Blood on the Mink is a time capsule of tasty noir crime fiction from beginning to end. The lost Robert Silverberg novel plummets several decades back, landing in Philadelphia gangland, and drowns in a hot pot of hardboiled intrigue. The young Silverberg is a cool-handed master of the craft, and makes the genre sing. The pacing of the work is near perfect, no stops or hiccups along the way, as the plot races towards its messy finish. Each page brings an additional dose of anxiety, and as you round the halfway mark you’re the helpless passenger careening off the cliff. Although the novel is relatively short, it’s long with satisfaction; All the devilishly seductive bits we’ve come to love in noir. And after the curtains have fallen, Hard Case Crime delivers two of Silverberg’s heavy-hitting short stories to cleanse the pallet.
Blood on the Mink is plot four parts Parker, one part Bond, and ninety-nine parts machismo. A counterfeit ring in Philly has been pumping out nearly untraceable ‘queer’ (counterfeit bills), and the government sends an undercover agent in place of a mob boss’ right hand man to deal with it. Posing as the mean Californian Vic Lowney, the agent must stare down villains, dames, and crisscrossing double-crossers if he’s going come out unscathed in the end.
Here’s the noir definition breakdown:
1) The Seedy Underworld
Silverberg’s descriptions of the seedy underworld of Philly have a snarky humor about them. As if he’s simultaneously praising and slighting the City of Brotherly Love. The climate of the scenes is old school, a time when men wore suits and overcoats when they went out to get the paper.
“Philadelphia at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning is just one big morgue. The corpses don’t start stirring until ten or eleven.”
2) The Anti-Hero
We don’t discover the name of our anti-hero until the last two pages of the book, and we certainly don’t get to know who he really is. Why? Because not even he knows. As Vic Lowney, he’s a mean sonnovabitch who likes pushing people’s buttons as much as he likes his steak rare and his women busty. He’s in the midst of a constant strategic powerplay, pissing off every hood he meets while earning their fear and respect. You’ll love him. He’s like Parker in a Westlake pulp, dynamite on the page.
“You get word in Omaha or Fond du lac or Jersey City that they need you, and the next thing you know you’re busy studying somebody and becoming him. Or maybe creating somebody out of whole cloth. It isn’t pretty work, posing as a criminal. You swim through an ocean of filth before your job is done, and a lot of that filth gets swallowed. But the job has to be done. Somebody has to do it. I guess I’m the lucky one.”
3) The Femme Fatale
Two women from different ends of the spectrum collide on Vic. The first, a virginal Hungarian named Elena, the daughter of the captive but talented engraver. She’s been the pressure point that the mob pushes in order to control her gifted father, to keep him scared enough to churn out plates for the private mint. She learns of Vic’s arrival and shows up at his hotel begging him to rescue her father. What’s in it for him? Anything he wants… The second, a former stripper and the Philly boss’ number one girl, Carol. She wants Klaus (the boss) dead and she wants Vic to do it. Breathy whispers of riding into the sunset with the plates all to themselves when the organization is out of the way make an interesting proposition. Especially when she pays Vic a late night visit; a taste of what’s to come.
“I let her into the room. She wriggled off the trenchcoat, threw it on a chair, and sucked in a deep breath with the obvious intention of enhancing her figure. Cooperatively, I gave her sweater an admiring glance. She flushed again, she was trying hard as hell to be a femme fatale, but the part just didn’t ride naturally on her.”
Blood on the Mink had a healthy dose of misogyny, it was reminiscent of the golden era of noir crime fiction. The women in the plot are at the mercy of their male overlords, they’re props for pervs to hang their ya-ya’s on. The helpless virgin was a nice touch, a woman who is able to sneak away to see Vic alone in his hotel room, but she’s not canny enough to help her captive father escape. And then Carol, a different kind of prisoner who’s looking to change wardens. When your blood boils you know you’re experiencing the symptoms of great noir misogyny.
This didn’t have the classic redemption theme that most noir from this era has. First, he wasn’t playing detective, so there was no intellectual redemption taking place. And second, we never really know who Vic really is or what his personal motivations might be. We’re given a lot of smoke about it being his duty, his job, but we don’t know why he chose it in the first place. He simply seems to get off on the lies. In this end of the pool, it’s a bit shallow.
I’ve already told you about the begging virgin, but nothing transpires between her and Vic. He promises to help her without cashing in any of her carnal assets. Not so with the stripper. But I love old noir crime fiction, because the sex is never raunchy or overtly detailed. I think Silverberg uses the words “stark naked” and “very happy” but that’s as tittilating as it gets.
“She said she was going to show me she could make a man happy. She showed me. She showed me for a couple of hours. By the time we were finished, I was very, very happy. So, I think, was she.”
7) Loss of Innocence
Poor Elena is the heart-wrenching tool of manipulation that has enslaved her father to Klaus. She’s desperate for freedom, but she lacks the masculinity to succeed in obtaining it. Her innocence is lost in more ways than one by the end of the plot. As far as Vic is concerned, he lost his innocence a long time ago. How, when, or why, we’ll never know.
“For a long time he refuses. But one day Klaus has no more patience. He takes me in front of my father, and they begin taking my clothes off, and when I am naked above the waist my father begins to cry, and–” She lowered her voice and looked at the floor. “Since that day he works for them.”
8 ) Racism
There wasn’t any.
The cigarette smoke in Blood on the Mink got thicker and darker as the plot raced on. Almost like the smoke-stack of a locamotive hurtling toward an unfinished bridge. It represented the anxiety being felt by both Vic and the reader, a sign of inner fuel reserves being burnt.
“I must have used up four hundred cigarettes that day, waiting for the minutes to tick past. By mid-afternoon my fingers were stained with nicotine and my throat felt like it had been left out in the Arizona sun for a few days. But there was nothing that I could do except smoke. And pace, and wait.”
This book has a steel backbone of masculinity running through it. As Vic interacts with any character, male or female, it’s akin to the posturing of male peacocks or silverback gorillas. Jutting chins, rolled sleeves, and puffed-out chests pepper the entire caper. Vic will not be emasculated, and he’s great at emasculating others.
“…when I read [Blood on the Mink] again last month, half century after the fact, I offered my younger self of that distant era a round of applause. He was still wet behind the ears, then, or so it seems to me from the vantage point of the senior citizen he has become, but even back then, I think, he told a pretty good story. I hope modern readers will agree.” -Robert Silverberg, March 2011
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