The Girl on the Velvet Swing by Simon Baatz

The Girl on the Velvet Swing tells the story of the 1906 murder of famed American architect Stanford White, who was shot to death before a crowd of New York’s elite at the opening night performance of a play at Madison Square Garden, one of the city’s architectural landmarks, which he himself designed. After the shooting, White’s assailant, the young millionaire Harry K. Thaw handed his pistol to a fireman and calmly walked to the police station in the company of a single officer.

When asked why he had shot White, one of the city’s most prominent citizens, Thaw said simply that he was avenging the honor of his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, whom White had raped five years earlier, when she was sixteen.

Nesbit had arrived in New York in 1900 with her mother and brother. The family had done well in a small town in western Pennsylvania until the sudden death of Nesbit’s father left them destitute. While her mother took in sewing to make ends meet, Evelyn’s beauty made her a popular model for artists.

In New York, Evelyn Nesbit caught the attention of painters, sculptors, photographers, and theater directors. Stanford White noticed her after she’d been cast in a production of Floradora at the Casino Theater on Broadway. White asked Edna Goodrich, an older actress in the play, to introduce them.

At White’s house, the fifteen-year-old small-town girl got her first taste of the high life. According to her testimony in two separate trials, after spending months gaining her confidence, White drugged her and raped her while she was unconscious.

Harry Thaw came from a Pittsburgh family that had made its fortune in iron, coal, and railroads. Thaw was in his early thirties when he met Evelyn, who was still in her teens. Thaw had an $80,000 annual allowance, had never worked, and had been kicked out of every school he had attended.

Although his money made him a member of New York’s elite and he frequented the same theaters and restaurants as Stanford White, none of the city’s social clubs would have him. There were rumors, which White himself repeated, that Thaw was addicted to heroin and cocaine, that he lured young girls who aspired to the stage to an uptown house on the pretext of offering auditions, then stripped and beat and terrorized them. After the assaults, he used his money to buy their silence.

Everyone knew that Thaw was eccentric. Some thought he was insane. No one wanted him in their club.

Thaw was the kind of man who nursed a grudge and brooded over every slight. He was also, according to his young wife, obsessed with the idea of female purity and chastity. The knowledge that his most bitter enemy had done such a thing to his wife when she was only sixteen filled Thaw with hatred and rage.

The series of events leading up to the murder, and the murder itself, occupy only the first four chapters of Baatz’s book. The remaining 220 pages describe Thaw’s trials and his legal wranglings with the state of New York, the authorities in Canada, and New York City’s ruthless, relentless, and single-minded District Attorney, William Travers Jerome who pursues Thaw like Ahab pursues his whale.

The book actually gets more interesting at this point, as it shows the lengths to which the wealthy will go to get their way, and the means by which they will accomplish it. Harry Thaw and his obsessive, underhanded mother are as relentless as the government officials who want to make their lives hell, and they have an almost inexhaustible supply of cash to fight their fight.

The post-murder battles involve prosecutors, clever lawyers, governors, the US Supreme Court, an asylum for the criminally insane, the government of Canada, gangs from Hell’s Kitchen, and the intractable, often wrong-headed opinions of the public and the press. While the murder itself was a lurid spectacle in the most unexpected setting, the post-murder wrangling provides a fascinating look into how wealth, power, government, law, public opinion, and the press wield their powers in American society.

Baatz is right to focus on the rich story of crime’s afterlife, which includes a series of events more dramatic and improbable than any author of fiction could ever reasonably invent.

I won’t spoil it for you, because it’s a great read. Go out and get a copy!

Chasing Phil by David Howard

David Howard’s Chasing Phil follows the story of two agents from the FBI’s Gary, Indiana office who go undercover to infiltrate a ring of stunningly audacious and startlingly successful con men in the mid-1970s. When agents Jack Brennan and J.J. Wedick get a tip about a guy who ripped off a pizza store owner with bogus loan papers, they ask permission from their supervisor to go undercover. The idea was to record the con man, Phil Kitzer, making incriminating statements and possibly mentioning the names of other scammers the FBI could pursue. The scope of the operation was expected to cover one or two meetings.

