In case you’re confused by the author credit in the heading here, let me just say that I join you in your befuddlement. This 1961 noir novel was originally published as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original, with W. Franklin Sanders tagged as the writer. But over time it came to be revealed that Charles Willeford wrote some, if not all, of the book. Sanders may have been his co-author, but then Sanders may have also been a make-believe person. If you’re interested in reading up on that intrigue, there is no shortage of material available on the web. I’m going to leave that subplot alone and just focus on the book, which is a gem of a read.
But first a couple words on Willeford. I doubt I need to sell many readers of this site on the merits of his writing. Some Willeford fans might think of his Hoke Moseley series as his finest work, while others might prefer his earlier titles such as Cockfighter (1962) or The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971). Of the Willeford books I’ve read, it’s his second novel, Pick-Up (1955), that I value the most. When I first started this column, I drew up a shortlist (well, it was actually long) of books I might cover, and Pick-Up was among those. I haven’t gotten around to writing an appreciation of it, and maybe I never will for this series, as I have purposely been avoiding covering the same writer twice, in order to spread the hardboiled love. In any case, Pick-Up is a hell of a noir novel. If you like this kind of stuff and haven’t read it, do so. And while you’re at it, read the one I’m about to discuss; because whether it was written by Willeford or this Sanders guy, or some combination of the two of them, it’s pure.
Whip Hand is one of those novels that’s narrated by several different characters. The primary players are: a trio of Oklahoma bumpkins who, while in Dallas, kidnap the young daughter of an oil tycoon and collect ransom; a troubled L.A. cop who has fled to Dallas to duck an investigation into his questionable police activities; the father of the kidnapped child, and the man’s adult daughter. The plot-line is far-fetched, but in reading along you really don’t care, because the story is interesting enough, and the characters are memorable enough, to carry the tale past that problem. The gist is that the cop happens to run into the Okies at a Dallas bus station and, seeing the fancy bags they’re carrying around (the buffoons purchased ridiculously conspicuous cases in which to tote around the ransom money) and wondering what might be in them, he pulls a switcheroo number on one of the dudes and winds up with a satchel full of the cash. After that, he forces the guy to tell him how they got the money, and after that, he decides he’s going to do a vigilante job in bringing the trio to justice (and meanwhile see what might be in all this for himself).
As I mentioned, different characters tell the story as it moves along. We get the vantage points of the cop, each of the Okies, the adult sister of the kidnapping victim, a good-hearted hooker who has an encounter with one of the bumpkins, and some others who become involved in the goings-on. I fear I mention Jim Thompson too often in these posts, but there’s just no getting around thinking of Thompson as you read this book – the plot elements and writing style are so similar to his; it’s set in his general geographical terrain, and Thompson often (and effectively) utilized this tool of the multiple narrators in weaving his wicked noirs. Whip Hand doesn’t match up with the very best of Thompson’s work (what does?) but it’s as worthy as an average Thompson title, meaning it’s high-level noir.
All of the characters are entertaining to listen to as they each tell their part of the saga, but the best noir nuggets come from the cop, Bill Brown. He narrates world-weary passages like this:
You might say it was warm in Dallas.
The middle of America. A gathered-in collection of white buildings wanting to be a city. Heat waves rising from pavement and bricks. A large town sprawling and shimmering in the Texas sun. A fitting destination after the miserable trip through the desert.
I had picked a great place to start over. The dubious prospect of this new start was crowding for space with the pain in my head.
My assets were not impressive. An ex-cop who could hardly apply for police work. In green gabardine with black shoes, I’d be irresistible to prospective employers. A three-day growth of black beard and no razor. One thin dime in the cash on hand. Ten cents. I could buy coffee.
And there’s this bit from Brown, when he first shows up at the house of the family who’s been victimized by the kidnapping, to let them know he is willing and able to help them nail the perpetrators. This feels worthy of Chandler to me:
The Dixon house was a sumptuous Texas colonial, dove-gray brick with huge white columns. Like the paper said, wealthy. A movie-set driveway curved up to a wide veranda facing the pampered lawn. I managed the red brick drive without crumpling in awe and pushed an ornate silver button that rang chimes somewhere deep inside the mansion. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted that door to open. But it did.
The young woman who opened it stood very still and examined me with eyes that must have inspired the choice of the dove-gray bricks and were as cool as the spray in which I had drenched my head. But the rest of her was strangely out of harmony with the cold eyes. The warmth of pervasive sex oozed from her full-blown figure like milk from a discarded can.
Whip Hand is not a book for the faint of heart, or those easily offended. Even in the don’t-hold-back world of vintage-era hardboiled novels, this one is a roughie by comparison to most of its peer titles. Some of the things that happen in the story will disturb just about any reader. And there are other bits that might titillate some while bothering the morals of others, such as the scene wherein the older sister of the kidnapping victim relieves some of her pent-up frustration by masturbating, using some ordinary household objects to help her achieve this satisfaction. And then there’s the matter, suggested by the title, of a whip, and its handlers and victims. I’ll let readers find out about the whip on their own if they’re so inclined, but will just say that it’s not quite as prominent an aspect of the story as the Fawcett cover might lead you to expect.
I’m going to stop giving away the story now, and close out. You have an idea of the setup, the character types, the style, and the kind of contents to be found. It’s up to you to decide whether this is your kind of read. Personally, I think of it as a fine noir novel, and a lost classic of that type of book. I was taken slightly aback by some of the sex and violence but I didn’t find any of it gratuitous, and I thought of those elements as occasional features of the novel rather than its real driving force. What makes Whip Hand go is its rich characters, its action and suspense, and its overall grittiness.
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.
See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.