The Sucker (Beacon, 1957)

First, this is one excellent Orrie Hitt novel, as good as Hired Lover,  The Cheaters, Shabby Street, Taboo Thrills, Sheba, Two of a Kind, etc.

Slade Harper is an angry man, but a man with a plan.  He has come back to the U.S. after working in Iceland — like the protagonist in Love in the Arctic, he went to Iceland to run away from the past: his wife betrayed him and died in a car accident with her lover (a common situation in several Hitts, like Diploma Dolls).

While in Iceland, he won a fellow’s family business, a gas station, in upper NY state; after that, the fellow — who needed money because he got a local girl pregnant — blew his brains out with a gun.  When Slade arrives at the gas station, there’s a but of a surprise: the fellow’s young sister, Cleo, is living there and running it.  She seems to accept, too easily, that the family business was lost in a game of cards.  She gives Slade the cold treatment, but what he does not know is that Cleo went to see a lawyer and was told U.S. law does not recognize the legitimacy of gambling debts; she was prepared to tell him this but the minute she saw him, she knew Slade was the man for her.

Despite the fact that she does not succumb to his advances, she intends to get Slade to marry her one day.  Meanwhile, Slade, who has an engineering degree, works the auto repair part of the station while Cleo cashiers for gas and food…

Slade is offered a decent job at Rockland Motors, a mail order business that caters to stock car racers and drag car enthusiasts.  Slade knows how to design crank shaft motors for stock cars and the couple who run the biz, an older guy named Midge and a woman in her 20s, Ruth, see business growth opportunities.

Cleo, afraid Slade will leave her lie, gives herself to him and confesses her love.  Even though he has no rights to the station, when they sell it, she gives him the $5,000 from the sale.  He tells her he is not interested in a relationship or love — he has his designs on Ruth, despite the fact that she puts on an uber-bitch act.

Cleo thinks she’s pregnant by Slade and seeks out a woman who performs abortions.  But Cleo isn’t knocked up, and the woman, drunk, performs an abortion procedure anyway; Cleo winds up bleeding to death. Slade’s viewpoint is 50s hardboiled:

She was just as dead as they come and a lot more beautiful. They had her stretched out on the metal table in the basement emergency room in city hall.  Her eyes were wide open, staring up at the pale green ceiling. (p. 126)

Like all Hitt heroes, Slade jumbles several women, all who seem to be in love with him, or so they say.  There’s the accountant at the mail order business, Doris, but she seems to be a closet lesbian and is confused by it all…and her sister, Marie, a cripple in a wheelchair. This is the first time I have seen ol’ Orrie introduce a handicapped lover for a Hitt hero, which gives this novel an extra depth, since most Hitt women are busty, leggy, and perfect physically.

What the hell, I thought, this is one for my autobiography. A dame in a wheelchair sits waiting for me in the rain and after I get her inside, she starts hitting the booze. I shrugged and poured her a good stuff one. Maybe the world was going nuts. (p. 120)

He first met Marie in a bar, where she played piano and sang and gave him the cold shoulder, but now her story is different…

I picked her up and she got those arms around my neck again. I tried to turn my head but she was quick with mouth and she got it fastened over my lips.

“Slade, listen to me. Listen to me, Slade, because you’re going to remember what I say.”

Her lips were big and full and soft and I had to kiss her back just a little. My one hand was up under her breasts, lifting to their swell, but my other hand was against those lifeless legs and I felt sick and cheap and wrong. I started for the door.

“You’re an unfortunate, Slade. Like me.”

I just kept walking, not saying anything.

“You’re a cripple. A cripple inside, Slade. Something’s gotten you twisted out of shape, the way my legs are twisted.”

I stepped out onto the porch.

“What do you want, baby?” I said. I carried her through the rain.

“You.”

“Shut up!”

“And I’ll get you, Slade. You see if I don’t. I don’t know what you’re after or what you want, but you aren’t going to get it.  You’re too hard and too cruel. That’s why I don’t hate you, why I couldn’t hate you. You’re a cripple and you need me, because I’m stronger — ” (p. 124)

Marie has Slade figured out and she’s right: he is an emotional cripple and cruel. His heart and soul destroyed by his wife’s betrayal and death, he basically hates women, the same way Nicky Weaver does in Ladies’ Man.  Everything he does is designed to hurt the women around him, to get back at the ghost of his wife…but when things do go bad, like when Cleo dies and Doris loses her job, he does feel guilty and like a heel, so he does have some redeeming qualities.

What Slade is after is the mail order company. When he realizes the business is running on the edge, using orders to float the bank books, delaying products, coming close to going belly up, he devises a plan with Ruth to put the biz on the brink and Midge suspect for mail fraud; he bails Midge out for $3,000 and takes over the company.

Slade sees every one around him as a sucker for his game and con. What he doesn’t consider, like many Hitt heroes don’t, is that he’s the sucker being played, by the very people he thinks he’s playing…

It’s all about money, the swindle, the easy buck, and crime, and murder.  Like other Hitt books, ol’ Orrie gives us a lot of detail how a business works with creditors, accounts, banks, customers, how profit is made, how tricks can be done, just as he’s shown with insurance scams, door to door sales, and running a bar. He also provides lots of nifty detail on auto parts, stock cars, racing cars and that culture — seems Hitt, when not writing novels at one every two weeks, wrote articles for car magazines, like the narrator of The Promoter.  As “Charles Verne,” he wrote a race car rebel youth novel, Mr. Hot Rod, and now and then characters soup up their cars and talk about the details (see Ellie’s Shack).

The Sucker is Hitt firing all pistons, with a few twists and not the usual happy ending.  Some of the legal issues aren’t quite logical, and people seem to know more than they should, but what the hell, this is sleazy crime noir, not reality. It’s also pretty bleak, with several people committing suicide or getting murdered for petty reasons…

On the Scale, a 10.

3 Responses to “The Sucker (Beacon, 1957)”

  1. […] The Sucker by Orrie Hitt Reviewed here. […]

  2. Hello, firstly I want to say that I love your blog. Great post, I totally agree with you. Have a good day mate.

  3. […] who, before dying, was putting together a “one hundred eighty degree crank” for a stock car.  Like The Sucker, race cars and crank engines play a pivotal role, and ol’ Orrie uses his background as […]

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