The Golden Gizmo

The Golden Gizmo (1954) is one of the oddest novels from Thompson, long-considered to be the most off-beat crime fiction writers. The key to this story is the paragraph in chapter two where Thompson explains that Todd Kent was born with a gizmo, something that changed from day to day, “that was too whimsical in its influence to be bracketed as a gift, talent, aptitude, or trait. For most of the thirty years of his life, the gizmo had pushed him into the smelly caverns where the easy money lay. All his life — and always without warning — it had hustled him out through soul-skinning, nerve-searing exits.” In short, fate was fickle with Kent and changed from moment to moment.

Kent was a conman who moved from town to town, looking for one petty score or another. “The gizmo was fickle, and he was ridden, rousted and floated.”

He married Elaine, knowing she’d be drunken trouble and no amount of sorting out would ever calm her down.

In Los Angeles, he found a semi-legitimate gig as a gold buyer who would go door to door looking to con the soft, the foolish, and the elderly out of their gold jewelry, selling it to the middleman he worked for and turning s fine profit. Kent “moved into the con games as naturally as a blonde into a mink coat.”

The story turns twisted as Kent meets a chinless man with a magic watch, a talking and singing dog, and an errand girl going by the name of Dolores.

He thinks he’s on to something when he finds a heavyweight watch that he takes almost by accident which is worth its weight in 24 k gold. But he flees when he discovers a nude corpse stretched out in his bed, one stocking tied around her throat, the other stuffed in her mouth.

From there, he somehow flees into a theater where the singing dog who finds him gets him kicked out of the theater though no one finds it that unusual. Kent finds himself drugged, jailed, and mixed up in smuggling gold for Nazis into Mexico. Get your scorecard out cause little of this makes sense. Just remember Kent was born with a gizmo and it makes his luck shift on a dime so no matter what happens to him, just wait a minute and his luck will change.

The Golden Gizmo feels weird and disjointed even by Jim Thompson standards. For good reason, this is one of his lesser-known works.

The Big Bundle

Nathan Heller is Max Allan Collins’ secret time machine. He uses Heller to explore the Twentieth Century from Frank Nitti and the Chicago Mob to the Lindbergh kidnapping and from Marilyn’s last days to what happened on that damn grassy knoll. The Big Bundle explores the Greenlease kidnapping, which, at the time, was a national sensation and included the largest ransom ever demanded, ever paid, and half of that Bundle of cash disappeared into thin air when the two punch drunk losers who pulled it off were captured. Apparently, rumours circulated for years about what happened to three hundred thousand missing big ones. Some said a crooked police officer made off with it. Some said it was the motel owner. Some said the hooker who was involved. Others were certain the St. Louis Mob got their hands on it and siphoned it into Hoffa’s pension fund. It was one of the great mysteries of the time.

There are two parts to this story. In the first half, Collins plays it straight and tells the story of what happened, mostly found in the press and literature, except he injects Heller into it, involving him in the ransom payoff. This all sets the stage for the second half five years later. As congressional hearings rage over organized crime, Heller is hired to return to the scene of the crime and figure out what happened and who benefitted. No one really wants him to dig up old memories and he’s treading where he really doesn’t belong, something that perhaps isn’t worth what he’s being paid.

As with all the novels in this amazing series, the writing is top-notch, the story flows well, and there are fireworks.

The Straight Man

Published in 1978 originally by the Black Lizard imprint of Creative Arts, the Straight Man has been rumored to have been written by Barry Gifford, the founder of Black Lizard, but has not been included in his bibliography. It has also been attributed to be Chris Colby’s first book by an Amazon reviewer. It is told in a distant third person and the character known as the Straight Man is like Henry Fonda’s Wyatt in Easy Rider, fitting because it is a story about drug deals and the Straight Man is in these deals and is the coolest calmest dude in these transactions.

Cockfighter

First published in 1962, Willeford’s novel Cockfighter is the story of one man and his what might be called an obsession with winning the Cockfighter of the Year award. That trophy alone would satisfy Frank Mansfield. To him, nothing else really mattered. The story opens with Frank betting everything, from his trailer to his car on a match and noting that he had no choice under custom but that pay off and walk away with nothing in his hands but an empty cage as his bird didn’t survive. He even threw in Dodi, the sixteen year old farm picker’s daughter who had run off with him and now he didn’t know quite what to do with her. Meanwhile, Frank has a fiancé at home in Ocala, one he’d been engaged to for eight years and wouldn’t marry yet though he loved her because he wouldn’t give up his vocation of fighting birds. Mary Eliazbeth wanted him to settle down with a normal job and be a husband and a father.

