Sometimes, things keep coming up roses. It was a pleasant surprise to find a package from Stark House Press in the mail, and even more of a pleasant surprise to find it was another advance reader copy. And, most pleasant surprise of all, it was a Wade Miller double. There are a number of excellent ’50s crime novelists out there—Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, David Goodis, need I go on?—but my personal favorite would be Wade Miller, the productive writing duo and childhood friends Robert Wade and William Miller. There’s a beautiful spark in their clean prose—seamless prose, too; the fact that Wade Miller novels were collaborations is undetectable by the human eye.
Doubled together are Wade Miller’s Kitten With a Whip (1959) and Kiss Her Goodbye (1956). You can pick up the Stark House edition come September for $19.95, which was around half what it’d cost to pick up the original Gold Medal copies last time I checked on eBay.
You could always blame it on the heat…
The weekend dawned hot and still, the sun suddenly near and pregnant with fire through the glassy blue air. […] Everywhere animals hunted shade and lay panting, and the wild ones crept closer to civilization, hunting water.
Suburbanite David Patton is stewing in the heat of the California summer all alone, his wife Virginia and six-year-old daughter Katie out of town visiting Virginia’s mother. When he wakes up hearing someone moving around his house one Saturday morning, he expects to find his family’s returned early to surprise him. Instead, he finds 17-year-old sexpot Jody Drew, runaway from the local juvenile home. Instead of calling the cops, David succumbs to the story of her pitiful upbringing and tries to give her a clean break, buying her some new clothes and leaving her at the bus stop with some cash. David’s feeling pretty good about himself for helping Jody, thinking of himself both a knight in shining armor and a small-time delinquent riding high on his abuses of the law.
David just made the worst mistake of his life.
David returns home hours later to find Jody dyeing her hair in his kitchen. She’s more than interested in David, and she’s a lot more cunning and street-smart than he thought, a juvenile delinquent who probably knows more about sex and blackmail than David does. When he threatens to go to the police, Jody threatens back, saying she’d tell the cops that David raped her. (Which may be just what Jody wants.) For the near future, Jody has bound them together: David an unwilling passenger, jumping whenever Jody cracks her whip. She knows which of David’s buttons to press, and she’s more than willing to ruin his life just to get what she wants. Meanwhile, David realizes his wife and daughter will return home in two days…
I’m always impressed by the diversity of Wade Miller novels; after writing the Max Thursday novels, one—if not the—best post-war detectives, Wade Miller novels cover the full spectrum of the genre. One is rarely similar in theme to the previous novel; each one is unique in its creative plot. Juvenile delinquents had long been a trope for sleaze novels, yet it wasn’t one that showed up a lot in Wade Miller novels. Nor was the concept of a normal person being held against their will by someone from the criminal shadow world, the place well beyond the borders of David Patton’s life. And the titles! Kitten With A Whip, there’s just no topping that; it evokes everything you need to know about Jody Drew.
Back in 1959, this was probably some heady stuff—a street-smart underage sex kitten who swears like a sailor and blackmails an average joe suburbanite into submission. Our societal values have shifted enough while the foul-mouthed, overtly sexual Jody is abnormal, it’s the spick-and-span David who sticks out more. David is a tad repressed, and his life is very much the basic, banal suburban life stereotype—he’s a squeaky-clean protagonist to contrast sharply with Jody Drew and her lack of morals. Early on, David wonders if Jody is mentally unstable—she fluctuates from pure passivity to wanting to please David to having streaks of pseudo-sadistic tendencies; it’s hard for David to judge what can set her off or what she’s going to do next.
Meanwhile, David is sinking lower and lower into the abyss. Early on, it’s clear he got a kick from evading legality. Not just from acting as the white knight for this “helpless” girl who the world had conspired against her, either; at one point, he finds her abandoned nightgown in the back of his car, and he pitches it out the window just before passing a No Littering sign. “I’m getting to be quite the lawbreaker, he thought.” When Jody returns, though, and her lies begin to fall apart—that’s when David realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew. But, as Jody leads him along into her world, hosting parties for her friends, dragging him off to Tijuana, immersing David in her slang and her lies, it starts to change him—the finale’s crushing impact is David’s realization of who he’s become, who he was, and how he sees this darkness in others.
The thing I love about Wade Miller books is not just that they’re superb, but that their novels start branching out to cover a diverse array of themes. What would otherwise have been an average sleaze novel in the hands of lesser writers is an excellent noir thriller in the hands of Wade Miller. Kitten With a Whip hasn’t had any reprint attention since the 1964 movie of the same name, and I’m glad Stark House brought it back. It may not have the same tense atmosphere as other novels in a similar vein (I reviewed Brewer’s A Killer Is Loose and Matheson’s Fury On Sunday not too long ago), but it has more depth to its characters and more flair in its prose. Well worth reading and highly recommended—though I am predisposed to any Wade Miller novel.