BABY MOLL by John Farris
Hard Case Crime’s latest pulp offering comes from 1958, and from a writer who’d published the book under the pseudonym, Steve Brackeen. Today, however, John Farris is known more for his novels of unrelenting suspense and horror offerings. The book is dressed up in lethally sexy new cover by Robert McGinnis, the absolute master of paperback covers in the 1960s and 1970s (in my opinion). The cover caught my eye first and I knew it was a Hard Case Crime novel.
Most of those reprints are incredibly short by today’s novel standards, and this one is no different. The book begins fairly quickly, showing our hero – Peter Mallory – in his present life with no indication of his violent past. Except for the back cover copy on the book, of course. He’s quickly approached and strong-armed into working for his old boss/mentor, Macy Barr (and yep, the names sound like they come straight from old Perry Mason reruns).
Farris’s tale is simple and straight-forward, though he does throw in the odd curveball or two, like having Macy taking care of an adoptive daughter. But the first-person narrative drives from Point A to Point B without pause or distraction.
Macy’s group was involved with a heist that went sour and ended up killing a family. They died in the fire that resulted in the aftermath. And now the butcher’s bill has come due. Someone is methodically tracking down the men responsible for that heist, and they’re saving Macy Barr for dessert. Macy’s got a houseful of people, none of whom he particularly trusts, and the few he does trust aren’t smart enough to figure out how to stop the unknown killer.
Mallory hits the bricks like a traditional gumshoe and tries to figure out who is behind the murders. He applies pressure indirectly and directly, never trusting anyone – including Macy – more than he needs to.
I really like the tough guy first person narrative. Farris does a really good job with it. Likewise, his pacing is first-rate. He uncovers the plot and the backgrounds of the characters at a controlled rate, giving the readers snippets of information that don’t distract from the headlong plunge through the story.
But a lot of the rest of the story just feels too familiar. This is all old ground and any dedicated reader of pulp and noir is going to figure this one out long before he gets to the end. Still, at a little over 200 pages, Baby Moll is a fun romp through the 1950s crime scene. There’s even a bit about Elvis Presley on the radio, even though the singer isn’t mentioned by name.
Fans of the hardboiled pulp era are going to enjoy this one more from nostalgia than from anything new offered. And readers that haven’t sampled the wares from Hard Case Crime are encouraged to pick this one up. This is the popular culture I was raised on, and I love the chance to go back and relive parts of it.