BLACKMAILER (1952) by George Axelrod

Axelrod_HCC_BlackmailerOne 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.”

Axelrod_Blackmiler_GoldBut 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.

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

This entry was posted in 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Dashiell Hammett, George Axelrod, Hard Case Crime, New York. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to BLACKMAILER (1952) by George Axelrod

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Gotta love those Hard Case book covers. Another fine look at a mystery, Sergio.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – No doubt about it; the cover is a great choice for this edition. I like the blend too of ‘hardboiled’ and humour. As ever, an excellent review for which thanks.

  3. neer says:

    Sergio, another author I have never heard of (no surprises there). I second Margot, this is an excellent review which makes me want to pick up this book immediately. Thanks.

  4. TracyK says:

    I also haven’t heard of this author, and all of this is very interesting. I will definitely keep an eye out for the reprint. (Of course my husband has heard of him, as a writer of plays and screenplays, but he did not know he was the screenwriter for The Manchurian Candidate.)

    • Thanks TracyK – glad you enjoyed the look of this one. In deference to your hubby’s superior skills, the fact that Axelrod was responsible for such mystery / suspense movies like Manchurian Candidate, The Holcroft Covenant and The Fourth Protocol is undeniably a bit of a surprise from the author of The Seven Year Itch and the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s!

  5. Colin says:

    Very nice. I try to read two or (if I’m extremely lucky) three of these HCC editions a year. I have Blackmailer clinging for dear life to a dangerously overflowing shelf at the moment. I reckon it will be the next HCC book I’ll read now.

    • Would love to know what you think – I was very pleasantly surprised!

      • Colin says:

        Might be a while. I’m currently rereading Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy – in the middle of Mexico Set just now – and my frankly ridiculous workload isn’t leaving a lot of time for anything much.

        • The Deighton series is pretty darn impressive – have you read the later books, not as good but full of great things, most notably volume 6, Spy Sinker, which is a real game-changer.

          • Colin says:

            Yeah I’ve read them all but it’s been ages so I thought I’d go through them again. Mind you, my current snail’s pace progress has meant I’ll probably just do the first trilogy for now.

          • I do know what you mean – most of my reading gets done on the commute to work but I do want to try and make more time for it somehow …

  6. Bobbi says:

    I do not know if you have talked about this movie but if you haven’t I would like to hear back about it. The movie is……….The Road to Salina
    Directed by Georges Lautner.
    Starring……..Robert Walker Jr., Mimsy Farmer and Rita Hayworth which I do believe was the last movie she was in.
    I saw this movie back in the 1970’s and had the chance to rewatch it on Youtube. Needless to say it was a strange movie involving incest and a mother how thinks that a stranger (played by Robert Walker Jr.) is her son who has returned home.
    I did enjoy the first time I saw it and I feel it holds up pretty well today

    • Hello Bobbi – er, not seen this one, but thanks for the info. I think Hayworth’s last movie was in fact the Robert Mitchum historical adventure, The Wrath of God.

      • Bobbi says:

        I may be wrong but I do not believed she finished The Wrath of God, that they wound up using a double for the rest of the movie. I know that by the time she did The Road to Salina and The Wrath of God her mental and physical health had really deterioated to the point is was almost impossible for her to even remember her lines and to perform.
        It is sad the such a Beautiful, Talented Lady as Rita Hayworth ended up the way she did.

        • That’s fascinating as I hadn’t heard that she had to be doubled, though I know she walked off the set of what wuld have been her next project (Tales That Witness Madness)- it certainly was the case that her Alzherimer’s went undiagnosed for a very long time, certainly a pity in one so young (she was in her early 50s at the time).

  7. I’m a fan of those HARD CASE covers, especially the McGinnis ones. Those Gold Medal books delivered action and suspense in 150 pages or so. Today, many mystery novels are bloated and tedious. I prefer the spare, lean Gold Medal style.

    • I’m definitely with you George – most novels today do seem absurdly overlong wasting vast amounts of paper and ink, which can’t be good for the environment let alone the reader!

  8. Richard says:

    Top review as always, Sergio. I don’t remember this one. That Valley of Fear cover makes no sense to me. As for George’s comment and Gold Medal books, we tend to treat them as a group these days, and praise them, but there were plenty of clinkers in the batch of them. Still, they are often hard to resist.

    • Thanks Richard – that HCC cover just makes me laugh frankly, which I think is very much the intended effect. I agree that a lot of the paperback originals were junk and that sometimes only the cover art of memorable – but hey, 90% of everything is junk!

  9. Sergio, I have seen some of the films you mentioned though I didn’t know George Axelrod was associated with them or that he had written novels too. So BLACKMAILER is both a new title and author for me. I have seen Hard Case Crime reprints in bookstores here but I have never read books under that imprint.

  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great review, Sergio! I didn’t know Axelrod started out as a novelist…this sounds like its got some real wit and bite to it. Absolutely love that Hard Case VALLEY OF FEAR cover…funny stuff, sexing up Conan Doyle.

    Axelrod has quite an interesting screenwriting resume. I thought his take on the ups and downs of screenwriting in PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES was quite entertaining, and anyone with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on their CV has nothing to be ashamed of.

  11. Kelly says:

    I plan to read all the HCCs eventually, so I’ll get to this one. It sounds like a particularly good one.

  12. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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