“This geographical fact was the basis for the first original thought ever to strike Little Abner’s skull. It was conceived in despair, nurtured in frustration, delivered in pain.”

Published in 1957, this crime story still has the power to shock. Even now this kind of nakedly nihilistic thriller isn’t common, this is the kind of novel the term ‘Noir’ was coined for. Brutal and doom laden, this vision of the world as it really is makes your heart race while your mind rages at the unfairness of life.

This powerful little tale of mobsters pitted against an ordinary teacher just trying to do the right thing is taut and explosive. The Hoods Take Over is loaded with burning hatred, greed and jealousy on the one hand and love, a sense of justice and honour on the other hand. Alan Avery just wants to do the right thing and Joe Ricca wants to kill him for it.

It’s clear from this novel that Demaris is a writer of real talent, this polished thriller is as good as pulp fiction gets. When you compare this to the films of the time you will realise just how much more gritty and realist this novel is.

LA, a Friday, about 1am. Edie and Alan are abed but neither of them is sleeping, he has a nagging tremor he can’t explain and she is suffering from a killer migraine. After twelve years of trying, Edie is pregnant, nine months pregnant, she is nervous and thinks that the headaches are psychosomatic, but Alan reassures her – everybody gets scared at a time like this. There’s no medicine in the house so Alan heads to a pharmacy on Hollywood Boulevard, a mile away. He tries to hurry the assistant along but the man just can’t help chatting, Alan is desperate to get back to his wife. On the way home he starts feeling a crushing pain in his chest, his arm goes numb, he stumbles into a car park in the darkness and sits down, as another attack comes. That’s when he sees it…

Abe, the Axe, Doto and Joe Ricca are sitting in a black Cadillac waiting for Slick Danchuk, the man they intend to kill because nobody rats out Joe Ricca. Slick is at Marsha Brown’s, he thinks the cops are the only ones who know he plans to turn state’s evidence on Ricca, who’ll go down for 10 years. As Slick leaves the brothel, he’s confronted by the two hoods. There’s a fight, Slick tries to run but Ricca slashes his throat.

An hour later a patrol car finds Alan wandering in the street, they think he’s another late night drunk babbling about a murder but when they investigate there’s enough blood at the scene to convince them it happened – the body and the Cadillac are gone. Alan can even give the police a number plate YSD8920 and it turns out the car belongs to Joe Ricca, gangster and one half of the management of the Kahn-Ricca combine.

Sergeant Ernie Turner has his own reasons for wanting to take down gangsters like Ricca, so he couldn’t be happier:

“I’m talking about the hardened criminal who has made crime a big business. The guys who take billions, and I mean billions, away from poor, innocent people every year…”

Lieutenant Sam Johnson, homicide, is in charge of the case, he’s amazed Alan Avery is so willing to be a witness. Nobody fully explains just how dangerous that is. The combine is under threat from the syndicate so the last thing they need is heat from the police but Joe Ricca isn’t prepared to let matters lie after the news headlines read:

“Teacher fingers gangsters.”

There are knives, bullets, and even bombs in The Hoods Take Over – it don’t end well for anyone. Edie tries to warn Alan but he won’t be dissuaded:

“…I just happen to think that we’re living in a civilized world. You’ve seen too many gangster movies.”

Wrong, nothing civilised is about to happen any time soon.

Apart from a white-knuckle ride of a story, Demaris is really good on character. The relationship between partners, from the marriage of Alan and Edie Avery to Kahn and Brice-Baker (the lawyer/fixer) and their girls, from the buddy cops to Ricca and his sidekick the Axe. There is a rare boldness in how far Demaris takes the story – this is raw meat served up bloody!

Superbly entertaining, a reminder of just how good hard-boiled fiction of the fifties was. If this don’t chill you, nothing short of real life will.

Ovide E. Desmarais was born in 1919, went to college in 1948 after the army and was a journalist before writing fiction (15 novels) and non-fiction. The Hoods Take Over was filmed as Gang War in 1958.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stark House Press 9781944520731 pbk Apr 2019