Benjamin Appel,
Sweet Money Girl/Life & Death of a Tough Guy
(Stark House, 2009)

The paperback original pulp novels of the 1950s and early '60s were mostly formulaic, plot-bound stories of criminals, their victims and the cops (public and private) who try to stop them. Benjamin Appel was one writer who could be counted on to break the formula. A prolific writer, he cranked out a couple of dozen novels, mostly crime stories, and then turned his attention to nonfiction and wrote another 20 or so books.

Here, in this volume, the reissue folks at Stark House have brought together two of his best books, neither of which fits the standard formula of the hard-boiled pulp crime stories so popular at the time. Instead, the novels use their plots to accomplish a larger theme: the way life was lived in New York City during the period of time each novel covers.

Sweet Money Girl, from 1954, concerns returning veterans in the city immediately after World War II. Maxie, a sergeant in the war, has returned to his dead-end job in a realtor's office He sees the way people are cleaning up in the burgeoning real-estate market and wants his share. He needs the money because he is wildly in love with Hortense, a dance instructor about two paychecks away from becoming a call girl. Hortense has a love affair of her own going -- with money. If Maxie wants her, he's going to have to produce the $50,000 he claims will come his way from a big deal he's working on. Of course, the deal is crooked and, in his rational moments, Maxie senses that he's in over his head, but his love for Hortense ensures he's not rational very often.

Hugh, who served with Maxie, comes to the city to go to college on the G.I. Bill and winds up living at Maxie's. He meets Hortense and falls in love with her also. As you read Sweet Money Girl, you think -- because you've seen the formula a dozen times before -- that you know where it's going, but Appel has a few tricks in mind and the story develops in ways that are unique to these characters and the situation they have created for themselves. Sweet Money Girl is a character study, and quite a good one.

Life & Death of a Tough Guy, a 1955 novel (it was reissued in 1957 as Teenage Mobster) is about the rise of organized crime in the city in the 1920s and '30s. Joey Kasow is a Jewish kid living in Hell's Kitchen, an Irish neighborhood, so he is naturally a born victim for the gang punks. Joey fights back, though, and by winning the gang over, he is invited to join. Once in the gang, he has discovered his destiny. He rises through the ranks, eventually becoming a killer, and wins a slot as the enforcer for Spotter, the gang leader.

His whole identity changes. He is no longer Joey Kasow the Jewish kid; instead, he's Joey Case, the gangster. Joey is right there as the gangs stop fighting among themselves and organize. He's on hand for Prohibition and the opportunities it gave gangs to become illicit corporations and for a while everything goes well for him. But then he falls in love with Sadie Madofsky, a nice Jewish girl, and his whole identity comes into question. He makes a crucial mistake and the title of the book leaves no doubt as to the outcome. Again, Appel has given us a character study in the guise of a crime novel. He was a writer of paperback naturalism who studied the effects the environment has on the people living within it.

His books may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are still fascinating.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

8 August 2009

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