Build My Gallows High: Geoffrey Homes (1946)

“Money was something you could hold and count. Love? Hell, you could pick that up in a Mexican cafe when you needed it.”

If you read this blog, then you know that I am deranged when it comes to noir, and you’ll also know that I have this fixation on books made into film. So it shouldn’t come as a great shock that I am about to enthuse about a fantastic noir book Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring). If the title does not sound familiar, then try Out of the Past. That’s the film version–starring the iconic Robert Mitchum as the main character in this doom-ridden tale of past sins, double-crossing rotten dames, greed and lust. Yes all the elements of a superb noir tale are here in Build My Gallows  High–a truly exceptional novel, published in 1946. So if you’re a noir fan, do yourself a favour and get a copy of this dark tale. You’ll thank me.

The novel opens with a sort of sticky sweetness that had me wondering whether or not I’d wasted my hard-earned cash, and yet at the same time, the cover photo held a certain dark promise. So I pushed on past the first initial pages which describe a gooey meeting between twenty-year-old Ann and forty-two-year-old “beat up around the edges” Red Bailey.

But all is not as it appears. Red Bailey, whose real name is Red Markham, is a man with a past. He’s the owner of the One Stop Service Station in Bridgeport–a small Northern California town located in the middle of nowhere. He’s lived in Bridgeport for years, and while he’s established a quiet life there, part of him always knew that the sins of the past would have to be paid for. The past arrives in the form of an unpleasant gun-toting hood named Stefanos who orders Red to accompany him to a casino in neighbouring Nevada.

Here Red meets casino owner, retired police chief, Guy Parker. As the two men hand a round of cards, Parker tell Red he wants to hire him for a job:

‘A pushover.’ Guy repeated. ‘Trip to New York. All expenses and five grand. You can’t kiss that off.’

‘Can’t I?’ Red fiddled with the cards waiting. He didn’t like the set-up, didn’t like it at all. Guy Parker didn’t play unless the deck was stacked.

Red initially refuses the job. He doesn’t want to get involved, but the problem is that he’s already involved, up to his neck. In order to ‘persuade’ Red, Parker introduces his woman, Mumsie McGonigle. Mumsie and Red have a history together.

About 11 years previously, Red was working in New York as a partner in a PI agency. He was hired by gangster, Walt Sterling to track down his girlfriend, Mumsie, who disappeared after shooting him and stealing $56,000. Red tracked Mumsie down to Acapulco. He was supposed to bring her and the money back to Sterling. But he didn’t, and the case ended with Red falling for a double-crossing dame and committing murder along the way.

So here’s Red, 11 years later, blackmailed into taking the job from Parker, Mumsie’s latest keeper. Bailey travels to New York suspecting that he’s about to be set up, but the problem is he doesn’t know just which direction the double-cross is coming from….

The novel follows Red in New York and Bridgeport trying to anticipate and dodge the double-cross while he recalls how he met Mumsie in the first place. Red is motivated to try and clear his past as he is now in love with Ann, the innocent young girl he leaves behind in Bridgeport. He imagines that if he weathers this double-cross or somehow evens the score, that’ll he will be free to move forward with a new life. In many ways he’s been in limbo for the past 11 years, waiting for this moment.

At 153 pages this is a slim but rich read full of great quotes and fantastic noir moments. At the heart of this dark tale are the moral choices made by Red–a man whose poor decisions have led to a one-way ticket to his doom. In one fascinating scene, Jim Caldwell, a rival for Ann’s affection is faced with a moral decision. The choice he makes, which is not self-serving, exemplifies why he isn’t a noir anti-hero.

The story also contrasts the two worlds of damp, claustrophobic New York–its brutal gangsters, crooked lawyers, and hard-working cabbies with the natural, open beauty of Bridgeport. While Mumsie and New Yorker, Meta Carson are women who seem created out of the shady environments in which they operate, Ann, however, springs from the good soil of Bridgeport.

In some ways, Red is tired of waiting for his past to catch up with him, and as a result part of him doesn’t fight his fate. At times he’s an onlooker to his own life with a vague curiosity to discover just how he is going to be double-crossed:

A tug grunted by, pushing a couple of barges loaded with freight cars. Over Brooklyn a searchlight stabbed with its finger at a cloud, found what it was looking for and went out. Red stood up. He was tired of answering questions. He was tired of asking himself questions. What was going to happen would happen and that was that. When you came right down to it, it didn’t matter much. It really didn’t matter at all. Even if he was a worthy citizen full of good deeds and honors, it wouldn’t matter.

And what about Mumsie, a femme fatale who shoots one lover and double crosses a few others? All the men in her life know that she’s trouble, but they just can’t resist her. Here’s Red remembering Mumsie:

At first he hadn’t loved her. Those weeks in Acapulco–the nights hot and still until a morning wind came along, the days bright with Mexican voices that were like cricket songs–he had wanted her as he wanted no other woman in his life. But he saw the imperfections–a smallness, a stinginess, a tendency to give grudgingly or not at all of everything but her body.

It was on the boat wallowing amiably north that he had stopped seeing clearly. Mumsie became something he made up–not a beautiful womam who put a slug in Whit Sterling’s belly. It had taken a good kick in the teeth to bring the true picture into focus.

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44 Comments

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44 responses to “Build My Gallows High: Geoffrey Homes (1946)

  1. You are decidedly not helping in my decision to not buy any books anymore… This sounds right up my alley. Maybe I could watch the film instead.

  2. What a praise! I do read your blog and I can tell you don’t write such introductions everyday.
    The quote you used as a subtitle is excellent. I’d probably like this and I think I can read it in English. Thanks.
    PS: the French cover is nice too.
    http://www.decitre.fr/livres/Pendez-moi-haut-et-court.aspx/9782869303652

  3. leroyhunter

    I knew this title was familiar but didn’t make the connection. Out of the Past is superb, one of my favourite noirs. You didn’t do your usual movie-book comparison Guy? I get the feeling there’s not a huge difference between the 2 versions – bar the names (Mumsie??).

