Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paperback tough

The Extortioners by Ovid Demaris, Gold Medal novel, 1960

Angelo Rizzola is smalltime, Jimmy Gracio is bigtime, but they're both bad-to-the-bone hoodlums. We know that because they have Italian names, and that's shorthand for Mafia members. The word "Mafia" doesn't come up in the novel, but we know these are guys, when giving you an offer, you can't refuse. They won't let you.

Hugh Dewitt is a good guy. He's a hardworking business owner, who has made his money in the oil drilling business. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty, and he's not afraid to tell a thug no.

Angelo is tipped to the fact that two percent of Dewitt's drilling business will be coming available for investment. He gets excited, because if there's anything the mob likes it's getting its dirty hands into a clean and legal, money-making business. So Angelo tells Jimmy, and Jimmy tells him they'll both put up $5,000 and buy the two percent. The problem, as Angelo finds out, is he was given a bum tip. The two percent is already sold and no longer available. He tells Jimmy, but Jimmy, he's the kind of mobster who won't take no for an answer. And so begins a pattern of harassment of Dewitt, his family and closest business associate.

Dewitt, being tough, doesn't give in. There is no two percent, he insists. Not so, says Gracio, because I want it whether it's available or not. Things turn ugly. After a long ride into the desert Hugh's friend Neil is worked over and put in the hospital. Still, Dewitt isn't in any mood to do business until his own 17-year-old daughter is attacked and barely escapes a hitman.Then Hugh is ready for business...the business of ending Gracio's threats once and for all.

The Extortioners reminds me of the type of novel Elmore Leonard writes so well. The hero is never afraid, he just wades into whatever bad situation, no matter the odds. Ovid Demaris (pseudonym of Ovide Desmarais), a newsman who wrote fiction like this, but also true crime books like The Last Mafioso, has a feel for the material. There is no private eye protagonist in this novel, for instance, just ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

I love Demaris's gift for observation, as in this description of Las Vegas, fifties-style:
Las Vegas was the same. Loud and flashy and cheap. Floozy blondes and fat-lipped mobsters. Slot machines in the men's room and quickie divorces in the parlor. Air conditioned lobbies and singeing-hot patios. Spectacular neon signs and phony fa├žades. Cold drinks and hot dames. High-class prostitutes in low-cut gowns; and low-class whores running naked from stall to stall. Colorful umbrellas and frosty drinks. Bikinis and bald heads. Low-priced chuck wagon dinners and high-priced, foul-mouthed comedians. Glazed pastel hair and high-heeled cowboy boots. Figure eight swimming pools and hot, burning, desert sand. And everywhere the rattle of the dotted bones and the click, click of the roulette wheel; the suckers gaping and wide-eyed, hypnotized by the tinseled glamour, rubbing elbows with the world's dirtiest and Hollywood's brightest. A melting pot of legalized corruption. The square john matching plastic chips with the hip rocco. Laughing and drinking and gambling and swimming and fornicating, and one helluva good time, brother, was had by all.

On the other hand, No Tears From the Widow by Carter Brown (pseudonym of Alan Yates), published in 1966, is the usual pulp-styled private eye novel. Rick Holman is a tough guy, a smartass Hollywood private dick.

Yates, who was Australian, wrote series books featuring different private eyes, but all of his stories were told in the first person, full of wisecracks, shootings and sex. I'm saying that after reading a description of his work, because I've never read one of these books all the way through. I found a stack of them recently in a thrift store and bought them for the classy Robert McGinnis covers. I decided to once again attempt to read a Carter Brown novel. I was reading a part with Holman coming on to the sexy secretary of a wealthy man. On page 28 Holman is gently rebuffed with an implied promise that he can have sex with her if he works at it. He says, “I matched her smile with my own white, uneven teeth. ‘I’d like to keep you naked in a cage,’ I murmured dreamily,‘ and everytime you opened your pretty mouth, I’d ram a fistful of birdseed down your throat.’”

I don't know about you, but I'm sure that line would have a woman jumping into bed every time. I put the book down after reading that paragraph and haven't picked it up since. It's on my nightstand in case I decide to try it again, though.


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