To further complicate matters, Willeford presents Frank as a silent man who has taken a vow of silence till he wins the Southern Tournament. He communicates by hand signals and notes. Frank is a proud man and though at one point reduced to playing guitar for money, playing the only three songs he knew, all of which he made up himself, he wouldn’t take charity.

Willeford never paints Frank as a saint, but as one who had a singleminded pursuit of a goal, to the exclusion of all else. For Frank, all that really mattered was winning at the tournament and he would abide by the rules no matter the outcome. Despite this, there are many in the story eager to break the customs and to welsh on their bets, bit not Frank. He would use any edge he could get, any trick, any additive, but they had to be within the rules.

The reader here will learn more about the sport of cockfighting than the reader could imagine whether you want to hear all the gory details. At its heart, it’s a story of obsession, of singlemindedness, of all that comes with it. There’s also a sense that the sport is pure and Willeford makes fun of others who tell their stories and those who put on airs. The fact that Frank doesn’t speak leaves lots of room for people to make fools of themselves such as when the rich widow is told that he studied guitar under Segovia and then invites him to her home to play for a party she was hosting.

Willeford himself said the book is loosely tied to Homer’s Odyssey. The key here is loosely. Like Ulysses, Frank can’t get home to Ocala until he accomplishes his tasks, but the parallel is rather loose.

Although the original publication of the novel was in 1962, apparently the publisher got hit by a car and died and the book consequently never reached successful selling points. Willeford revised the book for a new publisher in 1972 (Crown) and then Willeford himself wrote the screenplay when this was turned into a movie in 1974, but it was not a commercial success. Cockfighter later became more widely read after Willeford achieved commercial success with his Hoke Moseley series and Black Lizard republished Cockfighter.

On The Run

In addition to his legendary Travis McGee series, John D. MacDonald wrote 45 standalone novels, many of them excellent. On The Run was one of his last few standalones before he primarily concentrated on McGee. First published in 1963, it is a classic crime novel about broken people and their paths crossing. The plot comes together a bit oddly as the characters come together.

Sid is the primary character, who had a crappy childhood, parents now deceased, and a grandfather who had to be long gone at this point. Sid had found his mark selling used cars and was quite successful at it with a trophy wife and a big dealership. Thing was, as he explains, this trophy wife cared about nothing but the attention she could get from displaying her voluptuous curves and eventually Sid’s attention wasn’t enough and she found attention in a motel room with a connected businessman. And, the thing about connected guys is that, when you rearrange their faces so thoroughly that even plastic surgery can’t save it, the connected guy isn’t going to forget and, for thirty months, gunmen across the South have been tracking Sid from town to town – always a few steps behind the man on the run. So when old grandpa -remember him – is on his deathbed and wants to find his two estranged grandsons, finding Sid isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

The heart of the story is the tender love affair Sid has with the grandfather’s nurse, a broken woman whose ex-husband is due to walk out of prison any day. A love affair with a man ostensibly on the run is not a walk in the park either, but the relationship between them offers deeper looks into the nature of their characters.

Once the story gets underway and there does indeed seem to be quite a lengthy buildup, it becomes clear that MacDonald has quietly given us another gem filled with fascinating characters.

To Die in California

To Die in California is an unusual crime novel and it is even unusual for fans of Thornburg’s writing due to its pacing and lack of action. Indeed, not all readers will enjoy this one. The first chapter where David Hook buries his son, Chris, and breaks down and the entire world drowns in his tears. No one alive can emerge unmoved from the great tragedy of the first chapter. It is so astounding in its emotion that a reader might expect similar depths from every page in the rest of the book, but the remainder of the book has a different pace and a different feel.

Nevertheless, Thornburg presents us with a rather interesting and captivating novel. The primary focus of the novel is the protagonist, Hook, a college-educated cattle rancher from southern Illinois, stiff and unyielding in his understanding of right and wrong. His world is shattered beyond recognition when he is told his eldest son died in California, a suicide. This he cannot accept and know it cannot be true even as he retrieves the body from Santa Barbara and begins to understand that no one wants to reopen the matter. It is neatly concluded and tied with a bow. The story is about his return to Santa Barbara after the funeral and his attempts to understand precisely what happened because the bits and pieces of information he has are not sufficient to close the matter in his eyes. With a letter Chris wrote two days before his demise in hand, Hook returns to Santa Barbara, a land in 1967 filled with hitchhiking hippies living on the sand and a landed class of gentry, cold and indifferent to how bare and empty their lives are.

