Monday, May 31, 2021

Review: The Widow

The Widow The Widow by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Orrie Hitt wrote 150+ sleaze-noir novels in the 50s and 60s. I've read more than 50 of them so far and the quality of the writing is quite varied. Not sure where this one will ultimately rank after I've finished reading all of Hitt's books, but right now The Widow is very close the top of the heap. Generally, his pre-1960 books are better written, and this is mostly because in the early 1960s Hitt was cranking them out assembly-line mode every couple of weeks and the quality of those books dropped off severely as he rarely made an effort to write from within the character as he did with his early novels. The Widow is the story of Jerry Rebner's decline and fall. When the novel starts he has just been fired from his job operating a backhoe because he punched out his boss. He's ready to leave town until he gets his head turned by a skirt he wants to chase. In the classic noir pattern, we sense that his doom is sealed at that moment. But how it happens is the story and Hitt does a great job of stretching that out in beautiful tease and deny mode. What elevates this novel in my ranking of Hitt's novels? His dialog is stinging back and forth shots on goal, frequently fulfilling the dictum of "using exposition as ammunition." And Jerry Rebner is haunted by the death of his wife in a car accident and there are several scenes where his torment is shown completely from within the character. He's a heel, but these scenes of torment humanize him in a way rarely seen in Hitt's novels (at least the ones I've read so far). And thus we feel his fall even though we can despise his choices. It does get a bit repetitive at times - the repeated tease and deny - and this plot (as many of Hitt's plots do) bares some similarities to other of his novels, but this is one of his best.

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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Review: The Long Lavender Look

The Long Lavender Look The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 12th novel in the Travis McGee series starts not with the beginning of a salvage job, as so many in the series do, but with McGee and Meyer in a car crash, getting shot at, and arrested for murder. So initially the story is about piling it higher and deeper on top of McGee to learn if he can dig fast enough to keep from getting buried in shit. Yes, he can dig fast enough to get out from under one pile and into another where the manure isn't accumulating quite as fast as in the one he'd escaped from. That's our McGee out of jail, but he can't leave the county, so he starts snooping around. The cast of off-the-rails characters grows, as do the complications, as McGee stirs up his own brand of shit while unraveling an almost too complicated whodunit about a years-ago armored car heist. It's a Travis McGee story, so you just knew that there would be a pot of gold out there somewhere for him to chase down. Plenty of action down the home stretch and MacDonald delivers not one but two of his trademark climactic action sequences. Here it's like a rollercoaster with two big humps before the hard brake at the finish. Actually, a great standalone crime/noir. Because it doesn't follow the series M.O., if you'd never read any of the others it doesn't matter. For McGee fans it's another episode. For noobs, it works on its own and maybe draws them into the series. MacDonald firing on all cylinders in this one. My one ding is that at times the narration slips into McGee lecturing himself in third-person, and although I'd agree that narrative move has a certain utility when it comes to characterization, for the most part, McGee talking to himself like that in a first-person POV was annoying. MacDonald also delivers a great metaphor for the mystery McGee is trying to solve: Before Pluto was discovered, the planet was inferred from other observed phenomena - it had to be there - just as the hidden antagonist of this story is waiting to be found and confronted by McGee.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Review: Unfaithful

Unfaithful Unfaithful by Peggy Gaddis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Peggy Gaddis without a pseudonym in this Venus paperback original from 1952. That's Rudi Nappi with the cover art, which makes this a nice collectible. Once you accept the basic premise - a young woman trapped into prostitution - the follow-on plotting is really superb, as Gaddis just keeps piling it higher and deeper for her protagonist Karen. Definitely kept me reading to see how she would get out of the jam. This is both a crime/noir and a romance. You've got a neat prostitution scheme run by the sleaze-ball manager of a motel and you've got Karen's unrequited love for Shaw, whom she has to chase away because she knows he would reject her if he knew about her "side-job" at the motel. That's the basic set-up and from there Gaddis just keeps raising the stakes. The double-cliff ending was maybe a bit weak on the wrap-up, but overall this was a tight bit of plotting and an enjoyable read.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

Review: Madball

Madball Madball by Fredric Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A “madball” is carney lingo for a crystal ball, the kind that Dr. Magus the alcoholic fortune teller, uses to manipulate people. Equally adept at manipulation is Burt Evans, a greedy carny sociopath who has found $42,000 in stolen cash. This drives the two main narratives with Magus brilliantly deducing the location of the stolen fortune, and Evans killing without remorse to protect it. The book provides an insider look at carnival life of the era with several fascinating characters and a relentlessly paced plot - since all the machinations need to be completed by the end of the carnival season. At its heart it’s a story about greed and what people are willing to do to get what they want, which covers a lot of bases - stealing, prostitution, murder, etc. since the carneys are not a very lawful bunch. A slice of carnival life, compelling and repellant at the same time, combined with cracking good plotting and dialog place this book near the top of the carnival noir heap. An easy five stars.

