Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

I have a bit of a weakness for swashbuckling tales of adventure, and I think it’s fair to say that the greatest writer of such stories in the English language was Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950). And The Sea Hawk, originally published in 1915, is generally regarded as one of his finest works.

Sabatini was born in Italy. His mother was English and from the age of seventeen he made his home in England. All his books were written in English.

Like his even more famous Captain Blood which came out in 1922) The Sea Hawk is the story of a reluctant pirate. The Tressilian family has a reputation for hot tempers and for morals that could charitably be described as relaxed. The young Sir Oliver Tressilian certainly shares the family reputation, although in his case it’s a little unfair. He is aware of his tendency to anger quickly and he is trying to curb that weakness.

He has an incentive to do so. He is in love with Rosamund Goldolphin. The Godolophins are both neighbours and traditional enemies of the Tressilians and Rosamund’s unstable brother Peter hates Sir Oliver with a passion. Sir Oliver is determined not to be provoked by the impetuous youth. He has sworn to Rosamund that Peter will never meet with harm from him.

His good intentions are to no avail. When Peter Godolphin is found dead of a sword thrust the general assumption is that Sir Oliver was his slayer. Even Rosamund believes this. He is in fact innocent, but is trapped between family loyalty and self-interest and is unable to convince her that he is guiltless. And his troubles have only just begun. He is treacherously kidnapped and finds himself at sea, and worse soon follows. The ship is taken by the Spaniards, and this being the late 16th century, the age of Queen Elizabeth, being taken by the Spaniards is very bad news indeed. Particularly in light of the fact that Tressilian has in the past been involved in maritime adventures that the Spanish are inclined to regard as being simple piracy.

Tressilian is sentenced to the galleys, but help comes from an unlikely quarter. His galley is captured by Moslem corsairs. Sir Oliver decides that being a Christian hasn’t done him much good and is easily persuaded to adopt the Moslem faith. This proves to be a very good move. Like many another Christian renegade he adapts quickly to life as a Barbary corsair and within a few years is the right-hand man to the Basha of Algiers. Sir Oliver Tressilian is now the famous Moslem corsair Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea-Hawk. Piracy is a profession for which he has a true gift.

He believes he has shaken off his past, but it will come back to haunt him in unexpected ways and he will face some very difficult choices.

And of course he will have many adventures on the way.

Sir Oliver is a wonderful larger-than-life character. He is a flawed hero, or perhaps an heroic villain, but either way he’s entertaining and likeable. He is in fact a classic swashbuckling hero but with a dark side.

Sabatini tells his colourful tale with a great deal of flair. The plot is quite intricate and although it relies rather a lot on coincidence this is one of the conventions of this type of fiction. The lives of heroes are guided by fate, after all.

Immense fun, highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

I’m rather partial to Sword & Sorcery novels, and for me the greatest of all Sword & Sorcery writers was Robert E. Howard. His stories are immensely entertaining, and astonishingly dark and doom-laden.

One of his better known creations is the Puritan swordsman and adventurer Solomon Kane. He’s kind of like a 17th century gothic Batman, righting wrongs and pursuing obsessive vengeance. None of Howard’s characters are particularly happy, and Kane is no exception. He does, however, have a purpose in life which he pursues with single-minded zeal.

I’ve just finished a collection of Howard’s stories about Kane, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. I don’t think the overall standard is quite as high as that of the Conan tales, but there are still some absolute gems to be found here. My favourites are Hills of the Dead and the astoundingly gloomy Wings in the Night. If you have a taste for this sort of thing then you must read the Solomon Kane stories. If you’ve never read Robert E. Howard and want to give him a try then you’re better off starting with the Conan stories.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Grifters, by Jim Thompson

The Grifters, published in 1963, is one of Jim Thompson’s later works. To say anything about the plot would be to risk spoilers, so I’ll just say it’s about a young con-man, Roy, and his mother, who works for a big-time racketeer. While his plotting is extremely skilful the characters matter much more, and in this novel he creates three memorable and exceptionally complex characters. Even the nurse, a relatively minor character, has a depth and complexity you don’t expect in crime fiction.

