Created by Bill S. Ballinger
Pseudonyms include B.S. Sanborn and Frederic Fryer
Bill S. Ballinger is one of those mystery authors I’ve been aware of for decades without ever reading much by him. I recall reading a couple of his espionage novels featuring secret agent Joaquin Hawks back in the Sixties, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. However, I just read his early suspense novel Portrait in Smoke (1950), which Stark House is reprinting in a double volume along with the novel The Longest Second (1957), and I can see why it has a reputation as an excellent novel.
To start with, Ballinger uses a technique that I hardly ever like, alternating between first and third person, but makes it work really well. The first person sections are narrated by DANNY APRIL (great name), who runs a low-rent collections agency in Chicago. In an old file from long before he bought the agency, he finds a photograph of a beautiful young girl named Krassy Almauniski. And to put it simply, he becomes infatuated with her, all because she reminds him of a girl he saw once when he was a young man but never talked to. Love at first sight? Maybe, but certainly obsession at first sight. Danny starts trying to find her, or at least find out what happened to her, and these parts of the novel form a top-notch procedural yarn as Danny traces out the details of Krassy’s life, step by step. At the same time, in the third person sections, Ballinger gives the truth about Krassy’s life, as opposed to Danny’s somewhat skewed view. This part of the book reads more like a naturalistic novel about a young woman’s determined climb out of the poverty and squalor of Chicago’s stockyards district all the way to the heights of wealth and power, no matter what it takes. It’s inevitable that these two storylines will intersect eventually, and when they do, that’s when Portrait in Smoke becomes a noirish crime novel with a very nice twist ending.
Ballinger’s writing is smooth and polished, and his control over the complex plot really had me turning the pages. This one hits the mark all the way around for me with the writing, the pace, the plot, and the compelling characters. Highly recommended.
In 1956, a British adaptation Wicked As They Come was released, loosely based on Portrait in Smoke. Loosely, I say, because, for example, April’s low-rent skip tracer character is totally written out of the story, replaced by slick London ad man Tim O’Bannion (plyed by Philip Carey), so it’s not really a P.I. flick. In addition, the setting is pretty much scuttled, shifting from Chicago to England and France, and there are numerous other changes, with much of the original story substantially rewritten. Still, it’s a nice, slow burn crime flick, and Arlene Dahl does pretty well as Kathy (Krassy in the book).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Bill Ballinger was educated at the University of Wisconsin, and received his B.A. in 1934. and worked in advertising and broadcasting in Chicago and New York. His first novel was The Body in the Bed in 1948, and he went on to write thirty books, the most famous probably being Portrait in Smoke (1950), which received a Les Grands Maîtres du Roman Policier Award and was eventually filmed in 1956 as Wicked as They Come. He wrote two novels fearing Chicago eye Barr Breed in the late forties, and another featuring Bryce Patch in 1969, and a series about Joaquin Hawks, a Native Indian CIA agent operating in Southeast Asia, in the sixties. In the fifties, he had moved to California to try his hand at screenwriting, and was eventually credited with scripts for eight feature films and over 150 teleplays, from Mike Hammer to Cannon and Kolchak: The Nightstalker. In 1960, he won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for his adaptation of the Stanley Ellin short story “The Day of the Bullet,” which aired as an episode of Alfred Hitcock Presents, and was an associate professor of writing at the California State University, Northridge for a few years in the late seventies. He passed away on March 23, 1980.
- “The dust jacket blurb says that Portrait in Smoke has “depth and power, unusual suspense, brilliant irony, hard-boiled wit, one of the most fascinating heroines in current fiction, and a whiplash ending.” It isn’t that good, but it is a first-rate crime novel that deserves attention from the contemporary reader.”
— Bill Pronzini (1001 Midnights)
- “… one suspense novel of the era more than worth finding and reading for more than nostalgia.”
— David Vineyard (Mystery*File)
- WICKED AS THEY COME | Watch it now!
(1956, Columbia Pictures)
Black & white
Based on the novel Portrait in Smoke by Bill S. Ballinger
Screen story by Robert Westerby and Sigmund Miller
Screenplay by Ken Hughes
Starring Arlene Dahl as Kathy Allen, nee Allenborg (Krassy Almauniski in the book)
Also starring Philip Carey, Herbert Marshal, Michael Goodliffe, Ralph Truman, Sidney James, David Kossoff, Faith Brook
This British-made film isn’t a bad little thriller, even noirish at times, but it takes some substantial liberties with the source material, writing out Danny April entirely, and replacing him with an advertising man based in London. And it’s a hoot to see rubber-faced Sidney “Carry On” James as an American thug.
- One and Done
Some great private eyes who’ve appeared in only one novel.
Respectfully submitted by James Reasoner. This review originally appeared on his blog, Rough Edges, in June 2018. Used with permission. Additional information by Kevin Burton Smith.