Friday, August 11, 2017

FFB: Potent Stuff -- Al James (Albert James Hjertstedt)

Al James, the son of Day Keene, wrote mostly for the low-end paperback houses, like Midwood and Novel Books.  His father's talent eclipsed his, but that doesn't mean he didn't sell a lot of books.  And when Bill Pronzini mentioned that Potent Stuff  "was particularly reminiscent of his father's crime fiction," I knew I had to read it, even thought Bill added that it's "not nearly as good" as Keene's work.

He's right on both counts.  The plot is one that Keene would certainly have used and probably did.  The writing isn't in Keene's league, though, and there are some things that happen in the story that I was never clear about. 

About the plot: It's classic.  Fred Macon wakes up in his apartment feeling like he has the world's worst hangover, even though he doesn't drink.  He has no memory of the previous six hours of his life, and his fiancée has been shot to death in the next room.  After that, the book becomes a man-on-the-run story, and I have to admit that James really puts Macon through the wringer.  I'm not sure I've ever read a book in which the protagonist has so many close calls and escapes.  There's an interesting section in which Macon goes to a town full of migrant workers, and some of the comments might even be relevant today.  Unfortunately there's an unpleasant thread of misogyny running through the story, and when everything is supposedly tied together, it doesn't really make a lot of sense.

This isn't the kind of book I can really recommend for any reason other than it's a fine study in what used to sell paperbacks.  It's an interesting historical artifact.  If that kind of thing appeals to you (as it does to me), the book's worth a look.

Amusing aside: This is book full of potent stuff for manly men, as the title and cover copy (front and back) tell you.  But in this virile environment, the protagonist can't say "Piss on the cops" or anything else.  He says, "Water on the cops."  This happens often, and I laughed a lot.

.

7 comments:

Deb said...

What the hell is that on her head?

George said...

I think Art Scott has a copy of this book.

Todd Mason said...

Looks like a wig and then a title to me, Deb. Am I not seeing something?

Then again, perhaps it's "water"...

Never have looked hard enough into Al James to learn about that filial connection. Wow. Well, at least he didn't ride on his father's career for his own, as some writers have...

Stephen Mertz said...

Bill, this reminds me of one of my earliest pieces published: a collaboration with you discussing (trumpeting?)Novel Books and its sister imprint, Merit Books, from the unforgettable Camerarts Publishing Co. of Chicago, Il, published of, and I quote, "high quality books, written by knowledgeable, mature, professional writers." Inspired low grade sleaze, though I have to admit to dipping in regularly to the work of Ennis Willie, their star author and one of the top hardboiled writers of his (or any) era.

Bill Pronzini said...

I chuckled at those "water on" lines, too. I'll bet they were editorial changes and that Al James wasn't amused.

As I'm sure you know, quite a bit of low-end crime fiction was published by Novel Books and their sister imprint, Merit Books, in the early 60s, including a bestselling (for them) series by Jack Lynn (Max Vanderveer) about pint-sized PI Tokey Wedge and some pretty good Spillane-type noir by Ennis Willie.

Bill Crider said...

Steve and Bill: I have a stack of Novel Books, and I've read several by Ennis Willie, whose work I enjoy. I've also read a couple of the Tokey Wedge books, which are fun if I'm in the right mood.

Stephen Mertz said...

And then there's "Dammit, Don't Touch My Broad!" Never read it and can't remember the author (Big Bob Tralins?) but that sure is a hot title.