“We sort of drifted into the business of murder.”
When crime writer Richard Deming (1915-1983) penned Kiss and Kill, a few Lonely Hearts killers had made the headlines. Wikipedia has a page devoted to such crimes–men and women who placed ads in the lonely hearts newspaper columns, courted (briefly) and murdered their prey. While the killing duo in Kiss and Kill doesn’t quite fit any real life characters, this lean crime tale, highly readable at 136 pages, feels like an intimate retelling of a crime spree.
I suppose in any profession you grow with experience. I know I did. When I think of my crude planning in the early years, and the chances I took, it makes my hair curl. Time and time again I blundered past disaster by pure luck.
Our narrator, Korean war veteran Sam, who uses several surnames during the course of the novel, picks up the story when he’s working in California as a grifter, working a con that needs an accomplice. The perfect woman walks into his life–Mavis–a girl from Chicago, inspired by the grandeur depicted in film, who’s eager to learn and willing to take Sam’s bidding. They make a great team, but in between scores, they whoop it up, living lavishly, and this spending creates a boom-and-bust cycle. Eventually when they exhaust their old scam and their “sucker list,” Sam and Mavis move onto murder and the lonely women who advertise through the lonely hearts columns. They learn from each kill, finessing their techniques, taking no chances.
We had learned a lot from the Houston job. The most important thing we had learned was to lower our sights and never again try for such a big score. The more money people leave when they die, the more speculation there is about their heirs. It was safer to pull small jobs regularly than to try to clean up with only an occasional big one. We concentrated on marks whose passing would leave only the faintest ripple of public comment.
The Houston job also taught us never again to try to operate on the mark’s home ground. In small towns, where we found it safest to operate, the death of a newcomer excites not nearly as much interest as the death of a lifelong resident. So we avoided women with deep roots in their own communities. If they weren’t willing to move off with me to some new town after marriage, we bypassed them.
There are indications that Mavis wants to settle down, and after all, since she has to sit on the sidelines while Sam courts, marries and has sex with his victims, Mavis has arguably the most uncomfortable part to play. Not according to Sam, however, who finds it hard, apparently, to have sex with a series of demanding women. Mavis turns him on, and Sam complains about the fat or bony women he must sleep with in order to seal the numerous marriages. Poor Sam. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it:
“I had to,” I said roughly. “There was no other way to loosen her up. I’m not going to pass up twenty grand just because you’re jealous. You think I like making love to a fat, middle-aged slob.”
Moving from score to score, Sam and Mavis are lucky, but sooner or later, luck runs out….
The tale follows Sam and Mavis through various cycles as they spend thousands of dollars and then when they’re down to just their stake money, they begin a hunt for the next victim. Sam isn’t interested in retiring, saving or settling down. He kills in order to fund a decadent lifestyle of casinos, hotels, and Monte Carlo. Years after beginning the Lonely Hearts scam, he is no farther ahead financially. He is living an unsustainable life. As the victims pile up, Sam seems to worry less about courting and more about opening that joint checking account. Impossible to tell if this is a flaw of the novel or a sign of Sam’s vanity going to his head.
Anyway ladies: if you are a women of means, you meet some man, and he wants you to marry him and move away, I’d advise CAUTION.
Kiss and Kill made me think about the criminal life. Sam’s a criminal because he can’t see the point of working a subsistence job for the rest of his life. I’m currently watching an Italian crime series which concerns a group of gangsters who are all motivated by different things but as their wealth increases, they don’t seem any happier–just more violent, more unpredictable and most of the profit seems to go towards funding various vices. Scenes show opulent homes decorated in astonishingly poor taste, and then I thought of Scarface and the gangster lifestyle. What to do with all that loot?
Kiss and Kill is part of a two-fer published by Armchair Fiction reminiscent of the old Ace “double novel.” (And they have a entire Sci-fi line for those interested).
7 responses to “Kiss and Kill: Richard Deming (1960)”
This sounds excellent, Guy. One for the list, I think – and I love that cover too. Calls to mind elements of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters with a Bonnie-and-Clyde vibe.
I just finished the second book in this edition and it was ok–nothing more. Review up soon.
The other one actually sounds more fun. I do wonder if the man in that cover image is modelled on Robert Mitchum.
That’s what I thought too. I looked for cover art credit and couldn’t find it.
“…but as their wealth increases, they don’t seem any happier…”
Well, that’s what all the social science research shows, not to mention that it is the point of view of thousands of years of philosophical-moral speculation by various thinkers. Why should gangsters be an exception.
On the other hand…”astonishingly poor taste?” Really, you surprise me, Guy. One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room!
Kiss and Kill seems like one for me: I guess I have to purchase a physical copy…
I prefer the original “Scarface.” 🙂
Remember that old Edgar G Robinson film in which he plays a gangster who wants class?
The poor taste hit me–these violent men decorating their places with what looks like loot from Blenheim Palace which clashes with all this other stuff. Kitsch is still a style, and these fellows lack that.
“Kitsch is still a style…” I like that! Admirable! Yes, they just loot.