This compilation of forty stories, most taken form the early years of the magazine, is a gold mine. Some of the stories are so good they are masterpieces in their own right, there are writers here at the top of their game, (e.g. Evan Hunter). These days we can only imagine the excitement of getting the latest edition of Manhunt from the newsstand to find out who was contributing that month. There are other stories here that may not be exceptional but they reveal the origins of crime fiction legends to come and they are much more than curios. These stories are a reflection of the angst and concerns of the time they were written, they are often prescient and trailblazing (I see echoes in more modern fiction). Perhaps not surprisingly that are also relevant for today’s world too.
Short stories are a complex art form. Many of the most famous crime writers, some of the very best in fact, began their writing careers perfecting this format, Lawrence Block refers to his own experience in his foreword. Every word has to count, the message has to be clear, and the tale perfectly encapsulated. It was this mastery by crime writers that make our favourite hardboiled noir crime novels so taut, lean, and pacy. There was money to be made writing short fiction but these stories demonstrate that once bitten by the bug crime writers loved to return to the short story. There is no better way of delivering a punch to gut of the reader.
Because these stories are the best of the best they are all high quality. Which takes your fancy will depend on the kind of story you prefer but I doubt any will leave you cold. These stories are dark, erotic, psychological, hardboiled, cynical, gritty, and action driven. The cast includes kids and cops, gangsters and financiers (same thing?), male and female killers, the kind-hearted and the rotten to the core.
Over the fifteen years that Manhunt ran (1952-1967), the cast of contributors was remarkable, Evan Hunter (Ed McBain), Mickey Spillane, Cornell Woolrich, Kenneth Millar (Ross MacDonald), Richard S. Prather, David Goodis, John D. MacDonald, Nelson Algren, Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake (that’s by no means an exhaustive list). A modern day equivalent would mean Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), Ian Rankin, James Patterson, Harlen Coben, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, John Grisham, and Steven King would all be regular contributors and there would be others too. Think about the logistics/cost of that!
There’s a foreword here from Lawrence Block, he talks about buying the magazine as a young writer, learning his craft from the contributors before submitting his own material. The first edition in January, 1953, sold out 600,000 copies in five days. Jeff Lorimar’s introduction tells us a bit about the checkered history of the magazine, the gradual decline in sales and it’s ultimate demise. Full of fascinating insight; Archer St. John, the publisher, had previously been kidnapped by Al Capone’s gang in 1925, this was the time of McCarthyism, censorship, and the rise of television drama. Artist Matt Baker was commissioned early on to provide artwork that matched the noir content of the magazine, a succession of artists followed. One illustration by Jack Coughlin led to a protracted court case for obscenity. Manhunt opened just as Black Mask closed. One editorial bulletin to authors identified the material they were looking for:
‘We want the kind of story that does happen–in Harlem, on Times Square at 4 A.M., on the country’s skid rows, in the isolation and struggling areas of the deep South, places like that. We don’t want sentiment and we don’t want prettifying . . .’
The opening story is a poignant tale of a young life thrown away, On the Sidewalk Bleeding by Evan Hunter (July, 1957). A boy is slowly bleeding to death in an alley, Andy is sixteen, his jacket identifies him as a Royal, he’s proud of that. He left his girl, Laura, at the jump intending to go back but he was ambushed by Guardians, the slash in his chest is deep and long, he can’t move from the wet street as his blood washes away in the rain. A number of people enter the alley, a drunk thinks Andy had too much himself, a courting couple see the jacket and don’t want to get involved with gangs, an old lady searching the bins doesn’t even see him. The realisation that he is dying slowly gets to him. He thinks of Laura, wonders if anyone in the gang who attacked him realise he’s Andy, not a jacket, not just a Royal. Too late he knows the gang doesn’t matter, losing his life at sixteen does. When Laura finds him, he’s dead, she tells the cop his name is Andy, all he can see is a Royal. It’s a six page story that couldn’t be more relevant given the knife crime, gang problems of our inner cities now. A sad, reminder of the real human cost of a thoughtless moment, a life time of consequences – the whole shebang in a nutshell.
Decision by Helen Neilsen, June 1957. Ruth Kramer has never been in a courtroom before, she can feel the people judging her; ‘the iceberg killer’. She can’t remember when she started hating her father. When she was little he killed six puppies and boasted of it, they couldn’t afford to feed them, but there are ways of doing things, was that the moment? Otto was a harsh man:
‘Worry and fear belonged in a woman’s world, and he had no sympathy for either. If Ruth had tears she could shed them in her mother’s tight arms. There was no other warmth in the world.’
Years of domestic abuse and psychological torture cause Ruth to snap, just as she’s about to make her break from home. There’s a neat final twist in a sad story of a poor start in life.
In Memory of Judith Courtright by Erskine Caldwell, October 1955.
‘It was a long time before anyone in Lancaster was able to discover the reason why Merle Randolph killed himself with his father’s shot-gun that Monday morning in early spring just as the bell was ringing for classes to begin at the consolidated School.’
Judith Courtright, twenty two, takes a teaching job at Lancaster, outside New Orleans. One of the senior boys, Merle Randolph develops a crush on the beautiful, shy mistress. When he approaches her she rightly rebuffs him but a chance meeting and a terrible misunderstanding seal the boy’s fate in his own mind.
The Girl Behind the Hedge by Mickey Spillane, October 1953. A police inspector corners a financier at a club, the two men know each other well. In fact the inspector has made a lot of money off a tip from Chester Duncan. They have both benefited from the death of a business rival, Walter Harrison. The inspector is curious about whether Duncan had something of do with it. Duncan tells the whole story of the men’s relationship, from law school to rivals in love. A decent tale is spoiled by a nasty ending, the only story that will make a modern audience blanch.
Frozen Stiff by Lawrence Block, June 1962.
A butcher is contemplating suicide after a cancer diagnosis. He has a plan to make it look like an accident so his wife can have the full, double indemnity, insurance money. When it’s too late he discovers the woman he loves is betraying him. Can he prevent her getting the $100,000 from behind the grave?
Poignant, sad, twisty, cold and emotionally draining these are street stories, real life in all it’s darkest moments. There’s an afterword by Barry Malzberg of these stories he says:
‘They are radiant with knowledge. They are riven with pain. True Story was hardly the only magazine that had the true story.’
A must for noir/hardboiled fans.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Best of Manhunt edited by Jeff Vorzimmer
Stark House Press 9781944520687 pbk Jul 2019