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Underground Reading: Knee-deep in Death by Bruno Fischer

Underground Reading: The Cheaters by Ledru Baker, Jr

Gold Medal Books - The Cheaters - Ledru Jr The Cheaters (1952) is a mystery in the "framed man" tradition with a unique twist ending: there is no twist ending.

The book's hero is swinging band leader and man-about-town Jack Griffith. Musician, lady's man and kind of an ass, Jack has the world at his feet. Until, of course, he's framed for the violent murder of the town's mob boss, Morrison.

The book begins with Jack actually being hired by Morrison (via his agent, Manny). Morrison wants a divorce from his wife, Margi. Possibly because there are already enough M-names in his life. Morrison accuses Margi of all sorts of naughty behaviour: fiddling with men, fiddling with women, drinking too much, and, of course, not fiddling with Morrison enough. Through Manny, Morrison knows that Margi has a bit of a crush on Jack. So Morrison (again through Manny) hires Jack to shag Margi. That way, he finally has the evidence he needs to end the marriage. Jack, for this pleasure, gets ten grand and a chance to keep his job.

Jack rants, sulks and protests, but eventually concedes and begins to stalk Morrison's wife. Margi, fortunately for the whiny Mr Griffith, is one sexy number. And, despite Jack meeting her in a gay bar, she's actually a man's woman. (Is that a phrase?). They fall in 1952-love-in-first-sight, that is, they dance a bit, kiss passionately and then declare undying love. 

The deal, as far as Jack is concerned, is off. He huffs over to Morrison to tell him that Margi WILL grant a divorce, but only so she can marry Jack. Morrison is distinctly underwhelmed and the two gentlemen exchange harsh language. Later, Jack visits Morrison at his home AND FINDS THAT HE IS DEAD. The whole situation? A set-up!

Manny's now number one in the organization. Margi is (most obvious twist EVER) an evil, conniving tartlette. Jack's on the run. Morrison is, well... he's still dead. This all took about half the book. 

The next quarter of the book is about life on the run. The author focuses on Jack's occasional trips to the grocery store (he buys a lot of beans, hamburger and illegal wine) and, more importantly, his newfound love: Doris the Waitress. It doesn't take much convincing, but Doris throws her lot in with her criminal boyfriend, and the two head back to LA to Sort Everything Out.

This is where The Cheaters really falls apart. The book's goals at this point are clear: Jack needs confessions from Manny and Margi for his name to be cleared. Confession = restoration to normalcy and success. Normally, this is where this sort book gets fun. In good books, the hero runs a complicated sting operation or undercover trap. Even in bad books, there's a bit of gunplay and a tearful, last-breath confession (generally in front of the previously-incredulous sheriff). And in The Cheaters? Jack kidnaps Manny and tortures him for twenty pages.

Of course, Jack, a true gentleman, won't torture Margi... but he's got a female friend that will! This is, without doubt, one of the weirdest sequence of events I've ever read in genre fiction. Baker gets credit for ending the book in a (shockingly) direct fashion, but this is essentially the equivalent of concluding a novel by abruptly declaring that "Then everyone died." Except, you know, with more torture.

The Cheaters isn't just bad, it has achieved an exceptional sort of awfulness. From an unprepossessing beginning, it descends into a special, magical low that may never be equalled. Well done, Mr Baker.