BLOOD ON THE MINK (1962) by Robert Silverberg

Counterfeiting is the name of the game in this hardboiled thriller by the legendary Robert Silverberg, one of the busiest writers of the 50 and 60s. Having made his short story debut while still in his teens and getting his first novel published by age twenty, he spent the next few years as one of the most industrious writers employed at the Ziff-Davis publishing house. Churning out vast quantities of prose, it is said that he had over a million words published by the time he turned thirty; by then he had twenty novels and hundreds of short stories to his credit, all appearing under a bewilderingly long list of pseudonyms. He was so prolific that one genre  was not enough to contain him and by the end of the decade he turned his back on SF to focus on other markets. Which brings us to Blood on the Mink, all about false identities …

I offer the following review as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog. You should head over there right now and check out some of the other selections.

“And here I was, twenty thousand feet in the air, wearing padded shoulders and a brand-new suntan and the identity of a louse.”

This thriller, originally published by Silverberg in the soon to be defunct Trapped magazine under his ‘Ray McKensie’ pseudonym and consequently long-forgotten, has now made its debut in book form courtesy of Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime. To make this reprint even more enticing, it comes bundled with a new afterword by the author and two of his short stories of a similar vintage: ‘Dangerous Doll’ (also published as by McKensie), a fairly light-weight offering about a counterfeit courier for the mob with a daft but amusing last-page twist; and the rather more impressive ‘One Night of Violence’, which originally appeared under the ‘Dan Malcolm’ byline, about an innocent salesman who gets caught up in revenge killings between rival gangs, where virtually the entire cast of characters get wiped out in a lengthy final shootout. Plot and character elements of both of these also appear in Blood on the Mink, which is about forgery, false identities and double cross between rival gangs in Philadelphia.

“Uncle Sam has a hard enough time keeping the budget balanced without competition from free enterprise.”

That ‘funny money’ is the theme of Blood on the Mink, and its narrating hero appears throughout under an assumed identity, is entirely appropriate for a work that was just a minute part of the author’s output at that time, most of which appeared under one alias or another and often involved bogus sociological looks at swingers in the suburbs or cod medical tomes on aberrant sexual practices. Silverberg has what he terms a ‘quasi-official’ homepage, and if you visit www.majipoor.com you will find a truly dizzying look at the extraordinary output of the man – just check the page devoted to his pseudonyms. If accurate, it means that Silverberg published some 200 novels in the 1960s alone, and that’s just the ones that didn’t come out under his own name!

Nearly all of them are potboilers, books of titillation about infidelity with titles such as Sin à la Carte and The Fires Within, both as by ‘Loren Beauchamp’. His most extensive byline though seems to have been ‘Don Elliot’, a name that appeared on a colossal 148 soft-core porn novels published between 1959 and 1973 with such titles as The Flesh Peddlers (1960), The Lust Seekers (1961) and Only the Depraved (1965). He also produced some 70 books for younger readers and a lot of non-fiction (well-researched historical books as well a lot of sensational sex exposes masquerading as non fiction). All of which is to say that Blood on the Mink is an entertaining piece of assembly line pulp fiction, mixing sex, violence and criminality in ultra efficient doses.

“I don’t make a habit of despoiling virgins, but it would have been simple rudeness not to seem at least interested in the offer”

Set during a hectic week in Philadelphia, the template for this story is undoubtedly Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Our protagonist, who like Hammet’s Continental Op, is never given a proper name (well, not until the last couple of pages when we hear his first name at least), living only for his work. He is an agent working for Uncle Sam who specialises in undercover work and is called in to pretend to be high-ranking West Coast gangster Vic Lowney, a man so tough and retro he eats steak for breakfast every day. Lowney’s gang is involved in passing fake currency and is in the market for some of the remarkably good $10 counterfeits being produced by a medium level Philly hood named Klaus. Lowney, or rather the fake one while the real one is detained by the Chicago police who are keeping him sequestered on a bogus charge, initially plays hard to get, infuriating Klaus but catching the eye of his moll, Carol Champlain, who shortly afterwards throws her generous curves at the agent as long as he promises to bump off Klaus so they can steal the plates and head off in the sunset. But Lowney is kept busy, having caught the eye of not one but two rival gangs who also want to their hands on the plates and the engraver, Szekely, a Hungarian refugee whose young daughter Elena also offers to sleep with Lowney in exchange for her father’s freedom.

