This dynamic piece of jazz noir was the debut novel of Lou Cameron (1924–2010), an author who would later establish himself as the ultra prolific authors of hundreds of Westerns. First published as a Gold Medal original, it spins the parallel story of a pair of musicians across two decades: Ben Parker, who narrates, and his nemesis, the charismatic blackguard that is Johnny Angel. It begins in the late 1930s with Angel managing to insinuate himself in to the band where Ben plays and the bed of the bandleader’s daughter too …
“When I aint blowing doghouse I write the book and do any hiring or firing that’s needed. And, Angel, you’re one cat who’s fired in advance!”
This is as much a story about jazz and its changing role in American popular culture as the decades-long feud between the idealistic Ben, who only lives for music, and the self-centred and manipulative Angel, an opportunistic slime ball who only cares about money and power. They first meet in the late 1930s when Ben is playing bass for Daddy Halloway and his Hot Babies but before long Johnny has taken the band over and kicks Ben out when he won’t kowtow to him. Their animosity is only worsened when Johnny get’s Holloway’s daughter pregnant, marries her to get control of the band and then dumps her without a second thought. Ben was rather keen on her as it turns out …
“Some day, Ben,” he muttered, “I’m going to have to have you killed.”
Ben and Johnny meet again a few years later in Hollywood – Johnny is a bandleader on the way up and playing himself in a movie, on the back of a hit song he cribbed from Daddy; and Ben is still lagging behind, learning to read music and doing some work as an arranger. When war breaks out, Ben signs up (Johnny of course manages to find a way not to serve, by pretending to be homosexual) but their stories will continue to overlap into the late 1950s through various twists including gangsters, payola, a wince-inducing attempted suicide, incest, the Korean ‘police action’ and ultimately murder. Will the luck of the devil-worshiping Johnny’s ever end and will his evil deeds finally catch up with him? Will Ben, despite so many setbacks, ultimately find success?
“Here I am telling you I committed cold blooded, premeditated murder and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it …”
This is an epic read that artfully spans twenty years told with real energy and gusto, a zesty and memorable debut fit to bursting with the patois of the time … which leads us to the one serious issue that has to be addressed: its language. In his introduction, Gary Lovisi does ask that the reader make some concessions for the outdated modes of expression, which of course relates to some of the attitudes that go with such expressions. Ben is pretty liberal by the standards of the time, but … It may be accurate but the words and attitudes expressed often aren’t pretty. On the other hand, from a historical standpoint shall we say, there is some value in that Cameron is very specific about which words would and would not have been acceptable in the context of the time (which of course has since shifted) – it is fascinating for instance to have a homosexual character circa 1941 tell Ben that ‘queer’ is now out as a term and that ‘gay’ is now in, perhaps a little earlier than one might have thought. The sometime unpalatable language and worldview is offset by an intrinsic and even endearing naiveté about its approach – while the language is strong and there is some violence and even a little gore, the desire to shock can come across as just a bit of adolescent bravado.
Like its protagonist, an idealist who plays by the rules and is forever getting knocked down but manages to pick himself up by his bootstraps, ultimately this gripping tale is not as tough as it wants to seem. For all its exploitative elements and occasional violence, it doesn’t really strive for the sheer punchy psychopathy of say a Gil Brewer or Jim Thompson: basically, it is more Alan Ladd than Humphrey Bogart! But this is not a real criticism as Cameron is doing his own thing and doesn’t want to be a Norman Mailer or Jack Kerouac after all (the book reads more like a cross between Steinbeck and World in a Jug (1959) by Roland Gant – not read that one? You should …). Instead what we have is a story of the travails of popular music as told through the eyes of a realist with idealistic leanings, of those who thrived but lost their soul, those who barely survived but kept their integrity basically intact – and of those who fell by the wayside.
“What do we do when we get there?”
“Not a goddam thing, kitten,” I answered. “There’s nothing to do but take the next boat back where we came from.”
Long out of print, this new edition comes as part of the mass market Black Gat line from Stark House Press, which even goes to the trouble of recreating the 4.25” x 7” paperback format of the past. This edition, which reuses the original cover artwork by Mitchell Hooks, also sports a loving introduction by Gary Lovisi and what is probably only a partial bibliography for the indefatigable Cameron, listing some 160 of the 300 or so books he is thought to have published in his 45 years as a writer. This is another great release from Stark House Press, to whom many thanks for supplying the review copy – you should rush out and get it right now.
By Lou Cameron
ISBN: 978-1944520182 (paperback), 240 pages, $9.99
To find out more about the author and his books, you should visit: http://starkhousepress.com/cameron.php
I submit this reviews for Bev’s Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘musical instrument’ category: