Friday 15 March 2013

Westlake on Rabe: Stop This Man! & Benny Muscles In by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1955/58)

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Featured in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Right then. Let's get stuck into that stack of Peter Rabe crime fiction paperbacks I've been threatening to unpack for a while now, and find out what Donald E. Westlake – upon whom Rabe was a big influence – made of each of them in his critical essay "Peter Rabe" in Murder off the Rack (Scarecrow Press, 1989). Beginning, appropriately enough, with Rabe's first novel:

Stop This Man!, originally published by Gold Medal in the States in August of 1955. The copy seen here isn't that printing, however; it's the April 1958 second printing, which I bought for a few quid online, and which sports a different cover to artist Lu Kimmel's 1955 original. And much as I admire Kimmel's art in general, I think I prefer this deftly painted, simultaneously titillating and menacing effort, which is by Ernest Chiriaka, who often used the alias "Darcy" (his signature can be seen bottom left). Evidently Chiriaka was pretty pleased with it too: he used very similar staging for a 1962 Beacon Signal sleaze paperback cover – Cult-Priest's Daughter by John Furlough.

In his essay on Peter Rabe, Westlake reckons that Stop This Man! "showed only glimpses of what Rabe would become", adding: "The elements... just don't mesh. There are odd little scenes of attempted humor that don't really come off and are vaguely reminiscent of Thorne Smith, possibly because one character is called Smith and one Topper. A character called the Turtle does tiresome malapropisms. Very pulp-level violence and sex are stuck onto the story like lumps of clay onto an already finished statue." Although he does offer some praise – calling one character "real and believable" – clearly Westlake expects more of Rabe's writing.

At the close of the passage on Stop This Man! Westlake acknowledges that "An inability to stay with the story he started to tell plagued Rabe from time to time", a criticism he also levels at Rabe's second published novel:

Benny Muscles In, originally published in the same year as Stop This Man! I've blogged about this one before, in a 1973 UK Five Star edition, but the copy seen here is the first British edition, published by Frederick Muller in 1958, but practically identical to the 1955 Gold Medal original, complete with cover by the aforementioned Lu Kimmel. I could have sworn I bought it at one or the other of the last two London Paperback & Pulp Bookfairs I attended, but having examined the photos of my ill-gotten gains from those fairs (follow the links to see them), it appears not, so Christ knows where the damn thing came from.

In any case, in his essay Westlake is much more approving of Benny Muscles In than of Stop This Man!, noting that the "characters of Benny and Pat are fully developed and very touchingly real", and that the "hopeless love story never becomes mawkish... The leap froward from Stop This Man is doubly astonishing when we consider they were published four months apart".

But it's Rabe's next book where Westlake believes the author "finally came fully into his own" – the third Peter Rabe novel to be published by Gold Medal in 1955, A Shroud for Jesso...

Monday 11 March 2013

Peter Rabe, by Donald E. Westlake, in Murder off the Rack (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.

Chances are, if you become inordinately interested in the work of Donald E. Westlake as I self-evidently have – at some point you're going to encounter Peter Rabe. In interviews and articles Westlake would often cite Rabe as being a major influence (alongside Dashiell Hammett, Vladimir Nabokov and perhaps one or two others), an influence that's particularly noticeable in the hardboiled Parker crime novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark (especially in Stark/Parker's debut, The Hunter). I've blogged about Rabe repeatedly over the past few years, sometimes comparing Stark to Rabe – notably in this post on Rabe's 1960 crime novel Anatomy of a Killer (which also appears, in an altered form, on The Violent World of Parker) – mostly just reviewing and showcasing Rabe's novels (the majority of which were published straight to paperback). But for true critical insight into Rabe's work, there's really only one place to go, courtesy of Rabe's biggest fan, the aforementioned Donald Westlake.

In 1989 Westlake contributed an essay to Murder off the Rack: Critical Studies of Ten Paperback Masters, an anthology edited by Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg and published by Scarecrow Press. Titled simply "Peter Rabe", and nestling alongside essays by, among others, Bill Crider ("Harry Whittington"), Max Allan Collins ("Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Him"), Ed Gorman ("Fifteen Impressions of Charles Williams") and Loren D. Estleman ("Donald Hamilton: The Writing Crew"), across twenty pages Westlake examines the bulk of Rabe's work, novel by novel from his 1955 debut, Stop This Man!, to 1974's Black Mafia – turning an often highly critical eye on each of them.

The opening line of the essay – "Peter Rabe wrote the best books with the worst titles of anybody I can think of" – is oft-quoted in relation to Rabe, but make no mistake: this is no bibliographic hagiography. When Westlake feels Rabe is good – Kill the Boss Goodbye (1956), say, or Anatomy of a Killer, or The Box (1962) – he's fulsome in his praise; but when he believes Rabe's writing is subpar, he doesn't pull punches. I was surprised, for instance, by the treatment meted out to Rabe's series of novels starring reluctant criminal Daniel Port; I'd always figured the Port novels had been a big influence on the Parkers in particular, but apparently not. Of the debut Port outing, Dig My Grave Deep (1956), Westlake writes: 

[The book] is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett's The Glass Key, without Hammett's psychological accuracy and without Rabe's own precision and clarity. The book flounders and drifts and postures. The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett's.

Ouch – and the remainder of the Daniel Port series fares little better. Even so, Westlake has the gift, possessed of the best critics, to make even the duffest-sounding of novels seem interesting. His clear-eyed assessments are consistently entertaining, affording insight even when he's slating Rabe's work – and I'll be drawing on a number of those assessments over the coming weeks, as I unveil some of the Peter Rabe paperbacks I've picked up over the past year, and take a look at what Westlake had to say about them.