In the Cutting Edge Books reprint of the 1959 paperback Killer Take All, readers learn that author Elmer Merle Parsons (1926-1970) was as untamed as the criminals he fictionally fabricated. Born in Pittsburgh, Parsons was first convicted of burglary and grand theft auto at the age of 23. After serving three years in prison, Parsons began passing stolen checks. His freedom was short-lived, and Parsons was sentenced to San Quentin Prison for five years. While inside, Parsons discovered a dexterous ability to write, becoming the editor of the prison newspaper and crafting his first novel, Self-Made Widow (1958), which he sold to Fawcett Gold Medal for $3,500 under the pseudonym Philip Race.
While in prison, Parsons authored two novels starring a craps dealer named Johnny Berlin – 1959's Killer Take All and 1960's Johnny Come Deadly (published by Hillman Books). Both were published under the pseudonym Philip Race. Using the name E.M. Parsons, the author wrote a suspenseful romance novel called Dark of Summer (1961) as well as three western originals – The Easy Gun (1970), Fargo (1968) and Texas Heller (1959). Later, the talented writer went to work for Hollywood, writing scripts for a number of television shows like Bonanza, The Dakotas, The Virginian and Sea Hunt. I've always enjoyed the proverbial “small town drifter” story, so the synopsis of Killer Take All peaked my interest.
Review: Killer Take All
Johnny Berlin flees the bright lights of Las Vegas due to a love gone bad. When readers first meet Berlin, he's driving a fog-shrouded highway in rural Oregon in an effort to start a new life in Portland. After becoming lost on the midnight highway, Berlin is aided by a man named Donetti who directs him to spend the night in a small town called McKaneville. Surprisingly, when Berlin rolls into the tiny hamlet, he discovers it's a booming lakeside village ripe with gambling clubs.
Parsons' novel puts Berlin back behind the craps table for a struggling club owner named Dan Gurion. After meeting an old flame, Berlin agrees to assist Gurion in an effort to rekindle the business and keep his new boss from being forced to join a pushy racket called the Gambler's Protective Association. With the mob running a number of gambling halls throughout the area, Gurion is one of the last few holdouts to join the association. Partnering with Berlin, Gurion goes against the grain to defy the odds and beat the rackets. But, when Berlin is nearly murdered and the premier head of the Protective Association is killed, things aren't quite as black and white as readers might think.
The first thing to know about Parsons' writing style is that he introduces over a dozen characters in the narrative's opening half. It's a large cast to contend with, a habit that threw me off of the author's similar novel, Dark of Summer. Both paperbacks feature lakeside communities that are mired in business transactions, lover quarrels and a penchant for violence. Dark of Summer was a dense romantic fling whereas Killer Take All is more of a violent crime-noir complete with painted ladies and jaded faces.
While Berlin isn't the stout heavyweight crime-fighter that readers typically associate with these types of stories, the vulnerable protagonist enhances the overall concept – a flawed human fighting a flawed system complete with flawed justice. Where the characters are sometimes subdued and emotionally wilted, it's the author's storytelling talents that truly blossom.
Parsons wasn’t a remarkable writer as his saturation of characters can, at times, make for a burdensome read. However, he's a solid writer with a knack for great stories. With just a handful of published novels in his career, Killer Take All's affordability as a used paperback and digital reprint is well worth the price of admission. You won't be disappointed.
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