Friday, April 19, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Pushover - Orrie Hitt

(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on March 27, 2009.)

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 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.

(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.)

(I've gone on to read many novels by Orrie Hitt in the fifteen years since this post first appeared, of course, and I've enjoyed every one of them. Some more than others, of course, but I'm not sure Hitt was capable of writing a book that wasn't entertaining. An e-book edition of PUSHOVER is available now, if you want to check it out. A couple of years later I read SIN IN A REDHEAD by Steve Harragan, real name William Maconachie, and reviewed it. Maybe I'll rerun that one next week, although I'm trying to stick to 2009 posts for the most part, figuring fifteen years is long enough ago that there'll be a significant number of new readers for them. I hope.)

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