Tag Archives: classic noir

Death’s Sweet Song (1955) by Clifton Adams

“Strangely, I felt nothing. I stood there and the pale sky became suddenly bloody as the violent sun lifted into a widening sky.”

American Pulp writer Clifton Adams (1919-1971) is primarily known for a long list of westerns written under several pseudonyms, but he also wrote a few noir titles. This brings me to Death’s Sweet Song–my copy comes in one of Stark House’s double releases along with its sister title Whom Gods Destroy which I’ll be writing up shortly.

Death's sweet songDeath’s Sweet Song is set in Oklahoma, and it’s the story of Joe Hooper, a WWII veteran who’s now back in the poky town of Creston, Oklahoma trying to squeeze a living from a gas station and 5 drab little cabins located at the back of the property. That iconic highway–Route 66–runs right in front of Hooper’s mortgaged property. Location was probably a selling point, but ironically now it’s a point that rubs a festering, open sore in Hopper’s mind as he watches the tourists drive by in a steady stream on their way to … somewhere else. The 5 crude cabins that he imagined he’d fill with tourists, stand empty and unrented, and with the endless flow of traffic passing by, it’s as though Hooper’s life is draining away along with all of his broken dreams.

The thermometer on the east side of the wash rack had reached an even hundred. I opened a bottle of Coke and stood in the doorway, watching the endless stream of traffic rushing by on the highway. License tags from everywhere–Nebraska, California, Illinois…. Where do tourists go, anyway, in such a hell of a hurry?

Depending on tourists for business is a particularly depressing prospect. As they drive by on the road to somewhere better, somewhere more interesting, the lack of business is just another painful reminder that there’s a big, bright world out there that Hooper’s not a part of. Is Hooper’s luck changing when a well-dressed couple in a blue Buick pull in and ask for a cabin for the night? Hooper can hardly believe the request:

There were five cabins behind the station and they were all vacant. Most of them would remain vacant, even during the tourist season. That’s the kind of place it was. I wondered about that while I put gas into his car. Here was a tourist with a new car, wearing expensive clothes, so why should he want to put up in a rat trap like mine when there were first-class AAA motels all along the highway?

The tiny, shabby cabins with their “cracked linoleum” cause the pouting blonde from the blue Buick to open her mouth in protest, but her complaints are ignored, and the couple, Karl & Paula Sheldon remain.

Hooper is right to suspect why this well-dressed couple should want to stay in one of his cabins when much more appealing accommodations are just down the road. In spite of the fact (or perhaps even because of it) that he has a long-term, patient girlfriend in town, he’s drawn to the ripe, skimpily-dressed, elusive blonde with the bone china skin. After another boring, predictable date with his girlfriend, Hooper finds himself creeping around the Sheldons’ cabin trying to get a glimpse of the hot blonde. He overhears Karl and another man planning a heist, and while Hooper initially plays with the idea of calling the sheriff, he decides, instead, that this is his opportunity to get ahead, and get the blonde in the process.

There are two ‘stories’ or examples that bolster Hooper’s decision to rehabilitate his life through crime–one example is Hooper’s father, a local doctor who’s worn down by work, all night house calls, and very little money to show for his labour. The other example is Herb, a local man who took tremendous financial risks, but eventually hit $5 million in oil. These two characters sit on opposite sides of the see-saw inside Hooper’s head. He doesn’t want to have a life like his father and he wants to hit the big time like Herb.

Death’s Sweet Song is written in a plain unadorned style–it’s the sort of book you could read and then imagine is easy to write, but there’s real skill in the way Clifton Adams develops his character of Joe Hooper. At first we make the mistake, as we’re meant to, of measuring Hooper’s character by his circumstances, but as events unfold, and the layers of well-known local small businessman fall away from Hooper, we see the simmering, bitter resentment seething underneath the surface. Oklahoma native Adams also reproduces the monotony of small town life in convincing ways while reinforcing Hooper’s boredom and festering desperation. Every time Hooper meets someone or talks to someone on the phone, they ask him ‘how’s the tourist business?‘ For Hooper, this is a particularly painful and ludicrous question which he avoids with trite answers, and yet the sense is conveyed that every encounter Hooper has with other locals just digs deeper into that festering sore of resentment that exists in his brain. Another recurring question–an unspoken one this time–is when is Hooper going to marry the very decent, sweet and understanding, Beth. Hooper’s relationship with Beth is another sore spot as far as he is concerned as everyone in town knows his business–how long he’s been dating Beth (too long), where their dates are (at the movies), and that Hooper isn’t playing fair by not popping the question (too bad).  Another interesting small-town tidbit included here is that Hooper knows that outsiders underestimate the locals, and yet he does the same thing himself.

Hooper is a perfect noir character–bitter, bored and trapped in a mundane life, he’s propelled into the undertow by the resentment of the respectable working life which has brought him nothing, and he’s fueled by his desire for an evil woman, and plenty of money to fund a new start. While the recently read German crime novel Silence is an exploration of guilt, Death’s Sweet Song is an exploration of the justification of crime & murder, and Hooper’s 1st person narrative gives us a ringside seat into one man’s dead-end life in which an opportunity to escape, a sex-lined exit appears–except that exit takes him straight to hell.

The out-of-the-way roadhouse is an iconic noir staple, and there’s just a slight variation here which reminds me of the setting of They Don’t Dance Much from James Ross. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank was the man who walked into Cora’s life and set the chain of tragic events into motion, but it was a chain of events that were waiting to happen. The day Paula Sheldon showed up changed Hooper’s life, but similarly  it was a fate that was waiting for Hooper. He just didn’t know it.

The one word that kept hitting me was “murder.” To me it didn’t have the usual meaning. It was like thinking of cancer or TB. You get yourself branded with it and it kills you, only with murder you die in the electric chair instead of in a bed.

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You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas

“And I knew there was something I had to do and something I had to wait for, and it wasn’t till I saw it that I knew.”

