Book review: Never Say No to a Killer by Clifton Adams

In a violent and fast-paced crime noir tale, a wily, a dangerous criminal escapes from prison and vows to avenge the murder of his former cellmate and continue the man's extensive blackmail operation.
Never Say No to a Killer by Clifton AdamsNever Say No to a Killer by Clifton Adams
Never Say No to a Killer by Clifton Adams

Clifton Adams, a popular American writer during the 1950s and 60s, penned more than fifty novels and around 125 short stories. He mainly wrote exciting Western yarns and won two Western Writers of America Spur Awards. Several of his novels were made into movies with one starring Lee Van Cleef.

But at one point in the 50s, his output was divided almost equally between Westerns and crime fiction. Using his own name, as well as pseudonyms, he had five crime novels published by the likes of Ace Books, Avalon, Berkley and Gold Medal Books.

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Never Say No to a Killer, reprinted from 1956 by Black Gat Books, an imprint of Stark House Press, is the first of two gritty Adams’ novels under the pen name Jonathan Gant. It tells the story of ruthless and clever Roy Surrat, an unrepentant prison convict determined to break out of jail and resume his life of crime.

When he briefly shares a cell with John Venci, a powerful gangster whose ‘organisation had a thousand brains and two thousand arms’ that ‘could reach anywhere and grab anything,’ he is dazzled by Venci’s persuasive logic and ‘tremendous knowledge of criminal philosophy.’

The two men make a pact to work together. Venci promises to arrange a safe passage out of town for Surrat, provided Surrat can escape on a pre-arranged day a year hence.

Surrat’s well-thought-out escape entails joining a chain gang, ‘pounding scorching asphalt ten hours a day, under a hundred degree sun’ while helping build an airstrip three miles from the prison, and then smashing ‘a beautiful rock’ weighing twenty pounds over one of the prison guard’s head and shooting dead the other with the man’s own shotgun.

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Venci, depicted solely through Surrat’s reverential descriptions of him, proves true to his word, even in death. His widow Dorris comes to Surratt’s aid, transporting him away from danger and to her home town of Lake City. In return for helping him, she wants Surrat to kill the state’s beloved ex-governor Alex Burton, a ‘thieving, knavish, pompous’ man who robbed the city blind during his political lifetime, committing every crime in the book, including murder.

Surrat needs the prospect of violence to feel alive and wants to eliminate the man responsible for Venci’s death. However, as payment for killing the corrupt former governor, he wants from Dorris all the blackmail material Venci collected on people.

It turns out that there are at least fifteen prominent names ripe for blackmailing in Venci’s strongbox, from senators to book publishers. And if done right, there’s easily half a million dollars in blackmail money he can milk out of them.

However, while money might be ‘the easiest thing in the world to come by,’ a man has to stay alive to enjoy it. And all the power and influence and criminal logic in the world didn’t do John Venci much good.

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Much like his slain idol, Surrat is also too smart for his own good. Unable to suitably manage Dorris, or Patricia Kelso, the ex-governor’s mistress, he soon discovers it doesn’t pay to underestimate a woman.

Never Say No to a Killer is a fast, lean, effective tale by a writer who was very proficient at penning marketable men’s adventure fiction. Sadly, Adams died of a heart attack in 1971, aged only 51. He was highly prolific and in demand right up to his death, with numerous completed novels published in the years following his death.

Although not as complex and stimulating as some of his Westerns, Adams’ tough crime novel has sufficient action and plot twists to make for a swift, entertaining read.

(Stark House Press, paperback, £9.95)