Thursday, July 6, 2023

Pulp Champagne - The Short Fiction of Lorenz Heller

Lorenz Heller (1910-1965) was an awesome crime-fiction author under a variety of different pseudonyms who was largely forgotten until Stark House Press began reprinting his novels under his actual name. The publisher has released a 13-story compilation of Heller’s short stories spanning from 1947 to 1955 from the pulps and digests.

The compilation has a smart introduction by pulp scholar Bill Kelly, who explains that Heller’s gimmick, if it can be called that, is deep and thorough characterizations nestled into the salacious, pulpy plots. His characters are well-drawn and three-dimensional rather than archetypes or stereotypes that exist solely to push a plot forward. I’ve made this point in my previous reviews of Heller’s novels, and I wanted to see if this literary trick could be sustained in the four stories I sampled from the collection.

“I’ll See You Dead”

This story originally appeared in Detective Tales from May 1947. The narrator is Al Crane, a newly-promoted police detective who is also a family man with a reputation for honesty. One night at a bar, Crane receives a tip that a local torch singer had recently been tossed in the river to die by goons working for a local mobster. As a cop with a sense of duty, Crane is compelled to act.

It’s a pretty good short story with a specific “solution” typical of a lot of pre-Manhunt 1940s crime stories still bound to the conventions of mystery fiction. Heller’s writing is solid as his narrator adopts the hardboiled voice we’ve seen elsewhere from Robert Leslie Bellem and Carroll John Daly.

This was a good story, but I want to see what Heller could do after 1950 when hardboiled crime-fiction got great.

“Forger’s Fate”

This one was from Dime Detective’s April 1951 issue, and it’s organized as a verbatim transcript of a statement provided to the District Attorney’s Office by a Florida man named Wesley Smith. He’s a salesman peddling a check-writing machine designed to thwart forgers. As part of his sales pitch, Smith practices a trick called “muscle forgery” to show how easy it is to copy another’s handwriting perfectly.

After showing off his talent in a bar, Smith is strong-armed into a situation where he is pressured to use his forgery skills to cover up a murder. This is a great story largely because Smith is such a foppish blowhard of a character. Don’t skip this one. It’s a really fun read and a surprisingly violent action story.

“Don’t Ever Forget!”

March 1953’s Detective Story Magazine brings us this gem. Our narrator is recently-retired Police Chief McMahon, who is grabbing a meal and some coffee with his replacement in their dumpy Florida backwater town. A reporter approaches McMahon wanting to do a story on the former chief, who declines the offer.

Later, McMahon learns that the reporter asking around about him isn’t a reporter at all. What’s his agenda? McMahon’s badge-less investigation is solid and the ending is satisfying in this neatly-packaged short story.

“Living Bait”

This one originally appeared in the May 1955 issue of Justice! (a decent Manhunt knockoff). It takes place on a Florida chartered fishing boat with a couple catching tarpons, a local fish. The guy is a wealthy blowhard and his girl is a real dish. The boat captain is telling the story, and his first mate is a colorful, lively character.

A fight erupts and one of the characters falls overboard - presumably dead in the choppy sea. Was it murder or is something else going on? This story was a complete delight and showcased Heller’s superior characterizations.

Paperback Warrior Assessment:

As expected, Pulp Champagne is a terrific collection by an author worth remembering. I will say that if you are looking for very hardboiled crime short stories, any of the Manhunt anthologies from Stark House are superior volumes. Fortunately, we live in a world where you can own them all, so you probably should. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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