Baby Moll – John Farris

3 out of 5

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A lot of classic pulp, specifically that under the Hard Case Crime imprint, is very cinematic. The dialogue crackles; settings are rich; the violence and romance and twists are all sharp and screen-ready, cast in shadows and set to appropriately stirring music. John Farris’ Baby Moll (written under the pseudonym Steve Brackeen) also has some of those qualities, but its relatively low-key tone and unfortunately obvious plottings set its sights at something a bit more fitting for a TV movie, or even a one- or two-week adventure on some type of serial. Farris’ imbues this popcorn entertainment with some intriguing elements that, at points, set it a cut above many of its peers, but ultimately these elements don’t have that much impact on things, and it plays out with the purposefulness of a mystery that just has to be solved, back-filled with some character work.

Pete Mallory has settled down with a nice girl in a nice neighborhood when he’s called back by his old mob boss – from whom he’d pressed hard to get away, years back – for one of those “one final jobs.” The reasons why Pete agrees to this are interesting, as is the job, as it’s not a heist or a hit but a hunt: men are targeting boss Macy, who seems to be wanting to get out himself, and Pete, always considered the smart one out of the old gang, is being asked to figure out who’s gunning for Macy, and why. To the former, though, Farris doesn’t twist the knife enough; he makes the interesting decision to have Pete come clean about his past (mostly) to his current fiance, but thereafter, that part of his life feels wholly separate from the core of the novel, removing any real emotional ties to anything for Mallory. Even when he’s fending off the various femme fatales he meets, it’s more because he has a job to do than anything else. Not that I needed or wanted a “I’m to be married, I can’t mess around!” excuse, more to suggest that once the mystery bit gets going, Mallory simply becomes a detective, and not so much a human. And regarding that mystery, I dig the run down way the boss is represented, as though he almost couldn’t care less that someone’s out to kill him, and is just going through the motions, but this also isn’t really leveraged in to anything – it’s just an affectation to carry a scene or two. The case itself is very TV-esque – a fun set of clue-huntings and investigations, but then Farris drops some too-convenient details here and there, and you start to wonder how it couldn’t be Culprit A, and why no one else would’ve figured that.

But like the best of distraction television, all of these considerations come into play in a very offhand fashion. The book is about 200 pages and is well written, and moves quickly. You’re turning the page during an exciting scuffle or exchange, half-noting the things that are silly and / or aren’t working while not really being all that bothered by it, and turning the page again.