Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Lou Largo #01 - All I Can Get

Before his untimely death at the age of 38 in 1960, William Ard was on a roll writing popular mystery fiction under his own name as well as the Buchanan westerns under the pseudonym Jonas Ward. Ard’s demise interrupted his Lou Largo series of hardboiled private eye novels, but the character lived on through later installments written by ghost writers Lawrence Block and John Jakes before they became famous. Ard’s first two Lou Largo novels are expensive collector’s items, but they have been reprinted in a single volume by Ramble House Books providing an affordable opportunity to enjoy the 1959 opening installment, All I Can Get.

Largo is a charming and wisecracking Manhattan private investigator with a difficult client: a wealthy media mogul named Milton Weston. Largo is hired to perform a background check on Mr. Weston’s new infatuation - a gold-digging chippy that he intends to make his eighth wife. The tycoon is thoroughly uninterested in hearing the truth about the party girl and refuses to pay Largo’s fee at a time when Largo’s reserve funds are running thin.

Ard begins the Lou Largo debut in a fun, lighthearted style that recalls the Carter Brown mysteries featuring over-the-top, wealthy eccentrics who Largo is forced to endure for business and economic reasons. And then things take a very clever turn. Nothing is as it seems in the opening act of this deceptively simple novel. Through a non-linear storyline with early-novel flashbacks and flash-forwards reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the reader is treated to the story behind the story, and we learn that Largo has a little deception in his heart as well regarding the girl. This early-plot twist catapults All I Can Get from a simple, lighthearted crime novel into something bordering on brilliant. And sexy. 

While never veering into pornography or graphic descriptions of lovemaking, All I Can Get was surprising explicit for a 1959 novel. I couldn’t imagine sex scenes like this in 1952 as the world apparently just wasn’t ready at that point. Seven years later, here we are. The sex scenes work because they have real context and help to explain the decisions the characters make throughout this well-crafted paperback.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the doomed romance between the millionaire and the sexpot is actually the subplot, not the main dish. The real story involves the Cuban syndicate based out of Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood and a newspaper rivalry in a nearby beach town. Lou Largo isn’t even present for a large part of the book’s second act. But sure enough, Ard weaves these threads into the early-novel story of Largo, Mr. Weston and his new fiancĂ©. All of this leads to a genuinely exciting and violent conclusion.

This is a tough book to review because I don’t want to spoil anything for you. If you enjoy crime fiction and can appreciate truly exceptional writing in the genre, you’re bound to be pleased with All I Can Get. It’s as if Ard took a close look at the dumb-but-fun private-eye sub-genre (think Richard Prather’s Shell Scott books) and asked himself “How can I turn this formula on its ear, and make it something that transcends the genre?”

Ard writes in a style popularized by Ed McBain in his 87th Precinct series. Basically, it’s a third-person narration with doses of personality and commentary sprinkled into the action with the omniscient point of view. It makes for a fun read, and Ard’s humorous narrative quips are a delight. It gives the reader the sense that you’re in good hands with Ard as your tour guide on this twisty paperback ride.

The downside is that Ard is considered to be a “collectible” author by the types of people who buy vintage paperbacks, encase them in plastic, and never read a word. Thank heavens Ramble House has compiled the first two books in the series into a single trade paperback volume titled Calling Lou Largo, which you can purchase HERE. However you get your hands on a reading copy of All I Can Get, please do so. It’s something special.


Lou Largo Series Order and True Authors:

1. All I Can Get (1959) by William Ard
2. Like Ice She Was (1960) by William Ard
3. Babe in the Woods (1960) by Lawrence Block
4. Make Mine Mavis (1961) by John Jakes
5. And So to Bed (1962) by John Jakes
6. Give Me This Woman (1962) by John Jakes

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