Monday, January 16, 2023

Frank Kane’s Time To Prey

Time To Prey is a 1960 entry in Frank Kane’s long-running series of Johnny Liddell private eye thrillers. Frank Kane (1912-1968) has never been considered as one of the greats of American hardboiled fiction but he gained respect as a consistently solid and entertaining pulpster.

Time To Prey starts with a girl named Blossom Lee passing an envelope to private eye Johnny Liddell. Then Liddell gets into a fist fight. He’s always getting into fist fights. He’s that kind of guy.

He has no idea why the girl passed him the envelope and he has no idea what was in it since a couple of hoods took it away from him. But when the girl turns up dead Johnny decides to interest himself in the case. She was a client. Well, not actually a client, but almost a client. And Johnny doesn’t like it when pretty girls get murdered.

He’s even more keen to get involved when he discovers that the Treasury Department is interested in the case. Apparently it’s connected with a nefarious commie plot to infiltrate Red Chinese agents intro America. Johnny doesn’t like commies.

The case seems to be running into a brick wall until Johnny comes up with a clever plan to get things moving. What this case needs is another corpse and he thinks he knows a way to arrange it.

He certainly manages to get things moving, in a big way.

Johnny Liddell comes across as very much a Mike Hammer clone, but more cold-blooded and less ethical. Yes, he’s a guy who makes Mike Hammer look like a Boy Scout and a liberal bleeding heart. Being responsible for cold-blooded murder doesn’t bother Johnny, as long as it’s cold-blooded murder of commies. And Johnny is in a way working for the US Government. Cold-blooded murder is definitely A-OK if it’s a commie and you’re working for the US Government.

Johnny is a guy who knows he’s one of the good guys and if bad guys need killing then the best thing to do is to kill them, or arrange things so they get killed.

Trying to emulate Mickey Spillane certainly made solid commercial sense in 1960 but Kane is just not quite in the Spillane league. His writing doesn’t have Spillane’s manic energy. And while not everybody approves of Spillane or Mike Hammer the fact is that Hammer was more than just a thug. He had slightly more complex motivations and he had an actual emotional life. You might not like Hammer but the character had a certain reality. Spillane was a first-rate writer. Kane was a second-tier writer. Emulating a successful formula is not as easy as it looks.

That’s not to suggest that Kane was a poor writer. He was very competent and entertaining but he lacked that extra something that writers such as Spillane had.

Apart from his total lack of ethics there’s not much in Johnny Liddell’s personality to make him stand out. He’s basically a stock-standard tough guy hero.

And you could say the same about the novel itself - there’s very little to distinguish it from any other hardboiled PI novel. It is however competently plotted, it’s well-written, fast-paced and action-packed. I wouldn’t call it sleazy but Kane does add a few sexy moments.

As long as your expectations haven’t been set too high Time To Prey is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Frank Kane’s 1957 interesting hardboiled novel about corruption in the music business, The Living End.

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