Sunday, August 29, 2010

Too Many Girls by Don Tracy

Too Many Girls by Don Tracy
Berkley G-182
Copyright 1934

I had a hell of a headache when I woke up.

So starts this brilliant piece of noir fiction about the exploits of an unprincipled Baltimore newspaper photographer. The actual title (hardcover) is Round Trip, which really sums up the road Eddie Magruder goes down. And maybe the point of the first sentence is to inform the reader that the journey of Eddie was one hell of a headache for him but it's a pleasure for us because this one is special.

I forgot all about everything. For a couple of minutes I was back before I'd met Edith and this girl was a good looking pushover and my hands were inside the neck of her dress and giving her the works.

The novel starts with Eddie being sent out on an assignment to snap some photos from the aftermath of a lynching done by Eastern Longshoremen. Here is where we get our introduction of Eddie -tough youth, on is own as a teen, learning the ways of women from the streets, and consuming plenty of booze. The novel then turns into a flashback as Eddie tells us about the events in his life during the last few years. There is the suicide of a female newspaper reporter that he had final contact with and he seems indifferent about. Eddie has the moral nature of a heel with just a snip of compassion. He is willing to earn a few extra bucks taking "dirty"photos for distributors or receiving special favors from women for taking high quality shots so they can get public notice. But that changes when he meets and marries Edith. Eddie finally finds felicity and worth in his life. But the road he is given to go down, isn't level. In a fistfight, Eddie kills Edith's abusive ex-husband and he has to stand trial for manslaughter. It becomes an emotional ordeal for both Edith and Eddie. But after the acquittal, all the despair ends and there is a return to a life of contentment. Of course, Fate stacks the cards against a guy like Eddie and in the end it really crashes down on him.

I thought to myself that if they sent me up, I still had a hell of a lot to be glad about. I was a bum when I met Edith and now I wasn't a bum. I was up for killing a guy but I'd done it the right way.

Block out the meaningless title the paperback publishers gave this one, Round Trip is a monolithic hardboiled novel. In Eddie Magruder's world, happiness only gets touched, never embraced. He doesn't self-destruct or have ambitions that lead him down a wanton alley, Eddie is stuck and will forever be because guys like him are always destined to be lured up and knocked down. It's just the way life is....

James M. Cain wasn't the only one reshaping raw and gritty noir tales in the 30s. Don Tracy was also right there, he just never got the notoriety that Cain did. A fine example is Round Trip, this tragic novel stands pretty tall with what others were bring to the table at that time. With the exception of Edith's Ex-husband, there are really no evil people in the novel. Most are disillusioned souls lumbering in depression-era Americana and working for a niche in life. With Eddie being swallowed up in all of it. This novel predates Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Gresham's Nightmare Alley and Richard Hallas' You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, and I'd put Round Trip right up there with them.

A memorable novel. I won't forget this one.
It's one of the best that I've read.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Long Night by Ovid Demaris

The Long Night by Ovid Demaris
Avon T-372

Copyright 1959

Their Buick was at least five years old. These boys weren't doing so well. That's the first place the hood spends his loot. A big flashy car. Next on the list is the big sparkler on the little pinkie. These characters had neither.

He's an ex-Marine who went through hell on Tawara. Then for 9 years he was a LAPD Vice cop until he got kicked out after beating up a hood who he caught in his ex-wife's bed. The last 4 years he's been a P.I., who specializes in locating delinquent debtors and squeezing them to pay up. When it comes to women, he's a "legs and buttocks" man and he doesn't mind getting his "biological needs" from a $5 whore or a classy pickup in a bar. His name is Vince Slader and he's on a hard case, getting little sleep, that involves clearing himself from a murder rap.

The Long Night has a unique start. Slader is in front of a Senate Crime Committee hearing, sassing it up against two powerful senators. It seems that the private eyes in LA have been getting a bit out of control and Slader is the committee's poster boy. He leaves the hearings with warnings that they will be watching him and he better keep his nose clean. Like that's going to happen. Slader is hired by a scumbag casino owner to find a guy called Ben Russell. Russell has a $28,000 gambling debt and Slader gets a percentage if Russell pays up. Russell also has a young wife who has plans of her own, and those include a life insurance scam. Of course P.I. Vince Slader gets caught in it. He first gets setup to be murdered and burned to a crisp in Russell's car, the idea is that the authorities will believe he was Russell. Slader gets banged up pretty bad, but survives. Next he walks in on Ben Russell's actual murder and here is where he gets pegged as the murderer. Along with Mrs. Russell's motives to get her husband's life insurance money, elements of the local crime organization have an interest in this case. So besides the Senate Committee, Slader has thugs and cops after him now.

