Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"-And the Girl Screamed" by Gil Brewer

Crest Book No. 147, 1956

The story begins with our hero, Cliff,  being denied an opportunity to return to the police force because a panel of cops and prominent citizens decide he can't handle a gun after having his arm permanently injured by an escaped convict.  The chief opposition to his return is mounted by Edward Thayer, with whose wife Cliff has been having an affair.  Cliff is despondent at the panel’s decision, his only solace is the knowledge that he is closer than ever to convincing Eve Thayer to leave her husband.  That night Cliff and Eve are on the beach discussing how they can deal with Edward, who has vowed to destroy both Cliff and Eve if they don’t terminate their affair, when . . .

A girl screamed.  It was the damnedest thing I’d ever heard.  It ripped across the soft night, a crazed shriek of pure helplessness and fear.

Cliff and Eve discover a young blond, dead.  They catch a glimpse of the killer and he, perhaps, sees them.  While trying to figure out how to deal with the situation without making their seaside tryst public knowledge, Cliff makes a mistake that will soon make him the prime suspect in the young girl’s murder. 

While -And The Girl Screamed employs the very common theme of a man wrongly accused trying to clear his name while on the run from the cops, it is relatively original in its approach and highly entertaining.  Brewer was firing on all cylinders and I rank The Girl up there with some of his best.  I found it far superior to So Rich, So Dead, another man wrongly accused story. 

The entertainment value comes primarily from the fact that the killer turns out to be the leader of a vicious gang of high school kids.  Cliff has some violent run-ins with the gang and is nearly seduced by one of the  gang’s 16 year-old female members.  This is the first Brewer novel I’ve come across that incorporates a 50s social scare issue.  If parents don’t pay enough attention to their kids, obviously they will form a hyper-violent and depraved youth gang while hiding it through decent grades and football scholarships.  It's a good thing that all those happy young families in the 50s had novels like this to warn them of the perils lurking in the dark side of suburbia.  I particularly liked the message at the end:

“Something’s got to be done about all those kids.” Andy said.  “Jinny’s dead, and God knows what a jury will do to Roberson.  But maybe if we get the town stirred up enough, get their parents feeling guilty enough, we can help the rest of them. They’re young,” he said “they don’t have to spend their lives this crazy way.”

In all seriousness, -And The Girl Screamed is a damned good read.  It’s not hard-boiled and it has a happy ending, but it is a crime story and those dark noir elements, of which Brewer was a master, show through.  Any fan of 50s pulps should enjoy it, if for nothing more than to learn how important it is to pay attention to the kids.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stop This Man! by Peter Rabe

Hard Case Crime No. 58
Gold Medal No. k1403

Tony Catell is a professional thief. A buddy tips him off about an easy score - a gold ingot kept in a university lab.  Tony gets the gold, but doesn’t realize that it has been used in an experiment and it is radioactive.  Soon the FBI is on his trail.  He manages to stay one step ahead of the feds, but the radioactive gold he is carrying leaves a trail of sickness and death. 

    This setup seems gimmicky and dated.  Indeed, the novel starts slowly and the radioactive gold angle doesn’t really capture the imagination.  The gold, however, is just a Macguffin and novel really starts to pick up steam after the first few chapters. What sets Stop This Man! apart from similar cops and robber/cross-country chase novels is Rabe’s excellent characterization.  He allows his characters to think and act realistically and the settings are appropriately seedy.  The dialogue is hard-boiled, but doesn’t seem contrived.  Catell is not too bright and easily manipulated.  He is, however, a very talented thief and not a guy you want to corner.  By the end of the novel I liked Catell and wanted to see him avoid his inevitable fate. 

    Rabe switches the story between Catell and the activities of the FBI agent trying to track him down.  The portions dealing with the FBI are shorter and, beyond some amusing cop dialogue, don’t add much to the story.  There are a few events in the story that seem tacked on, like Rabe was just trying to add length.  In particular, a chapter or two deals with Catell being waylaid by a hick Sheriff in small-town Arizona.  This isn’t the first 50s crime novel I’ve read that had the story interrupted by just such an event.  Strange . . . .   

    Peter Rabe cranked out quite a few hardboiled novels for Gold Medal.  Stark House Press has
re-published 8 of his novels.  I’ve read that Stop This Man! is not one of Rabe’s better stories.  I think it stands above many of its peers, absent the slow beginning.  Perhaps some of Rabe’s other novels are consistently good from start to finish and I am anxious to try out another one.

For a moment the thought made him see red.  A thousand acrid hates rose in his throat.  He closed his eyes, trying to control the fine trembling that crept through his body. He took a harsh breath. Watch it Catell. You’re getting like a lophead taking the cold turkey.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Casino" by Nicholas Pileggi

    I recently was surfing the net and somehow ran across Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s website.  Lefty died just about a year ago, but his website is still out there in cyberspace.  For those not in the know, Lefty was long-time handicapper that ran the Stardust Hotel & Casino for the mob in the 70s.  His story was the subject of the Scorcese film Casino, in which he was played by Robert DeNiro, and the book of the same name by Nicholas Pileggi.  Although I love the movie, I knew that Pileggi’s novel would probably contain a much more detailed account of Lefty’s fascinating life and times in Las Vegas, so I decided to check it out. 

    Casino may be a “true crime” novel, but it is pure pulp.  As the ads for National Geographic’s Locked Up Abroad proclaim- real life is better than fiction.  It’s all here: money, the high life, and enough criminal scheming to make your head spin.

    Like the movie, the story begins with Lefty narrowly escaping a car bomb planted in his Cadillac outside of Tony Roma’s in Vegas.  From there Pileggi gives us a detailed look at how the mob became “partners” with the hapless Allen Glick and his Argent Corporation in several Vegas casinos.  The various methods by which the mob skimmed millions of dollars from these casinos and the eventual accidental discovery of the skim by the FBI is told in much greater detail than seen in the movie. 

    Of course, that is only the back story.  The novel really focuses on Lefty’s wild ride as he tries to run the casino while dealing with the Nevada Gaming Commission, his whacked-out wife Geri, and his “friend”, mob wild-man Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in the movie).  On his website, Lefty was always telling his readers that his life in Vegas wasn’t as great as one would think.  It may not have been pleasant or fun, but it sure was crazy. 

    Casino is a fantastic read for any lover of pulp fiction and crime stories.  Even if you have seen the movie too many times to count, like me, Pileggi’s book is well worth a read.