There’s not much to go on and even Hook is not quite sure what happened, but he means to dialogue the people who were with Chris at the end and satisfy himself what really happened. What follows gets quite curious as he engages these people, who he thinks are covering up his son’s death, in dialogue, only to be rebuffed at every angle and told to go home and not upset the apple cart. This he cannot do. He cannot walk away. He does not know how he will get the truth, but he will not go home until he gets it one way or the other. With some of the people Chris spent time with, Hook gets close to them, spends time with them, and gets to understand them. With others, he is continually at odds with them and verbally sparring, trying to get them to come forward and being challenged to leave it be and not make trouble.

It is an emotionally complex work, not merely one of a wounded parent hell-bent on revenge. Hook is not an avenging angel. He just wants the truth and is not sure if he will ever get it or if it will even matter. He is sometimes as confused as anyone else in the novel and that is part of what gives it power. How does one spar with those who have done you wrong without coming to blows at every opportunity? How does one ferret out the truth when it is quite inconvenient for everyone is involved? After all, Hook is told Chris is dead and nothing he does can change that.

The setting is interesting, particularly how Thornburgh juxtaposes the stoic midwestern farmer with the hedonistic hippie California. Moreover, the setting in wealthy Santa Barbara is also interesting as it contrasts the wealthy folks who are filling their empty meaningless lives with games and frivolity with Hook’s determination.

Overall, a satisfying and compelling read. It is a different kind of crime novel, one that focuses on the main character, Hooks, not necessarily on a resolution to the underlying question.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Willeford has provided us an oddly eccentric and offbeat collection of novels. He wrote crime fiction that doesn’t always feel like crime fiction and offers characters who are odd ducks. Here, the subject is the art world, best epitomized by his description of a gallery owner who didn’t know a thing about art, but was nevertheless successful. The lead character is James Figueras, an art critic out to make a name for himself in the art world though he admits he has few friends on Florida’s Gold Coast as he never picks up the check. James has a lady friend, a large gal who he can’t get rid of, Berenice Hollis. The feeling for him is purely physical and, even that’s not enough, sometimes. And he feels constantly trapped and smothered by her. Their conversations are quite interesting, including the history of surrealism that she falls asleep during, and his remarks to her that he lacks a super-ego or a conscience.

Figueras is contacted by a criminal lawyer who is willing to arrange an interview with the infamous Jacque Debierue, an artist who was his own movement of nihilistic surrealism and who no longer shows his paintings and certainly does not sell them. Debierue is mysterious and hidden like J. D. Salinger. Getting an interview with him would be a high point of Figueras’ career. There is only one catch. Figueras won’t get Debierue’s address unless he agrees to steal a painting for the lawyer.

Figueras has no qualms about stealing the painting or casing the place while the famous artist mixes orange juice for his guests. What qualms? Anything for success. And, indeed, what ultimately happens is all about Figueras’ character and may be more sinister than anything the reader suspects.

Interestingly, in the recent 2019 movie starring Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger, they changed the name of the painter and his retirement location was moved from Florida to Lake Como, Italy, altering the feel of who the painter had become. Moreover, the film writers completely altered the ending so it is rather different than what Willeford had originally intended. Can’t discuss the changes though without falling headfirst into spoiler territory.

Low Bite by Sin Soracco

Sin Soracco’s novel Low Bite is a fictional account of her time in a California women’s prison (probably Chowchilla) in the 1970’s or 1980’s. The lead character, Morgan, does not reveal much of her past, but now works as a “jailhouse lawyer,” an inmate with no formal legal training who helps other inmates file habeas petitions. In that capacity, Morgan has access to the law library, where she keeps a still to make cheap alcohol, and learns about another inmate China’s case. China, who holds United States citizenship through her marriage, is in for solicitation to murder her husband. There are rumors that there is a bit of money the husband has hidden outside the books in his rental business and China and other inmates concoct a scheme to write checks against the dead husband’s accounts to get at that money. The scheme is shadowy at best and does not make complete sense. Much of the novel is not straight-up storytelling, but vignettes and incidents about a handful of inmates, including Morgan, China, Rosalie, and Birdeye, culminating in a prison riot and subsequent lockdown. The prose at times is more poetic in nature than storytelling in nature. Quite an interesting short book.

