Thursday , April 18 2024
A slim quartet of racetrack crime fiction from the 1930s provides a breezy Depression Era snapshot.

Book Review: Horse Money by Richard Wormser

A prolific crafter of genre fiction and TV/movie novelizations, Richard Wormser’s writing life was ironically encapsulated by the man himself in a posthumously published memoir, How to Become A Complete Nonentity. Yet Wormser (not to be confused with a younger filmmaker of the same name) had a full career writing westerns and crime fiction for the pulps and Hollywood. Horse Money (Black Dog Books), a slim 108-page collection of four novelettes from the 1930s, resurrects a too-short Blue Book detective series set in the world of horse racing. If Wormser’s stories aren’t exactly Dick Francis, they do provide a breezy snapshot of the pari-mutuel life circa mid-thirties.

The quartet of tales is narrated by Chief Van Eyck, a racing commission cop who hangs around the tracks, thwarting bookies and race fixers, catching the occasional killer. Described as “fat” by both Van Eyck and his seen-it-all secretary/girlfriend Elizabeth, Van Eyck is himself an inveterate gambler with a rep for honesty, though he’s not above playing fast and loose with his good name if it can sucker some bad guys. In one memorable moment, he even plays at going “blood simple,” threatening to gas both a straight-laced homicide detective and a suspect to get the latter to confess to a killing. Fortunately, the homicide detective is a somewhat forgiving type.

Three of the pieces in Horse Money are set in an undisclosed, probably West Coast city; the title tale places our hero on his own in NYC. In “Right Guy,” Van Eyck’s attempts at stopping a race fix are waylaid when the culprits kidnap his gal pal Elizabeth; in “Heat of the Moment,” our man gets between a machine gun toting gang of crooks and the tong, which leads to gun play and a few twists on period stereotypes. In “Horse Money,” Van Eyck has his own betting winnings stolen with the help of a shapely chorus girl. Though he has his own brief night on the Wonderful Town, we never doubt that our hero won’t be riding the rails back to his girlfriend at story’s end.

Wormser doesn’t slather on the race track lingo as much as a Damon Runyon, though he can craft some snappy, if decidedly un-PC patter. Confronted with a knife-wielding thug named Snapper McGill, for instance, the racetrack copper tells the mug, “Guys named McGill ought to confine themselves to bricks. Racially, the knife is not your weapon.” Like all good hard-boiled dicks, Van Eycks is a hard-ass smart-ass. When one of his wounded underlings manages to crack wise, he even affectionately grouses back: “Stop trying to steal my stuff. The boss makes the jokes.” And so he does.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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