Review by C.J. Bunce
Writer Robert Silverberg is best known for his science fiction and fantasy. He’s also written non-fiction, and he took a side-journey into pulp crime novels. The Hot Beat was one of those novels, first published in 1960, and it’s finding its way to bookstores again tomorrow, thanks to a reprint from Hard Case Crime. The title is a play on a few points: the first is the “beat” as in Bob McCay, a has-been L.A. nightclub musician who finds himself on his way to Death Row–in the “hot seat” for killing a local woman known to frequent the nightclubs. But a reporter on the “beat” named Ned Lowry knows local law enforcement is quick to judge, and takes on McCay as his new pet project. Did McCay kill Doris Blair, and can McKay’s ex-girlfriend help set the record straight? In a grimy 1950s L.A. Silverberg dabbles in crime tropes to create a moody piece that reflects the vibe of 1930s and 1940s noir.
Readers probably won’t count Silverberg among the great crime writers, but in The Hot Beat he pieces together ideas that made many a great noir story work. His journalist is equal bits Jimmy Stewart as the reporter trying to save a convict from Death Row in Call Northside 777 and investigator Dana Andrews using Gene Tierney to find her own murderer in Laura. Silverberg’s best creation here is jilted lover Terry Stafford, a complex woman who is neither a femme fatale nor a damsel in distress. She’s James M. Cain’s title character in The Cocktail Waitress, using her feminine nature to get herself the good life in a world with all the cards stacked against her.
The music aspect of the book plays out like a writer trying to get his story onto the big screen, with the kind of surreal musical cues you’d find with a drunken character in a noisy bar partying it up in some classic noir movie. Terry Stafford is mostly sympathetic like the young sister in The Big Sleep, part tough and calculating like the older sister. But she’s less a noir fiction creation and written more real and lost, a victim with an unsteady footing out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie. So the setting isn’t the prettiest of these noir stories, and so it lacks the fun you can often glean out of a resolved plot or comeuppance. The Hot Beat is more of an exercise, a trial of stylings and elements than a memorable story–it has no standout characters or any surprise turn of events.
This edition includes an introduction by Silverberg (now 87) and three crime stories previously published in magazines: Jailbait Girl from 1959, Drunken Sailor from 1958, and Naked in the Lake from 1958, as well as a brief preview of his novel Blood on the Mink.
If you’re a fan of Silverberg and want to read a side of him you may never have seen before, this may be for you. It’s a very typical pulp noir, but one of many that has been locked away for 62 years and found it’s way to daylight again. Pre-order The Hot Beat now here at Amazon, arriving in all good bookstores tomorrow.