Tag Archives: pulp

You’ll Die Next!: Harry Whittington

“Look at me. I did one exciting thing in all my life. I married you. That’s all. And it looks like the excitement hasn’t even begun yet.”

You can’t read vintage crime without coming across the name Harry Whittington (1915-1989), and lucky for readers, epublishers are reviving many vintage titles that were previously only available in old, sometimes pricey and frail, paperbacks. Of course, you can’t beat those vintage covers if you’re a collector, but all too often the price of these little gems is not-for-the-average-reader.

According to the introduction to You’ll Die Next!, written by crime author Mike Dennis, Whittington “churned out over 200 novels–though the exact number has never been determined.” Dennis adds Whittington, known as the “King of the Paperback Originals,” used “over a dozen pen names” and “at his peak [he wrote] seven novels a year.” His record output was “seven in one month.”  You’ll Die Next! is short (123 pages) and manages to keep up a breakneck speed of action. This is definitely pulp but it’s merged with noir–our Everyman hero is a very average man, who lives in a modest house and works a boring job, but fate puts him on a collision course with murder, revenge and deadly violence, and this all happens after he opens his front door….

you'll die next digitalHenry Wilson, “an ordinary, homely guy”  can’t believe his luck when he meets, courts and marries sexy Kit-Kat club singer Lila.

It’d always worried him. He knew what he was, a guy making $65 a week take-home pay from a government vet administration office. She had guys paying sixty-five bucks for flowers she sniffed maybe once and dropped into the waste basket. At twenty-three Lila had everything. She could have married mink, Cadillacs, Bergdorf-Goodman accounts.

They’ve been married now for six months, and part of Henry, the part that can’t believe his luck, is waiting for something to go wrong, but so far, married life is idyllic. Lila may look slightly out-of-place in a tiny, drab house, wearing an apron and cooking meals for her husband, but she insists that she loves being a housewife. The novel opens with a scene of domestic intimacy–Lila in that apron, cooking for Henry when the doorbell rings. It’s one of those moments, when you want to urge the character not to open the door, but Henry answers this call from fate, and his life begins to spiral out of control….

Within just the space of a few short nightmarish hours, Henry Wilson has lost everything that he worked so hard for. Suspicions about Lila drive a wedge through their married life, but that’s only the beginning. Soon Henry has lost his job, can’t go home, and can’t even seek help from the police. A fugitive from both the cops and the insane crooks bent on retribution, there’s nowhere to turn and no place to hide. The big question here is what can Henry Wilson do to save himself and Lila?

Once Henry opens that front door, the action doesn’t stop, so this is a quick read, pulp action with noir undertones. There’s not much time spent on character development as most of the plot shows Henry reacting to nightmarish adversity, on the run, trying to recoup some of his old life, but since he doesn’t know his enemies, he’s always at a disadvantage. Henry has to somehow turn around the action, so that he’s no longer a victim, so that he’s no longer reacting to the violence and actions of others–no easy feat to think and act like a criminal when you’re a low-level government paper pusher.

The nice touch here is the domestic, idyllic beginning and the way in which Whittington shows that everything Henry values is destroyed once he opens that front door to the outside world.  Henry’s life with Lila is threatened by some very unpleasant characters seeking revenge, but Henry’s marital bliss is also threatened by his doubts about who Lila really is. At one pivotal point in the novel, Henry meets a stranger who senses trouble involving a female. The strategic placement of this character, who is superfluous to the plot, serves to echo Henry’s doubts about Lila as he offers comments that gnaw at Henry’s psyche:

I can tell you this, friend,” the stout man said. “women are all trouble. Good ones. Bad ones.” He shook his head. “They don’t mean to be, some of ’em. But they are.”

While Whittington cleverly structures  the life of an Everyman for readers to identify with, he also accentuates subconscious fears that a desirable woman is really just stringing along her sucker of a husband  until a better gig turns up. And this is the power of this pulp novel–Whittington taps into those fears, and it’s fairly easy to identify with Henry, a man who’s led a life of boring predictability, always taking the safe road. Before Lila, Henry was “a guy in a rut. A guy digging a groove into a grave.” Lila is Henry’s one deviation from his staid life, and that’s why he expects something bad to happen. Now finding himself beyond the safety net of society, and relying on his own resources, he must somehow rescue his life before it’s totally destroyed.

Punks, pimps and prostitutes–all were wearing the uniforms of their trades. A Salvation Army band added to the din, playing with all its strength at two bums watching from the kerb: Neons glittered, rose red and bile green, and reflected kin the dirty puddles at the kerb.

you'll die next

 

Review copy.

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Filed under Blogging, Fiction, Whittington Harry

Kiss Her Goodbye by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

When you went to Florida, you took your fishing rod. For Manhattan, a rod of a different kind was called for.”

American crime author, Mickey Spillane created his iconic fictional flawed hero, Mike Hammer decades ago, and it’s nothing short of fantastic to see Hammer back, badder than ever, for this 2011 release. Over the years, Spillane produced a series of books featuring Hammer and his faithful sidekick, his long-term loyal secretary and lover, Velda. Many of these books made it to film (I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick, Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters just to name a few). When Spillane died in 2006, it seemed as though Hammer would die with him, but Spillane left several unfinished manuscripts behind, and in the week before his death he told his wife:

“When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max–he’ll know what to do with it.”

