After becoming acquainted with author Charles Boeckman through this blog and the WesternPulps and Pulpmags Yahoo groups, I've been wanting to read some of his work, so I started with HONKY-TONK GIRL, a rare digest novel from 1953 that's found new life in e-book and trade paperback editions from Wildside Press.
In addition to being a writer, Boeckman is also a well-known jazz musician, and jazz plays a big part in this novel. The protagonist is bandleader and trumpeter Johnny Nickles, whose combo is playing at a club in an unnamed West Coast city that I took to be San Diego. The group has been dogged by tragedy: their arranger has died recently of a heart attack, and as the novel opens their piano player has just been shot to death. The only witness is a beautiful blond singer who develops amnesia due to the shock of seeing the murder. The killer wants her dead anyway, of course, and Johnny not only wants to see his friend's murderer caught but also falls in love with the blonde, making a collision between him and the killer inevitable. There's also a beautiful hooker with a secret, a crooked sheriff, the local crime boss whose daughter may have been there when the murder took place, and numerous other characters who frequent Honky Tonk Street.
This is a really fine hardboiled crime novel with several murders, some close calls for Johnny, and a nice twisty plot. But what really makes it special is the writing. Boeckman captures the seedy glamour of dimly-lit nightclubs filled with smoke, whiskey fumes, and cool jazz about as well as anyone I've read. Music is a character in this novel, and a somewhat sinister one, too, in the form of the Ghost Album, a set of records on which Johnny and his band perform in the style of famous musicians who are dead and gone. Ever since then bad luck has followed the band, leading Johnny to wonder if they're cursed. Using this backdrop, Boeckman achieves a high level of suspense throughout the book.
HONKY-TONK GIRL really should have been made into a movie directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal. That's the kind of yarn it is. I enjoyed this novel a lot and give it a high recommendation. I'm looking forward to reading more of Charles Boeckman's work.