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