St. Pete Boys: Florida Crime Writers
Florida Crime Fiction of the ‘50s and ’60s
by Rick Ollerman
Reading time 58 Minutes
In the 1990s, drummer Hal Blaine
In the 1990’s, drummer Hal Blaine let loose a name for a group of studio musicians from the fifties and sixties that played on hundreds of the days’ most popular tracks. They were a somewhat informal group, if that’s what they even were—there weren’t official “members,” and the individual artists would come and go from session to session—but Blaine called them “The Wrecking Crew” because a tighter crew of musicians, a group that could truly play anything, had never existed. They were the professional’s professionals. From the Beach Boys to Sinatra, they played for everyone and relished in their skill—until the day of the studio musician came mostly to an end.
In the days following World War II, pulp magazines and comic books were battling for the public’s dimes and quarters but as change came to that era, a small but informal group began meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida. Every Sunday without fail they would meet at the same house owned by the great Harry Whittington. What did they come to do? Talk about writing, of course.
There was a core group that would attend, one that would go on to become legendary paperback original (PBO) era writers, as well as the occasional drop-ins and temporary “members.” Through good times and bad, they knew where they’d be Sunday afternoons, after church and until suppertime, they always knew where they’d be. At the time they had no name, no particular group identification, but like the Wrecking Crew, in time they’ve come to be known as “the St. Pete Boys.”
In the fifties and sixties, pulp magazines gave way to paperback novels. A combination of a collapsing distribution model and an end to the World War II paper rationing all contributed to a new form of literature: the paperback original. Paperback publisher Fawcett had an exclusive deal to reprint and distribute New American Library’s hardcover works in paperback only. But as NAL’s distributor, Fawcett could see how well these books were moving, and some of them were moving by the millions, and they wanted to get into that market very badly. But they had a problem: their contract contained a very specific non-compete clause. They could not reprint paperbacks for other publishers until the contract was over. It was that simple.
Someone at Fawcett decided to get clever. They started an imprint called Gold Medal and thought, if we can’t publish reprints of other books, how about we do something original? They hedged their bet a bit and printed a collection of non-fiction tales of the mob and sat back to see what would happen.
No one said anything.
So they did it again, this time with a book on marriage and sex, geared toward the housewife of the day, filled with material that came mostly from a woman’s magazine. It still didn’t cause a legal ripple.
They’d started out numbering their books in a subtle way. Readers easily overlooked them but oh what a help they became in later years when the whole idea of collecting these books took hold. They changed the numbers on their first two offerings, changing them to numbers 101 and 102, and then they made the big leap.
It was all down to book 103.
The big experiment came when John Gearon, writing as “John Flagg,” delivered the first major original novel to be published as crime fiction at the beginning of the paperback original era. It was called The Persian Cat.
Fawcett Gold Medal, as well as the other fiction imprints it formed, exploded. It was on its way, the most important paperback publisher of original fiction of its time. Not only did they skirt the terms of their exclusive reprint contract with NAL by publishing original works, they attracted the best writers, many of them former pulp writers who hadn’t been able to break into the hardcover markets and were making ends meet by selling shorts to digest magazines. By paying on print runs, not on sales, not only the best writers but everyone wanted to write for Gold Medal. At that time, most of the print runs were of a quarter million books and they were put in spinner racks and shelves across the country until they sold. Not because customers got tired of looking at them but because these were the books they wanted. All the entertainment of a four dollar hardcover for twenty-five cents. You couldn’t beat that with a stick.
Writers had never seen this before—sell a book, get a check! And since most of the books would get another print run after the first run sold out, they’d get another one. Writers loved Gold Medal, and so did the public. The (usually) gold spines stood out on the shelves and helped readers discover authors they may have passed over from other publishers. For twenty-five cents, you could afford to be drawn in by the allure of the sexy or violent, and sometimes both, covers.
Another significant event that happened around that time was the force of nature known as Mickey Spillane. Many people don’t realize that his seminal book I, the Jury was originally released as a hardcover book in 1947. It sold a few thousand copies then promptly disappeared. But the very next year, when Signet put out a paperback version, sales went into the millions and it became one of the bestselling paperbacks of all time. In other words, these little things could sell.
Harry Whittington was born in Ocala, Florida, in 1915. He grew up poor, dirt poor, and he would watch from his window as the neighbors would give food to his little brother because even then, there wasn’t enough for both of them and Harry was always blessed-cursed with a caretaker personality. He grew up, as his son Howard puts it, with a “big head and skinny body,” or typical signs of having grown up malnourished.
But Harry had a drive. He got out of Ocala as fast as he could, having bad memories of the place the rest of his life. He moved to St. Petersburg, got a job with the post office, and got married. And of course, he started writing.
Harry was the dean of the St. Pete Boys, the host, the glue, the man that strangers came to see for help and advice. He was the friend to all, the mentor, and he took his craft seriously. It was at his house that everyone would come to meet.
