15 May 2014

Coke Adds Death (where there isn't any)

Pure Sweet Hell
Malcolm Douglas [pseud. Douglas Sanderson]
Greenwich, CT: Gold Medal, 1957

After two chapters I picked up pen and paper to do some figuring. As far as I can determine, Pure Sweet Hell was Sanderson's ninth novel, coming less than five years after Dark Passions Subdue, his queer, lavender-tinged debut. Some might not find this impressive. In the 'nineties, V.C. Andrews averaged better than two books a year. And she was dead.

Pure Sweet Hell was the first Sanderson since Dark Passions Subdue to have had neither a British edition or French translation. This I don't get, because it ranks with Hot Freeze as one of his very best.

Like Hot Freeze, the novel's plot revolves around the drug trade. In place of Mike Garfin, ex-RCMP, we have Anthony Bishop, current FBI, who has been assigned to investigate cocaine traffickers at work in the Mediterranean. The G-man arrives in an unnamed Spanish port, trawling through its busy streets and bars like a sailor on shore leave… which is his cover. The faux-seaman's jacket pocket holds two Lucky Strikes packs filled with cocaine. The Bureau's idea, which isn't really much, is that Bishop will sell the drugs, then follow the white lines to the local kingpin. Things get off to a bad start when his contact, a fellow FBI agent and old friend, dies from a knife to the back.

Pure Sweet Hell was published just seven months after Final Run, Sanderson novel #8. Both take place over the course of a single night. Of the two, Pure Sweet Hell is by far the superior; it rings true in a way that its predecessor does not and the writing is stronger:
He wouldn't go under. The darkness was black glue. I couldn't see to punch him scientifically.
Sanderson can always be relied upon for a good fight scene, and there are a dozen or so here. You can also expect some very memorable characters. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Sanderson's people are anything but types. My favourite here is live-wire whore Pepita, who having won the lottery enjoys a night off.

Those unfamiliar with Sanderson will find Pure Sweet Hell a pretty good entrance to his work – which isn't to say that it's without flaws. The final chapters are heavy with explanation, a wasted effort to tie up ends that are already entwined. I never quite understood what the FBI was doing in the Mediterranean. But my greatest complaint, which may seem silly, concerns concussions. Four of the novel's twenty-four chapters close with Bishop losing consciousness – three times from blows to the head delivered after a good beating.

At the end of it all, when the bad guys are all dead or locked up, shouldn't he be checked over by a doctor or something?

Trivia: Sanderson's unnamed Spanish town is Alicante, in which he lived for much of the latter half of his life. Bishop's night of adventure begins at La Goleta, a restaurant that exists to this day. Call 34 965 21 43 92 for reservations.

Object: A slim mass market paperback comprised of 143 pages of dense type. The cover art is by Barye Phillips, the man responsible for the very best cover to John Buell's second best novel.

His cover illustration for Pure Sweet Hell isn't quite in the same league. That's meant to be a drunken Pepita, except that Sanderson describes her as wearing a vivid orange dress. She'll later don her best frock. If the author is to be believed, no Spanish woman of the time would've be caught wearing red slacks. He has one policeman note, as if "about to share a dirty secret", that "in the United States the ladies they wear the trousers like the men."

Phillips also provided the cover of Brian Moore's pseudonymous Murder in Majorca.

Seems he liked drawing blinds.

No pun intended.

Addendum: The back cover copy to Pure Sweet Hell is so bad that it needs be addressed.

One of the novel's great strengths lies in Bishop's narration. Where Sanderson's G-man is sharp and a straight shot, Gold Medal's copywriter makes him out to be a tiresome braggart. The Bishop of the book would never claim that half of town was out to get him or brag that "two dazzling dames" fought over him "like dogs over a bone". Neither is true. "I tell you it was a damned energetic night" just isn't his voice – nor is this:
Just call me Pied Piper Bishop, legging it furiously through town for my life, while out behind me streamed an assortment of cutthroats – followed by a blonde and a brunette – both magnificently heaving.
Call you Pied Piper Bishop? Thanks, I'd rather not.

Access: At US$4.50, the cheapest copy of the first edition listed online comes from a crook in Tulsa who has the gall to charge US$30 for shipping. At the other end we have a Near Fine copy being sold by a Massachusetts bookseller for US$20. Add in his shipping charge and it'll still cost you less than the one in Oklahoma.

Beware, in 1960 Gold Medal went back for a reprint, something a good many of the listings fail to mention.

I recommend the 2004 Stark House edition, which not only pairs Pure Sweet Hell with another favourite, Catch a Fallen Starlet, but includes an insightful Introduction by John D. Sanderson, the author's son. Thrilling Detective's Kevin Burton Smith provides even more context. The cover painting is by Alicantina artist Marina Iborra.

Stark House has no Canadian distributor – buy it from the publisher!

Not a single copy of any edition is held in a Canadian library.

No comments:

Post a Comment