Saturday, May 29, 2021

Sin in Their Blood (Ed Lacy, 1952)

If such a sub-genre as left-wing pulp fiction exists, this one would be its prime example. Not only it does not shy away from themes of communist paranoia, anti-war sentiment, racism, homophobia, and feminism, but it actually uses these social issues as the plot devices. Cool and smart. But make no mistake - "Sin in Their Blood" is far from some liberal rambling. It's a terrific hard-boiled thriller.

Lacy really could write. This is only his third novel, but it reads like it was penned down by a seasoned professional. Simple is beautiful - fast pacing, a straightforward plot that's easy to follow but still offers a few nice twists, intriguing multi-faceted characters, and excellent use of dialogues. Our guy is no testosterone-driven superhero so instead of the usual flashy one-liners, we have plenty of more subtle lines that effectively create the atmosphere. Again, cool and smart.

It's not faultless. There are several slightly far-fetched coincidences and some not-easy-to-swallow plot developments. Can a cop really bring along his friend to the scene of a crime? Furthermore, is it normal for this cop to offer his buddy's services (our hero is an ex-private dick) to the main suspect?

But let's not dwell too much on these minor issues and instead pretentiously speculate that the author simply made a tradeoff (or two) in order to quicken the plot progress. 

No masterpiece but still a very interesting and enjoyable page-turner. This is my 3rd or 4th Lacy and I'm beginning to think that this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship and not just a brief acquaintance. Seems like the two of us will be spending more time together as this guy was quite prolific and his stuff is pretty affordable on eBay. So stay tuned.



He told the clerk, “Matt here was the toughest private dick in town.”
“Well, well,” the clerk said in a deadpan voice that must be an occupational disease with hotel clerks.
“He was a rough cookie. Say, every time I see this Humphrey Bogart doing his stuff in the movies I say to myself, them Hollywood jokers ought to get Matt Ranzino on the screen and really see a rough clown in action.”

But again, do not be fooled. When we first meet Matt he's just a confused hypochondriac with the mysterious "bug" in his lungs. Tuberculosis or the guilty conscience he carries for killing kids and women in Korea? Interestingly, Lacy uses a similar metaphor with imaginary (?) cancer in his "The Men from the Boys" that followed this one a few years later.

Anyway, the plot moves on and with it, our hero's character develops too. I'd say that in his first transformation he goes from being numb to simply not giving a flying fuck. There's a great WTF moment early on after he starts working on the case:

Maybe I should have told Max about the water being off—not that it was conclusive proof of anything, still it could be enough for a starter, a real investigation. But what would that get me? I didn't give a damn about the case, who killed who, didn't want to get on it in the first place. Max was happy, so was Saxton, and I had two hundred bucks and was tired.

Huh? So much for the P.I. working relentlessly on the case and fighting fearlessly for the Lady Justice. But don't worry, he will find redemption and peace of sorts at the end. To conclude this section, I can only say that Matt Ranzino is a great guy and spending a couple of hours in his company was great fun.

The bad guy(s):
Thatcher Austin isn't exactly THE baddest guy but he's definitely the weirdest one and I must admit that I couldn't help liking him. Or did I simply feel sorry for the poor schmuck? He's fanatically obsessed with communism and with his meticulous filing of any kind of information on subversive "red scare" activity, references to Hoover and McCarthy are of course unmissable. Must have been quite daring to publish this stuff in 1952 and I would guess it certainly didn't help make sales better.

We have Flo and we have Mady and they present our hero's past and present respectively. Both cool and interesting but even though Flo is a "sensual blonde", I think I'd rather hang out with Mady:

“Mady's a good kid, but with a lot of spirit, and that gets her in trouble because guys don't understand it.”
“What kind of spirit—besides the bottled ones?”
“Independence. She's on this equality for women line like some people get religion."

And Matt seems to share my sentiment about Flo:

The months hadn't hurt Flo. She still had the fluffy blond hair, the sensuous mouth, and her chic dress proved beyond any doubt she had a full figure and wasn't wearing a bra. Her firm full breasts seemed to be held at the nipples, like two jack-in-the-boxes, waiting to spring over the low-cut dress. But I really wasn't looking at her fleshy bosom or the long shapely legs and the bit of round thigh that showed as she sprawled on the couch—I was only watching that over-red mouth, afraid of it.

See the "Dedicated to" section below.

Body count:

The object of desire:
“Let's get this over. What do you want?”
“To convict you—get you out of my hair for good. Too many of your kind in the world these days. Everywhere I turn I see the smug, self-righteous, self-appointed...” I stopped. There wasn't any point in making a speech. 

After killing the entire family of peasants in Korea, he blacks out and then awakes three days later in a Tokyo hospital with "the fever that puzzled the hell out of the docs". It wouldn't really puzzle me, but anyway, this one doesn't really count, does it? We do need to wait for the proper blackout almost until the end:

I heard the faint swish the gun made through the air. A flash of terribly bright pain swept over me and then I was drowning in heavy mushy darkness.

I must have been out a long time. When I came to I thought I was still up in the clouds... I was naked and hanging from the doorway by my wrists, which were roped to pipes some place on the bathroom wall.

But only now his ordeal really begins. The killer wants to disguise the murder as an accident so he savagely beats him in and out of consciousness several times. Which of course is bad enough, but the really nasty part is that between the beatings he lets the freezing cold draft into the apartment so that Matt's lungs would finally collapse. Nasty, sadistic stuff. 

For the obvious one, see the "Bad Guy" section. 

And there are a couple of other interesting ones worth mentioning. The concept of the two best cops buddies that have met in the department boxing champ will sound very familiar to James Ellroy's fans and the con game from The Sting is described here to the minutest details.

It's cool sounding but I must admit that its meaning eludes me. Don't expect some heavy Ross Macdonald type of family tragedy in which sins usually flow in abundance in everyone's veins.

Dedicated to:
No dedication but there's this somewhat peculiar introduction:

This book is entirely a work of fiction. All incidents, characters, names and places are made-up and not based on any actual persons or places. But the type of murder on which this story is based has actually taken place many times in the past and, unfortunately, even in the present.

Interesting, but this introduction is omitted from the eBook version that I have.

MacFadden MB 50-255, 1966

See the "Blackouts" section. 

Cool lines:
Max bent down to get his pint out—why do they always keep it in the bottom drawer? The top would be more convenient—and I said, “Not for me.”

Harry shrugged. “I didn't make the laws. All I know is it's legal, patriotic, and pays off. People are scared, worse than during Prohibition. Hell, now people are scared to even look at a sunset any more—it's red.”

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