Sunday, May 10, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #1: SWAMP SISTER

As per last week's post, this is the first entry in my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early 90s:

SWAMP SISTER by Robert Edmond Alter

ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1966 (according to the Black Lizard copyright page, other sources have it as 1961)
THE STORY: The crash of a plane carrying $80,000 in cash leads to murder and more in a rural swamp community.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Compulsively readable but somewhat tongue-in-cheek potboiler. Li'l Abner noir.

Satire alert: One of two novels Robert Edmond Alter wrote for Fawcett Gold Medal (CARNY KILL is the other, which I'll revisit in the future), SWAMP SISTER presents itself as a pulp thriller ripe with greed, lust and murder. Its hero, a strapping and virile swamp youth named Shad Hark, finally discovers the wreckage of the "Money Plane" four years after it crashes and helps himself to some of the cash, eventually drawing the attention of greedy and dangerous neighbors, swamp tramps and an insurance investigator with the unlikely name of Tarleton Ferris. Though it purports to be a down-and-dirty saga of the lives and loves of poor white trash on the bayou, it's actually a parody of the genre. Shad services unhappy housewife Iris Culver as well as Dorry Mears, the town slut, battle gators and human swamp rats, all the time conversing in local dialect that sometimes needs multiple readings to parse ("You can cold toot that again.")

It's never really clear where all this is taking place, though it might be Florida, since there are multiple references made to Jacksonville, and the swamp folk speak disparagingly of Louisiana Cajuns as if they were a different race. Alter seems to know his way around though, because the book is steeped in details about different types of swamp vegetation and the habits of bull alligators. However, there are some jarring and abrupt perspective shifts, including one when we're suddenly seeing things from the point of view of an angry gator. It seems unlikely SWAMP SISTER was the original title either. There's no major female character at all for the first 30 or so pages, and Dorry disappears midway through the book.

But Alter's satiric intentions become clearest near the end, when Iris Culver's husband - a pulp novelist - catches her half-naked in the arms of investigator Ferris, who excuses himself with a casual "Pardon me" and goes out to renew his search for the Money Plane. Rather than sheepishly apologizing, Iris takes the offensive:

"Do you think you could satisfy a woman? Any woman? ... Do you have any idea what your lovemaking is like? It's like that watered-down slop you write!...

Suddenly she spoke with cold sarcasm. "Do you know what your work reminds me of? It's like the trash those hack writers used to potboil for the pulp adventure magazines back in the '20s and '30s. They always called their dashing Nordic heroes names like McCoy or McKay or McCloud or Quincannon - names which automatically had a connotation suggestive of rough, manly derring-do. Invariably they had sandy thatches of hair, frequently red, and always a scattering of freckles on the backs of their tanned square wrists. But best of all was the manner in which these literary giants would introduce those girl-killing, booze-drinking, saloon-brawling, quick shooting, Scotch-Irish supermen. They would write. 'No plaster saint - comma - McKay'."

"Now you're not being fair, Iris. You know I don't use that archaic kind of sentence structure."

Devastated by his wife's infidelity and spot-on literary criticism, the husband retreats to his study with a .22 target pistol, intent on taking his own life. But he's distracted by the nautical scene he's left half-written on the page, and soon he's typing away, all thoughts of suicide forgotten:

He squared himself in his chair facing the typewriter and typed, "Marlinspike?" Reb cried. "I thought it was a blunt ice pick! -"

And after that - somehow - he just kept on writing.

**** UPDATE: And for those looking for more Swamp Girl cover art, look no further. Who knew?

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Dan J. Marlowe's THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH.


Anonymous said...

This a great piece, Wallace. I loved Swamp Sister and Carny Kill, thanks for reminding me about them.
Jason Starr

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Thomas Pluck said...

I loved Swamp Sister, it managed to poke fun and entertain at the same time. Now I need to find Carny Kill...

Wallace Stroby said...

Probably the best of its peculiar sub-genre, but I'm intrigued by that gallery of cover art. It would be hard to pass up SWAMP NYMPH.