Monday, September 14, 2015

The Devil's Lash

The Devil's Lash, by Louis Karney
No month stated, 1959  Newsstand Library

I’ve been reading how a lot of so-called “sleaze” novels of the ‘50s and ‘60s were really just pulp crime novels with slightly risque softcore content, and if The Devil’s Lash is any indication, that’s right on the money – this book is almost identical to something Gold Medal might’ve published, only gussied up with a few sex scenes that are more so lyrical/metaphorical than explicit. 

I tracked down this obscure curiosity due to the cover, of course. The scene depicted does occur in the novel itself, and is likely the reason readers back then plunked down their thirty-five cents for a copy. Newsstand Library was a smut peddler, and doubtless The Devil’s Lash was hard to find in its day; it’s even harder now, with prices placed accordingly high. No idea who “Louis Kasner” was but I’m assuming it was a pseudonym. The book is copyright Newsstand but there is a definite quality to the writing, as of an old pulp hand at work, skillfully doling out his tale in a short 128 pages.

The novel is written in third-person. Our hero is Paul Mantell, a salesman in his 30s with a wife and kid back in Los Angeles. He’s currently in Portland on business. A woman he doesn’t know comes into Paul’s hotel room late one night and sets off a bizarre sequence of events that will take Paul’s life into unexpected directions over the next few days. In this earlier era of house detectives and whatnot, Paul is aghast that someone will find the woman in his room and he’ll be arrested. But the woman, who says her name is Gale Jensen, comes on strong, saying he paid for her and etc; she think he’s someone named Donald Coombs.

Then some big stooge lumbers in, slaps Gale around, claiming she tried to rip him off, and slams Paul down for good measure. The two leave and Paul brushes it off, going to bed…only to wake up a few hours later with Gale Jensen in bed with him. Only now she’s a corpse. Realizing he’s been set up, he finds that Donald Coombs was a guy who was supposed to be in this room but changed rooms at the last moment. When Paul confronts the guy, Coombs claims not to know anything, but Paul pressures him and he finally gives out vague details about the Kensing Club, for which the now-dead Gale Jensen and a brunette “with large breasts” named Karen works.

Paul, evading the cops, heads for the Kensing Club, discovering the big stooge’s corpse along the way. As soon as he arrives he’s accused of murdering Gale by the rotund and sleazy owner of the place, Solas. Paul’s knocked out and wakes up cuffed and confronted by the titular lash: a leather whip wielding by a smokin’-hot brunette with big ol’ boobs. This is the lady Coombs told him of, Karen, a dominatrix who makes big bucks from bondage and torture freaks. And the lady enjoys her work. After trying in vain to get Paul to sign a confession of Gale Jensen’s murder, Karen calmly takes off her clothes, displaying her magnificent “sculptured marble” body, and proceeds to whip the holy hell out of him.

The way these things go, Karen as expected gets all hot and bothered – but so does Paul, despite the pain of the lashing. “I love you, I love you,” moans Karen, bathed in sweat from her exertions, as she falls on Paul’s battered and bloody form and begins kissing the wounds on his back. Apparently this is Karen’s schtick, we’ll learn: falling in love with the men who endure her most savage whippings. She rolls Paul over and here we have the first of the novel’s sex scenes. Despite being in the same metaphorical style as the others, it’s also the most explicit:

And then man and woman were joined… They were rocking on the floor, her body driving against his like pistons. He cried out as the manacled hands behind his back were driven against the floor by the fury of her movements, and he begged her to stop because of the tearing pain; but in the next breath he pleaded for her not to stop because the fingers of passion were clawing at him, opening new vistas of pleasure he had never before experienced.

So as you can see, we’re not talking about Harold Robbins here. Paul passes out after his orgasm (I assume mostly from the whipping, though), and when he comes to he finds himself in the cozy home of hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Ellen. Another employee of the Kensing Club, Ellen is a cute blonde who takes to Paul like a mother hen, dressing his wounds and making him meals. She claims that Paul was brought to her by a Mexican whore who also works at the club, one whom Paul was briefly nice to on his way in earlier that night.

