This may be one of Hitt’s darkest novels. The keyhole peeper cover suggests this might be a peeping tom book but it’s not. Too Hot to Handle focuses on one of Hitt’s pet themes: young women in the 1950s who, out of bad circumstance, need, and blackmail, wind up as call girls, street hookers, or nude models.
Kay comes from the wrong side of town, Orchard Street, the red light district of sin and booze and crime. At fourteen, she is seduced by a friend of her father’s named Lucky. After teaching her all about sex, he tries to enlist her as a call girl for his operation. She had no idea he was a two-but pimp. She refuses.
At nineteen, she gets a job in a law office and winds up marrying the boss’ son, Burt, much to the boss’ chagrin — Kay is from Orchard Street, she’s not Ivy League class as he had hoped for his son, who just finished law school.
Burt tries opening his own office and they are poor, struggling, unable to meet rent on their West End Avenue apartment. To make matters worse, Kay’;s mother gets stomach cancer and the hospital wants to be paid or else no care and surgery (perhaps a political statement on Hitt’s part about the lack of universal health care).
Kay meets a married woman named Iris who seems to have a lot of money; she tells Kay she secretly works as a call girl for this “rich” old woman, Mrs. Gordon, who only deals with high-end executive businessmen who pay top dollar for the best girls — $100 an hour, when most hookers can only get $10-15 (and 100 is like $1500 in 1959 money).
Kay is facing too mnay bills — rent, groceries, her mother…so she does it, and finds she likes it after a few drinks until later when the guilt sets in. The men give her high marks — she’s so on sexual fire that she’s, yes, too hot to handle; when she tries to quit, Mrs. Gordon threatens to tell Burt what Kay is doing, so Kay is blackmailed into staying a call girl, although she does like the money. She also has a lesbian fling with Iris, after a bad drunk night when she has sex with five businessmen and passes out and they leave her alone in the room, and she didn’t get paid.
She felt the pain and she knew that he was taking her. She moaned, crying for herself and what she was, and she felt his lips on her mouth, lips that were filled with the wildness of passion, lips that became more furious…
She remembered little after that, except that men came to her, and went away.
“Wonderful,” she heard one of them say.
She didn’t know who said it and she didn’t care. She was earning money, earning it the way some girls did on Orchard Street, and that’s all she knew. (pp. 86-87)
Iris dies in a botched abortion (a common occurrence in Hitt’s and other sleaze books) and Kay has to hire a young girl, Debbie, to take care of her mom, only Debbie seduces Kay’s drunk father and blackmails Kay – the dad either goes to jail for rape or pays $2500 to settle.
The atmosphere of this novel is bleak and depressing, more than the other books Hitt did with this theme. Kay is faced with no-way-out situations.
When she wasn’t working or with Iris she would drink alone and it was then that a wave of disgust and self-pity needled her. She was married to a man that didn’t give a damn about her. She was a call girl. And, if that wasn’t enough, she was a lesbian. (p. 100)
This is true “sleaze” because none of the sex is exactly sensual but acts of drunken desperation and sad loneliness. Sex becomes nothing more than a business transaction for Kay, and soon she’s working sidelines at bars, having men every hour, her husband finds out and leaves her, and Kay keeps drinking more and more until she’s a complete lush and gets arrested by the vice cops…
After reading a slew of Hitt duds (to be expected from any prolific writer) this one was a vibrant read and enforces our contention that Orrie Hitt is a long lost pulp master who needs to be revived…and soon will be from Stark House which will issue an omnibus edition next year (with an introduction from Michael Hemmingson).