Tag Archives: vintage crime

The Dead Stay Dumb: James Hadley Chase (1941)

The Making of a Gangster’s Moll …

“From now on I’m givin’ the orders and you’re takin’ em, see? We’re getting into the dough, an’ no one’s stoppin’ us. If they get in our way it’s goin’ to be so much grief for ’em–get that? In a little while I’ll be running the town. You can get in at the ground floor or you can stay out. You stay out an’ one dark night someone’s goin’ to toss a handful of slugs in your guts.”

The Dead Stay Dumb was published in 1941, just two years after No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and while the thematic connection is clear (gangsters running amok), of the two novels, I preferred No Orchids.

The Dead Stay Dumb is the story of Dillon, a hood–a cheap, violent, brutal hood so riddled with inchoate ambition that he brings about his own destruction. This is by far the most violent James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read so far (out of six). The violence, which comes with rapid, unrelenting speed was shocking. This is a novel without heroes or heroines, and our main character, Dillon, who let’s his Tommy gun do the talking for him, survives encounter after encounter simply because he’s the most vicious character in these pages.

the dead stay dumb

When Dillon arrives in the small town of Plattsville, he’s a “long, starved shadow of a man.” He looks like an average hobo, shabby and dusty, but there’s something about his aggression and the dead expression in his eyes that convinces some of the local bullies to give him wide berth. Store owner Abe Goldberg offers him a meal, but when he turns down booze and cigarettes and thwarts a bullying customer, Abe also offers employment to Dillon. But men like Dillon, whose former employer was Baby Face Nelson,  don’t want 9-5; they want money, lots of it, and they want it faster than they can earn it.

Within a short time of landing on his feet, Dillon organises a criminal enterprise by bullying the local thugs into becoming his underlings. Seventeen-year-old Myra Hogan, the local hottie, sets her sights on Dillon, and finding herself turned on by his brutality, she makes the mistake of thinking she can control it and turn violence into sexual passion.

Dillon said, “Skip it. I ain’t listening to big-mouth talk from a kid with hot pants. Get what you want and blow.”

Myra took three quick steps forward and aimed a slap at Dillon’s face. She was nearly sobbing with rage. Dillon reached up and caught her wrist. “Be your age,” he said, “you ain’t in the movies.”

Myra, who rapidly becomes an adept gangster’s moll, hits the road with Dillon, eventually teaming up with another crook called Roxy who is the least repulsive character in a book full of repulsive people. Dillon doesn’t see the point of women, and he isn’t impressed with Myra’s looks or sexuality. The way he sees it, she doesn’t have anything different from every other woman on the planet, so what’s she got to brag about? While women serve a purpose for Dillon, they’re not much use as living, breathing human beings, and at one point, he advises a fellow crook to use the Neanderthal approach: “if you gotta lay this bitch, why didn’t you knock her cold first?”

I’m not going to include a clip of the descriptive violence because it really is over-the-top, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s digestion, but I will add that The Dead Stay Dumb includes one of the longest, most violent fights between two women that I’ve ever read.

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But a Short Time to Live: James Hadley Chase (1951)

“There are some girls, Harry, who are no good.”

James Hadley Chase’s wonderful noir novel, But A Short Time to Live, is set in dreary post WWII London. Harry Ricks is one of several photographers employed by a failing business to take photos of people in the street, and it’s his job to try to make a sale. It’s depressing work with a very low success rate, and Harry is struggling to make a living. This is how the book opens just after Harry snaps a photograph of a woman passing by:

The fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn’t suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal.

It’s the end of a long day, and Harry is in the Duke of Wellington having a pint when he notices a stunning woman drinking whisky with a much older, fat and unpleasant man. Harry’s first impression is that while the woman is beautiful, the situation indicates that there’s some funny business afoot.

Her companion wasn’t the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

A few hours later, a series of events leads Harry to taking the woman in the pub, Clair, home to her very large, expensive flat. While everyone else still feels the belt-tightening of the war, Clair seems immune to deprivation: her flat is well-stocked with whisky. She claims she’s a model, drives a sports car, dresses in expensive clothing and Harry desperate to avoid some nasty conclusions about Clair’s behaviour,and ignoring “how hard she looked,” believes every word she says. …

but-a-short-time-to-live

Some of the characters in the book, even though they are astonished that Harry would land such a woman, admire Clair, but Harry’s best friend and roommate, Ron, warns against getting mixed up with Clair. Ron, a tragic figure, who has had bad experiences with what he calls “glamour girls” warns Harry that these relationships never work out for the “poor mug who marries them.”

