Friday, March 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: Pushover - Orrie Hitt

With all the Orrie Hitt material I’ve posted on this blog recently (and there’s more in the works, I promise you), it’s about time I got around to reading one of his books. PUSHOVER is the story of Danny Fulton, a small-time con man who, along with a couple of partners, specializes in a scam involving community histories and the Federal Writers Project of the WPA (the first time I’ve encountered that particular angle in a novel about grifters). Most of this yarn centers around Danny, who narrates the novel, putting his usual scheme into action in a small city in upstate New York.

Now, PUSHOVER is not without its flaws. There’s not much action, and in fact, not a lot happens in the entire book. The big twist near the end is pretty obvious early on, and the ending itself seems a little forced and doesn’t ring completely true to me.

So, why am I featuring it as a Forgotten Book and recommending that you read it if you come across a copy? Because Hitt does a remarkable job of capturing the grubby desperation of these people, especially Danny and his two partners, one a young, beautiful blonde who’s separated from her husband, the other an advance man and salesman who misses his wife and family. All of them seem to be teetering on an emotional brink, and so do most of the people they encounter.

But Danny himself is the centerpiece of the book, and he’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve run across in a while. He’s so determined that he’s a heel who cares only about money that even when he does something nice for somebody, which is surprisingly often, he has to rationalize it to himself by coming up with some rotten motive. Then, when he does decide to give up his career as a con man, settle down, and get married, you just know that it’s not going to work out for him. I don’t know if Hitt or his editor at Beacon Books titled this book PUSHOVER, but it’s an ironically apt title. The cover copy makes you think that it’s all the women in Danny’s life who are the pushovers, but the description actually fits him even better.

Of course, as with all the sleaze novels of that era, the cover copy also makes you think this book is a lot spicier than it really is. There’s actually very little sex in it, and most of what there is falls into the “sin, suffer, repent” pattern that’s also common to the genre. There are also quite a few nice lines, some funny, some poignant. Since this is the first novel I’ve read by Orrie Hitt, I can’t speak for the entire body of his work. Sure, he wrote a lot of books for not much money ($250 to $500 was the usual advance . . . which is really not that bad for that time period), but PUSHOVER, at least, is not the work of a hack. Hitt gives his characters enough depth to make them memorable and does so in prose that’s fast-paced and very readable, despite a few unpolished moments. I’ll be reading more of his novels soon.

Now for the other thing that intrigues me about this book: the cover art. It’s nothing special, really, okay but not spectacular, but as soon as I laid eyes on it, I said to myself, “I’ve seen this cover before, but on another book. And the guy had an eyepatch!” That nagged at me ever since the book arrived in the mail. I had a feeling that I had owned a book with the same art, and that it was on one of those early Fifties digest-sized novels published by Star Guidance, Croydon, Original Novels, etc. Long-time paperback collectors know the sort of thing I’m talking about. So a few nights ago, I sat down and started searching for those publishers on ABE and checking out the listings that included cover scans. I never found the one I was looking for, but that jogged my memory enough so that I remembered Uni Books, another digest line that happened to be published by Universal Publishing and Distributing, the same outfit that later published Beacon Books. Then a name popped into my head: Steve Harragan. I seemed to recall that was the name of the author (well, the pseudonym, anyway) as well as the main character. I searched for Harragan’s name, and up popped Uni Books #44, SIN IS A REDHEAD. “That’s it!” I said. I never read it, but I remembered having that book, and I was almost sure it had the same cover art as PUSHOVER, only the guy had an eyepatch.

Well, I mentioned this to my friend Frank Loose, and wouldn’t you know it, he has a copy of SIN IS A REDHEAD and sent me a cover scan. As you can see, it’s the same painting, only the eyepatch is there in the earlier version, just as I thought, and there are a few other modifications in the paperback version, such as the keyhole motif. The artist is George Geygan, a prolific painter of paperback covers. Steve Harragan, by the way, was really a British author named William Macconnachie, or something like that, a little Internet research reveals, and SIN IS A REDHEAD was originally one of those Mushroom Jungle books.

Sounds like another good candidate for a Forgotten Books post, doesn’t it?

(And if you don’t know what I mean when I use the term Mushroom Jungle, you really need to check out this book by Steve Holland and this web page by John Fraser, which is part of a fascinating and much larger site.)




23 comments:

David Cranmer said...

I'm finishing a story for the next issue of OOTG (sexploitation theme) and could certainly have used Mr. Hitt's touch... I will click over and check out John Fraser's site.

Juri said...

Great post, James!

How much would $500 be now? Would you write a book for that?

Livia said...

