Continuing to scarf down R. V. Cassill’s pulp fiction like potato chips, my latest handful is A Taste of Sin (1955), his third paperback original and his second for Ace Books.
Of the four Cassill paperbacks I’ve read so far, A Taste of Sin most easily fits the stereotype of a cheesy, sleazy book whose contents deliver the “whirlpool of wild parties, illicit loves, and degeneration” promised on the cover blurb.
It’s a fascinating exhibit in the museum of 1950s sexuality. Worth Hudson, a thirty-something ad man married–well, if not happily, then at least conventionally–to the efficient Margaret. Both head off to work each morning and return to the apartment they’re devoting most of their spare cash to fix up smartly. Sex is off limits on work nights, and openness and honesty all the time. Worth is bored and a bit frustrated but afraid to say so to Margaret. And so their marriage percolates along, steadily losing all flavor and interest.
And so it might continue for years if not for an agent of chaos in the form of Worth’s friend Harold, a loud, boozy and lecherous artist. Harold recognizes a patsy when he sees one, and regularly leans on Worth for help, whether its a hand-out or a drinking buddy or someone to break the bad news to a girl Harold needs to dump.
As the book opens, Worth and Margaret are sitting in a bar, and Margaret is pressing Worth to cut Harold off for good. Then Harold comes reeling in, and Worth’s descent into the maelstrom begins with that fatal phrase, “Just one last time.”
Lying, deception, adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, bunko rackets, nymphomania, group sex, rape, sadism and masochism–even a fist-fight in a lesbian bar–Worth’s decision to help out his old buddy leads him into a downward spiral that leaves Worth without a wife, a job, or any self-respect. Cassill actually does quite an effective job of using the same reticence that kept Worth from talking about difficult subjects with Margaret to make him a failure as a sinner, too. In situation after situation, Worth’s dithering about whether to take the wrong step–to bed an alluring call girl or to seduce his wife’s best friend–leads something even worse.
Indeed, A Taste of Sin works best as a character study. After losing all his self-respect–and having what was left of it wrenched away from him, Worth gets together again with Margaret together, ready now to rebuild their relationship on a foundation of honesty. It’s such an implausible and ineptly introduced ending you can see the staples. The book would have been far better ended a chapter earlier, with Worth chasing in vain after a woman who’d already demonstrated that her greatest talent was for leaving ardent and horny men shamed and frustrated. Someone once described Cassill’s paperback fiction as “Dostoyevskian.” Happy endings and “Dostoveyskian” don’t go together.
The most I could say of A Taste of Sin is that it could hold its place on the shelf next to James M. Cain’s two great fables about the unpleasant consequences of men thinking with the wrong head, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. It’s cheap, sleazy, fast, rough, violent, and full of people you’re best off not knowing. Knock off the last chapter and it’s a great slice of pulp. If Jim Cain rates a spot in the Library of America, then someone ought to give a fair shot to Verlin Cassill as well.