Monday, July 10, 2017

The Bite

The Bite, by Eric Corder
July, 1975  Dell Books

Eric Corder, a pseudonym used by an author named Jerrold Mundis, published several “plantation lust”-type paperbacks in the ‘70s, with lurid cover paintings promising forbidden interracial romance. As far as I’m aware, The Bite was the only contemporary novel Corder/Mundis published, and it’s just the sort of sleazy ‘70s crime novel I love, taking place in dingy Manhattan and featuring a cast of appropriately screwed-up characters.

One thing Corder retains from those plantation yarns is the dual black-white leads; here we have Wylie Lincoln, a black ex-cop who was kicked off the force years ago due to a graft crackdown, and who now runs the Cerebrus School for Dogs in Manhattan. Wylie has kept his love for the high-life and lives in a cozy penthouse suite, dresses to the nines in all the current pimp-esque fashions (there’s about as much clothing label namedropping here as in the average installment of The Headhunters, by the way), and he has all the expensive toys a jet-setting dude could want. He’s also got an ex-wife named Evadne, a black fashion supermodel, who still grants him occasional sex privileges. Wylie maintains his love for the high life via a sort-of private eye business he runs on the side, taking the occasional job for big cash payoffs.

Russ Turner (mistakenly identified as “Ross” on the back cover) is the white lead protagnoist, Wylie’s partner in both Cerebrus and the PI biz. In fact Russ, an ex-con who fought in the Special Forces in ‘Nam, does all the heavy lifting for Wylie’s private eye jobs: tailing suspects, beating them up when necessary, threatening their lives and whatnot. His backstory, strewn through the narrative, has it that he was raised in various foster homes before finding a lease on life in Vietnam, but when he was shot to pieces and returned to New York with a game leg, he turned to knocking over stores. After his second bust he found a job at Cerebrus, where he discovered his natural talent for training dogs. Now he’s Wylie’s best friend and main confidant.

But don’t let the black-white leads fool you into thinking this will be a wisecracking combo along the lines of Razoni & Jackson. While Wylie has the occasional smart-ass line and joke, Russ is more of a taciturn sort, morose and moody. I’ve never read any of Max Collins’s Quarry books, but from what I know of the titular character, Russ Taylor is very similar to Quarry, even down to the fact that he took a few hit contracts after ‘Nam, murdering people for cash before he found his own personal redemption.

The novel opens with Corder capturing mid-‘70s New York in all its funky, tawdry glory, as Wylie, Russ, and Evadne come out of Madison Square Garden on a nice spring night, having caught a heavyweight boxing match, and Corder brings to life the Big Apple in all its flowing colors. I knew I was in for a total ‘70s joint when he had a pair of pimps in outlandish attire checking out Wylie’s threads and throwing appreciative come-ons to Evadne. Throughout Corder delivers those shaggy ‘70s details I so love, and here for once is a ‘70s crime novel that totally captures the sordid vibe of the era. It is in many ways a sort of time capsule.

The trio is accosted by a man in a limo who pulls up and insists they come to a party he’s headed for, over at millionaire Malcom Chasteen’s penthouse. The guy in the limo is Neal Cummings, he’s been hitting on Evadne for a long time, and he says all the jetsetters will be at the party. But the trio says no and heads their separate ways, Corder capturing more of that ‘70s zeitgeist with Wylie and Evadne getting high in Wylie’s lush bachelor’s pad on high-grade marijuana before having some fairly-explicit sex. Next morning Wylie’s mind is blown when he reads in the paper that Malcolm Chasteen’s party was knocked over –two people were gunned down by masked, shotgun-wielding burglars, and tons of jewelry and cash was stolen. The cops have no leads.

Here we get to the material that will make up for the majority of the narrative; the life of a dog trainer. I’ve found that Mundis has published a few dog training books under his own name, so the dude certainly has experience in the field. The Cerebrus school staff handles a wide range of dogs, and Corder shows us all the details of training dogs to do this and that. Admittedly I didn’t have as much interest in this material and wanted to get back to the sleazy crime stuff. But there’s a lot of dog-training material in The Bite, and readers who happen to be dog-lovers will no doubt enjoy it more than I did.

Almost as narrative-consuming as the dog material is the trash fiction-esque stuff of the assorted high-society types Wylie encounters throughout, from an obese lady who tries to get him to bring some dogs on a fundraising venture (from which she tells him how they can reap profits) to a Norman Mailer-esque novelist who was at the party at Chasteen’s and has gotten a contract for a book on the subject. Another high-society type Wylie meets is Lesley Maraceck, a friend of Evadne’s and a fellow model; Lesley offers Wylie the job which will make up the main plot.

Lesley was at the Chasteen party, and a special golden cigarette case was taken from her by the heisters. What makes it special was the photos Lesley had hidden inside a special compartment of the case. Lesley is the mistress of a Mafia boss named Victor LaMorena, and the sob story Lesley tells Wylie has it that, prior to her relationship with LaMorena, Lesley would have sex with various men at some hotel. Someone has gotten photos of these illicit meetings and is blackmailing Leslie; she must pay a monthly fee, or the negatives will be turned over to LaMorena, who no doubt will maim and mutilate Lesley in rage. Each month Lesley is mailed a new set of photos with payment demands; after the latest payment she’d put the photos in the cigarette case, left them there without thinking, and now they are in the hands of some criminals. She’s terrified the criminals will find the photos, recognize her face, and somehow LaMorena will find out about the photos after all.