At the time, the FBI had no history of running undercover operations. J. Edgar Hooover had prohibited them out of fear that his agents would become corrupted by associating too closely with the criminals they were supposed to be arresting. But this was 1976-1977, and with Hoover recently gone, the FBI was beginning to change its ways.

Unfortunately for Brennan and Wedick, neither man had been chosen to attend the Bureau’s first class in undercover training. Not only did they have to go in cold for their initial meeting with Kitzer, they had to use their real names and IDs. They had to charge incidentals on their personal credit cards and hope to be reimbursed. The FBI didn’t even have rules for what an undercover agent could and could not do, which would lead them to have to make a number of increasingly difficult spur of the moment decisions.

Brennan and Wedick’s informant introduced them to Kitzer by phone. After a number of calls, Kitzer asked them to meet him in the bar of a motel near Minneapolis. The agents, having no disguise, were so unprepared that Kitzer’s first comment on meeting them was, “Christ, you guys look like a couple of feds.”

The three men had a few drinks, chatted about ways to acquire and sell stolen government bonds, and generally hit it off. Kitzer, then drunk, told them to get in his car for a ride. Brennan and Wedick looked at each other, unsure what to do, since there was no protocol for what an undercover agent should do in this situation, and they had no backup to bail them out if things got dicey. The agents got into the car and hoped everything would be OK.

As they talked, they began to understand that Kitzer was no two-bit con man. Nor was he the type to go in and rob a bank of a few thousand dollars. Kitzer and his international ring of co-conspirators would literally steal entire banks by forging papers that guaranteed millions of dollars in funds and getting the bank’s owners to turn over the entire operation to them. Then they’d empty out the depositor accounts, sell fake certificates of deposit and fake loan guarantees that would never be honored.

They didn’t just do this to banks. They did it to hotels, land development projects, insurance companies, and all sorts of other businesses. Some of their scams were so large, they put the economies of small countries at risk.

When Brennan and Wedick returned to the office, they tried to explain to their supervisors the magnitude of what they had uncovered. It took them months to get the higher-ups in the Bureau to understand the scope and complexity of the operations these two agents had stumbled into.

For much of the book, the agents and the few above them who understand what’s going on spend an enormous amount of time and sweat just pushing requests through the FBI bureaucracy to allow Brennan and Wedick to follow Kitzer to his next destination. The scammers fly from airport to airport on the spur of the moment, while the agents have to get on the phone and ask headquarters if it’s OK to break diplomatic protocols by pursuing the operation into another country without officially warning the other country that they’re coming. In some cases, the agents find themselves working in other countries, unacknowledged and unprotected. Other times, they’re in countries with no working phones (yes, that was a thing in the Carribbean of the 1970s) and the FBI has no idea where they are or even if they’re still alive.

In one incident, the only plane tickets Brennan and Wedick can get on an hour’s notice have GTR (Government Transport Request) stamped across the top–a dead giveaway that they’re feds traveling on government orders–and they have to try to hide their tickets from the crooks who they’re chatting with as they board. And all this is happening while one agent has to travel the world with a tape recorder the size of a brick strapped to his back.

Phil Kitzer turns out to be a fascinating character. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and persuasive. Because he has a deep knowledge of banking, finance, insurance, and law, he is often the lynchpin on which the scams of other con men depend.

Kitzer also has a thorough knowledge of the criminal justice system, which he has easily outwitted before. When the government brought its best lawyers to take him down after a massive insurance fraud in the 1960’s, he not only got himself acquitted of all charges (though he was clearly guilty), but he humiliated the prosecutors in the process.

During their months of travel together, Brennan, Wedick, and Kitzer develop a strong friendship and a deep mutual respect. Though Kitzer may be on the wrong side of the law, he’s an extraordinary person by any measure, and a hard guy not to like.

In one scene, when Kitzer still has no idea that Brennan and Wedick are undercover agents, he explains to them in chilling detail the inner workings of the FBI’s decision-making process, which he’s managed to infer by simple observation. He then goes on to analyze the tactics and shortcomings of federal prosecutors, and describes how he can easily outmaneuver them. Brennan and Wedick know he’s not just talking. He’s actually done all the things he describes.

