It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, tenement hot, whorehouse hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy. He rolled away from her, not that he thought it would be any cooler because the whole bed was steaming, but because he needed a cigaret desperately afterwards....Looking down at her, not feeling anything, seeing but not thinking about her blobby mouth, black-rimmed eyes, black from the life she led, black from the eye make-up which had smeared and run, his gaze ran down along her naked body to her too full breasts that slopped over on each side of her rib cage. He should have remembered when he picked her up on Division Street that the ones who looks so good in clothes, that stuck out like a bureau drawer, were the ones that fell to pieces when the brassiere came off. But there were so many things he was going to have to remember.
With such a lyrically rank opening--and character descriptions that sound like they were written by an undertaker--how could I avoid reading this 1952 PBO (Lion 100, Earl Bergey cover)?
Larry Camonille was the mastermind behind a mass prison break of 10 convicts out of Joliet. He needed to get out because tuberculosis and the dank prison air have left him with only a single half-rotten lung and he knows that even another year of jail time would be a death sentence.
After procuring the above quoted sickening end to his prison dry-spell, he robs a "tea pad" and makes for the hobo jungle to hop a train to a drier climate.
Circumstance lands him as a dishwasher in a nowhere town where he's stuck between an overripe alcoholic widow, and a 14-year-old nymphet (who covers herself in pancake makeup to appear older). Both of these women discover Larry's criminal past and attempt a combination of blackmail and ill-advised seduction to force him to eliminate something/someone that is interfering with their happiness.
Larry wants to drop them both and go but he has no cash and a barrage of newspaper and radio reports--ticking of his fellow escapees one by one--tells him that the noose is tightening.
For most of its length this book runs at a solid B-grade Cain level but a few scenes--like the one in which TB afflicted transient thinks his inexperienced lover is finally developing some bedroom technique when in fact it's just the beginning of a grand mal epileptic seizure--invoke a level of misanthropy and disgust with the flesh that makes this a memorable and worthy read.
The first edition PB is a bit pricey (which means I'll try to keep it in stock) but there's a 1968 reprint that can be had for $10-12.
Doing research for this review I experienced one of those bizarre synchronicities that the book trade is prone to. The author, Bruce Elliot, was apparently more prolific in science fiction and the pulps than he was in mystery and I wasn't able to find out much about his other hard-boiled titles. But his (minimal) Wikipedia page mentions that he was a practicing stage magician...and what do I have sitting next to my desk but a pile of JUST arrived magic ephemera (to be listed in a few days) containing 20-30 mimeo'd magic/sf 'zines entitled "The Phoenix", edited by none other than Bruce Elliott...and these were "thrown in" by a seller as a bonus!
How's that for magic.