As for a plot, there is really no new ground breaking in this one. It's your typical P.I. being played for a patsy story. But that's OK, it still was an enjoyable read. The Senate Committee angle in the story was different and refreshing. Slader has an ex-con as an assistant called Emilio Caruso, who he kiddingly refers to as his "little wop." I liked the guy, unfortunately he doesn't make it through to the end of the novel. There is a good dose of explosive (and descriptive) gunplay in The Long Night. One of the best takes place in the desert outside of Las Vegas, with Slader having some fun with two hired killers. Slader plays the ladies throughout the story and even with his rough mug, they are attracted to him. He even gets serious with a redhead who helps him survive in the end.

Reading the The Long Night, I was wondering if Ovid Demaris was trying to make a Mickey Spillane type of novel here. It's close, but the narrative is less hardboiled and the ending fell a little flat. As for P.I. Vince Slader, I liked him. And with more appearances in novels and a little more development, he could of had a future. The Long Night is a good P.I. crime mystery, and it came darn close to being a very good one. As Maxwell Smart said, "Missed it by that much."

Here is a taste of some lines that Slader spouts about the fairer sex:

I turned and looked her over closely. Her looks were better than average for a barfly, but nothing to get worked up over. She was stacked, and dressed to prove it. I ignored the cleavage. There was nothing there I hadn't seen before.

She led me into the room, and the calves pumped and the buttocks shook. I didn't know where to look.

There are only two approaches to women - sweet and tough. And ninety percent of the time the tough will get you farther, quicker than sweet.

I have never felt much compunction about sex anyway. Women have been conveniently relegated to the role of machines for fornication. This is a hard-boiled attitude, and, like all such attitudes, it's microscopic and bigoted.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gator Kill by Bill Crider

Gator Kill by Bill Crider
Walker Publishing
Copyright 1992

“You don’t look like much of anything,” he said, “except maybe an out-of-work housepainter.”

Well, that may not be true. Truman Smith does paint houses to earn a few extra bucks, but he will put to use his past experiences as a detective to perform investigations for a friend in need. In the 90s, Bill Crider wrote five novels featuring the Galveston-based PI Truman Smith. And I found him as one of the most realistic private eyes that came through the pages of mystery crime fiction in the decade of the 90s. Bill Crider portrays Truman Smith as a loner and a bit of an introvert, add this to the depth-lined cases he gets himself involved in, and the results are an outstanding PI series that snares the reader into some capricious surroundings throughout Southeast Texas. My favorite is the second "Tru" novel, Gator Kill. (though I recommend starting with the first, Dead on the Island) I read Gator Kill for the third time this week and I'm glad I did, because reading a Truman Smith mystery is like visiting an old friend.

There were actually two doorways, one leading to a kitchen and one into a bedroom. The bedroom was where I looked.
That's where the dead woman was. She was wearing a dress that seemed obviously homemade and about two sizes too big. It was some kind of blue material, but
it was stained red in the front by blood. There was a small pool of blood beneath her. Most of it had soaked into the floor, staining it black. She looked fail and helpless in death.

Fred Benton is a tough old cuss and when someone kills and skins an alligator on his land, he’s going to do something about it. Coming off a missing person case that got his name in the news, part-time private investigator Truman Smith leaves Galveston Island to head over to Fred’s marsh property and have a look-see. Though not a glamorous case, to Fred killing the gator is murder and Tru agrees to investigate into who killed it. Of course there is more at work here than a rotting alligator. It first looks like Fred is being harassed and there are rumors that the State will be gobbling up surrounding lands. Then Tru steps into a double homicide and before you know it he becomes the target. Not only is he being shot at, but a tinted-windowed monster 4X4 is out hunting him down at night. But he understands this is the consequences of sticking your nose where people don’t want it. And it all comes to a head one night in a creepy, mosquito-infested swamp, when Fred and Tru drive out to investigate suspicious activities. An unexpected fatal meeting takes place and it's here where Tru puts the pieces of all the mysteries together. But it may be too late for him and Fred, as the eyes of the gators gaze upon them.

