Don’t give me this crap about I don’t deserve nothin’ because I only been working a year or so…. You might as well try to tell me the guy that’s been in the Army longest oughta be Chief of Staff, or the guy’s been in politics longest oughta be President, or the guy’s been goin’ to church longest oughta be Pope. Jesus Christ, I seen guys could make doughnuts all their life and never learn where the holes go.
Once upon a time, Richard S. Prather was a popular writer with a well-known name. He came up with the character Shell Scott, an ex-Marine private eye in Southern California—a Hollywood detective. Shell Scott starred in three dozen novels between 1950 and 1975, when Prather disagreed with his publisher and sued them, after which he stopped writing for over a decade. Of course, at one time Mickey Spillane was a household name—albeit one spoken in whispers—and names like Donald Westlake, David Goodis, and James M. Cain were popular and well enough known back in the day. So it’s not a surprise that Prather likewise faded into obscurity, nor should it be a surprise he was targeted by Hard Case for recovery.
As in other novels of its ilk, The Peddler starts with a disenfranchised character at the bottom of the barrel, with dreams of making it to the big leagues. That character would be 19 year old Tony Romero, born into the poverty of the slums, always dreaming of living the good life, of pulling out of his station in the slums some way or another. Bumping into a loose woman he knew a few ago who’s now working in a brothel, Tony’s eyes become dollar signs when he hears how much the prostitutes make ($50 a night! And half of that goes to her pimp!).
So off he goes to make his fortune, as a pimp. Rather, another cog in the great Mob machinery that operates brothels and call-girls across San Francisco. With a slew of new ideas, Tony’s sure he can reinvent the wheel, and make the already profitable sex industry more enticing and popular. Tony isn’t one to let grass grow on his feet, nor is he one to let things stand in his way, so through a combination of extortion, blackmail, and subterfuge, he works his way up the ladder, getting better and better positions to accumulate more and more wealth. So what if he steps on a few toes and pushes out existing operators who Tony believes don’t pull their own weight. So what if he ends up using his few close friends and allies as means to an end; those fat stacks of cash are just a few steps closer every day.
After stepping on one character too many, Tony’s forced to leave the city while the heat cools down, and heads off into the country to collect new girls for the whorehouses. Out in the sticks, he finds one black-haired girl named Betty who’s resistant to his charms—and if Tony doesn’t get what he wants, Tony wants it even more. His attraction to her comes from his single-minded conceitedness, and it triggers irrevocable changes in his life.
Tony starts off somewhat likeable, but his lack of convictions and greed erode any good personality traits he had as he goes about blackmailing, mistreating, and extorting the few more likeable characters, leaving him a lustful and paranoid wreck. He lives a perversion of the American Dream: rising out of poverty to gain power and wealth, but instead of hard work and perseverance, he takes the easy way out… the underworld life, reaching his goals over the corpses of those blocking his path onward, and on the backs of countless unhappy women seduced into prostitution. This being a crime novel, an allegorical moral fable on how crime doesn’t pay, it’s safe to assume where Tony will end up. His Icarus-esque plunge at the finale, after he’s fallen to his lowest depths to reach the loftiest heights of underworld power, is both shocking and fitting.
Early on, the dialogue is that breed of hardboiled, juvie-delinquent slang that only exists in 1950s fiction. Which is to say, so unrealistic as to boggle the mind. It’s a super-exaggerated tough-guy jargon that can be distracting or painful, and this book is heavy on dialogue… awkward dialogue. With a lot of “no” words, and contractions, and incorrect spoken grammar, and bizarre turns of phrase: characters ain’t gonna take not no nothin’ from nobody, unless they gonna or oughta, you know. Some people will love it, and it will drive others up a wall. And that doesn’t even get into the imaginative but laughable slang. Read:
He just went off his nut, see? We were playin’ poker and the guy was drinkin’ heavy. All of a sudden he goes off his rocker and yells at Sharkey ‘Get away from me-don’t let him get me.’ Then he yanks out the barker and bangs him. Smack in the biscuit. Then Romero flopped down on the floor, cold. I guess the sight of poor Sharkey’s think-pot flyin’ through the air like that put him under a strain.
Now, be serious here, who the hell talks like that? I’d love to live in that world, but its inhabitants would give me headaches with that vernacular. And jargon like “think-pot” is nonsensical, if evocative.
Maybe it’s meant to represent Tony’s impoverished background and ascent of sorts, since it vanishes with abruptness halfway through his transformation from slum kid to ruling hoodlum. Anyway. Prather’s prose is competent, with a few slivers of interest scattered throughout. Most of what he writes is dialogue, or at least it felt that way. The early chapters felt like rushed setup, blazing through Tony’s career to get to the good parts; at the halfway point when the dialogue got better, things slowed down and got more of a focus, which it followed until the bitter end. I’m not sure that slowing down and meandering about helped the novel, but the pacing works; it doesn’t always go where you think it’s going, so the point becomes muddled. The plot is very sluggish, the book progressing with the same methodical precision as a turtle leaving its shell. Prather’s real talent is that he makes you care for Tony, even when he’s manipulating his best friends and mistreating his girlfriend.
Prather wrote around a half-dozen books that didn’t involve the clean-cut Shell Scott; did he, in this case at least, need to vent some frustrations with an amoral flesh peddler? Who’s to tell. I’m also curious if he published it under a pseudonym for a reason: if he didn’t want to tarnish his Shell Scott image, or if he didn’t think it was strong enough. Because I’m not sure it’s strong enough. The Peddler is a quick read, not unpleasant, and I don’t have any hard feelings on reading it. But it’s not the masterpiece of American gangsterism that many reviewers consider it to be. It’s the tried-and-true story chronicling the rise and fall of an amoral character, and once you’ve read three of those…
I’ve said there’s no such thing as a bad Hard Case Crime, though the line does have an occasional misfire–understandable, since not every book in the huge lineup is going to appeal to everyone. I’d consider The Peddler around average, maybe a bit below, and move on to another part of the bookshelf. Then again, I find the “crime as a moral fable” trope tired and predictable, so perhaps you’d find it more to your liking.