Juri, my dad bought 4 acres in 1952 for $500 and it's worth at least $100,000 now, so value varies.
Gas in 1957 was 24 cents and a stamp was 3 cents. The average cost of a new car in 1957 was $2,100. The average household income was around $5000. In 2007, the median annual household income was $50,233.00. Things that are still bought and sold today are about 10 times more expensive than they were fifty years ago. Writing a book a month would have given him a better than average income.

James Reasoner said...

And a lot of times Hitt was writing close to two books a month (he had 21 original novels published in 1961, along with a number of reprints), plus he got royalties on some of the books. I suspect that during his most productive years, the late Fifties and early Sixties, he was probably making ten to fifteen thousand a year, which would have been very nice money in those days. Assuming, of course, that the publishers actually paid him what they were supposed to.

I probably wouldn't write a book for $500 in today's money, unless it was the only contract I could get. But I certainly would for that much in 1959 money.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice review and I'm persuaded to try to find one.

Cullen Gallagher said...

You're right about that plot's peculiarity.

All these posts have made me slightly more than curious about the guy. Where should I start!!!

James Reasoner said...

Cullen,

Having read only the one book, I don't know. Hitt wrote several different types of books. Next up for me is HOT CARGO, which concerns gun-running to Cuba. I've heard from two different sources that it's not one of Hitt's better books, but I like action-adventure stuff, so I may feel differently about it.

P.M. said...

Thanks for another interesting post on Hitt. On the basis of some of your previous entries I grabbed a copy of "As Bad as They Come". Don't know if that was a good place to start. Hitt was prolific. Like Cullen, I would appreciate some recommendations.

Juri said...

Thanks for further comments, James and Livia.

I got to thinking about one aspect in the book. You write:

Danny Fulton, a small-time con man who, along with a couple of partners, specializes in a scam involving community histories and the Federal Writers Project of the WPA..

Now, some of the writers in the Federal Writers Project were close to Communists, like the young Jim Thompson (and Louis L'Amour, which doesn't get discussed much). Does Hitt deal with that aspect at all? What's his view of the whole Federal Writers thing? I remember someone saying in a comment to an earlier post that Hitt resembled Ayn Rand, so he may have not liked anything federal, but is that the case here?

James Reasoner said...

Juri,

No, Hitt doesn't go into that aspect at all in this book. The Federal Writers Project is just a plot gimmick. Danny and his cohorts use the research done in the Thirties when they're writing their community histories. It's his books for Novel Books that supposedly go more into his political philosophies. I have one of them on hand, but it may be a while before I get around to reading it.

Frank Loose said...

James ... Interesting how you remembered the artwork. Some images make strong impressions. I wonder how often this type thing took place, recycling and modifying covers? Earlier this week, Cullen Gallagher posted on his site, Pulp Serenade, a review of Gil Brewer's 13 French Street, and he showed a wonderful cover from the 1951 Fawcett Gold Medal edition - a seductively posed woman sitting on some steps. That same cover --- modified but unmistakably the same figure --- was used six years later on another Brewer title, Little Tramp, a Crest imprint which was owned by Fawcett.

Frank Loose said...

Livia made great points about the value of money 60 years ago compared to today. When reading books from that period, i always multiple any dollar figure mentioned by 10 to put it all in perspective. That way somebody risking their life for $100,000 is really going after a cool million. Everything rings "truer" to me that way.

Juri said...

Thanks, James. One wonders if Hitt was involved in the Federal Writers project himself in the thirties.

Nathan Cain said...

Excellent post. I've been curious about Hitt for a while, but obviously not curious enough to order any books.

It's funny about that book cover, when I looked at the top one,I thought that the woman's hands looked like they were tied behind her back, and then I scrolled down and saw that they were, in fact, tied behind her in the original.

Nathan Cain said...

Oh, and you can see a Steve Harragan double from Giant on my blog. I knew that character's name sounded familiar. It also features a tied up woman. Mr. Harragan's adventures seem to have been a little, uh, kinky.

http://indiecrime.blogspot.com/2008/04/wednesday-paperback-cover.html

James Reasoner said...

Juri,

I've been able to put my hands on some biographical info about Hitt, and there's no mention of him being involved in the Federal Writers Project. During the Thirties he was working as the caretaker at a hunting and fishing camp.

Nathan,

I'll check out that other Steve Harragan cover. Thanks!

Rittster said...

James,
I'm glad you took a "hitt" of Orrie. Maybe at some point you'll become an addict like me and want to try some of the "harder stuff", lol.

