The Pulp Pit: The Star Trap and Kim
Two pulp thrillers from Robert Colby
Like many mid-century paperback writers, Robert Colby’s biography is primarily the list of books he wrote, but then there’s probably no better way to remember an author than by what they wrote (a pretty definitive looking list has been compiled by Peter Enfantino for Mystery File). Like many pulp authors of the day, Colby’s bread and butter were crime, detective, and sex novels, usually all rolled into one package contained behind a beautifully lurid cover. He did a lot of writing for the publishing house Gold Medal Books, wrote a couple of non-fiction true crime books, and contributed many short stories to Alfred Hitchcock and Mike Shayne mystery magazines. He even slipped a few children’s books into the mix. He wrote a Hawaiian Eye novel that was adapted into an episode of the series, and he like many was involved with the long-running and voluminous Nick Carter, aka Killmaster, series, co-authoring The Death’s Head Conspiracy (1973) with Gary Brandner. Although he never achieved the fame and respect of a writer like Donald Hamilton, Colby proved time and again he was a capable wordsmith who could deliver action-packed pulp.
Colby scored a reasonable amount of acclaim for his novel, The Captain Must Die (1959), a hardboiled story about three bitter WWII soldiers looking for revenge against the captain who had them court-martialed for desertion twelve years earlier. Despite the acclaim, however, he never had the sort of breakout hit that made him a name in the same way as contemporaries such as Donald Hamilton (the Matt Helm series). Still, he wrote some damn good books. Kim and The Star Trap may not be Robert Colby at his best, but they are Robert Colby at his pretty good, and they’re both fine examples of quality pulp writing.
Kills, Thrills, and the Hollywood Hills
“She was one of the lost ones on the same road to oblivion all of us are traveling. But like so many escaping in the labyrinth of sensual amorality, she had more heart than guile, more warmth than a host of virtuous pretenders I have known.”
The Star Trap (1960) is the sort of lean, no-nonsense hardboiled detective formula that, by the 1960s, the pulp paperback industry could produce in its sleep. That’s not a criticism. Well-executed formula can be highly entertaining, and Robert Colby knew how to deliver. It’s a tale of murder, blackmail, and betrayal playing out among the could-have-beens and has-beens shacking up in shabby Hollywood apartment buildings and posh Hollywood Hills homes. Glenn Harley has his moment in the sun. It didn’t lead to a life of celebrity and fame, but he manages to eke out a life as an actor in B-movies, though even those roles are starting to dry up for him. When he receives a panicked call at 3 am from starlet Nancy Rhymer, a woman he barely knows, asking him for help. Glenn may not actually know Nancy, but he’s always lusted after her from afar. So lust gets the better of reason and he heads over to a home in the Hollywood Hills and finds Nancy, scantily clad, in the company of a dead man—and she wants Glenn’s help getting rid of the body.
Glenn knows better than to get his hands bloody with this mess, but Nancy’s story about accidentally killing the man, a chump actor looking to make the move into production, after he attacked her combined with the implied promise of sex to come clouds Glenn’s judgment. He spends the rest of the book paying for it, and scrambling to stay alive and out of jail as Nancy’s story quickly unravels and reveals a labyrinthine plot involving corrupt cops, blackmail, embezzlement, robbery, pornography, prostitution, Mob infiltration of the movie business, and a sympathetic nymphomaniac. It plays out against the dependable, surreal backdrop of seedy Los Angeles and Hollywood, where urban sprawl suddenly gives way to twisting mountain roads, dusty canyons, and the Pacific Ocean depending on which direction you’re heading.
And Glenn gets tugged in a lot of directions indeed as he tries to figure out what’s happening to him, what Nancy is up to, and ultimately, how he might be able to spin the series of events to his favor and maybe come out a richer man. It’s a difficult task, especially when Nancy vanishes, the body vanishes, and Glenn finds himself on the hook for the murder and a briefcase containing $350,000 that the victim was carrying. Throughout the many twists and turns, Colby keeps the suspense level high. There’s not really a point at which the speed flags, making for a pretty breathless (and quick) read.
I love a good, sleazy movie business pulp, and The Star Trap delivers exactly that. I also enjoy a story where a single bad decision snowballs into bigger and bigger bad decisions until all of a sudden one finds oneself holed up in a dodgy motel, trying to figure out how you can escape with your life, plus maybe a case full of money and a twisted but beautiful woman. Colby packs a lot of sex, violence, and thrills into a silm volume, the pace of his writing matching the mounting desperation of poor dumb Glenn as he stumbles into and then tries to wiggle his way out of a nightmare.
Mayhem in Miami: Kim
“We were in the PI racket not because we loved the work and wanted to use our knowledge to relieve suffering humanity of its burden of evil,” Striker confesses, “but because we wanted to relieve the customers of as much goddamn money as the traffic would bear.”