Growing up as he had, he knew he wanted to leave his wife, Kathryn, without a financial worry, a very difficult goal for a freelance writer. Not only did Harry have the uncertainty that every writer faces—tastes can change, editors leave publishers, sometimes new editors don’t like inheriting existing writers; really, anything can happen—but he went on to make one decision that could have ruined him. Harry made a movie.
In addition to books and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harry was a movie buff. He passed the addiction on to his children who, while the Boys were meeting Sunday afternoons, were off at the Park Theater watching the movies until someone showed up to take them home. Harry had an idea for a movie he ultimately called The Face of the Phantom, about—what else?—a haunted movie theater. By the time it was finished, he’d had to use his teenage son in a dance number with one of the stars, he was dead broke, his house was now mortgaged, and most importantly—the movie was terrible and no distributor would touch it.
This was the time when Harry showed what a true professional did. He would not allow himself to do anything but pay back every one of his creditors and the only way he knew to do that was to write, and write fast. Harry made a deal with a man at the Union Trust bank who made no secret of how much he himself had wanted to be a writer. In exchange for a new manuscript every month, Harry told him, a manuscript he could guarantee would be published, would the banker keep the cash flowing until Harry could pay off his debts?
There was only one stipulation from Harry: he didn’t want to know about the books once he handed them over. The banker could add or change whatever he wanted to the manuscript, but Harry didn’t want to know what it was. He didn’t want his own name on the books, and he didn’t even want to be informed of the titles.
These books eventually became known as the “lost 38,” untitled books that showed up in Harry’s records as books sold but that had never been identified until one day, when son Howard and his wife were looking for a place to put their shoes, they opened a closet in the old house. In the bottom of the closet was a box, and in that box… they found 38 books with 38 titles and pseudonyms that no one had ever suspected were Harry’s. Or should I say Harry’s and the banker’s. Parts of the books read like Harry’s work but other parts plainly were added in. Nobody had an explanation—until now.
When the books were published, the banker would hand them out all over the bank, and his friends and co-workers would page through it and whisper things like, “Did you see page 42?” The sex scenes in particular were raucous where Harry’s were always sensual but not purposely titillating. Of the banker Harry’s daughter, Harriet, told me, “He put some real wild stuff in there.”
One day, when Harriet was ten or eleven
One day, when Harriet was ten or eleven years old and playing on the sidewalk, what to her seemed a strange man came along. He was wearing old slacks with holes in the knees, as well as an old shirt. He stopped, and Harriet remembers the full mustache and the full head of hair that seemed at odds with the man’s shoddy clothing.
“Do you know where Harry Whittington lives?” he asked her.
She told him, “Sure. I’ll take you up,” but she was leery. Not only did she find his mustache remarkable, she didn’t know what to make of those holes in his pants. All she knew was that her father would never venture from the hose in such a state. Indeed, he probably didn’t even own such clothes.
But from that point on, says Harriet, Gil practically lived with them he was there so often. Even after he married Verlaine and had his own place with his new wife and her old husband, he came to learn from the “King of the Paperbacks,” Harry Whittington. But never without his beer.
According to Harriet, Gil lived in his own world. He’d show up on Sundays best selling with a case of beer on his shoulder and wouldn’t leave until he was out. Verlaine would come, too, and she would work on her knitting and help Kathryn Whittington prepare food in the kitchen or give Harriet and her friends Toni home perms. She was an artist as well, and sometimes she would paint.
Gil had moved to St. Petersburg after the war to be with his family. His father, also a writer, also named Gil, and sadly, also an alcoholic, had relocated the family there from New York while the younger Gil hung around Europe after he was mustered out. Gil, Senior, ended up having a breakdown and needed to be committed to a hospital. He never came home. Throughout his life, the younger Gil, wondered if this would be his fate, as well.
Regardless, from the age of nine all he’d ever wanted to do was write, just like his father. Other than having been drafted into the Army, he hadn’t really held a “real” job, at least not for very long. Gil’s sister was a big contributor to the family’s income after Gil, Senior had gone and his mother didn’t think what Gil was doing would end up being very productive. She demanded her son go out and get a job but Gil wouldn’t have it—he was going to be a bestselling novelist. He was determined but his mother didn’t see it. So she threw him out.
He landed in a tiny space at a house with four elderly women who treated him with kindness and referred to him as “the young man who drinks.” But Gil was also writing, which was all he said he ever wanted to do.
Day Keene was older than both Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer. While Harry had begun his career selling shorts to the pulps, Keene had been one of the steadiest sellers across all the major magazines. His real name was Gunard Hjerstedt and that sounds anything but that of a native Chicagoan. An editor was responsible for Keene’s name change, asking Hjerstedt for something he could put on the cover of one of his magazines. Hjerstedt thought if he couldn’t use his father’s name than he’d use his mother’s, who had been “Daisy Keene” before she got married.
