Sunday, 12 June 2011

W Howard Baker - Espresso Jungle - Sexton Blake Library

W Howard Baker - Espresso Jungle - Series 4, Number 435 -  Sept 1959

Cover art by Marc Stone and `Symeoni`, internal text decorations by Margaret Higgins

While I do enjoy some of W Howard Baker`s work, I have to admit that I bought this one purely because I like the cover. Sadly, as the Rolling Stones once sang, "you can`t judge a book by looking at the cover."

The story begins as a gangster drives through the streets of the West End, seeking out the group of low-level hoodlums he uses to enforce a lucrative protection racket.

He finds them in a coffe bar, very trendy at the time and appropriately peopled by bright young things (and not-so-bright young things) out enjoying London`s night life. It`s here that alarm bells start to ring, as the description of the scene is both unconvincing and badly-written, not to mention borderline racist at one point. I gather that Mr B was a man of rather extreme views, apparently in the habit of accusing his assistant Michael Moorcock of being a Communist simply because he was a member of an anti-racist group !

The gangster in question is known only as The Big Man. Not too unlikely perhaps ( a real-life gangster active in Nottingham`s Chinese community  in the `80s really was known by that nickname ), but his henchman go by an array of nicknames, some quite ludicrous - Fatso, Smiler, The Monster, Chi-Ann and (spot the odd one out) Marty. Later, for good measure, they are re-inforced by Spider and Pig-Brother. Collectively, they are known as The Mob.

The sense that the author knows nothing about the world he is describing is re-inforced throughout the story. We are repeatedly told that these lads are the product of the `Beat Generation`, but their taste in music runs to, among other things, Louis Armstrong and a version of Stupid Cupid, a song written by Neil Sedaka, for God`s sake ! I like a bit of Louis myself, and Stupid Cupid`s a good song, but I`m pretty sure neither was typical Beat Generation fare. Later in the book, the author appears not to know the difference between Beatniks (a rather studious strand of youth culture, keen on modern jazz and poetry) and the young louts in The Mob, who are described as largely sharp dressers, fond of leather jackets, and who show no interest in tenor saxophones or blank verse at any point.

The Mob are instructed by The Big Man to attack a woman and her escort as they leave the night club she owns in the early hours. Ostensibly, the reason is that she has refused to pay protection money, but we later learn that she has also rejected his amorous advances (quite emphatically, by hitting him over the head with a bottle !). In fact, the attackers pick on her daughter, who is in the company of none other than Sexton Blake, seeing her home safely at her mother`s request. Acid is thrown in the girl`s face, leaving her scarred and in danger of blindness, and leaving Blake with the feeling that he has let them both down.

After a few American-style heroics as Blake rebuffs Police advice that he should not "go it alone" on this one, the story actually begins to take shape quite well. For once we see Blake uneasy and agitated, driven by a sense of failure. A scene where he talks to the girl`s mother is quite affecting within the admittedly narrow limitations of the genre, and certainly new territory for Blake. At last, literally half-way through, the author seems to take the matter in hand, and we get something a bit more like a Blake story. Certainly the closing scenes are among the best to appear in any SBL story, and we have the return of the tough-but-intelligent-and-compassionate Blake we all know, as in this exchange when his motives are questioned by his  old friend Superintendent Grimwald ;

"You still want to be in for the kill - isn`t that it ?"

"There`s not going to be any kill - that`s how I want it."

Does he get his wish ? You`ll have to read it to find out.

One great bonus here is that the story did not quite reach the required 64 pages, so they are supplemented by a short story from the aptly-named Jack Trevor Story, The Penny Murder, which is excellent.

As a quick footnate, a quick glance at the Blakiana web site tells me that this was the first SBL to give the publisher`s name as  Fleetway rather than Amalgamated, and also that story was later recycled by Baker to form one of his Jonathan Quintain books.  

1 comment:

  1. I was interested in your mixed reception of "Espresso Jungle", having recently read several Blakes with a pop theme and talked about them to a meeting of London Old Boys' Book Club.
    Yes, thriller writers can be ignorant as to other aspects of popular culture! But I don't think you are fair to W.H.B., a great hero of mine. Yes, I think he uses 'beatniks' once when he probably should be saying 'teddy boys'. But at the time the likes of Jeremy Thorpe (!) were still saying 'jazz' meaning pop. The Louis Armstrong number and Stupid Cupid (I think Baker misquotes the chorus) were both playing in the background, not selected by the gang. And the story - as you admit - becomes Baker at his best. Hard and exciting. Blake here is essentially Baker's character, moving away from the pipe-smoking pre-New Order protagonist. Moving towards being Richard Quintain, in fact, whose case this subsequently became. Good stuff from WHB.
    Best wishes, good reading - Roger Sansom