Manhunt Dec. 1953

Manhunt: the gold standard of hardboiled crime fiction digests. One look at the line-up for this issue tells you why. David Goodis opens with “Black Pudding,” the dark, sweet, just dessert of revenge. That’s Ken and Tillie on the cover, painted by Frank Uppwall. Pretty girl, but then you’re looking at her good side. Ken’s first impression: “It was a female voice, sort of a cracked whisper. It had a touch of asthma in it, some alcohol, and something else that had no connection with health or happiness.” He’s fresh out of San Quentin, with plans for a fresh start in Philly that turn dire when his past suddenly flashes a five-inch blade in the dark.

The premise of Richard Marsten’s “Switch Ending” is remarkably similar to “Black Pudding.” How long does it take an ex-con’s old cronies to make trouble once he’s back on the streets? It this case, Danny joins the trouble in progress and attempts to set things right. But he’s living in a dark, noir world, and the best he can manage is to trade one evil for another.

“Killing on Seventh Street” by Charles Beckman, Jr. is a psychological thriller. A regular Joe kills a robber/rapist and struggles with how the violent act has changed him. “But, that evening, he was behind the garage, sharpening the lawn mower, when the neighborhood dog came running over, barking. Clifford reached for the animal and things dissolved in a haze. When it cleared, the dog was a limp form, its broken neck clenched in this hands.”

“Murder Marches On” by Craig Rice features series character John J. Malone. In this adventure the slight lawyer must simply liaise a list of names from a witness to the authorities, as said witness prefers to remain anonymous. Perhaps for the sake of its drama, the exchange takes place in a parade with Malone dressed for the part. At the designated moment chaos erupts and the list holder is murdered. Malone is left with five pages to ensure he’s not the next victim, solve the murder, find the list and collect his fee from his now deceased client. Fortunately, he’s in good hands with Rice.

Things turn considerably darker in “Sucker” by Hunt Collins. Arrested for the rape and murder of his babysitter, Harley appeals to his friend and lawyer, Dave, to help clear him. At the trial the prosecutor’s case, built on a chain of circumstantial evidence, is riddled with doubts by the time Dave finishes. Trouble is, so is Dave.

“Portrait of a Killer” was a regular true crime feature written for Manhunt most often by Dan Sontup. The series began in August 1953 and ran twenty-four issues, ending in July 1955. This issue devotes three pages to Portrait #7, Tillie Gburek, a serial killer who started out poisoning neighborhood dogs and then moved up to a succession of husbands.

The “The Wife of Riley” by Evan Hunter, concerns the disappearance of Riley’s wife at a seashore resort. The place is run by an untoward dude, rife with hidden agendas. “His skin was bad and his eyes were puffed with sleep, and he looked like the kind of guy you could rouse out of any doorway in the Bowery.” Tension mounts as Riley strips away the resort’s façade of normalcy to learn the where and why of his wife’s sudden vanishing act.

Scott Jordan was a series character created by Harold Q. Masur. The lawyer/sleuth takes on a new client in the “Richest Man in the Morgue.” It’s one of several Jordan stories for Manhunt, later collected in The Name is Jordan (1962). “Morgue” is a top-notch yarn with some terrific writing. Here’s one of Masur’s punchy asides: “They thought Hitler was nothing but a windbag too, until he gave the world twenty-four hours to get out.”

Some of Manhunt’s stories are so dark, they could easily have run in a horror magazine. For example, “The Quiet Room” by Jonathan Craig features a dirty cop and his dirty partner. She beats up underage prostitutes in the soundproof room at the precinct to learn the names of the girl’s johns. Then he blackmails the johns to keep their criminal activity off the record. Things end badly.

“The Coyote” by David Chandler features a father who forces his son to “be a man” by killing a coyote. It’s brutal and torturous, and unfortunately, an accurate portrayal of doctrine over common sense.

Roy Carroll’s characters face personal and social atrocity in “Wife Beater.” Officer Tom Rivas grew up in a house where dad beat mom. Perhaps Cherry Szykora did too. Both wrestle with their pasts as they try to rectify their present.

“The Icepick Artists” by Frank Kane is listed on the contents page as a novelette. It is, but it’s also the first part of a longer saga that involves the death of a PI employed by Seaway Indemnity. The firm hires Johnny Liddell to investigate. He solves the murder, but the larger criminal mastermind waits for readers and Liddell in a follow-up adventure in the January 1954 edition.

“Crime Cavalcade” presents a rapid-fire succession of short true crime stories in newspaper style. The feature ran from May 1953 through December 1955, handled by Vincent H. Gaddis. Here’s a example: “As a gag to illustrate low salaries, Bruce Shanks, cartoonist for the Evening News in Buffalo, N.Y., pictured a policeman baby-sitting to supplement his regular salary. However some of the paper’s readers didn’t get the point. Half a dozen parents telephoned police headquarters that night seeking baby sitters.”

The issue’s final yarn, “The Insecure” by R. Van Taylor was billed as “. . . one of the most unusual ideas ever to appear in Manhunt.” It’s more like something out of the Twilight Zone than a traditional crime anthology, but once you’re tuned in to its unreliable narrator, its an entertaining twist on the expected.

If this edition is any indication, it’s small wonder Manhunt remains the premier title for fans and collectors of hardboiled crime fiction digests.

This review originally appeared in The Digest Enthusiast #3 January 2016.

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