The Tooth and the Nail (Bill Ballinger, 1958)

Last and least of the “triptych” collection I’ve been perusing over the last six months. By this point, Ballinger was evidently hip-deep in television work and it shows. The first of the collection’s novels, 1950’s Portrait In Smoke, was within easy shouting distance of Cornell Woolrich or David Goodis. This is more along the lines of a top drawer Perry Mason episode. Still entertaining but a bit lacking in nerve and sweat.

Put it this way–months later, I can still remember exactly how Portrait In Smoke ends.

Without thinking about it.

This one?

I’m thinking….

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Tim Weiner, 2007)

600 hundred page brief on why free people do not need secret police forces.

Superbly done…I collected a bunch of telling quotes and thought long and hard about how best to present them.

Then I realized all there really is to say is here:

Jimmy Cliff “Trapped” (Studio Recording)



Bounty Hunter (Rick Miller, 1988)

A biography of Jack Duncan, the Texas lawman who tracked down and arrested John Wesley Hardin (one of the few legend-inspiring badmen of the Old West who fully earned his reputations for both nastiness and deadliness).

To say the book is stodgily written is putting it rather politely, but the research seems as solid and definitive as we are likely to get.

My own principle interest with the subject was in doing research for my western novel, which involves–among many other things–the machinations of semi-corrupt law enforcement in the southwest of roughly the same time period.

I worried I had made things too complicated.

Turns out I had nothing to fear.

People don’t change much and hare-brained scheming in an ancient art.

Like many of his breed, Duncan often kept one foot on each side of the law himself, leading to plenty of interesting situations. My favorite was this one, recounting events in Dallas. This passage is dedicated to anyone who thinks the dread tentacles of legalistic bureaucracy were spawned last week at some closed-door meeting of the Eastern Liberal Establishment. (Duncan, who had been a Texas Ranger when he arrested Hardin, was, by this time, a private detective):

“Finally, in May (1889), a new trial date was set. Duncan’s attorney moved for another continuance to locate an absent witness, as well as to quash the indictment, but the court overruled both motions. A jury was empaneled and sworn on May 25 and, after a short trial that same day, found Jack Duncan not guilty of bribery. A month later, on June 26, 1889, the county attorney declined to prosecute him on the swindling and theft charges that had been pending since December, 1883. (Italics mine.)Those charges were dismissed. Some of the cloud over his head had diminished; however, a brief notice in a newspaper on August 27, 1889, indicates that Duncan, despite his acquittal and his new family, had not wholly forsaken the old life: ‘An absent witness in the case of Jack Duncan charged with carrying a pistol was fined $10.’”

So it was in Dallas, Texas….in 1889.

Portrait In Smoke (Bill S. Ballinger, 1950)

Impressive second-line entry from the Golden Age of Hard-Boiled Pulp. As a plain-speak stylist of the genre Ballinger is within shouting distance of Cornell “Rear Window” Woolrich at least, and this one has a genuinely interesting narrative structure–equal parts women’s melodrama, procedural and noirish crime story of the docu-style realism school.  Ballinger does a nice job of sustaining actual suspense and that’s no small thing. The only real disappointment is the ending, where the unjust gets no real comeuppance for her sins (in hard-boiled land the sinner is, of course, almost always a “she”) and the just gets no real punishment for their sap-hood (in hard-boiled land the sap is, of course, almost always a “he”’s all very Old Testament, though I must say Ballinger does a good job of teasing the reader with the impression he might, just might, pull a switch). Hence there is no final sense of the tragedy the book seems destined to deliver the reader a good wallow in–or a well-earned escape from–right up to the moment it does neither.

That’s a mistake the first-line masters of the genre (including Cornell Woolrich) never would have made.