Richard Hallas was the pseudonym for Eric Knight (1897-1943)–the man who created the character of Lassie. I’m still trying to get my mind around that. Lassie Come Home is …well… touching and a bit weepy, but here’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, pure noir fiction, a superbly dark, hardscrabble tale of crime and moral corruption. Eric Knight was born in Yorkshire but emigrated to America in his teens. He was a Hollywood screenwriter, but in 1943 while a major in “the film unit of the U.S. Army Special Services,” he was killed in a plane crash. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up, published in 1938, was his only crime novel.

you play the redAlthough the book begins in an Oklahoma mining town, this is primarily a California novel. The book begins with the narrator, Dick, leaving his midnight shift to discover that his wife, Lois, has run away from the family-owned roadside diner with their child.  The tiny roadside diner is an iconic American image–a drab place of tarnished, shriveled dreams where the owners wait, hoping for customers as life passes them by. There’s a quaintness to this particular diner that’s submerged by its sad ordinariness. While Dick mentions that he’d “painted the front in blue and yellow squares like a checkerboard so that the truck-drivers on the way down to Dallas would always remember it,” we know that the diner is bigger in Dick’s mind than to the drivers who pass by on the highway. Dick immediately guesses that Lois has run off to Hollywood as she’s “crazy to get in the pictures” and has cousins living there. Perhaps we don’t blame Lois for ditching the diner and the long, lonely hours.

you play the blackDick doesn’t hesitate, he hops aboard a westbound freight, laying on the top of a box car and watching “the glow of the smelters a long way off” slowly fade as he gains distance from the town. He’s in the company of a “bunch of floaters” all headed for California and the myth that “there was a man there going to be elected Governor who would take all the money away from the millionaires and give fifty dollars a week to every man without a job.” In one town, police herd hoboes out of jail and onto the freight train beating the men with their billy sticks as they mount into a box car. The train trip becomes a hellish journey with the strong bullying the weak, the old and black.

It’s funny, when you’re in the dark you can’t get things very straight. Sometimes I knew it would be daytime, because I could see light through chinks in the boards. I tried to figure out when we’d get out, but I couldn’t tell where we were. Sometimes I’d smell desert and alkali dust, and I’d think we were in Arizona. Then we’d feel them coupling another engine and we’d be going up a mountain and we all like to froze to death because it went down to zero and only being crowded together kept us alive.

Once in California, fate, and fate plays a large role in this noir story, throws Dick into the path of eccentric, probably insane, movie director, Quentin Genter. This meeting leads to a number of twists and turns in Dick’s life, and while Dick sees Quentin as his friend, it’s apparent that Quentin is a collector of people, an expert in poison, and an arch manipulator.

Penniless and with no prospect of employment, Dick turns to crime to make an easy buck. This is another event that leads to yet another fateful meeting–this time with divorced lush Mamie and her friend Pat–women who’d “both decided to be blondes.” Mamie sticks like glue to Dick and while Dick is soon ready to move on, she may or may not have the knowledge to send him to prison. This uneasy alliance, with Dick unsure whether or not Mamie knows the truth about his criminal act, keeps him behaving, stuck with Mamie, and on edge. Are the comments she makes threatening or is he just reading this into the situation?:

Then I got to thinking she acted like she knew all about it anyhow. I kept going back over what she’d said and remembering her words. And one time it would sound sure as if she knew everything, and the next time I could prove to myself that she’d said nothing that wasn’t just an innocent remark. And that’s the way it went, back and forth, I could prove either way I wanted; things she’d done, and the next minute proving she could have done and said everything by chance.

That’s the way I sat there, not saying anything, and Mamie sitting there in her new dressing gown, brushing her hair and smiling. Then that got me to worrying whether her smiling meant she had me cornered or that it was just an innocent smile meaning she wanted to be pleasant and make up again.

That’s the way it was.  

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is a quintessential California novel. California has always had a certain mystique and undeniable lure: from the Gold Rush to the dream of becoming a film star in Hollywood. This novel was published towards the end of the Great Depression, but that period in history is still seen in these pages–from the hoboes travelling west towards their dreams and opportunities to Dick whose poignant memories of his desperate parents become another dream to pursue for entirely different reasons. Everything that happens to our narrator once he arrives in California has a dream-like, hallucinatory quality to it, an artificiality, a movie set feel to it. Film director Quentin argues that everyone becomes crazy in California, and if he’s anything to go by, well there might be something to it. There’s a bit of a joke behind this, as I learned not long after moving to America. You can live in California and imagine that you know America. You do not. California is unlike anywhere else in this vast country. And yes, some Americans do think that California is off the deep end–an extreme place for its attitude and acceptance of beliefs rejected elsewhere in the country, so I was pleased to see that even back in the 30s, California was seen as an anomaly when compared to the rest of the country. Here’s Quentin on the subject of what happens to people when they come to California:

“It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains.” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross the mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is raving mad. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Dick’s experiences in California begin with a hunt for his wife and child, there’s a detour to crime, and that’s when everything gains momentum. There are twists of fate: a change of fortune, love (with a possibly insane woman), and a cult (even then) but there’s also a lot of darkness and deceit. While often a noir character takes one false step that takes him deeper and deeper on the narrow path of no return, Dick’s one misstep creates ever-widening spaces of tainted relationships, hypocrisy, falsity and moral corruption. Quentin seems to be Dick’s friend but he’s a satanic figure, and if he’s a satanic figure then the novel has an allegorical quality. Told in a deceptively simple style by a narrator who accepts what happens to him, not in a naïve way, but rather after the fashion of an Everyman, You Play the Red but the Black Comes Up, a title that hints at chance, good, and bad luck concludes with a spectacular, and surprisingly moving ending. 

It was pitch-dark but I wasn’t afraid of losing my way. I knew where I had to go, and somehow it was like something would be sure to tell me how to get there.

One of my best of 2013.

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River Girl by Charles Williams

“It’s men, I tell you. They never should let ‘em out alone.”

