|I finished reading WEB OF THE CITY by Harlan Ellison the other day. It was my second-time around for the novel, which was Ellison's first. The first time I read it, back in the 1970s, the book looked like this:|
As you can see, the cover art for both editions couldn't be more radically different if they tried. While I admire all of the covers by the Dillons that adorned the Pyramid Books series of mid-'70s Ellison paperbacks, I have to admit that I prefer the 2013 version courtesy of artist Glen Orbik. Hard Case Crime does a great job of producing books that have a distinct retro look and vibe and WEB OF THE CITY, first published in 1958, fits the bill perfectly.
WEB is the story of one Rusty Santoro, a Brooklyn high-school student by day and a gang leader by night (and other times off). As the story begins, Rusty has decided to call it quits with the Cougars, the street gang he has been presiding over. But you don't just quit the Cougars and Rusty has to prove himself in a vicious knife fight with Candle, the young thug who replaced him as leader of the Cougars.
Rusty is victorious and begins to believe that maybe he really can quit gang life, finish school and pursue a career. But when his younger sister Dolores is raped and murdered, Rusty finds himself back on the mean streets and tracking her killer with a fiercely determined single-mindedness. Rusty's search takes a few twists and turns before ending with a rooftop battle to the death with the killer. Even though Rusty survives, his life is just as bleak and doomed to a dead-end as ever before.
WEB OF THE CITY is far from Ellison's best work. That would come later. But it does demonstrate that as a young writer Ellison had stories to tell and a unique voice to tell them with. WEB paints a vivid picture of gang life in 1950s New York City and even though slightly pulpy at times, the portrait rings true and accurate with Rusty a sympathetic, if doomed, protagonist.
The remainder of the book contains three short-stories by Ellison. The first, NO WAY OUT, first published in GUILTY DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE in September, 1957, is essentially one long chapter of WEB OF THE CITY with a different ending. The next, NO GAME FOR CHILDREN (from ROGUE, May 1959) is a cat-and-mouse game between a young punk and his older, intellectual neighbor with a neat twist ending straight out of an E.C. crime comic. The final short story, STAND STILL AND DIE! (GUILTY DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE, September 1956) is a fast-paced, uber pulpy yarn about a hard-boiled cab driver who fights crime with his fists and his smart-aleck mouth.
Look for a longer post coming soon about Harlan Ellison and the effect his work has had on my life. For now, check out WEB OF THE CITY to see how his illustrious career got started. You won't regret it.