    As I’ve done a James M Cain kick recently there’s no excuse not to look for this. I’ll thank you later.

    • I didn’t say much about the film/book connection as the film is such an iconic title that most noir fans will have watched it. Too many comparisons will give spoilers, and I don’t want to spoil this experience for anyone. I will say that Mitchum is Red (another unfortunate name) here in the book in every scene & with every thought. The ending is shaped a little differently to highlight the femme fatale aspect through the expansion of Mumsie/Kathie’s role.

      It’s interesting that the film changed the names Red & Mumsie but not Meta Carson.

      My copy is from Film Ink Series published by Prion.

  4. I didn’t even know there was a book of this, and it’s a good one.

    Oh dear. I’ll be getting this. Pity my poor budget…

  5. Only 153 pages … and the film version starred Robert Mitchum? Actually, I think I’ve seen it but so long ago it’s a vague memory. I love the blurb quote: “the quintessence of doomladen romantic noir”. How can I resist that? I probably will because of that TBR pile, but this does sound like something I’d happily give a shot.

    • Gummie: it’s the sort of book you could hand to someone and say “THIS is noir.” Pet peeve of mine to see so many books and films given the label when they don’t deserve it.

      • That does it. I’ve created yet another document to manage – blogger recommendations….this is the first one on it. Whether it’s worthy of being the first one remains to be seen but there you are…

        • Well I ordered The Shark Net

        • I have a blog recommendations Doc WG. It at least prevents me buying immediately. I check it when I want to remember what had my interest and is worth following up on.

          • Ah, I wondered who else might be doing something similar. I’ve considered it for a while … the issue is that it’s yet another thing to keep up to date – taking more time away from reading! But I feel frustrated when I finally read a book someone liked and I can’t remember who it was so I can go back, comment and thank (otherwise!) them.

            • You can also stick ’em on an Amazon list or join http://www.goodreads.com (and mark them on this site)

              • Yes, I suppose … I’m on Library Thing so I suppose I can do it there too. Not keen I think on giving Amazon my wish list!

                BTW talking about films and book adaptations as we were elsewhere, have you seen the Aussie film Jindabyne adapted from a Raymond Carver story? Changed somewhat but a great film I thought.

                • Jindabyne is an excellent film. Seen it but don’t hesitate to recommend others as you know some Aussie film doesn’t get the press here.

                  The good thing about Amazon is that their recommendations are good. So if you buy A then B might be interesting. Just as long as you can avoid the paid product placement thing….

                  • Will try to remember to do.

                    Thought you would have liked it.

                    (Sorry for the late reply … the last week has been hectic, and next week I’ll be out in the far northish-west so commenting will be slack then too).

  6. leroyhunter

    I missed “This Film is Not yet Rated” but it sounded well worth a look. You talked before about the Hays Code, it’s fascinating stuff. How ratings are made, how the criteria change, the individual works that push the boat out.

    I’ve become quite blasé about ratings as I get older and need to watch that I don’t find myself allowing my kids to watch something totally out of order.

    • Yes, even if the subject doesn’t sound that interesting, it’s not hard to get swept up in it all. The basic premise is that violence is ok, while sex is not. Tut tut.

    • To tell you how silly The Hays Code was–one ‘rule’ was that if there was a dancing scene, both legs of the woman weren’t supposed to be off the ground. Those censors had dirty minds.

  7. Love the film – did it follow the book closely?
    BTW, I just bought the Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. At 1100+ pages, I can be hard boiled for some time on my commute!

    • There are some minor differences (time that takes place between Markham running off with the dame and the past catching up) and some big differences: in the film, Kathy shoots Markham’s partner.

      The book spends a considerable amount of time in NY and we see the set-up. Plus the ending is different–once again highlighting Kathy’s (Mumsie in the book) duplicity.

      I would say that the film plays up the femme fatale angle as Kathy is very much the femme fatale who’s not worried about getting her hands dirty. In the book she’s sly and some of her actions and involvement seem murkier.

      I have that book also. Have you seen the book, The Best Noir of the Century?

      • The Best Noir of the Century I have my hands full with the stuff I have now!

        On your book-into-film theme:
        I’m reading The Maltese Falcon, and I just watched the film again. I was surprised at closely it follows the story, even the dialog. Nowadays, nobody ‘adapts’ films that way, no? I always wondered why Spade made those funny movements with his lips, and now I know that they are right in the story.

        The Hot Spot was good too, and also closely followed the text. That film is 20 years old, so does my above statement hold? Is it noir-fans who know not to mess with a good thing? Is there something about lit-noir that is inherently ‘filmic?’ What led to what? I must say, though, that the scene with Madsen holding a gun to Johnson while she unzips his fly struck me as an unnecessary concession to contemporary standards, although not out of line with the spirit of the book. I just find it refreshing to watch old films in which things are hinted at rather than made explicit. Of course, they had no choice then…

  8. I think you have a good point–noir fans do tend to be fanatics. Read: Don’t fuck with my Hammett, dammit.

    So perhaps if there’s a noir film project in mind those involved have tracks laid down as far as style, content and not messin’ with the masters of the genre.

    I mean … it’s sacrilege.

    Have you see Romeo is Bleeding? Another fav neo-noir.

  9. Romeo is Bleeding
    Yes, I love that film! I think it captures the noir in the neo noir better than a lot of others. The protaganist is a fabulous character.

  10. Pingback: Why in hell did the past have to catch up with him now? | Book Around The Corner

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