River Girl is the third novel I’ve read by American crime author Charles Williams, and it’s the best of the three. I didn’t think I’d find one that topped Hell Hath No Fury so when I tell you that River Girl, published in 1951, soars to the number one spot for Charles Williams novels read so far, then that should give you an idea of just how good this tidy, desperate, dark noir novel is. Told initially in a laid-back style by the amoral narrator, Deputy Jack Marshall, the story’s pace picks up, increasing its tone of claustrophobic desperation as Jack’s life spins out of control.

river girlThe story is set in a small, corrupt town run by Sheriff Buford, a confident ladies’ man  who holds the political and economic reins on the region. This means that nothing much happens there without Buford knowing, approving, and having a piece of the pie. The problem is that Buford doesn’t like to get those lily-whites dirty–that’s where his deputy, Jack Marshall, our narrator, comes in. Jack Marshall, the son of a deceased judge, is useful to Buford, and most of his usefulness comes from the fact that while Jack is intelligent, he doesn’t rock the boat. He takes the path of “least resistance,” so he doesn’t challenge Buford’s authority or corruption, but neither is he particularly motivated by money. He skims along on the surface of his life, not wanting to examine anything too closely, and as a result, he complies with Buford’s demands, accepting the back door deals, the bribes and the sly winks as people look the other way–even if he doesn’t particularly like it. On a personal level, Jack’s marriage to Louise is strained, full of bitter recriminations and arguments. If Jack looked at his life closely, he’d wonder how the hell he got to this point, so rather than struggle against the position he finds himself in, he goes along with all the moral compromises, giving in at every turn to Louise’s demands and Buford’s iron-fisted control of the town.

The small town corruption exists on every level, and you can draw a direct line of complicity from the whorehouse, to the bank, and then to the sheriff’s office. Buford has that air of congenial bonhomie that masks the cunning, vicious mind of a slick predator. Jack may be amoral but Buford is evil. With a little more ambition, and a little more hunger for money, perhaps Jack could be Buford. Here’s Jack weighing up his boss:

He took out a cigar and lit it, then removed it from his mouth and looked at it in the manner of a man who loves good cigars. He’s an odd one, I thought, a queer mixture, and not somebody I’d want to tangle with unless I had to. That nineteenth century courtliness fronted for a lot of toughness you could see sometimes looking out at you from behind noncommittal eyes.

Even though Sheriff Buford is as corrupt as hell, he’s repeatedly re-elected by the constituents who know that he’s rotten to the core. This is due partly to the fact that the women love him, and the men want to be like him. It’s also due to the fact that everyone who counts–except the local preacher, Soames, likes the way Buford runs things. The big dilemma presented almost immediately is that Soames is preaching against some of the town’s shadier establishments, and with a grand jury investigation on the horizon, Buford wants everyone to keep a low profile until the trouble blows over. Buford, who gets a generous kickback from the local whorehouse run by tart-mouthed madam, Abbie Bell, isn’t too happy then when he gets a call that some drunk customer at the whorehouse has gone postal. This incident illustrates how Jack is the fix-it/clean up guy for Buford’s seedier deals. Since the bank president owns the building in which the whorehouse operates, it’s ostensibly a “hotel,” with a high turn over of girls and customers. Abbie believes that if “they’re old enough to give it away, they’re old enough to sell” themselves–no one asks questions about underage customers or teen prostitutes, and that way there are no uncomfortable answers. It’s a system that works for everyone but is never openly acknowledged. Here’s Abbie’s response to Jack when he tells her that ‘her girls’ need  to keep a low profile until the investigation is over:

“I know, I know. I’ve heard enough about it. Look, Jack, I try to keep those lousy high-school punks out of here, but Jesus, I can’t watch the door every minute. I don’t want ‘em anymore than Buford does. I’d rather have a skin rash. They smell of a cork and they’re drunk, like that dumb bunny. And they never have a crying dollar on ‘em–all they want to do is to feel  up al the girls and then go out chasing their lousy jail bait.”

The book opens on a day that is a turning point for Jack. We see him at home with Louise, his grasping, naggy, perpetually unsatisfied wife whose ambitions far exceed her husband’s salary. She’s one of those women who don’t mind that their husbands are mixed up in shady deals, but they do mind that there’s not more money in it for them to blow. Longing to be upper-middle-class with all the trappings of the fur-clad bourgeoisie wives, Louise isn’t fussy where the money comes from, just as long as it gushes her way. Louise thinks she’s better than the prostitutes that work in the local whorehouse, but she has no problem spending the money these women earned the hard way. After plunging Jack into debt with the purchase of a new car, Louise wants to hang out at the beach with her more affluent friends and she needs money. She harangues Jack about collecting money from the whorehouse, but then bitches at the prospect of having to live on his salary alone. Nagging, complaining and bitching until she wears him down, Jack tosses Louise the money he collected from Abbie Bell just to shut his wife up:

“Here,” I said, tossing it. “There’s a hundred and twenty-five in there.” It landed on the bed next to her naked midriff. Well, it’s gone full circle, I thought. That’s where it came from–a girl on a bed.

Disgusted with his job, and frustrated with his wife’s endless demands, Jack goes fishing, travelling deeper into swamp country than he usually goes, and here he meets Doris a mysterious woman who’s living in a primitive hut and who appears to be in hiding….

Caught between the two powerful personalities of his wife Louise and Buford, Jack Marshall is already ensnared in a nasty situation when the book begins, and he seeks to dis-entangle himself but only becomes increasingly caught in a web of intrigue. As a noir anti-hero, motivated by desire for a woman, he tries to escape to a  better life, and while he tries to use fate to his advantage, instead fate takes him for a hellish ride, tricking him at every crossroads into thinking that he has choices… that he has a chance when we know he does not.

