Mar 132014
US 1st edition (Harper & Bros., 1957)

For some reason I have been reading a slew of the books that were reprinted as part of Garland Press’ Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction series. There were two sets of these books totaling one hundred examples of what in the estimation of Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor (authors of the seminal detective fiction annotated bibliography A Catalog of Crime) are superlative examples of the genre.  Most of the time, especially those in the first set which includes books published between 1900-1950, I have been very pleased with the choices.  But lately I’ve been sampling some from the second set spanning 1950 – 1975 and I have to admit great disappointment.  Yesterday I posted an essay on the uneven but entertaining novel The Body in the Beck included in this second set of fifty “classics”. Today I regret I have found one that is simply mediocre.

The Pub Crawler (1956) is a perfect example of a police procedural that fails to excite. Though the central conceit of an undercover policeman should provide the reader with ample opportunity for suspense and detection Maurie Procter instead delivers a plodding story that mixes soap opera melodrama with a fairly routine police investigation. Sam Gilmour, owner of the Starving Rascal, is murdered for his rare coin collection and Bill Knight is the rookie policeman chosen by his superiors to be a “pub crawler”, apparently police slang for an undercover cop who haunts bars trying to elicit information from the regular customers. Knight’s original task was to gather information on illegal gambling but Gilmour’s murder offers his superiors the chance to put him on double duty as a “police spy” a term Knight finds more accurate to describe his unwelcome assignment.

US 1st paperback (Berkeley, 1958)

Soon Knight finds himself set up in a boarding house owned by Mrs. Byles and sitting at the dinner table holding conversations with his landlady and her three children, Gunnar, Rosemary and Junie, in an attempt to get to the bottom of Gilmour’s murder. Gunnar is soon implicated as the prime suspect. Junie, only eighteen years old and the youngest of Mrs Byles’ children, starts to show an amorous interest in the rugged Knight. When another female suspect, Gilmour’s adopted daughter Gay, begins to show signs of jealousy Knight’s job is hampered by their rivalry and competing attentions. Unfortunately, soap opera elements threaten to overtake the crime plot at this stage.

But there are the thug characters named McGeen and Frost to keep Knight busy as well. Gunnar is mixed up with these two bookies who may or may not also be involved in the murder of the pub owner. When an attempt is made by McGeen to sell a gold ingot bar to a local junk dealer the police are alerted and the case comes to a startlingly rapid close.

For me there wasn’t enough detection in this story to keep interest in the crime plot. The subplot of the women vying for Bill Knight’s attention and the repeated beating scenes of the gangster characters kept intruding and distracting me. When Knight is alone and focused on the gathering of evidence — even if it is a bit unorthodox — the book approaches true excitement. But these scenes are few and far between. Only when Mrs. Byles is onstage in the soap opera sections does the story hold real interest. Procter’s creation of a complex and non-stereotypical working class mother who knows too well that her children are not angels and whose contempt for respectable people fuels her hatred of the upper class kept me reading to the final page. Mrs. Byles was the most complex and unexpected character in a book otherwise filled with rather cardboard, familiar types of 1950s cops-and-robbers melodrama.

The book is far from a classic for any era. I’m dumbfounded how it merits being called one of the fifty best books in a twenty-five year period of crime fiction publishing.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update:  N2 on the Golden Age Bingo Card – “Book with a Place in the Title”

 Posted by at 3:10 am

The Ghost Knows His Greengages – R. B. Saxe

 comic crime, Damon Runyon, gangsters, obscure writers, Reading Challenges  Comments Off on The Ghost Knows His Greengages – R. B. Saxe
Feb 042014

Great sufferin’ antimacassars!

Sammy Creed here. Me and the Ghost (or John Dobbs as his parents supposedly named him though by all the signs and portents I do believe he made it up) get mixed up in some pretty tight scrapes. We go way back. Back in the trenches to be specific. And that is when he got his nickname, the one by which I prefer to call him. Yeah, he has that spooky way of sneaking into a room appearing out of nowhere just like a blamed ghost. Comes in handy when we are facing up to all sorts of crooks and gorillas with plug ugly pans and uglier demeanors. Not to mention perfectly horrible taste in sartorial splendor. Man, these guys need several lessons in how to dress. They could take a cue from the Ghost or even me myself as we are two people who know good threads when we see ‘em.

