Reviewed by TONY BAER:


JAMES GUNN – Deadlier Than the Male. Duell Sloan and Pearce, hardcover. 1942. Signet #709, paperback, 1949. Forthcoming from Stark House Press, softcover, April 2024 (intro by Curtis Evans). Film adaptation: Released as Born to Kill (RKO Radio Pictures, 1947, with Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak).

   Legend has it that there was a time where men were men and women were women. James Gunn is here to tell you that that time, if it ever existed, wasn’t in 1942.

Sam Wild is a man. A wild man, a man’s man, a ladies man. He’s redheaded, rough and tough and he smells like sweat.

   Mrs. Krantz runs a boarding house and lives for the lurid stories of her only friend: Laura Pollicker.

   Laura is a marginally wealthy, flaccid gigolo-monger, in ruffles. Picture Bette Davis’s Baby Jane trying to seduce you. She comes bearing gifts.

   Laura regales Mrs. Krantz with legendary lovemaking with her new beau: He’s redheaded, rough and tough and he smells like sweat.

   Sam Wild finds his benefactor with another gigolo, and goes wild, killing Laura Pollicker as well as his rival.

   The cops have no clues. But Mrs. Krantz is determined to sniff out the killer: “Laura was all I had. Laura and the bottle. There’s nothing I can do for the bottle, but I won’t let Laura down.”

   There’s a pretty funny scene where Mrs. Krantz tracks Sam Wild down, sits two rows behind him at the theater, trying to sniff him out, leans over the dividing row, sticking her huge ass high in the air, blocking the view of the other patrons, inhaling deeply at the smell of her prey, exclaiming: “Laura! I found him!”

   Sam Wild escapes from Mrs. Krantz, only to be ensnared by Helen, a blonde bombshell. And Sam, for all his animal force, realizes he’s lost to “the most beautiful smiling thing I ever saw, with a body like honey and a face that smiles. She sits and smiles and swings her legs, above me, above the world, knowing she’s better than anybody ever was, sure that she and her kind own the earth we live on. And they do. And she hates me.”

   But “Helen had had about enough of men sobbing on beds. She slapped his face, hard. He cringed as she leaned over him.”

   Helen is a femme fatale for the ages. She destroys everyone in her orbit and emerges unscathed, nay better, stronger, richer, more powerful than ever, by the end. A school of weak men drowned in her wake.


   I liked the book. Didn’t love it. But then again I already knew the femme fatale was deadlier than the male. It may have been news in 1942, but it’s a pretty well trodden path today. The reviews of the day showed the book by this 21 year old writer blew people away: “This Stanford Senior writes better than Cain ever wrote”, said John Selby in his syndicated book review. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze named it his favorite of the first 1000 serie noires.

   So ‘people’ love it. But it’s always hard to know what history was like before it happened. I’ve already seen Body Heat and many more like it. So I’m not surprised. But if readers of 1942 were used to Goldilocks, they had another think coming. A think which must have felt a bit like when Mrs. Krantz, “with all her might … jabbed up between his legs with her hatpin.”