Stark House, besides purveying modern noir fiction, is also in the business of bringing to the fore vintage noir that maybe you haven’t had the chance to read. Sure, you’ve read Hammett, Spillane and Chandler, et. al., but have you read, say, Wade Miller? It’s appropriate for this review of a two-fer that this author was a two-fer. By which I mean Wade Miller was actually Bob Wade and Bill Miller, a crime-writing - as opposed to crime-fighting - dynamic duo that turned out a bevy of respected noir fic, including the novel basis for Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” starring Welles and Charlton Heston (the latter cast, inexplicably, as a Mexican?!?!). I’m not reviewing that novel here, but I thought you might like to know. Even if you’ve not heard of Miller, he - make that they - nevertheless have a claim to fame. Miller’s tales have a way of ending up miles away - sometimes literally, sometimes otherwise - from where they started. KITTEN WITH A WHIP spends most of its page count laying out a taut thriller that could be presented as a one-set play. Then it veers, and not just as a matter of distance. Surprises abound behind the door, so maybe be careful answering it. And some surprises let themselves in … As for KISS HER GOODBYE, the reader spends much of the perilous page count, short but snappy, as with most good noir, keeping one wondering if the main characters will bail on their smalltown hideaway or dig in for the long haul. Can it end well either way? Noir stories typically don’t end well and while I will say the dark denouements of these two novels won’t startle any genre fans with their downbeat endings, they might just surprise readers with something else. While this pair of books represents two tunnels to darkness, each - in its own pyrrhic way - has a light at the end of the tunnel. In addition, the protagonists of each book, while morally flawed in the tenebrous old tradition of the noir, possess a skewed sense of nobility, each in his own way. Both books deal with a classic noir theme, too, the downfall of a man by way of the wiles of womanhood. But the downfall-inducing women in these two tales are miles away from each other.
KITTEN WITH A WHIP opens with David awaking in his nice house. It’s the weekend. The wife is away. What could be better? Some men would be happy to find out their home had been invaded by a voluptuous bit of jailbait. Not, David, though. He’s hooked on his suburban stability - the house, the family, all that. There’s even a weird sense of loyalty to wife and child within that paradigm. The titular kitten’s hold over David is one of sex, but not in the way one might imagine. She doesn’t control David through his libido, but rather through the assumptions others might arrive at if they knew about his impromptu houseguest. It’s a fear that strikes at the heart of his dream, a dream so tangible it’s already got pricey wall-to-wall carpet and a lovely child and a high end job. Yet this kitten, Jody, threatens to bring it all down. Yes, kitty can scratch. She’s escaped from a juvie facility and promptly takes David hostage in his own house. What follows is an uncomfortable game of cat and mouse between a girl who flaunts her sexuality while vacillating between sweetness and viciousness, and a man horrified by the sweeping away of his cherished normnality. Much of the first two thirds of the book is spent with just these two mismatched people, with minor interference from side characters. The tipping point comes when Jody ratchets up her control of David through means that wrest control from all involved, leaving them at the whim of dark destiny, chance and the ill-fated desires of humanity.
KISS HER GOODBYE involves Ed and a lovely lady known as Emily. They stick together and, as this book gets rolling, they grab up a cabin in a small town motel. The reader knows they are on the run. That we learn early on. But from what? Emily is at the center of it. While she may be sexually desirable, her mind is that of a girl. Add to it a heart condition and you’ve got a delicate lady. Or maybe not so much. The reason for running has everything to do with Emily, plus Ed’s well-meaning but ill-advised over-protectiveness. She has blackouts. Sometimes bad things happen. But what kind of bad things? But those things don’t matter. Life is looking good. Ed settles right in, makes friends with the motel manager and lands a good job. Ironically, it is as much his own actions that bring about the inevitable undoing as it is Emily. His aggressive fending off of anybody he remotely construes as being a would-be suitor threatens to bring down the encroachment on his and Emily’s private life. He means the best for her but goes about it the wrong way. Not only does he threaten to alienate the people around him, some of whom might just retaliate by trying even harder to know Emily, Ed’s behavior is slowly but surely pushing his own sister away. Kept constantly cloistered by Ed’s paranoia, Emily is more and more inclined to act out, to seek freedom, a life outside the narrow confines of her new motel home and her relationship with the protective but controlling Ed. As with KITTEN, there is more than a little philosophical underpinning here, though it’s more blatant in KISS. KITTEN’s subtle existentialism gives way to out and out ruminations as voiced by a pair of characters in KISS. Of course, the best noir pulses with grim musings, implied or otherwise.
Both of these tales reveal the Wade Miller team’s brilliant knack for characters. They created flesh and blood figures with real thoughts and real personalities and real struggles with motivation and circumstances outside their control (not to mention the failure to control what could have been controlled). It is the tension between these characters that really drives these books. Not to dis the plot because I’m not. But the sly plottings of this masterful creative team hinge fully upon the meaty characters with which they populate their tales. The prose is deceptively swift, the books deceptively short. The page count may be under 300 for both of these books combined, and the words may fly like a freight train across the page, but there is tremendous substance here.
And top shelf hard-boiled storytelling.
trade paperback, 278 pp.