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She had on a red knitted thing, made of one piece. It was shorts and a top, without sleeves. The top was what I think they call a boat-neck, tight up against her throat. The whole thing was very tight on her. Her face seemed almost childlike, but she was no child.

HCC-030 - The Vengeful Virgin - Gil Brewer - 1958

Jack Ruxton is your everyday, average TV installation and repairman, living his average, day-to-day TV installation and repair job. Until he meets the eighteen-year-old femme fatale Shirley Angela. Shirley’s tormented by her day-to-day life, playing nursemaid to her retired old stepfather, and is fed-up of taking care of the old geezer when she wants to be out dating boys and having fun. She’s got a plan to off the old man and walk away with the vast inheritance he’s leaving her. And when Jack shows up to install a TV, he’s roped into her murderous schemes, finding the money’s too good to pass up…

This is another of those novels that fit into the crime as a morality play, self-destructive-protagonist subgenre: a greedy character reaches too far, gets embroiled in adultery, gambling, or some get-rich-quick scheme, and comes toppling down. In this case, Jack is seduced by a woman (no typecasting here!) of few scruples, who leads him to his doom. As I mentioned earlier with Fake I.D., this is not my favorite style of crime fiction, and Vengeful Virgin is a little weak on that front to begin with.

The book is a nice fast read, and is perfectly entertaining, but it’s just missing something—I’ve read better Hard Case Crimes. Jack and Shirley aren’t particularly likeable, and there’s really no indication of their pending downfall until the absolute end, so it felt like it came out of nowhere. (You could call it a twist ending, but given how far these two wander from proper social norms of the 1950s, you know it’s coming.) Much of the book is spent preparing for the actual murder, while Shirley becomes desperate and crazed, and Jack slowly becomes greedier and greedier. At least the characters develop.

Jack is a hardboiled kinda guy, so while he stalls a little at first, he puts away his morality pretty quickly for an eager young girl and a stack of cash. Mostly the cash; he quickly gets dollar-signs in his eyes, and ranks his young co-conspirator second. I didn’t find him particularly likeable because of this; his allegiance is strictly to himself, and to the money. Jack doesn’t find Shirley particularly attractive, even as she plays up the sex kitten card, and he ends up entangled with a neighboring housewife.

Shirley is a mixed bag: she’s eighteen and decrying her lot in life, shackled to her dying stepfather and yearning to know the harsh caress of a man’s hands. I guess her passionate lust would have been scandalous in the 1950s, particularly as she’s still a teen, but it’s all rather tame. (Well, excepting a few frantic sex scenes.) I also don’t buy her nursemaid sob-story; it sets up her motivation, but it comes across as too whiny. Combine that with Jack’s opinion that she’s not particularly cute and she sounds like the stereotypical slightly overweight girl all the popular kids tease in high school. Her virginity is questionable… I mean, just look at that cover!

Speaking of which, it’s by the very productive Gregory Manchess, who has done a number of covers for Hard Case. The scene comes pretty late in the novel, but it’s a perfect iconic cover piece: stacks of illicit dough, a beautiful young girl in the midst of undressing, a hefty .45, and a well-stocked fireplace. Classic pulp/noir right there. The cover should let you know what you’re getting into; there’s a little more lurid smuttiness in here than most other ’50s-era Hard Cases from its multiple sex scenes.

Crest Books 238 - artist unknown.

Vengeful Virgin was entertaining enough, but it left me wanting. It’s the right length, but starts to get long in the middle. It’s not particularly deep, nor does it have particularly likeable characters. There’s only a few twists, so most of the novel follows the setup and execution of a murder, and while the ending is perfect, it’s also somewhat predictable. (The outcome, not the actual events.) It’s a quick read and a decent noir tale, and while it’s not a bad book, it has its problems. It’s too familiar and by-the-numbers, too simplistic, too long at points, and too rushed at others, aspects which enhance instead of mitigating its flaws. On the upside, the book does stick with me; it’s one of the more memorable of the many Hard Cases I read last year. (Yes, it took me this long to write a review. So sue me.)

The sound reached me faintly from the bedroom. A butterfly brushed a broken wing against the silver bell.

“Shir-LEY!”

It was Death croaking.