There’s enough plot twists in this one to keep the reader tightly gripping onto the book. Bill Crider has us going down one road and then he throws the curve. And later he does it again! The novel is filled with an assortment of colorful characters. My favorite is Fred Benton, who is sort of a sidekick in Gator Kill. A man in his 70s who is not afraid to provoke a fight, smokes unfiltered Camels, and has the stamina of a 40 year old. Heck, growing up I remember a guy just like that. There are characters throughout Gator Kill that we can relate to because we have run across types like them in our lifetime. The history behind Truman Smith is so damn intriguing, that we crave for more on him. A man that shuns people, he continues to be haunted by his inability to locate his missing sister. (there's more detail on this in Dead on the Island) When her murdered remains are found, he shoulders the blame and this adds to his unsocial-like state. All of this enhances the likable P.I.

This is the way I like my private detective novels. A whodunit that is packed with action, an ending that is just as much horror as it is mystery suspense, and an eerie atmosphere where the muggy nights are filled with rifle shots, mosquitoes, and mean gators lurking in the swamps.
Your shirt will be sticking to you when you read this one.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Murder Doll by Milton K. Ozaki

Murder Doll by Milton K. Ozaki
Berkley Diamond D2016
Copyright 1952

She fluttered mascaraed eyelashes and laid a hand on my arm. "Has anyone ever told you you're handsome?"
"Sure," I said, "my mother. What's your name, baby?"

Novels containing characters that deliver a hardboiled narrative have always been a favorite of mine. And Milton Ozaki's Chicago P.I. Carl Good definitely fits that bill. Good describes himself as having "features like a fistful of dough and carrying the beginning of a paunch." He then adds in his favor are height and broad shoulders. In WWII, Carl Good was a paratrooper who saw plenty of action and did his share of killing. He's an impetuous guy who likes Scotch and girls, and fancies himself as a rough, tough guy in a fight. He knows the town and has plenty of connections, which is a big benefit for a man in his line of work.

Right out of the gates, Carl Good is trying to locate the missing Orville Pederson. Hired by his wife, Pederson has been gone for a few weeks and left her without any spending cash. Good finds Pederson's plaything in a Chicago B-girl joint, but in a few minutes she is dead after taking a poisoned drink intended for Good. He learns that Pederson is connected to the Chicago mob and performs real estate deals for them. And through his many street contacts, Good finds out the the heat has been turn up and this is making things difficult for mob operations. It's causing friction in the ranks that is leaving an opportunity for a Philadelphia kingpin to elbow in. Pisano, the standing boss, offers Good $25,000 to find the identity of the person the Philadelphia boys have sent to orchestrate the takeover. All they know is that it is a woman and she's a looker. Carl Good isn't one to let a financial opportunity go to waste, he adds that job to his plate because this is "real money." Later he realizes that both cases are interconnected and as usual in these PI plots, Good is smack dab in the middle of both of them.

As I said, I'm a sucker for hardboiled narrative and Murder Doll has some of the best I've read in a while. Here are a few that I liked:

"She's just a hooker," I insisted flatly. "She hasn't got enough brains to file her toenails."

I went up the side of a pile of two-by-fours like a scared cat and flattened myself on the rough timber like juice on a platter.

She came to me and lifted herself onto my lap. One arm went around my neck and her mouth searched for mine. I felt like spitting after the kiss, but I didn't.

As for the storyline, the majority of the time you can tell what is going to happen. But there are a few surprises. One is when an enraged Good chokes a thug to death after failing to make the guy talk. Later Good finds out that the thug had his tongue cut out. This didn't seemed to bother the PI at all. There's also a remarkable scene when Good is being hunted down in a lumber yard. In his pocket he happens to have a grenade that he took off a bobby-trap that was setup for him. Removing the firing pin with his teeth and lobbing it at his pursuers makes a satisfying payback. A couple of things come off silly in the plot. One is having a woman organizing the takeover of the deep-rooted Chicago vice organization. The other is a wild scene at a Nudist park where Carl Good is strutting his stuff trying to get the lowdown on how the woman is luring men away from Pisano's organization. And if you can swallow these, you'll find a good crime mystery in your hands. Milton Ozaki has Carl Good operating in the streets of Chicago where the surroundings are dark and grimy. Good isn't your compassionate P.I. and he definitely isn't in the game to be morally upright. He does it for the money and it also is a good occupation for him to release an inborn fury onto the bad guys. I liked the guy and will dig out a few more of his paperbacks. Chicago's Carl Good is a hard-headed and conniving private detective, who should have gotten more literary recognition.