There’s another great character here–Mooney, a strange, shady figure, who starts out in the book as Harry’s employer. Mooney is lazy, unambitious  and happy to sail on the talent of others. Later in the book, Mooney’s more exploitative side takes over as he starts using Harry, but by the time the tale ends, Mooney reveals more character than we thought he had:

If you’re not settled in a job by the time you’re forty, it’s curtains. Watch that. You’ve got to be fixed up by forty, kid. Don’t forget. it’s important. No one wants a man when he’s over forty these days.

Clair is the dominant partner in the relationship with Harry. Everything runs the way she wants: what she spends, where they live, who they see. Harry makes a few objections, but he’s weak when it comes to Clair. In this story of doomed love, Harry has plenty of warnings about Clair; he sees things, he’s told things, but he keeps on … committed and devoted to the end of the road.

But A Short Time to Live follows the trajectory of Harry and Clair’s relationship, and the book took a number of unexpected twists and turns as this troubled couple try to (and seem to) elude fate. This is an excellent noir tale, set in a dreary post WWII London, peopled with spivs, prostitutes and cheap entertainment; it’s a story oozing with desperation and darkness spiraling towards its inevitable end.

This is the first James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read set in England. It’s available for mere pennies in the US. My kindle version has a few typos but nothing that inhibited readability.

 

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The Knife Slipped: Erle Stanley Gardner (1939) writing as A. A. Fair

“You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”

It’s been a long time, too long, since I read a Hard Case Crime novel, and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped  arrived at a good time. Gardner, using the name A.A. Fair, originally wrote this novel with the intention that it would be the second in the Cool and Lam series, but the book was rejected, partly, for the behaviour of Bertha Cool. This is a tale of a low-rent, bottom-feeder PI agency (owned by Bertha Cool) whose operative, disbarred lawyer, Donald Lam, investigates a case of adultery, triple identities and corruption.

the-knife-slipped

Bertha Cool’s agency is hired by a bossy mother-weepy daughter duo to investigate the daughter’s husband who was seen in a nightclub with a blonde “who wasn’t wearing a stitch more than the law allowed.” Bertha, who dominates the story, has a very particular attitude towards husbands –possibly because once she had one of her own.

By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do-those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighbourhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.

Bertha is an incredible, confident, tough-talking, penny-pinching character, and Donald, who’s barely making a living,  knows that “if you made anything out of her you sure as hell earned it.” Here’s Bertha laying down the rules to her clients:

“Twenty-five dollars a day,” she said.

“Twenty-five dollars a day is a lot of money,” Mrs. Atterby snapped. 

“Seems like it is to you,” Bertha Cool said easily, “not to me.”

Mrs Atterby hesitated. Her long, lean fingers gripped the black, patent leather handbag which was supported on her lap. You guarantee results?” she asked.

“Hell no,” Bertha Cool said, “we don’t guarantee anything. Christ, what do you want us to do, get him seduced?”

Donald begins the investigation, and the case of the cheating husband soon morphs into something much bigger and much more dangerous. Bertha Cool, the brains of the outfit, is a great character. While Donald is the operative, Bertha, who often talks about herself in the third person, is a huge (literally) presence, guiding the investigation every step of the way, and saving Donald’s neck more than once. She’s cheap (lets Donald drive her beat-up heap, springing for a new car when the junker breaks down), reads the odometer so that Donald can’t use the car for anything other than business, and keeps him on a pauper’s budget. But Bertha is also unflappable and commands respect from even the lowest, pavement-hugging-hood.

This PI story, with more than a smattering of humour and high on atmosphere rips along at high-speed, narrated by our flawed detective, a man who takes all the risks while his female boss maximizes profit. These two characters work well together, for as we see when the plot plays out, Bertha has a soft spot for romance, and is very well aware of Donald’s character weaknesses and his tendency to fall in love.

It was raining hard outside. It was a cold rain. The drops were big and came down hard, making little bursts of water where they hit the dark pavement. I heard her give a little exclamation behind me as she saw the weather. 

Yucca City turned out most of the lights at midnight. The clouds had settled low enough so the lights from the metropolitan district below were all blotted out. The Mountain Crest apartments seemed to be shut off from the rest of the world, an island of wan light isolated in a sea of darkness. 

The afterword from Russell Atwood contains some interesting information on the series and how the two main characters changed in the books that followed this second, rejected, story.

