|TOR Books, March 1988|
For a moment there it sounded to me like the message of modern evangelicalism. But that very "standard of the new values" spoken of is the very thing that drives our narrator, Steve Collins, to embark on his scheme to kidnap his way into the good life.
Published in 1954, The Kidnapper, is a nasty little thriller that's my favorite kind of mid-century noir novel. It's not one I see out there in the wild very often. I bought my copy about 15 years ago from a long gone used bookstore in central Phoenix, and only now have gotten around to reading it. If you're going to look for anything by Robert Bloch you're going to have to do it in the horror sections of the bookstores still out there. Like Harlan Ellison getting pegged as a Science Fiction writer, Bloch is forever known as a horror writer, thanks to his 1959 novel Psycho.
Bloch dives headlong into Jim Thompsonville in The Kidnapper, as we get the story straight from our hero Steve Collins. He's been around, knows how life works, knows the angles, and isn't afraid to go after what he wants when opportunity knocks. We meet him after riding the rails into a nameless town, somewhere in Illinois, pulling down the night shift as a tool and die maker. He's not exactly on the run, but he'd prefer to live his life without any inconvenient strings attached. He gets friendly with another guy on the job, Leo Schumann, a little guy everyone just calls Specs, because of his thick glasses. Specs has no luck with the ladies, but has hopes of eventually winning over a working girl named Terry, a "blonde with dyed hair and a figure like your grandmother's broomstick." Specs would like to find a nice girl and get married, save up for a house, follow that American Dream he's been promised. But he can't seem to make it past first base with the nice girls from church. So he pines for Terry. Steve ain't interested in any of that love crap. Catch him telling a dame he loves her? Forget that! It took him long enough to shuck this last lush down in Florida. Anytime he wants a chick he can go pick one up, but saddle down with one, no way, Dad!
Then he meets Mary. Mary Adams is a strange chick. Kind of crazy-like, with her barely contained lust and her innocent way of twisting Steve all up into knots wanting her. Soon enough, she's spending her free time rocking his world each day before work. By day Mary works as a nanny to the daughter of a well-heeled family that runs one of the banks in town. Shirley Mae Warren is the kid's name. She's 4 years old. Mary's job is to see to it she gets to and from pre-school each day. Her folks have all kinds of money, Mary tells Steve, and maybe one day they'll take Mary, with the kid, on out to California. Wouldn't that be swell? And there you have it all laid out, sweet as a peach ripe for the picking. Snatch the kid, get a nice fat ransom for her return, and live on Easy Street afterward. Steve's just got to convince Mary that it'll work.
"A criminal? Don't be afraid to say it, Mary, it's only a word. A fancy word that guys like Warren dream up to pin on the little fellow who tries to get ahead. Anytime a little fellow takes dough from a big shot, he's a criminal. But when a big shot takes dough, he's a smart business man. He's got the law on his side because he makes the law to begin with."
Hmm...where have we heard this before? Has a ring of familiarity to it, kind of. Maybe Steve's on to something after all. Anyway, back to the kidnapping. Steve and Mary get the whole caper planned, except one thing. Steve doesn't have wheels. He's gonna need a car. If only he knew a chump he could talk into providing their wheels for a split of the ransom...A guy like Specs for instance. Just think of the dames Specs could have eating out of his hand if he had a little cash to spend on them!
And we're off and running. Of course, you know things never really go as planned in these stories. Something always slips and throws a wrench into things. In this case, the girl they kidnap has to go and die on them.
Like I said, this novel is a lot of unwholesome fun reading, mostly because of the strong narrative voice that Bloch delivers through Steve's point of view. Steve is one of those characters who has an undeniable dark charm to them, and a way of seeing things that you can damn near relate to yourself, especially when you find yourself working a job for nuts while seeing those other big shots get all the rewards out of life. Bloch plays on our skewed sense of entitlement that has saturated our society for decades now. We're promised that hard work brings us nice stuff. You can almost empathize with the desire to take that shortcut, pull that trigger, get what's yours. And that's the stuff that the best noir novels come from. Bad people making worse decisions.