Dead Meet

Dead Meet (1968) was the first of eleven novels by Simon. He also wrote seven screenplays. Dead Meet was later picked up for republication by Black Lizard’s crime fiction revival in the 1989’s. It is not one of the better known Black Lizard books.

Marcus Rottner is taking time off after college to find himself before embarking on a career. He and his girlfriend Jennifer are from well-to-do families and spend their time getting stoned and going to parties and Vietnam War protests. Our story begins with Marcus calmly discussing aspects of his apartment and the air conditioner and Jennifer’s drug overdosed corpse on his bed. Technically, she may have overdosed, but he thinks his giving her heroin to counteract the amphetamines might have done it. That makes him kind of the responsible party. And, thus, the title appears to be a pun itself (e.g. Dead Meat).

Luckily, there’s no blood so Marcus can easily move the corpse around the apartment and across state lines without breaking a sweat. Indeed, Marcus has no guilt for what happened. Not one ounce of panic. He just needs to dispose of her body and it will all blow over. You get to he impression he’s cold, detached, withdrawn.

He tells his story in daily diary chapters, reminiscing about his relationship with Jennifer. He makes light of the corpse telling his psychiatrist he had the body in the antique harpsichord, but no one takes it seriously. What was missing from this story is a sense of desperation on the part of Marcus. He knows he has to dispose of the body, but never seems to be in any emotional turmoil. Even when you hear his inner dialogue, it lacks compelling emotion. There are a number of points that are humorous, including all the attempts to get rid of the damned corpse, but they are told in such a flat manner, the humor is lost.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Willeford has provided us an oddly eccentric and offbeat collection of novels. He wrote crime fiction that doesn’t always feel like crime fiction and offers characters who are odd ducks. Here, the subject is the art world, best epitomized by his description of a gallery owner who didn’t know a thing about art, but was nevertheless successful. The lead character is James Figueras, an art critic out to make a name for himself in the art world though he admits he has few friends on Florida’s Gold Coast as he never picks up the check. James has a lady friend, a large gal who he can’t get rid of, Berenice Hollis. The feeling for him is purely physical and, even that’s not enough, sometimes. And he feels constantly trapped and smothered by her. Their conversations are quite interesting, including the history of surrealism that she falls asleep during, and his remarks to her that he lacks a super-ego or a conscience.

Figueras is contacted by a criminal lawyer who is willing to arrange an interview with the infamous Jacque Debierue, an artist who was his own movement of nihilistic surrealism and who no longer shows his paintings and certainly does not sell them. Debierue is mysterious and hidden like J. D. Salinger. Getting an interview with him would be a high point of Figueras’ career. There is only one catch. Figueras won’t get Debierue’s address unless he agrees to steal a painting for the lawyer.

Figueras has no qualms about stealing the painting or casing the place while the famous artist mixes orange juice for his guests. What qualms? Anything for success. And, indeed, what ultimately happens is all about Figueras’ character and may be more sinister than anything the reader suspects.

Interestingly, in the recent 2019 movie starring Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger, they changed the name of the painter and his retirement location was moved from Florida to Lake Como, Italy, altering the feel of who the painter had become. Moreover, the film writers completely altered the ending so it is rather different than what Willeford had originally intended. Can’t discuss the changes though without falling headfirst into spoiler territory.

The Truth of the Matter (1971) by John Lutz

The Truth of the Matter was first published in 1971 and was Lutz’ first of fifty novels. This novel is the cross-country man on the run saga of Lou and Ellie, two damaged people who met at a roadside bar and bonded. Lou was on the run from the law and from a military sharpshooter who had a personal beef with Lou after advertising executive Lou ran over an old army buddy in a fit of anger and then robbed his employer’s safe. But it was all just an accident, Lou explains. He is not really a bad guy. She tells him at one point that she never made two bones about what she was.

The highlight of the chase cross the country is their adventures with an all-too-clever local sheriff who distrusts the young couple who say they are in from Chicago to fish for a few weeks. It will be good for Lou’s nerves, one’s he needs to Keep steady as a test pilot, he explains. There are weeks of sparring back and forth as the all too eager lawman visits the couple every night and they are too scared of getting caught to tell him to shove off.

This is a well-paced crime thriller which finely illustrates the panicked frenzy of a man on the run, haunted by his childhood, his wartime past, and his more recent misdeeds. He has screaming nightmares every night. But all he can do now is run.

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, first published in 1938, later republished by Black Lizard for a new generation of readers, was written by Richard Hallas writing as Eric Knight. The title itself comes from the lead character Dick playing at roulette trying purposefully to lose a bundle of ill-gotten cash that cost a man his life. Dick can’t manage to lose the money no matter how he tries.

