We noir heads love the covers of the classic paperback editions of what we now call pulp fiction. You know, the ones with the deliciously lurid images and the zinging plot teasers. The funny thing about the zingers is that, as often as not, they are misleading in giving an indication of the story’s actual plot, if not outright false. But we don’t care about all of that. We enjoy the catchy phraseology and we know it’s just some words that read well on the book cover and that were put there to hook readers.
The cover of James O. Causey’s 1957 noir novel The Baby Doll Murders is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. A Fawcett Gold Medal title, its face shows a sexy redhead in a negligee, her back turned to a guy who is intently staring at her while he holds a cigarette in his mouth and a cocktail in his hand. And the tagline reads, “She could look like a wistful child and she loved to play games – such as murder, men, and marijuana.”
Now, there is a carrot-topped femme fatale in the story, she does use drugs, and there is a guy who is hooked by her charms. But the truth is that she is only one of about eight main characters in the saga, and the leading man’s attachment to her is only one element of the plot, no more central than the several other subplots that drive the tale. So the main story is really not one of a trouble-making babe who lures a hapless fella into her web of mayhem, as the cover suggests. But who cares? The cover rocks.
So what is the book about? Like many of the best works of noir fiction, The Baby Doll Murders centers around one troubled character. In this case, it’s a guy named Cliff Tierney. Cliff is one of those people who’s neither a saint nor a devil, but who would prefer to just go about his business without hurting anyone or getting into any illicit dealings. But he gets tangled up in a world of sin and danger, through his association with an unsavory and power-wielding character who has a hold over him. A vet of the Korean War, Cliff (whose age is never stated but whom I guess is meant to be in his late 20s or early 30s) also worked as a carny for years. And it was while doing that work that he encountered a seasoned shyster named Tom Markham. Markham took Cliff under his dark wing on the carnival circuit and, later, when Markham opened a gambling house called The Pink Barrel in the city of Paloma Beach, CA, he put Cliff on the payroll. Cliff’s job at the gambling den is to just kind of keep an eye on the punters, and to move in on them with some of his plentiful muscle if any of them start to get unruly or try to cheat; or just if anybody tries to make any kind of trouble for Markham and the club, to give them a good scare if not a beatdown. There could be worse jobs, but Cliff is none too thrilled with the gig. He’d rather escape the seediness of the club and find a more wholesome kind of lifestyle. At the outset of the story he has walked out on the job and drifted to Vegas, hoping to win some cash in the casinos and set himself up in the world. He has daydreams about the way he’d like to live. They go like this:
He was parking in a garage driveway, and getting out of his car. The house was a clean white frame, with red shutters and trim. Across the lawn, two boys were throwing a football. Two blond, husky, laughing youngsters, that saw him and yelled and started a mad dash to see who could reach him first. The race was always a tie, with him scooping up both boys in his arms and touseling their hair as they squealed with delight and started the inevitable romp that ended with him stretched out flat on the grass pleading that he had had enough. Then, of course, he would show them how to really throw a football.
They would call him Dad. No Father, or Pop, but Dad. His wife would come out on the front porch with a quiet shine to her smile and tell them it was time for supper. So into the house they would go, Tierney and his two sons. He would kiss his wife thoroughly and tell her about the new promotion, the raise. She would tell him about going to the doctor that morning, and how he was definitely going to be a father for the third time.
Sounds nice, right? But there’s a couple things keeping Cliff from realizing this pleasant white picket fence vision. For one, he’s a bachelor, so as yet there is no woman to give him all these perfect blond children. And for another, there’s Markham, who needs Cliff and to whom Cliff feels indebted, and who hunts Cliff down in Vegas and uses Cliff’s ex girlfriend (yes, the redhead on the book cover) to lure him back to Paloma Beach.
If all Markham really needed Cliff for was his work as a bouncer at The Pink Barrel, he likely wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of tracking him down. But Markham is into a lot more than what meets the eye at his gaming house. The card games and roulette wheels are small change in comparison to his real racket. Markham, with the help of a corrupt doctor/city councilman (who happens to be the redhead’s father) and a string of henchman, makes his biggest money running a black market baby adoption racket. He finds well-off couples who can’t have kids of their own for whatever reason, and who don’t want to be bothered with the loopholes and waiting times of the standard adoption process. And then he finds young girls who are single and pregnant and not ready to be moms and who could use a little folding money. The physician acts as the girls’ pre-natal doctor and he delivers the newborns, Markham makes the under-the-table deals with the adoptive parents-to-be, he and the doc split the take after the girls get paid off . . .
All goes smoothly enough until a girl who works at the Barrel comes to be one of the single pregnant women whom Markham and the doctor set up as a client. Problem is, while the young woman initially agrees to give up her baby, a few months into the pregnancy she has a change of heart. When Markham tells her it’s too late for all that, she makes a stink. And Markham doesn’t like it when people try to make stinks that could foul up his operations. So once the girl gives birth he sets her up on a bogus drugs charge and off she goes, to the pokey and out of the way. But another girl from the circuit knows all this, and all about the racket, and she starts putting the squeeze on Markham. Whether she’s an angel acting purely in the interest of the welfare of the other woman, or a con-artist trying to use her knowledge of these bad dealings to her own advantage, is something that readers will have to find out on their own. Where Cliff comes in is that Markham wants him to use his muscle on the trouble-making girl who is threatening to expose himself and the doctor. But Cliff, while initially reluctant to get involved in any of this, winds up wanting to nail Markham, once he learns about the baby adoption ring. And that’s when the real intrigue sets in.
The redhead on the cover, Holly Ross, is an interesting character. She’s the doctor’s daughter, as I mentioned, and is an artist. She’s also an embittered young woman who despises her daddy, who uses dope, and who is tied in with Markham. At the start of the story, she attempts to utilize her considerable sexual charms to try and lure Cliff back to Paloma Beach and once again in the service of Markham. But when she learns all that is going on in the present drama, she might just have a change of heart about where her alliances lie. I like the third person narrator’s description of Holly, from early in the book:
Holly had hair like a flame and a body of molded ivory. Her Newport studio apartment was filled with tortured abstractions in clay and stone. Her sculptures were brilliant, but undisciplined. Once her father had given her an exhibition at Laguna. The critics had spoken darkly of form and warped power. She was wistful and wild.
And this segment, later in the tale, where Cliff is trying in vain to fight off the distraction of his lust for Holly, not wanting to let his guard down in his battle against Markham:
She was moving toward him with unbearable slowness, and he could see how her green knit dress stretched to the bursting point over her deep breasts, how her face seemed to expand as she bent over him.
Then she was on his lap, her hands snaking around his neck, lips hot and devouring.
She’s being perfectly logical, the hustler core of him said. You two deserve each other. And she’ll be unfaithful to you, after her fashion, for a little while. Until she discovers that she’s searching for something no man can give her. Who cares how long it lasts, or what comes afterwards. You’ve got to have this woman, there’s nobody else, ever.
I don’t know much about James O. Causey, so I can’t offer any biographical information on him here. I’ve read two of his books now. The other one, 1960’s Frenzy, gets a lot more love from the few people who write about Causey. But I strongly prefer The Baby Doll Murders out of the pair. There’s nothing wildly original in the characters or storyline of the book, but that doesn’t really matter, the same way it doesn’t really matter that the cover’s words don’t actually let you in on what the story’s mostly about. It’s a well-written 1950's noir novel that is as suspenseful as it is tough, whose characters are vivid and who make you care. And it’s a lost classic among its ilk.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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