OK, I can’t keep on with this. But you probably have guessed that Sammy and the Ghost are the two leads in today’s forgotten vintage crime novel The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940) by the equally forgotten R.B. Saxe. It’s an obvious homage to Damon Runyon but with a Canadian ex-solider doing the narrating instead of one of Runyon’s Broadway guys. But you’d never know he wasn’t American by the way he talks. Here’s one Canadian in love with the sound of gangster lingo and very American slang of the World War 2 era.

The book is set in England and the writer is British. As much as he knows way too much about Runyonesque patois he lets his English background let slip more often than he ought to. Like when Sammy calls the trunk of a car “the boot” or describes getting duded up in formal wear “fancy dress.” I don’t think a Canadian would use those very specific British terms if he was the kind of talker Sammy is.

And it’s that lingo that is the main attraction of Saxe’s book. The story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s Guys and Dolls transported to merry old London with a sharp contrast between Sammy’s borrowed American speech and the Ghost’s British tough guy act. It’s as if we had Lemmy Caution, Peter Cheney’s brutal private eye, teamed up with Harry the Horse or any number of Runyon’s second string characters.

The story? A simple revenge scheme. The Ghost and Sammy nearly run over a confused old man who walks into the path of the Ghost’s Italian sports car (a Boscalozzi, if you must know, but I think it’s completely made up). They rescue the gent, take him home, and discover the reason for his dazed stroll into traffic is because his bank account has been cleaned out by notorious stock market fleecer Joe “the Baker” Schreiner. The Ghost is determined to get back every last shilling of the old man’s money and help himself to a little extra if he can. Thereafter follows a lot of fisticuffs, broken noses and bruised muscles and egos as the two good guys go after the thugs and goons who make up Joe the Baker’s army of bad guys. Along the way the Ghost tokes on the occasional reefer to relax and get his wheels spinning in his fast paced brain while Sammy knocks back whiskey shots and trade quips with Mulligan their Chinese manservant. Oh yes, he’s got a real Chinese name but Sammy can never remember it so he just calls him Mulligan to simplify the matter.

I tried to overlook the abundance of racial slurs in this one but the constant references to “big schnozzles” of Jewish characters and dubbing the only black gangster in the book a “dinge” was a little too much for me. Most of the time I can forgive some of this “period charm” but this book seemed to be narrated by an ancestor of Archie Bunker. Runyon never did this kind of thing even for laughs and I wonder why Saxe thought he had to throw it in. It ain’t funny at all.

What I chose to concentrate on instead was Saxe’s wicked imagination and flair for turning out insane metaphors in Sammy’s peculiar idiom. Here’s a sampling of the best that made me laugh out loud.

Last book in the Ghost & Sammy Credd series

“Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to get a line on [the Ghost], but up to the present I’m no more able to understand him than I could figger out the Theory of Relativity broadcast in Eskimo from Bugville, PA by a Jewish sword swallower in a straight jacket.”

“…I realise that although all our duds come from exactly the same establishment we are as alike as one pea in a pod and the back wheel of a motorcycle.”

“…where I come from they’re so tough the bed-bugs carry pneumatic drills.”

“…but let me tell you here and now that to argue with the Ghost is about as effective as bombarding the Woolworth Building with doughnuts.”

“My knowledge of English place names is about as much as could be engraved on the head of a pin by a one-armed Kansas barber using a fourteen pound hammer and a cold chisel.”

“The Dud is very well behaved until I start to try to take off his pants and then he suddenly springs into action and commences fighting like a man-eating octopus who is suffering from a sharp attack of green apple colic.”

The above, by the way, is not a sexual assault. Sammy says pants but he means trousers. That’s the way we North Americans talk you know. The Dud (yes, it’s Dud and not Dude) is drunk and Sammy is trying to get him in bed so he can sleep. This is what the Canadian has to say about the proper way to treat pants:

“It is my opinion that for a guy to go to sleep with his pants on is not only very uncivilised, but is also not giving the pants a square deal into the bargain; it being a known fact that a pair of pants that have been slept in never succeed in occupying the same place in their owner’s affections as before, for no matter if they are pressed a million times there always seems to be a sort of stigma attached to them, if you know what I mean.”

