Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Review: Flesh Curse

Flesh Curse Flesh Curse by Harry Whittington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's because there are still great lost noirs waiting to be found that I wade through the vintage sleaze stacks. It's one thing to know that this 1964 John Dexter is one of the famed "missing 38" that Harry Whittington wrote for Greenleaf imprints between 1964 and 1967, and another thing to actually read this blistering noir and realize it's as good or better than most of the crime noir novels he placed with mainstream publishers such as Ace, Avon, and Fawcett Gold Medal. Larry Burgess and his twin Curt are heading to California on a train from Baltimore to visit their wealthy grandfather. Not so innocent a journey, however, as Larry has wracked up $30,000 in gambling debts he can't pay and has welched and is on the run. His brother knows he's in trouble but not to what extent. Without giving too much of the plot away, the mob is on Larry's trail and we find out just how far he will go to survive. What elevates this one is the first person narration from Larry's point of view. Frequently bad guy narrators are the heroes of their own tale. They don't see themselves from society's perspective, don't see themselves as evil. They are motivated to get what they want just like everyone else. Larry doesn't see himself as a hero. He knows he's a welch, thief, liar, and all around loser. He berates himself for being such a loser and simmers in his broth of self-loathing. And yet, that doesn't cause him to change, or slow down one bit his attempt to escape, no matter whom he hurts. The narration hurtles along equally fueled by obsession and paranoia, much like a Cornell Woolrich novel, until the pressure can't be contained. I think this is another example of how writing for a sleaze publisher freed Whittington to hold nothing back because he didn't have to fit Larry Burgess into a mainstream template. We are used to this type of narration in contemporary noir and dark fiction, but it was rare in the 1950s and 1960s, which is one of the reason that these old crime noirs are so prized.

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