“Life is filled with new experiences, but this was one I could have gotten along without. Two dead men in one day is a little hard on the system at best; it makes it sort of rough, when you end up with one of them in the trunk of your car.”
Most men would stop if they saw the luscious Marilyn K. stranded by the side of the road. Sam Russell is no exception. Marilyn’s traveling companion has just been killed in a car crash. He’s a married man, and she doesn’t want to get involved in a scandal. When she begs Sam to drive her to a motel, flashing a suitcase full of cash, it all seems too good to be true…and it is. In the beginning, Sam wants the girl and the money. By morning, he’ll settle for escaping with his life, but it may already be too late.
Marilyn K. is a competent pulp novel with a nicely mordant sense of humor. It’s quick and breezy, but the plot is too simple even for this short length. Lionel White is known for his densely plotted heist novels. This is not one of them.
The book’s greatest asset is the character of Sam. No tortured noir hero here—Sam is an affable guy who’s content to drift along in life, letting others make all the decisions. That works out all right until he meets Marilyn K. He soon learns that Marilyn Kelley and her twin sister Suzy are hit recording artists (“You better catch up on your rock ‘n’ roll!”), and Marilyn’s recently deceased boyfriend is a Mafia bagman. Sam’s not dumb, exactly, but he’s not really thinking with his head, either.
You think this sort of decision is easy? You think it is simple just to reason it out? To get in a car and forget that a girl like Marilyn K. is waiting for you in a motel bedroom a few miles down the road? That several hundred thousand dollars are waiting in a bedroom a few miles down the road? Would you follow the dictates of your intelligence and drive on back to New York and ignore the fact that you would be passing up something most guys would give their lives to have?
And that was the key to the whole thing. I would be very likely giving my own life if I did take a crack at it. I think I am probably as smart as the next cookie, but I will tell you something. As I started to open the door of the convertible, I had already made my decision. I was going back to that motel and I wasn’t going to spare the horses. That’s the kind of idiot I am.
Still, Sam is basically a wholesome person, which keeps things from getting too sleazy. His moral code gets him into a lot of trouble over the course of the story, but it may also be the only hope of saving his life.
So we have a good guy, three beautiful women (two of them identical twins), mobsters, stolen money, and corrupt rural cops. Throw in a couple of murders and that’s enough to keep things humming along, but it would be nice to have a few more twists. Aside from Sam, the only character with much depth is Marilyn, whose formal diction and distaste for cursing make for an amusing contrast with her pragmatic attitude toward crime. “He’s a filthy man,” she says after clocking a sheriff’s deputy with a bottle. “If he has injured you I’ll kill him. And the language he used.”
Despite featuring several brutal murders and the highest concussion rate on the eastern seaboard, Marilyn K. is surprisingly lighthearted, with a low-key humor on display throughout that elevates an otherwise fairly standard plot.
White handles all this in highly entertaining fashion, juggling the elements of his plot so that the reader really doesn’t know what to expect next. It helps that much of the action takes place around a couple of motels (that staple of noir fiction), one a ritzy motor lodge, the other a set of rundown tourist cabins. It all leads to a satisfying, if somewhat predictable, climax.
Marilyn K. is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House, in a double volume with The House Next Door.