In the Ennis Willie entry in Brian Ritt’s indispensable Paperback Confidential it says that “Willie cranked out twenty-one books between 1961 and 1965, then burned out and stopped writing…” The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster was originally published in 1964, along with six other books (!), with one single book being published in 1965. Meaning that by the time he’d written Loaded Garter Holster, Willie was already an old hand in the pulp game, and it shows.
The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster is some kind of masterpiece. I don’t just mean that in the Renaissance, put-everything-you’ve-got-into-one-work-to-show-off-your-skills sense, but also in the this-is-a-heckuva-fine-piece-of-work sense. It is entertaining and twisty as hell.
The book is the seventh (of eight) to feature Sand, “the man nobody walks on,” who was once a member of an organized crime syndicate. Somehow he managed to extricate himself from the criminal gang, but he has to remain constantly on the move because there are a lot of people who want him dead:
They had told him, Quit the organization and you’ll die, Sand. Nobody gets out. Especially not you. You’re big. You’re slated for the top. You’re tough. Some say you’re maybe the toughest man alive, but you gotta sleep, sometime you gonna need a woman. Quit and the organization will get you Sand. Walk out and you’re a dead man.
Loaded Garter Holster opens with Sand arriving in Miami with an “ugly .45 automatic riding in a snap-draw holster under his left arm.” As soon as he lands, he’s picked up a tail, but he can’t worry about that. He’s there because a young girl of eighteen or nineteen, Carmen, has died, apparently of a drug overdose—and he’s there to find out how she died and to avenge her death.
Sand’s interest in Carmen is personal. Her father saved Sand’s life when a hitman tried to kill him on beach in Cuba. They killed the girl he was with, instead. But they did get him in the thigh. Sand, losing blood, ends up in the home of a scientist called Dr. Ramon Sanchez, who nurses him back to health. With the revolution in full swing Dr. Sanchez is worried his days might be numbered, so he asks Sand to look out for Carmen should anything happen to him.
Not long after arriving in Miami Sand gets a visit from Virginia Widner, a woman with a very fit body and freckles. To ensure she’s not keeping any secrets from him, Sand instructs her to empty her purse, then remove all her clothes. This she does, of course, and Sand is surprised to see that she keeps a .25 caliber pistol, “In a garter holster, no less!”
Virginia warns Sand to stay out of matters that don’t concern him, although she doesn’t reveal what her own interest in Carmen’s death. Sand doesn’t listen to her and starts his investigation. First it leads him to a man called Jack Cristy (sometimes spelled “Christy”), whom he finds on a boat with a young Cuban girl. Sand kicks the crud out of him.
Cristy was a bad boy. He liked to flash his pretty teeth and flex his muscles for the girls. And when he got mad he liked to break things. Right now he was pretty mad.
He came off the couch with a roar, his head lowered and his shoulders bunched under his T-shirt. He charged like a bull, with his eyes closed. He was a bad boy, but he was stupid.
Sand took his time and kicked him in the face. There was the smack of leather against meat, and then a thump as Muscle-boy’s fanny hit the floor.
Cristy tells Sand where to find Carmen’s ex, a guy called Greggory Brooks. This sends him up to Atlanta, and Sand detours to the apartment building where Carmen had had a room. He knocks on the Manager’s door and it’s opened by a beautiful blond who’s in the process of zipping up her dress. But: “She got a good look at his face and stopped trying. It was a chemical thing. They affected each other.”
Selina, the woman in the unzipped dress, happens to be the one who found Carmen’s body. She contradicts the idea that Carmen was working as a prostitute to pay for her heroin habit. She tells Sand that she stayed in her room most of the time, seeing very few people because she was apparently afraid of someone, or something.
In the meantime, Sand and Selina are affecting each other:
There was a feeling between them. It filled the room, the entire apartment. It was the thing they had both known immediately, the chemical reaction. They played with it silently and watched it grow.
And grow it does.
The taste of her red lips was real. The pressure of her warm breasts against his chest and the hollow of her sweeping back under his hand… real.
And maddening, because that was the way it was meant to be. This was still the buildup. The surge would come later. the explosion.
“Your face is hard,” she said. “You’re hard all over, every muscle. Are you a very bad man, Sand?”
“Sometimes I am very bad,” he said.
Her lips moved against him. “I don’t care. I want you. I want you so much I’m dying. Save my life, Sand. Squeeze me until I can’t breathe. Crush me! Bruise me! Crumble me into little pieces!”
As the above excerpts show, Willie was adept at writing both hardboiled and sleaze. Loaded Garter Holster is full of bursts of brutal violence and steamy passion. It’s also got some genuinely surprisingly plot twists. Sand meets Carmen’s ex, Greggory, who is a drunken mess after Carmen’s death. Sand begins working with the CIA, who are looking for some of Dr. Sanchez’s papers—documents that they think Carmen might have brought with her to the United States. Sand is also forced to break the heart of a woman who falls in love with him:
“You see all those men back there in the city? Their car’s not paid for and the house they left has a mortgage, but it also has a lawn they mow every weekend and afterwards there’s cold beer from the refrigerator that tastes good and they feel clean. They don’t even know it, but that’s because they’ve never wallowed in filth or sweated cold fear or killed a man before breakfast. That’s the kind of guy you need… A man like me could ruin that for you.”
He didn’t look at her because he didn’t want to see her cry. He knew that was what she was doing, not the loud willing they do when it’s mostly an act, but the gentle flowing of tears that come from somewhere deep inside.
I should also mention that Willie manages to do all this in a breezy one hundred twenty-seven pages, with nice wide margins and fairly large print. There might be 35,000 words to this novel. It’s entirely possible that Willie had more than just artistic considerations in keeping things so spare. First of all, if you’re writing novels of that length, it’s a lot easier to get seven of them done in a year. Second of all, I’ve heard stories that Camerarts, publisher of the Merit Books imprint, was edited by someone with very little consideration for artistic choices.
Camerarts might or might not have (allegedly!) been connected to an organized crime network in some capacity, perhaps as a means of laundering money. And it’s entirely possible that the editor wasn’t much interested in “editing,” and so when he was told to keep books under a certain page count, he would just rip out every page of any manuscript that went over that page count. Meaning that a lot of their books had, shall we say, abrupt endings.
The back page of the book has a Merit Books house ad dedicated to Willie’s books. There were seventeen available, with eye-catching titles like Carnal Madness, Twisted Mistress, Politician’s Playgirl, and So Naked! So Dead! At the top of the page there’s a blurb attributed to “Editor, RASCAL Magazine” (how could I have missed that one?) which states:
Unquestionably one of the top three popular fiction writers on the stands today. His women are voluptuous, earthy creatures whose unrestrained passions make them worthy of his 100% virile heroes. I, personally, read every Ennis Willie book I can get my hands on.
This book was published in 1964, meaning that this editor was putting Willie up there with Ed McBain, Richard Prather, John D. MacDonald, Dan J. Marlowe, Vin Packer, and so on. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the case, but if The Case of the Loaded Garter Holster is any indication of Willie’s writing he was certainly a force to be reckoned with. I plan on reading more, tough as that's going to be-- Willie's books aren't widely available. I'm happy to see that at least two "Sand shockers," Sand's Game, and Sand's War, are currently available from Ramble House.