Saturday, August 22, 2020

Orrie Hitt's Wayward Girl

Orrie Hitt (1916-75) was one of the many prolific writers of American sleaze fiction of the ’50 and ’60s. He wrote around 150 such books. Wayward Girl dates from 1960 when the genre was at the height of its popularity.

Wayward Girl tells the story of Sandy Greening, a sixteen-year-old prostitute and gang member. Sandy was raped when she was fourteen and she liked it (this is of course a very politically incorrect book). After that she couldn’t get enough of men. Especially when she discovered she could take money out of having sex, thus combining business with pleasure.

She runs with the Blue Devils and they’re about to have a rumble with their hated rivals, the Black Cats. The Black Cats gang-raped one of the Blue Devil debs. That’s bad enough, but the rape occurred on Blue Devil turf. That’s much more serious. It’s a rumble which ends with one of the Black Cats dead.

Sandy doesn’t like killings but that doesn’t stop her from sleeping with the gang member who did the killing. And sex with Tommy Forbes is real nice. He’s a violent thug but that’s why the sex is real nice.

Sandy’s luck is about to change. She usually gets five dollars a trick (just enough to sustain her heroin habit) but this time the guy is willing to give her twenty-five bucks. Life is good. Or it would be, except that he’s an undercover cop. So instead of twenty-five bucks she gets six months in reform school. But this is one of the new enlightened reform schools where they really want to help the girls. She’s assured that everybody there wants to help her. They’ll teach her a skill (apart from the one that landed her in the reform school) and how to live a decent life and she’ll be able to get married and have kids and make a better America (that’s what they actually tell her).

Up to this point the book reads disturbingly like a social work treatise but don’t worry, the cynical twists are just around the corner and the sleaze factor is about to be ramped up.

Miss Hunt is the house-mother in charge of the cottage to which Sandy is assigned. Miss Hunt really wants to help her girls. She’s pretty young herself, in her early twenties, and she’s kind and idealistic. Only she looks at Sandy sorta funny. You know, the way men look at women. She tells Sandy that Sandy has really nice breasts. They’re so nice that Miss Hunt wants to touch them. And she likes to see Sandy naked. And to kiss her. And to do other things to her. Sandy is horrified but Miss Hunt is the one who will decide if she gets parole or not.

In fact the school is a hot-bed of lesbianism. Miss Hunt assures Sandy that this is OK, girls need loving and if they don’t get the kind of loving they prefer any kind of loving is better than nothing. And lots of the girls like this strange sort of loving.

One of the school’s enlightened ideas is to send the girls to nice families for weekends. Lots of families are willing to take the girls. Middle-aged couples like the Ridgeways. Mr Ridgeway is a middle-aged man but he’s really keen to help wayward girls. I mean, having sex-crazed sixteen-year-old girls spend a weekend with nice middle-aged men whose wives don’t understand them - what could possibly go wrong?

So while at the reform school Sandy actually has sex more often than she did when was a prostitute on the outside. The only difference is that now she doesn’t get paid for it.

Sandy is in the biggest trouble she’s ever been in. She’s trapped. She can’t escape the sexual attentions of either Miss Hunt or Mr Ridgeway and then when she gets there’s going to be problem of Tommy Forbes and the Blue Devils. She can’t escape either her past or her present nightmares.

Compared to Gang Girl by Robert Silverberg (written under the pseudonym Don Elliott) the sex in Wayward Girl is less graphic, the rapes take place offstage so to speak and the violence is toned down a little. The whole tone is rather different as well. The heroine is more of a conventional victim of circumstances rather than being the depraved monster of Gang Girl. The two novels do however have a number of things in common - the casual senseless brutality of gang life, the atmosphere of sleaze and a honest acceptance of the reality of female sexual pleasure in casual sex. Which was not the sort of thing that was considered respectable at the tie, but then these novels are not concerned with respectability.

Both books also belong to the same milieu as the exploitation movies of the same era - glorying in trashiness and depravity while covering themselves by appearing to deplore such things and occasionally treating their subject matter with an honesty and directness not found in the mainstream of either cinema or literature. And like exploitation movies, they’re great fun. Not clean wholesome fun, but fun nonetheless.

Wayward Girl has been re-issued by Stark House in their series of noir reprints, in an edition that also includes another Orrie Hitt sleaze classic, The Widow.