The FBI finally comes fully onboard with the operation when some of Kitzer’s associates connect with members of the Mafia in New York. Then the operation that the Gary, Indiana office has spent so many months just trying to keep afloat becomes the FBI’s number one priority. As one agent remarked decades later, Brennan and Wedick’s undercover work exposed so many criminals, the FBI could still have been working on the cases in the 1990’s if they chose.

Things get dicey for the agents as the operation moves to New York. With the involvement of the Mafia, the agents face their first threat of real violence. At that point, they’re still working under their real names. Anyone can look up their families in the phone book. They’ve even had to turn over their social security numbers to some particularly paranoid criminals who wanted to check their credit records.

The amazing thing about this book is that it keeps getting better as it goes on. I won’t spoil what happens when the agents finally reveal themselves. The book takes an unexpected turn there, and it’s a good one. It’s rare to find a non-fiction book in which the story and the primary characters deepen unexpectedly at the end, but this one, and it’s well worth the read.

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Williams is one of the great underappreciated American crime writers of the 20th century. A Touch of Death, first published in 1953, bears the hallmarks of many of his other works: a down-and-out guy around thirty years old who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, a very smart and practical woman who’s more interested in getting things done than in sticking anyone else’s ideas of morality, and a seemingly simple caper that turns out to be vastly more complicated than it first appears.

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Lee Scarborough, a former football player who is nearly broke as the story begins, accepts a proposition from a woman named Diana James, whom he’s just met. She wants him to drive a few hours north to the small Texas town of Mount Temple, sneak into the home of the wealthy Madelon Butler, and steal the $120,000 in cash that Ms. Butler’s late husband embezzled from the bank.

Scarborough has an easy enough time getting into the Butler mansion, but as he searches for the money, he sees signs that others have been there before him, apparently searching for the same thing. Well, wait a minute, he thinks. What happened to those people?

He then discovers there’s another person in the house that was supposed to be empty. Madelon Butler is in her bedroom, drunk and listening to classical music on a phonograph. In a minute, it gets worse as Scarborough discovers he’s not the only prowler in the house.

We’re only in chapter three at this point, and our protagonist is already in way over his head. I won’t give away what happens from there, but Scarborough’s problems get a lot worse, especially when Diana James unexpectedly reappears. Scarborough begins to understand that he has unwittingly walked into the middle of a feud between two sharp and ruthless women who truly hate each other. And he has the perfect mix of desperation, false confidence, poor judgment and greed to make his situation a whole lot worse.

One aspect of this book that is unusual for the crime/noir genre is that there is no sex or even sexual attraction between the criminal protagonist and the femme fatale who assists him on his path to self-destruction. Lee Scarborough and Madelon Butler genuinely dislike each other. Ms. Butler never reverts to sex appeal to manipulate people. She’s smart enough to get what she wants by simply outthinking everyone.

As the plot continues to thicken, we watch Mr. Scarborough try to think his way out of the hopeless checkmate position that Madelon Butler has maneuvered him into. The sense of the ever-tightening noose makes this book reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s work, though where Thompson is the better psychologist of perversity, Charles Williams is more ingenious at constructing an endlessly twisting
plot and a devastatingly effective femme fatale.

Madelon Butler, unlike many women in the noir genre, is no underworld tramp. She’s cool, well educated, and exceptionally articulate. When Scarborough asks her why she killed her philandering husband, she says:

I had borne his other infidelities, but when he calmly decided that I was going to support him and his paramour for the rest of their lives, I just as calmly decided he was going to die.

Though the opening chapters of the book are a little clunky, and some of Scarborough’s early decisions tax the reader’s credulity, the ever-thickening plot of the story soon makes up for those shortcomings. As the web of current and past events becomes more and more dense, the reader feels Scarborough’s world spiraling out of control. We feel his growing sense of paranoia, his sense of entrapment, and the full unraveling of his mind.