When the era of the PBO novel had come upon the country, Keene easily made the transition, with his first novel actually being among his best. It was a Hollywood thriller called Framed in Guilt and had the same sort of suspense and twisty plot Keene had been known for in the pulps. Keene could write fast, though, as could Brewer, who would go on to write books in both three and five days. They’d sell, which was what was important to them both at the time, but too often the speed showed and it took its toll on the quality.
Day had a boat and he’d take Gil and another writer, Talmage Powell, out fishing on the Gulf of Mexico. There may have been more drinking than fishing some days but that may have been the point, too. If Gil had a tendency to be a little in his own world, Day was always a gentleman, kind and generous, very similar to Harry Whittington. It seems likely that Day and Harry knew each other before Gil came into the picture, and that Gil had become friends with Day before he set off to track down Harry, probably at Day’s urging.
In fact, it was Day that first tried to help Gil when he turned his hand from more mainstream literary fiction to what he called “pot-boilers.” Day gave him one of his short stories and told Gil he could flesh it out, make it longer, and they could split any monies down the middle.
This they did, with the book appearing under Day’s name—Gil didn’t want any credit—and in this way Gil started to learn how to structure and plot a novel.
These three men—Whittington, Brewer and Keene—were the trio that formed the heart of the St. Pete Boys but there were others. There were always others. Talmage Powell was the most frequent guest, almost a core member himself he’d been going for such a long time. But Harry had been helping him, too, and they definitely had a falling out, apparently over a money issue. Harry was generous with his time and his expertise but he was not a man who accepted being taken advantage of. Powell, who like Keene had written many short stories for the pulps, was perhaps best known in the PBO era for his five detective novels featuring Ed Rivers, a New Jersey transplant working the Cuban section of Tampa known as Ybor City.
John D. MacDonald, probably shortly before he started making it big with the Gold Medal releases of his Travis McGee novels, would come to Harry’s house a few of the weekends, but then he stopped, nobody knows why. Of course in those days there was no interstate highway acting as a shortcut from Sarasota to St. Petersburg. You had to drive through to the Tamiami Trail, then head south to St. Pete. A long and slow trip, even today. No matter how you traveled, it was a long commitment.
Once MacDonald made it big with McGee, Harry’s publishers began hounding him to come up with his own series character but it just wasn’t something he was interested in doing. In his mind, he was always two or three books ahead and he didn’t want to be hemmed in by the demands of a series. It’s interesting that neither Keene nor Brewer ever wrote a series either. Gil had always planned to get back to writing more serious things; it just never worked out that way for him. As for Day, you have to remember that he was quite a bit older than the other two men and who knows what his interest may have been with a series during the PBO era? He’d already done his in the pulps.
The fact is that Harry Whittington himself wrote something over two hundred novels while Gil Brewer wrote fifty-seven that we know of, counting the media tie-in books he did for the It Takes a Thief television show, the soft core porn books he did under various names, the books he finished for other authors who couldn’t make their deadlines—remember, he could write fast—and the books for Ellery Queen during the days when the writing half of that duo, Manny Lee, was blocked. Lastly there was the handful of unpublished novels, manuscripts that Gil hadn’t been able to sell in his lifetime. He never understood that. Day Keene added another forty-nine books to the group’s total, but again, his volume of work in the pulps is his much greater (by volume, at least) legacy.
At one time, all three men were represented by the same agent, Donald MacCampbell, but neither writers nor editors stay in one place forever and that situation didn’t last. MacCampbell wrote a number of non-fiction books himself, including a memoir.
In one passage, he tells of arranging a meeting between a man named Jacques, a French translator who was selling many of MacCampbell’s clients into the French market. The only trouble was that for medical reasons, Jacques was not allowed to take more than a sip of alcohol each night.
“Does he drink?” Jacques asked […].
“A little,” I lied. Day was a rough and lovable Swede-Irishman who could down more liquor than any two men I have ever known.
“I am anxious to meet him,” he said, relieved.
I had arranged for Jacques to meet us at the restaurant and for Day […] to come first to my office from whence we could take off together.
Day appeared in fine fettle and suggested a small drink for the road. He had noted my liquor cabinet on a previous visit and he was eying it now as one might a beautiful woman.
“Have you any rum aboard?” he asked casually.
Knowing rum to be his favorite liquid, I had stowed away a bottle just for him.
“Then pour me a rumbler,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
I thought of Jacques […] but I nevertheless obliged with a rumbler of Bacardi which he tossed down like water.
Alarmed, I suggested we had better get started for it was several blocks to where we were planning to eat.
Day spied the uncorked bottle beside him and apologetically poured himself a dividend. By the time we reached the restaurant I felt his hard grasp upon my arm and I knew that the dividend had been a mistake.
The luncheon produced a few more of what Day described as “miniature” drinks before his voice became an undecipherable mumble and I knew it was up to me to carry the conversation with Jacques.
“Alcohol,” he announced, “is the scourge of writers and this includes your client Day Keene.”
