Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Portrait in Smoke / The Longest Second, by Bill S. Ballinger

Stark House, 2018
269 pp


"Blessed are the forgetful: for they get better even after their blunders."

My many, many thanks to Stark House for my copy, especially for Portrait in Smoke, a story I will never forget.     I have to admit that when I first got this book, I said to myself "who the hell is Bill S. Ballinger?," because I had never heard of the guy.   The book's back cover blurb tells us that he was born in Iowa, 1912, and that he went on to study at the University of Wisconsin. During the 1940s, he worked in radio and advertising, and began writing novels in 1948; he was nominated for an Edgar for The Longest Second in 1958, finding himself in fine company with writers Marjorie Carleton, Arthur Upfield, and Ed Lacy (whose Room to Swing won that year).  And as writer/editor Nicholas Litchfield (who writes the introduction to this book) notes at his blog, Ballinger, who also "wrote scripts for eight feature films," and "more than 150 teleplays" went on to win his Edgar in 1961 for "one of his teleplays for Alfred Hitchock Presents." A wee bit of research on my end reveals that it was for "The Day of the Bullet."

from billsballenger.com

Aside from the books he wrote under his name, he used two pseudonyms, B.X. Sanborn and Frederic Freyer, penning his last book in 1979 before passing away in 1980.  In the introduction to this edition, Litchfield notes that Anthony Boucher once described Ballinger as a "major virtuoso of the mystery technique," but as is the case with so many writers of yesteryear, he went on to become an "under-appreciated writer, books long out of print and his name unfamiliar to many."

In Reilly's Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1980), Ballinger is quoted as saying that he considers himself "primarily, a story writer" -- for him
"the story is the thing. Although I usually try to make a point as all good stories should, I stay away from moralizing and propaganda ... I have always enjoyed a good plot, the thrill of plotting." (77)
And in this book of two Ballinger novels, story is definitely the thing.  I'll begin with the second one, The Longest Second  (1957), saving what I think is the best book for last.  Don't get me wrong -- I quite enjoyed The Longest Second and was hooked from the get-go -- the main character wakes up one day in a hospital, having had his throat cut (and obviously unable to speak); worse, he has no memory at all of how he got there or even who he is. Given the opportunity, it would make one think that it is a perfect chance for starting over, but well, ...   Not that that scenario hasn't been done before, but there's a game changer here in the form of a "reoccurring" nightmare that sets the scene for the rest of the novel:

"At first there wasn't much to it; it was only that the hospital room was no longer the same room. It was another room, darkly lit except for a light in the far corner. I kept waiting for something to appear from behind that spot of light. That was all. But the terror of waiting, the anticipation of fear were freezing. Never have I been so monstrously frightened."
This nightmare will follow him throughout the story, and each time he finds himself afraid,  "waiting for someone to appear in the light -- "someone, or something," right up until the bitter end of this tale.

Our man is questioned by the police who take his prints and discover his name, Victor Pacific.  That rings no bells, but little snippets of things run through his head, like quotations by Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, lists of names, and at some point he discovers he knows some Arabic words. Nothing, however, yields any clues.  Down to using a pad and pencil to communicate, he is finally able to leave the hospital; his first stop is to visit and question the woman who found him on her doorstep, Bianca Hill, hoping to find out anything he can about himself and why he was left to die there. She takes him in, offering him some light work which he accepts, but her roommate Rosemary is dead set against the idea, and Vic, who senses something about Rosemary, wants to know why.  As he goes about trying to discover his identity and the mystery behind Bianca's roommate, the police are also busy, most of all a detective who is convinced that Vic is lying about everything and is determined to break him.    There's much, much more here that happens, of course, in this rather twisty story before Vic is able to finally come face to face with that  "someone or something" in the"spot of light" from his nightmare.

