Tag Archives: vintage crime

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.

Advertisements

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles

A Coffin from Hong Kong: James Hadley Chase (1962)

The prolific author, James Hadley Chase, is probably best known for No Orchids for Miss Blandish. That book was my introduction to this British crime author. Then followed There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a much later Chase novel I couldn’t resist for its title and cover. There’s a Hippie on the Highway, the story of a Vietnam vet looking for work in Florida and stirring up some violent hippies, was a bit of a strange read, well come to think of it, so was No Orchids for Miss Blandish, but of the two novels, No Orchids was a better novel, IMO.

So this brings me to A Coffin from Hong Kong, my third excursion into James Hadley Chase territory. This is a fairly standard, but good, PI tale of low-rent investigator Nelson Ryan, a man who takes it personally when he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

A coffin from hong kongRyan gets a call one day from a man named John Hardwick who wants to hire Ryan to follow his wife. Hardwick claims he’s leaving on a business trip and that the timing is perfect for Ryan to stake out his house that night. Ryan initially objects as he likes to meet his clients in person, but Hardwick is leaving town and sends a courier over with $300 to seal the deal. Now Ryan, a man who it turns out does have a moral compass, feels obligated to take the job–in spite of the fact that something doesn’t smell right:

I had been working as an investigator for the past five years, and during that time, I had run into a number of screwballs. This John Hardwick could be just another screwball, but somehow I didn’t think he was. He sounded like a man under pressure. Maybe he’d been worrying for months about the way his wife had been behaving. Maybe for a long time he had suspected her of getting up to tricks when he was away and suddenly, as he was leaving for another business trip, he had finally decided to check on her. It was the kind of thing a worried, unhappy man might do–a split-second impulse. All the same, I didn’t like it much. I don’t like anonymous clients. I don’t like disembodied voices on the telephone. I like to know with whom I’m dealing. This setup seemed a shade too hurried and a shade too contrived.

Ryan should have listened to his instincts….

I liked the set-up for A Coffin From Hong Kong as it shows the inherent vulnerability of the PI, a train of thought I’d been following after a recent re-watch of The Maltese Falcon, and the scene when Humphrey Bogart’s partner, on a lonely stake-out, is abruptly snuffed out by an assassin. Both James Hadley Chase’s character, Nelson Ryan and The Maltese Falcon’s (Dashiell Hammett) Sam Spade are loners who discover a moral compass while investigating their respective cases. Both stories also illustrate that PIs mine territory on the fringes of police work. Lacking the protection of a badge, they are bottom feeders with shadier cases that frequently nudge illegality.

Ryan finds himself stitched up for the murder of a prostitute from Hong Kong, and he’s subsequently hired by a reclusive millionaire to discover who killed the girl. Ryan takes the case because he’s involved in the murder up to his neck, and in a bid to solve the crime, he travels to Hong Kong to try and trace the life of the dead woman.

There’s a lot of snappy dialogue between Ryan and the police detective on the case, Detective Lieutenant Dan Retnick. Everything points to Ryan as the killer of the prostitute, and while part of the detective would love to nail Ryan for the crime, part of him recognizes a frame.

He brooded for a long time, then he took out his cigar case and offered it to me. This was his first friendly act during the five years I had known him. I took a cigar to show I appreciated the gesture although I am not by nature a cigar smoker.

We lit up and breathed smoke at each other.

“Okay, Ryan,” he said. “I believe you. I’d like to think you knocked her off, but it’s leaning too far backwards. I’d be saving myself a hell of a lot of trouble and time if I could believe it, but I can’t. You’re a cheap peeper, but you’re no fool. Okay, so I’m sold. you’re being framed.”

I relaxed.

“But don’t count on me,” he went on. “The trouble will be to convince the D.A. He’s an impatient bastard. Once he knows what I’ve got on you, he’ll move in. Why should he care so long as he gets a conviction?”

There didn’t seem anything to say to that so I didn’t.

There are some racist remarks in the novel from the police–but Ryan obviously doesn’t share their views. I liked this novel, and while I guessed one element of the plot, I didn’t guess the identity of the killer. I also really liked the character of Ryan. He’s a bit sleazy–taking the case when he knows better because he needs the 300 bucks, taking whiskey on a stakeout and eyeing every female he encounters, but still at his core, there’s a sense of right and wrong, and even though he’s embroiled in the case initially because he’s framed for a murder, there’s a sense of justice at the base of his search for answers. Chase’s style is spare and unadorned, and goes well with the subtly understated moral undercurrents. The novel, a good place to start for those who’d like to try Chase,  concludes simply and yet very very poignantly.

