Sunday, November 4, 2018

Death for Sale - Henry Kane

He took one of Carter's cigarettes, lit it, blew smoke at the match to extinguish it. "Understand this, Mr. Winston. I'm not a pug-ugly, not a hoodlum, not a gangster. I perform independently and have no interest or curiosity in the motives of those who retain me. I command high fees because I am an expert and because there is a great element of risk. I take such risk into consideration as do others in hazardous professions--the people-jack, the high voltage worker, the test pilot. And if ever I'm caught, I shall accept even that philosophically--that is my way of life, and what comes must come. And now, if you please, what do you want of me, Mr. Winston?"

Dell - July 1957

And here you meet the wordiest hitman in the game. No, he doesn't talk his victims to death, not quite, but the reader may be an innocent bystander in the exchange. Death for Sale, by Henry Kane, was published in 1957. I don't believe I've read any other Henry Kane novels before this one. He's published a lot of books with cool covers on them, but I never see them out there in the the used bookshelves. I picked this one up 20 years ago in a flea market for 50 cents (the sticker is still in the book) and hadn't got around to reading it until this week.

It's got all the trappings of a classic noir plot: a husband is saddled with a shrew for a wife who refuses to divorce him, so in a moment of drunken anger hires someone to kill her. After sleeping on it, he wakes up with second thoughts and spends the rest of the novel trying to prevent the hit from going down. In this case, our reluctant husband is Carter Winston, a successful, 52 year old owner of a talent agency. His wife, Paula Sommers Winston, is twenty years younger, beautiful and rotten, and turns the bitch meter to 11 on the 1-to-10 scale. She makes no secret that she's seeing another man (she refuses to divulge who) while refusing to divorce Carter. She likes the setup, likes living in a mansion with servants, and likes the big life insurance policy on Carter's life. Carter Winston has a 19 year old daughter, Diane, from his first marriage. Diane's mother died when she was 13 or so. Carter Winston's marriage to Paula Sommers his only two years old, and we're given a summary of their whirlwind courtship in a few paragraphs early on in the book. In a moment of drunken frustration, Carter decides he has to have her killed, and hires a shady cat named Stewart Blake to do the job.

Why would a supposedly smart business guy marry someone so much younger? Well, we have an obvious theory here. Paula Sommers is a total smoldering hot babe. And Carter Winston is a stuffed shirt jerk-off. That's the biggest problem with this novel. It's preposterous. All noir plots are preposterous but you forgive them for it if the characters are relatable to the reader. You have to have a little empathy for at least one of them, or hate someone enough to want to see them get their just desserts. But with Death for Sale, you have characters so obnoxious that you really could care less what happens to them. Thankfully, the writing is crisp and professional, and the plot doesn't slow down long enough for you to not finish it. In spite of a few nice touches here and there, some moments of tension, the plot is more "drawing room mystery" than a true noir novel. For example, about a third way into the novel we're introduced to Cynthia Sommers, Paula's sister, who looks exactly like Paula! Then there is Carter's business partner Walter Moore, who's got a torch for Cynthia. Added to the mix is a kooky wannabe actress named Lola Cavanaugh who ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time when our hitman, Stewart Blake, comes to complete his job.

By the end of the novel we have a gunshot in a storm, a chase through the night, and an overly complex resolution that would have made Ellery Queen slap his forehead! Oh well, it wasn't the worst fifty cents I've spent, and like I said above, the writing was well done. If I run across any other Henry Kane novels out there in the wild I'll probably splurge a few clams and dive in again. Or I just might pick up a Frank Kane novel and be happy with that. Who the heck knows?

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