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A Night for Screaming / Any Woman He Wanted…
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A Night for Screaming / Any Woman He Wanted (Stark House Noir Classics)

by Harry Whittington

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I recently read a comment somewhere -- and I can't remember where -- to the effect that anyone who hadn't read any Harrington was really a hardboiled/noir ignoramus, so I decided I'd better fill this egregious gap in my knowledge. That led me to this double volume . . . and to the urge to say a very loud thank you in absentia to whoever it was who made that comment. Really I'd prefer to give this 4.5 stars rather than just 4.

The first novel, A Night for Screaming (1960), sees younger cop Mitch Walker on the run from a false murder charge but more importantly from his own ex-partner Fred Palmer, a brutally sadistic cop whose torturous methods Mitch would rather die than experience first hand. Mitch finds refuge on the vast plantation/livestock farm run, using largely prison labour, by another brutal man, Barton M. Cassel. Cassel knows Mitch is on the run, and uses that fact to blackmail him into participating into an insurance scam, a plot that will also enable Cassel to frame Mitch for murdering the reluctant lover of Cassel's hot young wife Eve. Complicating matters is that Eve has now set her lustful sights on Mitch . . . After a relatively slow start in classic noir territory -- a small town diner, a pretty but faded waitress with a heart of gold, a pair of corrupt, bullying cops -- but then starts accelerating, until eventually the pages (of which there aren't all that many) are sort of sizzling past. I reached the tale's end gasping and much sooner than I'd anticipated.

Golly. Follow that!

The long, absorbing and erudite introduction to this volume by David Laurence Wilson gives the impression that the second novel, Any Woman He Wanted (1961, as by Whit Harrison), is a pretty insignificant piece by comparison, a novel in which Whittington's normally deft touch slipped a little. By contrast, I think I enjoyed even more than I did A Night for Screaming. Disillusioned, embittered, too-often brutal homicide cop Mike Ballard has little reason to like DA Tom Flynn, even though Flynn is a rare honest man trying to clean up a dirty town. Four years ago, Mike infiltrated the town's largest mob and brought it down; all Flynn could see was that Mike was in cahoots with mobsters, and he pursued him for it -- which is why Mike is currently on the lowest detective rung rather than in a senior position within the PD. Just to make matters worse, seven years ago Flynn married the love of Mike's life, Carolyn. But then Flynn is murdered and suddenly everyone's overeager to insist he committed suicide; and soon other honest cops who were involved in the investigation are being killed too, their cause of death likewise being covered up. When Mike's drinking friend The Greek is threatened and no one in the PD seems overly interested in giving him police protection, Mike at last decides to strike back against the crime overlords and their high-placed puppets. He finds the trail -- which soon becomes a trail of corpses -- leads far closer to the Flynn family and his own life than he could have imagined . . .

Mike isn't a character you're intended to like, with his tendency to default to violence at the drop of a hat, but he has the same kind of ethical integrity (and sexual moral code) as, say, Travis McGee in the John D. MacDonald novels. But he's a hero nevertheless . . . just not a hero you would yourself want to be.

Both novels have some great noirish lines ("They're all here. Not only his family, but everybody who ever hated Tom Flynn has shown up today [for the funeral]. I never saw so many black suits, and black ties -- and black dirty hearts" [p185]) as well as some lapses ("She still didn't see the hot eyes melting and running all over her" [p191]}, and Whittington has an irritating faux-characterization tic of describing people who're suffering spiritual malaise in terms of physical sickness ("The illness inside Ernie had turned his face a nice ash-gray" [p187]); further, the text has more typos than even a labour of love should have.

But these are minor carps. Go read.





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  JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
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