Authors: Jr. Charles Beckman,Jr.
Tags: #noir, #crime, #hardboiled, #mystery, #pulp fiction
Copyright Â© 1953, 2011 by Charles Beckman, Jr.
Introduction Copyright Â© 2011 by Gary Lovisi
Published by Wildside Press LLC
For my wife,
JAZZ MEETS MURDERâON
Honky-Tonk Street is a dark, lonely, and sordid edge of town where doom and despair reign supreme. It seems that every city has such a section, and in
by Charles Beckman, Jr., we have a stunning example of paperback noir fiction at its bestâand that means bleak and deadly. Beckman, a popular pulp author and well-known jazz musician, tells the tempestuous story of cool musician Johnny Nickles and his hot but ill-fated jazz band.
This book is not the usual crime novel with a music background. In fact, a cover blurb from the original rare Falcon digest paperback from 1953 says some rather tawdry things about the book, telling us, “It was the last stop for the scum of humanity on the road to hell!” Well, that's a heck of a noir mouthful and promises a heck of a lot, but it's not far from the truth for Johnny and his boys. This steamy novel tells of the rise and fall of Johnny Nickles and the members of his band as they play hot sets in seedy clubs among the whores, winos, and grifters who make up the denizens of Honky-Tonk Street. With all they have to put up with, they also deal with corrupt cops, and an evil politician, while mysterious deaths haunt members of the band. It's an explosive mix.
However, that's not all Beckman gives us, because what would any self-respecting noir be like without a femme fatale? Well, Charles Beckman gives us three admirable candidates. Three interesting women form the basis of many of the problems perplexing young Johnny. Johnny gets involved deeper with each of them while seeking the killer of his friend, popular band member and drummer, Miff Smith. These three gals were also involved in various ways with Miff, and each one of these women knows something about what happened to himâbut none are talking. The three gals include Raye, the unstable daughter of big shot political boss Sam Cowles; Jean, a lovely Honky-Tonk Street hooker with her own dark secrets; and Ruth, a young bobby-soxer jazz buff and dangerous jail-bait. Ruth actually saw the killing, but she has blotted out the traumatic image from her memory. She can not remember anything about the murder, nor help Johnny in his quest for the killer, even though he tries to reach her hidden mind for clues.
In the meantime, Johnny finds himself trapped in a deadly game with local power broker Sam Cowles, his corrupt lackey Sheriff Botello, and a deadly professional thug for hire, so danger swirls all around him. What's worse, there is the band's mysterious “
” which memorializes and recreates classic jazz songs by long-dead masters of the art. The only problem is, it appears a killer is stalking Johnny and the band, and the wonderful music on the
has now become a curse to Johnny and his band members with each note they hear.
Beckman mixes jazz and murder, then adds big city corruption as a chaser, as only a pulp crime author who is also a long-time jazz musician could do so. He does it admirably. The book is a haunting noir. We feel the world closing in on Johnny Nickles and can almost hear the moody jazz riffs and cool music background tightening around his neck. Beckman's text beats a worthy accompaniment to the harsh tempo of Johnny's downward spiral. In this novel jazz is not merely a background to the noir setting, it is a flesh-and-blood thing rich with texture that runs deep and true throughout the story. Beckman knows his stuff and struts it as masterfully as any jazzman playing a hot solo to a packed house.
, regardless of the sleazy title, the sexy and provocative cover art, or the cheap, digest-size paperback format of the original edition, is a classy, well-written novel. Generally unacknowledged until now, and totally underrated, the book in my opinion is a mini masterpiece of noir crime fiction.