Review copy

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The Dead Stand-In: Frank Kane (1956)

Following on the tail of Richard Deming’s Kiss and Kill comes Frank Kane’s The Dead Stand-In–the second novel in Armchair Fiction’s  two-fer. At just over 70 pages, this tale rattles along with very little down time. The novella’s protagonist is Kane’s series character, PI Johnny Liddell. While the story has nothing new to add to the genre, and has the usual tropes, it’s entertaining, and with a colourful cast of characters, it’s a lively, if somewhat predictable read.

the dead stand in

Johnny Liddell fits a general image of the 50s low-rent PI. He has a red-headed secretary, no clients and a mountain of bills, so when he gets a note telling him that there’s $500 up for grabs if he goes to the Savoy Grill, he takes the bait. When the mystery note writer fails to show, Liddell thinks he’s been stood up, but then he gets a call from a woman (naturally with a “sultry” husky voice) who refuses to identify herself. She hires Liddell to look into the death of hitman Larry Hollister who was shot to death by police a few weeks previously. The official version is that Hollister was a “gun-crazy hood who was burned down resisting arrest.” Liddell thinks the case is a waste of time but with a $500 fee dangling, he takes the case. It doesn’t take much digging before Liddell sniffs a rat. …

The tale has a few interesting twists, and it’s loaded with the PI tropes. Liddell is a tough guy who gets help from his woman–Muggsy. There are some low-life gangsters, a shady nightclub and a platinum blonde singer who’s “hard, cold, and expensive.” As I said, there’s nothing new here but The Dead Stand-In, a pulp read, has its entertaining moments.

The redhead got up from her chair, brought her glass over to the coffee table. She picked up a cigarette from the humidor, chain-lit it from the one in Liddell’s mouth. “I’ve bumped into him around, but I never knew him too well. He wasn’t exactly my type.” She blew a stream of feathery smoke at the ceiling, squinted through it. “He was the kind of a guy that asked for killing, I guess. Everybody hated him, but most of the people he dealt with were too afraid of him to show it.”

“Women?”

“By the carload. He practically had them working in shifts.”  

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Kiss and Kill: Richard Deming (1960)

“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….

kiss and kill

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?

scarface

Kiss and Kill is part of a two-fer published by Armchair Fiction reminiscent of the old Acedouble novel.” (And they have a entire Sci-fi line for those interested).

 

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Case of the Vanishing Beauty: Richard Prather (1950)

“She looked hotter than a welder’s torch and much, much more interesting.”

Strip for Murder gave me so many laughs, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to another Shell Scott mystery from Richard Prather. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is the first in the series, and why not go back to the beginning?

case of the vanishing beauty

Shell Scott is hired by a young woman named Georgia to find her missing sister, Tracy. For mysterious reasons she refuses to discuss, she insists that he accompany her to a nightclub, a “Mexican dive” called “El Cuchillo.” The floor shows aren’t that hot until knife thrower, Miguel and his shapely partner, Lina start their routine. Shell has eyes for Lina:

She was slim. but with hips that were amply high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be.

Shell isn’t sure why he’s been dragged to the nightclub by his new client and his this “screwy case.” But the visit to El Cuchillo stirs up a hornet’s nest, and by the end of the night, Shell is deep in the case to find the missing Tracy.

Case of the Vanishing Beauty was published in 1950, six years before Strip for Murder. Both novels of full of Shell’s unbridled lascivious view towards women, but the setting of a nudist camp in Strip for Murder allowed plenty of opportunity for Shell’s self-deprecating humour. In Case of the Vanishing Beauty, pouty, explosive, sultry, Lina doesn’t develop beyond her stereotype even though her character appears in several scenes in the book. Venezuelan Lina, who calls herself a Mexican dancer, plays a fairly big (jealous, possessive, explosive) role in the book far beyond the floorshow, and, unfortunately as a stereotype, she’s not that interesting–although Shell Scott seems fascinated. Still, this is the first in a long series of over 40 books, and the tale includes some great riffs on California life and being a PI:

Southern California is a mecca and melting pot for half the cults and societies of the civilized, and sometimes uncivilized, world. Maybe you live here or maybe you’ve been here and know about it and maybe you don’t. I was born in this town. A quarter century ago, when I was a towheaded kid starting kindergarten, Los Angeles  and Hollywood weren’t what they are now. Pepper trees lined Hollywood Boulevard and the movies were silent, flickery things. L.A.’s city limits were a fraction of what they are today, and the population was only about half what it is now.

I’ve watched it grow, and as it grew, and as people from all over the States and even the world poured in, a rash of religious, vegetarian, mystic, and occult healers and savers sprang up like no other part of the States ever saw. Messiahs sprang up out of the ground, milked the suckers dry, then faded out of sight. Healers laid on hands, read the stars for propitious signs, and stood on their heads to save the downtrodden and, incidentally, make a fast buck.

That’s a long quote, but it illustrates Prather’s breezy, yet punchy style; plus it includes the info that Shell Scott is a native-born Angelino which gave certain bragging rights back in the day.