13 Comments

Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

The Lady in the Morgue: Jonathan Latimer (1936)

Solomon’s Vineyard is the entertaining, witty story of PI Karl Craven whose job to track down a missing rich dame is complicated by the fact she’s living in a well-guarded cult. Craven is a flawed character; he’s always on the lookout for the next meal, the next woman, and the next brawl. In The Lady in the Morgue, PI Bill Crane is also hunting for a mystery blonde, but in this case, she’s may already be dead. Screenwriter and author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983) wrote a total of 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:

Murder in the Madhouse (1935)

Headed For a Hearse (1935)

The Lady in the Morgue (1936)

The Dead Don’t Care (1938)

Red Gardenias (1939)

So here I am reading the series out-of sequence.

LADY IN THE MORGUEThe Lady in the Morgue opens in Chicago with the morgue attendant receiving a crank call for a Miss Daisy Stiff, who according to the attendant can’t come to the phone as “she’s downstairs with th’ other girls.” Crank calls are obviously a regular occurrence with this job, and the attendant has fun with the caller and with the two newspaper reporters sitting in the waiting room. An unidentified blonde, who checked into a “honky-tonk” hotel under the name Alice Ross has been listed as a suicide, and the reporters, along with PI Bill Crane are waiting in the morgue for someone to show who can identify the dead woman. There’s already an aura of mystery surrounding her death, and the waiting reporters speculate about the reasons why someone this beautiful would end her life. It’s an eerie, uneasy scene in the middle of a heat wave set against the maniacal  “feverish” cackles of a drugged  “crazy dame” in the nearby “psychopathic hospital.” Then Crane and the reporters decide to play a tasteless game and place bets on the contents of each vault.

Brilliant white light from a long row of bulbs on the ceiling of the room made their eyes blink. Their nostrils sucked in the sweet, sharp sickening antiseptic smell of formaldehyde. Icy air caused their shirts to stick clammily to their flesh. The steel door shut with a muffled thud, and all three of them momentarily experienced a feeling of being trapped.

While the game is a great excuse to pass time, and more importantly to eye the stiffs in the vault, it’s also a perfect scene which shows both the atmosphere and the callous behaviour of the reporters. Then there’s Crane using his opportunity to eyeball the mystery woman. The people in the vaults are no longer human; they’re just a sideshow, and the beautiful blonde suicide is the prize exhibit:

The attendant was looking at the girl’s body. “I wonder how long a guy would live if he had a wife as swell as that?” He ran a yellow hand over her smooth hip.

“You’d get used to her after a while,” said Crane.

“I’d like to try.” The attendant’s yellow face was wistful. “I’d be willing to trade my wife in if I could get a model like this.”

Crane has been hired by his employer, Colonel Black, to ascertain the identity of the young woman, and while two men show up to ID the blonde, someone else steals her body from the vault….

With the disappearance of the corpse, the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity deepens. Courtland, the scion of a wealthy east coast family turns up as a representative for his relatives who are concerned that the corpse may be a well-heeled heiress. But there’s another claimant, an unhappy gangster who is looking for his runaway wife, and in the wings there’s a third man also on the hunt for the gangster’s wife. With his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley, Crane is determined to recover the corpse and discover her identity. His investigation involves feuding gangsters, a snobby, wealthy matriarch, a sleazy hotel, a dance hall that’s little better than a bordello, and even a little grave robbing.

While Crane, with stubborn tenacity wants to solve the case, he’s not exactly the type that sticks to the rule books. Strongly individualistic, he’s not the sort to be hampered by rules or status., and when it comes to his cases, he brags “I solve ’em, drunk or sober.” He’s the type of man who appears to be easy-going, but in reality his seeming easy-going nature is a just a mask for doing things his way, at his pace. And above all, he’s going to enjoy himself in the process. Once Crane learns that he’s working for a wealthy family, he decides to cash in on the old expense account, and he rents a very nice room in a decent hotel, and then takes advantage of room service.