Wylie takes the job, though he has no leads to go on, and figures the heisters will care less about Lesley’s cigarette case in the first place, given all the cash and diamonds they scored at the party. The private eye portion of the narrative comes and goes for the first half, and in its own way attributes to the page-filling, like for example an overlong card game Russ takes part in to root out more info from partygoers who witnessed the masked robbers. However the stuff with the negatives leads to what for me was the highlight of The Bite. Shortly after being hired by Lesley, Wylie and Russ go about figuring out who is blackmailing her in the first place.

Russ tails the guy from where Lesley drops off her payment, in a garbage can at Grand Central Station, and ends up cornering him in his fleabag apartment. Tying the dude up and brandishing a gun, Russ successfully scares the shit out of him – literally. This whole sequence is done in that hardcore ‘70s crime style I so love, though Russ doesn’t kill the sap. Turns out the guy is a professional photographer who runs a sidejob with a dude who works in a local hotel; they secretly photograph the occasional guest in the hopes of scoring nice blackmail material. Wylie accompanies the man to his studio where he burns the negatives. This takes care of one part of Lesley’s problem, but there’s still the issue of the surviving photos in the stolen cigarette case.

Corder also brings in the occasional bit of ‘70s sleave I also love. Early in the book a lonely Russ goes out into the Village, which he lives near, and picks up a scrawny but “big-breasted” hippie chick like seconds after leaving his place. He takes her back and she ends up living with him for a time, and Corder seems as if he’s building up a sentimental sort of love story in which dour Russ and the bitter hippie chick, who is named Beth, will find love with one another. Corder even delivers appropriately heartwarming dialog courtesy Beth in their initial, graphically-depicted sex scene (“Stick your finger up my ass! Hurry!”). But Beth turns out to be a user, having guys up to Russ’s room when he isn’t around, and then just flat-out taking off one day while he’s out working on the Maraceck case.

Once we get through more Cerebrus school stuff, including an arbitrary subplot in which one of those society dames develops a thig for Russ and unsuccessfully tries to get him in bed, we finally get back to the case. In that overlong card game Russ has learned that one of the heisters got cut and seemed paranoid. From this Wylie deduces the man must’ve been a hemophiliac, and he checks hospital records for that night. In this fashion they finally track down one of the heisters, who lives in Illinois. He is in fact a hemophiliac, and was one of the shotgun-wielders, but didn’t shoot anyone. Wylie flies there, breaks into the guy’s place, and interrogates him.

This lead sends Russ, still in New York, into the dingy depths of the city, where he roots out more of the heisters. As mentioned, Corder litters the book with topical ‘70s details, and one of them really made me chuckle. One of the robbers lives in a torn-up apartment rife with hippies and psychedelic art, and when Russ goes there Corder notes that one of the posters is of “Dennis the Menace on a souped-up tricycle giving the viewer the middle finger.” Folks, this is a real poster; in fact it’s a blacklight poster. I know this because I actually have it – it’s from the early ‘70s and I got one several years ago when I was on a blacklight poster kick. (It’s still sitting in a frame in my study room, where it’s been waiting to be hung on the wall for the past 11 years). Here it is:

Russ is able to lure out more of the robbers, which leads to a brief shootout on a darkened pier, Russ wielding a Mauser he keeps hidden in a secret wall in his apartment. Russ also scores his sole kill in the novel, courtesy a Special Forces-taught palm to the nose, which sends shards of bone into the victim’s brains. Ransacking the corpses’s pockets, Russ and Wylie get an address in New Jersey, which turns out to be a house owned by the dead man. They search the place, calling in their dogs, and gradually find all of the diamonds and etc in a special gasoline tank in a van sitting in front of the house. Also here is Lesley’s cigarette case, for which Wylie is able to collect his hefty fee from Lesley, who initially tries to cheat him out of his pay.

The finale is this slow-burn, inordinately drawn-out sting Wylie plans out to capture the man he has determined was behind the robbery – which turns out to have been a hit disguised as a heist. It’s none other than Neal Cummings, the man who invited them to the party in the first place, and Wylie capitalizes on his interest in Evadne, using her to lure Neal on a date, during which some cops swoop in and bust him. It’s kind of a middling finale, and I personally would’ve preferred more gun-blazing, palm-slamming action courtesy Russ.

Speaking of whom, Russ gets the finale of the novel, and it’s an off-kilter finale at that, with a lonely Russ again heading out into the city and going on a run with his dog(?). But this is how The Bite ends, and while it isn’t the most memorable finale, at least our two leads are still alive, and it makes me wonder why there was no followup; Corder easily could’ve turned in a few more books about these two characters.

Corder’s writing is good, with as mentioned colorful topical details and memorable dialog, with a heaping helping of sleaze to gussy up the proceedings. But it must be mentioned that he strives for a “literary” vibe throughout, with stuff like, “Times Square was a wet rectal chancre.” Or how about: “…the city was made restless in sleep by dreams of rupture in the encircling membrane, seepage and metastasis. Times Square was weak and vicious, a flayer – like its people, who could not wholly believe in their own existence.” This sort of thing borders on The Ninja-esque pretentiousness, folks, but bear in mind the whole novel isn’t so self-indulgent.

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