The ‘Max’ referred to by Spillane is another giant of American crime fiction, Max Allan Collins. Collins is the creator of a dazzling number of crime series featuring some marvellous characters including Eliot Ness, Dick Tracy, and my personal favourite, Quarry. If none of these sound familiar to you, try the film Road to Perdition based on the author’s book. In my opinion, Collins is Spillane’s natural successor in the world of American crime writing. Clearly Spillane saw Collins in that light, and trusted his abilities enough to leave him the incredible legacy of a bunch of unfinished manuscripts–manuscripts other writers (and many publishers) would kill to get their hands on. Max Allan Collins, by the way, was a long-term fan of Spillane’s and the two men later became friends.

This brings me back to Kiss Her Goodbye–the latest of Spillane’s manuscripts to make publication through Max’s creativity and understanding of just what Spillane was all about. Kiss Her Goodbye follows Dead Street, The Goliath Bone (Spillane was working on this novel right before his death), and The Big Bang–all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Hard Case Crime will publish The Consummata later this year (and you bet I’ll be reading it), and for lucky fans there may be more to come.

Spillane’s Kiss Her Goodbye came to Max as “plot, character notes, as well as a shorter false start.” Max eventually “combined, shaped, and expanded” two “partial manuscripts” into Kiss Her Goodbye. The result is a kick-ass, violent, Hammer novel which will make one of my top reads of 2011.

Kiss her Goodbye finds Hammer aging, recuperating, and very possibly mellowing in the Florida sunshine. It’s been about a year since the mob shoot-out that left Hammer badly wounded, but at least he was better off than his enemy, psychotic gangster, Sal Bonetti. Initially not expected to survive, Hammer’s recuperation has been long and painful, and even now he’s not what he once was.  

Hammer receives a phone call from New York homicide cop, Captain Bill Chambers that Hammer’s old mentor, retired cop Bill Doolan is dead. The official version is that Doolan, suffering from terminal cancer, has committed suicide, but Hammer doesn’t swallow that line. He flies to New York and begins digging into the circumstances of Doolan’s death. While it appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide, Hammer sniffs a few details that don’t add up. And then there’s every indication that Doolan was working on something just before he died….

When Hammer first arrives back in New York, he’s reluctant to be there, reluctant to be back in his old killing grounds and as far as New York’s concerned, he’s ready to “kiss her goodbye.” In spite of the fact that he’s recognised everywhere he goes, and that he’s such a New York fixture that Cohen’s Deli even names a sandwich after him (The Mike Hammer mile-high sandwich), Hammer isn’t happy to be back:

Now it was the city’s turn to pass in review and it did a lousy job. Nothing had changed. No sudden sense of deja vu–the smells were the same, the noise still grating, the people out there looking and waiting but never seeing anything at all. If they did, they sure as hell didn’t let anyone know about it.

While New York is essentially the same, Hammer isn’t. He suffers from aches and pains and still has a piece of a bullet lodged in his buttocks. Initially, he isn’t interested in returning to the world of New York crime: 

I’m not in it any more. I haven’t the slightest faintest fucking desire to get wrapped up in that bundle of bullshit again. I’ve done it, it’s past me. I’m retired.

For an example of the genre, it really doesn’t get any better than Kiss Her Goodbye. This explosive PI crime novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and while the story begins with a damaged Hammer, once he’s back in New York where he belongs, he gradually moves from alienation to thinking that  “I was getting the feeling that I was back in my own ballpark again.” He morphs from sleepy, invalided semi-retirement, aches and pains and pill-popping to hair-trigger, violent action. He’s a virtual killing machine.

Since this is a Hammer novel, there are some beautiful babes and also, believe it or not, some humour, Hammer style. As Pat tells Hammer:

As I recall, killing people and banging dames is where you excel, and sometimes there’s a blurring between the lines.

The women in Hammer’s life are a study in contrasts: there’s Chrome, a sultry South American singer who has a permanent gig at Club 52–the go-to-destination for coke and roman-style orgies, and there’s also the new assistant DA, shapely Angela Marshall:

She looked like a schoolteacher you were really afraid of and also wanted to jump.

While power-suited Angela sees Hammer as some sort of male anachronism, there’s a chemistry between the two:

To you,” I said, “I’m an exercise. A far-out, way-out exercise to test your inherent abilities and your well-honed skills. Until now, everything has gone your way, because you have that glossiness beautiful girls get on their way to being women–that smooth surface that makes guys slide right off them. But someplace, way back, somebody smart warned you to watch out for a guy who had sandpaper on his hands, and who wouldn’t slide off at all. You never thought you’d need that kind of guy, but baby, you do now.”

Hammer isn’t exactly what you’d call gallant with the women in his life. He’s too cynical and grounded in jaded realism for roses and chocolates:

Breakfast with a real doll can be damn exciting. They’re awake, showered, and manicured, and all the weapons are pointed right at whatever chump is dumb enough to be sitting across from them. To such dolls, the guy on the other end of the fork is the big, ripe, plum ready for the plucking, because that world of economic dominance he dwells in, whatever male aggression he possesses, are overshadowed by the two most basic hungers.

And finally, lest I give the wrong impression that the novel floats on action alone, there are some beautiful atmospheric passages:

Down on the street, the rain had let up. But a low rumble of thunder echoed across the city. There was an occasional dull glaze of cloud-hidden lightning in the south, and when the wind gusted past, I could smell more rain coming–the kind that was held above the buildings until it was soaked with debris and dust, and when it came down, it wouldn’t be a cleansing rain at all.

Hammer, back in New York, where he belongs…

My copy of Kiss Her Goodbye came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley

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Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction, Spillane Mickey