I just learned today that Donald Hamilton’s dark and brutal spy series with Matt Helm is going to be reprinted, starting from 2013. See for some details here. Added are two coming covers, with thanks to Bruce Grossman who blogs at Bookgasm. I’ll also quote Bruce who said that “Matt Helm would make James Bond cry”.
This is one of the old Lawrence Block sleaze titles Hard Case Crime has been reprinting. Killing Castro was somewhat disappointing, and so was this. A Diet of Treacle is a ménage à trois between two beatnik guys (one a loser, other a criminal) and a girl who’d like to be a beatnik. The book is not really a crime novel, it’s more a novel with a crime. The actual plot starts only after the middle part, but Block writes so smoothly it’s not a huge problem. The problem lies with the fact that the plot is too thin after all – and that there’s too much of the beatnik slang, with everything being cool, solid or hip. The ending is good, though, real noir stuff.
The book was first published as Pads Are For Passion (Beacon, in the early sixties), but A Diet of Treacle (name snatched from Lewis Carroll) was Block’s original title. This kind of information is something I’d really like Hard Case Crime would tell at their website. The book was first published under the Sheldon Lord by-line and I already started reading Sheldon Lord’s Kept that was written also by Block. Seems pretty solid (sic) by the first 50 pages.
I’ve never actually read much Lawrence Block. I once read one of his later Matt Scudder novels and I really didn’t care for it. I’ll have to try one of them again. I’ve liked two of his Tanner novels, even though they are very light. A Bernie Rhodenbarr I had to quit in the middle. And then I’ve read Killing Castro.
I finally got around to reading the first book Hard Case Crime put out, Block’s Grifter’s Game that was originally published as Mona (Fawcett Gold Medal 1961). It really shows Block was a good writer even when he was very young (he was 23 when this was published, and I think this is his first, at least under his own name), the text is fluent and very readable. Block’s dialogue is paced well and crispy. It’s too bad there’s so little of it in the middle parts – the narrative turns pretty much into the protagonist’s monology. The protagonist is a con man in his late twenties. He’s quite sympathetic, though he’s a heel of the worst kind, seducing women to to live on their money for days or for months and then dropping them. There are no good people in the world of Grifter’s Game, which, combined with the pretty nasty ending, makes this a worthwhile noir novel.
Next off I’ll be reading Block’s Getting Off and Lucky at Cards. Why? I’m working on an article for a Finnish journal about sex and sleaze paperbacks. And because it’s about time I start reading Lawrence Block.
Bob Deis who organizes a very nice Facebook group called Men’s Adventure Magazines and maintains a blog about the same issue, is compiling an anthology of the stories from men’s adventure mags, take a look here. The list of writers includes Larry Block, Walter Wager, Harlan Ellison, Bruce Jay Friedman and Mario Puzo.
Hard Case Crime has put out some very interesting reprints and obscurities. Lawrence Block’s Killing Castro is probably of the latter kind. It’s entertaining, but I’m not sure whether I could call it a forgotten classic. It’s a story about five Americanos trying to kill Fidel Castro and trying to get 20,000 dollars as a reward. Some of them are professionals, some of them are idealists, some of them are just waiting around to die and trying to do something useful while dying.
In a weird narrative technique Block also interweaves the story with the history of real-life Castro and his rise to power. Without those parts the book would be one third shorter and I guess Block just typed them up to fill up the standard book-length. Block’s view of Castro and Cuba before him seems pretty solid, though, and even if those bits irritated me, they provided some new information!
As I’ve said earlier, the momentum of old sleaze and sex paperbacks has arrived. There are numerous reprints and I think there will be even more of them, which is just great, if the books are as good as the ones in the Robert Silverberg double and in the Orrie Hitt double Stark House Press published last year.
Orrie Hitt was pretty much deemed to obscurity in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but there were some mentions of his name here and there, for example in Lee Server’s book on old paperbacks. It seems his star is on the rise – has actually been awhile -, mainly due to the blogs dedicated to the pulp school of writing and vintage sleaze. Stark House did recently a great double volume of his work, with two long-lost titles The Cheaters and Dial “M” for Man. It’s a great read and I recommend it highly.
The Cheaters (Midwood 1960) tells about a young man, pretty much down on his luck, taking a job as a bartender in a seedy bar. The guy falls in love with the gorgeous wife of the bar’s fat and obnoxious owner, who wants the guy to take over the bar. Dial “M” for Man (Beacon 1962) is about a TV repair man running his own business in a small town. He also falls in love with the gorgeous wife of the town’s big man who in his turn tries to run the TV man down in every way he can.
Both books, published originally as cheap and cheap-looking paperbacks, are about ordinary men in bad situations. They just end up in them, even though they try to shy away from bad stuff. It just happens. They fall in love and start to scheme killing a man, albeit rather reluctantly. This is classic noir stuff, exemplified by this quote from Dial “M” for Man: “Here I was, just a little guy with everything to lose – everything that I had not already lost, that is.” You care for these guys, that’s why these two little books (Dial “M” for Man is just over 100 pages) have stayed alive.
The other reason for their vitality is Hitt’s narrative drive. Even though nothing much happens and the prose isn’t very refined or stylish, Hitt really knows how to keep the story moving. You keep flipping the pages, though, as I said, nothing much happens. In this Hitt reminds me of Jason Starr, one of my favourite new noir writers, who also writes about ordinary people and in whose books nothing much happens. Especially in Dial “M” for Man Hitt really keeps the shit piling up on his protagonist.
The endings in both books are bad, though, like Hitt didn’t really know how to keep up the dark pessimism of the earlier pages.
From Centipede Press. The package looks very nice.
Old smut paperbacks have been seeing quite of a renaissance in the last couple years: there have been lots of blog posts about them, there are Facebook groups for them and associated stuff (try this) and what’s the most important thing, there have been quite a few reprints. One of the most interesting of them has been the collection of Robert Silverberg’s two sleaze paperbacks, called Gang Girl/Sex Bum. It’s a very good book which I recommend highly, if you’re into noirish and nasty little crime stories.
Gang Girl was first published as a Nightstand book in 1959 and it was one of the first of Silverberg’s many sleaze novels. It’s a juvie book, about a 16-year old (!) girl trying to break into a new gang and making her way up to the top. Some of the sex scenes are downright nasty, especially the gang rape scene that goes on and on. The ending is very noiry and fits the bill. Sex Bum, from four years later, is a better book in my opinion, though Gang Girl is not bad in any sense of the word. Sex Bum, this time a Bedtime book, tells about a young guy living in a hicksville wanting bad to make it into the mob. There are lots of sex scenes, but coupled with the crupulousness of Johnny Price they make a chilling read – this guy feels like he’s stepped out from the pages of Jim Thompson of Jason Starr. The ending is very chilling.
These books were written fast to make fast money (and money Silverberg made: he bought a big house in Greenwich Village with the money he got writing these books!), and it shows somewhat. There are some meaningless characters in Sex Bum, and Gang Girl suffers somewhat from being too episodic, but I don’t mind, as both books are also immensely readable. As there’s also a foreword by Silverberg himself and an afterword by Michael Hemmingson, plus a 3-page bibliography of Silverberg’s smut books, this books comes very highly recommended. Can’t wait for this to arrive.
More stuff about Silverberg’s sleaze books here.