One of my favorite Hard Case Crime reprints is their cheeky edition of The Valley of Fear, presented with a lurid 1950s style cover as by ‘A.C. Doyle’. This approach, taking a classic and spicing it up for the masses, was lampooned by Billy Wilder in The Seven Year Itch (1955), which was based on the Broadway smash by George Axelrod, who had previously written the Hammet-inspired Blackmailer, a paperback original for Gold Medal Books now available.
I offer the following review as part Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ category – and I also submit it for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
“I couldn’t decide whether to slap her or kiss her. I kissed her.”
Dick Sherman and his partner Pat Conrad run a small publishing house specialising in puzzle books. Then one day Sherman’s life is turned upside down – hardboiled femme fatale Jean Dahl waltzes into his office and offers to sell him the manuscript of the secret last novel by the late Charles Anstruther, a Hemingway-esque Nobel Prize winner. All she wants for it is $50k in cash, no questions asked. This could put Sherman’s company in the big league but he is naturally suspicious. The page he is shown seems quite genuine so he starts to dream of riches and fame … which indeed is the theme of this novel – or rather, the ends that some will go to achieve fame and recognition, and the high price this can finally exact, especially in Hollywood. This proves particularly ironic as the book came out just before Axelrod (1922-2003) became incredibly rich thanks to the success of The Seven Year Itch leading him to Hollywood and some further hits (and misses) as a screenwriter, producer and even director including Bus Stop (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as well as later espionage films like The Holcroft Covenantt (1984) and The Fourth Protocol (1987).
On the on the same day Sherman also runs into his old innamorata Janis Whitney, now a Hollywood movie star, and suddenly learns two important things: first, that after 10 years he is still in love with her; and secondly, that she is engaged to be married to Max Shriber, her agent and a very shady character who now also wants to sell the right to the manuscript to Sherman! To cap off an already very busy day, Sherman is visited by Dahl that evening clearly somewhat the worse for wear; things get really bad however when two goons burst in, tear up his apartment looking for some mysterious tiny object that they cannot find even though they tear up every last piece of fabric and furniture in the place. They fail to find whatever they are looking for and then beat our poor narrator senseless after he creates a diversion so Jean can escape. Maybe our hero should have stayed in bed that day. As it is he gets about a week of enforced bedrest in hospital after his beating – after he gets out he heads to a party hosted by society bon viveur Walter Heinemann, who has a huge house filled with surveillance gadgets and who urgently wants to speak to Sherman about a manuscript …
“Let’s put it this way, baby” she said. “I’ve got it. If you want it, I’ll sell it to you and then you’ll have it.”
But before they can speak all the lights are switched off for a party game – in the ensuing melee Sherman once again bumps into Jean. During the festivities Sherman is knocked, Dahl gets killed and he and Janis end up briefly on the run. Is this all connected to the manuscript – and is it genuine? And what is Walter’s role in all this and just how crooked is Max? And how can they all be trying to sell him the same book? And what were the two gangsters looking for? Right from the opening page, when Sherman’s secretary tells him that hardboiled dame Jean Dahl is very much ‘his type’, and through the next few chapters in which it is clear that there are three main parties after the manuscript, which of course proves to be illusory, it becomes clear that the inspiration for the story is Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon. But this probably tells you more about the long shadow cast by that book than about this one, which has a breezy, drink-sodden tone that is much nearer to that of Jonathan Latimer (whose work I previously profiled here) but which is also well in keeping with the author’s better known stage and screen plays. It doesn’t take itself too seriously but does deliver a proper mystery and explores its theme with intelligence and wit.
“I tried to be very calm. I was so cool and poised and collected I knocked over my chair getting up. I picked up the chair, poured myself a drink, gulped it down, and, slowing myself down to a dignified walk, went out to the reception room.”
I think this is a great little mystery, but also a sly one. There’s a great bit towards the end in which Sherman finally figures out what has been going on and for several pages explains all the details laboriously to Janis – who has fallen asleep! Needless to say, Sherman’s deduction prove to be completely wrong and Axelrod’s humour helps to distract from a couple of clever surprises that he has tucked away up his sleeve for the crackerjack end of the story – and a last sentence that is a real knockout. Blackmailer follows the rules of the genre assiduously and never quite lets go of its Hammett inspiration but it also has a lot of fun along the way. I liked this one a lot – and I think you will too. But don’t just take my word for it – Ed Gorman wrote a typically lucid and insightful review of this book over at his blog here.