But take everything Dick says with a grain of salt because you maybe shouldn’t believe anything he says. Every guy in jail says he’s innocent and some other dude did it. Dick is singing the same tune right from the start where he says he was running a cafe with his wife when she suddenly up and left him without a word, absconding to Los Angeles, saying he was cruel. Dick says he was good to her though except for maybe the one time he slapped her so hard in her Fannie she plain hit her head on the stove and fell to the floor. But Dick can’t seem to get wise to why Lois emptied their joint savings account left him or why her relatives won’t let him see her.

Then, of course, there’s the first murder where Dick claims he was an innocent stooge, but the other guy ended up dead and Dick ended up with the bag of money. See, he’s not responsible for that one either. Or for committing bigamy with the plump matron Mame he used to hide from the police after the killing. Of course, he two-times her with a young crazy heiress and plots to kill her. But, again, none of that’s his fault, is it?

Hallas throws a few interesting bits here by making Mame a stand-in for Aimee Semple McPherson, who disappeared for five weeks while running a religious revival at the Angelus Temple. Mame s here at the heart of a religious/ political movement with thousands of followers.

Hallas also pokes fun at Tinseltown and the phony movie people who are out of touch with reality. In fact, he declares several times that once you cross into California, people just seem to loose their minds.

This is a short easy-to-read at times funny noir set in the depression years and told in a great down to earth narrative voice that makes the reader just want to trust the narrator.

Port Tropique

Barry Gifford is known as the founder of the original Black Lizard Books, which brought noir crime fiction to the waiting masses in the 1980’s who did not know what hit them. He also wrote Wild at Heart, which became a David Lynch movie. If you did not know better, you would assume that Port Tropique would be more classic crime fiction – sort of a 1980’s era Jim Thompson. Not so. Port Tropique is a novel-length prose poem with disconnected dream-like sequences and casual references to Hemingway and other classic writers and classic movies. Set in Port Tropique, which is an amalgam of every Central American and South American banana republic with illicit smuggling, revolution brewing, and money changing hands. The plot is loose. Franz, formerly of New Orleans, has positioned himself in the Zocalo, watching the young girls, and trying to make his connection. He becomes the bag man for a smuggling operation and, when the country descends into revolution and he cannot turn the suitcase full of money over to the hard cases he is working with, flees the country, only to return when he realizes that they will hunt him down wherever he goes. This is not a story you read cover to cover to necessarily follow the plot so much as to drink in the atmosphere.

#blacklizard

The Damned Don’t Die

Jim Nisbet and Black Lizard Books were made fir each other, both dark, brooding, quirky. Nisbet sets this perverse noir in San Francisco, the first of two novels featuring Martin Windrow, a former San Francisco Police Detective now reduced to process server on divorce cases, half-drunk and half-bitter. But the story opens with writer Herbert Trimble unable to get past the first line of his latest novel – something about skinning a woman alive – because of the heavy passionate sounds from the next apartment, so forceful he can’t even fantasize about his neighbor anymore. Thing is when Windrow shows up to serve the divorce papers Trimble is AWOL and there are a herd of homicide detectives on the scene of the neighbor’s apartment. This, begins a tour of San Francisco’s seedy underbelly right down to sadomasochistic parties and a case that grows more twisted and perverse the more Windrow delves into it. But he’s got no other business right now. Nisbet nails the tone in this one with his edgy twisted storyline which couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

Frenzy (James O. Causey)

Frenzy (1960) was the last of Causey’s three crime novels. This one is hard, nasty, and ruthless from beginning to end. At first, Causey leads the reader to believe Norman Sands is basically a good guy who had to flee his hometown when he defended himself against three attackers with a deadly brick to the head. Causey, at the beginning, was a card shark at a Gardena casino, getting a beating from the casino owner for making moves in the owner’s girl. You learn that Sands had a rough time being on the run at sixteen and learned every con game and grift in the business. But Causey lets the reader identify with Sands while turning him into the conman of conmen, the grifter convincing widows and pensioners to sign away their oil rights for Pennies. Whatever the game is Sands has to play it better, harder, tougher, and the small oil boom town in the California desert is wide open for business.

