Friday, July 20, 2018

Forgotten Books: When Dames Get Tough - Hank Janson (Stephen D. Frances)

I’ve been aware of the Hank Janson series for many years (and the gorgeous covers by Reginald Heade), but never got around to reading one until now. Although it might not have been the wisest course of action, for reasons I’ll get into below, I started with the very first Hank Janson novella, WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH, published in 1946.

Some quick background: Stephen D. Frances was a young, struggling writer/publisher in England who had been writing what were known as gangster stories, lurid, hardboiled tales set in America, mostly written by authors who had never been in America and had only a loose grasp of American slang and geography. As a publisher, Frances found himself in need of urgent need of a 15,000 word novella over a weekend, and not having anyone else to do it, he wrote it himself, dictating it to a secretary. Not only is the protagonist named Hank Janson, that was the by-line on it, as well.

This was WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH, a fast-paced, first-person yarn narrated by a traveling salesman (of ladies’ cosmetics) named Hank Janson. Hank happens upon a beautiful young blonde being interrogated and tortured by thugs, so naturally he wades in and rescues her, which lands him up to his neck in a criminal scheme involving black market goods (still a hot topic in those days just following World War II), mistaken identity, yet another beautiful blonde, and more than one attempt on his life.

This novella is certainly not without its flaws. Frances’s American tough-guy patter is less convincing at this point than that of James Hadley Chase (Rene Raymond) or Carter Brown (Alan G. Yates), the other two English authors I’ve read who produced mainly American-set mystery novels. The plot is driven by several pretty hard to swallow coincidences. And making your wise-cracking, two-fisted hero a salesman of ladies’ cosmetics is, well, an unusual choice, to say the least.

However . . . WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH is pretty darned entertaining. Frances’s style may be a little crude at times, and his Americanisms may not ring true, but dang, this yarn rockets along and is told in a distinctive voice, which I always like. There’s plenty of action, the girls are sexy, and Hank is a likable galoot. The Heade cover depicts an actual scene from the story with a fair degree of accuracy (the girls are both blondes in the story). I wound up liking this one quite a bit.

There are a couple more early novellas before Frances retooled the character as a crime-busting reporter from Chicago, and those tales are included in an ebook currently available, along with two short stories featuring the later incarnation of the Janson character. I plan to read those as well and then move on to the ebooks of the full-length novels. I’m glad these reprints are available since the original editions are sort of hard to come by, and I want to read more about Hank Janson.  


George said...

I would pick up these HANK JANSON books whenever I found them. Loved the covers!

James Reasoner said...

The Reginald Heade covers are just as much a part of the Hank Janson series as the McGinnis covers are in the Carter Brown series. They're all fantastic.

Peter Brandvold said...

Makes me think of the Ricki Lee Jones line: "She was blonde from her toes to her cigarette."

Keith West said...

A cover like that is hard to resist.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I used to pick these up in England in the summer. Great covers!

Chap O'Keefe said...

Yes, Frances truly had the knack when it came to storytelling, although he was slight, mild man not at all like his tough pseudonymous alter ego. I met him late in his career when he was writing Sexton Blake thrillers that were published mostly under the "Richard Williams" house name. I was the young copy editor privileged with the first chance to read his material when it arrived in air mail packages from Rosas, liberally covered with Spanish postage stamps. Why was he living in Spain? Well, there's a good story behind that, too. Anyone interested in the bygone pitfalls of writing (now slightly) sleazy fiction can read it in Steve Holland's book THE TRIALS OF HANK JANSON.