—from Don’t Step on It—It Might Be a Writer by Donald MacCampbell, Sherbourne Press, 1972
Sadly, what Jacques said was dead on, not only of Day but of Gil Brewer as well. Harry was good for a drink at a party here and there, at times even two. His friends would encourage him because even with just one drink Harry’s sense of humor took center stage. His humor and kindness to his friends always stood out with Harry. His daughter still remembers the old house in St. Petersburg, the one where her bedroom had the big window at the front. There were times a taxi would pull up and out would stumble Day, well after midnight, and he would eventually make his way to the door and ring the bell. And there was always Harry, willing to get himself up, take his friend in, and either put him to bed or talk with him, at least until he realized what time it was.
Jonathan Craig, another Gold Medal author, made some appearances at the house, as did Robert Turner; Bill Brannon came when he was down for the winter, and many others who might be in town for just a short while and might turn up just the once. All were greeted warmly by Harry and the rest of the group.
It was never a formal thing, more of an expected one. Gil and Verlaine would show up, Gil with a case of beer over his shoulder, his wife with her knitting or painting materials, prepared to spend the day with Kathryn Whittington. Day would make his appearance, bottle of booze in hand, his wife Irene in faithful tow, by all accounts a very sweet lady, much like a sober Day himself. The rest of the day’s gang would trickle in as they would and the subject would always be the same, week after week, year after year: writing. It was always writing.
Day Keene passed away first
Day Keene passed away first, after moving to California to work in Hollywood. His novel Chautauqua, written with Dwight Babcock (under the name “Dwight Vincent,” his middle name), himself a former pulp contributor with several Black Mask sales to his name, became the Elvis Presley comedy vehicle, The Trouble with Girls (1969). The movie was released on the third of September in that year—the same year that Day passed away, an entire continent away from those days of boating, fishing and talking writing with the St. Pete Boys—and it’s not known if Keene actually saw the film, which is not generally regarded as one of Hollywood’s stronger offerings.
Day had been a true gentleman, like Harry, though an alcoholic, and he fought that addiction for many years. There’s a story where Day began burying his booze out in the garden in order to make his wife feel like he was making progress in his fight against that particular demon. “Oh, Day’s doing so well,” she’d tell her friends. “And he’s really starting to enjoy gardening.”
From a literary standpoint, Day could write suspense along with twisted villains and turn everything on a dime at the very end. When he wanted to, he could give you that sense of place that is so important to “Florida books,” that sense of sand everywhere, not dirt; the gentle sway of the Spanish moss in the ancient live oaks; the unidentifiable sounds that come out after nightfall and ten feet away from anything man-made. Day could find the dark spots in Florida and California, the places beneath the sunny ones that made other people feel safe. He’d take ordinary men and break them down, painting them into corner after corner, oblivious to the brightness and all that might imply in a place that called itself the “Sunshine State.”
Gil Brewer was next, though not until 1983, but he hadn’t been the same person for many years before that. Fearful that his life would turn out like his father’s, it came eerily close. Gil and Verlaine would travel when they could—Gil could never handle money—and according to his wife that meant a lot of stops to the local hospitals while they were away. There was booze and there were pills and though Gil tried several times to get clean, he could never stay that way for long.
Like his father before him, Gil suffered breakdowns and needed to be hospitalized. After weeks of acting like an insane man, he had a way of quickly appearing normal—“appearing” is the key word here—in order to get himself discharged as rapidly as possible. When he was in the hospital, and when Harry knew about it, he would go and visit regularly. He’d hold Gil’s hand and listen to him ramble incoherently. Finally, though, he succumbed in 1983, unable to escape the damage from his addiction to painkillers and alcohol. After one of his visits to Gil on his deathbed, Harry told his family, “Gil listens to the radio only he doesn’t hear what they’re saying. He hears other things, messages from other places.”
But the big difference between Gil and his father? As a writer, Gil really had made it.
Sadly, Gil never managed to get back to the “serious” kind of writing he’d always intended. Indeed, he was hard pressed to sell anything the last decade or so of his life. Other than the soft core porn books under various pseudonyms and re-translating a collection of Japanese short stories for Ellery Queen, Gil had been unable to sell anything to anyone. For the man who once wrote a book in three days, the words had abandoned him. Oh, sometimes he could type something, but nothing that made any sense, not even to him.
Harry Whittington became ill during the last year of his life and finally left us at age 74 on June 11th, 1989. He was working on a novel right up until he simply couldn’t do it anymore. Everything was writing for Harry. He would get up in the morning and write from eight to five at the kitchen table. When the family moved from their house with Harriet’s front bedroom window to a new one off Indian Rocks Beach, Harry was able to pick up the vacant lot next door and design a new house.
This new house, which still stands along with its “partner,” has no real front door, and the big kitchen window overlooks the walkway on the side of the house that leads to the actual main door, which is along the side closer to the rear of the house than the front. Howard, his son, pointed this out to me and asked, “Who does that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, not knowing what was expected of me.
“A writer. A writer does that.”
