Charles Willeford finished writing The Shark Infested Custard in early 1975. It was rejected by everyone as too depressing to publish, with only the first section, narrated by ex cop Larry ‘Fuzz-O’ Dolman, put out as a short story, Strange, in the collection Everybody’s Metamorphosis. The novel was finally published in its entirety in 1993, five years after Willeford died of a heart attack.
I bought it because the title intrigued me, and it looked like a crime novel. There is plenty of criminal activity within, but it’s not exactly a typical crime novel. It’s not exactly a typical novel at all.
The Shark Infested Custard is set mainly in Miami, in the 1970s, and begins with a Tarantinoesque conversation between four guys. Discussing where might possibly be the hardest place to pick up a woman, Hank, the smoothest of the four, brags that he can pick up a date anywhere. The others take him at his word and they decide to lay a on a bet. The cash is on the table and, it seems, the story is set in motion.
Except that it isn’t.
Sure, the night doesn’t exactly go to plan, and two people have died before it ends, but then we switch viewpoints to Hank, and jump ahead an unspecified amount of time, and Hank never once mentions that night again. In fact, we have to read on right to the end of the novel before someone even alludes to the horrific events of that evening.
Our four male characters are, Larry Dolman, ex cop turned security guard; Hank Norton, a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, who has studied psychology, and uses this knowledge when ‘dating’ women; Eddie Miller, an ex airforce pilot, and Don Luchessi, obsessively paternal over his unpleasant, overweight child, Marie.
We are first introduced to the four friends sitting around the pool at their apartment complex, drinking vodka martinis, and talking.
“Where, in Miami,” Hank said, “is the easiest place to pick up some strange? I’m not saying the best, I’m talking about the easiest place.”
“Big Daddy’s,” Eddie said.
“No,” Hank said, pursing his lips. “I admit you can pick up a woman in Big Daddy’s, but you don’t always score. Right? In fact, you might pick up a loser, lay out five bucks or so in drinks, and then find her missing when you come back from taking a piss.”
This was true enough; it had happened to me once, although I had never mentioned it to anyone.
“Think now,” Hank said. “Give me one surefire place to pick up a woman, where you’ll score, I’ll say, at least nine times out of ten.”
“Bullshit,” Don said. “Nobody score nine times out of ten, including you, Hank.”
These four men are unswervingly loyal to each other, the bonds of male friendship growing deeper than any other relationship they could ever have. They spend a great deal of time talking about sex, and how to get it, but also a significant amount their time is taken over with escaping from the women in their lives.
In the second part of the novel Larry joins a dating service after devising a way to deduct the dates on his income tax. Hank meets one of Larry’s dates, Jannaire, who Larry dislikes because of her body odour and unshaved armpits. This, though, turns Hank on, and he starts the chase, going through every psychological trick in his armoury to get her in bed. This section of the novel is probably the closest we get to the crime genre, as Jannair is not all she seems to be, but then we veer off again in Part Three to Don Luchessi, and his miserable, controlled existence with his wife, Clara.
The book reaches its own kind of resolution in the very last line, a chilling summation of the mental and emotional state of these four unpleasant, predatory men.
After the chill of that final line had faded away, I was pleased to have finished the book so that I didn’t have to spend any more time in the company of these men. But I was also pleased I had read it. I won’t usually spend time with a novel in which I can find no empathetic leading character. I have to like, or at least understand, somebody in the story to keep with it. But these four American guys, productive pillars of society in many superficial ways, were completely alien to me.
In the end the reason I stuck with it is due to Willeford’s genius as a storyteller. He picks apart the vacuous, rotten male heart of America, but never once pronounces judgement upon it.
He doesn’t have to. Once it is laid bare before our eyes we turn away, appalled, and disgusted.
The Collins English Dictionary defines Hardboiled thus:
1. (of an egg) boiled until the yolk and white are solid
a. Tough, realistic
The earliest use of hard-boiled probably dates back to the 1880s, when the phrase ‘hardboiled egg’ was used to brand a cheapskate, someone who did not readily part with their money. From there it mutated into the phrase we recognise today, referring particularly to detective fiction, although in its earliest uses in the late 1920s, ‘hardboiled’ didn’t refer exclusively to crime fiction; it meant any tough and violent fiction, which also included adventure and western stories.
Tough, realistic, cynical, these are the terms that spring to mind when thinking of Raymond Chandler’s novels, or Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. We expect our hard-boiled heroes to be as tough as the phrase implies, able to walk the mean streets of the city, to penetrate the darker corners of that concrete jungle where the rest of us fear to tread. Not only will he be tough, but cynical too; he’s seen it all before, there’s little out there to surprise him when it comes to the sorry depths of depravity a person can stoop too. And yet he still has honour; beneath that tough, cynical exterior there is a knight in shining armour, ready to risk all on a beautiful lady in distress.
