Game of Passion by Ennis Willie (Merit Books, 1964)

This one is probably the weakest of the four Sand Shocker’s we’ve read thus far, and wonder why it is included in the Sand’s Game omnibus, re-titled Too Late to Pray…perhaps for its connection to one of the short stories, “Flesh House.”

In Game of Passion/Too Late to Pray, Sand has been away for a while and seems the Syndicate has stopped sending killers. But he’s come back to his home city of Chicago to find out who killed a hooker he knew five years ago, working for Morpsie Steiner, a madam of a well-known brothel.  Sand has history with Morpsie and she may have appeared in other books.

The plot is basic: Sand runs around town, beating up and killing people as he looks for clues and evidence, learning about the dead hooker’s ties with wealthy and political men that indicates she knew too much…and seems every low life gangster boyfriend she’s had was given an anonymous and generous amount of cash to break up with her.  There are no plot twists as found in other Sand Shockers, or weird characters such as crippled domestic terrorists or, like in Warped Ambitions, a gorilla trainer with warped ambitions. This is standard tough guy noir fare with a predictable solving of the crime.

We get a quick glimpse of Morpsie’s son who answers the brothel door, a pimply young lad on vacation from an Ivy League law school…in the short story “Flesh House,” this son is about 10 years older, a legal eagle deep in Chicago politics with public office ambitions. So the story takes place a considerable time after the novel. Morpsie has been murdered, and after a few wild goose chases, Sand realizes it was the son, who changed his name but couldn’t have it come out that his mom was a pimp of female flesh — that would ruin his warped ambitions as mayor, assemblyman, senator, maybe president…

In his introduction to “Flesh House,” Bill Pronzini notes that there is enough material for a novel, and we can’t help but think Willie should have wrote this novel.

Despite this novel’s flaws, we highly recommend buying Sand’s Game from the iconoclastic Ramble House, which has published many great sleaze reprints (Jim Harmon’s Ape Rape for one) and originals, like Gary Lovisi’s quirky fine collection, Ultra-Boiled.

Along with “Flesh House” are two other Sand stories, “Con’s Wife” and “The Ugly Redhead,” originally published in the Camerarts girly mags, Rascal and Best for Men. At the end, we get an interview with Willie conducted by Stephen Mertz, and find out who Willie really is, a writer who for decades was an enigma to many of his fans — was Willie the pen name of someone? Was he the African-American poet with the same name?  Willie was and is definitely a curiosity, having written more than 20 books between 1961-65, while in his early 20s, and then vanishing, not taking a lucrative series deal Pinnacle Books had offered, opting for a profession in the print business, which he still works at to this day, in his 60s…and he has not written any fiction since (although hints he may return, perhaps bringing Sand back).  His books go for top dollar on the collector’s market (you can’t find a Willie book for less than, say, $40, with many others priced at $100-300), he has influenced many great crime writers, yet he has chosen not to re-surface…perhaps he found publishing with the low-end paperback houses less than savory — seeing that Novel/Merit Books and Vega (an imprint of Fabian/Saber) didn’t pay their writers much, if at all. (Orrie Hitt and Bob Tralins had issues of money with both.) Also, his novels were pretty short, 30-40,000 words, not the standard 50-60,000 words required by Gold Medal, Dell, Beacon, and others, but okay for Merit and Vega.

And yet,  he didn’t give a damn about market conventions of length, style, and content. Willie says in the interview, about his books:

I loved them and I love them now. That is the truth. I didn’t hold them up in comparison to other stories or other writers.  That was never my concern. My judgment is based on how well they produce on paper what I saw in my mind’s eye. (p. 251)

He  talks about why Merit didn’t publish Vice Town — the hero, Gator, has a broken leg and hobbles on crutches (which he uses as a weapon), and that did not fit the image of virile. perfect, tough guy male characters that Novel/Merit/Camerarts was known for. Many Willie fans feel Vice Town is his best work, and we agree.

“Lately I have become aware of a strange tingling in my fingertips,” Willie confesses. “I have an awful lot of plots I have been trying to ignore” (p. 255).  We hope that Willie will return to crime fiction, or any fiction, someday.

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