He even thought up an additional reason for taking the suite. It had windows on two sides of the hotel, he explained, and that gave you variety. You could look at the City Hall, or you could look at the Ashland building. Or, if you wanted to drop bottle, you had a choice. You could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Randolph Street, or you could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Clark Street.

Crane also likes to knock back whiskey with his breakfast, and at one point he decides to question a woman who works at a club:

O’Malley shook his big head. “You don’t want anybody to go with you. That’d be foolish. Two persons would make them suspicious. They’d think it was the cops, and everybody’d close up like clams.

“No, I thought about that.” Crane took a long, reflective drink of whiskey. “They won’t think we’re cops if we get drunk enough, not if we get blind drunk.” He waved an arm at Courtland. “that just goes to show you nothing is wasted, not if you’re wise. You and I have been drinking all day. If we were to go to bed it’d all be wasted. yes, sir, every drop, Every sweet little drop.” He sampled his own drink to show what he meant by a sweet little drop and continued. “But I’m wise. You think I just drink for amusement?”

Then he asks his buds “well, gentlemen,” Crane demanded; “which one of you are willin’ to sacrifice your integrity and get drunk so’s you can come with me?”

Bill Crane, a complete reprobate, is an amusing anti-hero, the typical sort of PI, low-rent and unimpressed by status markers. While he doesn’t appear to take the crime seriously, this is just his style. While there’s never any doubt that he’ll solve the mystery, the fun comes from reading his tactics: sleeping in, consuming huge breakfasts, and generally enjoying himself when he can. There are a few scenes between Crane and the female sex, and Crane isn’t exactly much of a gentleman. The Lady in the Morgue is highly recommended for fans of vintage crime novels

Lady in the morgue2Review copy.

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Latimer Jonathan

Lady Afraid: Lester Dent (1948)

While American author Lester Dent (1904-1959) is best remembered for his Doc Savage novels, he tackled a number of pulp genres, including, of course, crime. Lady Afraid was published in 1948.  This is the story of a young, widowed career woman whose tragic past comes roaring back with murder, kidnapping, dirty business dealings, and a double cross.

Lady AfraidThe novel opens with 26-year-old Sarah Lineyack, a yacht designer, who’s just reached an important moment in her career. In a field devoid of women, she’s designed a stunning yacht for lawyer, Mr. Arbogast. The yacht, named Vameric, now finished, was built by her employer, the Collins yard. It’s been expensive so far, over $168,000, and Mr Arbogast, although wealthy, a man she considers “should be displayed only on soft velvet,” seems at first glance an unlikely candidate for a luxury yacht.

Well, she had thought, there is a difference in the way of people and their money. Some have it in a mellowed, aged-in-the-wood fashion. On others it is a shiny varnish. Mr. Arbogast was definitely the first type, cured-in wood, or at least thoroughly saturated with it so that he had what the wine fanciers called bouquet  and body and flavor. It was something that wasn’t developed in a single generation.

Sarah doesn’t particularly care for Arbogast–there’s something creepy about the man, but since he’s writing the checks, she always makes an effort to be polite. The Vameric  commission “was her first noteworthy chance at designing a really fine deep-sea racer,” and if the yacht pleases the right people, Sarah’s career will be made. “Lo, a new genius, and a woman at that!”  Arbogast has hired the legendary Captain Most to sail the yacht, and that in itself is a good sign because Most is picky about which yachts he’ll sail.

While this is an important moment in Sarah’s career, she’s distracted by her troubled personal life. Years before, she was married to Paul, the only son and heir of the fabulously wealthy Lineyack family. Paul’s parents weren’t thrilled by the marriage, and after a car accident that killed their son and left Sarah in hospital, they blamed her for the accident and seized their grandson. Sarah has tried to fight back, but the Lineyacks, claiming that she is an unfit mother, managed to adopt the child and she has been unable to see her son in years. Out of desperation, Sarah hires the shady  Calvin Brill, a slimy “gaudy” lawyer who assures her that if she kidnaps her son, this is the best channel of winning him back permanently. Sarah’s instincts tell her not to trust Brill “but his brash, foxy self confidence must have sold itself.” And besides that, Brill comes recommended from a trusted source….

