Thursday, May 09, 2024

26. A Ticket to Hell by Harry Whittington

Ah, that's more like it.  After slogging through the muddled and over-stuffed Blue Moon, I needed a well-written palate cleanser and who better to turn to than paperback pro Harry Wittington. This book starts out moving forward, lean and focused with a trunkful of intrigue.  A guy (whose name we later learn is Ric Durazo) is driving a porsche fast across a desert state. He's picked up a young punk hitchhiker and he knows the punk is going to try and roll him.  In the first few pages, you that he is bitter, that he is tough and that he has some kind of mission in the small town of Los Solanos, New Mexico.

For some reason, he is supposed to check into a specific motel and lay low there, awaiting a call.  Of course, right away there is trouble. The hotel owner's wife has "her pants on fire" (I love this phrase) and immediately becomes resentful and nosy when Ric rejects her advances.  Worse, while waiting in his room and looking through the blinds, he sees the dude in the cabin next door sneak out, turn off the gas line (which will kill the pilot light to the heater) and then turn it back on again, seemingly attempting to murder his wife asleep inside.  And thus the moral choice is thrust upon him, either don't get involved and wait for the phone call (whose provenance is not yet explained but is clearly of the ultimate importance to Ric) or go out and save the girl.

Ric, of course, does get involved and shit gets complicated.  As it turns out, Ric's back story and his reason for being out there is the main narrative and more interesting.  Whittington does an expert job of both putting Ric in an impossible position and slowly teasing out what he is doing out there.  We get a long chase in the desert mountains, some intense romance (hinging on Ric providing the woman with her first real orgasm, which is either a bit much or quite fun or both) and a cool shoot-out.  It's an intense, readable little thriller, though ultimately falls on the heroic rather than noir side (which I appreciated, being a big softie).

I picked up this Black Lizard edition for a buck at the Oakland Museum White Elephant sale.  I actually have a very minor indirect history with Black Lizard books. I worked during my college years at a book distribution warehouse for a minor empire of used books and remainders and they had an excellent collection of Black Lizards.  The story goes that Barry Gifford himself delivered them and was a total asshole to the point that he was throwing boxes of books from the back of the truck onto the guys from the warehouse trying to unload them.  It never was explained what he was so mad about, but I'll forgive him as Black Lizard books was crucial to reviving the careers and reputations of several great crime authors and The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films is one of my all-time favourite books.

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