Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein (Dell, 1953)

The basis for Fitz Lang's 1956 film While the City Sleeps, Einstein's The Bloody Spur has a small reputation for being one of the first serial killer novels. Alas, the serial killer plays second fiddle to a bunch of typically larger-than-life characters battling for corporate glory written with more than a casual eye towards the bestseller list.

The action starts with the death of the Executive Director of the Kyne Newspaper publishing empire. The donnybrook between his potential successors (the flagship paper's editor, the photo service head, the feature syndicate director, and the wire service chief) over the job starts at the funeral and doesn't let up over 250 pages of corporate infighting, journalistic scheming, sexual shenanigans, and metaphorical throat-cutting. Only two things save this from being an ink-stained rehash of Executive Suite: the vividly realized mid-century newspaper office background, and the occasional chapter from the point of view of the William Heirens-style "Lipstick Killer" who's terrorizing the city to the great joy of the Kyne circulation department.

The "Lipstick Killer" is Robert Manners, a 20-year old college student with severe Oedipal issues as only a character in a 1953 novel can have. He has graduated from breaking into women's apartments to steal their soiled handkerchiefs and used panties and defecate on their floors to strangling and stabbing them. On the wall of one victim, he ensures his immortality by scrawling in lipstick "Help me for God's sake." A handful of delightfully noirish chapters follow Manners about his rounds: stalking his victims, going on bad dates, having an excruciating discussion with his mother about her handkerchiefs and underwear, and most memorably, his finally flight from pursuers through a subway tunnel. He looks down at his feet and sees a fragment of newspaper headline: "Stalks Killer." Most cinematic!

Sadly, Manners barely appears in the last quarter of the book as the little matter of corporate succession is not-so memorably settled. The book works out to 90% corporate and 10% killer, but I'm betting the film is going to come in at a 50/50 split.

While the City Sleep screens at Noir City on January 28th.

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