Lady Afraid has not aged well. On one hand author Lester Dent gives us a female trailblazer for a heroine–an unusual woman who designs yachts, and yet the novel is peppered with generalized statements that while they attempt to show Sarah as a unique woman, effectively brand the rest of the female sex in unfortunate ways.

Now with an urgency driving her, she showered and dressed and did it as rapidly as a man would have done. She had, in many of her ways, the directness of a man.

And:

She frowned at the powdered whiteness, for she was equipped with–as most woman aren’t, but nearly all men are–a distaste for untidiness in the bathroom.

And:

She denied herself also the leisure for the normal female dither about what to wear today.

Well, you get the point. Of course this is 1948, and attitudes were different, and when you read vintage books, you come to expect it, but in Lady Afraid, Dent’s efforts to show the singularity and hard grit attitude of Sarah Lineyack condemns the rest of the sex. While vintage crime and noir often shows dated attitudes to race and sex, some tales are downright subversive in the way women are seen as unhappy with the lives mapped out for their sex and are ready to commit crime to break free. Black Wings Has My Angel, one of my all-time favourite noirs, is a great example of a vicious, deranged woman who can’t sustain the dutiful little housewifey role for long unless it’s a prelude to a crime.

The plot of Lady Afraid comes with twists and turns–some of which you see coming and some you do not. This is not Dent’s best effort, but fans of vintage crime may not be able to resist in spite of the novel’s shortcomings.  Given the subject matter–the drive for a mother to be with her child, no matter the cost, this is not hard-boiled crime but a marshmallowy woman-in-peril tale. Too bad some 40s film director didn’t pick this up at the time as it would have made an excellent film.

review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Dent Lester, Fiction

Solomon’s Vineyard: Jonathan Latimer (1941)

“I began to think about how it would be to live in Mexico. I had nearly four grand. That would last for a while. The trouble was, they didn’t have many redheads in Mexico.”

solomon's vineyardAuthor and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer’s 1941 novel Solomon’s Vineyard comes with more than a little notoriety, but prior to perhaps his most infamous novel, Latimer (1906-1983) wrote 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:

Murder in the Madhouse (1935)

Headed For a Hearse (1935)

The Lady in the Morgue (1936)

The Dead Don’t Care (1938)

Red Gardenias (1939)

Solomon’s Vineyard was published in England in 1941, but it didn’t appear in America until 1950 in an expurgated version and under a different title, The Fifth Grave. Therefore, if you, dear reader, wish to seek out this amazing piece of vintage nastiness, complete with a religious cult, S&M, a little necrophilia, a whorehouse and small-town corruption, make sure you seek out Solomon’s Vineyard as it was originally written. And here’s how it begins:

From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and brother, those are the things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and walked after her along the station platform.

She walked towards the waiting room. She had gold-blonde hair, and curves, and breasts the size of Cuban pineapples. Every now and then, walking, she’d swing a hip until it looked like it was going out of joint and then she’d throw it back in place with a snap, making the buttocks quiver under this dress that was like black skin. I guess she knew I was following her.

The libidinous narrator is private detective Karl Craven who’s hired to rescue (or kidnap) an “emotionally unbalanced” heiress who’s living in a religious cult living at Solomon’s Vineyard on the outskirts of the small town of Paulton.  The cult leader, a “prophet” who called himself Solomon  died 5 years previously, and his body is kept in state inside a temple while his crazed followers wait for his return. Craven arrives in Paulton to join his womanizing partner who’s already been there for a few weeks on a re-con mission. Checking into one of the town’s hotels, Craven has several indications that this town is rotten; there’s debris blowing in the street, and an unshaven cop watches disinterestedly as a car flies through a red light. Pretending to be a hardware salesman, Craven noses around town trying to find a way to get close to the heiress, and earn the big cheque (he’s already spending) paid for her safe return. Craven is ready to admit that “religious cults are the hardest nuts to crack.”

There’s a wry sense of humour in the story emanating from Craven’s narration. Part of the tongue-in-cheek humour comes from Craven’s style of action and his habits, and the fact that he refuses to take anything too seriously. But there’s also a shade of humour to be found in how Craven views himself vs how he is viewed by others.

I got out of my clothes and put my revolver in a bureau drawer. On my way to the shower I caught sight of myself in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door and stopped to look at my belly. The knife wound was healing fine. There would be a scar, but what the hell! What’s a scar on the belly? I saw I was getting bigger. Every time I looked at myself naked I saw that. It wasn’t all fat; the flesh seemed hard enough but it still kept coming.