original cover, 1950, from Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Moving on, or in this case backtracking, with the first novel, Portrait in Smoke (1950), I believe I've discovered the ultimate in femmes fatales.  I read this story this past Saturday, and I did not move from my spot on the sofa until the last page had been turned -- that's how good it is.  I actually found myself gasping when I got to the ending, and had to run out and tell my spouse about what I'd just read, and then I had to go post about it on my GR pulp fiction group right away.  I had to tell someone about this book, because quite honestly, it blew me away. Trust me: you may think you've seen all that these old books have to offer in the way of femmes fatales, but there is no one, absolutely no one in my reading experience quite like this woman.  She's sort of like an updated Undine Spragg (from Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country) or Thackeray's Becky Sharp for the 1950s -- women incapable of any kind of love who are always looking for the next best thing to come along and grab hold of it by any means possible.  In Portrait in Smoke, Krassy Almauniski (in all of her various aliases) makes it an art form.

As in The Longest Second, Ballinger splits his narrative into two distinct voices. It begins with the first-person account of Danny April, who opens the novel somewhat cryptically by saying that he's a "goner," if he "shoots off" his mouth to the wrong guy, and then asks who'd believe him anyway.  Okay. My interest is whetted.  It seems that Danny had been working for a collection agency in Chicago, right up until the time his grandfather had died and left him as beneficiary of his insurance. With $2500 in his pocket, Danny decides to buy his own business, and becomes the new owner of his own collection agency.  Going through the data cards, he latches onto one in particular, with a newspaper clipping featuring a picture of young girl, Miss Krassy Almauniski, who had evidently won a beauty contest sponsored by the Stockyard Weekly News  some ten years earlier.  Her photo "started a memory clawing and scratching around" in the back of April's mind, taking him to a particular summer night when he was "still a kid."  Not able to sleep, he decided to walk to the North Avenue Beach, where he notices a girl on the breakwater, with whom he becomes fascinated. He follows her at a distance right up until she catches ride on a streetcar, after which she disappears from his life forever.  Wondering if the girl in the clipping was his girl from teenhood, his old desire creeps up again and he decides to do all he can to find her; eventually his quest becomes an outright obsession.  Now, here's the thing ... it's probably not all that realistic a scenario, so you have to sort of suspend disbelief to move on. If not, you miss one of the best, creepiest stories I've read in this genre in a long, long time.

Meanwhile, while we're kept up to date on what Danny April is doing in his search to find the newspaper girl, we go into a third-person narrative which picks up the story around Danny's quest.  The first of these begins on Krassy's seventeenth birthday when she vows that "Starting today ... things are going to be different."  She lives with her father in a "filthy little house in the Yards" from which she is eager to escape; she wants respectability, security, and money enough to make her future secure.  Her life in that district led her to develop an internal "shrewdness and cunning," and she learns that she's going to have to draw on her looks, at least at the beginning of her climb up the social/financial ladder.  Starting with the beauty contest, Krassy goes through a number of changes and we're right there along for the ride, watching as her plans begin to materialize and feeling very, very sorry for the men involved.

Arlene Dahl, in Wicked as they Come -- from Pinterest

To say that I loved Portrait in Smoke would be an understatement; as I said earlier it had an ending that brought out a huge gasp. I won't say why, but in the way of a clue I'll offer that obviously Ballinger didn't care about the usual crime fiction/mystery formula where we're all happy at the end and life has returned to normal yet again.  The shock of the novel, however, didn't translate at all to the 1956 film Wicked as They Come, which likely due to subject matter and morals code, sort of gutted the book.  Still a fine film but the novel is so much better.

Feel free to take issue with the prose here and there in both novels,  but given that Ballinger saw himself, as said above, "primarily, a story writer," I think it's safe to say that he knocked it out of the park here. At least he did for me, and in the end, that's what really matters.  However, I think other readers who enjoy this kind of thing will also find it very much worth their while to lay hands on a copy.   Again my thanks to Stark House not only for my book, but also for introducing me to this man's work, whose books,  like those of so many other fine writers, have been sadly relegated to obscurity.


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