Paul learns that news of Gale Jensen’s murder has made the papers and Paul himself is proclaimed as the murder suspect. He tries to call his wife, only for her to scream at him that he’s a no-good cheater and a murderer. He’s determined to clear his name, and Ellen offers up more clues. Gold Medal usually featured regular-guy protagonists, and Paul Mantell is no different. He barrels along without much planning, chasing one clue after another. He doesn’t even consider until too late, for example, that Ellen’s helping him might put her in jeopardy with Solas, whom we’re told is a top Syndicate guy.

There is only sporadic action; Paul gets in a quick scuffle with a would-be assassin when he sneaks into the palatial home of James B. Smith, Jr, who turns out to be Donald Coombs himself, Coombs being the name Smith uses for his sleazy escapades. But Paul’s such a non-action guy that he doesn’t even pick up the assassin’s discarded gun after knocking him out. Rather than action the focus is more on suspense and atmosphere, not to mention the occasional sex scene, like when Paul and Ellen get it on. But this is different than with Karen, as Paul feels himself growing feelings for the gal, and vice versa.

Karen unfortunately disappears for the rest of the novel, only showing up toward the very end to capture Ellen, tying her up and threatening to kill her. By now Paul has figured out the hazy scheme behind it all: Solas was trying to blackmail James Smith Jr, as Smith’s father is a bigshot newspaper magnate who has been trying to shut down corruption in Portland. Meanwhile Gale Jensen was trying to get more money from Smith, so she had to go as well. Or something like that. Ultimately what matters is that Karen turns out to be the one who was supposed to kill Gale, but the big stooge ended up killing her, and then Karen killed the stooge. Paul deduces all of this due to the lipstick marks he saw on the back of Coombs that night – Karen’s “cute trick of kissing men’s backs” having outed her as the murderer.

The finale is goofy – Karen, recall, is in love with Paul, so he’s able to talk her into handing over the .38 she’s holding on him! Then Paul, brandishing two of her whips, dual-lashes Karen until she’s hamburger. But then the cops show…turns out they’ve been using Paul as bait all along…tailing him…and oh yeah there’s a bug in the room so they got it all on record where Karen admitted to killing everyone. And since she’s just barely still living there’s no worry that Paul will have to suffer any legal consequences for her death! In fact, he’s scott free!

Karen’s hauled off to prison and Paul escorts Ellen to the hospital, the lady only having suffered minor injuries from her brief adbuction, and here Karney ends the tale…with way too many questions unanswered. Right before this Paul was dumbstruck by a newspaper article in which his wife – who previously had called him a cheat and hung up on him – said he was a loving father and husband and she doubted he was a killer. So this has confused him, and meanwhile he’s fallen in love with Ellen. So what’s Paul going to do? Stay with Ellen or go back to his wife? Karney leaves it up to us to decide. I mean it’s one hell of an abrupt ending.

As mentioned Karney’s writing isn’t bad; he just methodically tells the tale without any fancy stuff. I did note a strange tendency to hyphenate verbs, ie “Paul quick-looked around.” This is done so often in the narrative that it might provide a clue of who really wrote it. Also the author appears to realize he’s writing a goofy crime novel for a smut outfit, and clearly has fun with it, subtly mocking his own tale. For example there’s a part where Paul tries to call Ellen and she doesn’t answer and a litany of worries crosses Paul’s mind – she might be dead, she might kidnapped, etc…or he might have just dialed the wrong number! Luckily this isn’t played too over the top, so the novel never decends into parody or satire.


Ron Clinton said...

While a lot of sleaze noir isn't worth the time or $$, there are some gems to be found. I have a few sleaze authors whose work I really enjoy and whose talent belies the "sleaze" label. As you mention in your essay, a number of these novels would have been right at home in the Gold Medal lineup. Nice write-up, btw.

Sleaze PB Life said...

I've read a fair amount of the Newsstand Library offerings over the years and I agree with you; they're not half bad. One (Streets Paved with Gold by Friday Locke, U-101) was even filmed by Russ Meyer and retitled Mudhoney. Both the book and the film are pretty awesome.
Some of the Newsstand Libraries were reprinted as high number Playtimes with altered titles and author bylines. (Then too, Playtimes were reprinted as Magentas, later.)
Anyway, great to see you delving into the sleaze genre, which I collect primarily. (With forays into Westerns, mysteries, men's action, etc.)
Check out some of the low number (pre-500) Beelines if you get a chance. The writing in some of those might surprise you as well.