Killer Take All by James Causey

Killer Take All (1957) was the first of three crime novels by James O. Causey, the other two being The Baby Doll Murders and Frenzy. All three can be found in Stark House’s three-pack of Causey crime fiction. Killer Take All takes the classic theme of an innocent man on the run from a frame up of a murder he didn’t commit and dishes it out by the bowlful. It’s set along the Orange County, California coast from Newport to Dana Point, but a coast as wild and untamed in the 1950’s before modern development tamed it.

Tony Pearson is a washed up golf pro who lost his verve on the pro tour and returns to Orange County to find his fiancé Fern has married someone else without so much as a Dear John letter. And her new man Stephen is a tall successful charmer who can outsmart Pearson and has a punch like a bulldozer as Pearson finds out when he starts bothering Fern.

The odd part comes the next day when Stephen stops by Pearson’s apartment and offers him a job after getting him fired from a golf club. The offer is just weird, but Stephen is creepy and plays chess twenty moves ahead. Of course, the new golf club is run by a ex hood kingpin who has the county sheriff in his pocket and is about to profit from the sale of a Nazi-looted Rembrandt.

The fun comes when Pearson is set up for the gas chamber and every logical thing points toward his guilt. The police tell him over and over no one could possibly believe his story even when he insists it’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This us a fast-paced crime story filled with lots of action that will keep you interested all the way throughout.

The Baby Doll Murders

The Baby Doll Murders, originally published in 1957, was one only three crime novels put out by James Causey, better known as a science fiction writer. Stark House has packaged all three of these novels together in one volume. This one offers us the story of ex-carny Cliff Tierney, who thought he escaped the reach of Markham, another carny who took over the gambling clubs of fictional Paloma Beach, and the green-eyed temptress Holly. Tierney is the best dealer on Fremont Street and he is close to being redlined out of Las Vegas employment when Markham show up with a reach to lure Tierney back to Paloma Beach where Markham apparently wants help with a blackmail scheme.

Causey fills this story with hard-edged nastiness and has Tierney operating on his own, getting beaten in back alleys, having bodies dumped in his motel room, and having no one at all he can trust. While it’s not always clear why Tierney feels so drawn to return to Paloma, Causey gives this one a frenetic pace and fills it with constant violence.

Condominium

Condominium, published in 1977, is a massive novel approaching 500 pages in the original edition, and uses the Florida Gulf Coast retirement condominium Golden Sands as its glorious symbol. The condominium is facing destruction by a massive hurricane both physically and spiritually and financially. Marketed as the place to spend the golden years, it may be a bit tarnished in practice. The construction is shoddy. A retired engineer notes how cheaply the foundations are built on landfill on what is basically a giant sandbar that will not withstand a major hurricane. The economy is in a tailspin and the ever-popular retirement condominiums are not so popular. The HOA fees are way under what they need to be to pay all the ongoing expenses, particularly when the whole building has not sold. Of course, it doesn’t help that the HOA has been set up with twenty five year contracts with corrupt management companies that are designed to service the development on the cheap. In back of the building, the shoreline and its delicate ecosystem are being bulldozed for yet another development and the promised views are going to disappear.

The on-site manager couple includes a rude obnoxious custodian who doesn’t give a crap about the residents other than to try to bed any lady he can. The real estate agent and the developer are slipping into bed together as are the developer’s lawyer and the wife of the city council member who the developer is bribing with envelopes of cash. Then, we get to the residents and MacDonald introduces us to dozens, some who bought in on their last dimes, some who can afford to walk away, others who are worried about the loss of views, and suddenly it’s ripe for a residential revolt.

MacDonald gives us in-depth and humorous over the top descriptions of dozens of residents. He gives us a pending disaster on so many levels as it all progresses toward the end and the development on so many levels are s rotten to its foundations,

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything was MacDonald’s third “science fiction” novel. The gimmick here is a gold watch that can stop time for up to an hour at a time. While the world is frozen, the wearer can do all kinds of damage.

Poor Kirby Winters has spent the last decade running errands for his rich uncle and helping give away 27 million dollars. As a reward, when Uncle dies, Kirby gets a gold watch (whose value he has no idea) and a letter to be opened a year later. He also has a sinister pair out to charm him out if whatever secrets uncle left him and a whole world screaming that he embezzled 27 million dollars. And before he knows it he is in the run from every law enforcement agent on the Florida coast.

The difficulty many readers have is that the fun part when Kirby meets Bonnie Lee and figures out what the watch does happens about midway through. To get there, the reader has to witness Kirby as perplexed as anyone as to what is going on and who he can trust.

