Editor’s note: Crime fiction reviewer Adam Woog is on vacation. Guest columnist this month is Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright, emcee of the twice-monthly “Thrilling Tales” story time for grown-ups at the library, who rounds up the latest in vintage-crime reprints.
Vintage crime reprints: mysterious tales that never die
It’s resurrection time for pulp crime — Seattle Public Library’s David Wright rounds up the latest in vintage crime reprints, including works by Algernon Blackwood, Harlan Ellison, George V. Higgins and Seattle’s own Gypsy Rose Lee.
Special to The Seattle Times
Pulpy crime novels from the past have a way of sparking back into urgent life in the reader’s hands, turninglong-lost ephemera into fresh guilty pleasures. Recent reissues of vintage-crime fiction show that everything old is eventually new again.
A century ago, a craze for occult detectives, who combined Holmesian sleuthing with Edwardian spiritualism, anticipated the popularity of television shows such as “The X-Files,” “Fringe” and “Psych.” William Hope Hodgson wrote of Carnacki, ghost finder; Alice and Claude Askew conjured Aylmer Vance, ghost-seer; and the outlandish Aleister Crowley created weird mage/sleuth Simon Iff.
Best of all was Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, a kindly psychic doctor who applied pseudoscientific methods to his clients’ uncanny complaints in cases that were both spooky and kooky, atmospheric and ingenious.
In “A Psychical Invasion,” the first of “The Complete John Silence Stories” (Dover, 272 pp., $14.95 paperback original), a humorist ingests a tincture of cannabis in hopes of becoming funnier, only to spy a malevolent poltergeist through his newly opened third eye. Werewolves, shape-shifters and ancient evils reveal themselves to the good doctor as perfectly natural phenomena, thanks to his facility with clairvoyance and astral projection.
In 1941 the reigning Queen of Burlesque, Seattle’s own Gypsy Rose Lee, wrote and starred in “The G-String Murders” (The Feminist Press, 240 pp., $13.95 paperback original), a conventional locked-room mystery with a risqué twist: Strippers are turning up strangled by that singular adornment, the G-string.
As the woman who invented the wardrobe malfunction, Lee knows a thing or two about misdirection, but never mind the story. It is the detailed mise en scène, the tawdry desperation of backstage vaudeville that’s the real draw. Gypsy’s quippy narration will sashay its way into the reader’s heart.
At any newsstand in the 1950s, one dollar would buy you three lurid paperback novels (libraries didn’t carry them back then, although the Seattle Public Library stocks all these titles now). Before racking up every science-fiction award known to man, Harlan Ellison published his debut novel, “Web of the City” (Hard Case Crime, 284 pp., $9.95 paperback original), a hypnotically nervy gang drama seething with the tortured energy of the Brooklyn streets where Ellison served his own apprenticeship as a teen warrior.
Peter Rabe used his doctorate in psychology in the service of writing such thrillers as “Mission for Vengeance” and “Kill the Boss Good-by” (Stark House, 298 pp., $18.95, paperback original). In the latter title, mobster Tom Fell gets shock treatments for his manic depression, only to wind up disarmingly free of affect and teetering into full-blown psychosis, gangster style. Stark House has resurrected several Rabe paperbacks in dual-title editions.
Still more sensational fare awaited in the pages of such magazines as Manhunt or Trapped Detective, where thrill-seeking readers might have found the stories collected in “Redheads Die Quickly and Other Stories” by Gil Brewer (University Press of Florida, 298 pp., $19.95 paperback original). Brewer’s fevered Florida noirs throbbed with sultry, sexy tropic heat years before John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee weighed anchor in Bahia Mar.
George V. Higgins is best known for his seminal 1972 debut, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which established his trademark style of rambling, profanity-laced scumbag verité which has influenced serious crime writers ever since, from Elmore Leonard to Richard Price to Quentin Tarantino.
Higgins’ sophomore effort, “The Digger’s Game” (Vintage, 224 pp., $14.95, paperback original), is all about the subtle revelation of plot and character through some of the best dialogue ever written. Digger’s a born loser, naturally, but can he lose less badly than all the other losers? The answer awaits — where else? — in Las Vegas. Gritty doesn’t get any more granular than this.
David Wright is a reader-services librarian with the Seattle Public Library.