Tag Archives: femme fatale

If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King

I climbed onto the raft and reached down for her. She put one hand on my wrist and the other on my shoulder and came up easily, laughing. At the top she slipped and held on close. A shiver went through her. I put my hand on her back to steady her and felt her hair like dark seaweed in my face.”

Sherwood King’s  (1904-1981) novel If I Die Before I Wake serves as the basis of the Orson Welles film Lady of Shanghai. If you’ve seen the film, then you know that it’s not without its problems, and if you read about the making of the film, you’ll discover that the director (Welles) and the star (Rita Hayworth) were in the throes of a marriage breakup during the filming, and a fair amount of the film’s problems are thrown onto the domestic difficulties of this famous couple. The film, cut substantially before its release, was considered one of Welles’ worst failures, and it’s a film that divides his critics from his fans.  So this brings me to the book on which the film is based: If I Die Before I Wake. What a great title, and take a look at that cover:

If I Die Before I wake And here’s how this tale begins:

Sure,” I said. “I would commit murder. If I had to, of course, or if it was worth my while.”

I said this as though I meant it too. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it at all.

“The way I figure it,” I said, “a man’s got to die some time. All murder does is hurry it up. What more is there to it?”

You know–talk. What any young fellow might say, just to show he’s not afraid of anything.

There had been a murder out our way. On Long Island. Some society woman had shot her husband. He hadn’t been doing anything, just raiding the icebox for a midnight snack. But (she said) she’d thought he was a burglar … five bullets’ worth. Police were holding her; some insurance angle.

This strong beginning comes from the narrator–a young, well-built ex-sailor, Laurence Planter, a drifter who seemed to hit a lucky streak when he swam onto a private beach belonging to wealthy middle-aged attorney, Bannister. Bannister seems to have a lot: a beautiful red-headed, sexy young wife, Elsa, a lucrative practice, and a fabulous home near the beach, but Bannister is permanently disfigured from war injuries. These are physical scars, of course, but he’s also dismal, “bitter and a little screwy” about his limitations. When Laurence turns up on the beach, Bannister hires him on the spot as a chauffeur, and Laurence, broke and unemployed, takes the job, living in a small room above the Bannister’s garage.

Laurence hasn’t been there long when he’s approached by Grisby, a sleazy, fast-talking character who happens to be Bannister’s law-partner.  Seems that Grisby is unhappily married, and wants a divorce, so he’s dreamed up a scheme in which Laurence is supposed to murder Grisby, so that Grisby can escape from a marriage he can’t stand. Laurence will get $5,000 for his trouble and Grisby will collect the insurance money that will fund a new life in the South Seas. According to Grisby, it’s a foolproof plan:

You know they talk about the perfect crime. There’s some defect in all of them. Ours will be the perfect crime, perfectly executed. And the first essential is that I be killed, the second that you be in a position to prove you killed me.

The plan stinks, and so obviously full of holes, that Laurence, even though he can almost taste that  5,000, balks at the idea. Grisby  assures Laurence that this will be “the perfect crime;” he won’t be convicted and fry for the ‘murder’ as there won’t be a body.

Suppose they put you in jail for a while, or even the psychopathic ward, if they thought you were nuts, what of it? Let ‘em. Any dumb lawyer could get you out, if they don’t even have a body–and they won’t have. I’ll see to that. Besides, what’s a little time in jail compared to five thousand waiting for you when you get out?

With Grisby’s goading,  Laurence agrees to the plan–even though it makes little sense to Laurence (or to the reader).  Laurence begins asking questions, and then when he finally puts the brakes on and demands to know what Grisby is holding back, Grisby claims this was “just a test” before he revealed the real plan. The “real” plan is even worse than the first plan, but Laurence foolishly agrees and soon finds himself facing a murder rap.

A million things could go wrong: Laurence could be beaten or sent to the psycho ward for years, and what good is 5,000 going to be except to hire an expensive lawyer to fight your case? Grisby’s plot is overly convoluted and hard to swallow, and it only works if Laurence is a complete idiot–which, it turns out, he is. There’s a double cross, a triple cross and a quadruple cross before this tale of lust and greed is over. If I Die Before I Wake is a fast-paced read and written in a tough, terse style. After reading this, now the problems of The Lady of Shanghai begin to make a lot more sense….

