Friday, October 26, 2018

Forgotten Books: THIRD ON A SEESAW by Neil MacNeil (W.T. Ballard) (1959)

I just about always like the second book better than the first, so I wasn't surprised to like this better than Tony Costaine and Bert McCall's first adventure, Death Takes an Option (reviewed HERE). But I was very suprised to find my all-time favorite book lurking within this one. Yep, I'm talking about Hammett's Red Harvest - the obvious inspiration for the plot. 

As in that best book ever, our heroes find themselves in a dirty mill town (Reeseville instead of Poisonville), ruled until recently with a dirty hand by the crust old mill owner. Now he's losing his grip, and the gangsters and dirty cops he brought in to be his iron hand are now trying to push him out. 

And that's not the only Red Harvest connection. This series, as you probably know, was written by Black Mask writer W.T. Ballard. Well, his characters Tony Costaine and Bert McCall were very likely inspired by the work of Ballard's friend Cleve F. Adams. Like Adams's number one detective, Rex McBride, Costaine and McCall eschew petty anty gumshoe stuff and work only in the business arena. Like McBride, Costaine has an explosive temper and often described as looking like an Indian. Though McBride had no partner, he invariably picked up a temporary flunky (such as a cab driver) to do menial jobs for him, while drinking vast quantities of his liquor and leching after his women. And thtat's where McCall comes in. Though technically Costaine's partner, McCall is really little more than a flunky, providing comic relief and occassional muscle. So what's all this have to do with Red Harvest? Well, the first Rex McBride book, Sabotage, was modeled on that best book ever, as was at least one of his later adventures. 

There's another Hammett connection, too. Like Sam Spade in Chapter One of The Maltese Falcon, Tony Costaine is described as having vee-shaped features and looking like Satan. 

OK, enough with the Hammett and Adams parallels, because even without them, this is damn fine read. Ballard makes the most of McCall's comic role. He leches after every woman he meets, the moment she walks in the room, and never apologizes for it. He gets a lot of them, too, and the only reason there are any left over for Costaine is that McCall prefers the "bitches," while Costaine goes for the "good" girls. He's always drinking, and can cosume amazing quantities without getting drunk. At one point, when he wants a drink a guy pulls an unopened pint out of his pocket. "You call that a drink?" McCall complains, and drains it in a single swallow. And strength? He doens't have to bust down dooors - he just grabs the the handle and pulls them off their hinges. When a car annoys him he picks it up and flips it off a cliff. 

Ballard's prose is entertaining from the first line to the last, and I'm looking forward to book three, 2 Guns for Hire. It's mighty sad that this series has never been reprinted. Sounds like a job for Stark House Press. Are you listening, Greg Shepard? 


Stephen Mertz said...

Great review. WT Ballard certainly had a durable career! And the Adams connections are interesting, especially in light of Ballard and his sometime collaborator Robert Leslie Bellem helping to resurrect and get published several Cleve F. Adams novels as a favor to Mrs. Adams after Cleve passed away. Ballard was certainly thinking of those guys when he concocted this one.

Barry Ergang said...

Loved this series!