Underground Reading: Baby Moll & Honey in His Mouth
Monday, September 26, 2011
Another pair of 1950s gems from Hard Case Crime. This time, the publisher has dredged up early noir works from authors better known for their work in other fields.
Honey in His Mouth (2009) was originally written in 1956 but never published. The author, Lester Dent, created Doc Savage. Mr. Dent wrote over 150 novels starring the superhuman adventurer and, although, later in life, he turned his hand to other genres (mostly Westerns), that's how he's primarily remembered. He's also from Missouri, which gets him bonus points.
Honey in His Mouth features a con man, grifter and thief named Walter Harsh. The reader is introduced to Walter as he speeds off from a gas station, fleeing a man from whom he stole $700 in photographic equipment. The resulting car chase ends up with the death of the pursuer and the hospitalization of Walter. Walter, self-absorbed, doesn't feel the tiniest pang of guilt. As his story is revealed, he becomes even more detestable.
Walter doesn't even have the excuse of being a successful bastard. He's a petty grifter with a shtick that involves using his (almost) jailbait (kinda) girlfriend to set up sales calls and then flogging people unwanted photos. He's not Dexter, he's just... annoying. A combination of pushy salesman and sleazeball - everything we're programmed to detest. He also slaps his non-girlfriend around. A lot. Walter's also a bit dumb, something that becomes more and more clear as the book goes on. Despite his high opinion of his own intelligence, he just ain't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.
However, while in hospital, he gets a lucky break. It turns out that Walter is an exact physical double (down to the blood type) of a South American dictator. A group of the dictator's inner circle have been looking for a man like this for years. They've been squirreling money out of the country, but they need a faux dictator to collect it. Walter, with his lack of scruples (and brains), is the perfect tool for the job.
The novel switches back and forth between Harsh's perspective and that of Mr. Hassam, one of the coterie of traitors. Mr. Hassam is everything Walter Harsh is not - calm, empathetic, focused, strategic and, if not kind, at least he displays a sort of sensitivity. While Harsh blunders from scene to scene (hilariously, he spends a whole week staring at a wall safe in case someone nicks a few thousand dollars from him), Mr. Hassam insinuates himself from one meeting to the next. Outwardly, he's the most trusting and trustworthy of all the characters. Privately, it becomes clear that he's setting the stage of his own schemes. Harsh is the most valuable man in the world to the scheme, so the various conspirators all woo him in their own ways - including sex, money, friendship and fear. It is no wonder he's always so confused. Mr. Hassam is clever enough to see all the players at work, Harsh is not.
Honey in His Mouth is one of the darkest in the Hard Case Crime series to date. There's a bit of violence and a fair amount of general grisliness, but what really gives it its unflaggingly nihilistic tone is the complete lack of good. These are terrible people conspiring to do a bad thing to a worse person. Their scheme involves using another terrible person. It is clear from the outset that this isn't going to end well. It says a great deal about Mr. Dent's skill as a writer that, despite this surfeit of nastiness, the reader still secretly hopes for a "positive" resolution - some cunning way in which the characters get, not what they deserve, but what they want.
Baby Moll (2008 - originally 1958) was written by John Farris under the pen name of Steve Brackeen. Another Missouri boy (woohoo!), Farris is probably best known now for his series that began with The Fury (1976), a horror novels about psychic teens. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Farris also wrote a series of bestselling books about a fictional high school, starting with Harrison High. The books - vaguely racy, vague culturally sensitive, vaguely issues-driven - sold in the millions. Meanwhile, as Steve Brackeen, he wrote a small handful of more conventional noir thrillers.
Peter Mallory quit the Florida mob six years ago. Facing up to his boss, Macy, he packed up his things and went north. It took a few years, but Mallory managed to establish himself as a normal/good citizen - with a shop of fishing supplies, no less. He even found a special ladyfriend and got himself engaged. Life is good; his past is behind him.
Except, of course, it isn't. After a long day of fishing and sexing on the beach, Mallory receives a summons from Florida. The boss is in trouble and, unless Mallory comes down to save the day, Macy will expose Mallory for the dodgy character that he is. Mallory's displeased but doesn't have a choice. He throws some things in a bag and drives south.
Mallory finds that the Florida mob scene is in a state of disarray. Macy is no longer the iron-fisted dictator of local crime and is fighting (and losing) a war with a former subordinate, Pete Maxine. His inner circle is composed of has-beens and lunatics; he's surrounded by aging thugs and alcoholics. Worse, some sort of serial killer is in play. Back in Macy's early days as a crimelord, his men burned down a tailor's shop, killing the man and his family. Someone is out for vengeance for this long-forgotten act. Macy's old cronies have all been brutally murdered, and he's the last name on the list.
Let's not forget about the ladeez. Besides Mallory's fiancée (quickly forgotten), he encounters a bevy of sex-crazed beauties. Diane is a (beautiful) woman who takes care of Macy's adopted daughter and is a self-confessed "crazy person". Evelyn Rinke is the (beautiful) wife of Macy's current consigliere. She's also a bit loony. Evelyn has a bad case of "nerves" stemming from her sadistic husband. As a result, she sneaks into other men's beds. Finally, Gerry is Stan Maxine's special lady. She's an over-developed (and possibly under-age) housepet with her own agenda. Also, boobs.
Sadly, this isn't Mr. Farris' finest effort. The actual "mystery" isn't there. The identity of the killer is painfully obvious from the start. Mallory occasionally makes a comment like he's started to figure it out, but then always drops the obvious line of investigation in favor of sexual horseplay or general malaise. The latter is also a frustrating part of the book. Mallory arrives on the scene reluctantly and, even when his own life is at stake, refuses to emotionally commit to his surroundings. He'll watch, quietly, as seriously strange/dubious/deadly/wrong things happen, then shrug and pour himself another glass of whiskey. Mallory could sort everything out - probably with half the effort it takes for him to stay disengaged. However, he chooses not to, and his deliberate nonchalance makes for a difficult protagonist.
In Baby Moll's favor, Mr. Farris has populated the book with a cast of memorable oddities, weirdoes and villains. Like Honey in His Mouth, there are no good guys. Even Mallory comes down from his high horse to slip into his own mobster patterns of cheap sex and random violence. However, the group is composed of such goofy characters that their shenanigans can be randomly entertaining. Macy's insistence on group breakfasts and team outings give the whole book the air of a summer camp gone very, very wrong. It is a shame that Mallory is such a drip and that the core plot is so predictable, else Baby Moll would've been quite a lot of fun.
The covers for both Baby Moll (Robert McGinnis) and Honey in His Mouth (Ron Lesser) are amazing. If pressed, I'm probably going to give the edge to Mr. Lesser's work. Mr. McGinnis' leggy blonde (swimsuit, make-up & high heels - love it) is spectacular (I think it is supposed to be Dianne?), but Mr. Lesser's femme fatale is spot on for Miss Muirz, the dictator's foxy and dangerous mistress.
After a year long hiatus, Hard Case Crime are back - new titles are coming out shortly, including new books (and long-lost old ones) from Lawrence Bloch, Mickey Spillane, Christa Faust, Donald Westlake and Robert Silverberg. We're delighted.