While I didn’t enjoy Case of the Vanishing Beauty nearly as much as the very funny Strip for Murder, this first book introduces a great character: Shell Scott, who carries a 38 Colt and drives a yellow 1941 Cadillac convertible–he’s obviously not trying to keep a low profile around town. This is 50s Hollywood written in the 50s and not a writer trying to catch the right ambience. Prather successfully maintains a dream-like quality to the book that morphs into Shell Scott’s living nightmare:

After so long a time you get a little sick of violence. You see guys gasp and bleed and die, and it makes you feel a little funny, a little sick while it’s happening, when it’s right in front of your eyes. But it isn’t ever quite real when it’s going on, when you’re in it. Maybe a muscle man slugs you, or a torpedo takes a shot at you, or you’re pulling a trigger yourself or smashing a fist into a guy’s face, and you’re hurting or crippling or killing some trigger-happy hood. But when it’s actually happening, you’ve got adrenalin shooting into your bloodstream, your heart pounds, your breath comes faster, pumping more oxygen into your veins. Glands and body organs start working overtime to keep you sharp, keep you alive, and you’re not the same, you’re not thinking like the same guy. It’s all kind of a blur like a picture out of focus jumping in front of your eyes

 

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Strip for Murder: Richard Prather (Shell Scott mystery ) 1956

“Never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind though; I’m broadminded.”

Strip for Murder (1956) is my first foray into the life of Southern California based, former Marine turned PI, Shell Scott, and after reading this well-paced, witty, action packed detective story, I know it won’t be my last. Author Richard Prather (1921-2007) wrote over 40 Shell Scott mysteries, and Open Road Media has made these great little mysteries available at a very reasonable price for the kindle. Crime and humour are not natural bed mates–and if not done with just the right touch, you can end up with a novel written in bad taste. Donald Westlake knew how to blend crime and humour, and if you enjoy Westlake’s humour, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Strip for Murder.

strip for murderAt 176 pages, there’s very little down time, so the book begins with Shell Scott, inappropriately dressed, attending a dinner party for the “Smart Set” at the home of the woman who’s just hired him, millionairess, Mrs. Redstone.

And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, “Hot Hula.” At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt, It was just colorful.

According to Mrs Redstone, the mother of two adult daughters, Sydney and Vera, she’s convinced that Vera’s new husband, Andon Poupelle is not the Wall Street man he claims to be but is in reality a slimy fortune hunter. The last detective Mrs Redstone hired for the job has been murdered after he delivered a glowing report about Poupelle. Mrs Redstone wasn’t entirely convinced by the report but the death of the detective who wrote it led her to talk to the police who recommended the services of Shell Scott. So Shell’s job is to dig around and see if there’s any dirt on Poupelle.  While Poupelle may have convinced Vera Redstone that he’s something special, after an exchange of words, Shell knows that Poupelle is a slimy gigolo at best.

Wherever there’s big money and women starting downhill, you find slobs like Poupelle hanging around giving them a push.

The last PI on the case was found shot dead near to two significant locations: Castle Norman–a swanky gambling joint dressed up as, you’ve got it, a Norman castle complete with knights on their steeds and a murky moat. The other significant location is Fairview, a nudist colony for health nuts, and after some shady incidents involving the case occur there, Shell Scott is ‘forced‘ to go undercover as the calisthenics director at the colony. When he first arrives he has no idea about the nudist part–he thinks he’s going undercover at a health retreat. The first inkling Shell gets that something is different is when he’s greeted at the main gate by a naked woman:

She was a little dark-haired doll and nobody I knew, but you can bet it was somebody I wanted to know.

She wasn’t in any terrific hurry; nobody was chasing her. Not, I thought, dazedly, yet. She ran right up to the gate and stopped. At least she stopped running, but it was quite a spell before she stopped moving completely.”Hi,” she said.

I still had some of that tightness in my chest, but that seemed to be the least of my worries. I said, “Hello there!”

She smiled, and it seemed to me that she smiled all over. “You’re Mr Scott?”

“Yes. She-er, Don Scott. You call me Don.”

“Fine. We were expecting you.”

Wow, I thought. Maybe my reputation had preceded me. If this was what happened when I was expected, I was never going anyplace again without letting people know well in advance. Hell. I’d flood the States with posters: Scott is on his way!