Available from Stark House Press Black Gat Books.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Review: From Door to Door

From Door to Door From Door to Door by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I like best about Orrie Hitt's books is that his characters have jobs and he usually digs in and shows you what those jobs are like from the inside. The books were written in the late 1950s and early 1960s so his books are fascinating cultural anthropology. The job explored in this book is selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Yes, it was as scammy an operation as you'd imagine. The first-person narration is by Les Drake, who manages one of the selling crews working small cities (less than 100,000 population) in New York state. He aspires to be state manager. One of his salesmen wants his job. And as the book begins Les is sleeping with Ellen, one of his salesgirls. Before too much longer she will be telling him that she's pregnant and has been lying about her age. So that's one set of plot drivers. The main storyline of the book, however, is that the owner of the company sends his daughter June to work with Les to get some field experience prior to taking over running the company. Les is not above telling lies to make sales, but otherwise he runs a clean operation compared to some of the competitors. June has other ideas. Sex sells. She recruits some girls willing to put out to get the magazine subscription. Complications evolve from there. Enjoyed this one a lot. Cool look inside the magazine subscription racket. Strong storyline with engaging first person narrator who has an edge to him. Plenty of biting back and forth dialog when the characters are in conflict. Loses a bit because of what is left out because of censorship-era editing. There's crime because of the prostitution angle and the scam selling techniques, but definitely not noir because of the ending.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Review: The Sin Fishers

The Sin Fishers The Sin Fishers by Harry Whittington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another of the "missing 38" vintage sleaze novels that Harry Whittington wrote in the mid-60s under a pseudonym for the Greenleaf/Corinth publishing house, this time as John Dexter. Quite an interesting novel because although it has a crime element - a gambler/gangster and his muscle are tracking and intending to kill his ex-mistress who ratted him out to the IRS - this is much more of a psychological noir. Rafe Fuller seems our focal character at the start as we begin with him following his wife's funeral and he makes all the classic mistakes noir characters fated to doom make, except for a spoiler I won't give away. Whittington, however, jumps the narration around between several characters so that we are continuously enmeshed in different psycho dramas. Characters reacting to their obsessions is what drives the plot and the focus is on the interpersonal drama rather than the action sequences more typical of this era's crime/noir genre. Although published by a sleaze house, the sex scenes are minimal and tame even by 1965 standards, so would imagine that some readers back then were disappointed. All in all, not bad, but there was a lot of repetition, as Whittington was obviously trying to stretch out the word count to fit the 190-page Greenleaf format. If you are a Whittington completist, like me, you'll want to read this, but otherwise you can probably stick to his readily available Gold Medal paperbacks that are much better.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Review: Saddle Sinners

Saddle Sinners Saddle Sinners by Harry Whittington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of Whittington's famed missing 38! Objectively, Whittington's novels published in the 1960s by mainstream publishers such as Fawcett Gold Medal, Avon, Ace, etc. are more conventionally plotted and the writing is more polished. What they lack, however, is everything that you will find in this Greenleaf/Corinth sleaze noir, which is narration that is relentlessly edgy and full of inside voice. The YA Twilight series has more sex than this one and yet these early 1960s publishers were hounded and eventually jailed for publishing novels such as this. As I've written before when reviewing other Whittington sleazers, this genre, and the anonymity of writing for Greenleaf, freed him to write brutally honest crime/noir novels that he couldn't publish with those mainstream publishers. Although tame by comparison with what is published now, this 1964 novel shows what Gold Medal novels would have been like if there had been no censorship. I'm giving it five stars because I loved it, but also because Whittington broke the molds and gave us a crime noir we wouldn't have had otherwise. He was one of the few writers who took his sleaze assignments seriously. And it shows. Block and Westlake were great writers, but read their sleazers and it is obvious that most of the time they were taking the piss. Not Whittington. Back then he did what noir writers do now, he made it dirty. So what do we have in Saddle Sinners? A gigolo drama at a dude ranch, plus a hostage scenario and a heist, and a frigid wife awakened. Plus plenty of inside voice narration to show how F'd up all the characters are. Highly collectible, so it won't be cheap, but it is well worth the price if you can find a copy.

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Friday, May 14, 2021

Review: Crack-Up

Crack-Up Crack-Up by March Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sally Singer published several well-written vintage lesbian pulp novels under the pseudonym March Hastings which seem to be gaining some well-deserved traction since being recently reprinted by Cutting Edge Books. Here a neurotic, selfish, and sexually repressed young wife named Karen goes bananas after after her cranky husband Steve, a race car driver, is rendered bed-ridden and impotent after a crash. Not surprisingly some sexual exploits and experimentation ensue. Her relationship with Jean, whose snarky banter crackles with sarcasm and droll self-mockery, is the highlight of the book and I kind of wished that the novel were about Jean instead. The ending, dictated by the sexual climate of the times, was a bit of a clunker although the writing and dialog make this well worth reading. Four stars.