And then of course I saw it. Harry busy writing at the kitchen table, not wanting to be surprised by a fluke doorbell or knock while doing so. By putting the door where it was inconvenient for strangers to locate would be a natural thing for him to do, as would the large kitchen window overlooking the walkway on the side of the house. That allowed him to see whomever might be creeping around the side of the house, questing for the door.
Looking at it in that light the house made perfect sense—his friends and family knew exactly where to go. As for everybody else, stay away please. Inside there’s a man at a table trying to make a living with a typewriter.
Harry said often that it took him ten years to learn how to plot but once he did he could write anything. He truly is our almost lost master. Perhaps his name gets lost among the sheer volume of his books, or the French, well-known fans of American noir and hard-boiled fiction, haven’t feted him quite the same as they have lesser writers. Or maybe they have and it just hasn’t been Harry’s time for broad rediscovery yet. Too many people out there, people who describe themselves as voracious readers, don’t seem to recognize anyone’s name who published before the 1970s. This is a sad fact that ought to be rectified.
After his “lost 38” were completed and Harry had paid his debts, the man needed a rest. How many people could keep that pace for even a tenth that long (even without the “help” of the banker)? For a break, Harry and Kathryn moved to Washington, DC, where Harry got a job writing speeches for the Department of Agriculture. This was a good rest for Harry but it was only a rest—his real work was writing and after approximately five years he and Kathryn moved back to St. Pete, ready to pick up where he had left off.
Only this time, something was wrong. Publishing had changed while he was away, the markets were different; Gold Medal was still putting out paperbacks but noir and hard-boiled fiction was thought to have gone out of fashion. Harry was told there was no place for his new stuff. The reign of the King of the Paperbacks was over.
A few years earlier, an older man named Kyle Onstott, a dog breeder and dog show judge, decided to write a book using his son’s research on West Africa. The result was a novel called Mandingo and it became a huge commercial success. Onstott teamed up with another author, Lance Horner, and together they wrote several novels about a fictional plantation called Falconhurst, a kind of harsh, splash of reality when taken against Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
Even before Onstott passed away, Horner wrote the books mostly without his help, eventually taking over the sole byline. But Horner, too, would pass after a few years, and the publisher needed a replacement in order to keep the bestselling Falconhurst series alive. Who better to turn to?
Ashley Carter, of course.
The publisher thought that Harry’s own name was forever tied with his crime fiction work and believed the public needed a new byline in order to stay in step with the series. So Harry came up with “Ashley Carter,” as Southern a sounding name as he could think of. Later he added “Blaine Stevens” to his catalog, whose name he used to publish his last books, including Island of Kings, a story of Hawaii. Harry intended his Hawaii books to finally be his series, after all these years.
This was how Harry’s career continued moving forward even as his friends’ addictions caught up to them, one by one. It wasn’t until 1984 that noir and dark, hard-boiled fiction made a comeback in the United States, its country of origin. That was the year that author Barry Gifford started his own publishing imprint, Black Lizard Books, and reprinted works by such writers as Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, Jim Thompson and—Harry Whittington. Black Lizard put out six of Harry’s best titles, if you can whittle a catalog of two hundred titles down to such a number.
The mark of the St. Pete Boys is one that will never be forgotten, not only in the annals of Florida crime fiction, but within the history of the entire paperback original era. The influence of these three men and the dozens of other men whose careers they touched, whether through the Sunday meetings at Harry’s house or in some other way, shaped the literary landscape of the crime fiction genre in the years not only following the collapse of the pulps but the decades following World War II as well.
If you haven’t done so, look up Harry’s A Moment to Prey (or pick another—I’m throwing darts here), Gil Brewer’s 13 French Street, or Day Keene’s Framed in Guilt. You want the real stuff, this is it. Then keep going. Harry’s got Brute in Brass, Gil has The Red Scarf, and Day the short but powerful Joy House. Just keep in mind there can be a fine line between reading and collecting, and an even thinner one between that and obsession. There have been so many of us that have been taken by that whirlpool….
Harry may have dominated more newsstands and spinner racks with the number of his titles and truly earned the nickname “King of the Paperbacks,” but when Gil was on, the blend of elemental sex and violence was a gut punch few others could achieve without sacrificing the quality of writing or story. Day was the same way, but rather than look at the worst traits of his heroes, he took his best shot at them. Finding themselves in impossible situations, they’d have to find their own ways out. And like Gil, when he was at his best, his books were the kind of thrill rides between covers we just don’t get any more.
It was a simpler time then with no cell phones, no DNA evidence, no computers. No tiny cameras in police cars or on policemen. It was fifty-fifty who would come out on top, the good guys or the bad. On the other hand, with the writers like the St. Pete Boys spinning their webs, you couldn’t always tell which was which, or sometimes even if there was such a thing. And people can change during the course of a book. A bad woman will do that to a man. Or a good woman. The drive for revenge, or an innocent man looking to clear his name while on the run….
Sometimes it just takes a push here and there, by someone who knows how to… plot.