Like I wrote you, and for the benefit of those not privy to that email, I think the reason Pushover was a good place to start, but not in my top ten, was because Orrie went a little too far into the mechanics of researching, creating, and marketing the "History of Waverly" book, which is a history of the community Danny is currently in (he and his cohorts travel from town to town),and where he attempts his financial scam. Some parts in the first two chapters were almost like a non-fiction "how-to" manual. Beginning a book that way is certainly not the best way to "grab" the reader and make him/her want to keep on reading.I think staying on that track for so long took away from the characters. I remember feeling the same way about Jim Thompson's "Nothing More Than Murder", where he goes on and on about the minutiae of film distribution and exhibition between movie theater owners, and to be honest, I didn't give a crap about it.

However, I am the one who recommended you start with Pushover, so feel free to visualize yourself throwing some of Orrie's iced coffee in my face.

You made an excellent point about the title "Pushover" referring to Danny and not the women he takes advantage of, which is what the blurbs and cover would lead you to believe. "P.M", you mentioned Orrie's "As Bad As They Come". As with Pushover (and even more so, since no male is shown), the sexy babe on the cover leads you to believe she is the "bad" one, where it's actually the male narrator who is the uber-heel. Personally, I think that's a great book to start with. The subject matter is the "smut-picture racket", and the narrator in that book is one of Orrie's most outrageously callous sociopaths.

As far as the ending seeming forced, you're absolutely right. Out of the almost 30 Hitt books I've read, the last two pages of every one of those books makes a complete 180 degree turn from where the rest of the book seemed to be headed. The reader might just as well write their own version of an ending--one that's more consistent with the books' cynical tone. I have to think the publishers' demanded these kind of "sit-com" endings be tacked on, though I have no concrete source of information about this.

Juri, from the Hitt books published by "Novel" (which I believe are virtually autobiographical, not in terms of plot, but in terms of the beliefs the narrator expresses), it's pretty clear to me that Orrie was not at all in favor of government welfare. Also, in an interview with his children, they are proud to include in their comments that, aside from his writing, Orrie "held 15 to 17 jobs altogether, was never laid off or fired, and never collected unemployment." It's also clear in the "Novel" books that Orrie is against government censorship, so I think that's where the libertarian bent comes in. All that said, I personally wouldn't recommend the "Novel" books as a starting point, because there is even less action in those books than in Pushover. But as a die-hard Orrie fan, I find them invaluable, and quite a change of pace from anything else I've read from the "sleaze" publishers.

Politically, I wouldn't put him anywhere near Jim Thompson's communist ventures. From my readings of Orrie's "Novel" books, as well as an interview with his children and an article he wrote, I believe he was very much a "rugged individualist". Which, by the way, is a pretty neat trick considering Orrie was only about 5'5'' and of slender build.

Cullen, Juri, P.M., and others looking for recommendations, I would say Shabby Street, Torrid Wench, As Bad As They Come, Wayward Girl, Campus Tramp, Teaser, The Sucker, Rotten To The Core, Women's Ward, Sin Doll, Warped Desires (as by Kay Addams), or Race With Lust (as by Roger Normandie).

If you're interested in a particular subject matter, I can tell you some of Orrie's most frequent are: lesbians, nudist camps, the smut-picture racket, frigid women, peeping toms, summer resorts, backwoods folks, burlesque girls/"B-girls"/party girls.

Franks, I'll reply to your email early next week. There's a big paperback show tomorrow out in CA, and I'm going to bed right after this and will probably be exhausted afterward.

James, sorry to hog your blog!!!

James Reasoner said...

No apologies necessary! Thanks for the comment. I have half a dozen Hitt novels on hand at the moment and look forward to reading them.

Nik said...

As the guy was writing so much, it seems obvious that some books would be either Hitt or Miss... sorry, folks. Fascinating item. Agree, covers/artwork sticks for years - whether that's from comics, magazines, paperbacks, or movie posters.
Nik Morton

Rittster said...

Nik,

"Hitt or Miss"

Love it!

Let the Hitt puns abound!

B.Ritt

Rittster said...

By the way, Orrie seemed to have favorite character names he used repeatedly:

For men--Dutch, Nicky, Jerry Slink (a classic!), Arch, Rip, Brick, Slade, Blacky, Shad Dell.

For women--Sheba, Sherry, Honey, Candy, Cherry. (All good enough to eat! LOL!)

Nik said...

Repeating names is always a problem for a writer, I find. For my series of Spanish detective short stories, I have a spreadsheet with all character names used - especially since there are so many Joses/Pacos/Juans/Marias about... Number of characters in 20 stories so far - 98!
Nik Morton

Mike Dennis said...

I just finished PUSHOVER, James, and I loved it. Have to agree with you about the ending, but it didn't ruin it for me. It was a refreshing look at the life and times of a small-time grifter.