First published in 1954 by Lion Books, “Sin Pit” was the only known novel written by Paul Meskil. According to an introduction by academic David Rachels in a 2017 eBook re-release, Meskil was a New York crime reporter whose descriptive writing was lurid enough to catch the eye of a literary agent who encouraged him to write crime fiction. In short order, he turned in a manuscript called “Blood Lust” that was released by Lion Books as “Sin Pit.”
The narrator is East St. Louis Police Detective Barney Black who is thrust into a murder investigation involving a beautiful young woman with a .32 bullet in her skull and whip marks all over her legs. The novel is structured as a pretty standard police procedural with Barney following logical leads in a corrupt town riddled with poverty and vice.
The real appeal to this book is the character of Barney himself. At 6’2” and 210 pounds, the 32 year-old cop is hardboiled as hell. He’s not afraid to slap a witness around to start them talking or to take a belt of whiskey on the job to wash the taste of murder from his mouth. Barney is the kind of morally-compromised but highly effective police officer that James Ellroy later depicted in his classic his L.A. crime stories. Barney’s tragic backstory made him into a sociopath dedicated to holding criminals accountable solely because it’s his job and not because of a functioning moral compass.
The characters and writing in “Sin Pit” are about as good as it gets in 1950s crime fiction. When a sexy and alluring witness threatens to warm Barney’s cynical heart and generates human romantic feelings, the reader just knows that it’s not going to end well for the would-be lovebirds. The hunt for the killer takes some dark turns into the dungeon of an S&M freak and a world of darkness and corruption that exists right under Barney’s nose.
Meskil’s writing really is superb - some of the best I’ve read from the era. He makes me want to shake my fist at the heavens wishing he’d stuck with novel writing. You should definitely seek this one out if you like your noir twisted and perverse. The original paperback and reprint might be pricey, but an outfit called Automat Press has been quietly reprinting orphaned works from the era as eBooks at nice prices. Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. This one is highly recommended - a must read.