Wayward Girl is obviously recommended to sleaze fans but noir fans may find themselves enjoying it as well.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Edgar Wallace's On the Spot

On the Spot is a 1931 Edgar Wallace crime thriller set in Chicago during the heady days of Prohibition.

Tony Perelli is a Big Shot, one of the biggest racketeers in Chicago. He’s ruthless but he’s smart. Tony don’t want no trouble. If someone is causing trouble, Tony gets a couple of his boys to take the guy for a ride. There’s nothing personal in it. It’s just business. He’s not a mere hoodlum. Tony would never have some body bumped off just for the hell of it. But sometimes it’s necessary.

Tony’s main rival is Irish gangster Mick Feeney. Feeney is tough but he’s not as smart as Tony. Feeney’s chief lieutenant, Shaun O’Donnell, is another matter. O’Donnell is clever and patient. And Feeney’s gang have been muscling in on Tony’s territory. Something will have to be done about that.

Tony had had plenty of women, but he’s never had a woman like Minn Lee. Mine Lee is half-Chinese and all beautiful. And she’s not your typical gangster’s moll. Tony doesn’t really understand her, but insofar as he is capable of loving a woman he loves her. He loves her the way he loves all his other possessions. He likes to be surrounded by beautiful things. All the beautiful things money can buy including women. He thinks maybe she loves him, but he’s not quite sure.

Everything on the home front is going just swell for Tony until he meets Maria. Maria is Con O’Hara's woman. O’Hara is an out-of-town torpedo who does a lot of jobs for Tony. He’s a killer and he’s good at his job. There’s no subtlety to the man but if some guy is causing trouble O’Hara is the boy to take care of it. He’s been killing professionally since he was a teenager. Unfortunately O’Hara is pretty attached to Maria.

Then there’s Jimmy McGrath, a nice college boy from the east. Tony thinks he can find a place for Jimmy in his organisation but he’s not sure what that place might be. Maybe Jimmy could be a fixer. A fixer has to be smart and be able to present himself as respectable. Tony already has a fixer, a really good one, Victor Vinsetti, but he’ll find something for Jimmy. Of course first Jimmy will have to kill for him. You can’t trust a guy until he’s killed for you.

Jimmy is in love with Minn Lee. Vinsetti is in love with her as well. She has that effect on men. They don’t just want her, they fall in love with her.

Of course anyone with a thorough knowledge of the Chicago underworld of the Roaring Twenties would undoubtedly spot lots of inaccuracies in this account (and some of the characters sound disturbingly cockney in their speech patterns) Wallace being an Englishman with no firsthand knowledge of the subject. It doesn’t matter. Wallace knows how to tell an engrossing tale.

And Tony Perelli and Minn Lee are intriguing characters. Tony’s great love is Italian opera. He considers himself to be a civilised man. He says he’d happily run his rackets without ever killing anybody but there are always guys who want to make trouble and they have to be dealt with. He has a genuine fondness for both Jimmy and Minn Lee, the kind of fondness a man feels for beautiful things that he owns.

Minn Lee has had many men. When one man goes out of her life she finds another, without any fuss. But while she’s with a man she is a one-man woman. She has a code of honour. A woman should be devoted to her man. Whether she loves him or not is immaterial. She has never loved a man. Although that might be about to change. Tony’s life might be about to change as well, but he doesn’t know it yet.

There’s as much murder and mayhem as you could desire in this gangster potboiler. There’s also a kind of love story and there’s the story of a fascinating woman. Being an Edgar Wallace novel it is also naturally highly entertaining. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Henry Slesar’s The Secret of Marracott Deep

Henry Slesar’s novella The Secret of Marracott Deep was originally published in the July 1957 issue of the science fiction pulp magazine Fantastic. It’s been recently reprinted by Armchair Fiction in their series of pulp science fiction double novel paperback, paired with  Mark Clifton’s Pawn of the Black Fleet.

Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was an American writer who wrote science fiction, detective stories and thrillers as well as having a very successful career as a television writer.

As The Secret of Marracott Deep opens Burt Holrood and his new bride Jessie have just arrived in Hawaii where they are to spend their honeymoon. But Jessie is behaving oddly. Why would a new bride tell her husband that she’d like to spend some time alone? Burt takes refuge in the bar where he meets British oceanographer Dr Percival Nichols. They are having a quiet drink when they hear screams. It is Jessie! Burt rushes down to the beach to find his wife being menaced by - a gigantic lobster! Not just a particularly big lobster but one bigger than a man.