Kim (1962), like The Star Trap, is short, fast-paced, and packed with twists which, while maybe not surprising, are fun nevertheless. His prose is cut from the same flannel as Mickey Spillane’s, only with less of a deep-seated hatred for all mankind. Colby’s Rod Striker — yes, that’s his name — is your typical tough-talking shamus, but he doesn’t skulk around with a chip on his shoulder, and in a change of pace, he’s not shabby in appearance or profession. The Miami agency he runs with former policewoman Myra Baily is a posh outfit catering to well-heeled clients, and neither he nor Myra harbors romantic notions of the “warrior with a broken heart” that defined the quintessential gumshoe, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
Rod Striker has a problem named Kim Rumshaw, and Kim Rumshaw has a problem named Eddie Tarino. And everyone has a problem named Nick Markos. For Striker, the trouble starts when Kim’s wealthy aunt approached him with an offer: get this love-struck guy Eddie off her niece’s back using the quickest, most violent solution possible. It seems ol’ Eddie-boy has been hiring goons to make threats against the aunt and Kim’s fiance, a square-jawed hunk of wood, in order to pressure Kim into going out with him. Rod isn’t in the muscle-for-hire business, but he does agree to take care of the problem in a less two-fisted fashion—though that commitment to doing things the polite way goes out the window pretty fast as soon as the lead starts flying.
Eddie maintains he has nothing to do with the threat, and that Kim is a willing companion. Striker doesn’t buy it, and before too long he and his partner, Myra, are up to their eyeballs in a plot involving…well, Rod’s not sure, but he’s damn well gonna find out. No knights-errant are Myra and Rod, but they’re still committed to their clients, especially when those clients serve up a dish as tempting as Kim Rumshaw, a seemingly reasonable young woman who, faced with marriage to a well-meaning slab of dullsville, indulges in a fling with flashy hustler Eddie Tarino, not realizing that Eddie would think of it as more than a one-and-done deal.
To get Eddie out of the Rumshaws’ hair, Rod plays the tough guy while Myra infiltrates Tarino’s strip club, either to dazzle Eddie and make him forget about Kim or to amass enough evidence of crime that they can serve Eddie up to the cops. Needless to say, neither plan goes smoothly, and when a sinister character named Nick Markos shows up from Chicago, it clues the PIs into something much bigger than Eddie’s infatuation with Kim and casual threats of violence against her loved ones.
Kim is too short to be slow-paced. Colby peppers the story with enough fist-fights, shoot-outs, and sex to keep the slim volume well-packed with exactly what you expect from such a story. He switches things up, shifting the narrative from Rod’s point of view to Myra’s for a few chapters as she works her way into Tarino’s operation. Colby may not sparkle at writing from a woman’s point of view, but certainly there have been worse attempts. Myra remains a capable, resourceful operative who never falls victim to the age-old mistake of a male author devoting a paragraph to how tough and smart a female is, then immediately undermining that assertion by writing her as a bumbling damsel in distress. Instead, Myra finds herself in a heck of a pickle and, rather than Rod riding to her rescue, finds he’s not at home, leaving her to think (and judo chop) her way out of danger. Sure, there’s some eyeroll-worthy pining for Rod on Myra’s part, but the same is true in the other direction, so all’s fair in love and detective work.
Published in 1962, after many of the major obscenity battles had been won, Colby gets to make Kim a little spicier than was common in the previous decade. It’s not hardcore by any stretch, but Kim doesn’t shy away from some steamy nonsense. It’s just sleazy enough, and you damn well know with a character named Rod Striker, there’s not much that isn’t out on the table, including the time-honored squeezing of the upper thigh that leads to a woman saying, “Gosh, you are a lot of man.” That said, he makes for a decent enough lead, and Myra is a suitable partner, even if her point-of-view is just an aside.
Tarino doesn’t show up a lot in the story, but when he does, he makes for an interesting foil because he’s not a thoroughly cartoonish villain. He’s pretty low-key and prefers to play it easy rather than cracking skulls. The key to his success is in keeping as clean as you can running a strip club with a side business in promising prostitution but rarely delivering — only going far enough to fleece an easy mark for as much dough as he’s got. Nick Markos is the real heavy, and he’s the impetus for the only bit where the sleaze gets a little rougher.
Rod gets to bed just about every woman who is described as nubile, except for a secretary he describes as having an ass that waved goodbye to you as she walked away. There are indeed a number of choice pulp detectivisms of that nature, and as is demanded by the genre, Colby comes up with some admirably ludicrous ways to describe women’s breasts, the best being one about having a lot on her balcony. Look, pal, you don’t come to these stories expecting good behavior. Most of the time, his prose is lean, mean, and effective. It’s all good fun, provided you are willing to roll with the usual ass-slapping, stocking glimpsing, and clunky come-ons.