REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


HANK JANSON – The Accused. Hank Janson Crime Book #6. Telos Publishing Ltd., paperback reprint, 2004; also published in a Kindle format. Introduction by Steve Holland. Originally published by New Fiction, UK, paperback, 1952. (Hank Janson is a house name, in this case one used by Stephen D. Francis.)

   I knew we were crazy. But I also knew nothing was going to stop it happening. It was inevitable, something that had to happen, like a car going downhill with no brakes and no means of stopping until it hit bottom.

   Once upon a time when the Second World War had just ended and shortages of paper still hampered British publishing, a young man named Stephen D. Frances found himself with paper and a press and a contract for a twenty four page copybook, and no copy.

   Taking a hand from writers like James Hadley Chase and Peter Cheyney he churned out a quick brutal tale of crime and sex set in the States and with a rough tough hero with an eye for a dame. He named the character Hank Janson (pronounced Yanson) and took the name as his pseudonym as well.

   Over the years Janson made some changes, by the time the novels appeared he was a rough tough reporter for the Daily Chronicle (he sold ladies stockings in the first story) and he operated out of Des Moines (which British pulp expert Steve Holland has to remind British readers is pronounced de moyne). He remained tough, honorable, and as fascinated by the charms of female anatomy as Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner, if not as colorful in describing them.

   Like Cheyney before him Janson’s ideas of American slang could be iffy at best, but also like Cheyney and Chase he was an original voice, if not always original in his ideas, full of energy and bright brittle bursts of violent images.

   That imagery was what eventually got Frances and Janson in trouble with British obscenity laws. Seven of the Janson books were taken to court as obscene, and the one quoted most often by the prosecution is the little gem we have here, Accused.

   Accused is one of the books published under the Janson byline, but not featuring Janson as a character. Instead the hero is a fellow named Farran who works in a diner for a fat obnoxious fellow named Friedman (His arms were thick and fleshy, his skin white and clammy, and his grimy, sweaty shirt gaped open down to his navel. His shirt was heavy with the smell of sweat and his face was damp and shiny, glistening with fresh perspiration a few seconds after he wiped the back of his arm across his forehead.) who has a younger beautiful wife he mistreats and keeps as a virtual sex slave … and yes, it is just as well this one wasn’t published here where James M. Cain might have objected to lifting the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice whole cloth only with more heavy breathing.

   We open with a graphic description of the most brutal third degree ever given in fiction as Farran recalls the events that lead up to him murdering Friedman in reveries between the beatings. Friedman’s wife, never given a name or much of a personality beyond victim and sex bomb, is the subject of no small amount of heavy breathing on the hero’s part.

   She was dressed simply – very simply! It was a faded black dress, short-sleeved with a discreet vee of a neck-line in and tied at the waist by a belt that gave shape to the dress. The skirt was pleated and reached to just below her knees. She was barefooted, and her legs and feet were brown, kinda healthy-looking.

   Even now, it was still hot in that kitchen. During the heat of the afternoon, it musta been an oven. And she hadn’t had time to cool off. Her face was shiny and damp, sweat patches blotched her armpits, and her youthful breasts seemed weary, sagged heavily against the damp bodice of the worn dress.

   Farran lets us know in no uncertain terms Friedman keeps his wife a slave in nothing but that one dress (She was wearing the same black dress, and in the light of day I could see more clearly how thin and faded it was. I could see even more. It clung to her youthful contours faithfully, outlining her youthful breasts and the curves of her flanks with a faithfulness that was strangely stirring, almost as though she wore nothing beneath that dress.), no underwear, and noshoes, and more than hints, however obliquely, about what goes on behind the closed doors of the matrimonial bedroom door:

   She was moaning. Giving little moans, punctuated with sharp gasps of pain. And it wasn’t what it could have been; a man and his wife roughing each other up a little. She was suffering, really suffering. The moans were breaking through her self-control as she steeled herself against pain.

   I stood there in a cold sweat. It was Freidman who was with his wife. What could I do about it? He was a guy twice the size of me, and his wife hadn’t yet started screaming for help.

   The real obscenity in the Janson books lies in what he implies but never actually says. The man had a real gift for innuendo in epic proportions. Over the course of about 50,000 words we get quite a bit of this kind of sweaty damp semi-masturbatory prose as Farran proceeds from victim of the brutal Freidman to his killer and eventually finds himself on trial for murder, his life on the line.

   Certainly not obscene, that first paragraph is as far as anything goes, stopping well before the bedroom door. Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane were writing much racier scenes when this was prosecuted, but this was sold as sleaze, replete with those brilliant Reginald Heade covers, and, well, it just felt obscene.

   Steve Holland has also penned The Trials of Hank Janson about the obscenity trials and of equal interest, but Telos Press has brought these long lost classics of British pulp back into print in paperback and ebook form at low enough prices to indulge your taste for the long lost tales.

   Frances wrote under several house names, and as Frances wrote the popular John Gail spy novels from the sixties and seventies, many published here; he also wrote as Dave Steel and Duke Linton, and God knows what else. Like most pulp writers he writes too fast and at times too sloppily, but the stories have great energy and at their best are fun once you get past the more painful attempts at American slang.

   The best non-Janson entries, like this one, are no worse than the majority of male-oriented fiction of the type published in the States, and the better ones rise at least to the level of minor Gold Medal books in a similar vein (no few of them sailed a bit close to Cain as well).

   The Janson books are usually better, if only because Frances set himself the task of keeping his hero more or less honorable, meaning the innuendo is much more controlled:

   I was going to faint. The knowledge of it crept over me like a shroud of peacefulness. I was going to slip down into that soft, white mist and sleep for ever.

   ‘You fancied Freidman’s dame, didn’t you?’ he snarled.

   I didn’t see him, but I sensed the gesture he made to the others, and as they moved in on me, I was smiling to myself, the white mist was gathering me up, gathering me into its embrace, cradling me, rocking me to sleep.

   They couldn’t hurt me now.

   Maybe it’s not authentic, but it’s pretty fair noir by any accounting, and for all the sleaze and innuendo it’s entertaining. It’s not that they don’t write them like this anymore, it’s just that they can’t replicate that paperback original voice of the era.