While River Girl is a fantastic, tense, atmospheric story, the book is also packed full of fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that sounds so real, you hear the characters speaking. Naturally, and you know this is coming, there’s a femme fatale in these pages, but it’s not who you thought it would be–nonetheless, she’s here, a duplicitous, destructive, expensive beauty with a heady need for excitement and thrills. There’s the sense that we know exactly how this town works with its dirty deals and all the so-called ‘nice’ people looking the other way until things get so out-of-control that someone has to be reeled in and thrown out of town. There’s a moment when Jack has to deal with an underage prostitute, and for a moment, he is disgusted with himself. Yet the novel allows for no sentimentality as we read just how Jack manipulates this teenage girl and facilitates her on her desperate road to corruption and self-destruction. One of the story’s sad ironies is that Jack hates his life but lacks the motivation to do anything about it, and then when he acquires the motivation, his method of reinvention is flawed and tarred by the life he’s led. It’s too late for Jack; he just doesn’t know it yet. Jack’s struggle becomes his excruciating battle against fate–a fight that he can’t win and one that will take him full circle as he descends into “some frightening and deadly spiral”

I was conscious of the horrible sensation that I wasn’t just walking in circles in space and time, but that I was actually swinging around the steep black sides of some enormous whirlpool and sliding always towards the center.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands by Gerald Butler

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.

kiss the blood off my handsFleeing 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)

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Sudden Fear by Edna Sherry

“Be as romantic as you want about me but don’t be romantic about money.”

Fans of noir film will be familiar with Sudden Fear–a 1952 woman-in-distress film starring the fabulous Joan Crawford in the title role of Broadway playwright and wealthy San Francisco socialite Myra Hudson, a middle-aged woman who falls hard for the much younger, penniless actor, Lester Blaine, played by Jack Palance. Lester is a homme fatale who’s after Myra’s money, and he has an impatient girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame) who can’t wait for Lester to dump his wife and marry her. Given that Sudden Fear is a great favourite, it was only a matter of time before I turned to the 1948 novel written by Edna Sherry. There’s always the concern, of course, that having seen the film, the novel won’t be interesting, and this is especially true when it comes to crime fiction. After all, are there any surprises left?

Gangsters take their victims for a ride, shoot them with an economy of effort and steel, deposit them in a lonely spot and drive coolly away. Crooked trustees of estates and sinister family physicians (mentioned substantially in their victims’ wills) hatch ingenious plots and carry them to a fatal conclusion. Half-mad lovers–male and females–strike in the heat of passion, and if they control their hysteria after the event, sometimes get away with it. These gentry operate with smooth regularity between book covers.

But for the run-of-the-mill, upper middle-class, law-abiding, convention-ridden public–in short, for you and me–murder is a tough chore. Psychologists maintain that at one time or another, the best of us has murder in his heart. What holds us back? Why aren’t there as many murders in the average household as on the average bookshelf?

So you’re planning a murder? For love, hate, revenge or money? Let’s go.

This is how Sudden Fear begins with a fantastic introduction and the idea that for the average person, murder isn’t easy to commit, and it’s even harder to get away with–especially if you stand to directly benefit.

sudden fear iiThe novel opens with playwright Myra Hudson arranging to fire an actor during the rehearsals of her new play. According to Myra, 27 year-old Lester Blaine is just too good looking, so he’s fired with no more thought than if Myra were tossing out a set of unwanted curtains. This is very typical behaviour for Myra–she doesn’t think of people as human beings with feelings and needs, and she tends to objectify everyone in her sphere. She’s a  42-year-old intelligent, driven woman–a woman who “had practically everything except youth and beauty.” Myra isn’t an easy person to get along with; she’s critical, arrogant, possessive, demanding, and controlling, and while she has no apparent weaknesses, she’s intolerant of weaknesses in others. She’s a rather formidable person, but there’s also a lot about her that’s admirable. After all, she inherited fabulous wealth, but she’s also written seven “brilliant” and successful plays in the last 15 years. Myra surrounds herself with a New York set of friends who are completely loyal to her, and that includes Eve, her faithful secretary who admires Myra’s talent and intelligence but finds her “intolerance and self-absorption [were] repellent.” Myra also maintains social relationships with several males–including her long-time admirer, Dr. Edgar Van Roon. Roon is the kind of soft-spoken gentle man that Myra “lorded” over, but she seems to like his company for the reflective image of herself in Van Roon’s worshipful , docile eyes.

sudden fearEveryone in Myra’s social set is astonished when she enters into a whirlwind courtship with Lester Blaine that results in marriage. Naturally, gloom is predicted with Lester as a cheesy gold-digger who’ll make Myra regret her impetuosity. But months pass, and Lester, who’s treated rather like an exotic pet–pampered and spoiled, yet dismissed at Myra’s whim (“run along like a good boy”), eventually gains everyone’s respect. But then one day, fate throws a beautiful young woman, Irma, into Myra’s path, and Myra, intrigued by Irma’s complete, unashamed amorality and naked social-climbing invites Irma into her home and into her circle of friends….

If you’ve seen the film (and it’s highly recommended if you haven’t), then you know what happens. The book handles the story differently, and Myra and Irma are much more extreme characters than their celluloid counterparts. The book’s plot couldn’t be transplanted to film as there are elements that would not have survived the censor. As a result, the film makes Myra a brittle victim who finds the inner strength to fight back for her survival. Edna Sherry’s Myra is something else entirely.

Myra likes to watch and study people for her plays–hence her fascination with Irma–a “type” she hasn’t met before. Myra sees Irma as a “primitive” with  “uninhibited appetites,” and by adding Irma to her social circle she intends to study Irma for creative inspiration. Myra’s secretary, Eve isn’t keen on the idea, and there’s a shade of naiveté and arrogance to Myra’s attitude that Irma won’t cause her any personal trouble. Myra “sensed the girl’s possibilities for evil,” but can’t imagine Irma being evil enough to bite the hand that feeds her–although she predicts that Irma will “leave havoc all round in her wake.” Myra tells Eve:

“Get the idea of deliberate wickedness right out of your head, She wouldn’t hurt a fly if it didn’t get her something. But if it did–she’d massacre without a backward glance. She’s a force–like wind or tides. Even Les felt it.” 

