Despite sporting a generic title that makes it sound like a Gothic horror, don’t be put off as this is a terrific little mystery with a strong psychological slant. This reprint comes courtesy of Stark House Press supremo Greg Shepard, who has brought together three little known thrillers in this anthology to celebrate and represent the range and diversity of the titles published by Lion Books during the paperback original explosion of the 1950s. All three are pretty obscure and hitherto not that easy to get hold of. Out of the three in this volume, today I’m focusing on what may be the least known of them all, a piece of dark psychological suspense set in San Francisco from the husband and wife team of Clayre and Michael Lipman.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Scavenger Hunt; Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Patinase blog; and Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog, which this month celebrates all things from 1954.
He had a hundred bucks and she had a monkey on her back. He passed for a man and she had the guise of a woman …
Roman Laing is an engineer at a top chemical company and is clearly headed for great thing – but not everything is perfect. For one thing, it looks like he and his increasingly elusive fiancée Joyce, a top model with a Master’s in Psychology, may be splitting up. For another, they both get caught up in the machinations of a serial killer with an obscure axe to grind involving the pair of them. One afternoon, having been given some leave after completing a big and successful project, Roman stops by at Joyce’s apartment while she is away on holiday (they are having problems and he worries she may not even come back) and discovers the body of a young woman who has been brutally strangled. Fearing that he might be picked as a likely suspect (there was no forced entry and he had the only other key), Roman decides to find out why the woman, an exotic dancer who had descended into prostitution to feed her drug habit, was brought there and who the killer is. But we already know that the killer – going by the name of ‘Smith’ – was one of her more violent clients. But we don’t actually know who ‘Smith’ really is.
Smith. The murderer. The twisted inhuman being. The demon lover who knew her down to the crescent mark on her body, down to the rotted portions in her soul.
Roman leaves the body in the apartment but then has to go back when Joyce does in fact return from visiting her parents in Ohio (or so she says) – and finds that the body has been taken away and the place tidied up. The corpse then resurfaces later on inside a cupboard in the apartment and Joyce sensible heads for a hotel, only to disappear shortly thereafter with a man no one seems to be able to identify. Why is she on the run? Roman tries to find out who was responsible, deep down troubled that Joyce knows more about it than it may appear. Was it the victim’s violent pimp or Joyce’s jealous and emotionally immature ex-boyfriend, BoB, who happens to be a colleague of Roman’s who dropped him off at her apartment that fateful afternoon? Or does Joyce know who ‘Smith’ really is because she has been secretly having an affair with him? And all the time, we known something Roman doesn’t. In alternating chapters we see that Smith is also trying to remember what happened – it turns out that he is often unclear about what he does, driven by dark motives submerged in thick, almost impenetrable psycho-sexual images . For all that, the reader comes to realise that ‘Smith’ is also in love with Joyce and has been venting his frustrations both with murder and a series bizarre paintings …
The hunger in him awoke and began to gnaw.
I really enjoyed this fast-paced little book. Told with imagination and more than a little flair, this is a clever story that also offers its readers a visit down the seamier streets of San Francisco. It may not be a forgotten classic or a true one-off along the lines of The Horizontal Man or The Red Right Hand, but this is an expertly plotted and very well told tale of psychological suspense that is almost as good as the mysteries being published by the likes of Robert Bloch and Margaret Millar at the time – which as far as I am concerned is very high praise indeed. What is especially memorable are the ‘Smith’ sequences in which we experience his fevered dreams and then his attempts to recreate them in paintings that are as bizarre as anything concocted by Francis Bacon and exert a fascinating power, giving this story a surprisingly visual edge and which is conveyed with great success by its authors, not otherwise especially well-known for their work in the genre.
If the police needed a red-hot suspect – and he felt sure they would – he was one ready-made and waiting.
This mystery was Lion Books number 231, the last paperback the company issued in 1954 and the only crime novel published by the husband-and-wife writing team Clayre and Michael Lipman, though they did also wrote a handful of crime short stories together but otherwise worked in other genres. The other two titles in this volume, Hero’s Lust (1953, Lion Books 156) by Kermit Jaediker, about small-town corruption told with a tabloid zest, and The Man I Killed (1952, Lion Books 112) by Shel Walker (aka Walker J Sheldon), a two-fisted piece of classic noir about mobsters, a dusky dame and an eternal fall guy, are also very worthy of your time and I hope to get to them separately soon.
Hero’s Lust / The Man I Killed / House of Evil
By Kermit Jaediker / Shel Walker / Clayre and Michael Lipman
ISBN: 978-1-94452002-1 (paperback), 304 pages, $21.95
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘more than two people’ category (this is for the cover used by Stark House, which incidentally is adapted from the Lion edition of The Man I Killed):