorcycle Patrolman Ryndes had solved his domestic problem by kidnapping his son, leaving him at his mother-in-law's, pouring three martinis into his wife and attacking her in bed.

That's an original and cool way to wrap up the book with a happy ending!

Friday, April 24, 2020

It Ain't Hay (David Dodge, 1946)

I had really hoped it wouldn't be one of those...

It starts okay-ish with that classical setup of a guy sitting in his office and secretary admitting a bit shady client. Unfortunately our hero James Whitney is no hard-boiled P.I. and his secretary is no Velda. She is his "middle-age female watchdog" (his fucking words, not mine!) and he is an income-tax consultant. But what a hell, let's not be prejudiced and judge people on despicable professions they do in order to pay the bills.

My eyebrows started to lift a bit as early as in the second chapter. After the hard day's work, Whitney takes his wife to the local restaurant for a quiet dinner over the candles. All good and romantic until the place is attacked by some raving lunatic. He gets subdued and one of the patrons, who happens to be a psychiatrist, offers the explanation of what just happened:

"The way he walked in attracted my attention. As soon as he ordered the muscatel I suspected him, because drug addicts who drink at all like something sweet and bland. I knew it was marijuana when I looked at his eyes. Opium or morphine or another opiate would have contracted the pupils instead of expanding them."

So now we know where we stand. But Jimmy boy still doesn't and so next day he visits his good friend detective lieutenant Webster and is promptly given a quick prison tour during which we meet an eighteen-year-old kid bashing his head on prison bars. You see, he had been so hoped-up on two reefers ("one might have been enough") the night before that he smashed the heads of his pa, ma and fourteen-year-old sister with a baseball bat!

Yes, by this time it is clear it's going to be one of those... drugs are bad... kids, don't do drugs...

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the shady guy from the book's opening chapter is some major mobster (he looks like the French ambassador) who needs James to do his money laundering. It never gets explained why such a badass would pick up his tax consultant randomly from the yellow pages. Keep in mind that this is taking place 15 years after Al Capone's imprisonment for tax evasion and one would think that by this time the Syndicate would have established some team of legal experts on tax matters. Or something...

But this is just a minor inconsistency comparing to some forthcoming hard-to-swallow shit. Webster soon joins forces with James (mind you, not the other way around!) but for some reason, it doesn't occur to either of them that the easiest way to bring this guy down would be for James to simply take the offered job. Surely it would be a piece of cake to expose somebody's tax wrongdoings when you have all the access to the accounting books. This becomes especially unusual in the light of later developments when none of them has a problem with sending a grieved widow off to be a bait when capturing some crazed (needless to say - hoped-up) maniac whose rap sheet includes rape among other felonies. Was there no policewoman available in the entire SFPD willing to go undercover?

Not to mention the whole elaborate sub-plot about smuggling the hay all the way from Mexico. It makes a little sense because just before revealing this master plan, we learn that the weed can be (and actually is) planted all over the USA because it is so super resistant. Is it possible that even back in the 40s, South Americans were scapegoats for the American drug problem?

Whatever. No need to go into that. What is worth exploring a bit is the way how our team of experts uncovers the connection between marijuana and Mexico. It is very straightforward - our mobster owns a tuna fishing boat and apparently, commercial tuna finishing is carried off the coast of Mexico. And that's basically it, I kid you fucking not! All I can add is that at least the publisher was honest enough to call this "A Dell Thriller" and not "A Dell Mystery".

But then again, calling it a thriller would be a bit of an exaggeration. There are pages and pages of needless padding. Towards the end - when things should really be speeding up - there's an almost dialogue-less chapter that is pretty much entirely dedicated to establishing some minor henchman's badass character. Not sure what the point is, because the guy gets killed shortly after anyway. Was the author chasing some word count? Hard to believe since the book is 200 pages long. Did he go overboard with the research and was simply a bit stoned?

I wanted to like it but this one is all over the place. Nothing really works. But still, let's finish on a positive, educational note. If you have ever wondered why musicians do drugs, this may help you understand:

"Look at some of these musicians that use it. It excites them, makes them high and hot, so they can beat the music out faster, get in the extra licks they couldn't handle otherwise. They are in the groove, and the groove is boogie-woogie - for them. For somebody else, the grove is rape or murder or arson."

