Clayton Biner is a would-be artist in his late 30s slumming it on the Mediterranean Riviera until one day he attempts to cash a cheque (or check as they say in the US) and discovers that the passport he presents to confirm his identity is not his own. This draws him into the first of his adventures in this book, and one that ends violently when he manages to rescue a heroin addict and extricate himself from a nightmarish scenario. As if this is not enough (we are only fifty pages in when this storyline is apparently resolved), the almost penniless Biner is subsequently persuaded to traffic a large quantity of heroin into the US. When his attempt to sell the heroin to his contact ends simialrly violently, Biner finds himself on the run from the Syndicate and has to forge a risky alliance with a female junkie as he attempts to make a score that will set him up for life.
Biner is an often amoral and generally dislikable anti-hero who narrates the tale in flashback with a jaundiced and cynical air. His contempt for humanity is, of course, a shield to attempt to protect himself from his own self-loathing, so that what emerges occasionally echoes Jim Thompson in its 'plague on all your houses' pitilessness and fatalistic narrative arc. The action is swift and the tale barrels along in clipped sentences, occasionally segueing into a stream of consciousness as we gradually discover what has transpired. The occasional burst of violence are also often graphic, seemingly foreshadowing the levels of realism that were soon to enter the cinematic mainstream (the book was written in 1963). And there's also atmosphere aplenty, from the seamier side of the Riviera settings in the opening section when various lost and jaded characters wash up to the seedy and sweaty desperate urban mileu of drinking dens and apartments inhabited by similar lost souls often hooked on narcotics that accelerate their spiral into despair.
Ed Lacy was a prolific author who had around thirty novels of mostly crime fiction published over a period of eighteen years before dying from a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1968. Born Leonard S. Zinberg, he is most often noted as the white creator of what is probably the first realistic and believable African-American private detective series character in Room To Swing (1957). As I own a copy of every novel he wrote, I really should have read more of them and aim to put that right very soon. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended to fans of pacy hardboiled crime fiction.
VERDICT: A real shot in the arm!