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.