Independent publishing company 280 Steps opened their doors in 2014. The upstart publisher acquired the rights to many out-of-print pulp classics and crime-noir as well as original novels by newer authors. Unfortunately, like many independents, the publisher closed their doors in 2017 and their back catalogue was extinguished from the internet. The company’s short-lived existence led me to several out-of-print Harry Whittington novels including Any Woman He Wanted, You'll Die Next, A Night for Screaming and a 1959 novel titled A Ticket to Hell. It was originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal and was reprinted in 1987 by Black Lizard. With a strong recommendation from my Paperback Warrior colleague, I decided to check the book out.
The novel begins with one of the best opening scenes I've read. The main character, Ric, is speeding down a dusty, rural stretch of New Mexico highway in a Porsche. He just picked up a hitchhiker, but after the young man pulls a gun on him, Ric casually slows the car to 35-mph and boots the kid onto the burning pavement. After a full day of driving, Ric stops at a dingy roadside motel to wait for a mysterious phone call.
The reader soon learns that Ric is running from someone and has a mysterious appointment scheduled with a man he's never met. The problem is that the time and date are unknown to Ric, so he's held hostage by simply waiting for the bedside phone to ring. In doing so, he's visited by the motel owner's wife who's itching to get laid. Ric declines twice, but later becomes mesmerized by a beautiful young woman across the motel's parking lot. When the woman's male companion attempts to kill her, Ric intervenes. By doing so, he complicates his own agenda at the motel.
A Ticket to Hell is a smart and multi-layered paperback that finds Harry Whittington excelling within his familiar storytelling – person on the run, rural small town, sex and murder. Whittington mostly sticks to the formula, even borrowing some elements of his western writing and injecting it into this full-throttled crime-noir. I was really invested in Ric's murky past and the mysteries that he harbored. I found myself quickly flipping the pages in a mad dash to learn Ric's full story. The end result was expected, but the pleasure lies in the journey. A Ticket to Hell was yet another top-notch thriller penned by the king of the paperbacks.
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