Ron Scheer, in his intelligent introduction to ‘Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled’ makes an interesting comparison between the cowboy hero of pre-war fiction and the private detective hero of post-war fiction. Both are shown to be strong and incorruptible, living “…by his wits and, if necessary, his fists and a firearm.”
But the cowboy lived in the ‘Wild West’ far away from the corruption of the ‘civilized’ East. In hard-boiled fiction our hero lives amongst corruption, has lived with it for as long as he can remember, but he still carries within himself a certain code, and prides himself on being incorruptible.
There are plenty of tough talking, cynical characters in the stories contained in ‘Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled’, and while none of them can quite compare to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, that’s not a criticism. After all, Chandler and Hammett raised the bar pretty high, not just in terms of the characters they created, but their use of the ‘hardboiled’ form.
The cover is a delight, rendered in the painterly style of the pulp paperbacks, and depicting a leggy dame strapped to a chair, a spotlight picking her out in a rather brutal, minimalist room. I get the feeling the dame is blonde, but we can’t ever know that because she has a bag over her head. It’s a wonderful cover, the kind of illustration that would tempt me to buy the book without reading a single review or any of the back cover blurb.
This collection of stories gets off to a fine start with ‘The Tachibana Hustle’. Set in Japan, unusually, our anti heroes are part of a protection racket. I don’t want to give away too much about this story, but it involves the Pac Man video game, two likeable main characters, a very funny chase through a warehouse, and some nice, character driven, dialogue.
‘Obstruction’, by Glenn Gray, is one of the highlights of the book for me. Set entirely in a mortuary, Professor Mitchell Ross and his assistant Ralphie Gomez are dissecting a corpse found in his hotel room. They make a startling discovery in the corpse’s abdomen (and yes, there is plenty of juicy detail throughout, so count this as a warning for the squeamish,) and then things become more interesting with the arrival of two FBI agents.
Ralphie is a fantastic character, laid back, laconic and a nice foyle to the more refined, learned professor. Through their banter we quickly come to see how different they are, but also the obvious affection they have for each other. I particularly liked the harboiled style of this story.
He peeked through the small square tinted window at eye level. Squinted. Two guys in suits. Didn’t look familiar. He cracked the door.
Ralphie said, “Sup.”
“We’re from the FBI. Need to talk to you.”
“That patient there.”
“In the middle of the autopsy.”
The minimalist style of writing in this story is almost perfect, there’s not a word wasted whilst still delivering plenty of atmosphere and acute characterisation.
‘The Death Fantastique’ features as its ‘hero’ probably this anthology’s toughest character. I won’t reveal what he suffers, although it’s very nasty indeed, and that old standby of whisky as a disinfectant is used, but you’ll wince, and you’ll never forget that scene.
The heroine of ‘Ric with no K’ is an unreliable narrator, but the sadness of this story comes from the fact that she believes everything she tells us. There are three stories of revenge here, ‘Vengeance on the 18th’ having the most startling opening line of the collection.
Truman Krup took his nine iron and slammed the back of Jackson lee Mercer’s head with such force that Jackson’s glass eye popped out of its socket and came to rest on the rim of the 18th hole.
I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed every story here, but I certainly enjoyed more than I didn’t. From the perspective of the hardboiled style they all work, but there is also a surprising range of storytelling and emotional depth. If you think hardboiled fiction is all about tough guys with guns, and dumb blondes, you should think again.
And ‘Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled’ is as good a place to start as any.
Written in 1949, The Screaming Mimi is probably Fredric Brown’s most popular book. It is certainly one of my favourites. I first discovered it in my early twenties, back in the days when I used to browse the bookshelves in real bookshops, rather than virtual ones. Remember those times? It was also around about that time I also discovered Raymond Chandler, and his tough, cynical, knight in shining armour, Philip Marlow.
Brown’s protagonist, William Sweeney, a reporter for the Chicago Blade shares much with Marlow. He is a tough guy, mixes with some pretty disreputable characters, has a soft spot for the ladies, and is quick with a sarcastic comeback.
The Screaming Mimi is set in the 1940s, during an oppressively hot Chicago summer, as a knife wielding serial killer, dubbed The Ripper by the newspapers, is terrorising the city..