There’s a story behind the story of The Lady of Shanghai. According to Welles, he was in Boston working on a stage production of Around the World in 80 Days. Welles states they “were unable to get the costumes from the station because $50,000 was due and our producer Mr. Todd had gone broke.” Welles, using a pay phone called Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures and desperate for cash, he improvised:

“I have a great story for you if you could send me $50,000 by telegram in one hour. I’ll sign a contract to make it.”  “What story?” Cohn said. I was calling from a pay phone, and next to it was a display of paperbacks and I gave him the title of one of them, Lady from Shanghai. I said, “Buy the novel and I’ll make the film.” An hour later, we got the money. (from This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich)*

Naturally since Welles grabbed the book without reading it, he was unaware of the convoluted, problematic plot. Incidentally, William Castle already owned the rights to the book, so he served as associate producer to the film which, made by pure chance, made film noir history.  Orson Welles, who’d intended to make a film that felt like an “off-kilter” bad dream found that the nightmare was his own, and after seeing the edited version of the film, he sent a nine page memo with various suggestions to Harry Cohn, but all of his arguments were ignored. No wonder Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures offered to pay a thousand dollars to anyone in the viewing room who could explain the plot of The Lady from Shanghai  (Orson Welles: Interviews with Filmmakers, Ed. Mark W. Estrin . Cohn should have read the book, and if he did he’d understand that Welles’ created a difficult, brilliant interpretation of the troublesome raw material.

*There are a couple of different versions about how the book If I Die Before I Wake came to be made into a film, so the source is included.

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Filed under Fiction, King Sherwood

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

The Magician’s Wife by James M. Cain

While James M. Cain will always be remembered for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, there are quite a few lesser-known works well worth reading. Last year, Hard Case Crime published a lost Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, and now Mysterious Press has resurrected a number of obscure Cain titles:

  • Sinful Woman
  • Root of His Evil
  • Galatea
  • Mignon
  • Jealous Woman
  • Rainbow’s End
  • The Institute
  • Cloud Nine
  • The Enchanted Isle
  • The Moth
  • The Magician’s Wife

Most of these titles have been out-of-print, and these novels are now available in e-format for the first time.

the magicians wifeThe Magician’s Wife opens with Clay Lockwood, the confident, affluent owner of Grants, a meat-packing business, stopping at Portico, a Maryland branch of a chain of restaurants. While he appears to be just another customer, he’s there thanks to a lucrative deal selling corned beef to the Portico chain and wants to make sure that the cooks handle the pre-cooked meat correctly. Lockwood notices one of the waitresses, a very attractive woman named Sally Alexis, and they square off in a meeting laced with attraction, desire, and sexual innuendo. Since this is noir fiction, it should come as no surprise that Sally and Lockwood begin a torrid, explosive affair that night. One night in the sack, and Lockwood is ready to call the preacher to seal the deal. But there’s a hitch: Sally is married and has a small child. Her husband, a small-time magician, has made his current stage assistant his latest mistress, and the marriage has been sour for some time.

Since Lockwood is a very affluent man with all the material things in life that he wants, he’s more than ready for Sally to divorce her deadbeat husband, take her kid and move in to his swanky apartment with him. Permanently. But Sally isn’t so hot on the idea. See there’s the matter of a few million dollars, and a couple of bodies are in the way of Sally and the money that she thinks is rightfully hers….

It showed through, like the blue on a corpse’s fingernails, what she was hoping for. What she means to do, perhaps. If she gets help.

Sally is, of course, a classic noir femme fatale–sexy, manipulative, cunning, and she’s also more than a little unhinged. Not that that makes her any less attractive to Lockwood, who has a real problem when it comes to dealing with women. When Sally goes too far one evening, Lockwood decides to move on to calmer pastures. Unfortunately, once Sally has her teeth in a man, she doesn’t let go easily.