The lobster is after Jessie again on the following day. Burt figures it must be a mutation caused by atomic testing but don’t worry, the real answer is not so obvious or so boring. Dr Nichols is not convinced but he knows there are all kinds of strange things at the bottom of the ocean in places like the Marracott Deep.

A clue is provided by a Hawaiian reporter. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the lobster seems to be targeting young Mrs Holrood. But what possible connection can a nice young woman from Los Angeles have with oversized crustaceans?

Dr Nichols, being an oceanographer, is a scuba diver. He suggests Burt might like to learn scuba diving. Since he’s spending his honeymoon with a wife who wants to be alone Burt has more free time on his hands than he would have wished for so he agrees. He gets a little over-confident and dives deeper than he’d intended to and he finds something even more startling than giant lobsters. Something that may threaten Civilisation As We Know It.

Burt wants to save civilisation but he’s even more determined to save his wife and she’s certainly in great danger although I’m not going to reveal why that is.

This is a pulp story so there’s no point in getting too worried about details like scientific plausibility. If you accept the story for what it is then it’s quite a bit of fun and there’s  plenty of action. There are other sea monsters besides giant lobsters and there’s something much more threatening than mere sea monsters at the bottom of it.

Slesar’s prose is serviceable enough and he knows how to maintain the right kind of pulpy breathless excitement.

I’m not going to claim that The Secret of Marracott Deep is a great story but it does belong to an interesting sub-genre that I find rather appealing - the unknown terror from the deep science fiction story. It’s a sub-genre that includes John Wyndham’s excellent The Kraken Wakes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s often overlooked 1923 classic The Maracot Deep (which presumably inspired the title of Slesar’s story). Both these books clearly influenced Slesar’s novella but it’s not by any means a mere recycling of exactly the same ideas.

The ending is a bit rushed but I think it works and it has the right impact.

The Secret of Marracott Deep has mysteries in the deepest depths of the ocean, some intrigue involving infiltration of key scientific organisations and it has a beautiful Woman in Peril. It’s fun in its own way. Worth a look.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Gordon Semple's Bad Company

Bad Company is the story of a young woman named Eileen Cooper. Whether Eileen is bad company or good company depends on what you want from a girl. If you want love, devotion and home-baked cookies then she’s bad company. If you want a good time in bed and you have plenty of money she can be very good company. Eileen is a tart. She’s quite happy to describe herself as such. Do not however make the mistake of thinking she’s a cheap tart. She’s very expensive.

Bad Company was written in 1945 and the author’s name on the cover is Gordon Semple. Even by the standards of pulp writers he’s pretty obscure. All I know about him is that he and William Neubauer and Norman Bligh were all the same man but I can’t even tell you which is the guy’s actual given name. Whatever his name was he was a prolific writer of sleaze fiction. Which is a bit tautological - if you were a writer of sleaze fiction you had to be prolific if you expected to make a living out of it.

Before the war the teenaged Eileen had been Bert Jackson’s girlfriend. Bert was a real prize. On one occasion he hired her out to a buddy for an hour for five bucks because he needed the five bucks and he figured Eileen wouldn’t mind. She did mind. In retrospect though she figures he did her a good turn. He helped her to understand how life works. Love is for suckers. It’s money that matters.

Bert went off to the war and got wounded and now he’ll never play the violin again. Yes, really. Bert was an aspiring violinist, although he sounds more like an aspiring racketeer or pimp. Now Bert expects Eileen to forgive him and marry him. But Eileen has been busy while Bert was off at the front. She’s now Arthur Worden’s mistress. Arthur is fat and middle-aged but he’s rich. And he’s given her a job singing in his night-club (whatever her characters flaws Eileen is apparently a pretty good canary). Maybe she doesn’t really go for Arthur all that much in a physical way but she has Peter Ostler (a penniless hunk) to satisfy her physical needs.

Of course there are complications. There’s Eileen’s girlhood friend Rita, who has always been in love with Bert but Bert wasn’t interested. If Eileen is a gal who measures a man’s worth by the size of his wallet then Bert is a guy who judges a woman by the size of her bust. Rita just didn’t measure up. But Rita is not giving up.

There’s also Arthur’s scheming wife Agnes.

This is all overwrought melodrama but melodrama can be fun. This kind of sleaze fiction was aimed primarily at men. Perhaps not exclusively - there’s probably no way of knowing how many women read such books. Although aimed at men they actually have quite a bit in common with the steamy romance novels that would a few decades later become so popular with women. Even when the female characters are wicked the stories do tend to be told largely from the woman’s point of view. There’s usually at least an attempt to understand the heroine’s (or villainess’s) emotional motivations. It’s also worth remarking that quite  few of the popular writers of sleaze fiction were women.

