Fans of science fiction and fantasy grandmaster Robert Silverberg, five-time winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, might be surprised to see his work now appear as a Hard Case Crime thriller. There is no sci-fi in BLOOD ON THE MINK, but this is a terrific noir story that had been forgotten for half a century. It is also an example of pulp fiction at its finest.
As a young man in the late 1950s, Silverberg learned his craft writing for the pulps, as did many other great 20th-century authors. He estimated once that he wrote a million words a year in the last years of the ’50s, mostly for pulp magazines. If you wrote for the pulps and got paid pennies per word for your work, you had to write a lot and not be picky about your genres. So in addition to sci-fi, Silverberg wrote in fields ranging from crime to historical nonfiction to softcore sex tales.
"BLOOD ON THE MINK is a timeless good read, as enjoyable now as it was back then. And it’s yet further proof of the great job Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime does in bringing back to life a great literary tradition so long lost. Stories like this deserve to be read decades after they were written. They are a valuable part of our literary heritage."
But the world of the pulps, much like journalism today, was dying when Silverberg was a young man. So as it is today, writers had an uncertain time of it. Such was the literary world in which BLOOD ON THE MINK was born. In September 1959, Silverberg wrote a 6,000-word story about an undercover agent named Nick for a magazine. He got paid, but the publication folded before his story ever appeared. So much for that. Three years later, he expanded the story to a 45,000-word piece for a magazine that paid him a grand total of $800. It appeared under the byline “Ray McKensie” in November 1962, and the magazine promptly folded. The story was forgotten until it was rediscovered recently by Hard Case Crime founder and editor Charles Ardai.
Silverberg cashed his $800 check and moved on to have a great career as an author. In the dying world of the pulps, you learned your craft, adapted to economic uncertainty, and then either moved on or you found another line of work. Again, this is a situation many writers are facing today as the Internet displaces the old world of print and, in many cases, offers writers even less than the two cents a word. Adapt or die.
This is the first time BLOOD ON THE MINK has ever been published in book form, and two additional Silverberg short stories are included here. It is a great example of what Silverberg in an afterword calls the “nasty little thrillers” he regularly churned out during his pulp fiction days. In the days before TV, the Internet, iPads and countless diversions, the pulps gave readers a good night’s entertainment, and that is exactly what this wonderful and exciting read does.
The story centers on a T-Man --- a treasure agent --- who spends a week undercover in Philadelphia impersonating another gangster. His mission is to infiltrate a high quality counterfeiting ring looking to expand their bogus bills across the country. And in true pulp fashion, the story moves with breakneck speed as our hero deals with femme fatales, innocent victims, and double and triple crosses galore. Think of the great 1948 film noir T-Men, where Dennis O’Keefe played the role of the government agent.
And as with much of noir that deals with questions of identity, we do not even find out the real name of the undercover agent until a few pages before the end of the story, even though we have taken this journey with him in the first person. Silverberg writes: “You get word in Omaha or Fond du Lac or Jersey City that they need you, and 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.”
And the undercover man’s journey will take him through the violent underworld of Philly, which Silverberg describes in perfect pulp style. Think of Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, as the agent encounters a woman sent to him by the mob boss. “Everything about her shrieked that she was a fancy pro. Gold flame dress that ended well below the armpits and showed lots of softly rounded pale flesh. Unlikely blonde hair. Full red lips, only slightly too hard. Calculating greenish eyes…”
Now 77, Silverberg admits in his afterword that he remembered nothing of this story. But in rereading it, he says he “offered his 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.”
Indeed, you did not read a pulp mystery in 1962 to learn more about the crisis in Laos or Berlin. That is why BLOOD ON THE MINK is a timeless good read, as enjoyable now as it was back then. And it’s yet further proof of the great job Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime does in bringing back to life a great literary tradition so long lost. Stories like this deserve to be read decades after they were written. They are a valuable part of our literary heritage.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on April 13, 2012