Thursday, September 25, 2008

Baby Moll by John Farris (writing as Steve Brackeen) (Hard Case Crime)

In the 1982 reprint of his modern classic Harrison High, author John Farris mentions in passing some "other novels" he wrote during the time it took him to write that book: "suspense thrillers ... published by Gold Medal Books under a pen name."

Baby Moll was the second of five novels that first saw print under the moniker Steve Brackeen, and Hard Case Crime is publishing it under Farris's own name for the first time. Farris also admits that, at the time of their first publication, he "fondly imagined [they] rivaled the best of John D. MacDonald."

Baby Moll is the story of Pete Mallory, who used to work for gangster Macy Barr, until he got tired of Barr (and his "whole rotten business") and walked out. Pete then settled down with a nice girl named Elaine and spent six years trying to forget his past.

The trouble comes, though, when others don't forget your past, and Barr uses Pete's most closeted skeleton to get him to come back and protect Barr from veiled death threats. But no sooner is Pete back in town than it seems he's also on somebody's hit list, so he's then on the hunt for two potential killers.

If "the best of John D. MacDonald" includes one of my favorites, Cry Hard, Cry Fast, then the young Farris comes very close, at least in terms of characterization. In general its embarrassing to realize what a skilled and confident proseslinger he was right out of high school. Because, to read Baby Moll, you'd never know that Farris wasn't a world-weary 50-year-old spilling his disappointment on the page — that he still had his whole career ahead of him.

Baby Moll offers up a rogues gallery of characters, dark underworld types and otherwise. Its not very predictable nature — along with its fairly atypical, original style — makes for an engaging read, and Farris offers an ending that is both touching and satisfying.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Super-Detective Flip Book: Two Complete Novels by John Grange (Introductions by John Wooley and John McMahan) (Jim Anthony, Super-Detective)

"As a manhunter Jim Anthony had no equals; his fame as an amateur scientific criminologist was world-wide. Detection was his hobby, his avocation; countless were the mysteries he had solved, the murderers he had brought to justice after the police themselves had failed. In consequence, the mere mention of his name was enough to strike terror into the heart of any transgressor." — from Murder's Migrants in Super-Detective Flip Book: Two Complete Novels

Pulp fiction seems constantly to be on the comeback. From a publisher entirely devoted to it, like Hard Case Crime, to modern-novel imitations like The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, even to weblogs trumpeting its merits, like the "Pulp O' the Day" feature on I Was a Bronze Age Boy, it seems we just can't get enough of those seemingly undefeatable heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage, and the hardboiled private eyes that followed in their footsteps after World War II.

During his tenure as star of his own magazine, Super-Detective, millionaire Jim Anthony was both a superhero and a detective. For 10 novels (always written under the house name "John Grange" — much like The Shadow's author, "Maxwell Grant"), Anthony fought "super-villains" in high adventure tales of science-fiction. Then, for whatever reason (not all that many world-dictator wannabes, I imagine), Jim Anthony became a more traditional shamus against foes with more earthbound ambitions.

Both of these phases are considered by aficionados to be of equal quality, and the Super-Detective Flip Book contains a "novel" (really "novella," as neither exceeds 100 pages) from each period, printed back-to-back and head-to-tail like the old Ace Double format. (Only, unlike the mass-market size that Ace used and that Hard Case Crime recently revived with its reissue of two early Robert Bloch books — Shooting Star and Spiderweb — Off-Trail Publications and Reverse Karma Press have published these books in trade paperback.)

First up chronologically is November 1940's Legion of Robots, the second of a trilogy of novels (widely presumed to be the work of pulp sci-fi author Victor Rousseau, though this is still only speculation) featuring Jim Anthony's struggle with Rado Ruric. Don't worry that two-thirds of the story is missing, however: the other two have been reprinted separately since their debut and (at least according to the introduction by John McMahan), Legion of Robots is considered to be better than its brothers (Dealer in Death and Madame Murder).

Turn the book over to find not-so-"super" detective Jim Anthony in March 1943's Murder's Migrants, one of around a dozen Anthony tales written by pulpsmiths Robert Leslie Bellem and Willis Todhunter Ballard (still under the "John Grange" pseudonym). During this era, Anthony's adventures became less kid-friendly (mostly due to his sidekick's eye for the ladies), because comics had taken away much of that audience and the publisher decided to cater to the older readers who had remained.

While Anthony was originally created as an amalgam of other heroes of the time, like Doc Savage, Superman (just check out the "Super" lettering on the cover), and possibly even Tarzan, he has his own admirable qualities — and a "legion" of fans to support him. But neither of the stories in the Super-Detective Flip Book is what I would call "good." They both have the particular pulp charm of stories that were written in a hurry, but Murder's Migrants in particular is painfully overwritten in spots. (Given its 60-page length, this is rather surprising.)

Before 10 pages have passed, Bellem (who would eventually focus his skills on television scripts) and Ballard (who would stick to novels but switch primarily to Westerns as "Todhunter Ballard," even serving as vice president of the Western Writers of America for a time), have brought out half a dozen of Anthony's superhuman powers (some from his Comanche mother, another from a Hindu yogi) before he has even met the villain. And the finale more closely matches that of the Firesign Theatre's detective parody Nick Danger, Third Eye than any other real detective novel. And in case we didn't get the point, there's that passage I quoted at the beginning of this review, which I can only refer to as a sales pitch. (No wonder author Bill Pronzini devoted an entire chapter to the duo in his book an awful crime writing, Gun in Cheek.)

Super-Detective Flip Book is a terrific time capsule of a time when pulp was king, and "escapism" was the name of the game. I'm not sure that it's going to gain the style many new fans; the quality of writing is simply too pedestrian to make a new reader hungry for more. But the pulp fan who needs something besides the same old reprints that everyone else has already done will find it a welcome discovery indeed.
Related Posts with Thumbnails