Thursday, December 16, 2010

Baby Moll, by John Farris

John Farris has written an enormous quantity of fiction of various types during his lifetime. He started his writing career at a very young age with a number of hardboiled crime novels, including Baby Moll (published in 1958 when he was 24).

Baby Moll is a fairly stock-standard hardboiled tale, owing a considerable debt to Hammett.

Pete Mallory was a gangster, but eventually decided the life of crime was just not worth the rice. So he retired and bought himself a sporting goods store in a remote town. And he met Elaine, and they became engaged. He’d just about got to the stage where he was no longer reaching for a gun at every sudden noise, and was actually able to to just enjoy himself sitting and fishing.

And then his past came back to reclaim him. His old gang boss, Macy Barr, is also being haunted by his past. Years earlier when he was getting started in the protection racket he’d had to teach a recalcitrant store-owner a lesson. The store-owner and his entire family perished in the subsequent fire. Well, not quite. There was one survivor. And now all of the hoodlums involved in that incident are being hunted down and killed, one by one. Macy Barr is getting old, he’s losing control of his crime empire, and he’s scared. Not just for himself, but for a young orphan girl he’s adopted. Macy has finally found the ability to care for another human being and he’s not ready to die yet.

His one chance is to persuade his old right-hand man Pete Mallory, to help him out. If anyone can find and stop the killer it’s Pete Mallory. Pete wants no part of that old life, but he owes Macy a big favour. At a time when he was just about ready to give in to despair and give up on life Macy had forced him to pull himself together. He owes Macy his life, and it’s a debt he has to repay.

Macy is holed up on a island fortress with an odd collection of goons, family members and assorted hangers-on. All kinds of sexual and emotional dramas are being played out on the island, but Pete has to try to keep himself as free of these entanglements as possible. Which isn’t easy, especially with beautiful naked women wanting to get friendly with him.

Pete is good at his job but the situations continues to spiral out of control, and corpses keep accumulating. The story builds to a very dark finale.

Baby Moll isn’t one of the great hardboiled classics but it’s stylish pulpy entertainment. There’s as much seediness as you could wish for, quite a bit of sleaze and lots of desperation. Macy Barr is an interesting creation, a vicious crime boss with some surprising human weaknesses, a character you can both hate and yet for whom you can feel a strange compassion.

Farris doesn’t add very much to the genre (unlike other writers of the time like Jim Thompson) but at the age of 24 he’d mastered the basics of the style pretty effectively. It’s a fine well-crafted example of its type and its re-issue in the Hard Case Crime series was extremely welcome.

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