Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Widow

In 1952 and 1953, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, also known as the Gathings Committee. The committee investigated the exploding paperback and comic book market with the goal of proving that these new forms of entertainment would drive men to rape the daughters of god-fearing American voters. Common sense apparently won out, and the Gathings Committee became a national laughingstock. In the face of government censorship, America chose books, and paperback original publishers doubled down on the sensational covers and sexy storylines.

This congressional farce set the stage for the successful literary career of Orrie Hitt and his 1950s publisher, Beacon Books. The sleaze paperback featured lurid, painted covers with promises of hot, sexy action inside the pulpy pages. Oddly, by today’s standards, the descriptions of sex acts in these novels are pretty tame. Chests heave and bodies grind, but seldom are private parts or their functions ever mentioned with any specificity. The books succeed or fail based on the quality of the writing and the stories justifying the erotic situations, and that’s why Hitt’s books endure to this day.

Stark House Books has reprinted two Hitt classics in one volume: Wayward Girl (1960) and The Widow (1959) with an introduction by Brian Greene. “The Widow” was originally packaged with a rapey-looking cover and the tag line, “The savage story of a man gone wrong and the woman who led him astray!” In fact, it’s a compelling femme fatale noir novel that will be familiar in structure to fans of the Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks of Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer or Day Keene.

The book follows a lothario loser named Jerry who suddenly finds himself terminated from his ditch-digging job after punching out his supervisor. He quickly meets an impossibly sexy married woman named Linda who is neglected by her mechanic husband. Linda sets Jerry up with a job working for her mother-in-law, a mean old lady who owns the local cabin motel and diner. This evolves into some heavy-duty sexual tension between Jerry and Linda as well as a murder plot to swipe the old lady’s nest egg. Throw in a seductive, 21 year-old nude model, and we have a compelling love triangle adding to the tension.

More than his contemporaries, Hitt knew how to dial the erotic intensity of his stories up to maximum volume. This is a straight-up sexy novel without ever being graphic or explicit - quite a trick, actually. Hitt’s writing is crisp and dialogue-driven, much like Lawrence Block’s style. Interestingly, Block also wrote erotic noir fiction for Beacon Books under the name Sheldon Lord at the same time Hitt was cranking out these paperback quickies. Hitt’s protagonist is a real heel, but his misdeeds only add to the dark, seamy feel of this softcore noir. 

The love triangle gets more attention than the murder plot, but both storylines are compelling enough to keep the pages turning fast. The twist ending wasn’t a complete surprise, but it didn’t really detract from the fun ride along the way. This one is an easy recommendation for anyone seeking to kill a few hours with an erotic crime novel from a bygone era. Recommended.

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