Eileen is ruthless and she is certainly a tart. She does however have some justification (most teenaged girls would react pretty negatively if their boyfriends tried to pimp them out) and she is not an emotionless sexual predator. She is driven partly by lust, partly by money and partly by love. She’s not the kind of girl you’d take home to meet Mother but she’s not quite a monster. In fact none of the characters is all bad, although Bert is pretty contemptible. Arthur is weak, selfish and self-indulgent but he does love Eileen. Rita is a fool but she’s a nice girl. Agnes is a monster, but she was turned into a monster.

There’s even a hint of tragedy in the lives of these people. They’re making a shambles of life but they’re not doing so deliberately.

This was 1945 so of course there’s nothing approaching graphic sex. The secret to writing sleaze fiction at the time was to create an atmosphere of overheated desire and forbidden pleasures without having to describe those pleasures in detail. In that respect Bad Company scores pretty highly on the Sleaz-O-Meter. There’s no description of sexual acts but there’s an immense amount of implied offstage sex. There’s also some spanking, for those who like that sort of thing.

I don’t think you’ll find much in the way of a social message here, except perhaps that people who fear sex (like Rita and Agnes and Eileen’s boss Mr Lauren) are probably going to end up lonely and unhappy.

It’s not a good book but it does its job. In 1945 it would have been pretty titillating. There’s plenty of emotional and sexual melodrama and there’s some amusing dialogue. It’s tamer than the sleaze fiction of the mid ’50s to mid ’60s (in fact it’s tamer than Florence Stonebreaker’s Reno Tramp which was published just five years later in 1950) but there’s still some fun to be had here. Bad Company is recommended to anyone interested in the rather fascinating history of sleaze fiction.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Earl Derr Biggers' The Agony Column

The Agony Column, published in 1916, is an early novel by Earl Derr Biggers. A decade later Biggers would create Charlie Chan (who would make his debut in The House Without a Key) and would thereby achieve fame and fortune but even before Charlie Chan Biggers was a reasonably successful and well-known writer.

The Agony Column is a very short novel, not much more than a novella.

The story takes place in the fateful year of 1914. Geoffrey West is an American in London on business. West is one of those men who hides the soul of a romantic under the surface appearance of sober respectability. He is homesick and one of his few amusements is reading the Personal Notices - the “agony column” - of the Daily Mail. One morning at breakfast at the Carlton he notices a beautiful and very charming young American woman. She is from Texas and is in London with her father. West notices something else about her - she is reading the agony column as well. And reading it with sufficient delight  to suggest that she is in fact a keen devotee of that column.

At this point the suppressed romantic in West leads him to do something rather daring. He places an ad in the agony column, very obviously addressed to the young American woman. He later berates himself for his foolishness. Of course she will not reply. But she does. And she makes him an offer. She invites him to write her a letter a day for seven days. If she decides that he is an interesting young man she may be inclined to permit him to be formally introduced to her. After which, who knows?

In the letters West’s story is unfolded, and it’s a melodramatic story replete with romance and mystery, murder and intrigue, spies and femmes fatales, and of course the young woman is captivated. What girl could resist a man whose life is so packed with danger and excitement?

During the course of this seven-day correspondence war clouds are gathering over Europe.

Several questions will occur to the reader at this point, and I have no doubt that Biggers expects us to ask ourselves these questions.

This is an odd little book. Readers will either be extremely irritated by it, or be charmed and amused. You do have to remember that this was 1916, the heyday of the melodramatic tale of espionage. It was the heyday of melodrama in general. You also have to remember that in 1916 sacrificing oneself for honour, or for love, was not considered eccentric. Spies were a big deal. The looming war merely increased the obsession with spies and betrayal.

Armchair Fiction has reprinted this title as part of its series of double-header paperbacks, each containing two novels. They have paired this title with Fury on Sunday by Richard Matheson (another writer whose work I admire).

The Agony Column bears no real resemblance to the Charlie Chan novels and it certainly does not qualify as an example of golden age detective fiction. In fact it’s not easy to slot it into any particular genre.

It’s a very lightweight book but if you have a taste for melodrama and romance it is quite entertaining in its own strange little way. Recommended perhaps, but only if melodrama and romance are your thing.