Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Hardboiled Lineup

The Hardboiled Lineup, edited by Harry Widmer
September, 1956  Lion Books

I have never been much of a short story reader, but I’ve found when it comes to hardboiled pulp I tend to prefer the short stories to the novels. Maybe because in my mind the more streamlined and focused these noir tales are, the better, and sometimes their plots are so thin it takes a bit of padding to fill out a whole book. Anyway this slim little paperback, 128 pages of fairly small print, really hit the spot – I was in the mood for some hardboiled yarns, and the book really delivered. Edited by Harry Widmer, the tales here are collected from Justice magazine, which Widmer also edited. He doesn’t waste our time with an intro and just gets right into it.

“Las Vegas Trap” by William R. Cox starts things off; it’s from the October 1955 issue of Justice. Told in third-person, “Trap” is the longest story in the anthology, practically novella length. It has the hardboiled feel down pat – a long-simmer tale with a grizzled cast of characters. I’m no expert on hardboiled or noir or whatever you want to call it, but to me the difference between it and men’s adventure is that the former is all about the setup and the latter is all about the payoff. You could read an entire Gold Medal paperback from the ‘50s or ‘60s and it could just be building and building toward something, with the eventual action almost hastily rendered in the final pages. Meanwhile, Mack Bolan could blow away a dozen mobsters within the first chapter of any volume of The Executioner.

And Cox’s story is definitely all about the setup. It opens like a ’55 prefigure of Frank Miller’s Sin City, with gambler Nick Crater (not to be confused with Nick Carter, of course!) having run afoul of Vegas kingpin Makowsky, who more than likely will be sending over his sadistic henchman Buster to beat Nick to a pulp or kill him. Then “zero girl” hostess Meg Bond shows up in Nick’s hotel room – only gradually does he realize how smokin’ hot she is, for some reason – and tells Nick his one shot is to come out with her to her Merc, which despite looking like a “heap” can move like hell thanks to a souped-up engine no one knows about.

The two take off, Nick certain Makowsky’s goons will be closing in, and he’s also uncertain how much he can trust Meg, whom he only knows slightly. But what starts off like one story soon veers into another. Driving through Vegas and on into the periphery of California, the two stop off in nowheresville Suntown, where they grab a motel – Meg actually blushes when Nick asks about the sleeping arrangements, given they’ve checked in as a married couple. Despite Meg’s wishes, Nick goes out to check out the poker game the manager’s having out back. Big money’s at stake, and next morning the manager is dead from a dozen knife wounds.

Now “Las Vegas Trap” becomes a murder mystery; having discovered the corpse, Nick is involved in the scene whether he likes it or not; his main concern is that a photo of him will make it into the paper, and thus Makowsky and goons back in Vegas will see it. The only cop in town, Sloan, is almost casually dismissive of Nick’s shady past; Sloan is certain the murder’s going to be pinned on young Andy Perez, given that he’s Mexican-American and the locals have been historically distrustful of him. Around Suntown Nick goes, gathering clues and meeting people, the most memorable being Myra, widow of the motel owner, a big-boned beauty who, pulpishly enough, is a former lady wrestler.

The finale has the locals closing in on the sheriff’s office, ready to lynch Perez; Nick, Meg, and Sloan wade through them, wielding shotguns and pistols. At this moment Buster shows up in a Cadillac, mowing down pedestrians, and Cox delivers the firefight in that almost outline vibe typical in hardboiled pulp – chaotic shooting in the melee and people falling down. Myra again scores the most memorable moment, catching her husband’s killers – they’re trying to escape in the chaos – getting them in hiplocks, and smashing their heads together! Oh, and Buster’s taken out, his car all shot up – another cool part where Meg blasts her double-barrelled shotgun right into the open door of Buster’s Cad. Meanwhile Nick decides he’s going to marry Meg – the end!

“Justice Is Blind” by Ad Gordon is next, from the May 1955 issue. As Bill Crider notes, this story is unusual in that it’s “about 90% telling.” The story is relayed in almost a summary format, telling us of the torrid affair between stud Tony, a dayworker hired to work the field of wealthy Grasso, and Gina, Grasso’s sexy young wife. We’re informed how the affair started, the two running off into the mansion to screw while Grasso was away, etc. The one day Grasso discovered the treachery and, in one of those moves only possible in fiction, beats up whelp Tony, lashes two saplings together, and ties Tony to them, then cuts the cord, wrecking his body. Gina ends up killing Tony to relieve his suffering – this is how the title is explained, as by law, Gina is the one who killed Tony. The story ends with an unexpected, surprise flashforward in which we learn who has told us the tale.

