Apr 292012
 
As you've noticed, I've been reading Lawrence Block's old sleaze novels lately. The quality hasn't been as good as Block's reputation would indicate, but as I'm writing an article about the reprint boom of old sleaze paperbacks, I wanted to try another one: Kept, as by Sheldon Lord (Midwood, 1960). Lord was a pseudonym Block used in his novels (such as Pads Are For Passion, reprinted as A Diet of Treacle), but then again this website says Kept was actually written by Donald Westlake.

I couldn't tell. Kept could be by either one as the prose is smooth and very readable, just as both Westlake and Block can deliver. I read the book in Finnish translation (it was published as Maksettu rakastaja in the mid-sixties by Finnbooks in their short-lived series called Domino) and for all I know, it could be abridged or altered in any other way.


I was rather disappointed in Kept, because I went in looking for a criminous content, but there was none! This could've been a romance paperback, save for the fact that there are some candid sex scenes (candid for their own time, mind you) and that the lead character is a man. The book starts off promisingly, a bit like Postman Always Rings Twice, with a beautiful, young woman picking up a hobo man off the side of the road. But in the end nothing much happens: the boy gets the girl and that's about it. There's some fascinating Mad Men territory being covered here, though: penthouse luxury, new hi-fi stuff, well-cut suits, bossing women around at the office, drinks consumed almost at all times, all that.

But all in all, I'm not sure if I share the Vintage Sleaze Paperbacks conviction this should be reprinted. (But take this with a grain of salt, since I read the translation.)

The great original cover is by Paul Rader.

By the way, here's a link to the Finnish Domino series. Any comments on the books published in it?
 Posted by at 5:59 pm
Apr 262012
 
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.
 Posted by at 3:21 pm
Apr 252012
 
 I finished two books last weekend that shared the same theme: the thrill of a good kill. Both dealt the theme very differently, the other one was very humorous and free-wheeling and the other one developed some real horror out of it.

The latter was Dave Zeltserman's Bad Thoughts that was first published in hardcover by Five Star, but is now available as an e-book. Zeltserman sure knows how to spin a dark tale, as has been witnessed by his earlier books (of which I think Killer is the best - at least of those I've read). And boy oh boy, is Bad Thoughts dark! The killer in Bad Thoughts has a dubious gift of being able to work in the dreams of the people he wants to hurt and seems like there's no escape out of the situation. There are some moments that ask for the suspension of disbelief, but Zeltserman brings the thing to a well-balanced conclusion and does it with verve, through a simple-looking style that maintains the hardboiled noir style that's so familiar to Zeltserman's readers. In the hands of a mediocre serial killer writer, this would merely be a thriller. Now it's something else entirely.

Lawrence Block's hardcover Hard Case Crime outing Getting Off makes the same thing very differently. It tells about a young and attractive woman who kills men to revenge the abuse her father inflicted upon her and does it with great pleasure, first having sex with the men. Block pulls no punches in this tale that develops into a parody of serial killer novels. He turns the clichés upside down: there's nothing inherently bad in getting your joy out of killing people. The book's highly erotic at the same time and it's no wonder Block has used his early Jill Emerson pseudonym in this (though this is much seedier stuff than anything by "Jill Emerson"). There are some moments in the book that feel forced, as a couple of details in the lesbian romance, but I can see Block chuckling to himself while writing those scenes.

The books are very different in depicting the reasons for the thrill kill violence: Zeltserman says there's no reason, the guy was just born broken and it was a pity no one made anything to stop him, Block claims the abuse of the young girl made her what she is today. Seems like the Zeltserman explanation is more fashionable now, as the psychoanalytic-tinged theory of traumatized sexual behaviour has faded out of academic fashion.

Dave Zeltserman's Bad Thoughts has also the distinction of being the first e-book I've read. I loaded the free Kindle Reader on my portable and I've been snatching some free e-books whenever they've been available. As a reading experience I thought it was okay, but something I'd think should be done with the real device. But as of yet, I don't own one. As more and more interesting noir and hardboiled books are coming out only as e-books, getting a Kindle or a Nook or something similar seems something I need to do. Just too pity e-books are so expensive here in Finland.
 Posted by at 6:50 pm
Apr 112012
 
WARNING: This review is littered with spoilers.

I will confess that I purchased this book primarily for the very cool cover art.  Then I learned that William Ard was a favorite writer of Mike Nevin's who is one of the people who turned me onto Harry Stephen Keeler and taught me how to better appreciate the work of the brilliant Cornell Woolrich.  I trusted Mike's taste in great books and neglected writers and decided to read Like Ice She Was (1960).  I think I picked the wrong one to start with.

Lou Largo is hired to find Madeleine Mann, a former prostitute from Montreal who stole a million dollars from her casino owner husband Nick Mann. Seems that money was routinely packed up in suitcases and flown from Canada to Miami where it was supposed to be stowed away in Mann's Florida home. One of these Canadian cash shipments never made it to its final destination. The pilot Fred Cooper and Madeleine helped themselves to the money, Madeleiene decided she no longer wanted Nick and took off with Cooper and the millions for California. Now Nick Mann wants Madeleine and his money. Lou heads to Saratoga, New York to find her.

