“A Swell Looking Babe” was a mid-career paperback original from hard-boiled king Jim Thompson that was originally released in 1954 by Lion Books. It has a heist, a femme fatale, double-crosses, incest, rape, mobsters, cops, and it’s a bit of a mess.
Bill “Dusty” Rhodes is our wide-eyed and innocent hero who works as the overnight bellhop in the fancy, 400-room Manton Hotel. He dropped out of college to care for his infirmed father who suffered a breakdown after being accused of having communist sympathies during a local Red Scare. At the book’s beginning, Dusty is a blameless young saint of a man - a non-drinking, hard-working boy so handsome that the high-end, female hotel guests just can’t stop hitting on him. However, Dusty never takes the bait because it’s against the rules, and he’s the bellhop with the heart of gold.
The hotel is filled with colorful characters including an ex-mobster named Tug who plays a big-brother role in Dusty’s life and a night desk clerk with a mysterious past. Because The Manton caters to a high-end clientele who can afford the steep $15 per night room rate, they also have a secure safe deposit system in the lobby that every reader will immediately assume to be the target of an attempted heist later in the story.
The Swell Looking Babe of the title is a new guest named Marcia whose mere presence at The Manton makes Dusty rethink his policy of rejecting the advances of the comely, female patrons. Things go rapidly sideways one night when Dusty goes to her room, and he needs to call upon the services of his resourceful ex-mobster friend to bail him out of a jam. This leads to a convoluted heist plot, which is the best part of this book.
Crime novels of this era usually forgo a lot of character development, but the author doesn’t skimp here. We get pages and pages of background and flashbacks that explain Dusty’s character, family, and upbringing. Because it’s a Jim Thompson book, this background is filled with dysfunction and twisted infrafamilial sexuality. We also are forced to endure the interminable side-plot involving Dusty’s father and the circumstances surrounding the alleged communist sympathies that lead to his unemployment. These flashbacks and side-plots slow down the novel considerably making the reader hungry to get back to the swell looking babe, the heist, and its twisty aftermath.
For his part, Thompson was probably excited to write a novel from the perspective of a hotel bellhop as he worked in that field himself as a teen. I can only imagine that by this point in his writing career, Jim Thompson wasn’t at the mercy of editors telling him to clean up his convoluted plots. There’s certainly a good crime novel in this short book, but you need to tune out a bunch of static to hear the noise. Read this one only if you’re a Jim Thompson completest. Otherwise, you can safely take a pass.
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