This book, which was originally published in 1953, even presages certain aspects of plot and story used so effectively in films thirty years later. For instance, Johnny's tale of the stalking of his band, the murder of his band mates, even the haunting music of the secretly made
, readily bring to mind the 1983 film
Eddie and The Cruisers
(based on the 1980 novel by P. F. Kluge). In that film there are similar mysterious happenings with Eddie, and his rock band, The Cruisers. There are even missing tapes of their second album,
A Season in Hell
, the music of which still haunts the living band members decades after Eddie mysteriously disappeared in the early 1960s. I don't want to give too much away here, but a similar situation occurs in Beckman's novel. While Beckman's book is about the 1950s jazz scene, and the
film is about the 1960s rock-'n'-roll era, both are effective and fun; however, it was Beckman and his novel who were three decades ahead on this one.
, Beckman also throws in an interesting minor character in the tall, slim, impeccably-dressed and well-mannered homosexual sadist, Gene Hargiss-Jones. Jones does dirty jobs for political boss Cowles but he reminds me of a similar character in the Coen Brothers' 1990 noir crime film,
and that is the cold-hearted homosexual henchman
Eddie Dane, called The Dane. Both Jones and The Dane are scary guys, as well as closeted homosexual sadists. Once again Beckman intuitively picked up on a certain aspect of crime and gangsterism in his novel used effectively in a film almost forty years later.
Johnny Nickles in
is a decent sort of guy, but he and his jazzmen friends are still reeling from the murder of Miff Smith even as he tries to solve that murder in a case with more twists and turns than a Coney Island roller coaster. Beckman weaves a rich and deep tale in this slim novel. Readers today might find it quite amazing that an author can pack so many characters, so much action, and all that sharp-edged truth about the worlds of jazz, crime, and big-city corruption into such a small package. However, the crime authors of the pulp era never padded their stories, they never allowed excess exposition to get in the way of a hot, fast-moving tale. They knew their stuff and strutted it like the masters they were, and Charles Beckman in
has given us a fine mini-classic that has stood the test of time.
has always been an expensive, difficult-to-find digest-size paperback that has never been reprinted until this new Borgo Press / Wildside Press edition. The book is an enjoyable read that still holds up well fifty-eight years after it was originally written. How many other pulp paperback novels from 1953 can do that?
is a terrific book that should have a prominent place on every fan's “must-read” pile of classic noir crime. I know you'll enjoy it. Now go get
Brooklyn, New York
DRUMBEAT OF DEATH
Monday Night, 9:48 P.M.
Here, there was darkness of a grayish texture. It was undisturbed and hushed, except for the sound of the last shot which still lingered in the air like an unresolved chord.
The girl stood against the cold wall, brushing the loose plaster with the shoulder of her angora sweater. The light that tinged the blackness came from nowhere in particular. It seeped through the cracks of the ancient building like mist through lights outside in the night.
Sounds here, were magnified. The scurry of tiny rodent feet along the floor grew louder. Something soft and furry brushed the girl's instep and she shuddered. She pushed the enameled tips of her fingers into her darkish blonde hair at the temples and stared wide-eyed at nothing. Her left cheek throbbed. A nasty powder burn had seared the cheek bone. Her hair was singed on that side. Her left ear was deafened briefly, then filled with ringing.
After the third shot there was utter stillness. Somewhere, far down in the bowels of the building, a door slammed.
There remained the question of why she was still alive. Why there had been no pursuit. Unless murder was a kind of hysteria, building up to the climax of three shots which had released the pent up insanity, leaving only remorse and stunned shock in its wake.
She had to see about him down there. About Miff. You couldn't just stand here in the dark with the mice forever, for God's sake.
So she went back the way she'd come. Careful searching steps retraced the course they'd come up, stumbling and fleeing, minutes before. Through empty rooms, down musty stairways, through the dust and cobwebs of the ages. Down to where there was life...and perhaps death.
Here was the back door to his kitchen, still gaping at her as she'd left it. The faucet in the sink dripped undisturbed.
The light from his bedroom lamp spilled a circle of light on the threadbare carpet. The turntable in the record player was still spinning and the needle in the pickup arm retraced its course through the last grooves in the record...