The Magician’s Wife is not Cain’s finest work, so I don’t want to claim that, but as a Cain fan, it was one of those books I couldn’t pass up. One of the enjoyable aspects of the story is the way in which Cain makes it clear that a femme fatale may be dangerous, explosive and destructive, but all those negative qualities are magnified when she hooks up with a malleable man with weak morality or issues of one sort or another. Lockwood is a case in point. Any sane man would run from Sally’s kind of trouble, but Lockwood’s ego gets in the way–for a while at least. And it’s perfect that Cain created Lockwood as the owner of the meat-packing plant. There’s something not quite healthy about his carnivorous appetite. He aggressively seeks out contracts for meat, and he’s equally aggressive in his lustful approaches to Sally–even though his common sense tells him to end the relationship.

That vanity was his trouble, inflamed by obsessive desire; that was his great source of strength, the element in his nature that drove him ahead in business, riding all the obstacles down, could also be his weakness; that this giddy twin sister of pride could have a soft underbelly, loving praise above everything else, especially this girl’s praise, and dreading her phony scorn.

Cain creates an interesting cast of characters for this book; there’s Sally’s husband The Great Alexis aka Alec Gorsuch, the heir to the Gorsuch fortune who works as a two-bit magician at the Lilac Flamingo and his cheap tarty assistant, Busty Buster. There’s also Sally’s mother, artist Grace Simone. I can’t give away too much of the plot here, but there’s a development between Lockwood and Grace Simone that didn’t quite gel for me, but after finishing the book and chewing the story over, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate femme fatale is arguably one who comes in disguise. I had to reread the last line several times and ask myself who got what they wanted in the end….

Review copy

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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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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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Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

Fresh from reading Australian author Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I tracked down a copy of Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. This novel sets three very different characters on a collision course that will change their lives, and it reminded me of the work of Muriel Spark for the decidedly nasty edge to its humour.

The novel begins with Tom Brady, a shabby former Londoner and a rather disreputable character who now lives in Sydney. Tom has a checkered past which includes a long-distant stint as a policeman, but it’s been downhill from there. His last job as a night watchman ended 5 months before when he was caught sleeping. Now unemployed, he hangs about in the shops and watches people as a way to pass his time. Tom was married once:

love came into the life of Tom Brady. Or at any rate, during a period of indigence wherein he was unable to make his fortnightly visit to a King’s Cross prostitute, he met a girl from Brisbane who was game for anything, even marriage. They married and lived rather drearily in small furnished flats. The children which might have held them together did not come. They drifted apart without rancour, she returning to Brisbane, living with another man and bearing three children, of the last of which she died. The whole marital episode concerned Tom less than a change in jobs.

While Tom dawdles on the streets of Sydney, he runs into Jack Partridge, an affluent man who owns a profitable motorcycle repair shop. In just one second, Tom recognises Jack as a man he saw at the scene of a brutal murder that took place in London 30 years before.

Jack Partridge, unlike Tom Brady, has aged very well. Perhaps this is partially due to clean living and a lifetime of established good habits. Perhaps it’s also due to his affluence. So while Tom and Jack would seem to be opposites in many ways, Jack also has a strange approach to matrimony. He married the boss’s daughter, Mildred–a woman he did not love–who was the practical choice at the time.

So after setting up this initial brief, wordless encounter of recognition, author Mark McShane introduces his third main character, the delightful Janet Tree, a WWII widow who owns and operates a boarding house on Dimple Hill right opposite Jack Partridge’s home. And it’s to Mrs. Tree’s house that Tom Brady moves to in order to spy on Jack Partridge….

In order to supplement her widow’s pension and the income from her boarders, Mrs Tree engages in something she calls “free shopping,” and she plans her days around shoplifting excursions and trips to a local fence to sell her “unwanted birthday presents.” Here she is scoping out the first take of the day:

Mrs Tree turned into a covered arcade of shops, a window-sided tunnel full of the clattering and echoing of the feet on its tile floor. A number of shops were fronted by tables that held special bargains, which is to say, soiled articles that refused to move unless glamourized by the bargain mystique.

