Gerald Butler (1907-1988), a British author who has almost completely faded from view, published Kiss the Blood off My Hands in 1940. I could find almost no biographical information on this mostly forgotten author and searches turn up the actor Gerard Butler. Kiss the Blood off My Hand is a very dark classic noir novel which was made into a 1948 film of the same name starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The book’s title is intriguing–partly for the graphic images conjured into view, but the title has a much deeper meaning which includes redemption and forgiveness for violence through the healing powers of love. Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was a bestseller in its day with sales of over 250,000 in hardback, and that’s probably why there are used copies still out there.
The book begins explosively with a murder:
By the time I’ve been blotting up beer for a couple of hours, any fellow who starts anything with me is crazy. Although maybe I hit him harder than I meant, or maybe he hit his head as he went over, or something, but he looked like a chap who would want plenty of jab, and that isn’t the way he looks on the floor. He looks pretty still. He looks damned still. Come to think of it he looks too damned still.
The whole pub had dried up like a scab. The place was so quiet you could hear a cat mess.
Our protagonist calls himself Bill Saunders, but there’s every indication that this name is fictitious. There are also indications that he is probably American as later on in the book, he passes himself off as Canadian. We don’t know how he came to Britain and we know almost nothing about his past, but we do know that he reacts to most situations with violence, he’s a brutal criminal and as clichéd as it sounds, his fists are deadly weapons. This sort of anonymity is a continued theme throughout the book, and even though it was published in 1940, it may be set in the 30s, pre WWII since there’s no backdrop of war (significant given the ending). The anonymity of time, place and people is underscored by the way Bill objectifies his surroundings and the humans in that space. To him people are objects to be exploited, and if they’re in his way, then they’d better move aside or take the consequences. While Bill appears to have no past, we know that his background can’t have been pleasant. His emotions are all wrong, and he doesn’t even know the word for love when he finds himself unexpectedly falling for an unusual woman.
Fleeing from the pub in this unknown, unnamed town, fate throws Bill into the path of a young woman named Jane who works as a shop assistant. Needing a place to hide, he shoves Jane inside her flat and decides to lay low there for the next 24 hours. Bill knows that what happens to Jane depends on whether or not she stays quiet. While he identifies Jane as not a “tart,” the sort of woman he’s more used to dealing with, he’s not exactly sure how to handle her. She seems like a new species as she doesn’t react to his threats the way she’s supposed to.
The girl was pretty. Her eyes were bright, and somewhere around her mouth there was a curious tilt that made her look all the time as if she was going to smile. I wished to hell she was a man. You can sock a man to teach him to keep quiet, but with a girl that would just be asking for noise.
“This isn’t a push around,” I told her. “Don’t be scared.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she answered. “Who frightened you?”
“Nobody frightens me,” I started, but I stopped because I guessed she must be kidding.
“Who are you running away from, then?”
“Don’t ask me questions,” I said. “just you keep nice and quiet and you’ll be all right. The wisest thing for you to do right now is to keep nice and quiet.”
‘”What if I don’t?”
While Bill tries to “puzzle her out,” he realizes that she’s different. She doesn’t panic or cave when he bullies or threatens her, and she even makes a few demands of her own.
She got up and stood by the washbasin near the window, and pointed to the far wall.
“Go and admire the wall paper,” she said.
I went over and sat on the bed facing the wall. Something whistled over my head, and yesterday’s paper dropped at my feet. I picked it up and started to look at it.
She was tidying up, getting ready for the day. I could hear the running of water, and then after a bit–I think she hesitated a bit–I could hear the rustle of clothes coming off.
“Don’t look around she said.
“Don’t worry,” I told her.
That was easy enough for me. That kind of thing never did anything for me. There was a time and a place for that with me, and there was a kind of woman to do it with, and that kind of woman wasn’t her.
An awkward relationship begins between Bill and “kid” (as he calls Jane), and it’s a strange relationship based on her thinking he’s a decent human being, and him not understanding the attraction, but grasping that he should behave when they’re together. It’s later, not much later, we realize just how ugly and violent Bill can be….
When it occurs, Bill’s sheer, instant, knee-jerk viciousness is startling and stunning. This is one of those 40s novels that rapidly dismisses any notion we might have that the world was a better place 70 odd years ago. Bill is a dangerous man who believes there’s no way to make a living except through violence. And yet Bill isn’t an entirely unsympathetic character. Yes he has a few screws loose. Yes he’s hot-tempered and volatile. Yes he has murdered a man and may kill again. Yet in spite of the fact that we know nothing of Bill’s past, we can try to fill in the blanks, and it’s easy to imagine a past from Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. Was Bill raised in a series of institutions? Is that why the word ‘love’ doesn’t exist in his vocabulary? In an incredible section of the novel in which violence is punished by cold violence, there’s a moment when Bill’s toughness is tested:
Quite soon. No putting it off. You can’t choose the day. You can’t wait and pick the day when you feel like it. This is their show. They do the choosing. They do everything. You’re just the thing they do it with.
But it’s only the damned powerless feeling, that’s all. They usually scream, do they? Just mugs. They’ve screamed when I’ve hit them, but they’ve never really hurt me. They’ve picked the wrong one this time. They can knock me silly but they can’t hurt me. Not the way they mean.
The footsteps clatter along the passage. Now for it. Here goes. Brace yourself. Stop those silly doubts from flashing across your mind. The stories about it are all the same. It isn’t any picnic. So brace yourself. face up, that’s the thing.
This passage (and I’ve only included part of it) reveals more about Bill than any stories he could tell. This is a man who’s no stranger to institutions, and once faced with the chilling violence of the state, he’s diminished and yet oddly brave even as he tries to maintain his usual bullying tough exterior. The novel’s big question seems to be ‘can Bill be rehabilitated’? But since this is noir, the underlying issue is will fate work against Bill’s attempts to lead a straight life? Kiss the Blood Off My Hands is a powerful story of the redemptive powers of love–a story in which love can heal but in this noir world in which we live, love isn’t powerful enough to face an unforgiving society full of opportunistic greedy men who are looking for the next easy buck. Butler seems to say that love cannot exist in this corrupt society, and this wonderful novel has a few unexpected twists and turns before arriving at its uneasy ending.
(Also published as The Unafraid)