In this three-novel selection from Stark House Press, we readers get a chance to read three obscure Harry Whittington novels. “To Find Cora” was originally published as “Cora is a Nympho!” in 1963. “Like Mink to Murder” was originally published as a French novel in 1957 because he could not sell it to an American publisher at the time, later republished as “Passion Hangover” in 1965 under the psuedonym JX Williams in 1965 and altered considerably. “Body and Passion” was published in 1952 under the psuedonym Whit Harrison. Don’t ignore the introduction by David Laurence Wilson, which offers the readers an understanding of where these lost novels came from and how the missing 38 or 39 novels of Whittington were ferretted out. Hint: Most were published as sleaze novels when the pulp novel market fell out. The version of Like Mink to Murder provided here is a version edited by Wilson to be more in tune with Whittington’s original version before it was altered to become more of an adult novel.
“To Find Cora” is a hidden noir gem, ostensibly about a loser, Joe Byars, with a runaway wife. He takes a leave of absence from work to find her and trails after her across the country, hearing last that someone matching her description was seen in Kansas. It is in that sense a story of romantic obsession that overpowers a person and makes them do things that they logically should not and leaves them looking eternally foolish. The reality of the situation, as related by the local police detective, is that there were dozens and dozens of reports of Joe and Cora screaming at each other and the garden of Eden that Joe thought he had with the irresistible Cora never really existed. Instead, it was just another twisted part of hell and he wanted back in no matter the cost.
But, Joe did not know what Hell really looked like till he found Vi and Hall, a couple he traced down in a shack in the middle of nowhere, following a report that someone who resembled his wife was there with a blonde-haired man. It was not Cora, Joe quickly found out. Nevertheless, what he discovered was just another corner of hell from which there did not appear to be any escape. Vi and Hall were at each other’s throats night and day with Vi terrified to try to leave and hoping that a year of hell was worth it to get her hands on a pot of gold. They were hiding out from the world and ripping each other apart when Joe waltzed in, hoping he would find Cora, the hellish bitch who made his life a misery. And there Joe discovered another corner of hell in which he was bound and manacled and without the means of escape. And Vi turned out to be yet another twisted siren who was out to bewitch him because she needed someone to help her get her hands on the pot of gold no matter the cost.
To Find Cora is not really about Cora although she is the first of the bewitching women Joe is involved with. It is a tale of obsession shared by Joe, Vi, and Hall and desperation and a feeling of being caged up and trapped and that there is simply no way out. It really is a superior novel.
“Like Mink for Murder” is a bit of a more traditional crime novel with a seemingly innocent getting caught up in a life of crime. Again, Whittington follows through with the theme of a bewitching woman who leads a decent man astray, although to be honest in these books these really aren’t decent guys and perhaps the siren song of these women is just an excuse for what they do. Baynard is a college dropout who met a woman who turned his head and got him involved in the big time with a hood who sent him out on jobs in jewelry stores and banks until Baynard got caught and did time, hard time. Elva, Baynard thinks, is to blame with “her whole body speaking a language of witchery.” He had to force himself to drag his eyes “from her wanton mouth” and look back across “the topsy-turvy wreckage of everything [he’d] wanted to be.”
The heart of this story is Baynard’s obsession with Elva and his helplessness in her claws. He would do anything to have her, but does not trust her and believes she is just using him. Ultimately, the question for Baynard is whether he can go straight or get sucked back into a life of crime.
This one is not quite as genuine as To Find Cora, but it is a pretty good story nevertheless with Baynard hovering between getting Elva the mink coat she desires and being a cog in the syndicate again.
As to the third novel, “Body and Passion,” we get introduced to what was a popular plot device in the Fifties. Generally, it’s a question of plastic surgery and amnesia. Here, it’s a man surviving a fire and no one knowing if he’s the assistant district attorney or the racketeer. The question is if he’s going to run for governor or get the electric chair. And, in the end, does it really matter who he really is?