And there was never anyone who knew how to do it better than the St. Pete Boys.
A taste of the St. Pete Boys
“SHE WANTED SOMETHING, AND SHE WOULD KILL TO GET IT”:
A TASTE OF THE ST. PETE BOYS
PRIME SUCKER by Harry Whittington (1953)
Hank sat at the table and wanted George’s wife. It was like being drunk, the way she made him feel.
She was curled up on a divan across the room reading a magazine. She was wearing a pale blue housedress that fit tightly across her breasts and hips. The pressure was all the fabric could stand and it was too much for him. He wanted to touch her to feel the give and warmth under the stress on that frock.
From his place at the dining table he could watch her over George’s shoulder. He hadn’t started out watching her at all. They were playing cards. Hank and George Miller and Fred Vaught and Carl Peters from the office. It was poker, solemn and serious. None of that seven-card or sissy wild-cards stuff. These guys played for blood, even if was a dime limit. It was the first time Hank had ever been asked to play poker with them, the first time he’d ever been in George Miller’s house. The first time he had ever seen George Miller’s wife.
It wasn’t that she was the most beautiful woman Hank had ever seen. She wasn’t. At first she hadn’t looked like anything special at all. Ethel was prettier. Ethel was Hank’s wife. Ethel was at home sleeping right now and she had told Hank he ought not to come. And now he guessed Ethel was right again. Ethel didn’t like poker. She didn’t like him out nights. She sure wouldn’t like him watching another woman and feeling the breath tight in his chest and feeling the effects of the whisky all out of proportion to the amount he’d been drinking. He was giddy with it. When he closed his eyes as he had to once in a while, the whole room went spinning around his head.
DEAD MAN’S TIDE by W.M. Richards AKA Day Keene (1953)
The nude body lay like a swimmer in the water, face down, one arm extended. A south moon under, breaking through a rift in the clouds, found fire on one finger of the white, outstretched hand. The small fire glittered and twinkled and flared. Even the full force of the outgoing tide surging through the narrow pass, connecting the bay with the Gulf of Mexico, failed to extinguish it. It seemed to be imbedded in the dead woman’s hand, a last spark of life in the otherwise lifeless clay.
For a time the body made good progress. It bobbled past the pier of the Beach Club and the swank homes on the rim of the bay. Gripped by the relentless tide, it glided past Bill’s Boat Basin and the dozen small bait camps that adjoined the basin. Here and there, on both sides of the pass, lights went on as commercial fishermen and bait camp proprietors awakened to prepare for another day. A late returning shrimper chugged under on of the high arches of the bridge. Early fishermen parked their cars and rigged their tackle. Neither they nor the men aboard the shrimp boat saw the body.
A small school of porpoise coming up to blow circled the body curiously and swam on.
The body was headed under an arch of the bridge, out into the open Gulf with the next land fall Yucatan, when the tide turned. The moving corpse lost forward motion. It twisted and turned in a small circle, then came to rest against a barnacle covered bridge piling.
SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL by Day Keene (1954)
He was in no special hurry to kill Bennett. He would know when the right time came. It might be tomorrow; then again, this waiting might go on for months. At the moment, Ferron merely envied Whit Bennett. Right now Whit was probably sitting in some air-conditioned bar, working on a tall cold Collins and a babe.
Ferron wished he was doing the same thing himself. Instead he was sweltering in the small frame church where the summer heat was a living, tangible substance. Night was a hot black blanket hung over the open windows. It seemed as if the sermon had been going on for hours. Ferron’s cheap white shirt and shiny blue serge suit were sodden with perspiration. He was glad there were no screens on the windows. The drone of the mosquitoes attracted by the flickering oil lamps and the constant slap, slap, slap of the congregation were all that was keeping him awake. He’d never been so bored or so uncomfortable. Still, considering the score for which he was shooting, he could stand some discomfort. He could wait.
A big blond man in his early thirties, Ferron decided he could be as patient as the situation required. Now he looked across the center aisle that separated the men from the women. He watched Amy. He wished things were different regarding Amy. It would make the waiting less boring.
Dewy was the word that best described her. Dewy, virginal, untouched. Her face was elfin. Crisp, black curls peeked out from under the modest poke bonnet she habitually wore. Not even her simple gray gown could disguise the perfection of her form. There was a hidden devil in her gray-green eyes. She was a smoldering volcano, as yet unawakened, awaiting the touch of the master’s hand. Ferron slapped at a mosquito. And she was his, but only on one condition. He studied the earnest young face, then dropped his eyes to the snug fit of the girl’s bodice and perspired even more profusely.
THE GIRL IN THE COP’S POCKET by Robert Turner (1956)
Halfway up the long, winding road that climbs Dix Hill, I turned around in the seat of the cab and looked out the back window. We were on a curve, with sheer bluffs dropping off the side of the road for several hundred feet. I got an unobstructed view of the whole of Mill City in the valley below. It was a beautiful view. Only not to me. It dredged up too many memories and it made me feel very old, very tired.