In effect, MacDonald tells the story a bit backwards and sideways, not letting the reader know what the secret is for much of the story. Even then, he doesn’t make stopping time (not time travel) easy as he compounds it with a whole series of rules that often make the stopped time action slapstick goofy.

The Last One Left

In the Last One Left, a 1966 novel by John MacDonald, one of the last of the standalone novels coming out after he began the Travis McGee series and with very few stand-alones after that. Like the Travis McGee series, this is a crime thriller set partly in Florida. But, here, there is no McGee-like does not knight in shining armor. Rather, what you get is a full-length novel treatment of several classic crime fiction motifs, beginning with the femme fatale, Chrissy, and the suitcase full of money. While some might argue that this novel was a bit bloated and could have lost a little bit on the cutting room floor, there is also the argument that MacDonald got a chance to more broadly set forth his themes. There is, of course, also the question of who the last one left refers to. Is it the last survivor of the ill-fated boat trip? Is it the last survivor of the ill-fated scheme to grab the suitcase of money?

One of those themes is that the roots of the missing suitcase filled with money and all the greed and murder it spawned is in a crooked land deal, a familiar theme for MacDonald who saw many of the wealthy land barons of his time as conniving bastards who would not hesitate to cut corners or bribe board members in order to get a deal done.

Another one of those themes is the femme fatale, Crissy Harkinson, who does not just appear out of thin air, but is given an extensive backstory, including her mercenary relationship with the Senator, her ideas about how she will survive now with only the house and the boat left to her and no source of income as her looks are waning with her approach to the forties. Once you see her backstory through her eyes and her thoughts, you can see how she might be tempted to make a bargain with the devil for a suitcase full of money and a lifetime full of tarnished dreams.

Captain Garry Staniker is an amazing character who could have been fleshed out even more. He is one of those colorful marina characters who never seem to be that successful and never seem to be able to move out of the marina. Here, he manages to blow up a sophisticated cruiser in the open sea and survive, barely. His survival is nothing short of amazing.

But then there may be one other survivor hinted at and her rescuer is the oddest character, one half out of his mind permanently who has created his own little island and his own little world. Unfortunately, the Sergeant is half in and half out of our world.

There are two characters who play a part in unraveling the mystery as to what happened, Raul Kelly, a Cuban exile, now a news reporter, and a shrewd Texas lawyer, Sam Boylston. Both of them are quite interesting, but neither fully provides a focal point for the entire novel the way Travis McGee does in that series.

Ultimately, it is a classic noir crime thriller with the lead criminals (as they would become) all poised to be at each other’s throats as their final reckoning comes.

Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe

Peter Rabe wrote six books in his Daniel Port series, about a mobster who retires and continues to have adventures. The books in the series include Dig My Grave Deep (1956), The Out is Death (1957), Its My Funeral (1957), The Cut of the Whip (1958), Bring Me Another Corpse (1959), and Time Enough to Die (1959), all written at the height of Rabe’s crime writing career.

In Dig My Grave Deep, Daniel Port finds out how difficult it is to walk away from the mob and remain on decent terms with his former employers. Trying to gracefully retire from business, but caught between two warring mobs and the greedy politicians, he tries one clever plan after another to keep his mob solvent till he can walk away. To complicate matters, he gets involved with two young Spanish siblings, one of whom is eager to work his way into the mob, too eager in fact, and the other one, the sister, who Port can’t take his eyes off of, although she doesn’t want to be involved with any one like that.

The plot may not be all that complicated, but this book is simply dark, tough-guy mobster action outplotting each other with meanness and violence. It seems to move forward at a furious pace even without the use of literary descriptions or such. Rabe really excels at portraying these tough mobster types and some of the political hijinks are clever.

End of the Night

End of the Night is MacDonald at his crime thriller best, detailing with chilling certainty the adventures of a foursome bent on a cross-country crime spree with no remorse or conscience. In doing so, he reminds the reader of the Starkweather and Fugate killing spree of 1958, of the great mass of beats and hippies tuning and dropping out, and of a generation bent on self-destruction leading up to the Manson cult.

MacDonald brilliantly begins backwards with the execution date for Stassen, Golden, Hernandez, and Koslov. From there, he rewinds just a tiny bit to the trial, mocking the defense lawyer, but admitting he never had a chance. Then, we learn about their last exploits through the surviving victims. Only then does MacDonald reveal to the reader what it’s all about.

