George Axelrod, Blackmailer (Hard Case Crime, 1952)
Ah, the dime novel. You may have never read one—the dime novel was going out of style before the majority of people now walking the planet were born—but if you read modern novels, you owe a great deal of your reading experience to the dime novel. Grab yourself a few novels written before World War II—not necessarily rarefied tomes, but the popular novels of the day. Then, right on their heels, preferably the same day, grab a few novels written in, or since, 1960, and notice the change. Not anything specific as much as the overall tone and atmosphere. Today’s books are, for lack of a better word, punchier. They’re less languid, faster-paced. Their word choice has been boiled down (and let’s not dwell too long on the 1984-ish implications of that, shall we?). All of this you owe to the dime novel. It was one of those “just a fad” things that the major leagues turned up their noses at, leaving them to be printed by small upstart presses who used leftover newsprint (one of the sources of the term “pulp novel”) to produce almost unbearably cheap books…that sold by the millions and made those young upstarts very rich people indeed. The majors were right in that it was a fad, and dime novels, which were basically printed with an expiration date (you will never find one today still in readable condition that has not been in an airtight plastic bag for the past half-century), did indeed fade out over time—though that publishing model switch over in the seventies to what we now euphemistically term “adult books” (read: porn)—but the style in which those writers worked enchanted an entire generation of young writers, and those who were still too young to be writers yet. They all wanted to be Chandler, but they all wrote like Spillane.
Enter Hard Case Crime, whose stated goal as a publisher is to present a mix of new work written in the pulp tradition and revivals of some of the pulp novels that were on the verge of being lost because no one had ever bothered reprinting them. They have become very well-known for the former pursuit, having published delicious new noir work from Stephen King, Christa Faust, Max Allan Collins, and a handful of others working in the field today. But their real legacy is in those reprints. And they don’t just stick to noir—Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, you read that right) can be found sprinkled in amongst the wonderful old books from Donald E. Westlake and James M. Cain and Lawrence Block and john Lange (whom these days you know better as Michael Crichton). And, of course, Spillane. George Axelrod, too, falls into the latter camp. Axelrod was, first and foremost, a stage- and screenwriter (among his many credits you know are The Seven Year Itch, the adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Lord Love a Duck), but he tried his hand at novelis a few times. Blackmailer was his first. I get the feeling it was originally inteded as straight noir, but the chances of the guy who wrote The Seven Year Itch coming up with a James M. Cain novel were about as good as, in the immortal words of Mad magazine, the chances of Truman Capote scoring at the Vogue Christmas party. Thus, the book is both deftly-plotted and funny, but those two pieces didn’t quite mesh well enough to let Axelrod quit his day job. Rightly so, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to check this out.
Plot: Dick Sherman, a down-on-his-luck publisher (ain’t they all?), is offered what seems on the surface the chance of a lifetime: a book he doesn’t have to beat out of its author. More so, a book he doesn’t have to beat out of its author penned by a recently-deceased writer of best-selling potboilers that’s pretty much guaranteed to make a whack of cold, hard cash. Pretty sweet deal for a guy who normally publishes puzzle books, especially when it’s coming from a woman as hot as, well, the woman offering him the deal. He’s thinking about it—but not too hard—when he gets another call…offering him a sweet deal on the exact same book. That should set alarm bells off in anyone’s head, no?
The book’s strong points should be obvious, but just in case you’re not a fan of noir: beautiful babes, gunplay, allusions to perversity that are enough to titillate but just shy of enough to get the book banned at the local drugstore’s rack (there’s a great bit with a two-way mirror that would totally have gotten the book yanked if the protagonist had not shown the, ahem, “proper moral fiber”), a lot of admittedly silly twists and turns. It’s a potboiler, and it plays like one, but Axelrod and/or his editor missed a chance to turn this into a classic when he/they didn’t whip the second half of the novel into as good a shape as they whipped the first. Characters start being, how shall I say, less motivated to keep their secrets?. That is not necessarily a bad thing if they have a compelling reason, but all too often it feels like a plot device rather than an organic development from the story. That knocks it down a notch in my head, though I still have to balance that with Axelrod’s sense of pace, which has two speeds, “breakneck” and “Katy bar the door”. You rush past those bits so fast you may not even notice them if you’re not looking. And the way it’s all wrapped up, well, remember what I said about wanting to be Chandler and actually ending up like Spillane? ***