By one of these table Janet Tree stopped. A little hors d’oeuvre? she mused.

At the front were evening purses priced at three dollars, the foremost a packing-bloated skin of white sequins, like a pig in tight drag. Janet looked through the store window. There were two salesgirls, neither watching, one was busy applying make-up, the other stared at herself insolently in a mirror.

Forty-two-year-old Mrs. Tree is a nervous, high-strung woman. Plagued with fears that her knickers will fall down in public, she pins them firmly “fore and aft with large safety pins.” This irrational paranoia is of course part of her sexual repression, so along with the details of her throughly secure underwear are insights into her life–a life that would appear to be the epitome of boring, sterile respectability: an immaculate home and a horror of bodily functions. But then there’s her secret life and just what is her relationship with her fence, Mr. Becker? Does the private afternoon tea behind closed shutters lead to anything else?

Perhaps by this point, you can see the connection to Muriel Spark. Mrs. Tree could have stepped out of one of Spark’s novels and found herself in Mark McShane’s Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. Of course the boarding house connection helps. So the story is set in motion through a chance encounter on the streets of Sydney, and now the rest of the story plays out through its three main characters. Part of the story takes us back into Partridge’s past and his poisonous relationship with a rapacious, cruel femme fatale.

Apart from the denouement which I found a little unrealistic, I throughly enjoyed the book, loved the set-up and the three well-drawn main characters. Opportunistic former policeman Tom Brady and seemingly respectable widow Mrs Tree align against poor Partridge, and he’s arguably just as much a victim as he was 30 years before.

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy

“She was tremendous, all right, but at the wrong time and in the wrong places.”

The next time someone starts waffling on about the ‘good old days,’ tell them to go read Horace McCoy’s novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. That should take care of their nostalgia. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, full of bleak despair and the illusion that the big time is right around the next corner for its doom-laden characters, reminds us that violence has always existed in the spectrum of human behaviour.  

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is narrated by Ralph Cotter, a hardened convict who’s serving time, and when we meet  him, he’s just about to break out of jail with fellow prisoner Toko. McCoy’s details convey the horror of convict life: the frantic queues for the toilets, the over-worked chemical privys, rotten smells, hints of prison rape, and the way in which Cotter addresses the guards as “my liege,” “me-lord,” “Sire,” “master” and “majesty.” Cotter wakes up on the morning of the prison break chained to his bunk in a fetid crude dorm room along with 71 other prisoners. Toko’s sister, Holiday, has bribed someone to hide weapons in the cantaloupe patch where the prisoners work unchained, and she’s included Cotter in the escape plan simply because she’s concerned that Toko doesn’t have the guts to carry it through.

McCoy grounds the book in 1933 with the Akron disaster, so we are firmly in the gangster era. The book starts strongly with Cotter playing it cool as the day begins. Toko, a bundle of nerves, almost blows the plan, but Cotter desperate to escape (and just what is going on with the “sickly sodomist“in the next bunk?) carries the day, and in a blaze of machine gun fire, Cotter makes his escape. So what does Cotter, a man who thinks Karpis, Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger are all amateurs, do with his freedom? The novel continues with the saga of Cotter’s post prison life on the run, and it isn’t pretty. The problems begin with the debt Cotter has accrued from the club-footed garage owner, Mason, the man who supplied the getaway car and the guns, and the problems continue with Toko’s sister, machine-gun toting, bed-hopping, “pure animal” Holiday. Cotter embarks on a brutal crime spree, and a brush with two crooked cops only fuels his desire for money. Along the way, there’s blackmail, vicious heists committed with stunning violence, and no less than two duplicitous women.

McCoy crafts Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in such a way that we begin not knowing just what Cotter is capable of. All he wants is freedom and fresh air for a change, but as the novel wears on, Cotter’s savagery is gradually revealed through his numerous cold-blooded killings. There are no good guys here. Everyone does what they can to get ahead and if that means slaughtering or sleeping your way to a few extra bucks, then McCoy’s characters are fine with that. While Cotter is clear-minded and direct with his criminal actions, he’s a little messed up when it comes to women, and to complicate matters there are two very different women who think they own a piece of Cotter. Here’s the sexually rapacious Holiday and Cotter:


She grabbed me by the shoulders of my coat, clutching the padding and poking her face almost against mine. “What’s the matter? You run out of places to go?”