In between pretending to be the new calisthenics instructor at the nudist colony (and there are a lot of laughs in these scenes,) Shell navigates the dark streets of LA hitting up a series of lowlife informers, such as grifter Iggy the Wig (who wears “a rug to keep him glamorous,”) and Three Eyes (he sports a glass eye,) for information about Poupelle. Meanwhile he’s shadowed by a bunch of gangsters including Egg Foo, Folsom graduate Sardine (you’ll understand the name if you read the book) cheap thug Garlic, and a “lop-eared gunman named Strikes.” But there are some great female characters too, including burlesque dancer, Babe Le Toot, “sex cyclone,” dancer Juanita who “looked as if approximately five feet ten inches of well-stacked woman had been mashed down into five feet seven inches, the excess bulging out and overflowing in enjoyable places,” and Daphne, the secretary of a geriatric loanshark, Offenbrand:

She was wearing a dark skirt, above which was a pink sweater she might have knitted herself, getting halfway through with the job before saying the hell with it. Offie was so old I figured she was on display for the customers. I got younger every minute. She was strategically seated, so that she smacked you in the eyes when you entered, and she was strategically built so that she smacked you in both eyes. Hell, she smacked you all over.

Here’s Shell at the nudist colony looking at a guest named Peggy.

She turned sideways, leaving me enough room to get by. She really was cuter than the dickens. I thought of Laurel and looked at Peggy. Sometimes I hate myself. I went out, but as I went by Peggy I gave her a little pat on her behind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grab it and yank it around or anything, just gave it a friendly cuff. Nothing crude, you know.

strip for murder vintageI’ve been on a bender watching Mad Men over the past few weeks, and it’s fascinating watching history through the characters who work at a Manhattan advertising agency. Sexism is rampant, but for the most part the dominant offenders are oblivious to the way they tread on women. And that’s what’s so interesting and refreshing about Shell Scott. He celebrates the differences between the sexes rather than denigrating the females he encounters, and as a series character, he’s fascinating. He’s a lone PI, keeps a small office in downtown LA on Broadway, drinks bourbon and water, drives a Cadillac and has pet guppies for company. He also has a good relationship based on mutual respect with the local PD, and while he’s for hire, there’s a core of decency that runs right down his spine and which wrestles with his libido. While Strip for Murder may appear to be a cheap little pulp detective tale, it’s much better written than I expected, and the author is comfortable with taking some risks through memorable, over-the-top scenes. The tale begins with Shell being embarrassingly ‘underdressed’ for a swanky society party and the author keeps that theme and works it into this frothy and yet deadly serious tale. As for the “hot hula” shirt Shell wears in the first scene, even that has significance on the final page.

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Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1954)

“Everything was the colour of the past, the colour of memory. What feast of the dead had he come here to celebrate?”

Regular readers know that I’m fascinated by the film-book connection, so it was a matter of time before I read Vertigo, a novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. This title is one of the first, appropriately, to be released in the new Pushkin Vertigo line, and this is exciting news for those of us who enjoy intelligent crime novels.

Vertigo (French title: D’Entre Les Morts) begins in 1940. War is in the background–taking place somewhere else off stage, and curiously the novel’s action takes a parallel thread to the war.

The novel opens in the office of former detective, now lawyer, Roger Flavières, who is talking to Paul Gévigne, a man he knew fifteen years earlier “at the Faculté de Droit.” Flavières didn’t like Gévigne then, and he likes him even less now. Gévigne has grown plump and bald, yet he’s clearly affluent whereas the last fifteen years haven’t been kind to Flavières. Flavières is extremely thin and he carries an air of anxiety following a tragic accident in which his partner on the police force was killed. He blames himself for the incident which was rooted in … vertigo.

vertigo vintageGévigne’s air of bonhomie seems a little forced, but then he reveals that he’s worried about his wife, Madeleine. After four years of marriage, she’s become withdrawn. There are also some unexplained absences and other times when Gévigne has discovered that she wanders to strange destinations–almost as though she’s in a trance. Flavières wonders if this can be explained by worry or illness, but Gévigne dismisses these arguments and insists that something strange is going on. He claims she’s become “someone else”

At first I too thought there was something at the back of her mind troubling her–some unreasoning fear provoked by the war, for instance. She would suddenly relapse, into silence and hardly hear what was said to her. Or she would stare at something–and I can’t tell you what a queer impression it made. I know this sounds absurd, but it was as though she was seeing things invisible to the rest of us… Then, when she came back to her normal self, she would have a slightly bewildered expression on her face, as though it took her a little time to recognize her surroundings, and even her own husband…

Gévigne isn’t convinced that his wife is mentally ill, but he’s concerned that she’s become obsessed with a dead ancestor– a woman who committed suicide. He persuades Flavières to follow his wife and report back what he sees….

