Friday, June 01, 2018

Forgotten Books: Portrait in Smoke - Bill S. Ballinger

Bill S. Ballinger is one of those mystery authors I’ve been aware of for decades without ever reading much by him. I recall reading a couple of his espionage novels featuring secret agent Joaquin Hawks back in the Sixties, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. However, I just read his early suspense novel PORTRAIT IN SMOKE, which Stark House is reprinting in a double volume along with the novel THE LONGEST SECOND, and I can see why it has a reputation as an excellent novel.

To start with, Ballinger uses a technique that I hardly ever like, alternating between first and third person, but makes it work really well. The first person sections are narrated by Danny April (great name), who runs a low-rent collections agency in Chicago. In an old file from long before he bought the agency, he finds a photograph of a beautiful young girl named Krassy Almauniski. And to put it simply, he becomes infatuated with her, all because she reminds him of a girl he saw once when he was a young man but never talked to. Love at first sight? Maybe, but certainly obsession at first sight. Danny starts trying to find her, or at least find out what happened to her, and these parts of the novel form a top-notch procedural yarn as Danny traces out the details of Krassy’s life, step by step.

At the same time, in the third person sections, Ballinger gives the truth about Krassy’s life, as opposed to Danny’s somewhat skewed view. This part of the book reads more like a naturalistic novel about a young woman’s determined climb out of the poverty and squalor of Chicago’s stockyards district all the way to the heights of wealth and power, no matter what it takes. It’s inevitable that these two storylines will intersect eventually, and when they do, that’s when PORTRAIT IN SMOKE becomes a noirish crime novel with a very nice twist ending.

Ballinger’s writing is smooth and polished, and his control over the complex plot really had me turning the pages. This one hits the mark all the way around for me with the writing, the pace, the plot, and the compelling characters. Highly recommended.


George said...

Another winner for STARK HOUSE!

Peter Brandvold said...

I wish I woulda bought some stock in Stark House so I could get some of this dough back. But, man, they are doing a terrific job, aren't they? Most of the books I've read over the past few years have been reprints by them. Just ordered this one, too. Thanks, James.

Elgin Bleecker said...

Thanks for the review. I need to get this one. And I agree with George and Peter, Stark House is doing a great job.