“Please…” I said. “I’ve had enough melodrama for one day.”

“Me sitting here in this stinking apartment all day…”

“Please,” I said, “I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, so you’re exhausted! From what! Being lumped up in the sack with that bitch all afternoon?”

“Please,” I said. “I’m hot and sweaty and in no mood to fight.” I tried to take her hands off my shoulder but she was holding too tightly. Her eyes were wide and rabid and her lips were thin. “I’ve been with Mandon. You’re the only bitch I’ve seen today. Honest.”

She snorted and then without warning she clawed at my face. I caught this hand and knocked the other one from my shoulder and slapped her across the nose. But she wanted to be tough. She growled in her throat and raised both arms to grab me around the neck, and I slugged her on the side of the head, knocking her down. I reached and lifted her dress and tugged at it between my hands and finally managed to tear off a hunk. She lay on her back, looking up at me, her eyes smouldering, fully conscious, but saying nothing. With the hunk of her dress, I wiped the spittle from my face, and then threw the rag at her and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

Goddamn it, I thought regretfully; but this clawing business had to stop and that was the only way to stop it, the only way. She’s a goddamn savage, this dame is, a real primitive, and the only way to teach her something is to knock her on her ass. Well, she’s sure as hell come to the right place….

Cotter and Holiday make a hellish team: he solves his problems with violence, and she seals her deals with sex.  

While not as disciplined a novel as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (there’s some redundancy), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a classic American noir, packed with hard-boiled desperate characters, but there’s something very different about McCoy. Here’s a scene of Cotter in a gay bar. At first he feels uncomfortable and then has a significant moment of revelation:

The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No. The sameness was of the species, of the psyche, of the  … They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted–theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill…

Quite a statement for a book published in 1948, and another reason I love noir for its presentation of an alternate world in opposition to mainstream society. For film buffs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was made into a film starring James Cagney and one of my favourite lost Hollywood stars, Barbara Payton.

Review copy from the publisher, Open Road Media

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The Burglar by David Goodis

“Look at the way he moves around. This is a trace artist. It’s a very special gift. One in a million has it. Like a mind reader, a dealer in some kind of magic.”

The Library of America edition of five noir novels by David Goodis (1917-1967) is not only a compendium made for noir fans, but it is also an acknowledgment of this author’s contribution to the genre. Many of Goodis’s novels have been long-out-of-print, and if you can dig up used copies, some of the titles fetch a pretty price. For this volume, The Library of America has included:

Dark Passage

Nightfall

The Burglar

The Moon and the Gutter

Street of No Return

To sweeten the deal, all five of these titles have been made into films. Earlier this year, I wrote a post on Dark Passage. It’s a tremendous novel–a story that explores the plight of an innocent man who went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. This story was made into an unforgettable film which featured the iconic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Burglar is another winner from Goodis, and if you love noir fiction, then do yourself a favour and read this. It combines elements of the inescapable reach of fate, the heist, the lam, and the femme fatale, and the result is one of the darkest noir tales I’ve read in a long time.

The Burglar drops us right in the action by beginning with a “foolproof” burglary which takes place in a mansion. The burglar of the title is Nathaniel Harbin–a 34-year-old man who has made this his career–not by intention, but by fate. The story finds him the head of a gang of 4, and together they make a successful, tight team. Harbin is the brains behind the operation. He picks the jobs and methodically makes the preparations.

He had never been caught and despite the constant jeopardy he had never been forced into a really tight corner. The way he operated was quiet and slow, very slow, always unarmed, always artistic without knowing or interested in knowing that it was artistic, always accurate with it and always extremely unhappy with it.