Along the way he manages to pick up Joan Martin, college student in criminology, as a sidekick. She approaches Largo with an idea that she follow him along on one of his cases for a research paper she is writing on the life of a private investigator. At first Lou nixes the idea but when Joan shows up unexpectedly having successfully tailed the private eye and rescued him from some thugs who intended to beat him to death she proves herself a worthy partner. They become an interesting team in more ways than one.

Lou's idea is that they pass themselves off as a philandering couple at the motel where Madeleine, now calling herself Marion Bouchard, has holed up. He cleverly books the room immediately next door to her. Luckily for him the walls are paper thin and the bed is extra squeaky. His plan? He will create the illusion that he and Joan are sex fiends with a lot of hysterical sound effects and exaggerated sex talk. These scenes are hilarious and one of the few parts of the book I really enjoyed. All this sex is meant to arouse the attention of Marion/Madeleine who we soon learn "has the coldest skin of any dame [Lou] ever came across." (And you thought the title was a clever attempt at metaphor.) Most people would be disgusted or annoyed by loud screwing accompanied by ridiculous running commentary and ask to move to a different room. Not Marion. She is completely turned on. She's seen Lou swimming in the pool showing off his trim muscled body and now imagines him to be a Titan of a sex partner. "Quel homme! Formidable!" (She actually says that.) She desperately wants Lou which is just what he wanted to achieve.

The story is pretty thin. Like the instructions on a shampoo bottle we get a formula like this – chase, sex, beating, repeat. Lou stumbles upon everything too quickly by asking only a few questions of people who are all too willing to spill the beans - including Madeleine's own mother. The bad guys, headed by a corrupt ex-cop from Montreal, are always a few steps behind him ready to beat him to a pulp demanding to know what exactly he's up to. By the midpoint you think he ought to be hospitalized but he carries on valiantly like a cartoon superhero sustaining a large collection of bruises and cuts. Yet somehow with all his injuries he still manages to be amazing in the sack. Vive la résilience!

Interspersed with the beatings and the sex play between Marion/Madeleine and Lou we get a lot of pining and longing from Joan. She wants Lou just as much as Marion, but he keeps calling her "kid" and "sis" and she thinks she hasn't a chance. Until that is she starts dressing like a woman, putting on makeup and changing her hairstyle. Then Lou takes notice and they play out a genuine torrid sex scene complete with squeaking bed. Immediately after Lou calls her "girl" and Joan is delighted. She's graduated from kid to sis to girl. Ah, womanhood!

When Madeleine discovers that Lou has forsaken her sexy charms for those of the younger more beautiful and less trashy Joan she vows revenge. So she goes next door to her motel room where Fred Cooper has been getting drunk with every passing hour and stabs him repeatedly. Then she frames Lou for the murder and takes off. This is the level of nonsense that the book descends to. Just when you think you've hit the absolute nadir the story lathers on more cartoonish behavior. The thugs show up, kidnap both women and plan to kill them and dump the bodies in a lake. The bad guys even tie concrete blocks around their feet. But Lou is there to save the day aided by a deputy sheriff and a posse of police.

I will give Ard credit for one scene that you rarely get in these kind of books. Nick Mann keeps insulting one of his thugs and finally calls him a fairy which seals his fate: "Tony triggered the gun once, and blew the gambler's brains out with a slug between his eyes." I always wonder why the bad guys endure insult after insult from the one in charge. Tony, unlike most of these bad guys, takes no crap from anyone even his boss.

Some of my other favorite lines:

"Lou guessed that she had squeezed that forty-inch bust into a size twelve gown to maybe take your eye off the little spinning ball. Not Largo's though" (The woman works the roulette wheel in a gambling joint.)

"Quel homme!" she thought admiringly as the creaking springs went on. "C'est magnifique! What a bull she has for company!"  (Did you ever hear anyone from Quebec province talk like they were in a Cole Porter musical? Marion was also "listening raptly" in the previous paragraph.)

"He flashed her his boyish grin, looked as guileless as Li'l Abner with the Dragon Lady." (Lou is anything BUT boyish.)

After doing a little online research I stumbled across an excellent website devoted to Ard with information supplied by the writer's widow. He died in 1960 at the early age of 37 from cancer that he foolishly believed he did not have despite multiple warnings from doctors. This book was one of the last he wrote himself. Other Lou Largo books were ghosted by Lawrence Block and John Jakes. So it looks like if I want to discover more about Ard's writing I'll have to go back to his first books in the early 1950s. I ought to give him another shot. The Timothy Dane books are supposed to be completely different and much better. Stay tuned for a possible reassessment.

To educate yourself about William Ard visit his tribute website here.
 Posted by at 5:25 am
Apr 062012
 
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.


 Posted by at 6:08 pm
Feb 162012
 
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.
 Posted by at 3:05 pm