Though I don’t think this is Williams’ best work, it’s still a very good read. If you find yourself liking this book, check out an even better work of his, The Hot Spot.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson

This is a superb piece of journalism and one of the best true crime books I’ve read. In fact, it goes far beyond true crime, richly portraying every stratum of an entire culture and era. The core of the story concerns the sudden and mysterious 1969 death of a wealthy young woman who was well known and well liked throughout her community. The woman’s marriage had been in trouble at the time of her death. Her unhappy husband had a new lover, and immediately after the death, her vindictive father blamed the husband for murder.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson (Non-Fiction)

I won’t go too far into the plot, because the plot twists a hundred times before the book ends, and each time you think you understand a character and the significance of the events they’re involved in, something new comes along and upends your understanding, forcing you to reevaluate.

Thompson does an excellent job presenting a tale that involves a number of Houston’s wealthiest families, as well as prostitutes, thieves, hit men, cops, prosecutors, boozers, addicts, bullying oil men, and celebrated surgeons–with the politics of oil and money hovering over it all.

If this had been a novel, readers might reject it as too complicated and too far-fetched. But real life is messier than novels, and as one writer pointed out, fiction has to stick to what’s probable, while real life only has to stick to what’s possible. The second realm is much broader than the first, and much more difficult to wrestle into a thorough and coherent story.

Thompson is an excellent portrayer of characters, and he introduces each new character with rich and salient detail before they become actors in the story. The prostitute is not merely a prostitute. She’s a fully fleshed out human being whose past informs an intelligent world view. By the time you see her interacting with the other characters and making decisions, you understand her motives, her fears and desires. The same goes for the cops, the oil man, the thief, the prosecutors, the young woman and the husband. Because the author has taken the time to make them all well rounded, relatable characters, you begin to see each part of the story from each character’s perspective, and the story that could stand on plot alone becomes exceptionally rich and multifaceted.

The brilliance of this work lies first in the scope and depth of the author’s research, and second in his ability to tell a tale such a complex tale with such richness, nuance, and clarity. If you like stories that portray complex (and lurid) human interaction within a rich social and historical context, you will love this book. Thompson makes it easy to sink in for the long, strange trip.

I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without discovering Cornell Woolrich. I had heard of him, but I had never read his work until now. The blurb on the cover of the book compares Woolrich to Raymond Chandler. I would actually say he’s quite a bit deeper and more nuanced. While Chandler focuses on the social world, Woolrich focuses much more tightly on the interior world of his main character.

In fact, he gets the reader to identify so closely with Helen/Patrice in this book, I had to reopen it the day after I’d finished it because I couldn’t remember if it was written in first person or third. It’s third-person, but it’s so powerfully colored by the protagonist’s thoughts and perspective that it’s easy to misremember as a first-person narrative.

Woolrich is a brilliant writer. That much comes out clearly in the prologue, which is among the best openings of any book I’ve ever read. It’s telling too that there’s no action in this section. The narrator merely gives a brief overview of her current life. (The prologue and epilogue are the only sections of the book written in first-person.) She lives in a beautiful house in a peaceful town, she loves her husband and son, and yet she and her husband are haunted by something that happened in the past and can find no peace.

That’s it. No explosion, no crash, no dramatic killing. And yet it’s utterly enthralling. The character has drawn you so fully into her confidence, her perspective is so rich and her language is so strangely powerful, you have to read on.

The rich description carries through into the third-person narrative that begins with chapter one. Here’s the main character, pregnant and abandoned on the first page of chapter one:

She was about nineteen. A dreary, hopeless nineteen, not a bright, shiny one. Her features were small and well-turned, but there was something too pinched about her face, too wan about her coloring, too thin about her cheeks. Beauty was there, implicit, ready to reclaim her face if it was given a chance, but something had beaten it back, was keeping it hovering at a distance, unable to alight in its intended realization…

Her head was down a little, as though she were tired of carrying it up straight. Or as though invisible blows had lowered it one by one.

