“Money was something you could hold and count. Love? Hell, you could pick that up in a Mexican cafe when you needed it.”
If you read this blog, then you know that I am deranged when it comes to noir, and you’ll also know that I have this fixation on books made into film. So it shouldn’t come as a great shock that I am about to enthuse about a fantastic noir book Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes. If the title does not sound familiar, then try Out of the Past. That’s the film version–starring the iconic Robert Mitchum as the main character in this doom-ridden tale of past sins, double-crossing rotten dames, greed and lust. Yes all the elements of a superb noir tale are here in Build My Gallows High–a truly exceptional novel, published in 1946. So if you’re a noir fan, do yourself a favour and get a copy of this dark tale. You’ll thank me.
The novel opens with a sort of sticky sweetness that had me wondering whether or not I’d wasted my hard-earned cash, and yet at the same time, the cover photo held a certain dark promise. So I pushed on past the first initial pages which describe a gooey meeting between twenty-year-old Ann and forty-two-year-old “beat up around the edges” Red Bailey.
But all is not as it appears. Red Bailey, whose real name is Red Markham, is a man with a past. He’s the owner of the One Stop Service Station in Bridgeport–a small Northern California town located in the middle of nowhere. He’s lived in Bridgeport for years, and while he’s established a quiet life there, part of him always knew that the sins of the past would have to be paid for. The past arrives in the form of an unpleasant gun-toting hood named Stefanos who orders Red to accompany him to a casino in neighbouring Nevada.
Here Red meets casino owner, retired police chief, Guy Parker. As the two men hand a round of cards, Parker tell Red he wants to hire him for a job:
‘A pushover.’ Guy repeated. ‘Trip to New York. All expenses and five grand. You can’t kiss that off.’
‘Can’t I?’ Red fiddled with the cards waiting. He didn’t like the set-up, didn’t like it at all. Guy Parker didn’t play unless the deck was stacked.
Red initially refuses the job. He doesn’t want to get involved, but the problem is that he’s already involved, up to his neck. In order to ‘persuade’ Red, Parker introduces his woman, Mumsie McGonigle. Mumsie and Red have a history together.
About 11 years previously, Red was working in New York as a partner in a PI agency. He was hired by gangster, Walt Sterling to track down his girlfriend, Mumsie, who disappeared after shooting him and stealing $56,000. Red tracked Mumsie down to Acapulco. He was supposed to bring her and the money back to Sterling. But he didn’t, and the case ended with Red falling for a double-crossing dame and committing murder along the way.
So here’s Red, 11 years later, blackmailed into taking the job from Parker, Mumsie’s latest keeper. Bailey travels to New York suspecting that he’s about to be set up, but the problem is he doesn’t know just which direction the double-cross is coming from….
The novel follows Red in New York and Bridgeport trying to anticipate and dodge the double-cross while he recalls how he met Mumsie in the first place. Red is motivated to try and clear his past as he is now in love with Ann, the innocent young girl he leaves behind in Bridgeport. He imagines that if he weathers this double-cross or somehow evens the score, that’ll he will be free to move forward with a new life. In many ways he’s been in limbo for the past 11 years, waiting for this moment.
At 153 pages this is a slim but rich read full of great quotes and fantastic noir moments. At the heart of this dark tale are the moral choices made by Red–a man whose poor decisions have led to a one-way ticket to his doom. In one fascinating scene, Jim Caldwell, a rival for Ann’s affection is faced with a moral decision. The choice he makes, which is not self-serving, exemplifies why he isn’t a noir anti-hero.
The story also contrasts the two worlds of damp, claustrophobic New York–its brutal gangsters, crooked lawyers, and hard-working cabbies with the natural, open beauty of Bridgeport. While Mumsie and New Yorker, Meta Carson are women who seem created out of the shady environments in which they operate, Ann, however, springs from the good soil of Bridgeport.
In some ways, Red is tired of waiting for his past to catch up with him, and as a result part of him doesn’t fight his fate. At times he’s an onlooker to his own life with a vague curiosity to discover just how he is going to be double-crossed:
A tug grunted by, pushing a couple of barges loaded with freight cars. Over Brooklyn a searchlight stabbed with its finger at a cloud, found what it was looking for and went out. Red stood up. He was tired of answering questions. He was tired of asking himself questions. What was going to happen would happen and that was that. When you came right down to it, it didn’t matter much. It really didn’t matter at all. Even if he was a worthy citizen full of good deeds and honors, it wouldn’t matter.
And what about Mumsie, a femme fatale who shoots one lover and double crosses a few others? All the men in her life know that she’s trouble, but they just can’t resist her. Here’s Red remembering Mumsie:
At first he hadn’t loved her. Those weeks in Acapulco–the nights hot and still until a morning wind came along, the days bright with Mexican voices that were like cricket songs–he had wanted her as he wanted no other woman in his life. But he saw the imperfections–a smallness, a stinginess, a tendency to give grudgingly or not at all of everything but her body.
It was on the boat wallowing amiably north that he had stopped seeing clearly. Mumsie became something he made up–not a beautiful womam who put a slug in Whit Sterling’s belly. It had taken a good kick in the teeth to bring the true picture into focus.