“Hot Snow” by Vin Packer is another short one, from the January 1956 issue. Taking place solely in a dingy bar, the tale opens with an unkempt young man declaring “I only love the white snow,” much to the interest of a lovely young lady sitting nearby enjoying a few beers. The story is mostly dialog between the two, with what appears to be a budding relationship blossoming – but then this guy comes in, goes in the back, and the unkempt man is called back there: “snow” is in reference to heroin, and this guy has just cleaned up his act and was about to leave for Alaska, but his old supplier knows he will squeal and gives him a fatal “hot shot” of heroin. Then the cops rush in; it’s too late for our unkempt dude, though, and the lady, who is revealed to be a cop herself, watches him die and mutters she never thought the job would be so hard. “You’ll get tough,” one of her fellow cops tells her!

Next is “Living Bait” by Frederick Lorenz, from the May 1955 issue. Our narrator, Roy, is captain of a small fishing vessel in Florida, and he and his sole crewmember, Wiley, who has one arm, are taking out wealthy Mr. Langler and also-wealthy Ms. Starr on a fishing trip. The two are business owners and are discussing a merger. Wiley is the star here; “I got more nothing than anybody,” he boasts, declaring that he too is a CEO in his own way. But when Langler loses a day-long struggle with a big tarpon, he blames Wiley and that night calls him a “one-armed freak.” The two fight, and Wiley’s knocked overboard. Meanwhile Langler claims he was attacked by Wiley.

Despite a big search Wiley can’t be found, and Langler is arrested for murder. Then on a hunch Roy finds Wiley hiding out on a little island – Wiley wants Langler to go to prison, even if he isn’t responsible for “drowning” him. Then Ms. Starr shows up, toting a rifle; she also wants Langler in prison, so she can get his business for a pittance. This one ends with a high-speed boat chase which sees the unfortunate Ms. Starr become sharkbait – eaten up by a great white nicknamed Whitey. I liked this one a lot, the characters were memorable and the action kept moving.

“Scented Clues” by Richard Deming follows, from the January 1956 issue. This one is also in first-person, narrated by a cop named Sullivan. It features a memorable opening, of Sullivan and Sam London, his partner of the past ten years, looking down at the negligee-clad corpse of Marge, London’s wife. This lurid procedural has the two investigating her murder, with the new lieutenant willing to throw the rules out the window and let London handle the case of his own wife’s murder. 

Deming delivers taut prose and good lines, but cheats the reader unecessarily. For one we are told Marge was strangled by someone big, and Sullivan often intimates how he’s a muscular dude, and there’s also how Sullivan acts more torn up over the lady’s death than London himself does. When it develops that Marge was carrying on affairs with multiple men, even keeping a little book with all their names in it (and Sullivan even knows where she hides the book!), Sullivan’s name is in there – and the reader can’t help but think that Sullivan’s the killer.

So too does the new lieutenant, and only here in the final page does Deming reveal that…Sullivan was Marge’s brother!! It’s just a rotten cheat and comes off as stupid because you’d figure this would be common knowledge at the precinct, or even that Sullivan himself would’ve, you know, told the lieutenant straight up. But then, Lost ran for several seasons on the same lame “everything could be solved with just a single simple question” premise. As if trying to top his own lameness, Deming here has Sullivan deduce, while sitting in a chair across from the lieutenant, that it was Sam London himself who killed Marge – an angry Sullivan jumps on him, tries to strangle him, and London admits it. The end!

Up next we have the now-culty Gil Brewer with “Die, Darling, Die,” the title of which made me think of “Die Die My Darling” by the Misfits. This one is from the January 1956 issue as well. A bit longer than the previous stories, but not as long as Cox’s, Brewer’s yarn as ever occurs in Florida, and as ever concerns two characters burning up for each other. Joe Morley is our hero, a guy who just gave up on his fiance and has come here to a hotel along the Gulf to forget about things. Meanwhile he’s got the burnin’ yearnin’ for a raven-haired sexpot named Miriam, who stays in the room across from Joe’s; he spends his days gawking out at her screened porch to monitor when she sunbathes. He’s made his interest known to her, and despite seeming interested herself and kissing him once or twice, the lady is aloof and keeps telling Joe it can never be between them.

Then one afternoon Joe finds a dude sitting in his room – it’s a cop named Thompson, who reveals that Miriam is a “moll,” the wife of bank robber Frank Garrett, and she’s here at the hotel waiting for her husband. Garrett just pulled a job in which he killed his comrades and the cops hope to pin him when he sneaks here to the hotel, but meanwhile there’s also a contract killer on the premises who has been hired by the heist backers, who want Garrett dead for doublecrossing them. But the cops don’t know who the killer is. So now Joe is pushed into working for the cops, who want to exploit Miriam’s interest in him to keep her there – Brewer intimates that Joe and Miriam finally go at it, but it being 1956 and all he leaves it vague whether they do it or not.

