Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Cheaters by Orrie Hitt (Stark House Press, paired with Dial "M" for Man)

The first of the two novels in this "sleaze classics" release from Stark House Press, The Cheaters, is also the one many followers of author Orrie Hitt consider to be his best.

Clint and Ann are a couple of kids from adjacent Beaverkill farms who started dating when he was 20 and she was 16. (Their families are apparently close, as Ann's father got one of Clint's sisters pregnant.) Now Ann is pregnant and they had to leave the Catskills due to lack of work, so the couple need money.

On their second day in Wilton, opportunity knocks for Clint in the person of Charlie Fletcher, owner of a dive in The Dells that also operates as a cover of sorts for a group of prostitutes. As he puts it, "I wanted a job tending bar about as much as I wanted three legs in my pants but when you've got ten bucks in your pocket and a girl waiting for you in a rented room you don't argue with anything that comes your way."

Especially when it pays seventy-five dollars a week. But little does Clint know what a monkey wrench this particular bartending job is going to throw into his life, such as it is. Fletcher is looking to get out of the business, and his wife Debbie is looking to get away from Fletcher. Meanwhile, crooked cop Red Brandon lets it all go on as long as he gets his cut... until he takes a particular dislike to Clint because Clint has something he wants.

Given Hitt's reputation as the "Shabby Shakespeare of Sleaze" (as the afterword by Hitt fan and pastiche artist Michael Hemmingson calls him), I was expecting a prurient read of little to no real quality. The pure novelistic skill Hitt displays in The Cheaters was a very pleasant surprise.

Not only does the story move, rarely pausing to let the characters take a breath, but I also actually cared about Clint's success. Even though I didn't exactly like him, I wanted him to do well, just because he seemed to be up against so many obstacles.

Hitt throws so many potential pathways in front of him that the book could have ended in any of a dozen ways, and the one chosen is just as good as any of the others... if not better, given the general tendency toward darkness in the crime genre. I'm excited to have discovered a new author and subgenre to pursue. Once again, a Stark House Press is more than just entertainment; it's an education.

The second novel in this collection is Dial "M" for Man, and the book also contains an introduction from Hitt's three daughters, a profile by Brian Ritt, and an afterword and bibliography by Michael Hemmingson.

Ritt's profile was originally published on James Reasoner's blog, Rough Edges, and revised for this appearance. In it Ritt shows that Hitt, despite the "heroes" of his work, was a loving man who was devoted to his wife and children and was merely supporting them in the best way available to him. The intro from Hitt's daughters loving supports Ritt's profile.

The afterword by Hemmingson contains a bibliography and some insight into the publishing practices of the day and genre. Due to the questionable marketing, even scholars have found it difficult to say clear on Hitt's output. Queer Pulp author Susan Stryker thought Hitt's pseudonym "Kay Addams" was a real lesbian who sometimes wrote under the name Orrie Hitt.

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