Myra is attracted to beauty, and Lester and Irma are both extremely good looking:

Myra watched them together with a smug gusto. Her ego took credit for their looks. Others might surround themselves with charming men and pretty women, but she attracted the cream. Nothing less was Myra Hudson’s due. She looked on them almost as creations of her own hand. It never occurred to her that if they had not been outwardly superlative she would never have given either a second thought. Lester’s radiance covered a weak, greedy inanity, and Irma’s, a cheap cold calculation. But Myra’s voracious love of beauty blinded her to their intrinsic worthlessness.

In many ways, Myra and Irma are a lot alike: they both see people as objects, the disposable means to an end. Both Irma and Myra will go as far as necessary to get what they want, and they both lack some key element to their emotions. Irma is cold and reptilian, bent on clawing her way to the top while Myra uses her money and power to destroy people. Are they very different? Myra has so much power and money that she doesn’t need to use people to get ahead, but she does use people to feed her ego. Remove Myra’s money and privilege, and toss looks her way– it’s not that hard to see Myra acting a lot like Irma to get ahead. There’s a story early in the novel regarding what Myra did to a man who betrayed her trust. It isn’t pretty, but it opens a window into Myra’s unforgiving relentlessness. Here’s Miles Street, Myra’s lawyer, warning her secretary Eve about the kind of enemy Myra can be:

“You don’t know Myra. She’s got her good points, so long as she isn’t crossed. But let anyone tweak that oversized vanity of hers and she shows all the gentle traits of a jaguar. I’ve known her to ruin a woman socially because she said Myra looked like a purse-proud walnut. Even as a kid, she had to be cock of the walk or else.”

The celluloid Irene isn’t as thoroughly evil as her counterpart, Irma in the book version. Interestingly Sherry pits Irma against Myra, and both of these women are frightening, ruthless creatures–especially when crossed. Sherry’s Lester is the weak, none-too-bright man toy stuck in the middle, and there are several indications in the book that Lester might stick with Myra if she’d occasionally let him off the leash to take an acting role she could so easily wrangle.

sudden fear filmSudden Fear is a superb crime novel but it’s also an excellent character study. Deceit, infidelity, passion & greed collide in this tale of revenge, and although I’ve watched the film many times, the book was full of intense surprises and gave me a deeper appreciation of the various plot twists. Sudden Fear is currently out of print, but used copies are out there.

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Filed under Fiction, Sherry Edna

Big City Girl by Charles Williams

“Once they get you in there in the pen, there ain’t no long-nose bastards  writing about you and talking about you on the radio. Not till maybe thirty years from now, when they might let you out if you behave yourself, or till someday they kill you if you don’t.”

Otto Penzler, founder of Mysterious Press, continues his unflagging quest to put classic noir titles back into the hands of readers: this time it’s with a Charles Williams Revival–a writer who seems to have been largely forgotten in the annals of noir fiction. So it’s back to Charles Williams (1909-1975) for another noir gem. Big City Girl (1951) is an unusual noir for its setting, and it’s certainly a change of pace from perhaps this author’s most famous work, Hell Hath No Fury (AKA The Hot Spot), a novel I read and reviewed a few years ago.

charles williamsBig City Girl is a story of a family of dirt poor sharecroppers in the American south. Widower Cass Neely, a hopeless man who’s losing his mind, used to own an impressively large cotton farm, but for the past 14 years, he’s sold off one parcel at a time.

There was nothing vicious about him, and the money he had received over all this period of time from the piecemeal sale of his land and farming equipment had not been thrown away on liquor or gambling or any other active vice, but had disappeared down the bottomless rat holes of shiftlessness and bad management and a perennially wistful fondness for secondhand automobiles. And now the deteriorating carcasses of seven of the defunct cars squatted about the sandy yard around the house where they had wheezed their last, giving it the appearance of a junk yard.

Now all that’s left is the crudely-built house and a few acres of poor soil, and Cass and his son Mitch, who basically does most of the labour, find themselves working the land they used to own.  Mitch also has a young, impressionable teenage sister named Jessie, and there’s also a brother, Sewell, a brutal, violent criminal who was involved in rival gang wars until his conviction for armed robbery. At first glance, Sewell’s criminal career appears to be an anomaly, some quirk of nature that set this son on a bad path while Mitch stayed on the straight and narrow. A closer look at the family’s bleak, hopeless, back-breaking existence offers another explanation of Sewell’s life for crime: he simply broke free of a lifetime of virtual slavery and decided to take his chances with crime.

big city girlWhen the book opens, Sewell’s blonde, trashy wife, Joy has joined her husband’s family out of desperation, and she reasoned that at least with her in-laws she’ll have a roof over her head and food in her stomach. A good-time girl addicted to the attention of men, Joy is now thirty and beginning to lose her looks. Just as Mitch relies on his strength to get by, and Sewell counts on his ruthless violence, Joy has counted on her looks and her body to see her through the hard times, and with the prospect of aging, Joy is worried about what lies ahead. In theory she can stay on the farm, but the lifestyle is driving her mad with boredom. There are only two elements to her new life that she finds remotely interesting: Jessie’s worship (Jessie acts as her ex-facto maid) and the distinct possibility of teasing and seducing Mitch. While Joy acts out her own little dramas at the cotton farm, Sewell “Mad Dog Neely” is being transferred to the state pen to begin a life sentence for armed robbery….

vintage big city girlThe novel has its surprisingly poignant moments as Mitch recalls rich childhood memories when he and Sewell did everything together:

You lay awake when you were dead tired and needed the sleep, lying there on the cot in the darkness thinking of hunting squirrels with Sewell and running the setlines at night along the river’s banks with the pine torch blazing and sputtering and throwing your long-legged shadows against the trees, hunting coons with him to the baying of hounds on frosty, starlit winter nights a long time ago before he began to get into trouble, and all the way you always had to run to keep up with the endless vitality of him. You thought of him then and you thought of him now, and it was like a sickness eating at you from the inside where you couldn’t get at it.

