Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Kidnapper - Robert Bloch

"There is no security for the average man today. It is no longer enough to be a good husband, a good father, a good craftsman. If you do not have a Cadillac in the garage, you are a failure. That is the message of modern advertising, that is the standard of the new values we accept." 

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.

Highly recommended. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

She'll Get Hers - John Plunket

Youthful actresses were thin-faced and gave him the impression that their underwear was dirty. Shaggy-haired actors were badly mannered and mumbled and sported shrunken Levis designed to display their limited talents. Jo said they were “method actors” but Koslo classified them as glorified delinquents and misfits. Womenish men, mannish women…he couldn’t help but marvel at the miracle that Jo could have known these people and still remain untouched by their neurotic outlooks.

Monarch Books July 1960

Published in 1960 by Monarch Books, She’ll Get Hers is a tawdry little paperback that flies under the wings of some of the better known paperback originals by Gil Brewer and Day Keene and the gang. I’ve read a few Monarch paperbacks and have enjoyed them much like you’d enjoy a burrito from a dirty restaurant. You know they’re bad for you, but you like ‘em anyway. Monarch was kind of a low-rung publisher of pulpy paperback originals, and I’m guessing they went for the sleazier side of stuff than Gold Medal. Judging from the titles in their catalog, lots of juvenile delinquent, beatnik, and sleazy kicks can be enjoyed in these old paperbacks.

She’ll Get Hers is written by John Plunkett. According to the blurbs, Plunkett was heavily involved in the entertainment scene at the time, and sold screenplays for both the television and film industry. I don’t know if She’ll Get Hers was his only novel. It’s the only one I’m finding after a cursory look online. Regardless, it’s an often-told story of a bad guy getting his come-uppance by a bad girl. In this instance, a hood named Marty Koslo, and his new flame, Jo Wilder.

Koslo is an east coast enforcer for the Syndicate and is sent to Los Angeles to get to get to the bottom of why receipts from marijuana sales have dropped in recent months. Los Angeles is familiar turf for Marty Koslo. He’s got a swanky apartment above Sunset Blvd and a hot sexy girlfriend named Lorry Logan. He sets up a meeting with the district supervisors of the organization and reads them the riot act. Their biggest market is in the high schools and colleges throughout the Hollywood area. Koslo lays the tough guy routine down on the supervisors and promises he’ll be following up with the local pushers next. This has the whole L.A. crew in an uproar.

Marty Koslo was not just a successful hood. Marty Koslo was the syndicate’s number one hatchet man. The executioner. The enforcer. Big K, they called him. Not K for Koslo, but rather for Kill.

Later that night, back in his Hollywood office at the Chilton Hotel, Marty Koslo is kicking back with a drink and thinking of his date with Lorry when he’s approached by the bellman, a former jockey named Willie, who puts him wise to a raw deal fixing to happen to one of the regular girls who do freelance “modeling” work in the hotel. Some local Hollywood type named George has paid Willie to supply him with “knockout drops” so that he can score with one of the models who is there posing for “art” pictures. Willie tells Koslo that this particular girl don’t rate such a slimy treatment, that she’s special, that she ain’t like the other girls. He asks Koslo to run George out of the joint on behalf of his unsuspecting victim. Koslo figures what the hell, Willie is a good guy and is obviously sweet on this chick, so he’ll do him this favor. He takes the vial of knockout drops from Willie and goes to George’s hotel room. In it he finds George is all hot and ready for his fun time with the model who is in the bathroom changing her wardrobe. Koslo sends “Georgie” packing. Then he decides that, as long as he’s there, he’ll check out this chick that Willie is so sweet on. And out of the bathroom walks the stunning Jo Wilder.

She stood in the doorway framed by the light of the bathroom. She was wearing a pair of tiny nylon panties, black stilted pumps, a fresh coat of red lipstick and a rather vague expression of mild surprise.

A lot of attention is focused on Jo’s magnificent breasts at this point, and Koslo is basically reduced to a stuttering schoolboy on his first major crush. He lets Jo know that he’s just saved her from a sleazebag whose promises of a career in the movies for Jo was all bullshit. Jo is appropriately grateful, and promptly lets him know that, while she may pose nude for pictures, she’s a good girl who is pure of virtue. She also gets off on Marty’s obvious admiration of her naked body. Marty Koslo asks her if she’s had dinner yet and Jo agrees to go out with him that night.

What follows is a quick courtship of sorts, as Marty Koslo convinces Jo Wilder to come back to has pad above Sunset Blvd that night. A lot of kissing and mushy stuff follows, leaving Koslo’s head spinning under Jo’s alluring spell. She lets him know several times that she’s a virgin, but would like to be his girlfriend. She promises him that she’ll make him happy. Koslo figures it won’t be long before Jo gives herself up fully to his charms. In the meantime he dumps his girlfriend Lorry so he can devote all his energy toward Jo. In a matter of a single weekend he convinces Jo to move out of her dumpy apartment and stay with him. The next afternoon, while helping her pack up her stuff, he meets Jo Wilder’s neighbor, an artist named Mona. Mona seems unusually distressed to learn that Jo is moving out. She’s been painting a portrait of Jo and tells her she’ll have to finish the portrait from memory. Jo Wilder seems oblivious to Mona’s obvious crush on her, and promises to keep in touch with Mona. Koslo doesn’t give a rip about any of that artsy-fartsy stuff, and tells Jo Wilder to never see Mona again.

