Monday, September 21, 2015

The Black Moth


The Black Moth, by Charles Runyon
No month stated, 1967  Fawcett Gold Medal

Sporting one of the greatest covers in the history of paperbacks, The Black Moth is yet another mostly-enjoyable Fawcett Gold Medal publication; Charles Runyon was an old hardboiled hand but this is the first of his novels I’ve read. While entertaining the book is a bit too long for its own good (192 pages of small print) and meanders at times, plus the climax isn’t satisfactory; but then again there’s that cover…

It’s May 1967 and in Prathersville, Missouri there’s a sort of reformatory school for young women called Wakefield College. But these aren’t your average juvenile delinquents; they’re all members of wealthy families and have been placed here for going astray in some fashion. Wakefield, run by the elderly LaVera Belle, the headmistress of the school, prides itself on orderliness and obedience. But there’s a dark secret lurking in Wakefield, and as the novel opens two of its students pay for it: one is drowned, and the other is stabbed to death while having sex in a car with her boyfriend.

Enter the hero of the story, Marcus Greene, a private investigator hired by the father of the boyfriend, who has been wrongly accused of the second murder. Greene we’ll learn is a former CIA agent and is a regular master of disguise. He also lugs around a metal “equipment locker” which holds a vast array of electronic spying equipment; ten thousand dollars worth of it, we’re informed. The novel is not written in the expected first-person narration, which you’d figure a given due to the PI protagonist, and Runyon keeps the POV-hopping to a minimum. For the most part we stay locked in Greene’s perspective, and he’s a fairly interesting hero, though it must be admitted he doesn’t do very much. 

Greene is in disguise throughout the novel, posing as new Wakefield professor Herman Melville Bligh, who was hired to fill the vacany created by the previous professor, Petrie, who is currently in an insane asylum. The real Bligh is back at Greene’s office in Chicago, kept in a perpetual dope fog by Greene’s (apparently sexy) secretary Rose Marie – and when the drugs lose their efficacy she resorts to old-fashioned screwing. Speaking of which there’s a fair amount of sex in The Black Moth, more than you’d encounter in an earlier Gold Medal publication, but it’s not very explicit. Greene does pretty well for himself, getting lucky with three women over the course of the weekend in which the novel occurs.

Wakefield harbors all kinds of secrets, as Greene discovers promptly upon arrival. There’s the sleazy Public Relations guy, Creighton Bauer, the only other male on the faculty, who treats Greene with immediate suspicion. Then there’s Victoria Galen, the beautiful blonde gym coach with her “small, pointy breasts,” who flip-flops between treating Greene frostily or coming on strong to him. She doesn’t come on nearly as strong as plump but pleasing Virginia Black, school nurse, who promptly upon meeting Greene asks him if he wants some quaaludes and then stretches out on her table, offering herself to him. (Greene obliges her.)

Then there’s beautiful and busty Nadine DeVore, a Wakefield student. A school trusty with various privileges, Nadine serves as the headmistress’s secretary and seems to test Greene when they meet. And it turns he’s failed her test – that night Greene is caught unawares as he scopes out the campus, Nadine holding a .38 on him. She reveals that she met the real Professor Bligh years before and thus knows Greene is an imposter. But the two are on the same side; Nadine was friends with one of the murdered girls and wants to help Greene find the real killer, as she too doesn’t think the boyfriend is guilty. But first she wants to have some sex with Greene, and once again he obliges. Nadine proves to be a plucky heroine, providing Greene with ideas that ultimately help him solve the case – that is, in between all the times she’s offering herself to him.

In addition to the slightly more graphic sex, another indication of the changing times is the psychedelia which creeps into the book. The groovy title font on the cover is just the first clue. Midway through the book Greene is spiked with LSD (whether it was in the coffee Victoria served him that morning or the breakfast he was served in the school cafeteria he’s unsure), and Runyon wites a too-long section of fractured text to display Greene’s disjointed thoughts. It’s all like Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot In The Head, as the narrative becomes gibberish and Greene wanders around in beffudlement. He does gradually realize that this is what drove Petrie “insane,” though, and it’s yet more indication that Wakefield hides some mysterious operators.

Through Nadine, Greene learns of a secret group of Wakefield girls called “the Artemis Club” who sport a black moth tattoo on their abdomen; Nadine isn’t a member, but she knows that these girls serve as hookers in a nearby club. It turns out that this is the big secret at the heart of the murders: someone at Wakefield runs a white slavery sort of racket, with the “black moth” gals whored out to various bigwigs, the girls forced into servitude by photos of their illicit adventures. But ultimately this makes little sense as these young women are already supposed to be hellions, anyway, and were sent here to this school for the very fact of their authority-bucking. Not that this really serves to take the reader out of the book, though.

Any fool would suspect Victoria, who’s always in just the right place at the right time, and also appears to be in cahoots with Verdelet, the sadistic Wakefield guard who seems to really have it in for Greene. But our hero is a bit out of sorts due to all the willing women on campus, and Victoria’s just another of them. When they have the expected sex scene it’s actually unexpected, and the only time I can think of where a protagonist has sex with a woman while they’re being shot at. This happens in Victoria’s living room as some unknown assailant fires through the picture window at them. She’s already quite randy and Greene is pulled along with her; afterwards he gives their attacker chase, Victoria driving her car while still fully nude.

Greene, despite how bad ass Runyon wants us to understand he is, doesn’t really do anything bad ass. He mostly relies on his “equipment locker” to bug various rooms and break into various places. He doesn’t even carry a gun, though he does chop off a guy’s hand at one point. The women are more dangerous, and Greene is constantly being uncovered (in more ways than one). Even when he discovers the whole white slavery angle he still can’t figure out that Victoria’s the main villain, even though any fool would see it. But really it’s apparent from her first appearance in the narrative. 

Greene’s confusion stems from the fact that Victoria’s there with him during many of his closer scrapes. She’s also there when it all builds to a climax, Greene having uncovered the conspirators and their stash of blackmail photos. However she also “accidentally” kills off every single one of them, and only at the last does dumb-ass Greene realize she’s doing it on purpose, to silence them. The finale is at least memorable, with Victoria, suddenly crazy now that she’s been outed, blithely revealing how sick she is of life and only finds enjoyment in being evil. She begs Greene to strangle her to death, and Runyon makes us think he actually does – only for us to be informed later that a bitter and defeated Victoria is being hauled off by the police, screaming at Greene that he’s a no-good cheat.

Runyon is a good writer, but the book does become a bit padded. I don’t know much about the guy but he uses words that I found odd, like “stool” instead of “toilet.” This became particularly unsettling at times, like the sentence “she flushed the stool” after a sex scene. The faux-psychedelic stuff is also unfortunate, but Runyon does come up with the occasional memorable hardboiled line for Greene, like: “I’ve got a theory about girls who play with guns. They’d rather play with something else.”

It was entertaining and all, but part of me suspects that the biggest appeal of The Black Moth is the cover. Otherwise it’s not very memorable, and maybe with some of the fat trimmed it would’ve been more of a fast-moving and entertaining piece of pulp.

2 comments:

Manfred Arcane said...

Charles Runyon's "Death Cycle" and "Color Him Dead" written a few years earlier for Gold Medal are even better.

Ron Clinton said...

THE PRETTIEST GIRL I EVER KILLED is my favorite, though I admit I've only read two or three of his novels (of which THE BLACK MOTH is not one of them).