Philadelphia at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning is just one big morgue. The corpses don’t start stirring until ten or eleven.

As in Red Harvest, our agent decides to set all the crooks against each other in an effort to block the counterfeiting and rescue the engraver. Along the way there are plenty of shootouts and enough double crosses to fill a Maltese graveyard. A car chase involving Klaus’ henchman Minton and a blazing taxicab on an early Sunday morning is particularly well done, contrasting the somniferous quietude of the wee hours with gangland murder and mayhem, climaxing in a pretty repellant death for one of the villains. Ultimately this is an occasionally humorous, precision-made thriller with all the right elements. It’s not even remotely as distinctive as say the Parker books being written around then by Donald Westlake as ‘Richard Stark’, lacking their bleak moral ambiguity and cruel wit. This story is aimed a little more towards the centre ground, delivering reliable thrills and spills for armchair adventurers everywhere. In some ways I actually preferred the slightly fresher short story ‘One Night of Violence’, which gave us a protagonist who we could more easily sympathise with. The ersatz Vic Lowney gets so subsumed into his role that it is hard to know how much of the real man is ever shown to us, and how much is just being ‘in character’. What is certainly true is that Silverberg published much of his best work under his own name, while the cool and calculating Blood on the Mink remains entertaining but ultimately decidedly anonymous. With fine cover art by Michael Koelsch in the style of the 50s paperback original (for more of his work, click here), this is another top-notch release from the HCC imprint.

The Hard Case Crime books were suggested to me by my old buddies Jamie and Maja – thanks guys, I will certainly be reading plenty more of them. You can read all about Hard Case Crime at their website: www.hardcasecrime.com

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Charles Ardai, Dashiell Hammett, Film Noir, Friday's Forgotten Book, Hard Case Crime, Philadelphia, Private Eye, Richard Stark, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to BLOOD ON THE MINK (1962) by Robert Silverberg

  1. Colin says:

    Through sheer coincidence, I bought this book about a week and a half back. I haven’t actually read it yet, but I will.

    I’ve been building up a collection of these Hard Case Crime editions. There’s lots of rare, neglected stuff in the line and it’s been quite rewarding so far. On top of that, the painted covers they use have a wonderfully retro feel – very pulpy. However, there are a few clunkers in the line. I currently nearing the end of <strongStraight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell, and it’s been a bit of a chore; the more modern setting doesn’t work as well as the 50s and 60s thrillers usually favoured and the story itself moves at a snail’s pace. All told though, I’ve been very satisfied with the Hard Case Crime books I’ve picked up so far.

    • Great minds thinking alike, again – how cool is that?! The HCC imprint is clearly a labour of love and I could quite easily just ‘subscribe’ to these and just wait for a new one to arrive in the post every other month as I think that while the quality will definitely vary, as you say, you will also always find somethign new and unexpected. Of the half dozen or so I’ve read so far (some of their titles I already had in different editions), I really, really reccommend Songs of Innocence, which I previously reviewed here). It’s a new work written by Charles Ardai, who edits (and owns) Hard Case Crime and published under the rather amusing punning pseudonym of ‘Richard Aleas’ (just re-arrange the letters of ‘Charles Ardai’). I thought it was really superb. After your fine reccommendation, Donald Hamilton’s The Night Walker is now making its way to me and I plan on reviewing that one shortly.

      • Colin says:

        Thanks for the tip on Songs of Innocence. I don’t have that one but it sounds excellent – it’s going in my Amazon shopping basket.

        • Really hope you like that one – I’m not always very keen on works that try to imitate a style of the past as they are often so self-concious, but this is a modern update rather than a slavish imitation and has a true and distinctive Noir sensibility. And the cover is fabulous – you are right to point that out as they are definitely part of the overall HCC appeal!

  2. BLOOD ON THE MINK originated when Silverberg was pumping out a million words a year. I respect Silverberg’s productivity, but a few clunkers are the price of being prolific. When Silverberg upped the quality of this work in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he was the best SF writer around.