The descriptions of the various cons are fascinating – Roy is strictly a short-con operator, practising small-scale deceptions that rely as much as anything on confusing the victim so he ends up not even being certain if he’s actually been swindled or not. They’re small-scale cons, but if you’re skilled enough and pull off enough of them you can over time amass a very large amount of money, and Roy is very good indeed at his work. Roy’s mother is also involved in swindling people, but on a larger scale through crooked racetrack gambling operations. Doing this kind of thing for a living puts you into a world where nothing is genuine, where nothing and nobody can be trusted, where duplicity invades every waking minute of your life.

Thompson is also a master of the hard-boiled prose style, and the combination of this and his adeptness at characterisation and his gift for irony would have been enough to make him a very fine crime writer. Thompson adds other elements, however, elements you don’t expect to find in a crime novel. In both The Grifters and The Getaway, the only two Thompson books I’ve read so far, there’s also more than a touch of strangeness. One moment you’re reading straightforward genre fiction, then suddenly it seems you’re into the realm of weird fiction, or (in the case of the ending to The Getaway) even of horror. It’s like a film noir that suddenly turns into an episode of The Twilight Zone. In the case of The Grifters that happens during the brief flashback to the life that Moira (Roy’s girlfriend) led with The Farmer.

In Thompson’s work I get the feeling that the criminal plots and the underworld settings are just a convenient too for a writer who is pursuing other agendas, a writer who wants to take us into some of the darkest recesses of the human psyche. He explores some very dark corners of the soul indeed in The Grifters.

I believe this is considered to be one of his lesser novels. If a book as good as this can be considered a lesser work then I can’t wait to read some of his better stuff! Perhaps even more than Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett this is an author whose novels deserve, indeed demand, to be considered as major works of both literature and pulp fiction.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Metropolis, by Thea von Harbou

Thea von Harbou is best known today as the wife of the great film director Fritz Lang and his close collaborator on most of his early German masterpieces. She not only co-wrote the scripts, she also turned several of them into novels, including perhaps the most famous of all, Metropolis.

She had in fact written several novels prior to her marriage to Lang and had been an actress as well. While Lang left Germany in the early 30s von Harbou remained and her career in the wartime German film industry is rather controversial.

The city of Metropolis is dominated by the will of Joh Fredersen. This is a vision of a city of the future, a city of machines. The machines require people to operate them, and the machines consume their operators. Their appetite is limitless. There is an underground city beneath Metropolis which provides the machines with the human they require. The upper city is a kind of playground for the rich, with sex and drugs being the main item on the menu.

Joh Fredersen is not a particularly happy man. His wife died giving birth to his son Freder. He had stolen his wife from his friend Rotwang, the inventor of genius largely responsible for the construction of the city. Joh Fredersen becomes alienated from his son when Freder discovers what the machines are doing to people. Freder meets a woman named Maria, a charismatic leader who offers the oppressed of Metropolis hope for change. Those who run Metropolis are its head. Those who work the machines are Metropolis’s hands. To mediate between the brain and the hands a heart is needed, and she tells them a mediator will arise who will fulfill that function.

Maria wants peaceful change but once revolutions are set in motion violence and destruction inevitably follow.

There is also a false Maria, a robot created by Rotwang. Rotwang has his own agenda in regard to the future of Metropolis.

It’s many many years since I’ve seen the movie so it’s difficult for me to compare the book and the movie. What does strike me about the book is the extent of the religious imagery. While the story can be (and has been) seen as a critique of capitalism I’m inclined to see that as a very simplistic explanation. The novel at least seems to me to reflect a horror of revolution, doubtless a reaction to the brutality and viciousness of the Russian Revolution. While the machines are monsters devouring human beings, von Harbou depicts the mob violence inseparable from revolution as being even more monstrous.

Freder certainly seems to be a Christ figure, with Maria being perhaps both the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Whatever von Harbou’s religious beliefs may have been Lang was certainly a Catholic, and identified himself as such throughout his life. The quite overt Catholic themes may therefore have originated with him. Lang and von Harbou had co-written the screenplay so that while the novel was von Harbou’s work alone it’s likely that these Catholic themes were carried over from the movie.

Much of the impact of the movies comes from the extraordinary visuals but von Harbou does an effective job in conveying the character of Metropolis by purely verbal means.

There’s perhaps just a touch more sentimenality in the novel than I recall from the film.

