Before he was “King of the Paperbacks,” Harry Whittington worked as a copywriter in his home state of Florida (home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters). In 1943, he sold his first short story followed by his first novel, a western titled “Vengeance Valley,” in 1946. It wasn’t until 1950 that his first contemporary novel, “Slay Ride For A Lady” was published, kicking off a crime (fiction) spree that lasted decades and made him a favorite among fans of the genre, even if it inexplicably failed to make him a household name.
“Slay Ride For A Lady” begins in Honolulu where an ex-cop with a checkered past named Dan Henderson has successfully tracked down estranged wife Connice Nelson and her baby on behalf of her powerful mobster husband back in Tampa. Henderson is a fun narrator to take us on this ride as he is appropriately cynical about life. After Connice tells Henderson that he’s a nice guy, he explains, “I hate God’s world, and everybody in it.” Henderson has a great backstory that Whittington gives us piecemeal throughout the paperback.
Whittington was age 35 when this paperback was first published, and you can tell that he had a deep reservoir of cool ideas, scenes, and lines to draw upon for his inaugural crime novel, but it never really comes together as a compelling and readable novel. The plot is nothing revelatory: falsely accused of murder, Henderson needs to clear his own name and seek revenge on the man who framed him. With Whittington, it’s the execution that matters, and he has the raw makings of a master storyteller even at this early stage in his career. Had he written his novel in 1957, it would have likely been much better.
Is this one of Whittington’s best novels? Not by a long shot. You won’t necessarily feel cheated, but your time is better spent reading his 1959 masterpiece, “A Ticket to Hell.”