The finale sees Garrett’s arrival, and the surprise reveal of the killer’s identity – not too surprising, really, as there are only a handful of characters in the story. While Thompson’s off looking after Garrett, Joe is left to handle the killer himself, but is unable to save Garrett or his wife – “Die, darling, die” being the words Garrett screams to Miriam as he guns her down, as it turns out that Miriam was working with the contract killer to off her own husband. After this bitter ending, Joe figures he’ll head back home and look up his fiance, after all! I enjoyed this one, too, and it is more easily found these days, having been collected in the 2012 Brewer anthology Redheads Die Quickly.

“The Trouble With Alibis” follows; it’s by John Mulhern, from the May 1955 issue, and is one of the shorter tales in the book. This one’s about the owner of a “broken-down ranch” whose shapely but shrewish wife has just crashed her car on an icy road, and our hero figures he might as well leave her there to die – problem solved! She’s been cheating on him (a common theme in this anthology!) and she deserves to die; meanwhile he’s more concerned about the calf he’s left out as bait for a cougar. This one features an EC Comics finale in which our hero finds that he might be joining his wife in the afterlife a lot sooner than expected.

“Don’t Go Away Mad” by Robert Turner follows, from the January 1956 issue. This ten-pager is a breeze of a read, and it too has an EC Comics-esque vibe, the same I’ve noted in the few other Turner crime short stories I’ve read. Our narrator, Connaught, brings us into the action after he and his short-fused partner Briggs have pulled a payroll job. During the escape on foot they’re attacked by a dog, which bites Briggs in the calf; Connaught suspects the dog might’ve been attracted by the hoses he and Briggs are still wearing over their heads. They escape to their fishing cabin in the woods, where Brigg’s sexy girlfriend Julie waits, a brunette nymph who wears “snakeskin” shorts so tight Connaught wonders they don’t split when she sits down. He lusts for her – not to mention Briggs’s portion of the cash.

Then on the radio they hear about the heist, only for the announcer to state that a witness saw one of the robbers attacked by a dog, and the dog has rabies! The announcer pleads with the bitten robber to seek medical attention immediately, otherwise suffer the drawn-out death of hydrophobia. Briggs freaks, Connaught figures it’s a scam to get them to turn themselves in…but then he uses his slim knowledge of animal husbandry to play on Briggs’s growing paranoia, lying to him that the symptoms will set in quickly – symptoms which are really just indications of anxiety. Briggs goes slowly nuts over the next few days, to the point where he beats up Julie, demanding his gun so that he can rob a nearby drug store. Julie brings him the gun, alright – a moment which is sort of captured on the back cover:

Connaught ends the tale with he and Julie in Mexico, six weeks later, and all is great…save for the itch that’s begun to develop in Connaught’s calf, right where an insane Briggs bit him. The first sign of hydrophobia. This was a very entertaining one, my favorite story in the anthology, and it made me glad I finally forked over the dough for a copy of Turner’s sadly-scarce paperback collection Shroud 9.

“The Sinkhole” by James P. Webb, also from the January 1956 issue, closes the collection. This is another short one about a farmer getting revenge on his sluttish wife. It almost has the ring of a Stephen King story, with good old country boy Eli figuring out that his sexy wife Janet is cheating with Barney, a muscular young stud who just bought the farm nearby. Eli mulls over that sinkhole he’s been needing to fill in the backyard. Webb just keeps dragging it out, even though a crayon-sniffing toddler could figure out where it’s going from page one; Eli announces to everyone that he’s going to fill that hole with rocks, but he’ll need help, and hey, that Barney is muscular, ain’t he?

But Eli doesn’t toss Barney in the sinkhole, when the tale comes to the climax, instead pulling a gun on him and telling him to scram and never come back. Meanwhile Janet’s gotten so suspicious, particularly when Barney turns up missing, that she eventually calls the cops – who come over and say they’re gonna dig out that sinkhole and want Eli to stay here while they’re doing it, in case they find something down there they shouldn’t. A cocksure Eli says he might as well go along with them…the end!

I enjoyed each of these stories, even though none of them were knockouts that had me plunging back into a hardboiled kick – the book did at least make me want to read more of Turner’s work, as mentioned, so I’ll be reviewing Shroud 9 soon.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Another great post, Joe. I'm a fan of that book, too. By the way, the cover art is by the great Mort Kunstler, who did hundreds of great cover and interior illustrations for the men's adventure magazines published by Martin Goodman's Magazine Management company, which was also the parent company of the Lion Library paperbacks.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Bob. I always forget to credit the cover artists!