See? I told you these guys are in love with their clothes. Lots of clothes talk in this book. Maybe a bit too much.

R.B. Saxe turns out to be a fake moniker. As fake as John Dobbs, no doubt. He was born Francis Dickson into a family of entertainers. His father was a music hall performer, his brother was an actor who made a living in pantomimes. Is it any wonder that Francis eventually found himself a musician writing songs and playing in a number of jazz bands? In addition to three comic crime novels he also wrote comic strips based on historical figures like “Deep Sea Doctor” about Wilfred Grenfell, a Victorian physician who served as a medical missionary to Canadian fishermen. For more info about this writer who’s almost as interesting as his wacky crime fighting duo see this intriguing post at Bear Alley Books.

The Ghost and Sammy appeared in four books. This was their debut. It was a breezy read and a fun visit, but I’ll not be seeking out the other books in the series. All of them, of course, are very hard to find. And only the first one was published in both hardcover and paperback editions. Probably because it was the best effort of the lot.

The Ghost and Sammy Creed series
The Ghost Knows His Greengages (1940)
The Ghost Does a Richard III (1943)
The Ghost Pulls the Jackpot (1945)
What Can You Lose? (1947)

* * *

Count this as book #6 on my Golden Age “Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge” Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space G1 (“A Book with a Color in the Title”).”

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Nov 152013

Based solely on the plot blurb on the rear cover of the Pocket Books edition any reader would think that Desert Town (1946) by Ramona Stewart is an early sleaze novel about a trampy, rebellious daughter and her domineering mother. “You little slut,” her mother said. is the bold headline intended to grab the attention of a prospective reader. As usual the publisher is teasing and misleading by appealing to a taste for melodrama and raunchy language. A thorough reading of the book itself reveals so much more than vulgarity and a mother and daughter at odds with one another. Desert Town is a very strange exploration of love it all its forms and the pursuit of one’s desires. But not specifically sexual desire.

At the heart of the novel is one of the oddest love triangles in pulp fiction. Paula Haller – Eddie Benedict—Johnny Ryan. And it’s not the men vying for the woman as one would think in one of these triangles. Instead we find Johnny and Paula competing for the affection of Eddie. Yet there isn’t a hint of homoerotic lust between the two men. Theirs is a very intense devotion that defies brotherly male bonding with obedience and need taking the place of sexual attraction. While Paula is drawn to Eddie’s strong personality, his toughness, his brooding good looks Johnny wants Eddie because he needs him to achieve his status in the world of racketeers. But for the bulk of the book Johnny is depicted as a jealous lover constantly trying to get rid of Paula. He threatens her as would a woman who feels she is losing her man to a younger, sexier rival. He belittles her in front of Eddie similar to a women who is slighted.

Incredibly strange to read these exchanges coming from the mouth of a man who intimidates Paula with his eyes “the shade of redwood bark,” his “animal warmth” she feels when she shakes his hand upon first meeting him and how he seems to demand of her “recognition of his slow moving, powerful aliveness.” Stewart has a quirky way with her prose. She can be spot on in a descriptive passage about the desert landscape then like a beginner driver shifting gears too quickly she slips up and allows her tendency towards purple prose to sputter across the page with awkward word choices and indulgent metaphors. It’s slightly forgivable for a first time novelist and the weirdness of these odd slips in writing adds another level of the surreal to an already strange story of attraction and repulsion among the three main characters.

The rivalry between Paula and Johnny is further complicated by the fact that Paula is a dead ringer for Eddie’s recently deceased wife Angela. There’s an element of Rebecca in the way Paula uses this similarity to her advantage and it’s all the more creepy when you recall she is a seventeen year-old not yet graduated from high school and Eddie is at least ten years older, perhaps even older, though his age is never stated outright. Fritzi is always reminding her daughter of the inappropriateness of the relationship as well as warning Paula that Eddie is just plain no good.

The mixed signals are intentional on Stewart’s part. She develops the kind of misdirection found in a detective novel by allowing the reader to view Johnny Ryan only through Paula’s eyes. This allows Stewart a narrative coup de grace delivered by Johnny Ryan like a boxer’s knockout blow in the penultimate chapter.  His revelation crushes both Paula and Eddie as it was intended and he comes out like a champion.