The other members of the gang are: Blaylock, a nervous man in his 40s who’s been to prison and swears he won’t go back, Dohmer who’s not too swift in the brain department but has his uses as muscle, and the waif-like blonde Gladden, whose job is to case the joints the gang target for robbery. Gladden is the daughter of Harbin’s dead mentor, Gerald–the man who saved Harbin from starvation and taught him the trade. A strange relationship exists between Gladden and Harbin–“something about it was unnatural.” He feels responsible for her, and yet while Harbin is deeply troubled by his relationship to Gladden, he can’t define why and he can’t get rid of her.

Glow from a streetlamp far back came through the rear window, came floating in to settle on Gladden’s yellow hair and part of her face. The glow showed the skinny lines of her face, the yellow of her eyes, the thin line of her throat. She sat there and looked at Harbin and he saw her skinniness, this tangible proof of her lack of weight, and in his mind he told himself she weighed tons and tons and it all hung as from a rope around his neck.

Goodis takes us inside the heist with an incredibly tense scene. The goal for the gang is $100,000 in emeralds (worth over $845,000 in today’s terms). The heist goes smoothly… well almost… but after the heist things start to unravel. That’s as much of the plot of this incredibly dark tale as I’m going to reveal. But I will say that things don’t unravel in quite the usual way. The tension never stops and when the violence explodes, Goodis writes with a raw, shocking intensity.

Here’s a scene with Gladden and Harbin sitting inside a bar that’s dimly and eerily lit with green bulbs:

He leaned back in his chair, his head to one side a little as he studied the pale green glow on the top of Gladden’s head.

“Always,” he said, “after we do a job you get dreamy like this. The haul doesn’t seem to interest you.”

Gladden said nothing. She smiled at something far away. “The haul,” he said, “becomes a secondary thing with you. What comes first?”

“The dreamy feeling,” Gladden slumped languidly, “Like going back. Like resting on a soft pillow that you can’t see. Way back there.”

“Where?”

“Where we were when we were young.”

“We’re young now,” he said.

“Are we?” Her tall glass was lifted, her chin magnified through the rum and soda and glass. “We’re half in the grave.”

“You’re bored,” Harbin said. 

“I’ve been bored since I was born.”  

The characters in The Burglar operate in a twilight life that exists outside of society. Harbin’s gang is composed of losers who don’t have regular jobs or normal lives and the constraints demanded by their profession bring a heavy price. Together they operate as a family, and they are fairly successful, but it’s when those relationships chafe and begin to unravel that the trouble begins. Goodis shows the sliding scale of morality here, and as Harbin and his gang enter a maze of miscaluation and deception, they run headlong into true evil. Harbin’s sense of being trapped by fate is illustrated through his memory of being 16 “with lifted thumb begging for a ride” and right at the brink of death when he was picked up by seasoned burglar Gerald and taught the trade. There’s the sense that fate took Harbin for an 18-year-long ride and now he’s back at the point of his death, the point of his life right where Gerald intervened.  

As the situation unravels and Harbin tries to repair the damage, interpersonal relations underscore repetition, and foreshadowing reinforces the inescapable nature of fate. Written with an underlying yet overpowering sense of doom, this tale’s haunting conclusion has to be one of the most memorable in the genre. Mystery writer Ed Gorman said that “David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes,” and after reading The Burglar, I see what he means.

I’m hoping that The Library of America has a second Goodis volume in the works….

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (originally called How Now Brown Cow) is the fourth selection for the Thompson Noir fest. I chose this title thanks to a strong recommendation from Journey to Perplexity. The recommendation was spot-on, and I’d rank A Hell of a Woman just below The Killer Inside Me but above A Swell-Looking Dame and Savage Night. A Hell of a Woman is an interesting title–after all it’s a term normally applied in a flattering way to a woman and it implies certain attributes. Thompson subverts this idea, however, and co-ops the phrase for his own purposes.