You rarely see that quality of writing in crime fiction, in part because crime fiction tends not to focus on sensitive people. The quality of writing is consistent throughout the book. Here’s a snippet from a later scene. It’s autumn, and Patrice, still hopeful and determined after taking many more blows, is returning from a funeral.

The leaves were brightly dying. The misty black of her veil dimmed their apoplectic spasms of scarlet and orange and ochre, tempered them to a more bearable hue in the fiery sunset, as the funeral limousine coursed at stately speed homeward through the countryside.

The writer uses a number of interesting devices to brilliant effect. For example, one very short chapter near the middle of the book appears three times in a row. It’s simply a description of what the main character sees when she looks out her window in the morning. In the first version of the chapter, the description is bright and full of hope. In the second, it’s bittersweet, weighted down with a sense of impending loss. In the third, it’s dark, heavy, and threatening.

In three pages, that simple device portrays the decline in Patrice’s mental and emotional state more powerfully than thirty pages of nuanced description could ever do. For all the richness of his writing, Woolrich doesn’t waste any time conveying what he needs to convey.

Woolrich explores some of the same psychological territory as Jim Thomson, though he comes at it from the opposite direction. Thompson often begins with some petty criminal committing a petty act and then delves into the mind of his disturbed main character as he moves toward some violent and catastrophic explosion. Thompson’s main character is always male and is usually the perpetrator. Woolrich begins in his character’s mind, his character is a woman, and she’s the victim. Thompson’s writing is dark and powerful because of its spare, raw directness. Woolrich’s power comes from the richness and elegance of the language, of the perspective, and of the world he paints. While he does focus mostly on his characters’ interior, he paints just as rich a portrait of the social world as Chandler.

This book is primarily a psychological suspense: a slow, weighty, and relentless act of brutality against the psyche of a good and honest and vulnerable person. It portrays the effects of evil much more powerfully than so much of today’s crime fiction, which simply focuses on acts of physical violence.

If you read the prolog, you’ll know at once if the book is for you. And if you like this one, check out Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

This book contains some brilliant writing and colorful characters. It’s a freewheeling 1970s update on the classic noir detective novel.

The book begins just as private eye C.W. Sughrue is catching up to famed author Abraham Trahearne. Trahearne has been touring the seedy dive bars of the western states on an epic bender since his second wife disappeared. Sughrue was hired by the author’s first wife to bring him back home. The detective and fugitive are well matched for adventure. Both are war veterans and literate, intelligent, reckless alcoholics.

The Last Good Kiss

When Sughrue finally catches up to Trahearne, the two become fast friends, and the best parts of the book are the descriptions of their carousing. The first interaction between the two characters gives the general flavor of the first two-thirds of the book. Sughrue is examining the gunshot wound in Trahearne’s ass after a barroom brawl, while Trahearne drinks whiskey to ease the pain.

“What’s it look like?” he [Trahearne] asked between sips.

“Looks like your ass, old man.”

“I always knew I’d die a comic death,” he said gravely.

“Not today, old man. Just a minor flesh wound.”

“That’s easy for you to say, son, it’s not your flesh.”

“In a few days you won’t have nothing but a bad memory and a sore ass,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “But I seem to have both those already.”

A number of other reviewers have remarked that this book reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s a pretty good description. Sughrue’s actions, his narrative and his worldview are similar to those of Philip Marlowe, though often with a hilarious comic twist.

For example, when he finds himself in the fancy office of a pompous attorney who looks down on him, Sughrue decides his best move is to undermine the lawyer’s arrogance by acting even more presumptuous and entitled himself.

I stood up and walked around behind his desk, took a cigar out of a burled walnut box, lit it, sat down in his leather swivel chair, and propped my boots on his desk.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.

“Making myself comfortable, partner,” I said, then blew smoke in his face.

“Get up from there,” he sputtered. He couldn’t have been any angrier if I had sat down on his wife’s face.

That last line is a perfect example of Sughrue’s comic twist on the traditional tough-guy noir detective, and that thread of irreverent, subversive humor runs throughout the first two-thirds of the book, in both Sughrue and Trahearne.