Stewart’s other strength is in her creation of the supporting players who surround the trio and the frustrated scheming Fritzi. There is Lena Raines, the wife of the town undertaker, who trades in a promising career in biochemistry at a local university for a life of domesticity only to discover she has trapped herself in a marriage as barren as the desert town she thought would be a blissful escape. She turns to alcohol and racing her husband’s car recklessly in a sort of dance with death. But she’s always rescued and prevented from hurting herself or anyone by policeman Luke Sheldon to whom she is attracted and secretly desires. Sheldon turns out to be the savior figure of the book and the only decent and ethical cop in Chuckawalla.

The other policemen are Pat Johnson and Tom Hansen, another male duo in a near co-dependent relationship that borders on the perverse. Hansen is a former rodeo champion who had to give up his chosen life due to permanent injuries sustained while bronco busting. We learn he is a sadistic thug and Johnson, his only real friend, tolerates and sometimes encourages Hansen’s hobby of doling out regular beatings to the jail’s prisoners. At a poker game where the two cops are joined by Doc Waley and Jim Raines (Lena’s husband) the men discuss the death of a drunk who died in the jail. All know (as does the reader) that Hansen beat the drunk to death. But the conversation circumvents that reality and they spend the night dismissing the poor old drunk who died an accidental death. The casual nature of the talk perfectly captures how inured the town has become to violence and corruption. How they are willing to allow murder to go unpunished in order to preserve and maintain their twisted status quo. Even Fritzi Haller’s assortment of brothels and her casino The Purple Sage are allowed to flourish in Chuckawalla thanks largely to her frequent bribing of the police while all other officials conveniently look the other way.

In addition to exploring the dark side of male friendships Desert Town is also a coming of age tale for Paula Haller. She wades through this crooked, deviant world trying to find a path to happiness and womanhood. Paula constantly complains of being treated as a child and wants to grow up quickly. She finds herself testing her limits, pursuing dream men and dream jobs, falling in and out of love as quickly as the desert winds change and the rainstorms come and go. And she encounters dangers and perils as she comes to see how her mother has changed and how the hedonistic businesses she runs are far from fun diversions and that the men she deals with are far from gentlemen.

Ramona Stewart, age 25, as she appears
on the rear DJ cover of the 1st ed.

Stewart’s story originally appeared as a serial in Collier’s magazine and was purchased by Hollywood prior to its being published in book form. The movie adaptation was retitled Desert Fury and came out in 1947, the same year the book was released. The movie stars Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor as Paula and Fritzi; John Hodiak and Wendell Corey as Eddie and Johnny; and Burt Lancaster as an amalgam of the good Luke Sheldon and the evil Tom Hansen with good winning out over evil in the blending of the characters (even if he did end up with the bad cop’s name). Amazingly, Robert Rossen who adapted the story retained nearly 80% of Ramona Stewart’s original dialogue and scenes — a testament to her dramatic skill. A review of the movie will appear here next Tuesday.

Finally, here is some good news: Desert Town is the sophomore offering from Raven’s Head Press. The book is in the final stages of production and will be offered for sale, if luck is on our side, by the end of this month. The new edition will include a killer cover design and a foreword by me on the unusual writing career of Ramona Stewart. She began with stories for the “slicks” and ended up writing occult thrillers of which The Possession of Joel Delaney, made into a very disturbing movie with Shirley MacLaine and Perry King, is her most well known. An announcement will be posted here when our edition of Desert Town is officially released. Stay tuned!

 Posted by at 3:47 am
Jul 042012

Leo Maxwell, an ex-boxer, is being transported via train to Phoenix where he will be tried for manslaughter.  Two cops, Jerry Long and Chuck Conley, are in charge of his safety.  En route they learn that Maxwell managed to win over $20,000 on a long shot bet at a horse racetrack.  Even before the train leaves the station an attempt is made on Maxwell’s life.  Sgt. Long handles the three goons with the usual pulp fiction style fistfight.  Turns out they are members of a Sicilian syndicate.  Long and Conley try to get Maxwell to confess the racetrack winnings were a gang related con game. Maxwell refuses to cooperate. Everyone on board seems to know that Long and Conley are cops.  Maxwell in handcuffs seems to be the give away.  As the train continues its journey from New Orleans through several Texas towns onto Arizona more attempts are made on Maxwells’ life.

