Thursday, September 24, 2020

Jessie Dumont's I Prefer Girls

I Prefer Girls is a 1963 sleaze fiction novel which belongs to the sub-category of lesbian sleaze fiction. This was an extremely popular sub-genre which can’t really be ignored. You probably won’t be surprised to be told that lesbian sleaze fiction was popular with both male readers and actual lesbians.

Sleaze fiction in general was often written by male writers using female pseudonyms or by women writers using male pseudonyms. Quite a few of these women writers were lesbians. In the case I Prefer Girls I honestly have no idea if the author, Jessie Dumont, was male or female. Some modern lesbians insist that no lesbian could have written this book but they may be overlooking the fact that the lesbian subculture of the 1950s and early 1960s was very very different from even the lesbian sub-culture of the ’70s and bore no resemblance to that of today.

I Prefer Girls is the story of Penny Stewart, who narrates the tale. Penny was a bit of a tomboy and did not get on with her parents. When they were killed in a car accident she moved post-haste to Greenwich Village and got a job in Marcella’s dress shop. She still had no idea that she was a lesbian. Marcella however easily convinced her, with the aid of some practical demonstrations in the bedroom, that she was in fact a lesbian. It was those practical demonstrations that really convinced Penny. 

However it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing. Penny not only likes having sex with women. She likes having sex with lots of women. Marcella is older and she’s possessive and she’s not happy about this. Also Marcella is madly in love with Penny. Penny is not in love with Marcella. She’s happy for Marcella to keep her in comfort and she likes the sex but she wants her freedom, and that means the freedom to have as many other women as she chooses. So as the story proper opens the situation is a bit unstable and a bit uneasy.

Then Bernice comes along. Bernice is a waitress. She’s young and blonde and as a cute as a button. She’s also straight, and a virgin, and she has a boyfriend. To Penny these are merely minor details. She wants Bernice. She wants her real bad. The difficulties just make the pursuit more exciting and more challenging.

Penny likes challenges and when it comes to scheming and manipulating she has few equals.

When judging a book such as this you need to remember that that the authors of sleaze fiction had to consider the demands of the commercial marketplace and the demands of the publishers (in this case Monarch Books). With lesbian sleaze there was also the need to satisfy both male readers and lesbian readers. The lesbian readership on its own would not have been sufficient to make such books financially viable in 1963. The men readers obviously wanted lots of steamy lesbian couplings while the lesbian readers would have wanted romance and emotional melodrama as well. In 1963 there was also the problem that the book would have to be somewhat sympathetic, but not too sympathetic.

And there had to an atmosphere of actual sleaze because that’s the whole point of this genre of fiction - forbidden lusts, out-of-control passions, sin and sensation. Sex as something exciting, dangerous and naughty.

Penny herself is a bit of a monster. She’s not just completely self-centred. She also likes to dominate people. She likes to dominate them emotionally and she’s good at it. She realises quickly with Marcella that if she allows Marcella to dominate her in the bedroom that will give her the leverage to dominate Marcella in every other way. Penny’s understanding of power in sexual and emotional relationships is sophisticated and subtle. She doesn’t even mind submitting to a beating in order to increase her long-term power.

Penny is of course in many ways the stereotypical predatory lesbian (while Marcella is the archetypal older butch and Bernice is the archetypal femme) but the author is skilful enough to give the characters at least some semblance of nuance. Penny also has a dark secret (aside from her sapphic longings).

There’s an interesting symmetry to this story but I won’t spoil things by hinting at the nature of that symmetry.

The trick with sleaze fiction was to make the sex overheated without being explicit and Dumont does that pretty well. There are lots of lingering descriptions of the delights of the female body. 

I Prefer Girls works as early ’60s sleaze fiction and there are even some hints of noir fiction as Penny’s lusts and manipulations threaten to lead to disaster. Penny is a memorable femme fatale. I have no intention of telling you whether she really is led to disaster or not - one of the joys of the sleaze fiction of this era is that you can never be sure if the Bad Girl will be punished or redeemed.

I Prefer Girls is the sort of book that has to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure but if you like indulging in guilty pleasures it’s fun.

And the cover of the Blackbird Books reprint features the same great Robert Maguire painting as the original.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Frank Kane's The Living End

Frank Kane (1912-68) was a successful American hardboiled crime writer who has now fallen somewhat into obscurity. He was successful writer for radio and wrote a lot of scripts for the excellent 1958-59 Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer TV series. He also wrote about forty crime novels most of which featured PI Johnny Liddell. The Living End (in which Johnny Liddell does not appear) was published in 1957.