“...see, here's an early one of Krupa's. It was on a session with Red Nichols. Pee Wee Russell played clarinet on this one and they had Jack Teagarden on trombone. Now get this opening and the rim shots in the third chorusâ”
Miff had said that. Then he'd turned as the door behind him opened. And he had said angrily, “Well, what the hell are you doing here?”
And the record had played on, but no one had listened. Krupa's drums and the pistol shots had blended. Only the final shot had been without accompaniment, after the record finished.
She gazed down at Miff, sprawled on his face. She was glad he was that way. Face down. She didn't want to have to see his face. The back of his head was all gone, shot away.
Her eyes looked like glass marbles. She tried to swallow and vomit came up in her throat, choking her.
She went to the door and stumbled down the stairs. She walked in stiff jerky strides, keeping her eyes straight ahead.
She said to herself, don't think. Don't think about anything.
She looked up surprised. The taxi had already brought her home. She walked up the steps, into her placeâthe place where there was no one.
Her fingers sought the hall light switch, then the telephone. She spun the dial.
How does one go about reporting a murder? Do you ask for somebody in particular, or do you just blurt it out, she wondered.
She was looking straight ahead into the darkness outside the area of light in the hallway. She was staring vacantly for a few moments when suddenly her eyes widened and then, in another instant, they grew cold and dead. She said, “Oh...!”
“Yes.” The man came out of the shadows of the living room. He said, “Put it down. Put it back in the cradle. That's rightâ”
The telephone made a small metallic click as she dropped it back in place. The sound was like the closing of a latch.
Wednesday Night, 11:00 P.M.
The girl stood beside the bed without moving. She looked like a soft white marble statue carved into the shadows. Except for a pair of black, open-toe ankle strap shoes, she was completely naked.
The shoes had very high heels and she balanced her weight on them. She stood in an attentive pose, her head slightly cocked to one side as if she were unconsciously listening for something.
The sounds of Honky-Tonk Street drifted up through an open window. They mingled with the sodden snoring of the man on the bed and the whimper of a woman crying in another room in a medley that made up, every night, the tone poem of Honky-Tonk Street.
The girl picked out the right sounds from the street below, the brassy harmonies of small jazz bands, the off-key singing of drunks, the splash of an automobile jogging into a water-filled hole in the pavement.
A shadowy smile played across her lips. He drew a breath and walked softly to the other side of the room, her slender white thighs brushing the bed in passing. Before a stacked and spotted mirror hanging over a dressing table, she posed and primped at her black hair with shiny red fingertips. A bar's neon sign across the street flashed on and off, casting a pale, eerie light into the room. In the intermittent light, her body took on a luminosity as if she had been bathed in pale green phosphorescent paint.
Her face was shiny with perspiration from her exertions of the past half-hour. Her lipstick had been smeared into a crooked red blotch.
The man on the bed grunted, coughed and shifted, making the bedsprings creak. Then his thick snoring took up its steady, uninterrupted rhythm.
The room smelled of sour beer and cigarette smoke and vomit. Other odors, of mustiness and age, peculiar to the rickety old frame hotel building, blended with it, like mud swirling along with the water at the bottom of a stream.
The woman wrinkled her nose. Her mouth twisted again into a strange, shadowy smile.
Her name was Jean.
At least, that was the name Honky-Tonk Street knew her by. She had never offered a last name and the Street wasn't curious. Last names weren't important in this district. A man seldom asked the last name of a streetwalker he picked up.
That was what Jean was, a streetwalker from Honky-Tonk Street.
She had been around for a month or longer. No one knew where she'd come from. No one bothered to ask. One night she had walked into a bar and ordered a drink. She sat there a while, just twiddling the stem of her glass. Then a lone man had come in and she'd smiled at him. Presently he joined her, and after a few drinks, they had walked out together into the night. It was not an occurrence to arouse much interest along Skid Row.
Honky-Tonk Street accepted her into its heterogeneous population of bartenders, peddlers, broken-down musicians, bums, philosophers, cynics, prostitutes and shopkeepers.