But with the crop, thank god, it was different. You could still lose because the rain could whip you and the boll weevils could whip you and any one of a half-dozen things could do it too, but at least you were fighting something you could see and when you hit it you could feel something solid under your hand. It was an elemental problem, with nothing fancy about it. The crop was there and if you didn’t save it you went hungry. It had rained far too much already and there wasn’t much chance now of that big crop you were always going to make next year, that fifteen bales or more when you would come out at the end of the year with more money ahead and Jessie could go back to school and you could buy some more of your own equipment again and not go farming on halves all your life. That was probably just a dream for another year. What you were fighting for now was survival. You had to pay off the credit to get credit for another year to go on eating to make another crop.

Big City Girl has an unusual setting, but all the hallmarks of excellent noir fiction are here with the twists and turns of fate determining moments of apparent choice. The lines between the good and the bad characters are blurred and murky with heroes and villains defined by a brutal society that refuses to recognize that the have-nots are forced to sell whatever it takes to get by. Sewell sold his strength to become muscle for gangsters. Joy sells her body because that’s all she has to sell. Mitch is the hero here, the one decent character, but his decency is based on his willingness to work himself to death. The energy required to farm cotton stops Mitch from thinking about anything except the crop, so during the day he’s able to keep on the treadmill, but at night it’s different. There’s a deeply buried unasked question underlying the validity of the two brother’s respective, grim choices: In breaking away from the back-breaking subsistence work of the farm, Sewell makes a bid for freedom through a life of crime. Mitch doesn’t reject his brother’s choices and understands that Sewell is fighting society–a largely invisible and unconquerable enemy.  Which of the two brothers is a freer man? What will Mitch think of his choice to stay on the straight and narrow when he’s a broken, worn out man by the time he’s 50?

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles

Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

In the excellent, perceptive introduction to Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), Woolrich’s biographer, Francis Nevins gives an overview of the author’s life and career. There are some  great quotes about Woolrich’s work here, but I can’t include them all, so here’s just one:

All we can do about this nightmare world is to create, if we can, a few islands of love and trust to sustain us and help us forget. But love dies while lovers go on living, and Woolrich is a master of portraying the corrosion of a relationship. Although he often wrote about the horrors both love and lovelessness can inspire, there are very few irredeemably evil characters in his stories. For if one loves or needs love, or is at the brink of destruction, Woolrich identifies with that person no matter how dark his or her dark side.

Nevins explains that although Woolrich (1903-68) “knew overwhelming financial and critical success [but] his life remained a wretched mess.” Woolrich, a homosexual who tried marriage once, lived with his mother for a great deal of his life, but after her death in 1957, he was a recluse–miserable from the sounds of it–while he struggled with diabetes and alcoholism. Woolrich also seems to have a death obsession. Perhaps that’s not quite the right term I’m looking for, but certainly he had an awareness that death waits in the wings for all of us, and that life, to a great extent is an attempt to avoid or deny the inevitable.  I think that’s a fairly normal realisation for those who live with chronic disease, but Woolrich seemed to be aware of the inescapable nature of death even as a child, and that knowledge of imminent death seems to have found its way into Night Has a Thousand Eyes–a story in which an obsession with death so plagues two of the characters that in an attempt to avoid Fate they rush headlong to meet their deaths before Death can come for them.

The story begins with an earnest young New York homicide detective named Tom Shawn walking along the river as he does every night after work:

You can’t dream in a bus, with your fellows all around you. And so-every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one, a little after. Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once.

Woolrich sets up his story immediately with the idea of permanence, predictability and routine, and this is a brilliant move as these elements of life are those about to be challenged and even, perhaps, eradicated by Fate.

Tom is a good, honest, and hard-working young man who is grounded in reality. That night in the park, he comes across some money discarded on the ground. Once again, character is fate. A lesser man would pocket the money and chalk the find up to luck, but Tom is curious. He follows a money trail which leads to an expensive handbag and a diamond wristwatch, and eventually he finds Jean, a distressed, wealthy young woman, beautiful, of course, who is about to commit suicide. He saves the woman, and in the emotional aftermath, she tells a strange tale involving her father.

Jean Reid and her debonair, handsome father are extremely wealthy New Yorkers who lead an enviable life, but all that ‘good fortune’ is apparently swept away when psychic predictions surrounding the Reids begin to come horribly true. After Mr. Reid’s death is predicted, he becomes fixated on the date. Paralyzed with fear, he loses all his confidence, undergoes a frightening personality change, and holed up in his mansion, he can no longer function.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is an iconic tale which deals with issues of Fate and Predestination. In creating the Reids, Woolrich offers us two characters who have the best that life has to offer: looks, confidence, money, power, intelligence and good health. The Reids are the sort of people who make their own destinies–or so they think. When confronted with a power that seems to erode their worldly position, Jean and her father are rendered helpless for the first time in their lives. They are reduced to the same sort of powerlessness felt by their impoverished, plain, dull and worn-out maid, and suddenly, money and prestige mean nothing. It’s not simply that Mr. Reid is terrified of his own death (and that is definitely his ostensible, palatable fear), but it’s also that their entire value system no longer exists. Their money or connections cannot help them avoid the horrible Fate predicted for Mr. Reid by a shady psychic, and there’s the subtle issue of privilege bowing to a greater power underlying the tale. The novel doesn’t spend a great deal of time on character–although many of the secondary characters are great sideshow creations. The psychic is a particularly interesting character as with his sort of gift, you’d expect some sort of enlightened individual, but when Woolrich pulls back the layers of deceit on this character, we find a shrivelled, unpleasant, bitter little man. Primarily, however, this is a plot-driven story which builds with incredible tension that keeps this story rolling to the last page. Unlike Black Wings Has My Angel, Night Has a Thousand Eyes has an archaic feel which grounds the novel firmly in its times.