Since Flavières doesn’t like Gévigne and certainly doesn’t consider himself a friend, he’s initially reluctant to become involved in Gévigne’s marital problems, but he agrees to watch the couple at the theatre, and once he sets eyes on Madeleine, he’s entranced.

Flavières couldn’t see her features clearly, but he had the impression she was pretty, with something a bit fragile about her. That might have been due to her abundant hair which seemed too heavy for her face. How could a man like Gévigne have procured a wife of such elegance and grace? How could she have put up with his advances?

Flavières, who’s always been a failure with women, decides that the delicate, fragile Madeleine must be repulsed and bored by her husband, and so from fascination, a growing obsession, and a sense of chivalry, he begins to follow Madeleine. Eventually Flavières has reason to question whether reincarnation is possible.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss, and for those of us who’ve seen the film, well we more or less know what is going to happen next. The fact I’d seen the film version didn’t spoil the book in the slightest; this was still an intense, completely fascinating read. It’s been years since I saw the Hitchcock film, but the book is different enough that I only found one or two old screen shots running through my head. In the film, the role of Flavières is played by perennial screen hero James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson) and Madeleine is played by Kim Novak. The book is a great deal more cynical, more nuanced and much darker. Plus Hitchcock’s film, which capitalizes, as it should on visuals, is set in America while the novel is set in WWII France. When the novel opens, Gévigne, an industrialist with new government contracts, refers to the impending “phony war” and everyone predicts it will be over quickly. The action in the novel parallels the build up to war, and the displacement due to the German takeover explains why some of the characters pick up their wrecked lives four years later.

Finally a note on the authors: There’s an afterword at the back of the book which explains the Boileau/Narcejac collaboration and how they “wanted to try and develop a new type of crime fiction.”

Boileau-Narcejac had one golden rule: the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare.

That is certainly true in Vertigo, a compelling psychologically complex novel which explores the dark, shifting boundaries of fantasy and reality, and the way our minds fill the gaps in questionable narratives to suit the version we want–the version that feeds our desires and our egos. Vertigo is the story of the twisted obsession of one man who gets a second chance, and yet driven to the edge of madness by reality, can’t accept it as the gift it is.

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Review copy

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Filed under Boileau Pierre & Thomas Narcejac, Fiction

Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead: James Hadley Chase (1976)

Again as if we were planning to drown a cat. No emotion, no nothing. Once more the cold dead finger went up my spine.”

After reading (trying to read) a couple of books which were disappointing, I knew I had to cleanse my mind with an author who would be a good safe bet–someone guaranteed to get me back on track. I have a huge stack of James Hadley Chase titles here, and he was just the antidote I needed to cure my recent reading slump. But which one to pick? Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead fit my mood…

It’s the 70s, post Vietnam, and our narrator finds himself on a Greyhound bus travelling from Sacramento to San Francisco. A former Wall Street trader who served 5 years for embezzling funds, 38-year-old Keith Devery has been out of jail for 10 months now, “living rough,” and moving from one itinerant job to another. He meets a businessman named Joe Pinner, who guessing that Devery is indigent, invites him to stop at the small coastal town of Wicksteed and even points him towards an available job as a driving instructor. Devery who has just $59 in his pocket, no job, no contacts, and no place to go, agrees. Pinner tells Devery that Wicksteed is a “friendly little town,” and that description soon appears to come true.

Devery certainly falls on his feet. His new boss, the owner of the driving school, is a man whose bank robber son was killed during a botched crime, and probably because he couldn’t help his own son keep on the straight and narrow, he’s motivated to employ Devery. Devery’s run of bad luck seems to have changed. He has a job that pays $200 a week, and rents a very pleasant room from a widow:

It had a divan bed on which I was lying, two comfortable armchairs, a small dining table with two chairs, a colour TV set and by the big picture window a small desk and chair. Facing me was a wall to wall bookcase, crammed with books. There were two wool rugs, one by the divan, the other under the desk. The flooring was polished wood blocks. There was a small, vine covered veranda that looked out onto the beach and the sea. For thirty bucks a week, the room was a steal.

You’d think Devery would be happy–a job, a good wage, and a nice place to live, but then, since this is a noir novel…..

do me a favourChase builds this fast paced, page turner with a silky smooth, yet relentless narrative. We’re inside Devery’s head, but through the author’s skill, we’re still outsiders imagining that Devery is happy and grateful for his lucky break. We’re like the suckers who help Devery, imagining that now he’ll recuperate his life and begin working hard. Think again.

My ambition was like the spots of  a leopard. Once you are landed with my kind of ambition, you were stuck with it. My ambition for big money burned inside me with the intensity of a blow-torch flame. It nagged me like a raging toothache. During those five grim years in jail I had spent hours thinking and scheming about how to get my hands on big money. […] Sooner or later, I was going to be rich. I was going to have a fine house, a Caddy, a yacht and all the other trimmings that big money buys. I was going to have all that.

