Showing posts with label Stuart James. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stuart James. Show all posts

Monday, January 9, 2023

Carnival Girl

Cutting Edge Books has performed a marvelous job preserving mid-20th century fiction. The publisher's new editions of classic titles by the likes of Howard Hunt, Ovid Demaris, Ralph Dennis, and March Hastings position these vintage, sometimes expensive literary works, into the spotlight for a whole new generation of crime-fiction and mystery fans. 

One of the authors that Cutting Edge has focused on is Stuart James, an underrated crime-noir author that also served as a staff writer and sports reporter for magazines and newspapers. James also became an editor for Midwood Books, a subsidiary of paperback powerhouse Tower Publications. I thoroughly enjoyed the Cutting Edge editions of James' novels Frisco Flat (1960) and Judge Not My Sins (1951). I was happy to discover another Cutting Edge title, Carnival Girl, authored by Max Gareth, a pseudonym employed by James. The novel was originally published in 1960 by a small, low-budget publishing house called Chariot Books, home of other underrated novelists like Arthur Adlon and John Burton Thompson

Norma is a gorgeous Midwestern girl raised by an alcoholic single mom. When she's nearly raped by her drunken stepfather, Norma runs away from home. In the book's opening pages, readers find Norma at an Indiana diner using her last dime for food and coffee. Thankfully, the waitress displays some pity, and arranges for her to catch a ride “west” with a truck-driving customer. However, Norma doesn't realize that the waitress earned an extra tip by selling her to the highest bidder. On a lonely stretch of blacktop, the trucker rapes Norma before she escapes to a nearby farm. After being sized-up by a farm laborer, she manages to escape what is perceived as an attempted rape by flagging down two people traveling with the carnival.

The carny duo (slang for employees of a carnival) convinces Norma that she can make it in the carnival as a stripper. Back then, a fan favorite at rural, small town carnivals is the peep show, where men and boys with enough coins could enter a tent to watch naked women dance. Norma learns a few tricks and before long she is the carnival's number one attraction. But, she draws the attention of three specific men.

Speed is the good guy daredevil that performs motorcycle tricks. He falls in love with Norma, but she doesn't have the same feelings for him. Instead, Norma is lusting after Lee, the bad boy carnival drummer. There's also a man named Frank, who pitches Norma a lot of cash to come to St. Louis to work his nightclub. But, she later learns that Frank is in deep with the Mob and if she takes his job, she'll be passed around as a prostitute making a meager living lying on her back for criminals. It's a twisty, hot triangle with innocent Norma caught in the middle. 

With Carnival Girl, Stuart James completes a vivid, often disturbing character study of this young, unfortunate woman and her abrupt, violent end of innocence. Like Judge Not My Sins proved, James was such a clever storyteller with an uncanny ability to make his characters lifelike. By using a common crime-noir trope, the traveling carnival, James is able to submerge this inexperienced character into a world of depravity. Norma is a living doll thrust into dangerous situations and guided by seedy men with below-the-belt motivations. 

Carnival Girl isn't the proverbial happily ever after story of love on the run, but instead a more provocative look at young men and women pursuing carnal desires no matter the cost. It is these types of stories that made Stuart James such a talented, organic storyteller. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Frisco Flat

According to Cutting Edge, author Stuart James grew up in rural Pennsylvania and at 15 went to work as a sports reporter for the Delaware Valley Advance. He sold his first story in 1951 to a pulp magazine and later became a staff writer for True and Popular Mechanics. While writing original paperbacks, James became an editor for Midwood Books, a subsidiary of Tower Publications that focused on adult romance novels with lurid covers. It was here that two of James' novels were published, The Devil's Workshop (org. title Bucks County Report (1961) and Judge Not My Sins (1961). Lee Goldberg's Cutting Edge has reprinted four Stuart James' novels including Frisco Flat, originally published in 1960 by Monarch. 

After a short career in boxing, Frankie Cargo receives a letter from a friend suggesting that he comes back home. Home is Frisco Flat, a fishing community off the California coast where Frankie grew up. Frankie learns that his father has died and a man named Sam Barlow now controls a majority of the town's industry. Frankie then discovers that his childhood home is now being occupied by a gorgeous squatter named Tosca, the girlfriend of the town's law-enforcement officer. Frankie gets in a fight with the officer and realizes coming home to Frisco Flat was a very poor decision.

Frankie's father left him a great fishing boat, but Barlow wants to buy it. By owning the boat, he will have a complete monopoly on the fishing industry. Frankie has other plans and borrows money to repair the boat and get it to sea. After days of hot, stinky fishing, Frankie's ton of fish should net him a solid profit to build the business back. But, someone working for Barlow shoots up Frankie's boat, thus sinking the vessel and Frankie's livelihood into the ocean depths. However, Barlow's men don't realize that Frankie grabbed something extremely valuable to them, a package worth a million dollars to the highest bidder.

Based on the book's original cover art, I was expecting it to be a romance novel. Instead, it is a gritty, fast-paced crime-noir with lots of traditional genre tropes – criminal empire, the unlikely hero, beautiful women, a heist, and violence. Lots of violence. Frankie's transformation from the town pushover to the defiant hero was such a pleasure to read. I found that James storytelling presented itself like a good screenplay, which makes sense considering he spent a majority of his career in Hollywood on scripts and treatments. There are two hot romances for Frankie, but James doesn't dwell on it. Instead, he pushes the narrative into a crescendo of vengeance that was reminiscent of a western yarn.

However, Frisco Flat isn't terribly original. In fact, it bears a lot of similarity to Edward S. Aarons' 1953 novel The Net. In that story, Barney is a prizefighter that receives a letter from his brother asking him to return to his hometown. The town is a small coastal village where Barney's brother and father own a fishing business. Barney's father has been killed and a town bully named Hurd wants to buy out the family business. When Barney refuses, violence rises to the occasion. Sound familiar?

Obviously, James probably read Aarons' book that was published seven years earlier. But, despite the similarities and borrowed storyline, Frisco Flat was terrific. The romantic angle, character arc, and the surprises were worth the price of admission. If you enjoy great crime-noir literature of the mid 20th century, then you'll absolutely enjoy this book. Cutting Edge made a fine choice by adding Stuart James to their already impressive catalog of classic authors. Frisco Flat proves it in spades. 

Buy the book HERE