On the business end of things, Koslo learns that some of the distribution managers have been cutting the marijuana supply with tobacco. The high school kids are complaining that the stuff they’re buying isn’t any good. And the sales are dropping as a result. Koslo is ordered by the bosses back east to terminate the contracts of these managers, and do it with “a lot of noise.” Koslo brings in a 2nd hitman named Tito to help with the job. Meanwhile, Jo discovers the vial of knockout drops that Koslo got from Willie. She accuses Koslo of keeping them to use on her, to take her virginity. She has a complete hissy fit and runs away. Koslo spends the night trying to find her, only to discover that she’s run back to Mona’s arms. He shows up just in time to find Mona diving between Jo’s luscious thighs as Jo is writhing in unbridled passion. No wonder Jo doesn’t give it up for him, he figures. She’s a perverted dyke! In a rage, he beats up Mona and leaves Jo cowering on the floor. Then he and Tito head out into the night to gun down some cheating dealers.

Well, you know how these things go. Koslo’s preoccupation with Jo ends up messing everything up between him and his employers. A hit goes sloppy, a teenage girl is kidnapped, Tito ends up being a perverted psycho, a dealer flips and the police get tipped off to the entire drug operation. In the end, there is nothing left for Marty Koslo to do but go into hiding. But first, he’s gotta win Jo Wilder back!


It’s all a hot mess for Marty Koslo. Jo Wilder is one of those chicks who only live in novels like this. There are a lot of eye-rolling moments for the reader as Marty trips over his dick again and again. Lessons for the rest of us tough guys to be learned for sure; the first one being don’t get involved with bad girls who tell you how good they are. Actually that’s a terrible lesson. Where’s the fun in that?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Dreadful Lemon Sky - John D. MacDonald

“McGee, we’re talking about image here. We’re building an image people are going to trust. You ought to hear that boy give a speech. Make you tingle all over. What I wouldn’t want to happen, I wouldn’t want anybody to come here, some stranger, and try to make a big fuss based entirely on the word of some dead thieving slut.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Especially when it would be bad timing for Frederick in his career. A man shouldn’t lose his whole future on account of one foolish act. It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

Fawcett Gold Medal Books 1974

From a novel published in 1974 the above exchange sounds very modern, particularly in a country of wealth and political expedience. I thought The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald was the last novel in the Travis McGee series that I had not read, but I was mistaken. I probably read it more than 30 years ago, because some of the scenes came back to me again. As for the plot itself, I had mostly forgotten it. So coming back to this novel was almost like reading it for the first time, with just snatches of déjà vu along the way.

It begins like many Travis McGee novels do; a woman, in this case Carrie Milligan, comes back into McGee’s life after several years bringing trouble with her. Carrie is carrying a bag full of money, over $90,000, and she wants McGee to keep it safe for her, no questions. If she doesn’t come back for it in a month’s time, he’s to make sure her sister Suzie Dobrovsky gets it, minus $10k for his fee. McGee agrees to the deal, somewhat reluctantly. Carrie was a friend of his, and his natural instinct is to “rescue” her from whatever it is she’s running from. But Carrie keeps her silence and leaves in the night, leaving the money with McGee.

Well you don’t have to read many books like this to know that Carrie is not going to be coming back for the money. Instead she’s going to wind up dead in a suspicious accident, leaving McGee 90 thousand reasons to find just who was behind Carrie’s fatal “accident” and just where the money came from.

So McGee and his pal Meyer (that’s the entire name you get for his pal in these novels) take the houseboat to Bayside Florida, where Carrie had resided before being killed. They’re not docked at the marina half an hour when they get pulled into the family drama between Cal and Cindy Birdsong, the owners of the marina. Cal is a raging drunk who accuses Cindy of “peddling her ass” to McGee as he checks in to the marina. A fight ensues and Cal is taken away by the police while Cindy recovers from more bruises. A worker, Jason Breen, tells McGee that Cal Birdsong wasn’t always a drunken bully, but that something in recent months changed him. McGee and Meyer go to Carrie’s last employer and meet Joanne, a friend of Carrie’s. They learn that Consolidated Construction Company, where  she did the bookkeeping, is going belly-up.  Owners Harry Hascomb and Jack Omaha had a falling out and Jack Omaha has disappeared. Further backtracking into Jack Omaha’s background leads McGee to local attorney Fred Van Harn. Fred Van Harn is one of those sleazy types who affects long sideburns and fancy watches and a sleazy talent for banging young girls and wives of prominent businessmen. McGee also learns from Joanna that he’s got a kinky twist and likes to hurt women. As McGee pulls the varied characters together he discovers they’re all linked to an amateur get-rich-quick scheme dealing smuggled marijuana to a local singles apartment complex where Carrie lived. A place McGee and Meyer refer to as “Swinglesville.” Unfortunately, as with most schemes, this one runs off the rails, and someone is eliminating the party-goers.

I mentioned that this novel was published in 1974 and it shows its decade in all its sleazy glory. Jesus beards, sideburns, grass, swingers, rock music, it’s all here. You can almost smell incense and pot when you open its pages. In fact, a couple of mood rings fell out of my book. It reeks of 70s fashion, manners and lingo. The McGee books are snapshots of the times they were written. Unfortunately, that eye for detail and ear for dialogue can seem hopelessly dated for a lot of modern readers. But, this book is a terrific look at what MacDonald saw taking place around him in Florida in 1974. He uses McGee and Meyer to dissect the scene for the rest of us squares. McGee is an anachronism, a guy out of place in these modern times. I understand the gripes against these novels, but I forgive them of all that. McGee sometimes comes across more than a bit judgmental and square.  And I don’t care, because the stories, man…the stories!