Written by Harlan Ellison — Hard Case Crime is back on the re-issue beat, this time with Ellison’s debut, written whilst he finished his Army training and first published in 1958. To add value, the publisher has given the book another great cover by Glen Orbik, persuaded the author to write a new introduction, and collected three related short stories.
The city is New York, and it’s not an easy life for a teenage hoodlum trying to go straight. Rusty Santoro used to be Prez of The Cougars and life was great. He could have any girl he wanted from the Cougie Cats, he could get high – sky high, man – smoking dope from his buddy Boy-O, all the neighbourhood feared him, and there was always the possibility of a rumble with rivals The Cherokees. But one too many scrapes with the law means he’s on probation now, a ward of Mr Pancoast, his metalwork teacher, and that’s some rough bananas. The man is always on his back.
Then there’s Candle, new Prez of The Cougars, with something to prove to the troops. No-one walks away from the gang; death or prison are the only ways out. He’s calling Rusty out for a knife fight. Rusty doesn’t want to have to do it but the neighbourhood is starting to call Rusty a chickee-chick, and that’s just even worse.
Back at home his father is never around, just a drunk bum who Rusty sometimes sees passed out in alleyways. His mother is overbearing, smothering Rusty with her religion and concern. He’s always got on well with his sister Dolores, but she’s joined The Cougie Cats, partly out of hero worship for her big brother, and he feels a responsibility for her. But how can he get her out of The Cats when she won’t talk to him? It’s got to be hard on a girl when her big brother turns chickee.
Ellison spends a few chapters setting the scene, making it clear how much easier life would be for Rusty if he didn’t turn his back on the streets. The narrative really begins to move forward after Dolores is raped and murdered in the aftermath of a Cherokee rumble. Rusty has to turn investigator so he can avenge her murder, but to do so he’s going to have to go into Cherokee turf and that’s risky. Soon, he is caught up in New York’s drug peddling business looking for a killer.
The actual crime story here is rather slight and it feels to me as if the author was more interested in writing about how kids get into these gangs and how hard it is for them to get out again – the same subject that George Pelecanos and crime writers like him are writing about more than 50 years later. There is a real empathy in his writing; all of the main characters feel three dimensional and I was drawn into their struggle.
At the same time, there is no escaping that the book is very dated. The author clearly expected Web of the City to be shocking for the reader, but of course now they seem fairly tame. The slang is so out of date as to be amusing. Rough bananas, indeed! Whether these things detract from the read is very subjective. I found them to be a refreshing change.
Never the less the crime fiction angle here is slight. The enjoyment I got from this book was as a document of 1950s society and watching the first steps of a writer who would go on to be a master within his own fields – those of science fiction and dark fantasy. In his introduction, Ellison asks us not to be too hard on the punk kid who wrote this book. I hope I haven’t been.
For more classic crime fiction, click here.
Hard Case Crime / Titan Books
CFL Rating: 3 Stars