The movie’s status as one of the great dystopian science fiction tales is secure. Thea von Harbou’s novel deserves to be recognised as an important work of science fiction in its on right. It’s also a relatively rare and therefore interesting example of German science fiction. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt

The brilliant but cantakerous Professor Challenger, the hero of Conan Doyle’s classic science fiction tale The Lost World, is one again the central figure in an even stranger 1913 story, The Poison Belt.

It’s typical of Conan Doyle’s science fiction which at times could be very strange indeed.

In 1913 physicists still believed in the ether, a mysterious substance which was supposed to fill the universe. At the time the existence of such a medium seemed to be the only satisfactory way to explain such concepts as gravity and the propagation of light. Physicists could not adequately explain how such forces could operate in a vacuum so therefore they reasoned that the ether had to exist even if it appeared to be undetectable.

In The Poison Belt this mysterious substance suddenly becomes a deadly threat as the Earth passes through a belt in the ether, a belt of poisonous ether. To Professor Challenger it is clear that no animal or human life can possibly survive this encounter. The end can however be postponed by the use of oxygen - if the oxygen content of the air in a confined space (such as a room in the professor’s house) can be increased sufficiently it may be possible to survive for quite a while, and since the end of the world is a matter of considerable scientific interest the Professor intends to witness it. Such an event demands to be recorded by a particularly brilliant scientist and Professor Challenger is not aware of anyone more brilliant than himself.

And given the magnitude of this event it also seems only right that he should invite his companions from the earlier expedition to the Lost World to witness it with him. So Professor Summerlee, the soldier and adventurer Lord John Roxton and reporter Edward Malone are summoned to the professor’s country house.

The earth has already started to enter the poison belt, and reports are coming in from all parts of the globe of the consequences - dramatic behaviour changes followed inevitably by death. It appears that the end truly has come.

Of course there has to be some kind of twist ending and what you fear in a case like this is one of those incredibly annoying “and then I woke up and it had all been a dream” endings. Fortunately Conan Doyle does not inflict that upon us. Whether the ending he does come up with is entirely satisfactory is another matter but it’s still a bizarre and original little story.

All of Conan Doyle’s science fiction stories are worth reading. While the fame of Sherlock Holmes has overshadowed his writings in other genres his contribution to the development of science fiction was immense.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Benson Murder Case

Of all the books that have some claim to being considered classics of the crime genre none have divided readers quite so dramatically as S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels. The features that exasperate and enrage critics of these books are the very things that delight their admirers. I’m very much in the camp of the admirers.

The Benson Murder Case kicked off the series in 1926. Philo Vance has often confided to his friend Markham, New York’s District Attorney, that he would love to have the chance to try his hand at crime-solving. He has developed some interesting theories on the subject and it would amuse him greatly to put them to the test. When wealthy broker and somewhat notorious playboy Alvin Benson is found shot to death in puzzling circumstances Markham is finally persuaded to give Vance his opportunity.

Vance wastes no time in making obvious his considerable disdain for the professional crime-solvers of the police and the DA’s office. To Vance they seem to be hopelessly addicted to the pernicious practice of looking for physical clues and circumstantial evidence. All of which is complete nonsense, as he informs them with more candour than tact. His own theory is that psychology is the key. Some people are psychologically capable of murder; some are not. And some crimes could only be committed by people with a very particular personality profile. If you have the instinct and the intelligence to analyse the personalities of the various suspects then finding the guilty party becomes child’s play.

All of which is of course complete moonshine, but that just adds to the fun of the Philo Vance mysteries (or if you are not a fan it just makes them all the more annoying). If you like plots that make sense and if you like your fictional detectives to employ realistic and plausible methods of criminal investigation then these books are not for you. It’s not that Van Dine’s plots aren’t clever and intricate - it’s just that their connection with reality is more than a little tenuous.

And then there’s Philo Vance himself. His aristocratic arrogance, his very affected English accent (acquired during a prolonged stay in England), his contempt for modern life, his political views (circumstantial evidence is, he explains, almost as great a folly as democracy), the fact that no matter what subject comes up during an investigation Vance will prove to an expert in that field - all these things will either delight or incense the reader.

While Van Dine is very much of the Golden Age school of crime writing with the emphasis on puzzle-solving at the same time Vance’s belief in the psychological approach to murder is an interesting anticipation of more modern trends in crime fiction.

