Whenever I mention how much I enjoy the work of Jonathan Craig (a pseudonym of Frank Smith), my bookish friends tell
me his 1957 killer-for-hire novel, “So Young, So Wicked,” was his noir masterpiece. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback had at least two printings - 1957 and 1960 but doesn’t appear to have seen publication since then.
Steve Garrity plays piano in a Manhattan after-hours nightclub. He also occasionally kills people when asked to do so by the local syndicate. While the career of a hired killer has provided Garrity with substantial creature comforts, its not a job that provides him with much personal satisfaction. However, saying no to the New York organized crime syndicate isn’t a recipe for longevity, so Garrity generally does as he’s told.
Garrity’s latest assassination assignment from his mob handler targets an impossibly-beautiful 15 year-old girl named Leda who lives in a small town in upstate New York. Complicating matters further is the order that Garrity must make Leda’s death look like an accident. Therefore, a rifle shot into the teenybopper jailbait’s bedroom window is strictly a no-go. Garrity has no clue why the mafia wants a pretty teen murdered, and his masters aren’t telling him. He just needs to know that he’s a dead man if he fails to make the hit, so upstate he goes.
The template for “So Young, So Wicked” is quite similar to Max Allan Collins’ excellent ‘Quarry’ series although Garrity is a way more reluctant angel of death than Quarry. When Garrity arrives in Leda’s hometown, he makes some interesting moves to ingratiate himself in the small town’s culture and with Leda herself. It turns out the teen is quite a seductress to the extent that I think the character’s name, “Leda Louise Noland,” is a hat tip to the female lead of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The heart of the paperback’s plot is Garrity unraveling the mystery of why the syndicate wants the teen girl iced.
There are so many great twists and turns in this short noir paperback that I wouldn’t even think of ruining the surprises for you here. I will say that the vintage cover art provides a misleading romantic impression to the reader when the reality is that this is a seriously dark and violent paperback. The writing is vivid and economical, and a lot happens over the course of 160 pages leading up to the satisfying conclusion.
I’m amazed that “So Young, So Wicked” hasn’t been resurrected as an eBook, but an online search found several used copies available for under ten bucks. It’s worth the investment as this one’s a real noir winner. Highly recommended.
This book and a Jonathan Craig feature are on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
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