Frank Dillon, known as Dolly, the male protagonist of the story is a door-to-door salesman and collections agent for Pay-E-Zee Stores–a company that offers cheap shoddy goods on credit.  Dolly is skimming the books and when the novel begins he’s “in the hole for better than three hundred dollars.” He always thinks he’ll have a lucky streak and start paying it back, but instead, he keeps digging into his accounts deeper. He’s spent most of his adult life drifting always seeking “something that looked better,” but things never get better, and Dolly’s hand-to-mouth existence is wearing thin as he ages and never gets the big break he dreamed of. Dolly’s luck with women appears to be equally cursed. He seems to have no problem getting women, but he claims that once the sheen of the new relationship ends, he’s always stuck with ‘tramps,’ and Dolly’s personal life consists of a roadmap of problematic women:

I kept thinking that if I had some little helpmeet to dwell with, the unequal struggle would not be so unequal. But I didn’t have any more luck that way than I did in the other. Tramps, that’s all I got. Five goddamned tramps in a row … or maybe it was six or seven, but it doesn’t matter. It was like they were the same person.

His current problem woman is his wife, Joyce:

That Joyce. Now there was a number for you. Kid Sloppybutt, Princess Lead-in-the-Tail, Queen of the Cigarette Girls and a free pinch with every pack. I’d thought she was hot stuff, but it hadn’t been recently, brother. I may have been stupid to begin with, but I wised up fast. Joyce–a lazy, selfish, dirty slob like Joyce for a wife.

Dolly may have started out looking for a ‘helpmeet’ but according to him he gets a domestic disaster:

We lived in a little four-room dump on the edge of the business district. It wasn’t any choice neighborhood, know what I mean? We had a wrecking yard on one side of us and a railroad spur on the other. But it was choice enough for us. We were as well off there as we would be anywhere. A palace or a shack, it always worked out to the same difference. If it wasn’t a dump to begin with, it damned soon got to be.

All it took was for us to move in.

I went inside, taking off my coat and hat. I laid them down on my sample case–at least it was clean–and took a look around. The floor hadn’t been swept. The ash trays were loaded with butts. Last night’s newspapers were scattered all over. The … hell, nothing was as it should be. Nothing but dirt and disorder wherever you looked.

The kitchen sink was filled with dirty dishes; there were soiled sticky pans all over the stove. She’d just got through eating, it looked like, and of course she’d left the butter and everything else sitting out. So now the roaches were having themselves a meal. Those roaches really had a happy home with us. They got a hell of a lot more to eat than I did.

On his sale rounds Dolly meets Mona, a stunningly beautiful blonde who lives in peculiar circumstances under the control of a hideous, miserly old crone. Mona, who is part tortured waif and part raving nympho is, according to Dolly, “poor for beef, fine for milk.” Six simple words and we have a good idea of Mona’s figure, but the comment is essentially a reflection on Dolly’s character more than anything else. Interestingly, Dolly doesn’t seem particularly lust-motivated in his quest for Mona, and his interest is part self-reflective and later part greed. As it turns out, Dolly’s meeting with Mona is significant; he becomes entangled with Mona just as his relationship with Joyce goes south.

At first, Dolly seems to be your typical cheap little chiseler who has an unhappy home life, but as the plot unfolds, his cold, dark nature crawls out with each turn of events. Not to give away too much of the plot here, I’m just going to say that there’s a robbery, some murders, and a getaway plan, but since this is noir, we know that Dolly’s plans are going to go down the toilet. But the remarkable thing here is the twist doesn’t come when you expect it.

A Hell of a Woman is a study in narrative genius. Dolly (which was Thompson’s nickname when he worked as a bellboy) is another Jim Thompson lowlife. The first person narration reveals a man who sees one side of life (his side), but Dolly talks to himself, talks about himself and has the occasional rant as he begins to unravel. Towards the end of the book, Dolly’s narration splits into two versions of events which are presented as stories with one version told by Dolly and another told by Derf Senoj & Knarf Nollid (Fred Jones and Frank Dollin). In the final chapter, two voices  alternate sentences creating a seemingly insane ramble which we are left to pick apart. While Savage Night completely disintegrated into surreal madness at its conclusion, A Hell of A Woman divides and then glues back together, and this fusion creates a fractured, jarring view of Dolly’s mind. All the women in the novel are portrayed negatively, but it’s clear that these often putrid visions of womanhood are just twisted versions according to Dolly, a man who’s his own worst enemy.

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