Eddie Marlon is a skinny Polish-American kid who desperately wants to be a song writer. He’s written a song which he figures will be a surefire hit if only someone will get behind it. He has no talent. The song is just a pastiche of half a dozen current hits. But a lack of talent never stopped anybody from being a success in the music business. He tries to get a music publisher named Devine interested, to no avail. Devine does however offer to get a job as an assistant to popular radio DJ Marty Allen. Eddie’s job will be to pick the records that get paid. Devine warns him that Marty Allen is a straight up and down guy - he’s one of the few DJs who doesn’t accept payola.

Eddie honesty is roughly on par with his talent but he’s prepared to go along with Allen’s rules. Then he gets introduced to sultry up-and-coming singer Jo Leary. Jo and her record company’s contact man Mike Shannon are desperate to get her platter on the radio. Jo tells Eddie that there’s no question of paying money to get her record played but that if somebody could get it some air time she could find other ways to express her gratitude. Mike assures Eddie that Jo can be a remarkably grateful girl. And Jo is a sexy platinum blonde with curves in all the right places.

Getting a few air plays for Jo’s song is just minor league stuff. There is real money to be made if you're a guy with flexible ethical standards, or even better no ethics at all. It’s a certainty that Eddie is going to be tempted again.

Temptation comes in an unexpected form. It has to do with a girl (the platinum blonde mentioned above) and a whip. The whip has been used on the girl. Used a bit too enthusiastically. It was a sex game that got out of hand. It wasn’t Eddie who used the whip but it gives him the opportunity to begin his rise to being a big shot in the music industry.

This book is not at all what you might be expecting from a ’50s hardboiled crime novel. There is crime, there is racketeering, but this is strictly white-collar crime. No-one gets taken for a ride by the boys. There are no guns. It’s essentially an exposé of the notorious payola racket, with DJs paid to promote songs. This novel was published in 1957 and the payola scandal broke in a big way two years later. Of course the music business promised to clean up its act, and of course they never did.

The Living End provides a fascinating insight into the almost unbelievably corrupt world of the American music business in the 1950s, and into the extraordinarily ingenious methods by which so many people in a sleazy business were making easy money by manipulating hits.

As a hardboiled crime novel, well this simply isn’t a hardboiled crime novel as such. It’s still quite intriguing, it has a memorable and extremely nasty villain and an overwhelming  atmosphere of corruption and nastiness. It has the tone of a hardboiled crime story but don’t expect any action or any violence. There’s not much sex either although sordid sexual shenanigans are hinted at obliquely (such as payola in the form of sexual favours). Apart from the matter of the girl and the whip the book doesn’t really get into overt sleaze.

This is a bit of an oddball novel but it’s not without interest. It’s an interesting journey into the moral squalor of white-collar crime. Worth a look.

The Living End has been recently reprinted by Black Gat Books.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Van Wyck Mason’s The Fort Terror Murders

The Fort Terror Murders was published in 1931. It was the third of F. Van Wyck Mason’s twenty-six spy thrillers featuring American G-2 intelligence agent Hugh North. At this stage of his career Hugh North holds the rank of Captain.

Hugh North is in the Philippines and at a dinner party at Colonel Andrews’ house there is much excitement among the officers and their ladies. The excitement concerns the deserted and half-ruined Spanish fortress, Fort Espanto (“Fort Terror”). According to local legends there is treasure hidden somewhere in the fort, treasure that once belonged to the Jesuits before they we unceremoniously expelled from the fort. A fabulous treasure. That was centuries ago. Since that time many have sought that treasure, and they have all died. For the fort is haunted by ghosts - jealous, vengeful ghosts. Now two people claim to have discovered the secret of the treasure’s location.

Hugh North isn’t concerned by ghosts but by much more prosaic evils. The treasure will belong to Senorita Inez Sarolla and her family, and to her fiancé Lieutenant Bowen. Most of the young officers are by no means rich. A junior officer’s pay is not generous. Impoverished young officers and their ladies are not immune to jealousy or to greed. Such a treasure is likely to excite similar emotions even among the senior officers and their wives. It is clearly a potentially dangerous situation and those legends of mysterious deaths and disappearances do not reassure him - they could suggest temptations to weak-minded men (and women).

A party of a dozen or so officers and their women set off for the fort at dead of night to join in the fun of the uncovering of the treasure. The treasure hunt ends disastrously, with one man dead and another who simply vanished. Since Hugh North is an officer with the Intelligence and Criminal Investigation Department of the Army he takes charge of the case.

