Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Ticket to Hell - Harry Whittington

The door swung open, spilling light around him when he released the knob. The smell of gas was strong. He thrust the door wide open and entered the cottage. It was furnished precisely as his was, but in greater disarray. The man and the woman had been here for some time or were extraordinarily messy. Makeup and lotions littered the dresser top, both men's and women's clothing were strewn all over the chairs. The green bathing suit was wadded on the rug. Near it, in a wide open expensive housecoat, the girl was sprawled. 

1987 Black Lizard Books, cover art by Jim Kirwan
And with that scene our hero Ric Durazo shifts into third gear on his ride into hell in Harry Whittington's 1959 novel, A Ticket to Hell.

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.


  1. Man, now I really want to re-read this. Might need to go on a Whittington binge again this fall.

    1. Whittington is oneof my favorites. I recently picked up RAMPAGE which was his "potboiler" style 70s novel about "sex and corruption" in a southern town near Tampa. Looking forward to it. Some day I'll try one of his Ashley Carter plantation porn novels too.

  2. So glad you reviewed this one. I love Harry Whittington, and A Ticket to Hell is one of my favorites. It reads like drive-in movie. It also shows how masterful Whittington was at making his settings come alive.

    I'll be interested in reading your take on Rampage when you get to it. It was the first Whittington novel I read and I enjoyed it lot, though it probably wasn't the best place to start. It's not as tightly plotted as his earlier work, but it has lots of enjoyably over-the-top moments. A favorite line of dialog is when a local preacher, Rev. Bush, says: "A night of prayer and good music would be better for the immortal souls of those godless young people than a night of funky rock."

  3. Hi John, that line is hilarious! I was happy to find Rampage. Looking forward to reading it. I'm also going to have to use that line somehow. Thanks for checking in!

  4. Hi John, that line is hilarious! I was happy to find Rampage. Looking forward to reading it. I'm also going to have to use that line somehow. Thanks for checking in!