    • Hi George – well, I still enjoyed it, but that kind of industrousness has to take its toll eventually – I think he’s actually retired more than once!

  3. John says:

    If we’re using these comments to recommend the best of Hard Case Crime I’ll chime in with: both John Lange (Michael Crichton) books ZERO COOL and GRAVE DESCEND, Roger Zelazney’s THE DEAD MAN’ S BROTHER, LITTLE GIRL LOST (Ardai’s prequel to SONGS OF INNOCENCE), and THE MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust because it’s so damn original with it’s porn star protagonist. A lot of the others I’ve read just seem too familiar. GRIFTER’S GAME by Lawrence Block and THE CONFESSION by Dominic Stansberry (won an award I think) were two of the nastiest and bleakest noir books I’ve read in the series. Be warned.

    Madison Smartt Bell is not a crime writer though he employs some of the tropes of genre writing. He is first and foremost a “literary” fiction writer. I thought he was an odd choice for this imprint just as I felt about the choice to market THE VALLEY OF FEAR as hard nosed crime fiction. I didn’t like STRAIGHT CUT at all. But I do think DOCTOR SLEEP, one of his other forays into genre fiction, was pretty darn good. It was made into an OK movie retitled Close Your Eyes with Goran Visnjic.

    • Thnaks for all that John and I will definitely seek out the Christa Faust. Did you read Songs of Innocence in the end? I really liked that one. I thought the idea of a pulp version of Valley of Fear (by ‘AC Doyle’) was funny if basically daft. Felt a bit like that sequence in Seven Year Itch in which Tom Ewell remakes Little Women into something infinitely spicier.

  4. Deb Novack says:

    Can you give me a hint as to where you find all these vintage mysteries?
    Deb

  5. This just goes to show how much I really don’t know (and could find out if I invested some research time). Robert Silverberg writing hard nosed crime fiction….wow. And I see John’s mention of Zelazny….I’m tempted to hunt down the Zelazny book even though I’m not a big hard nosed crime fan…..

    Thanks for this one!

    • Thanks Bev – Hard Case Crime have unearthed some fascinating titles in the last few years – but it is amazing just how much material was published during the paperback original boom of the 50s and early 60s – really makes your head spin. You think you know an author and a genre fairly well and then it turns out there are dozens, hundreds of fascinating more books out there – good, eh?

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Robert Silverberg had been writing crime fiction for some years by the end of the 1950s, as someone who would publish in every one of Robert Lowndes’s fiction magazines at Columbia, for example…he even managed to hit the Columbia sports pulps before the last one folded. He and Ellison joke about their experiences writing for W.W. Scott’s cf magazines in several published items, as well. Madison Smart Bell and Stephen King’s entries have been the Hard Cases cited by many as the most disappointing, but everyone, publishers and writers alike, like to flex different muscles and reach new audiences when they can. I can certainly also recommend Christa Faust’s novels in the series, though others have published similar (or similar-enough, and sometimes similarly good) work elsewhere, such as Thomas Roche (though most of his criminous work that deals with the sex industry has been published in erotica short fiction anthologies).

    • I will definitely get the Faust, thanks for the further recommendation and will see what I can find of Roche though erotica is an era I have zero experience (unless you count reading Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue when I was 13). I remember quite enjoying King’s The Colorado Kid (in its non HCC imprint though as I recall) as an exercise in ‘literary frottage’ shall we say – and you would be a fool to read King for his plots or his endings, so in many ways it played to his strengths and used his weaknesses as part of a bit of post-modern irony.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    That FIRES WITHIN cover painting is excellent work, in a field that didn’t always prize excellent work, btw.

    • I cribbed the cover from the Silverberg website and will need to provide a credit – thanks for the reminder.

      Are there any histories of the publishing industry of the 50 and 60s you would recommend Todd? My reading has been extremely selective and while I’ve books of essays by the likes of Damon Knight and Sam Moskowitz and a few books devoted to specific authors like Ellison, it would be great to read something comprehensive and authoritative about the era of the paperback original. There seem to be a number to choose from, but I would be grateful for any steer you might provide. Thanks.

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