Mill City looked pretty from way up here—like a toy town, studded with winking gems. But it wasn’t really that way. Up here you couldn’t see the dirty, ramshackle company houses, scabrous and worm-rotted. You couldn’t see Rotgut Row with its gaudy, broken neons: Wine—10 cents—Double Shot, Best Brands—25c. You couldn’t see Cribville, behind it, with its line of stinking, disease-ridden hovels. From up here you couldn’t see any of that. But I could. I’d been born and raises in what they called Company Town. And later, as a police reporter, I’d had to crawl along every seam and fold of the town like a louse in a hobo’s overcoat.
From the heights of swanky Dix Hill, I looked back down across the town and I remembered a lot of things. It had been twenty years since I’d been up here, but I could remember. I remembered how proud my old man was when I was a twelve-year-old kid and my first job was delivering papers to the big homes on Dix Hill. He was a great guy, my old man was. He was a foreman at the mill and he could out drink and out fight any three men in Company Town.
THE RED SCARF by Gil Brewer (1958)
About eight-thirty that night, the drive of the big-trailer truck let me out in the middle of nowhere. I had stacked in with a load of furniture all the way from Chicago, and I should have slept, too. I couldn’t even close my eyes. Brother Albert had turned me down on the loan, and all I could think of was Bess holding the fort in St. Pete, and us standing to lose the motel. How could I tell her my own brother backed down on me? The dream. So the driver said if could make it to Valdosta, then Route 19, the rest down through Florida would be pie. He gave me what was left of the lunch he’d bought in Macon. I stood there under a beardy-looking oak tree and watched him ramble off, backfiring.
It was raining and snowing at the same time; you know, just hard enough to make it real nasty. The road was rutted with slush, and the wind was like cold hands poking through my topcoat. I had to hand onto my hat. I ate the half piece of chocolate cake he’d left, and a bacon and cheese sandwich. I saved the apple.
A couple of cars roared by, fanning the road slop clear up to my knees. I didn’t even have a cigarette. I figured this was as broke and low down as I’d ever be.
My feet were already soaked as I started walking. I came around a sharp curve in the road and crossed a short wooden bridge. Then I saw the sign.
SAVAGE LOVE by Whit Harrison AKA Harry Whittington (1952)
Victor should have warned me in his letters what Lani was like. Maybe he couldn’t have anyway, the kind of letters he wrote. Lazy, rambling things full of the beauty of Maui. Hurry out here, Coles. Job waiting. He’d told me he had married a native girl, of course. But nothing like this. A goddess. An image molded out of fiery gold. And standing naked as the day she was born before a full-length mirror when I ran up the plantation steps and into the living room to get out of the rain.
What was she like? She stood on her tiptoes before this old-fashioned oval mirror, that was suspended on two spindles at either side and tilted backward slightly in its rack. Standing on her toes, she pulled the muscles in her calves and in her thighs into golden ribbons, so they seemed to have been chiseled out of pure gold. And that was the color of her flesh. I remember reading from one of the more passionate passages of the Bible about a body being like heaped gold. I never had known what that meant until this minute. Her breasts were small and high, almost like a little girl’s, but there was nothing unripe about the effect I got, standing there looking at her.
Her head was up and her arms were flung high over her head because she was slipping into a brightly-colored holoku. The fabric was as bright as noon above the black plumage of her upswept hair. Her features were delicately made, her straight nose tilted slightly and her eyebrows were upflung, like a bird rising to startled flight. Her whole body was unbelievably delicate.
START SCREAMING MURDER by Talmage Powell (1962)
She was hiding in my apartment when I got back there that night. She didn’t use the windows or doors. She had her own way of getting in—and her own brand of trouble.
The evening had started with a minor annoyance. At 10:03 a burglar alarm went off in a Franklin Street jewelry store. Four cops, courtesy the city of Tampa, Florida, checked the corners and cracks and found nobody in the place.
I was called because I’m the agent in charge of the southeastern office of Nationwide Detective Agency. Part of our bread comes from installing and servicing burglar alarms.
The system was independent of city electricity, operating on a six-cell, series-wired dry pack. A defect in one of the cells had gummed up the works. I brought my kit along. I replaced the cell, chinned briefly with the city cops, pushed my way through the rubber-neckers on the sidewalk, and headed for home.
I was hot, tired and thirsty as I ran the car into the long ramshackle shed behind the beat-up apartment building on the edge of Ybor City, Tampa’s old-worldish Latin quarter.
I started down the scabby brick side of the building. I didn’t know he was there until he brought the sap down right where my brown mat is thinning on the crown of my head.
Six feet, a hundred and ninety pounds and forty-odd years of Ed Rivers pitched face foremost on the dirty crushed shell of the alley.
The loose-shell paving ground my cheek. I fought off unconsciousness, snarling for breath. I heard him breathing, quick and hard. His hands pummeled my body, trying to find my pockets. He passed up the wallet when my keys rattled his hand quickened.
