Saturday, November 19, 2022

Bill S. Ballinger's Portrait in Smoke

Iowa-born Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) isn’t as well known today as some of his contemporaries in the crime fiction field but in the 1950s he had quite a reputation. It was Portrait in Smoke, published in 1950, that first established that reputation.

This novel uses a technique that Ballinger would use again and again - split narration. There are two parallel narratives, one written in the first person and one in the third person. Both narratives concern a young woman named Krassy Almauniski.

Danny April tells his own story, the story of an obsession with a woman. Danny owns a small downmarket collection agency. He bought it from a broken-down alcoholic named Clarence Moon. Moon has left the files in a state of chaos. While trying to get those files into some semblance of order Danny comes cross a photograph of a seventeen-year-old beauty contest winner, Krassy Almauniski. He decides that Krassy is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. He quickly becomes obsessed. He knows nothing about her except that she won a beauty contest run by a third-rate newspaper and she once owed a lot of money which was suddenly, inexplicably, paid in full.

Since Danny is in the debt collection business he knows how to find people, even people who don’t want to be found. He will find Krassy. Then he will marry her. She would be around twenty-seven by now but he has no doubt she is as beautiful as ever. Danny, as you might have guessed, doesn’t have much experience with women. He also has a tenuous grasp on reality.

Intercut with Danny’s story is a third-person narrative that tells us the actual story of Krassy’s life. Raised in poverty and misery in the Stockyards district of Chicago Krassy is a girl on the make. She figured out very early on that if she was going to have the life she wanted, a life of luxury and ease, she would have to get it through men. She also figured out that her beauty would make this easy. All she needed was a start. The beauty contest gave her that start, and that was the first time she ruthlessly used a man and then discarded him. It wouldn’t be the last time. Krassy hates sex but she knows it’s the one essential weapon in her arsenal. Krassy will learn to like sex but she never forgets how useful it can be.

Danny proves to be quite a competent detective. He has very few leads to go on but he has determination and he knows the tricks people use when they don’t want to be found. Slowly he pieces together the details of Krassy’s life over the past ten years. He finds the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but he puts them together to make a picture of Krassy that is ludicrously wildly inaccurate. He views the clues through the learns of his hopeless romantic obsession. He knows that Krassy isn’t just beautiful, she’s a really nice girl. He finds out things about her that make him admire her even more.

Of course we’re also getting the real story of Krassy’s life and the things that she’s done that make her seem so admirable to Danny are in fact part of her ruthless schemes to gain the riches that she covets. Danny knows the broad outline of Krassy’s life but he doesn’t know any of the details, and knowing the details changes the picture completely.

Krassy is one of the most horrifyingly ruthless ambitious women in fiction. She focuses on her ambitions with laser sharpness. She allows nothing to get in her way. She leaves a trail of heartbreak and desolation behind her. She destroys lives with no compunction whatsoever. But Danny doesn’t know any of this.

Danny isn’t totally stupid. He knows that he’s creating a portrait of Krassy made of smoke.

Danny isn’t really a bad guy. He is obsessed with Krassy to the point of madness and he lives on delusions but there’s no malice in him. He’s basically a decent honest guy. The way he makes his living, as a debt collector, is a bit unsavoury but Danny never did have any good options in life. He still does his best to treat people as decently as he can. He is quite generous. He’s not the least bit violent.

Krassy is unscrupulous and amoral but while we can’t possibly condone her actions we can to some extent understand them. Her childhood was appalling and she had nothing to look forward to other than a life of desperation, struggle and misery. Her only way out was to use her body. Maybe if she’d been born into a prosperous family in a nice neighbourhood with real prospects for the future she might have turned out to be the nice girl of Danny’s fantasies.

The split narration technique works superbly. It’s like viewing a picture from one angle and then looking at it from another angle and finding that it becomes a totally different picture.

There are other very clever things about the way Ballinger structures this novel but to even hint at what they are would be to risk spoilers, which I have no intention of doing.

This is a crime novel, although mostly it doesn’t seem to be. It also definitely qualifies as noir fiction, with a few real gut punches

A superb novel. Very highly recommended.

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