She'd become a familiar sight around the bars and down on the beach. She'd come out of nowhere and she'd be around for a while, and then she'd suddenly disappear. That was the way of these girls.
Now she walked back to the bed. In the tangle of sheets, she found the man's trousers. She felt in the pockets, took out his billfold. In a flash of light from the neon sign, she searched through the bills, but found nothing smaller than a twenty. She frowned, then removed that and walked to the bureau. In her own purse, a square red patent leather bag with a long strap, she found two five's. She placed the twenty in her coin purse, took the two five's back and stuffed them into the man's wallet, then tossed it on the bed. As an afterthought, she fumbled around for his cigarettes, put one in her lipstick-smeared mouth and struck a match. Its glow, cupped in her hands, fell over a heart-shaped face. She had thick blue-black hair that fell to her shoulders. It was tangled now.
She picked up her purse and went into the bathroom and turned the light on. Carefully, she laid the cigarette on the edge of the lavatory. The porcelain lavatory had been chipped in countless places and each shipped spot had been painted over with yellow enamel. The faucet dripped steadily into a rust-colored ring at the bottom of the basin.
She washed her face. Unable to find a towel, she blotted up the moisture with toilet paper. Then she repaired her lipstick, smearing on the dark red rouge generously. She touched up the mascara on her eyelashes and combed the tangles out of her hair.
Then she went back inside, leaving the bathroom door open, so that a triangle shaped beam of light spilled out across the worn carpet. She found her underwear and black satin dress. She was about to put them on when a sudden aching dizzy spell caused the room to swim, and made her sit down hard, on the floor.
She pressed her palms hard against her cheekbones, her fingertips digging into her black hair. Wide-eyed, she stared into the darkness. A tiny whimpering sound of fright came from her throat.
“God!” she whispered suddenly.
Everything she thought was chaos, a jumble of broken, ill-fitting pieces that fluttered in the wind like autumn leaves. When she grabbed for a clear thought to hang on to, it wafted tantalizingly just out of her grasp.
Death was one thing she could remember. That came through the chaos. A dead man, lying across a bed, staring up at her with his horrible glazed eyes and his mouth all open and crooked. Staring at her as if he were trying to hypnotize her.
Shakily, she rolled over to her hands and knees and crawled across the carpet to the bed where she pulled herself up. The cigarette was still hanging from a corner of her mouth, forgotten. She leaned over the foot of the bed. The greenish sign flashed on. It cast its light over the body of the man sprawled in the tangled bedclothes. She could not make out his features clearly. But she could see his bloated, sodden face, his mouth sagging open, a thin line of saliva trickling from it.
And suddenly, she began to whimper louder and to shake. An unreasoning panic gripped her. The cigarette fell from her mouth, splashing burning sparks over her bare, quivering breasts. But she was unconscious of any pain.
“Get outta here,” she whispered with a croaking sound. “Hell, I gotta get out of here!” It was like a nightmare. Her legs refused to move. Her fingers were numb, clumsy. Somehow, she managed to pull the satin dress over her head. Then she grabbed up her purse and ran out of the room, leaving her underwear as she'd dropped it.
She hurried down the steps, tripping from one to the other, hooking her high heels on the edges of the stairs. Then at last she was outside. The night breeze was cool against the perspiration on her face. She walked in fast half-running steps, her heels tapping and scraping on the walk. Crossing an alley, she stepped into a puddle of muddy water, but kept on going without a pause. Her red patent leather purse swung by its strap from her wrist. The black satin dress swished against her naked body.
She kept walking until she was down at the beach. She passed the amusement park with its whirling Ferris wheel, brightly lit midway, tooting calliope. Farther on, it was darker. She went down to where the surf of the Pacific washed up softly on the hard-packed sandy shore. Finding a sand dune, she sat behind it and leaned back with her eyes closed until some of the trembling stopped.
Then she lit a cigarette. She sat that way a long while. Then she heard a footstep crunching the wet sand somewhere in the darkness.