Like the best of the paperback originals that specialize in crime we get the usual ingredients for a quick read. Fistfights and action galore. Lots of James Hadley Chase style ersatz American dialog meaning it’s littered with wiseacre period slang that no real person ever used. A myriad of suspicious characters make trouble for the two cops.

Among those characters are:

Homer Finch — a salesman on his way to a cosmetic convention.  He spends much of his telling stupid jokes and playing pranks with novelty gag items.

Thomas Carpenter — older gent way too interested in the police business and a bit too interested in other passengers like…

Gloria Starr — burlesque stripper, con woman who gets Carpenter to pay for her meal in the dining car when she “forgets” her purse

Carol Wallace — claims to be Maxwell’s girlfriend. Attempts to bribe Long with sexual favors in order to free Maxwell. 

Long sends orders to headquarters to run criminal background checks on all these passengers and a few more. He suspects that one or more may be involved in a plot to either free Maxwell and get him off the train or to kill him before the train arrives in Phoenix.  It turns out he’s right, but just who is involved is rather hard to figure out. And there are indeed a few surprises before this action tale comes to its violent finale with plenty of fists and bullets flying.

 Posted by at 3:51 pm

IN BRIEF: So Young, So Wicked – Jonathan Craig

 gangsters, Jonathan Craig, noir, suspense  Comments Off on IN BRIEF: So Young, So Wicked – Jonathan Craig
May 222012

When Steve Garrity comes home one night to find a paper match bent into the front door frame of his apartment he knows it’s not a good sign. Vince Licardi has been there again. And when Vince shows up Steve knows he has to give up his regular gig as a piano player in a local night club and do another favor for the syndicate. The favor always means someone has to die.

This time it’s Leda , a fifteen year old girl living in a upstate New York suburb. Just why Leda has to do die is never explained to Steve. All that is stressed is her death must appear to be accidental and needs to happen fast. It’s one of Steve’s most difficult jobs for the gangsters he has become enslaved to. Years ago he beat a man to death and in order to escape prison and eventual execution in the electric chair he agreed to a Faustian pact of sorts. He would have to kill someone for the mob and continue to accept hit man jobs whenever called upon in exchange for his life and protection.

There is the usual well drawn cast of supporting players. Small town gossips provide Steve with all the info he needs on Leda without having to probe too deeply.  Offering up all the dirt on the town and Leda’s life are a slovenly misanthropic hotel owner, the ineffectual and nosey bellhop Ollie, and a friendly bartender. A former NYC cop, now chief of police of the small town, serves as the shrewd detective who begins to suspect Steve may not be what he pretends to be.

This is a straight crime novel that travels down the dark noir road. There is no detection or real justice as in the books detailing the cases of cops Pete Selby and Stan Rayder of the 6th Precinct. There is plenty of steamy sex and scheming, though. Steve gets in way over his head when he foolishly decides to use Leda’s aunt, Nancy Wilson, as a way to get to know his intended victim. Posing as a man interested in opening a music store in the space that formerly housed Nancy’s financially disastrous gift shop, Steve decides to pursue her romantically. The phony relationship gets out of hand, Nancy falls madly for Steve, and Leda then uses the two against each other in order to outwit Steve at his own game. Some readers may find the portrait of Leda, a nasty little Lolita with a case of the Bad Seed syndrome, a bit repellent by the end which is as bleak as most real noir should be.

This is one of Craig’s books that received two Gold Medal printings.  The one pictured up top (#954) is the second edition with a picture of a mature and teasing teen age Leda as she is described in the book. The first printing (#669) at right makes Leda look like a magazine model in her 30s. Neither of the cover artists chose to dress Leda in her drum majorette outfit that she sports in an incriminating photo, an integral part of the plot. How much of a fetishist’s dream is a teenager in a drum majorette outfit? How could Gold Medal have missed that opportunity? Maybe someday there will be a reissue with Leda shown the way Craig intended her to be depicted.

 Posted by at 4:05 pm