|1987 Black Lizard Books, cover art by Jim Kirwan|
I chose to show the Black Lizard Books issue of this novel, since it's the version that I read. Back in the late 80's Black Lizard Books re-issued a number of classics, notably Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Harry Whittington. The Whittington novels came with an essay entitled "I Remember it Well" that Whittington wrote in 1987. In it, Harry Whittington looks back on his long career as a paperback novelist. I grab these Black Lizard Books whenever I see them. Thanks to them, writers like Thompson and Whittington found new audiences in the 80's and 90's.
A Ticket to Hell is a lean and nasty little novel about a guy with nothing left to lose finding either oblivion or redemption in the ass-end of a desert town deep in New Mexico. It begins as Ric Durazo has just picked up a hitch-hiker in a forlorn desert wasteland. The hitcher is one of those hopped up beatnik types, "jazzing" to their own tune. It's only a few minutes into the ride that he makes the mistake of pulling a gun on Ric, and finding out what road-rash feels like firsthand as Ric boots him back out onto the desert asphalt. It's one of those scenes that foreshadow the kind of journey Ric is going to experience as he reaches his final destination on Highway 58 in Los Solanos, New Mexico.
The motel is named La Pueblo. It's one of those respites from the road that dotted desert highways before the interstates took the adventure out of driving across the country. Cabins among the cactus and sage, corralled around a blue-lit pool where weary travelers smoke and drink whiskey as they plot their various paths in life. The kind of roadside motel with an office manned by a distracted middle-aged Joe and his younger, horny wife. The sort of wife that takes an immediate notice of Ric as he checks in. It's not long before she's offering Ric some personal R 'n R. Only Ric isn't interested. Across from his cabin is a young couple driving a new Cadillac. The girl appears cool, bored and rich and wears a revealing green bathing suit as she lounges by the pool. Her husband is too slick and good-looking for his own good, and spends his time knocking back highballs and shoving the babe in the green bikini around.
Ric has enough problems of his own to pay them all much attention. He's got a broken heart, a tired head, and a suitcase full of money. He's got a history of losing, and a life without a future. And he's in Los Solanos because he's got an appointment to keep. And it's while he's waiting for the phone to ring when he see's the too-handsome young husband from the cabin across the way attempt to kill his beautiful young wife.
A Ticket to Hell is the kind of noir tale that breezes by in a few hours of reading. It's got the kind of plot that moves so fast you don't spend any time looking for the lapses in logic. It's not rational and no one does anything that a "normal" person would do. But that's the fun of it all. Otherwise the motel would be a Red Roof Inn, infested by families from Florida and Kansas with their noisy fat kids yelling in the hallways and splashing in the pool. And that's a nightmare of a whole different order. One that nobody would ever write books about.