But since he’s called “fatso” in the story, we can imagine that Craven is more heft than brawn. Early in the story, Craven admits that there are “only three things” he likes in the “world; food, fighting  and… women.” He ogles soft porn mags, reads Black Mask, wonders why J. Edgar Hoover isn’t on to the killer methods of a fictional G-Man, craves rare meat, is excited by the sight of blood, knocks back bottles of bourbon, and while he prefers blondes, he doesn’t hesitate at a redhead if she has curves in the right places. He consumes ridiculously huge breakfasts consisting of large amounts of booze & meat (6 double lamb chops is one example), chases a nightclub singer named Ginger until he pisses off her boyfriend, hood Pug Banta, and has several fights throughout the course of the story–including a shoot-out in a Turkish bath. It doesn’t take Craven long before he’s mixed up in the town’s politics, and he learns how the cult, run by “the Princess,” a blonde whose perfume makes him think of “black lace underwear” gets its money: “Liquor, and dope and immorality.”

Solomon's Vineyard 2Craven is a reprobate and a heel to use the language of the times. Speaking of the times, the story reflects gender and race attitudes of the period, so women are dames, and the staff at several of the hotels and houses are black but called “negro” and employed in demeaning roles as bellboys and doormen. Craven establishes a relationship with one such character, and sends him out frequently on various vice errands. While Craven is morally unscrupulous, he sticks it to the bad guys, but there are one or two rusty principles buried deep down. His initial plan was to work undercover, but since he’s too obviously interested in the heiress, he decides to stir up action instead. He blunders into the lives of the town’s key players, whipping up a shit storm in his wake and using his cynical knowledge of human nature to pit various people against each other. While some of the consequences of Craven’s actions are expected and desired, some of his plans cause collateral damage, but Craven doesn’t exactly waste time worrying about consequences; he understands that people are cast into roles in life and act accordingly. He gets the job done, doesn’t worry too much about appearances of the finer points of ethical behaviour, and has definite ideas about women, including the belief that if you spend something on a dame, you get something in return.  He’s also rather curious about Solomon’s Vineyard due to the orgies they hold and their secret ceremonies which involve sex.

Craven offers his philosophy about life at several points, and while he’s a tough guy, he’s also partly bon vivant, and time after time he lists the meals he eats–whole peach pies & three hamburgers, four pound steaks and raw eggs. This is a man, a former football player gone to seed, of large appetites: booze, food and women. Tagged a hard-boiled crime novel,  Solomon’s Vineyard, with its humorous touches, leans towards pulp and that is helped, of course, by the whole religious cult scenario. But what’s so marvellous here is Craven’s narration.

I didn’t belong to the school of thinkers who held all whores had hearts of gold and would give you their last two bucks to keep some guy from starving. All the whores I ever knew, and brother, I knew plenty, would get you drunk and jack-roll you if you gave them half a chance.

The book’s last line which nails Craven’s personality made the book. I won’t write it here, but for fans of the genre, do yourself a favour and check out this detective novel. The Black Mask edition of this title is the unexpurgated version.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Latimer Jonathan

So I’m a Heel: Mike Heller (1957)

“I did enjoy driving a tow truck. It’s not hard work, and most of the time you just sit around on your butt, gassing with the grease monkeys, or playing a hand of cards. And I never liked selling anything from behind a counter. You weren’t yourself back there. You were some sort of smiling joker, glad-handing every stupid son of a bitch who walked in to buy.”

I’ve recently become interested in vintage crime titles from the 40s and 50s from publishers such as Gold Medal Books, Ace, Berkeley (just to name a few). Bookscans has a great database for those interested, and that site is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to check out long-lost titles. I’ve begun collecting a few of these out-of-print gems–not that I have any particular pattern in mind. I buy random books as I find them with a preference for sleazy titles or covers. Some of the titles are pricey, and so far I’ve stuck to the cheap end. And this brings me to So I’m a Heel by Mike Heller–a book selected for its title, and its tagline: “Why shouldn’t I be a wise guy in a world filled with suckers.”