Personally I just can’t get enough of Philo Vance.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

House Dick, by E. Howard Hunt

House Dick is a 1961 crime thriller by E. Howard Hunt. You may now be saying to yourself, “Hang on, wasn’t E. Howard Hunt one of the infamous Watergate plumbers?” And if that’s what you’re saying then you’re spot on. Hunt served 33 months in prison for his part in the Watergate affair.

Hunt had joined the CIA in 1949 but he’d already worked for its predecessor, the OSS, during the Second World War. While working as an intelligence operative he moonlighted as an author of both spy novels and hardboiled crime novels, usually under pseudonyms (House Dick was published under the name Gordon Davis).

Given his background it will come as no surprise that House Dick is set in Washington DC. Pete Novak is a house detective at one of Washington’s largest hotels (no, not the Watergate Hotel, it’s the Tilden Hotel). Hotel house detectives figure in many hardboiled crime stories but this is the only one I can think of where a house dick is the actual hero.

The hotel setting is used quite effectively giving the book a kind of seedy glamour. Novak has seen the rich and famous at their worst and he has no illusions left. He’s cynical, but basically honest. Well, fairly honest.

His honesty will be tested when he meets Paula Norton. When he first encounters her she is being beaten up by her ex-husband, Ben Barada, a vicious but none-too-successful gambler. While Barada was doing time in Joliet Prison Paula had found herself a sugar daddy, wealthy (but more than slightly sleazy) businessman Chalmers Boyd. Boyd had given her gifts of expensive jewels. Unfortunately the jewels belonged to Boyd’s wife, and even more unfortunately Boyd was in fact financially dependent on his wife. His wife is in turn emotionally dependent on her doctor, Dr Bikel. Only he’s not a real doctor. He’s a naturopath, and even less scrupulous than most of that breed.

Julia Boyd wants her jewels back. Ben Barada wants Paula to blackmail Boyd to obtain either the jewels or the $90,000 that they’re worth. Paula wants the money. And what does Pete Novak want? Sadly, he wants Paula. He knows this is a dumb idea, and he’s doing his best not to get too deeply involved. This becomes awkward when Chalmers Boyd turns up dead in Paula’s hotel room, and Novak finds himself agreeing to help Paula out of the jam she’s now in.

She’s not the only one in a tight spot. Barada owes a great deal of money to a St Louis mobster who is not renowned for his forgiving nature. As a result he’s getting increasingly desperate, and when he gets desperate he’s even more vicious than usual. Somehow Pete Novak has to try to keep alive, to keep Paula alive, to avoid getting mixed up in anything too illegal and to make sure the hotel doesn’t find itself at the centre of a scandal.

It’s a more than competent hardboiled crime story with enough gritty dialogue and sleazy atmosphere to keep most fans of this genre happy.

Pete Novak has the combination of cynicism, stubbornness and a certain disillusioned humanity to make an effective noir detective hero.

The book is available from Hard Case Crime. Recommended.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sleeper Awakes, by H. G. Wells

The Sleeper Awakes is one of H. G. Wells’ lesser known science fiction novels, and a rather odd dystopian tale.

In 1897 a man named Graham is having trouble sleeping. When he finally does fall asleep it’s for a very long time indeed. 203 years, in fact. When he awakes he discovers that his long sleep has made him a figure of vast importance.

It’s not just that his own not inconsiderable personal fortune has grown like Topsy. He has been left as heir to the fortune, the very very large fortune, of an engineer named Warming. He has accumulated such vast wealth that he is now in practice the owner of the world. The fact that he was sleeping and was not expected to awake was of course rather convenient for his trustees. The Council that administered his wealth was able to exercise supreme power in his name.

But now, in the year 2100, the Sleeper is awake. And that will have dramatic consequences. It will trigger a revolution.

Wells saw the novel as a nightmare vision of the triumph of both capitalism and the city. Wells’ own slightly eccentric socialist views would seem to form the political program of the Sleeper. The Sleeper, who becomes the Master, is not entirely impressed with this future world. And he becomes less and less impressed the more he sees of it. He is also less than happy with those who exercise power in his name, and finally takes the fateful decision to assume direct control, and to complete the revolution.

It’s a decidedly odd book. Graham talks about his democratic ideals but it appears that salvation can only come the actions of one strong individual. Wells seems to have little real faith in the masses. Graham becomes a kind of democratic socialist dictator (something the world would see rather a lot of in the hundred years following the publication of this book).

At the time the book was written no-one had yet been able to build an aircraft that could actually fly but Wells describes aerial battles with considerable vigour and enthusiasm.

It’s a book that’s interesting mostly for the rather confused mishmash of political ideas that it embodies. An oddity, and really of historical interest only. Not to be compared with Wells’ great science fiction novels like The Island of Dr Moreau.

Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand

A military hospital in Kent during the Blitz is the unusual setting for Christianna Brand’s 1945 murder mystery Green for Danger. A patient dies under anaesthetic, and at first it seems unlikely to Inspector Cockrill to have been in any way a suspicious death. Then a second death occurs, and this time it’s clearly a case of murder. It soon become obvious that there are only six possible suspects, all of them doctors and nurses at the hospital.

To solve the murders Inspector Cockrill relies to a large extent on putting his six suspects under extreme pressure and waiting for one of them to crack, and also allowing the interactions between the suspects to gradually unravel the threads of the crime. The tension between the characters, each of then knowing that one of them is a killer, builds inexorably and almost unbearably. This also allows the author to really flesh out the characters – we get to know them extremely well, and we come to care about them. They’re not just suspects, they’re people, with all the everyday hopes and fear and jealousies and human weaknesses of normal people.

Green for Danger has the intricate plotting, and the plentiful red herrings, of a typical English Golden Age mystery novel, but with a psychological complexity not usually associated with that type of detective story. An engrossing, sometimes quite moving, and always highly entertaining book.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

To the Devil - a Daughter, by Dennis Wheatley

To the Devil - a Daughter, written in 1953, is everything you could ask for in a Dennis Wheatley novel. It has wicked devil-worshippers, outrageous conspiracies, and some amusingly lurid descriptions of satanic rituals.

A businessman makes a deal with a satanic clergymen, and has his daughter Christina baptised into Satan’s church. Twenty-one years later, provided she is still a virgin, she is destined to be the centrepiece of a hideous satanic ritual. As she has been dedicated to Lucifer she undergoes a personality change every evening when the sun goes down. In the hours of darkness she becomes a Bad Girl, giving herself up to all kinds of naughtiness.

Luckily she makes the acquaintance of Molly, a middle-aged English writer who used to work for British Intelligence during the war, and Molly and her son John are determined to save Christina from the clutches of the Satanists, and quite probably from a Fate Worse Than Death.

Wheatley also finds time for his favourite hobbyhorse, the links between Satanists and Communism. It’s all breathless excitement, and a silly but highly entertaining romp. The fact that Wheatley took this stuff seriously just makes it even more enjoyable.

This novel was of course the basis for the last horror movie made by Hammer Studios. The movie doesn’t follow the plot of the book very closely at all, but it’s also great fun in its own way.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The G-String Murders, by Gypsy Rose Lee

The G-String Murders is one of those books that is eclipsed by the fame of its author, in this case the most famous strip-tease artiste of them all, Gypsy Rose Lee.

For many years it was claimed that the book was ghost-written by successful mystery writer Craig Rice (a pseudonym used by Georgiana Ann Craig). It now seems to be generally accepted that in fact Gypsy Rose Lee wrote the book herself. Actually it’s fairly obvious that she did - the book is quite rough round the edges, the pacing is not quite right, the plot is ingenious but perhaps too ingenious. In other words it reads like a first-time novel by someone who was not a professional writer.

On the other hand it’s not without entertainment value. Gypsy Rose Lee might not have been the world’s most accomplished mystery writer but she certainly knew the world of burlesque. The novel is set entirely within that world and she brings it vividly to life, in all its seedy but fascinating glamour.

The heroine of the novel is a stripper named Gypsy Rose Lee, working in a burlesque theatre in New York. Things are going reasonably well for her, she’s in love with one of the comics (burlesque was as much about comedy as it was about strip-tease), and she’s fairly successful. And then one of the other strippers is murdered. Strangled with a g-string. That’s bad enough, but a second murder soon follows, with the same murder weapon.

Gypsy and her boyfriend Biff play amateur detective, which is just as well since the police aren’t having too much success. There’s no shortage of suspects, but there’s no obvious linkage between the two murders even though they were clearly committed by the same person, and this makes it very difficult to find a suspect with a sufficiently good motive for both slayings.

The book sold extremely well when it came out in 1941, although a second mystery novel, Mother Finds a Body, failed to repeat this success. The G-String Murders was filmed in 1943 as Lady of Burlesque (the film starred Barbara Stanwyck and it’s worth seeing).

The atmosphere and the details of life in burlesque are the book’s strengths and they’re enough to make it a worthwhile read.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kipling’s Ghosts

The title of Kipling’s Ghosts is pretty self-explanatory, the book being a collection of twelve ghost stories by Rudyard Kipling.

As was the case with the collection of his science fiction from the same publisher (Leonaur) it might be more accurate to describe these as weird tales or uncanny tales rather than ghost stories, although it does include a few genuine ghost stories.

In many cases the supernatural is merely suggested. Something odd happens, it might be explained as mere coincidence, or fate, or as someone’s belief in their fate bringing it about. But then it might be something supernatural after all.

Most of the stories are set in India, and (as you’d expect) it’s a setting that Kipling uses very skillfully for the purposes of creating an atmosphere of unease, of things being not quite as they should be.

Some of the stories deal with curses, or what might be called magical practices. There are several original variations on the haunted house theme. There’s even a werewolf story.

Kipling always gives the impression that these are not literary productions so much as tales that might be swapped late at night after perhaps a few too many whisky and sodas and that might be true but who can tell?

There are jewels that have magical properties, but only if they are stolen (The Bisara of Pooree). There’s a house that is haunted, but haunted by a suspicion rather than a ghost (The House Surgeon). Thee are tales of madness and guilt (The Phantom Rickshaw) and there are tales of men who have spent too long in India (At the End of the Passage). And there are stories of love that does not end with death.

While I would not describe Kipling as one of the greatest writers of weird tales it’s still a very worthwhile addition to the bookshelves of anyone with a taste for such stories.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Vengeful Virgin, by Gil Brewer

Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin was published in 1958 and, like so many of the titles from Hard Case Crime, has been out of print for years. It’s a reasonably entertaining if hardly startling piece of noir fiction.

Jack Ruxton is in his 40s and he’s always wanted to be a success. He’s tried various methods of achieving this goal, and now as a last resort he’s decided to try earning an honest living, as a TV repairman. He hasn’t entirely given up on the idea of easy money though.

He has built up a fairly thriving business but he’s in debt to his eyeballs. Then he meets Shirley Angela. Shirley is eighteen, with the kind of body that makes men do crazy things. Especially if they’re men like Jack Ruxton, with not much judgment and even less in the way of moral scruples.

Shirley lives with her stepfather, Victor Spondell. Victor is rich. Very rich. He’s also dying, but unfortunately he’s taking his time about it. Shirley looks after him. Not that she gives a damn about him, but he’s going to leave her all his money when he dies so for Shirley that’s sufficient incentive to keep her there acting as his nurse and housekeeper. If only he wouldn’t take quite so long to die.

She employs Jack to install a ceiling-mounted TV set in Victor’s bedroom, and an intercom system. She’s a real friendly girl and pretty soon she has Jack Ruxton eating out of her hand. She tells Jack her problems. Which mostly amount to the fact that Victor is taking so long to die. If only something could happen to speed the process up a little. Then she and Jack would have all that money, and they could be together forever. Because she really loves Jack. Does Jack have any ideas that might solve their problem?

In normal circumstances even a Jack Ruxton might think this could be leading up to a really bad idea, but Victor has an awful lot of money, and Shirley has a remarkably appealing young body. Jack would like to get his hands on both. He’d like it real bad.

The problem with this kind of story is that you pretty much know where it’s heading right from the start, and there isn’t a huge amount of scope for surprises. Especially back in the days when you couldn’t really countenance the idea of criminals getting away with their crimes.

Working within these plot limitations you really have to depend more on style than anything else. It’s the sort of thing James M. Cain did supremely well. None of his imitators ever quite equalled his ability to pull such stories off, and Gil Brewer is no James M. Cain.

That’s not to say that Brewer wasn’t a competent writer and The Vengeful Virgin is entertaining enough. If you enjoy hardboiled fiction with a side order of sleaze then this one should fit the bill well enough.