And for all of you out there who are considering switching back from consuming hard opiates to just smoking pot, this may be useful to know:

"Opium doesn't give you trouble?"
"Don't get me wrong. Opium is plenty bad for anybody that uses it. I meant that hop smokers want to get off in a corner and go to sleep, not hell around looking for trouble. A hay head has to be near other people; he's excited, steamed up, talkative, full of vinegar. He's like a stick of dynamite in a fire. Maybe he'll burn with a nice hot flame, maybe he'll blow up in your face. You just can't tell."

So now you know.

2/5

Facts:

Hero:
James Whitney may be "big, strong and handsome" but at the same time, he's also a dull, conservative, vain, and ego-centric asshole.

Bad guy(s):
That would be Barney, Tony and Max from the list of characters. Tony is a bit of a psycho so there was some possibility of at least minor character development. But of course, it never happened.

Dames:
No strong women characters either. Kitty (as voluptuous and luscious as she is) is introduced at the beginning and she only re-appears briefly at the end with the sole purpose of wrapping it up with a proper, family-friendly kind of ending. Iris and Rosa are more interesting but both totally underused. Rosa especially gets some pretty shitty treatment:

The story does take a somewhat cool detour in chapter 13 (titled "better than a drink") in which James gets drunk and stoned (on a single reefer mind you) and actually scores with Rosa. That's the cool part. But instead of keeping her around and actually involving her in the case, this pathetic tax consultant gets such a guilty conscience that he goes to see a shrink (chapter "undressing the inner man")! What follows next, is more nonsense about drug addiction and related childish psychology. And poor Rosa is more or less out of the picture. Shame, I liked her.

Location:
San Francisco

Body count:
Discounting all the nonsense in various cautionary tales about hoped-up kids killing their family members with baseball bats and such, all that remains at the end is just a single proper corpse.

Object of desire:
Of all the flaws mentioned, I think this is the book's biggest one. What drives our hero for 200 pages is nothing but vanity. He simply cannot get over the fact that he was beaten by some hoodlums.

This guy is so upset that for five weeks can't be bothered to pick up the phone and give a ring to his wife after she has left him with the "chasing gangsters or keeping me" choice.

And there's more to this obsession. He makes a deal with (not just one but two) cops that they would give him 15 minutes alone with the main bad guy before they arrest him. Huh, seriously? Come on!

Blackouts:
Two of them. First time when he's beaten and then again after he manages to drag himself home.

References:
Eddie Schwartz, the "nighthawk elevator man" is reading some story titled "Rape on the Range" in "Spicy Western Stories" magazine. And it didn't sound too bad either. I tried to find it online but it turned out that both the story and magazine are fictitious.  But googling it, I found this cool gallery of spicy westerns scans.

And during the aforementioned shrink session, there's a reference to none other than Othello:

"Let me read you one more clinical report. This is Cassio, who got drunk as a pig and made a fool of himself. Hes says: Oh God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should, with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!"
John closed the book with a snap.
"'Transform ourselves,' Whit. Remember it."
"Great little guy, Casio," Whit said. "I know just how he felt. Be sure to send me a bill."

Title: 
Surely, by now, no additional explanation is needed.

Dedicated to:
This book is dedicated to my good friend Joe O'Ferrall

Chief of the Division of Narcotic Enforcement, Department of Justice, State of California, and to the men who work with him.

Edition:
Dell #350

Cover:
Stunning illustration by Gerald Gregg. And in spite of all the above bitching and ranting, I'm keeping this book in my collection until the day I die.

Cool lines:
Nothing really cool, but every now and then you come across some bizarre, WTF stuff like this:

The chief was a middle-aged Irishman with bright pink cheeks, white hair, and electric blue eyes. A strong chin accompanied the patriotic color scheme.

I'll bet a dollar that place is harder to get into without an appointment than an abortionist's operating room.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Target: Mike Shayne (Brett Halliday, 1959)

End of the hiatus, I'm back! Plenty of time to kill in these strange covid-19 times and besides, I've been missing the quiet nights in the company of my good friends Arthur Guinness, Joe Camel, Tom Waits and such. So let's make social distancing fun again!

The good old gumshoe Michael Shayne is as good as anyone to help me restart this blog. I keep chasing these books on eBay because of their incredible McGinnis' covers and keep reading them even though for the most part they turn out to be pretty lame. Especially the latter additions to the series - when they were penned out by god knows which ghostwriter - in my experience vary a lot in quality. With 200+ pages this one is pretty hefty so I was a bit reluctant to pick it up. But as usual, I was eventually persuaded by the voluptuous blonde giving me looks from the bookshelf.

