Peter Rabe was the pseudonym of Peter Rabinowtitch (1921-1990), a staple of the Fawcett Gold Medal line of yellow-spine crime fiction paperbacks during the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, many of his classic novels have been reprinted by Stark House Books, including 1960’s “Murder Me for Nickels,” currently packaged as a double along with “Benny Muscles In” from 1955.
“Murder Me for Nickels” is narrated by Jack St. Louis, the right-hand man of Walter Lippit, the owner of every jukebox in every tavern for a 35-mile radius. Back in 1960, a musical artist getting a disc in the local jukebox was a big deal and fame often followed closely behind. This, of course, opened the door to payola, free sex with torch singers, supply-chain issues, and the kind of drama that could feed a crime novel like this one.
The paperback doesn’t waste any time getting into the plot. Walter’s regional jukebox monopoly is challenged by an electrician named Benotti, whose strong-arm tactics force bar owners into placing Benotti’s jukeboxes in their establishments. Jack and Walter aren’t racketeers, but Jack is perfectly willing to kick ass to protect Walter’s turf. But who is this Benotti? Is he just an opportunistic poacher or is the mob moving into the song-for-a-nickel business?
Like a lot of Rabe’s novels (such as “The Box”), “Murder Me for Nickels” is really about a power struggle in an insular community. The combatants - in this case jukebox vendors - jockey for position and the the upper hand with the tactics escalating over the course of the paperback.
Rabe is a very good, dialogue-heavy writer, and his characters are vivid and interesting. However, I’ve always found his plotting to be slow and “Murder Me for Nickels” is no exception. A paperback with this interesting set-up and clever characters shouldn’t have been this dull. I couldn’t help wishing it was Richard Deming, Lou Cameron - or even Milton Ozaki - painting on the canvass of a jukebox turf war. It would have been a much better novel.
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