The tragic events occurred in total darkness within the vast bulk of Fort Espanto. It had originally been a monastery which was converted into a modern fortress by the Spanish in the late 18th century. Much of the original monastery remains. It could of course be riddled with secret passageways but while plans of the fort exist no plans of the original monastery survive, and any secret passageways would have been built into the monastery. There is no way of knowing if they exist or where they might be.

And since the events occurred in darkness no-one is sure where anybody else was at the time.

The clues are particularly puzzling. Two rosaries, both very unusual, and a cryptic message scrawled on a note. Hugh North believes that these clues contain a cypher, but it’s a fiendishly complex one.

But greed is not the only unhealthy passion at work here. There is also lust. Several illicit and intersecting love affairs seem to be approaching crisis point.

While the Hugh North novels are spy thrillers they also include definite murder mystery elements and this particular book is more or less a pure murder mystery. It’s made more interesting by being set in the tropics, which in the 1930s was synonymous with mystery, intrigue, madness and forbidden passions. The vast decaying fortress and the fact that the keys to the location of the treasure lie in the distant past add some gothic touches.

Of course mysteries set in ruined monasteries that include hidden passageways, and passions unleashed by life in the tropics, are deeply unfashionable today. And when you add notions of military honour it becomes even more unfashionable. To me that makes the book all the more appealing. Nobody writes books like this any longer, and that’s very sad. Van Wyck Mason was very very good at writing such books.

Hugh North is also a very old-fashioned hero. Although occasionally his methods can be ruthless (he deliberately and rather callously misleads a key witness) he is essentially a man of honour who does his duty. That’s not to say that he’s a dull square-jawed storybook hero. He’s capable of action but mostly he relies on his brains rather than on brawn. His approach is patient and intellectual.

If you love both golden age detective fiction and spy thrillers then Van Wyck Mason is the author you’ve been looking for all these years. In the pre-war Hugh North books he provides plenty for fans of both genres. The Fort Terror Murders is a bit unusual in including no actual spy thriller elements but it does have the sort of exotic setting that spy fans love. And it does have cyphers. Even cooler, it turns out that solving the cypher is not quite enough to solve the mystery - there’s an extra fiendish twist.

This one throws in assorted gothic and pulp elements as well - not just secret passageways but legends of ghosts and fiendish murder methods (such as murder by cobra). You have to remember that in 1931 Edgar Wallace was at the peak of his popularity so it made sense for Van Wyck Mason to throw in the kinds of things that Wallace fans enjoyed.

The Fort Terror Murders is gloriously entertaining. Highly recommended.

All the early Hugh North books are good. If you want more of a mixture of detective and spy elements then I’d recommend The Budapest Parade Murders or The Singapore Exile Murders. If you want a great spy story (and yes it does have murder as well) then check out the excellent The Branded Spy Murders.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

John Norman’s Outlaw of Gor

Outlaw of Gor is the second of John Norman’s Gor sword-and-planet adventure novels. It was published in 1967, a year after Tarnsman of Gor.

After seven years back on Earth, following the avenues recounted in Tarnsman of Gor, Tarl Cabot returns to Earth’s strange sister planet, Gor. To find that everything has changed, and changed in ways that seem to him bewildering and demoralising. He had looked forward to being reunited with Talena, the woman he loves, but now he despairs of ever seeing her again. And the priest-kings, the mysterious hidden possibly alien rulers of Gor,  seem to have plans for him. He has danced to their tune before and did not like it but no-one can defy the will of the priest-kings.

Gorean society is a barbarian society, with odd traces of high technology. Gor should by now have developed a lot more high technology but it is the will of the priest-kings that it should remain an agrarian society, dependent on animal power and with no weaponry more sophisticated than crossbows.

Tarl Cabot is now a man without a city and on Gor that automatically makes a man an outlaw. Tarl decides that maybe it is about time that someone confronted the priest-kings but that means journeying to the Sardar Mountains and to do that he will need a tarn, one of the gigantic birds that serve as a type of winged war-horse. He reasons that the best place to head for is Tharna, the one city on Gor that welcomes strangers (and the one city ruled by women). Heading for Tharna proves to be a costly mistake but at least he finds out why the city welcomes strangers. It’s something he would have been happier not knowing.

Tarl has the usual adventures you expect in a sword-and-planet adventure. There’s no shortage of action.

As was the case with Tarnsman of Gor it is Gorean society that proves to be the most interesting feature of the book. Or more specifically, it is the hero’s ambivalent attitude towards Gor. Tarl Cabot violently disapproves of many aspects of Gorean society and contrasts it unfavourably to the Anglo-American culture in which he was bought up. He considers Gor to be a barbarian society, which of course it is. Despite this Tarl only seems to feel truly alive when he is on Gor, and he loves Gor passionately.