So I’m a Heel was published in 1957, and it’s a story narrated by a bitter WWII vet, a man named Hawkins who lives with his wife Mary and ten-year-old son Matt in the small California town of Laredo Rock. Hawkins was horribly disfigured in 1944 when a mis-loaded Howitzer sent a piece of steel hurtling his way. A dozen men were killed in the event, but Hawkins, considered ‘lucky’, is now missing his lower jaw. Labelled partially disabled, he got a settlement of “five gees” for his permanent disfigurement. Since the accident, Hawkins now wears a fake jaw which makes him “look like a man sucking on eggs or like a little boy drawing in his lower lip before he starts to cry. Or maybe like Andy Gump.”

Hawkins is a strange, complex character. He’s bitter, deeply distrustful, and thinks very little of his fellow-man. Thanks to the bad breaks he’s had in life, he has a huge chip on his shoulder. He can never get ahead and trades one mediocre job for another and is barely able to support his family. He’s used to people staring at his jaw with a range of reactions–pity, horror, even fascination, and over time Hawkins has learned to draw attention to his injury in order to generate sympathy:

I know Laredo Rock like you know your own face–and by the way, take a look at your face. How does your jaw look? Imagine the lower half off and a piece of dry flexible pink plastic wired on, complete with plastic gumline and false teeth. try smiling in the mirror with that thing, the top half of your face all lit up and the bottom a sort of half-sneer, half grimace. How would you feel? That’s how I feel. I tell you, it’s not funny.

When the novel begins, tow-truck driver Hawkins is fired for an accident:

I shouldn’t have been looking at the dame, I guess-she came jiggling her way across Wood Street, her hips rolling and jouncing and her ankles flashing, but even so it wasn’t my fault. I had the tow truck halfway up the ramp and headed for the open garage door when I took my eyes off the dame–she was one of those dames who don’t wear underclothes, you could see–and I saw this jerk coming along the sidewalk, lost in a dream. I honked and braked, but he took the next step anyway, and I bumped him.

Getting fired is a bad break for Hawkins, but that day a piece of luck seems to fall into his lap when he gets some dirt on wealthy lawyer, Otto Weylin. Weylin is a married man and a local political big-wig. By chance Hawkins discovers some explosive, damning information about Weylin, and Hawkins is sure that Weylin would be willing to pay $10,000 for his silence. The decision to blackmail Weylin leads to a complicated chain of events, and Hawkins is forced to examine his values and his priorities when Weylin pulls a few tricks of his own.

Here’s Hawkins eyeballing Weylin’s hot lonely, little wife, Millie–a woman who “wear[s] sex like a badge, like Times Square on Saturday night.” But Hawkins doesn’t think that Millie Weylin is just a hot little number; he also thinks she’s trash:

She looked like one of those who’d end up as nurses in nuthouses where on the q.t. they can get their kicks from some poor gassed-up World War I vet who’s maybe crippled up with bursitis, or else they’d set up their own stations at bars and pick up winos and slobbering drug addicts, rheumy-eyed old men and spastics and guys whose faces are carved up with fire scars.

So I’m a Heel is an odd, good little novel that runs to 144 pages. Reading the thoughts of this character eradicates the idea that the 50s were a more innocent time. To Hawkins, nice people are fake or suckers, and everyone is out for their own gain. Hawkins is bitter, world-weary and as it turns out, as nasty as they come, but the plot verves into the ‘uplifting’ zone before landing firmly into ambiguity. The ambiguity surrounds the actions of Weylin, and I can’t say more without spoiling the novel for any potential readers. I will just say that Weylin’s actions and motives are murky.  On one hand, it’ s possible that the view of Weylin is warped by Hawkins’ world-view and attitude towards mankind in general, but on the other hand, evidence points to some very dark stuff going on at the Weylin house. This  ambiguity is a very clever move on the part of the author. Since Hawkins is the narrator, we see the action through his eyes, and his perspective is clearly warped. However, there may be some truth to his suspicions about Weylin, and ultimately, the reader will chew on this troubling little tale after turning the last page.  We can choose to think like Hawkins (and we know he’s warped) or we can choose to believe the best of people (and Weylin’s story) and enter Suckersville.

The novel’s twists and turns ratchet this book up over the average. The biggest beef I had with the book is Hawkins’ confusion (and possibly the author’s) between homosexuality and pedophilia. Two very different things.

18 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Heller Mike