I recognized that the focus of this pall of fear and grief that hung over me was not the catastrophe itself or even the loss that it had wrought; it was the fact of having been forewarned against it. There was a curious sort of clammy terror in that, there was horror, there was-I don’t know what. There was a nightmare feeling heavy upon me, and not even the fact that the destructive climax was already past and no longer still ahead could lessen it any.

Review copy from Open Road Media

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Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

“You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.”

In the afterword of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale, I came across the title of another novel, Black Wings Has My Angel, written by Elliott Chaze (1915-1990). Chaze’s novel doesn’t seem to be prominent these days, but it’s been republished by Stark House, it’s also available as a kindle version, and a film version is due for release next year. After reading that Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) impressed Manchette, I knew I had to read it.

Black Wings Has My Angel is one of the bleakest, darkest, most haunting noir novels I’ve read to date, so noir fans, make note of the name, do yourself a favour and grab a copy. It’s easy to see Manchette was impressed–this novel is brilliant.

The story opens with a man who says his name is Tim whooping it up in a hotel room after “roughnecking” on a drilling rig for the past four months, and he’s soaking in a bath when a bellboy delivers a local prostitute as ordered. In this dump of a town, Tim isn’t expecting much in the way of looks, but he gets Virginia, an expensive looker with a killer body, “skin the color of pearls melted into honey,” and lavender eyes. A night of booze and sex, and a straight transaction based on money should lead to a parting the next day, but it doesn’t play out that way:

I hauled out of the tub and picked her up and carried her back into the bedroom and it was three days before we left the room. Together. She said it was like the song we kept getting on the little bedside radio: “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time.” The trashy tune and words sounded funny coming out of her in the Wellesley manner, in that imperceptibly clipped, ladylike voice.

“But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone, too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.”

“Did you ever?”

She laughed. “Let’s let it go at that; I just don’t any more.”

That was all right with me. After the months on the river I didn’t feel finicky about the nuances of romance–all I wanted was plenty of it. At that time I had no more idea of falling in love with her than I had of making a meal of the big yellow cake of soap in the Victorian bathroom.

“When the money’s gone,” I told her, “I’ll probably be sick of you.”

“I hope so.”

“Why?”

“It’d be better if you’re sick of me.” But like I say, when we left the hotel we left it together, the funny-faced bellhop toting out bags out to my Packard convertible, carrying the bags a block to the parking lot down by the river, smirking every foot of the way.

So begins a strange, twisted relationship between two lost characters. Lest you think that there’s some budding romance taking place, think again. Virginia has already frankly admitted that she’s along for the ride until the money runs out, and as for Tim, he tells us “my plan had been to get enough of her and to leave her in some filling station rest room between Dallas and Denver.” But can you ever get enough of a person when they feel nothing, give nothing and have you begging for more of the same?

Tim and Virginia don’t talk much about their pasts to each other, but as the story continues, we learn that they are both on the run for different reasons. Tim’s suspicions that Virginia came from money, or at least led an expensive life are confirmed:

“Everything stinks without the money.”

“Almost everything.”

“Some day I’m going to wallow in it again. I’m going to strip down buck naked and bathe in cool green hundred dollar bills.”

“You said again.”

“Did I? She asked it teasingly.

“You tell me.”

“What difference?”

“Oh, no difference,” I said. “No difference at all. But you’re a funny one, with your saddle-stitched shoes and your million-dollar luggage and half the time trying to talk like a ten-dollar tramp in that snooty voice. You’re a comic.”

“Don’t be tiresome.”

“That’s what I mean, words like tiresome. I never in my life heard a tramp say tiresome.”

She had lost interest. “Some day,” she said, “I’m going to slosh around in hundred-dollar bills, new ones that’ve never been used before.” 

Virginia keeps her word, and later, much later, in the book a scene takes place in which she strips and writhes around on a pile of money, and it’s this scene Manchette never forgot.

Tim and Virginia have several opportunities to be a ‘normal’ couple and lead a normal, modest working-class life together, but since this is noir, they are led by greed to plan a heist. Unlike a lot of heist novels, however, Black Wings Has My Angel goes far beyond the details of the heist to the lucrative, meaningless ‘after-life’ of crime.  There are times when they may seem succesful, times when they appear to get everything they wish for, but always there’s fate in the form of unfinished business waiting in the shadows to lead them to their doom.

I read a lot of noir, and Black Wings Has My Angel (several ways to interpret the title which is btw Il Gèle en Enfer in French) is one of those hopeless, doom-laden stories that leaves the reader feeling as hollow as its main characters. Way back at the beginning of the story Tim thinks he has a future and that he’s free to make choices, but once he meets Virginia, these two warped, hollow people become inseparable in a sick and twisted way and their fate is sealed.

The novel’s incredible power is partly derived from the way we see that these damaged people kid themselves about what they want, and as long as they are driven along by crime, they function, but once life switches to pre- or post- crime, they start to feed off of each other instead of society. Separately Virginia and Tim are trouble, but together, they are a disaster. These days, the term co-dependents would be thrown at this pair, but that term doesn’t fit the deep need they have for each other or the way they return to the relationship, washed back to the same shore repeatedly by fate. So we see that Tim and Virginia are a deadly combination, two sides of the same coin that cannot live without each other, yet they despise each other and are self-destructive. Wrapped tightly in their love-hate relationship, Tim and Virginia have both done a lot of bad things in their pasts, and they appear to be guilt-free. But there’s one deed that haunts them, and dogs their every step…

Here’s a line from a poem written by Bonnie Parker’s about her relationship with Clyde Barrow:

Some day they’ll go down together

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Filed under Chaze Elliott, Fiction

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.

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The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich

“Death is man’s greatest gift from Nature.”

Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) began his writing career producing Jazz age novels along the lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by 1934, in debt and unable to sell his work, he began to focus on the crime genre. Using pseudonyms, he wrote a vast number of stories and novellas for various pulp magazines before embarking on his Black Series: The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), Black Alibi (1942), The Black Angel (1943), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948). An impressive number of films have been based on his work, including a film version of The Black Angel starring one of my personal favourites, Dan Duryea. Woolrich was not a fan of the film as it was greatly altered from the source material. Not only is Woolrich a major contributor to film noir, but he is also considered one of the greatest American crime writers of his period. Lucky for us he gave up on the F. Scott Fitzgerald theme.

The story begins with 22-year-old narrator, Alberta Murray, rummaging through the cupboards only to discover that a number of items belonging to her husband, Kirk, are missing. She finds his valise locked and heavy, and jumps to the conclusion that he’s packed his bag and intends to leave her. This is not a decision based on hysteria; Alberta has deliberately ignored a number of tell-signs that her husband is having an affair. The most notable of these is a gold compact she discovered in a pocket. It was engraved to “Mia,” and a little detective work behind the scenes led Alberta to believe that the Mia who owned the compact was also the same Mia, “who looked good to stay away from,” employed by a nightclub. More detective work and Alberta tracks down Mia’s address and what appears to be a very tacky love nest with a turquoise colour scheme and monograms everywhere you look.

A few hours later, Alberta’s husband is arrested for a murder that she knows he did not commit, but according to the police, it’s an open-and-shut case. Taking an address book and a clue from the scene of the crime, Alberta decides that if she wants to save her husband from the electric chair she’ll have to do the sleuthing on her own.

The structure of the novel then follows Alberta’s investigation into four names from the address book. These are four men from Mia’s life, and since Mia wasn’t a very nice woman, so it follows that Alberta is going to have to meet lowlifes and crooks on her determined path to the truth. Alberta is called “Angel Face” by her husband which gives us a clue about what she looks like–she’s a stunner, but her beauty is the look of innocence. Underneath that look, however, she’s steel, and even though Alberta is terrified at times by those she encounters, she never once deviates from her plan to investigate the murder until she finds the truth.

The book’s biggest weakness is arguably its basic premise–Alberta’s determination to save her husband–the man who cheated on her, packed his bags and planned to split. Would most women bother with this heel? Isn’t it more plausible that Alberta would say sayonara to her cheating spouse and let Kirk fry? Or does Angel Face also have an Angel Nature? I chalked up Alberta’s decision to save her no-good husband to the idealism of youth, and, after all, Alberta’s initial reaction when she discovers that her husband is cheating is not anger but dismay. Regardless of Alberta’s decision to save Kirk, the man is still a heel and although he’s off stage for most of the book, at one point Alberta visits him in prison, and he makes a last request of her after she insists, against the odds, that he’ll be a free man soon:

He smiled as though he had his doubts. “but in case, in case I don’t, afterward, after it’s over–Angel face, you won’t let anyone else bring you flowers home at night or kick around the coffee, will you? Don’t let anyone else–I know you’re young yet–but that belongs to me.

Ain’t that sweet? So let me get this straight– ‘Save yourself for me, honey, even though I didn’t do the same for you’….

Woolrich takes us on a tour of both the high and the lows of the city: the seedy bars, the flop houses, the nightclubs, the dope fiends, the mansions of the blue-blood rich–all the way to the lavish penthouse suite of a psychotic gangster.  Here’s Alberta in a bar where she meets one of Mia’s earlier victims, the hollowed-out shell of a man.

I’d never been in a Bowery drinking place before. I’d heard the phrase “the lower depths”; I don’t remember where.  I think I read it once. This was it now. The lowest depth of all, this side of the grave. There was nothing beyond this, nothing further. Nothing came after it–only death, the river. These were not human beings any more. These were shadows.

And there was one thing more pathetic than themselves, more eloquent of what had become of them. It was the hush that fell when I came in. That bated breathlessness. I went into many places after that, but never again did the same thing happen in just that way. Men in a barroom will often fall silent when a woman comes in. This was not that. This was not admiration or even covetousness. I don’t know what I would call it myself. It was the memory of someone in each man’s past, someone like me, long ago, far away, come back to mind again for a moment, before the memory darkened again and went out-forever. It was life’s last afterglow glancing off the faces of the dead as I brushed by them.

This passage also reflects the idea that while Alberta’s quest is to save her husband, it’s a quest that is, ultimately, a process of experience and maturity for Alberta for she enters a “world of jungle violence and of darkness, of strange hidden deeds in strange hidden places, of sharp-clawed treachery and fanged gratitude, where compunction and conscience are just other words for weakness and used as such.”

There’s one later passage when Alberta notes that gangsters have splashed aftershave on their faces, and she silently marvels that they are just like other men–except they operate without a moral centre. For some reason, that was one of my favourite parts of the book–perhaps because it’s just so simple. Alberta’s nickname may be Angel Face, and while she’s a decent person, when she begins her investigation and penetrates the dark universe of crime and corruption, she becomes The Black Angel–inadvertently bringing death and destruction in her wake and capable of whatever it takes.  According to Woolrich’s biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr, the dark, destructive angel is a recurring motif found in Woolrich’s work–I’m thinking The Bride Wore Black.

The Black Angel’s ending–dark, haunting and extremely troubling–makes this novel something very special in a twisted noir way. There’s a loneliness here in Alberta’s journey to the truth, and that loneliness and isolation seems to be reflected in everyone she meets. For fans of the genre, or for those who haven’t tried Woolrich, this dark tale of the forbidden world of lust, despair and madness perforated by decency and goodness is well worth catching. Moral choices are a turning point for those confronted with the opportunity to commit crime. In Alberta’s case, there’s an inversion of that common scenario, and the moral choices are made when she pledges to find the real murderer. One intriguing, lingering question remains when the book concludes.  Will her life ever be so simple and innocent again?….

Review copy from the publisher via Open Road Media.

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