Nudged by “fate’s elbow,” Devery meets the owner of a real estate company, alcoholic, overweight, bombastic Frank Marshall. Marshall has “expectations” and when his aunt finally dies, Marshall will be a millionaire. This is the big score that Devery’s been looking for.

During my stay in jail, I had shared a cell with a slick con man who liked to boast about his past swindles. He had had, according to him, a spectacular career until he had become too greedy.

“For years, buster,” he said to me, “I have traded on other people’s greed and then, goddamn it, if I didn’t get greedy myself and look where it’s landed me … ten years in a cell!”

He had expanded on the subject of greed.

“If a guy has two dollars, he will want four. If he has five thousand, he’ll want ten. This is human nature. I knew a guy who was worth five million and he nearly bust a gut turning it into seven. The human race is never satisfied. The more they have, the more they want, and if you show them how to make a fast buck without working for it, they’ll be all over you.”

Of course, you can read that quote one of two ways: Devery is thinking that he can con Marshall out of his money, but the reader picks up another vibe–Devery has just landed on his feet through a stroke of good fortune. Why risk a steady job with prospects by committing another crime? Just who is greedy here Devery’s mark, Marshall or Devery himself?

My sights were set much higher than to spend the rest of my days in a one-horse town like Wicksteed. I wanted to get into the big league where the real money was.

Hadley plays this dual possibility of exactly which character is being played by his greed, with Devery thinking he’s in the driver’s seat while we know Devery is making a huge mistake. Gradually we see exactly what sort of man Devery is and how he’s able to reflect back the image people want to see. He even picks up the town habit of labelling everything “nice.” When Devery insinuates himself into Marshall’s life, he thinks he can count on Marshall’s greed, but Devery, unknowingly has changed lanes and is headed towards his inescapable fate.

Naturally we have to have a women in the tale, so say hello to Marshall’s much younger, stone-faced, reclusive wife, Beth:

The woman who stood in the doorway gave me a jolt of surprise. Around thirty-three, she was almost as tall as myself and she was thin: too thin for my liking. I prefer women with bumps and curves. Her features were good: a long, thin nose, a big mouth and a well sculptured jaw line, Her eyes gave her unusual face its life: black glittering eyes, steady and coldly impersonal. This wasn’t a woman with whom you took liberties: strictly no fanny patting.

This is my fourth James Hadley Chase novel to date.  Chase, whose real name was René Brabazon Raymond, was British and wrote a large number of books (80-90 depending on which website you read). He wrote his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish after reading James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and realising the market demand for gangster stories, had a remarkable career writing crime novels. Chase’s books are mostly set in America even though he only visited a couple of times.

One of the arguments that Chase wasn’t as successful in America is that he didn’t get many of the details right (and Devery’s $200 a week wage seems high for the times), and that’s certainly apparent in There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a book I couldn’t resist thanks to its title. Unfortunately, Hadley’s view of hippies was more Mansonesque than I think the average person would imagine hippies to be, so the novel was, for me, a curiosity more than anything else. A Coffin from Hong Kong was a standard PI novel for anyone interested.

Translated into French as Fais-moi plaisir… crève ! 

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Hill Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

As a fan of the crime novels of Charles Williams, I’ve reviewed a few for this site, and here they are, so far, in order of preference for anyone interested:

River Girl (1951)

Hell Hath No Fury (The Hot Spot) (1953)

Big City Girl (1951)

River Girl is the story of a corrupt, married small-town deputy sheriff who gets in over his head with a woman he meets in a remote cabin. This is a tense, desperate noir novel that somehow managed to beat out Hell Hath No Fury as my favourite Williams novel so far. Hell Hath no Fury is the story a criminal who drifts into a small town, takes a job as a car salesman and cases out the local bank with plans to steal the cash and split. The main character here makes the mistake of getting mixed up with not one–but two women: Gloria Harper, the boss’s bookkeeper and Dolly, the boss’s trashy wife. Big City Girl is the story of a family of poor sharecroppers. One of the sons is in prison and Joy, his trashy wife who’s addicted to the attention of men decides to leave the city and join the family on the cotton farm. Bad idea…

With these three books, there’s a common theme: women are trouble–even if they don’t mean to be which is certainly true in the case of Doris, the woman hiding in the cabin discovered by deputy sheriff Marshall. Big City Girl and Hell Hath No Fury feature femme fatales who use men and sex to further their aims–although Hell Hath No Fury’s Dolly (played by a sultry, very naughty Virginia Madsen in the 1990 film version) wins hands down in the Evil department.  And that brings me back to Hill Girl (1951) the first novel Charles Williams published. Williams saw three of his novels published that year: Hill Girl, Big City Girl, and River Girl so I’m wondering if he had a backlog of manuscripts when he was finally picked up by Gold Medal.

