In the middle of an ordinary day, something extraordinary happens to publisher Dick Sherman: a beautiful woman mysteriously offers to sell him the last manuscript of the late Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles Anstruther (a thinly veiled Ernest Hemingway). Mere moments later, an unknown literary agent offers to sell him the very same manuscript. That afternoon, he sees his old flame accompanying the literary agent to lunch.
Many questions are posed in the opening to George Axelrod's Blackmailer: Why do both people have access to the same book? Why are they offering it to Sherman, whose company's best-selling book is a collection of modified crossword puzzles? How is his old girlfriend connected to it? And why do people keep beating him up over it?
George Axelrod was best known for his screenplay work, specifically his work adapting other writers' novels into two indisputable classics: The Manchurian Candidate and Breakfast at Tiffany's. The latter led to an Academy Award nomination, which you'll understand if you've both seen the film and read the novel. Axelrod also wrote the play (his first) that he later adapted with Billy Wilder into The Seven-Year Itch (which led to work on Marilyn Monroe's next film, Bus Stop).
Surprisingly, the character who suffers (if you can call it that) from the title "itch" is none other than publisher Dick Sherman (If you're lost, read the first sentence of this review again.), which makes this book a kind of sequel to one of cinema's most famous films (certainly the source of one of its most iconic images). Combine that with the sensational opening and the author's pedigree, and Blackmailer begs to be read by fans of the stage, screen, and both mainstream and genre fiction. It's a can't-miss proposition -- so here's another question: Why hasn't this book been reprinted since it was first published?
I don't know the answer to that, but I imagine that it is, at least in part, because Blackmailer doesn't really take off until the second half. The first hundred pages are filled with the aforementioned questions (among others) and exposition that could have easily been set up in less space. Luckily, Axelrod's voice and style make Dick Sherman an engaging fellow who I didn't mind following along.
As the novel wraps up, answering all the questions and then some, and revelation after revelation take place, the proceedings border on the unbelievable, but Axelrod keeps things well in hand and even serves up emotional depth along the way. Though Blackmailer has its ups and downs, the whole experience was generally positive, and I feel it fits securely into the Hard Case Crime canon.