“You couldn’t plant enough flowers around here to kill the stench.”
I’d hazard a guess that most noir film fans have seen the Fritz Lang film version of The Big Heat. Starring Gloria Grahame (one of my favourite noir actresses), Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin, The Big Heat makes many Top Noir Film lists, and it certainly makes mine. That brings me to the book, inspired by a true story, by William P. McGivern. The book, published in 1953 first appeared in serial form; it took the author just three weeks to write it, and that same year, the film rights were sold. My copy sat on a shelf for years, and while I picked it up every few months, I always put the book down. Now after finishing the book, I realize that my reluctance to read it stemmed from a concern that I’d be disappointed. Guess what… I wasn’t.
Set in Philadelphia, The Big Heat is a hard-boiled, moody tale of police corruption, how one brave solitary detective tries to solve a murder case, and the very great personal cost he pays for his integrity.
On a night of heavy rain, detectives in the homicide department receive a call from a Mrs Deery that her husband, a police clerk who worked in the Superintendent’s office, has committed suicide. Although two detectives are playing cards when the phone rings, the atmosphere in the office is one of palpable disquiet, and that sensation only deepens with the news of Deery’s death.
A cop’s death is one thing; it means black bunting looped over the door of his station house for a week or so, a few paragraphs in the papers, and a note to his family from the Mayor and his captain. A cop’s suicide is another matter. It can mean that the man was a weakling, a neurotic, a fool–in any case no one to have been safeguarding the lives and properties of other citizens, or it can mean something even less wholesome, something potentially dangerous to the entire, close-knit fabric of the department.
Bannion goes to the Deery home, and although the case seems to be a cut and dried suicide, there are some elements to the situation that are troubling. Deery, a meticulous man, shot himself in his study, and one of things that catches Bannion’s attention is that Deery read travel books–a choice that strikes Bannion as “curious.” Bannion, already sensing that something doesn’t add up, then meets the smiling, composed widow–a woman whose careful grooming seems a little out of place:
Everything about her was meticulously arranged and ordered: her small black patent leather pumps shone glossily, her sheer nylons lacked even the suggestion of a wrinkle, and her nail polish and makeup looked as if it had been applied, and with great care, within the last fifteen or twenty minutes. And possibly it had, Bannion thought, with an odd quirk of annoyance.
The unknown reason behind Deery’s suicide rankles Bannion–although the grieving widow mouths a few words about her husband being worried about his health. The case is apparently closed, but then Bannion gets a call from a woman called Lucy Carroway claiming she has some information about Deery. Lucy, Deery’s one-time mistress, saw Deery 5 days before his death, and according to Lucy, “he was never happier in his life.” Bannion, a decent, hard-working, relentless homicide detective, goes to talk to Mrs Deery again, and tries to align the version of Deery given by his respectable, middle-class widow with the concerns of Lucy, a seemingly sincere woman with a tarnished past. Suddenly Bannion’s off the case and Lucy disappears….
There are several times when Bannion, a truly fascinating character, knows that he’s at a “crossroads […] either he went along and took orders, or he changed jobs.” Surrounded by corruption at every level, Bannion must make a choice, and he understands that there will be a great price to pay if he tries to buck the system. Still mulling over the question of which path to take, the decision is taken out of his hands when the stakes change.
The heat was on, the fix was in, call it what you like. Bannion had been nosing around something safe and protected, ignoring the No Trespassing signs, and so to hell with honest police work
In many ways, The Big Heat has the feel of a western with the lone hero seeking justice in an overwhelmingly corrupt world. Bannion, spurred on by tragedy, soon finds himself seeking revenge against violent gangsters as “the big heat” encompasses the city. As Bannion begins to stalk his quarry, he sets off a struggle within the criminal hierarchy of Philadelphia. Bannion is a character we like immediately–partly for his acknowledgment that “there was nothing more potentially revealing, he felt, than a man’s honest, impulsive reactions to a book.” He’s a tall, quiet man, respected by his colleagues and yet underestimated by his boss and the brutal gangsters who control the city:
Bannion shifted slightly in his chair. “You’d better listen a bit now,” he said. He felt anger surging up in him, pounding for release. This had always been his cross, a violent, hair-trigger temper that tore the control away from his judgement and reason. He fought it down now, as he had fought it for years. Bannion permitted himself no excesses of anger; he refused to pander to his buried need for violence, for unmotivated destruction. Bannion was known as a kind man, a gentle man, but only he knew the effort it cost him to play the role.
The book’s beautifully crafted dark mood is maintained throughout, not only by twists of plot but also by subtle references to the weather and the relentless rain. McGivern paints a portrait of a corrupt city populated with greedy politicians, brutal gangsters, and a handful of good people who stand up for Bannion. Along the way to justice, Bannion meets Debby (Gloria Grahame in the film), the girlfriend of classless gangster, Max Stone (played by Lee Marvin), and in a very peculiar, yet brilliantly unexpected way, Debby becomes a sort of salvation for Bannion. For this reader, the best scene in the book occurs when Bannion confronts Mrs Deery and we see just how awful this seemingly-respectable widow really is. The roles given to the women in the book are fantastic–there’s Kate, Bannion’s wife who is the exact opposite of Mrs Deery, and then there are two women who exist on the fringes of society, Lucy and Debby, who both make incredibly strong moves and pay the price.
If you’re going to buy a copy of The Big Heat, then try to get your hands on the version pictured here from ibooks. This edition contains an afterword from the author in which he explains some fundamentals about the book and the film, and a very significant meeting he had with Fritz Lang in Rome in 1962. This great director explained to McGivern exactly why he connected with the film and its depiction of a man standing up to evil. There are just a few differences between the book and the film, and it’s a classic case of the film version capitalizing on the visuals implied by the book.
204 pages including afterword