Then take a look at these vintage covers which certainly reinforce the idea that women are evil seductresses, but Williams is a much more sophisticated thinker than that. In his world, women, some women, use their looks and sex to move ahead in society–men after all, have the power, the wealth, and the career choices, so women use other means to gain control.

Hill Girlvintage big city girlriver girlhell

The Hill Girl of the title is a bootlegger’s daughter named Angelina, and that name seems a little ironic the first few times we see Angelina with her long honey-coloured blonde hair, more or less dressed in rags that do little to cover her figure. She’s bad-tempered, unhappy and more importantly, as we see as the plot plays out, she’s jail-bait or even worse … shotgun bait. But let’s back up a little. Hill Girl is the story of sexual obsession, two very different brothers, Lee and Bob, and the woman who comes between them. Yes, you guessed it … Angelina.

Bob, the younger son, moves back to his family’s hometown to take over and run his deceased grandfather’s farm. You’d think, initially, at least, that Bob is the black sheep of the family since the eldest son, Lee, who’s married and lives in the family home, inherited everything from his father who was known somewhat dauntingly as The Major. As the story unfolds, the ‘good son’ and the ‘bad son’ designations shift around, and we see that Bob, the younger brother, although he fought with his father and was persona non gratis in his father’s home, is actually the ‘good’ son while Lee, who inherited his entire father’s estate worth around $30,000 (Bob was left $1) and married a wonderful, kind woman named Mary, is the bad seed. He’s just smooth enough to hide his rottenness.

The book opens with Bob’s return and his auspicious, as it turns out, meeting with bootlegger Sam Harley who lives along Black Creek bottom. Then failed pro-boxer Bob returns to the family home which is now owned by Lee. Brief homecoming over, Lee drags Bob out to get some moonshine from Sam, but his real reason for going to Sam’s is Angelina. Lee lusts after the bootlegger’s daughter and there is a very tense scene with Lee bound and determined to have Angelina in spite of the threat of Sam’s shotgun. The roles of the brothers are very quickly delineated. Lee is hellbent on pursing Angelina and Bob, the only brother with a conscience, is determined to save him from being shot….

Lee, of course eventually gets his way with Angelina, and in some rather crude descriptions reveals how little he values Angelina, and as it turns out, how little he understands her. While Williams creates some fascinating female characters in his books, Angelina is the weakest-drawn character here, first she’s bad, bad, bad, and then she turns into a completely different person. Angelina first appears to be a savage, surly, empty-headed teen nymphet who is Trouble, “a sex crime looking for somebody to happen to,”  but later Williams moves in on this character with generous sympathy, so we that we are now supposed to see Angelina as kind and naïve. Cooped up on the farm and kept as unpaid labour she longed for simple items such as shoes or a dress that fits, and her rebellious, self-destructive behaviour is aimed at her father and loathing of her life more than anything else. So Angelina as ‘bad,’ vanishes. While the character shift isn’t convincing, Williams shows how women are forced to operate in a world dominated by men, so there are some interesting observations on the subject of how men treat women as though they’re owned like any other possession. Here’s a scene in which Angelina wants to get her hair bobbed–something forbidden by her father:

You’ll like hell do what you please,” I started, and then caught myself and shut up. After all, it was her hair, and Sam Harley had been telling her she couldn’t cut it all these years and trying to browbeat her, and look where he had wound up in her eyes. You couldn’t get anywhere by trying to bully her. She didn’t bully worth a damn. You might get your way if you overpowered her, but it wouldn’t be worth what you lost in the process.

This is a remarkably sensual novel with descriptions of physicality–the nature of uncontrollable sexual desire but also the joy of working hard and enjoying nature.

The days are long in April, longer in May, and longer still in June, but they are never long enough. They begin with dew on the grass and the long-legged shadows of sunrise and end with whipoorwills calling in the darkening bottoms and swallows circling and diving at dusk. And all day long, through the hot sweaty  hours, the work goes on.

With Lee’s crude descriptions of Angelina’s sexual appetites, the book was no doubt ahead of its time, but now it seems dated. Stylistically, Hill Girl seems a lot less smooth than River Girl; it seems to be a much earlier novel even though they were both published in 1951. Back to that question of manuscript backlog. Definitely not the author’s best work, but fans will want to read this–although copies are not cheap.

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Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles