Friday, May 1, 2020
Brenda is in trouble. She’s in Reno and she’s been living with a guy called Charley. Which has been nice since he’s spent lots of money on her. Now Charley has lost all his dough on the roulette tables so naturally she’s told him that she’s through with him. And Charley is not being sensible about it. Surely he must understand that if he now has no money then it’s all over. What use is he to her with no money? He’s even been unreasonable enough to have sex with her before telling her he’s lost all his money, which means she’s just had sex with him for no reason. And now he’s waving a gun about and talking about shooting himself, which is incredibly inconsiderate of him. When she packs her bag and closes the door behind her she hears the shot and now she’s in an awkward spot. What if the police think she shot him?
The only one she can think of to turn to for help is gambling racketeer Carter Kemp, owner of the Blue Jug Club. That means she’ll have to become one of Carter’s girls. That means being a whore and Brenda might be a tramp and a tart but she’s not actually a whore. Well maybe once or twice but that doesn’t count. Those were emergencies and when a girl needs money urgently what is she to do?
Carter claims his girls are not technically prostitutes. If one of the patrons at the club wants a girl for an evening, or even just for an hour or two, Carter introduces him to one of his girls. He’ll even arrange a private room for them, so they can get to know each other better. But once they enter the private room if money then changes hands how is Carter supposed to know that is going on? If he knew such things were going on that would mean that he was running a house of prostitution. Perish the thought. In fact Carter makes his money from the suckers at the gambling tables, not from his girls. The girls are just free entertainment for the suckers.
Carter can indeed help her out of her jam and offer her a job as one of his girls, but she will need to do a couple of favours for him. The first favour is obvious - Carter always likes to sample the merchandise he provides for his customers. The second favour is more complicated and is likely to lead Brenda into all sorts of even further complications.
Sex is a deadly weapon but for Brenda it’s as dangerous to herself as it is to the men whose paths she crosses. Love is a deadly weapon too but she doesn’t need to worry about that. Love is for suckers. It’s so tiresome when guys fall in love with her. She always knows when it’s happening. Like with Johnny. When he slaps her real hard she knows he’s in love with her. She doesn’t actually want to hurt him but if he gets hurt that’s his problem. Still, the sex with Johnny is kinda nice. But guys with no money have no right to fall for her.
The story is told entirely from Brenda’s point of view and what makes her interesting as a character is her extraordinary lack of awareness of the situations she’s getting into and even of her own nature. She is ambitious. She knows what she wants. She wants money. Lots of it. Unfortunately she has no coherent plan for achieving this. She has a breathtaking body and she should be able to use it to make big money, either by marrying a rich sucker or as a high-class prostitute. Instead she’s wasted her efforts on snaring small-timers and she’s allowed lust to cloud her judgment - she’s gone for good-looking guys who have some money but not enough to give her the big buck she craves.
When Carter Kemp tells her to take her clothes off so he can inspect the merchandise she is shocked and horrified. He’s not even good-looking. At the same time, as Carter runs his eyes approvingly across her naked body she finds herself really enjoying the experience. Especially when he gives her the sort of look that a master gives to his slave. That really excites her. She uses sex to get things out of men but she has no understanding of her own sexual feelings. She thinks she only has sex to get money and for the life of her she can’t figure out why sometimes she just wants to give herself to some men. She is 23 but she hasn’t grown up at all since she gave away her virginity (to a boy who didn’t even have money - she was so dumb in those days).
There’s an immense amount of sex in this novel, and not a single instance of it between people who are married to each other. This was 1950 so of course none of it is in any way graphic but it still manages to be plenty sleazy. It’s the feelings evoked rather than the actual acts that provides the sleaze content - things like naked girls being inspected like slabs of meat and beatings as foreplay (which Brenda finds very arousing). It’s very open about things like prostitution, and even about the male prostitutes who service rich women who get bored and lonely waiting for their divorces in Reno (and they’re out-and-out prostitutes rather than mere gigolos).
This is of course an incredibly trashy novel, a representative of an incredibly trashy genre. But it’s surprisingly well-crafted entertaining trash. And Brenda is in her own way more interesting than you might expect - she’s too scheming and selfish to be a heroine and too ruthless to be a victim but at the same time she’s too vulnerable to be a femme fatale. She doesn’t even know if she is really a whore, or if she really wants to be a whore. She hasn’t thought any of it through. It’s not just that she doesn’t understand love. She doesn’t even understand sex. She’s selfish in the way a child is selfish but she’s not evil - you have to know that what you’re doing is wrong to be evil.
Will this bad girl get what she deserves? You’ll have to read it to find out.
Reno Tramp is obviously most interesting as an example of the disreputable side of 50s pop culture. Like exploitation movies these books practised a balancing act, offering as many sleazy sexy thrills as they could without going far enough to get the publishers closed down. It’s often forgotten that there was more to 50s pop culture than Leave It To Beaver or Doris Day movies. Under the resectable surface of that decade there was plenty of interest in sex, including illicit sex (or maybe especially illicit sex).
It’s interesting to compare Reno Tramp to Ward Miller’s Kitten With a Whip, from a few years later and from a different but closely related genre. Both deal with young women whose sexual power is more dangerous than nitro-glycerine and just as unpredictable. And both dealing with young women who are deadly because they themselves don’t really understand what sex can do to them, or to men.
And Reno Tramp is definitely sleazy fun. Recommended.