Tarl particularly disapproves of the Gorean treatment of women and most strongly of all he disapproves of the almost universal Gorean institution of female sex slavery. Of all the cities of Gor the one in which he should feel most comfortable is Tharna. Women are largely free in Tharna. And yet he finds Tharna not only to be dull and depressing, but in a strange way to be more barbaric than the other more overtly barbaric cities. He will soon discover just how barbaric Tharna is.

Tarl is an intelligent educated man. He is capable of understanding nuance, and he is capable of understanding just how complicated human beings are. Even an intelligent educated man can find it difficult to comprehend another culture. Tarl’s problem is that there are things he does understand about Gor, but he recoils from that understanding. For example he disapproves of the keeping of women as slaves and yet the women of Gor approve of this institution. Even the women slaves approve of it. To a Gorean woman the one thing worse than being captured and forced into slavery is not being captured and forced into slavery.

Of course many readers find it impossible to get past the slave thing. I suspect that most of those who find Norman’s treatment of the subject offensive either haven’t read the books or have had a knee-jerk reaction of disapproval the moment they encounter it. Norman, a professional philosopher, uses the barbarian society of Gor (including the slavery aspect) to comment on American society in the 1960s and human nature in general. And as in the first novel there’s nothing even remotely graphic of a sexual nature.

Outlaw of Gor is more than just a sequel to Tarnsman of Gor. Gorean society has changed profoundly in the years that Tarl has been away. So Norman has not just created a fascinatingly different alien society, he has created a dynamic changing society. It will be intriguing to see if there are further changes in the third novel in the series (a copy of which I have already ordered).

And like the first book Outlaw of Gor is a pretty decent sword-and-planet adventure tale as well. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

William Ard's You’ll Get Yours

William Ard was an ex-Marine and ex-Hollywood publicist who was a successful writer of hardboiled mysteries in the ’50s. After his death in 1960 at the age of 37 he was rapidly forgotten. Most of the many books he wrote are now hard to find and only a couple have been reprinted. You’ll Get Yours, which he wrote in 1952 under the name Thomas Wills, has been re-issued by Black Gat Books.

It opens with a murder. We know who the murderer is and we know who the victim is but we don’t know why the person was murdered. We will find out. We do know there’s a dame involved. It all started when New York private eye Barney Glines was hired by artists’ representative Archie St George to recover some very valuable jewellery, stolen from Kyle Shannon.

Kyle is an actress and she’s about to become the hottest thing in Hollywood. The studio has built her up as a poor kid lucky enough to be discovered quite by accident so they don’t want the public to know that she’s actually a rich girl whose daddy left her a fortune. Those jewels have to be recovered discreetly. The thieves have in fact offered to return the jewels for twenty grand, but what Barney doesn’t understand is why the thieves want him to be the go-between.

The first complication is that Kyle is Archie St George’s woman but as soon as Barney lays eyes on her he wants her. He wants her real bad. The fact that Kyle dislikes him on sight could present something of a challenge. And why does she dislike him?

The second complication is that it wasn’t just jewels that were stolen. There were some photos as well. And the negatives. Nudie pictures. Not quite the thing that an aspiring Hollywood star would want to have made public.

Getting the jewels back is easy but the pictures are not with them. Maybe the thieves din’t steal the photos. Maybe they did. Maybe someone else did. But did anyone else even know about those naughty pictures?

Stripper Gaye Dawn may have the answers. She’s a junkie, which can make persuading her to co-operate easier, or more difficult.

And people start to turn up dead.

Barney Glines is an honest private eye. His approach to the job is to work with the police. He’s kept his nose clean. Now he doesn’t care about anything except Kyle. Solving the case is now just a means of getting her. So now he’s prepared to cut a few corners, not always a good idea for a private eye. He still has friends on the force which comes in handy when he’s arrested for murder.

Kyle is a nice girl but she’s the worst thing that ever happened to Barney Glines. She’s not a femme fatale but she has the same effect on Barney, plunging him into a disastrously messy situation that he would have been wise to keep out of. Nice girls can lead men to destruction, if they’re the wrong nice girls. Especially nice girls who belong to other men,

This is classic hardboiled stuff with a generous helping of noir on the side.

William Ard clearly had the potential to be a major hardboiled writer. His prose is energetic and he certainly knows how to pace a story. If you’re a noir/hardboiled fan You’ll Get Yours is worth checking out. Recommended.