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Book review: Portrait in Smoke and The Longest Second by Bill S. Ballinger

Portrait in Smoke and The Longest Second by Bill S. Ballinger
Portrait in Smoke and The Longest Second by Bill S. Ballinger

Innovative writer Bill S. Ballinger – often credited as a master of the noir thriller and an early exponent of dual narrative storytelling – was one of America's most prolific authors and screenwriters.

Ballinger, who died in 1980 at the age of 68, wrote scripts for eight feature films, more than 150 teleplays, 30 books, and in 1961, he won an Edgar Award for one of his teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

But it was Ballinger’s fiction which brought him the most success. His novels, several of which were made into films, have sold more than ten million copies in the States and been reprinted in 30 countries and translated into more than 13 languages.

A book critic for The New York Times called him ‘a major virtuoso of the mystery technique,’ and yet Ballinger remains an overlooked writer, with much of his work long out of print.

Fortunately, the gap has now been plugged by the publication of a two-in-one volume from Stark House Press featuring two of the author’s personal favourites, Portrait in Smoke, and the Edgar-nominated The Longest Second, two unique mystery classics that shocked the literary world when they first came out in the 1950s.

In his introduction to this new volume, Nicholas Litchfield, editor of the Lowestoft Chronicle, a quarterly online literary magazine, revels in the republication of these two noir masterpieces, writing: ‘These two powerful, provocative tales from the Fifties are as fresh and impressive today as when they first startled and enthralled the world and earned their place as mystery classics.’

Ballinger won his first major success with the tough, gritty 1950 novel Portrait in Smoke, which was made into the 1956 film Wicked As They Come. Divided into two parallel narratives, it tells the tale of Danny April, new owner of a small collection agency in Chicago, and his obsessive search for Krassy Almauniski, a local beauty queen with a shady past and a deadly reputation.

While going through archived files in his cabinets, Danny comes across a photograph of Krassy, who he believes is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen, and he is driven to investigate her further in the hope of meeting her.

Starting his search in the Stockyard slums, Danny interviews her family members, lovers, work colleagues and acquaintances, doggedly and obsessively tracing her journey across the city and trying to learn as much as he can about her.

But what he doesn’t know is the real Krassy, the cold-eyed manipulator whose story springs to life through an alternating narrative in which we view her frank and horribly fascinating account of numerous dalliances, transgressions, achievements and tribulations.

After a bleak childhood in the Stockyard district and in order to attain the life she desires, she has capitalised on her physical appeal, exploiting her looks ‘as other woman used an education, or a trained talent, or social connections’ and is incapable of love and happiness.

And it is the startling truth behind her rise to fame and riches that cleverly highlights the danger and foolishness of Danny’s hopeless and helpless infatuation.

The second novel, The Longest Second, shortlisted for the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1958, is an exciting, suspense-packed crime story which switches between a police investigation and an amnesiac’s search for his true identity.

Unlike in Portrait in Smoke, the main protagonist, Victor Pacific, is stripped of personality and emotion. We first meet him as he wakes up in hospital suffering from total amnesia and unable to speak, having been dumped on the steps of an apartment building after his throat was cut from ear to ear.

Unable to speak or recall anything from his past, he eventually leaves the hospital and heads out into New York City in search of clues as to who he is and an understanding of exactly what has happened to him as even the police are dubious about his true identity.

Communicating by way of a notebook and pencil, he questions Bianca Hill, the kind and caring woman who discovered him on the doorstep of her home and alerted the police. Taking pity on him, she allows him to live in her basement and work as a silversmith, assisting her with her jewellery business.

As Vic gains emotional and financial stability, his memory slowly returns and he is compelled to delve into his shadowy past and discover the truth about himself. And instead of resolution and contentment, Vic finds that the past brings only disturbing revelations, disappointment, and extreme danger.

The Longest Second, says Litchfield, is ‘neither gimmicky nor contrived’ but ‘a cunningly deceptive work that is full of twists and shocks, and has a storyline intended to continually keep you guessing about the past and the present.’

Abnormal and packed full of surprises because of the two seemingly unconnected storylines, an unreliable narrator, and the author’s wily weaving between first-person and third-person narration, The Longest Second is ingenious, suspenseful, and memorably intriguing.

Perfectly paired with Portrait in Smoke, these two exceptional novels are as fascinating and entertaining today as they were 60 years ago.

(Stark House Press, paperback, ᆪ15.95)