Brooklyn native A.S. Fleischman (Avron Zalmon Fleischman, 1920-2010), authored his first book in 1939 at the age of 19. In 1941, Fleischman joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and served near the Phillippines and China during WW2. After graduating from San Diego State, the author began writing children's books as Sid Fleischman. During his literary career, Fleischman wrote over 40 children's books, a feat that earned him critical praise with industry peers. However, what brings the author to Paperback Warrior is his short career as a crime-fiction and adventure writer.
Between 1948-1963, Fleischman wrote 10 genre fiction books that saw publication with the likes of Fawcett Gold Medal, Phoenix Press and Ace. His 1955 novel Blood Alley was adapted for cinema starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall. My first experience with Fleischman is his last full novel, The Venetian Blonde, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1963.
The book stars Skelly, a former card-sharp who made a fortune dealing loaded hands to a Boston money man named Braque. After years of swift hands, Skelly's fingers fail Braque to the tune of $125,000. Unable to repay the error, Skelly begins to dodge Braque and his hired guns, a runaway trail that leads him to Venice Beach, California in hopes of a new start. But after trying a small hand of backroom poker, Skelly realizes his hands just aren't fast enough any longer. He needs a brand new con. Enter Evangeline.
Skelly, using the name Appleby, attempts to reconnect with an old friend. His wife, Evangeline, advises that her husband is out of the country on business. After learning of Skelly's financial woes, Evangeline throws him the perfect pitch. You see, she's a fake witch. A spiritualist. A medium. She dupes people out of money by faking the old smoke and mirrors séance trick. She's a cunning, greedy woman who runs the con game at the professional sounding Institute of Spirit Research. Here's the swindle: Evangeline has located an old millionaire who recently lost her nephew in a drowning accident. Evangeline proposes to Skelly that they collaborate on an unusual scheme. They can bring the millionaire's nephew back to life for a cool million. Skelly laughs at the proposal...until Evangeline shows him a mysterious young man she has locked away upstairs. Could this really be the drowned nephew?!?
My first experience with A.S. Fleischman was an absolute blast. Think of the heist formula perfected by the likes of Dan J. Marlowe or Lionel White and saturate it in Carter Brown's comedic seasoning. It's clear that the author emulates some of the writing style he used with his children's books, but adding all of the coarse characteristics one would find in a crime-noir novel of the 1960s – sex, murder and fraud. I also really enjoyed the nod to the western's hero's flaws. Skelly is essentially the fast gun who isn't quick enough anymore to compete with the buck-wild up and comers.
Skelly and Evangeline are both looking for that one big payoff so they can escape the con game business. They both want to walk the righteous path, but to do so they must put one fraud in front of the other. It's a deceitful path allowing the characters to really shine in their element. Fleischman also includes a homely but attractive beachnik. Think of the Times Square beatniks and their soundtrack of Jack Kerouac over groovy jazz. Replace it with a beach of your choice to the tunes of Jan & Dean. That's really the setting of The Venetian Blonde, a unique location and historical time period that just adds more originality and imagination to Fleischman's impressive adult-fiction send-off. In his last noir act, Fleischman delivered a memorable and masterful performance.
In 2016, Stark House Press reprinted this novel as a double with the author's 1952 crime-noir Look Behind You, Lady. You can buy a copy of that book HERE.