But this is a detective story, after all, so there has to be a mystery to solve, and that’s the focus of the final third of the book, which is darker and more violent. This is where we see Sughrue’s combat training and Trahearne’s more pathetic, childish side. Both of these guys are alcoholics for a reason, and I give the author credit for showing the darker side of chronic heavy drinking.

The writing in this book is far superior to almost everything else in the genre. I give it four stars instead of five only because the mystery was somewhat convoluted and hastily resolved. And it left a bitter taste. But I can see why this book inspired a generation of crime writers. Most novels that intentionally aim at being literary don’t reach as high or as deep as this one, and they certainly aren’t as entertaining.

Two More Nice Reviews for Gate 76

Gate 76 just picked up a couple more nice reviews. It goes on sale tomorrow, June 1, 2018. You can pre-order through the links below.

There aren’t many books that I put down in the middle of reading, just so I can say out loud, “DAMN, can this author write!”, but Gate 76 is one of them… chock-full of interesting characters… but in believable, relatable ways. (His depictions enabled me to immediately envision the characters… because I’ve encountered those same people, and his words describing them rang completely true.) And, when an author imbues even the minor characters with enough life and story to make them real? You’ve got the makings of a damn good story on your hands… I’m generally not big on doing year-end favorites lists… but if I decide to do one for 2018, Gate 76 will definitely find a place there. And, Mr. Diamond’s next work, whatever it might be, can’t come out soon enough.GlamKitty, theliteratekitty.blogspot.com

Writing from Ferguson’s point of view, Author Andrew Diamond’s first person, present-tense narration is a breath of fresh air in a genre where the narrative voices are all too homogenous. Not since Thom Jones’ The Pugilist At Rest has a writer so eloquently incorporated the physical and mental toll of boxing in a protagonist’s life journey. As PIs go, Ferguson is as world weary as you might expect, but much funnier… The Bottom Line: One of the year’s best thrillers.BestThrillers.com

Buy Impala from Amazon.combn_buy_button

The Big Bite by Charles Williams

Charles Williams’ The Big Bite is very good crime/noir thriller, though it’s not quite up there with his brilliant 1953 noir The Hot Spot.

The Big Bite - by Charles Williams - 1973 Pocket Books edition
The cover of Pocket Books’ 1973 reprint of The Big Bite. The story is better than the cover, and it takes place in the 1950s, not the 1970s.

John Harlan’s pro football career has ended after another driver hit him in what appeared to be a drunk-driving accident. After his recovery, Harlan is in very good shape by normal standards. He’s in his late twenties, strong, and fit. He just lost that extra bit of quickness that it takes to compete at the highest level of sport, and now that he can’t play football anymore, he’s on the skids with no idea what to do next.

As he drifts about, the insurance investigator who originally looked into the drunk-driving accident tells Harlan he suspects there may be more to the story. Part of the accident may have been deliberate, and while Harlan wasn’t the intended target of that mischief, he certainly was a victim.

John Harlan is a man of low morals and few scruples. He’s bitter, and he thinks he’s entitled to get back some of the money he lost due to the premature end of his career. He decides to blackmail the two people who he thinks were responsible for the “intentional” part of the “accident.”

When it comes to crime, Harlan is a good planner, even though he’s a novice. He takes huge calculated risks, because he’s greedy as hell. His risks pay off, up to a certain point, because of his obsessive planning, which is the focus of much of the narrative. He neglects some little things along the way, like failing to examine parts of his plan from every conceivable angle. He also neglects some big things, like failing to fully understand the nature of the people he’s blackmailing.

What begins as a brutish game of intimidation and force evolves into a subtle and intense battle of strategy and clever tactics by both the blackmailer and his victims. In fact, for much of the book, it’s unclear who the victims will be. Because we see the world through Harlan’s eyes, we become as convinced of his plans as he does, and we don’t see their flaws until they smack him in the face. Then the reader gets smacked in the face too because Harlan can really suck you in. He’s up against some very clever foes, particularly Julia Cannon, who plays a number of roles in turn, and all of them convincingly. She the cheating wife, the femme fatale, the victim, the master, the psychologist, the moralist, and the oracle.

