|Vintage Pulp||Jun 22 2022|
I'm sort of a paradox. I'm a terrible wife, but I'm incredible at everything that gets a woman a husband.
Above is a cover for Don Tracy's novel The Cheat, originally published as Criss-Cross in 1934, with this Lion edition coming in 1956 with Charles Copeland cover art. This is a good book, but if you're seeking artful prose you might as well keep looking. 1934 was early in the game for hard-boiled fiction. A few authors were doing visionary work but the form was still establishing its parameters. What attracted readers was that these were new types of stories—frank, violent, and centered around hard luck protagonists, ruthless villains, and women who were to varying degrees breathtakingly beautiful, sexually ravenous, and totally amoral.
The Cheat is about a boxer named Johnny Thompson. The Depression has drained the profit from boxing, so for the moment Johnny is an armored car guard, riding shotgun for payroll deliveries. He's occasionally going out with Anna, who's far too beautiful for the likes of him and mainly just likes to have money spent on her. Johnny doesn't have much of that, which means he has no real shot with Anna. He coasts along in financial and romantic limbo until Anna breaks his heart by suddenly marrying a neighborhood slickster named Slim Dundee.
So many of these pulp novels hinge upon sex, but it couldn't be explicitly stated. Tracy is fairly clear about it here, though. Johnny thinks he's ugly yet refuses to consort with women he considers to be of inadequate quality, so he's sexually inexperienced. He isn't a virgin, but it's been years since his first couple of sexual encounters. Anna is his unattainbale dream. He's never even kissed her, but her willingness to associate with him provided his life with hope. He lost that when she married, but she later shocks him by finally offering herself to him, vows be damned. We get a clear sense of what it means to Johnny:
I bit my knuckles thinking about it and how sweet—oh my God—it would be, but I wouldn't take it. [snip] Every hour was full of pictures of Anna. Anna as I'd seen her and Anna as I'd never seen her, but could if I went there the next night. Anna, naked. Anna, in my arms, looking up at me. I kept seeing her and feeling her body under me and her open mouth on my mouth.
So hot she makes him bite his knuckles. That's hot. Johnny virtually flogs himself, telling himself not to give in, not to betray Slim, not to accept Anna's baffling out-of-the-blue offer, but it's useless of course. He goes, she meets him at the door in a kimono and nothing else, his fuses all blow, and nature takes its course:
I remember sobbing, although I wasn't really crying, when the first deep contentment began to rub out the ache I'd had in me for so long.
Well, that gets to the point. And it's a point we've been making for years. These guys don't get into trouble because of mere sex. They get into trouble because of sex as they never imagined it could be—in this case sex that makes him “not really” cry. Yowsa. His reaction has largely to do with finally attaining what he thought he was not good enough to have, in effect validating his entire existence, but there's no doubt the heights of sheer physical pleasure bring it on too. We picture him drying his wet eyes with a corner of the sheet and telling Anna, “I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me.” Needless to say, he's hooked, and who wouldn't be?
During subsequent sessions Anna keeps her, ahem, guard up, and Johnny enjoys every moment, despite feelings of guilt for being a backstabber. Then comes the pivotal day when Slim approaches him with an idea to rob the armored car—with Johnny as the inside man. Anna is on board with the plan, so clearly if he refuses she might not let him be her inside man anymore. Where it goes from there we won't reveal. We'll only say that The Cheat overcomes its rudimentary feel and provides considerable entertainment, which is the next best thing to actually being well written. And for those who enjoy their crime thrillers with motion and sound, a pretty good movie was made of it in 1949. Chose either or both. You'll win regardless.