Friday, February 03, 2023

Object of Lust - Mark West (Charles Runyon)

Charles Runyon is one of those writers who isn’t very well-known, but his work is quite well-regarded by those who have read it. I think Ed Gorman is the first person I recall who told me how good Runyon’s novels are. Runyon wrote mostly crime and mystery fiction (including ghosting three non-series novels under the Ellery Queen name) and science fiction. In the early Sixties, he also wrote three soft-core novels for Softcover Library (the successor to Beacon Books) under the name Mark West.

The third and final of those novels is OBJECT OF LUST, originally published in 1962 and just reprinted by Black Gat Books for the first time since then. Like many of the soft-core novels from that era, it’s actually a crime/suspense yarn. Set at a lake resort where well-to-do families have vacation cabins, it seems at first that the protagonist of this novel is Lewis Leland, a young ex-GI who teaches waterskiing to the wives and teenage daughters of those wealthy families. He saves one of those wives, beautiful Marian Morgan, from drowning one day and falls for her. He sets out to seduce her and almost succeeds, but they’re caught in the woods by a couple of kids before they can complete the act. Marian panics and won’t have anything more to do with Lewis.

That’s when we realize that Lewis is actually crazy, a sociopath who has killed before—and will again as he starts stalking Marian, determined to have her for his own even if he has to kidnap and rape her.

While this is going on, we also get a look at the affairs of various unhappily married couples, including Marian and her lawyer husband Dee. The people who are staying around the lake are a pretty degenerate bunch in some ways, indulging in plenty of drinking and adultery, but Runyon pulls off the neat trick of getting the reader to sympathize with them. Despite the sordidness of the situations, some of them actually come off as pretty likeable.

Not Lewis Leland, though. He’s easily one of the creepiest villains I’ve encountered in fiction, and that makes the last fifty pages or so of this book race by in breakneck fashion. I couldn’t turn those pages fast enough. OBJECT OF LUST is a slow burn most of the way, except for an occasional shockingly abrupt outbreak of violence, but when it finally takes off, it really takes off.

It occurs to me that what Runyon is doing here is taking a standard Gold Medal type of plot and turning it on its head in many ways. Lewis Leland would be the protagonist of a Gold Medal novel, and Marian Morgan would be the femme fatale. He does a great job of this reversal, too. His writing is top-notch, with excellent characterizations and observations on life reminiscent of John D. MacDonald. Some of it is genuinely unpleasant to read because of how evil Lewis is, but that just raises the stakes. The sex scenes are a little more graphic than in most books from that era but still pretty mild by the standards of what came later. Overall, OBJECT OF LUST is a really good book, a well-written page-turner that deserves a new lease on life. I’m glad Black Gat is reprinting it. You can order the paperback on Amazon.


Jeff Meyerson said...

I think I learned about Runyon from - who else? - Bill Crider. I remember KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE and THE BLACK MOTH and THE PRETTIEST GIRL I EVER KILLED.

August West said...

I'm a big fan of Charles Runyon. So many good novels. He authored my favorite fictional Vietnam story, BLOODY JUNGLE.

Todd Mason said...

And I read and enjoyed Runyon's short fiction, and read some of WOLFSHEAD, which I had only one part of the serialization in F&SF, not the subsequent issue, and vaguely remember it being interesting, but haven't yet read all of any his novels. Should fix that.

James Reasoner said...

August, I'm pretty sure I have a copy of BLOODY JUNGLE on my shelves. I'll see if I can find it.

Todd, I don't find a WOLFSHEAD by Runyon, but darned if that doesn't sound familiar to me, too. Over and above the REH story, of course. Let me look . . . Ah, WOLFHEAD by Charles Harness was serialized in F&SF in 1977. It sounds pretty good, and there's an inexpensive e-book edition. Might have to try that.

Regan MacArthur said...

I have the original edition because I went nuts for Runyon after KISS THE GIRLS and one of his "Ellery Queen" books. Looking forward to reading this one.