This Berkley paperback edition was actually published in 1959. Murder Doll first appeared in the 1952 Phantom Books paperback authored under the name Robert O. Saber, a pseudonym used by Milton Ozaki.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Harry O by Lee Hays

Harry O by Lee Hays
Popular Library 445-00269-125
Copyright 1975

She smelled musty. Just as her clothes were different, so was her scent. Before she had been scrubbed, a little girl; now she was a woman of the world.

This paperback is the first of two tie-in novels that Lee Hays wrote for the popular 70s Private Detective TV show. For two seasons from 1974-1976, David Janssen portrayed the pensioned ex-cop living on the beaches of the West Coast. The series has been hailed as one of the best P.I. shows ever on television. No argument here, it's always been my favorite (especially the second season episodes) and when I had a chance to pickup these tie-ins, I had to have them.

The novel starts similar to the TV episodes, with Harry's telephone ring and him mulling over if it is worth picking up. We get a brief bio of Harry Orwell in the beginning; the painful bullet in the back which resulted in his early retirement from San Diego PD, why he became a P.I., working on The Answer -his boat that will never taste water, taking the bus because his heap is in the shop, and of course his views around the existence of telephones. A woman named Mary Alice Kimberly believes her husband is out to kill her because she won't give him a divorce. The way she tells it there is a rich land deal going down in Mexico and if she is divorced the husband gets all the profits. For Harry she becomes difficult to keep tabs on and comes off as an enigma. Harry discovers that besides her husband, there are others out there looking for Mrs. Kimberly. And they may not be honest citizen types. The following day he finds Mary Alice in her husband's office with a dead P.I. on the floor. Even though Harry lightly has fallen for her, he quickly realizes she's a bit eccentric. When the dead P.I.'s stripper wife is found shot in the head inside Harry's beach home, the police bring Orwell in for questioning. They can't get nothing to stick, but warn Orwell to stay clear of the investigation. But he can't, even being odd the girl concerns Harry and now that she can't be located, he sets out to find out what this is all about.

It's about the smuggling of heroin across the Mexican border. Everyone involved is dirty. Included in the cast is a Sydney Greenstreet type befittingly named Sydney Jerome, who has mannerisms right out of The Maltese Falcon. There is a pint-sized gunsel called Wylie who drops Harry a couple of times. And a Mexican connection named Ramirez who seems to be playing both sides of the street. (or is being used by both sides) Orwell is on the hook for all of the murders, there are three total. Mary Alice finally calls him and together they head back to Tijuana to meet Sydney Jerome for a "business" transaction. It's on the return trip that Harry figures the deal out and then knows who is the cold-blooded killer.

Thinking of Ramirez reminded me that he warned me to take a gun. I didn't tell him that I never carry one. I almost went to the closet and got the one I had when I was on the force, the one wrapped in a towel way in back on the shelf behind an old suitcase. But I didn't, I should have but I didn't.

This "Harry O" paperback is far from being a great crime novel, but as a huge fan of the series I did enjoy it. I would say that the characterization of Harry Orwell in the story is fairly close to the TV one. The spoken narrative on the show is definitely much better. And the book didn't capture that lonely, somber persona that David Janssen was able to deliver. I'll chalk that up as something that is difficult for a tie-in author to do. The writing is straightforward and the plot though interesting, wasn't too difficult to figure out. Even with the similarities of Hammett's Casper Gutman, I would of liked to have seen more of the Sydney Jerome character. He came off as the most colorful of all in the story. All-in-all, it still was a fun quick read for me. If you were a fan of the TV series, I'm sure you would get a kick out of this novel also.

In addition, the series character Lt. Manny Quinlan appears in the novel. He doesn't head up the murder investigations for the SDPD, but he does have a role in the story.

In 1976, Lee Hays wrote the second "Harry O" novel titled: The High Cost of Living. He wrote tie-ins for the TV shows Colombo and the Partridge Family. Lee Hays also authored the novelizations for the 1984 Sergio Leone film, Once Upon a Time in America and the 1974 horror movie, Black Christmas.