Coming down from one hell of an acloholic bender one night, Sweeney is drawn by a crowd to a hotel doorway. On the other side of the glass door a beautiful blonde woman is lying face down on the floor, a large dog (It must be a dog, here in Chicago; if you’d seen it out in the woods you’d have taken it for a wolf) crouching over her. The police arrive, intending to shoot the dog, but then the woman slowly climbs to her feet, a knife wound visible in her abdomen. The astonishing scene that follows next sets Sweeney on his path to sobriety, and a date with a killer.
The blonde woman, Sweeney later learns, is stripper Yolanda Lang, and The Ripper’s intended fourth victim. The dog is called Devil, and performs as part of her act. Yolanda only received a shallow stab wound to her stomach, the ferocious, loyal dog having protected her from further harm.
The book’s opening hook is irresistible, and the language remains a constant throughout the story.
You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do. You can make a flying guess, you can make a lot of flying guesses.
You can list them in their order of probability. The likely ones are easy: He might go after another drink, start a fight, make a speech, take a train…You can work down the list of possibilities; he might buy some green paint, chop down a maple tree, do a fan dance, sing “God Save The King”, steal an oboe…You can work on down to things that get less and less likely, and eventually you might hit the rock bottom of improbability: he might make a resolution and stick to it.
Sweeney’s resolution, after seeing the beautiful Yolanda Lang, is to spend a night with her. He quickly determines the best way to do this would be to catch her attacker.
Sweeney soon makes a connection between the killer and a ten inch high statuette sold to him by his first victim in a gift shop. The statuette is called The Screaming Mimi. This is not only a play on the phrase to have the screaming meamies, but here also a mnemonic for the clerk working at the company that produced the statuette, its catalogue number being SM 1.
Here is Sweeney’s first encounter with The Screaming Mimi –
He saw what Reynarde had meant. Definitely there was a virginal quality about the slim nude figure, but that you saw afterward. “Fear, horror, loathing,” Reynarde had said, and all that was there, not only in the face, but in the twisted rigidity of the body. The mouth was wide open in a soundless scream. The arms were thrust out, palms forward, to hold off some approaching horror.
Sweeney buys the statuette, believing the serial killer to have kept the other copy sold to him by his first victim.
“Stella Gaylord was a B-girl on West Madison Street. The Lee girl was a private secretary.”
“How private? The kind that has to watch her periods as well as her commas?”
– and the swift exchanges between the characters, many of whom mistrust each other.
Sweeney took another sip of his drink. “You know, Doc, I hate you so damn much I’m beginning to like you.”
“Thank you,” said Greene. “I feel the same about you.”
Throughout much of the story, Sweeney is suffering from a hellish hangover. He has to work hard to keep on top of his game, especially when he discovers his straight edged razor has been stolen from his apartment. Does the killer know Sweeney is on to him? And can Sweeney discover his identity before he kills again?
The Screaming Mimi is a product of its time, the characters’ dialogues littered with casual racist remarks, homophobia and misogynism.
When looking at the statuette’s contorted, fearful figure,, a bartender remarks to Sweeney,
“No dame is that afraid of being raped or something.”
Is this a reflection of the author’s own beliefs, or more a reflection of the time and culture the novel’s characters live in? Whichever, it certainly adds authenticity to the narrative and atmosphere.
Sweeney finally achieves what he set out to do, and finds The Ripper, but there’s a twist, propelling Sweeney back to the bottle, where we found him in the first place.
I’ll leave you with one more excerpt, where Sweeney and Captain Bline, in charge of The Ripper investigation, with one of his cops, have gone to see Yolanda Lang’s act in a scuzzy, downtown night club.
Still half-crouched, the dog took a stiff-legged step toward the woman. He snarled again and crouched to spring.
There was a sudden, quick movement across the table from him that pulled Sweeney’s eyes from the tense drama on the stage. And at the same instant that Sweeney saw the movement, Bline’s big hand reached across the table and grabbed Guerney’s arm.
There was a gun in Guerney’s hand.
Bline whispered hoarsely, “You Goddamn fool, it’s part of the act. He’s trained to do that; he’s not going to hurt her.”
“Put back that gun, you Goddamn sap, or I’ll break you.”
The gun went slowly back into the shoulder holster, but Sweeney saw, out of the corner of his eye, that Guerney’s hand stayed on the butt of his gun.
Bline said, “Don’t get trigger-happy. The dog jumps her; it’s part of the act, Goddamn it.”
Guerney’s hand came out from under his coat, but stayed near his lapel. Sweeney’s eyes jerked back to the stage as a sudden intake of breath from the audience backgrounded a yip from a woman at a table near the stage, a yip like a suddenly stopped scream.
The dog was leaping.