Available from Cutting Edge Books. I read it in the Vintage Sleaze collection.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Kill to Fit

Kill to Fit Kill to Fit by Bruno Fischer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A traditional mystery rather than a noir. A big group of people are out to a lakeside estate for a fourth of July weekend and one of them is murdered. Whodunnit? Rick Train, our narrator, must solve the crime. Fischer writes smoothly and with impeccable craft, but this one moves pretty slowly, it's almost halfway into the novel before the murder occurs. Plenty of plot complications and twists and investigative activities from there and that picks the pace up to the end. I'd recommend it for mystery lovers, but if your taste goes to noir thrillers you could skip this one.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Review: April North

April North April North by Sheldon Lord
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another early Lawrence Block book, writing here as Sheldon Lord. The setting is small town Ohio in 1960. Good girls don't do IT. But this is a coming-of-age morality tale so April goes all the way in the backseat of her boyfriend's car and suffers the consequences. She loves him and is already planning marriage, babies, and white picket fences. Next day he dumps her, spreads the word around school that she put out, and other boys start calling her because they want to do IT and April does IT. Her reputation ruined, April's life spirals downward . . . Ok, this is Lawrence Block ,so it is readable, but that's about the best I can say. Shallow psychology, cardboard characters, plot-driven actions. The sex scenes are a bit better than his earlier books. Not graphic, but well-described with fewer euphemisms, except for the climactic moments, which are usually described as "and then it got better and better and better." No crime in this one. Just vintage-sleaze filtered through 1950s morality. Block's description of how he came up with the character name and the title is pretty funny: A friend created a character named June East as a play on Mae West; Block liked that, hence, April North.

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Friday, May 7, 2021

Review: Shabby Street

Shabby Street Shabby Street by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was Orrie Hitt's fourth novel and it's a serrated knife. Johnny Reagan is the first-person narrator and Hitt gave him a hard-boiled style and used it to show what a right bastard Johnny is. He has zero redeeming qualities - unless you count how hard he works at being a lying, cheating, thieving SOB -and he's proud of it. So this is a great little joy-ride with Johnny at the wheel. As usual with Hitt's books we get the inside look at some scammy business. This time it's insurance agencies selling crap policies. Johnny starts up a couple of agencies, each one to bail-out what he stole from the last one, so there's the plot driver of him constantly having to raise cash to replace money he stole. Then there's Janet and Julie and Beverly and Cynthia. The first two he wants, the third he marries, and the last is sort of his partner in crime. Plot complications galore as Johnny chases and juggles his activities with these four women. Really enjoyed the edginess in this one. It's kind of what was lacking in some of the other Hitt books that I've rated lower. Has the same corny metaphors, the kind that clunk up the other books, but the difference here is that the rest of the writing is clean and tough and driven by a strong voice.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review: Tears Are For Angels

Tears Are For Angels Tears Are For Angels by Paul Connolly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! Noir masterpiece for sure. How did did this not get mentioned in the books on crime and pulp fiction by Horsley, Haut, O'Brien, and Ritt? How did this not get made into a movie in the 1950s?! Soon as I finished this I went back and read it again, hardly believing that it could be as good as it seemed the first time and found myself riveted once again. The beginning is a stone cold killer. Harry London, down as far as a man can go, out in his hermit cabin bingeing on white lightning and shooting at cans while trying to visualize the face of the man he wants to kill. And up drives Jean Cummings to throw down the challenge. After a sharp opening battle between them, the rest of the story comes churning out. How Harry got down so low, his wife's murder, the vengeance he seeks, and the devil's bargain he and Jean strike-up to bring about that vengeance, which she also seeks, to fruition. The build-up is twisty and tense and the unraveling ending sequence does not disappoint. This is a great one that needs to be rediscovered and appreciated by fans of crime/noir fiction.

Finally back in print from Stark House Black Gat Books.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Review: Intimate Nurse

Intimate Nurse Intimate Nurse by Kimberly Kemp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The uneven quality of the writing - prose that lapses at times into cliches and extended expository telling - had me speed reading a fair amount of the time, but otherwise this is an interesting noir about a private nurse who moves in with a family and takes over. The writing is at its best while our nurse is plotting how to take over the household and when she is manipulating and controlling the family. Yes, she has sex with them all, but it is described in that censorship era way that has a new chapter starting just when things get steamy, meaning, you turn the page and that sex scene you were reading is ancient history.

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Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review: The Hunter

The Hunter The Hunter by Richard Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, Parker is such an amoral bad ass! His entrance into the city, walking across the George Washington bridge, and then his little crime spree to raise cash, is one of the best character introductions, in any genre, that I can remember reading. As anti-heroes go, you have to love the way Parker just gives The Outfit the middle finger "you're going to pay me whether you like it or not." I'd say he takes them out a bit too easy in the last third of the book, but this is entertainment reading, so, just like when watching an action movie, willing suspension of disbelief is what you have to do. The ending was a nice surprise, and I'm guessing not there to begin with, but changed when the publisher wanted more Parker books. Great start to the series. In case you didn't know, this is Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Also made into a brilliant and brutal movie - Point Blank - which was one of the first neo-noir films. Lee Marvin played Parker to the hilt.

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