Glad I did and happy now to report that the book's length is more than justified because it covers two intertwining stories. They both revolve around an ex-con who's planning a heist but at the same time also dividing his attention to plot a murder of certain private detective who had put him into the slammer.

The heist part is great. It's not the usual bank or armored car job but a high-stake private poker game on the top floor of some luxurious hotel which makes it a bit more elaborate and the author puts a good effort in describing just enough details of our teams' preparation and execution. Which goes reasonably smoothly and they actually manage to pull it off! There's a cool detail during the heist that reminded me of Melville's Bob le Flambeur when Clayton (he's the inside man) gets on the roll with the dice and starts winning big time. Don't know, maybe our mysterious ghostwriter also saw the movie and got inspired. It was released only three years before this book was published.

But the team of misfits makes it special: along with Clayton, there’s a femme-fatale past her prime (both of them with the "one last job" attitude) and a trigger-happy and a bit psychotic kid. A well-known template that was perfected a couple of decades later by the likes of Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, but it really works well here too. The shifting alliances and relationships between the three of them are sometimes more compelling than the job itself. Good stuff indeed.
What ruins it for me is our main man himself. Shayne is kind of a Mike Hammer's distant cousin and so excessive drinking and conservative macho persona do come along with the territory. And we've got used to this. Fine. But in this one, his "lone wolf against the system" attitude is driven to absurdly and even comical extremes. His dogged determination goes as crazy as beating the cops (twice!) and in the final showdown he literally uses his wheelchair as a weapon. It stopped being funny after 50 pages and became simply annoying for the remaining 150+.

But all in all, this one is an interesting addition to the series. Also, to be fair, it does have a cool identity swap twist at the end that I didn't see coming. And now, when this one is off the shelf, I can see another beauty smiling straight at me. So stay tuned.

3.5/5

Facts:

Hero:
"You seem to know Miami pretty well," he said. "Is Shayne still around?"
"Who?" she asked sleepily.
"Mike Shayne, the fearless, incorruptible, two-fisted private eye."

And then a tall, rangy figure came out of the hotel. His shoulders were wide and powerful, and he had the narrow hips and long legs of an athlete. His face was deeply lined. Even before she saw the red hair Miriam knew that this was Mike Shayne.


Dames:
Barring Shayne's faithful secretary and love interest Lucy, Miriam is the only woman in this one. I'm including the back cover scan but that description doesn't really do her justice. I found her to be a quite complex and likable character.

Location:
Miami

Body count:
Only 2. Possibly another one as Clayton is badly injured and doctors don't know if he will survive.

Object of desire:
For Clayton - killing Shayne while getting some money and eventually going away with Miriam
For Miriam - getting some money at first but at the end simply keeping Clayton 
For Fran - killing some people

Blackouts:
None less than on three occasions. During the climax, he first gets shot point-blank in his side with a dummy bullet but he's such a tough guy that it doesn't put him out yet. But the next bullet, this one to his head (and obviously dummy too), does the job and "The night closed down around him".

Once he's in the hospital and interrogated by the cops, he blacks out due to the exhaustion: "Shayne could feel the mists beginning to close in around him again."

Finally, he loses consciousness after his semi-successful wheelchair attack when he's totally exhausted from the fight and preceding chase. This one is also pretty straightforward: "He felt a violent explosion behind his eyes."

Title: 
Clayton holds a grudge against Shayne for putting him in prison thirteen years ago. Now he’s out and it’s payback time.

Dedicated to:
“For Leah and Lee with Love”

Blame it on covid-19 psychosis, but I actually did some sleuthing myself trying to find out who the author is. From this very informative page on Shayne I got the list of ghostwriters and then checked their biographies for kids or spouses or friends named Leah and Lee. Came up with nothing. So far...


Edition:
Dell D355, first printing - June 1960

Cover:
Another gorgeous and iconic illustration by Bob McGinnis. Amazing job that must have substantially accelerated the sales (it definitely made me buy it). And am I right in thinking that it was actually used as a cover for one of those books on paperbacks publishing history?

Cool lines:
As he crouched on the floor, his forehead was on a level with her automatic. He started to bring up the tommy gun. She shot him between the eyes.