The first spectacular burst of fireworks cleared out of my head. I reared around and shot the heel of my shoe straight at his groin. It connected, like my shoe had connected with tough, tight-stretched cowhide.
A MOMENT TO PREY by Harry Whittington (1956)
A bottle fly buzzed around her head, but she didn’t bother to brush at it. I heard it muzz-muzzing from where I stood in the bare sand yard. The sun was beating down on me hotter than the fires of Hell.
Even after I asked her again, she didn’t move. I wasn’t more than five or six feet from her but I got the helpless feeling that maybe my voice didn’t carry that far any more.
She leaned against the door jamb of the fishing shack and watched me, without blinking. I was going to ask her again because I had to, but I knew it wasn’t going to do any good. She’d heard me all right. It was in the way her fingers twitched when I mentioned his name. I’d got to watch for any faint sign because her refusal to talk was the reaction I’d been getting ever since I had come into the scrub country three days ago. I had moved slowly, asking about him every time I’d met somebody on the road or come to a farmhouse. They’d just stared at me and shaken their heads or hadn’t answered at all. It was like that with this girl.
“Do you know Marve Pooser?”
She stood there in the shadowed doorway carrying an iron skillet. I saw how she was different from any other cracker I’d met. Even through the sickness inside me I felt this curious thing about her. It was there to see: she was looking for something, she wanted something, and she would kill to get it. Once you saw this curious truth about her, you could never think she was like anyone you ever saw before. You shivered a little, but had trouble pulling your gaze away from her.
THE BRASS CUPCAKE by John D. MacDonald (1950)
On a day when the February sun is indiscriminately painting all shades, from cherry red to tobacco-spit brown, on the shapes draped across our beaches….
On a morning when the tanned young things are striding down the beach foam line with a hip-roll strut, and a broker from Chicago cackles, points, and nudges a banker from Seattle with his elbow, finally daring a meek whistle when the tanned young things are well out of earshot….
On a morning when you are at last positive that nothing has ever happened to you and now, at the advanced age of thirty-three, it is pretty evident that nothing ever will….
On a sun-split morning when the recumbent forms seem to crackle and spit under the yellow fist of the sun and you sit on the edge of your bed and scratch the sole of your one bare foot with the toes of the other and belch without and rub your grainy eyes with your knuckles….
It picks that morning to happen.
Incorrect. It picks that morning for it to be discovered that it indeed happened the night before.
I sat there.
I woke up at ten. By then it was three hours old. At seven, precisely, one Frances Audrey, colored, let herself into the large second-floor waterfront apartment rented by one Elizabeth Stegman of Boston, Massachusetts. The apartment was of something uncleverly called Tide Winds on North Florence Beach, just outside Florence City, Florida.
NUDE ON THIN ICE by Gil Brewer (1960)
It was mid-January, but here in Key West, today was summer. Betty and I sprawled on the sun-palmed beach in front of the cabana. We’d been staring at the blues and grays and jades of the water.
How could I tell her?
A white gull froze against the yellow sky.
The letter from Shroeder was a disease. I was a blocked somnambulist in the dark, juggling two sick dreams—one a red recollection of catastrophe, the other that drowning man’s straw. In my mind, that straw was rapidly becoming a raft.
“Baby,” I said. “Got something to tell you.”
“Try to stay calm.”
“So, I’m calm.”
Her dark-blue eyes took on a forced gravity.
How to lie? I gnawed the inside of my cheek. How to tell her? It wouldn’t be easy. It’s not so easy to give the brush to a babe like Betty.
I lit a cigarette, musing all around this thing with a kind of quiet desperation, avoiding it, because to me it was a razor stroking thin-fleshed veins.
“Well, what is it?” she said.
I looked at her. She wore a very tight and tiny two-piece orange swimsuit that inadequately covered the overplump body I’d been using as a forget-yourself machine.
Two days ago that machine would have functioned. Not any more.
Not since yesterday, when I received the letter from Carl Shroeder out in New Mexico, forwarded by the lawyer who had settled Carl’s estate.
Special thanks to Rick for picking the excerpts--and to Greg Shepard of Stark House Press. Stark House has republished many of the authors mentioned here. http://starkhousepress.com/
Rick Ollerman is the author of four novels Turnabout, Shallow Secrets, Truth Always Kills, Mad Dog Barked, and one non-fiction collection Hardboiled, Noir And Gold Medals: Essays On Crime Fiction Writers From The ‘50s Through The ’90s. He also edited and contributed to Paperback Confidential, a book containing 132 short bios about writers from the paperback original era through the present. Currently he’s editing a new crime fiction magazine, Down & Out: The Magazine; an anthology of paperback original era writers for a December release; and Blood Work, an anthology honoring Raven Award-winning Gary Shulze to be released May, 2018. His fifth novel will be released in May 2018. A regular speaker and panelist at conferences across the country, he can be reached at www.ollerman.com.