Stassen is the college dropout from a solid family. He hooked up with a crazy movie star and her latest husband, signing on as their chauffeur to Acapulco and then unwittingly becoming the tool she used to humiliate her spouse. Once back in Texas, with no particular place to go, he joins a trio who were killing time in a diner, drinking tequila with them and popping Dexedrine and whatever else they carried. Golden and Kosovo were from the San Francisco beat era. They were tuned out and whatever was left was just for kicks.

Rootless, without connection, without a goal, a plan, or anything other than the absolute freedom to do whatever they wanted on whatever whim, the foursome were at their worst together, egging each other on with no one to hold back their impulses. It is a rough indictment of the excesses of beatnik/ hippie/ juvenile delinquency world. Rather than lecture, MacDonald presents it coldly, clinically, for fair evaluation.

Someone’s Sleeping in My Bed

Robert Terrall, writing as John Gonzales, issued three novels in a short series using a reporter, Harry Horne, as a stand-in for a private eye. Terrall also wrote crime fiction under the pseudonyms Robert Kyle (the Ben Gates series) and Brett Halliday (he wrote about twenty or so of the Michael Shayne series under the house name after Dresser stopped writing the series). The other two novels in the series are Death of a J.D. (aka Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Funeral) and Follow that Hearse. Two of the three have been re-issued recently as e-books without the original cover art that graced the paperbacks so long ago.

Someone’s Sleeping My Bed (Gold Medal # 1228), which as now been re-issued as Someone’s Been Sleeping in My Bed (note the change in verb tense), was originally issued in 1962. It follows the path of the comedic private eye novels, beginning with an incident in Central Park where Harry Horne meets “the Sex Kitten,” Kathryn Caine, whose was as beautiful and notorious as anyone could be and whose fame was based more on being famous and having romances with famous people more than anything. The intent, as far as he knows, is to interview the Kitten for a biographical tell-all he was commissioned to write for her, but she convinces him to get on a horse against his better judgment and, with the horse rather out of control, the horse takes a gunshot and pandemonium erupts from there. Horne then makes like a private eye chasing down leads in the sleazy world of shows and showgirls. The Kitten invited him to her hotel room where she charms him out of his clothes and her clothes. When more gunfire breaks out (as so often does in these comedic crime capers), Horne thinks only of the Kitten’s demure reputation and tries to make it out of the hotel before the shooting is reported (minus one sock). The short novel is a quick thrill and is not to be taken too seriously.

One Monday We Killed Them All

One Monday We Killed Them All, first published in 1961, is a tight crime thriller. The story is a stand-off between a cop and a robber. Detective Lieutenant Fenn Hilyer ( what a name?) is a by-the-book hardworking police detective with a no-good brother-in-law, Dwight McAran, who is out for revenge for the five years he spent on a manslaughter charge for beating a woman to death, a heiress who was slumming line a sailor on endless shore leave. No one in town wants him back, not even the hoodlums, no one that is except for Meg, Hilyer’s wife who has a soft spot for her brother and can’t believe he would do anything bad. When McAran has served every day of his five years and is released, there’s no parole officer to report to and Hilyer is stuck with this vicious man in his house with the two of them snarling at each other. This is a solid terse story with there is a clear demarcation between good and evil with no confusion there.

A Flash of Green

First published in 1962, later made into a 1984 movie, A Flash of Green is a lengthy novel about reality crushing your dreams. The surface story is about development on Florida’s coast and the flailing do-gooders who want to save the public land for its beauty against the progress of economic power. Jimmy Wing, crack reporter for the local paper, is sweet on Kat Hubble, his best friend’s widow, but he doesn’t want her to know he’s now in bed with Elmo Bliss, the power behind the development and who is the ambitious county commissioner out to become Governor.

Wing, whose wife has been institutionalized after losing her mind, is brought in by Elmo because he is close to some of the folks in Save our Bay and can softly convince them to back down. Trouble though is stopping the opposition calls for a tough hand, tougher than Wing has a stomach for, and the kind of swamp hick pressure that is brought to bear is more than anyone can bear including exposing an illicit relationship, exposing an art curator’s homosexuality, complete with secret recordings, endless threatening phone calls, and a public whipping of someone. In the end, the personal grief these people are made to suffer, the way they are one by one personally broken, drives them not only out of the political fight, but entirely out of town.

Wing was never one for tilting at windmills, but his involvement in the vicious personal attacks changed him. Suddenly, everything is dirty, everything is corrupted. The bright Florida sunshine can’t hide the darkness spreading over the land.

The story, which at times can feel a bit too lengthy, is all about the slow corruption of the soul and the awful compromises made in the name of progress.