Though the poor writing in the first few pages of the book may turn you off, stick with it. You’ll start to see the value by the end of the first chapter. This one really comes alive at the end, when a story that has looked like a series of adventures and misadventures starts to take on new layers of depth, darkness, and moral heft. It’s a Jim Thompson-style ending in which a character slowly comes to realize he is imprisoned by the very desires and actions he thought would set him free. Julia Cannon becomes the prophetess and the bearer of wisdom and fate, bequeathing to Harlan a legacy and a future he tries vainly to reject, and exposing in him every flaw she so eloquently enumerated when she chained him to the bed and forced him to listen to what he had so rudely dismissed as “her incessant yakking.”

What she tries repeatedly to drive home to him, and what she does get across loud and clear to the reader, is the hidden cost of crime: that is, the cost to the perpetrators. We get it, and we get her frustration when she says to Harlan, “I was unfaithful to my husband. I realize you have already grasped this, at least as far as its surface aspects are concerned, and there would be no point in attempting to explore it to any depth because eventually we’d run into language connected to emotion, which obviously would have no meaning to you. How would you describe a sunset to a blind mole living on the dark side of the moon?”

The Big Bite was originally published by Dell in 1956. This review is of the 1973 Pocket Books reprint, which sold for 95 cents and includes a full-color two-page ad for True cigarettes between pages 128 and 129. Your best chance to find this title is the Mysterious Press eBook edition of 2012.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

Harry Madox has drifted in and out of a number of jobs, and has one failed marriage and some unspecified debts under his belt. When the story opens, he’s just landing a job as a car salesman in 1950’s small-town Texas. He’s not in town long before he meets two women. The young, sweet Gloria Harper brings out the best in him, against his nature and sometimes against his will. And then there’s the boss’ wife, Dolores Harshaw, who has a knack for getting him into and out of trouble.

Madox is one of those guys for whom the straight and narrow just hasn’t worked out. “In this world, you took what you wanted; you didn’t stand around and wait for someone to hand it to you.” He comes up with a pretty good plan to rob to local bank, but his entanglements with Gloria and Dolores complicate everything. I won’t spoil the story; it’s particularly interesting to see how two kindred spirits recognize each other instantly, bring out the worst in each other, and make a mess of things. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The jaded and unsentimental Madox gives some priceless descriptions of his even more jaded and unsentimental lover, Dolores Harshaw. Here’s his description of her after the first time they’ve slept together. They’re in her house (Madox’ boss’ house), and she’s been plowing through a bottle of whiskey.

“Moonlight from the window had moved up the bed and now it fell diagonally across her from the waist to the big spread-out breast which rocked a little as she shook the ice in her glass. I thought of a full and slightly bruised peach beginning to spoil a little. She was somewhere between luscious and full-bloom and in another year or so of getting all her exercise lying down and lifting the bottle, she’d probably be blowzy…

“She had a bos’n’s vocabulary. My head felt worse and I wondered why I didn’t get out of there. She was already on the edge of being sloppy drunk, kittenish one minute and belligerent the next. God knows I’ve always had some sort of affinity for gamey babes, but she was beginning to be a little rough even for me. She had a lot of talent, but it was highly specialized and when you began to get up to date in that field you were wasting your time just hanging around for the conversation.”

Dolores Harshaw has some plans for Harry Madox, and she’s a smart one. He knows it too. “The smart thing was to get out of here and let her happen to somebody else.” But he just can’t quite untangle himself.

Overall, this is one of the best noirs I’ve ever read, with steadily-building tension and suspense. Williams writes straightforward prose when the situation calls for it, and can also be witty and insightful. His characters ring true, and he provides good insight into their motivations and weaknesses. Dolores Harshaw may be the best femme fatale in all of crime fiction: seductive, conniving, compelling, manipulative, jealous, ruthless, intelligent, and unhinged.

It’s a shame this book is out of print, but you can find used copies online. “The Hot Spot” is the book’s title under the Black Lizard imprint. It had been published earlier by Gold Medal under the title “Hell Hath No Fury.”