Tag Archives: american noir fiction

The Big Heat: William P. McGivern (1953)

“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.

The big heatOn 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.

gunIf 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

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Filed under Fiction, McGivern William P

Hill Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

As a fan of the crime novels of Charles Williams, I’ve reviewed a few for this site, and here they are, so far, in order of preference for anyone interested:

River Girl (1951)

Hell Hath No Fury (The Hot Spot) (1953)

Big City Girl (1951)

River Girl is the story of a corrupt, married small-town deputy sheriff who gets in over his head with a woman he meets in a remote cabin. This is a tense, desperate noir novel that somehow managed to beat out Hell Hath No Fury as my favourite Williams novel so far. Hell Hath no Fury is the story a criminal who drifts into a small town, takes a job as a car salesman and cases out the local bank with plans to steal the cash and split. The main character here makes the mistake of getting mixed up with not one–but two women: Gloria Harper, the boss’s bookkeeper and Dolly, the boss’s trashy wife. Big City Girl is the story of a family of poor sharecroppers. One of the sons is in prison and Joy, his trashy wife who’s addicted to the attention of men decides to leave the city and join the family on the cotton farm. Bad idea…

With these three books, there’s a common theme: women are trouble–even if they don’t mean to be which is certainly true in the case of Doris, the woman hiding in the cabin discovered by deputy sheriff Marshall. Big City Girl and Hell Hath No Fury feature femme fatales who use men and sex to further their aims–although Hell Hath No Fury’s Dolly (played by a sultry, very naughty Virginia Madsen in the 1990 film version) wins hands down in the Evil department.  And that brings me back to Hill Girl (1951) the first novel Charles Williams published. Williams saw three of his novels published that year: Hill Girl, Big City Girl, and River Girl so I’m wondering if he had a backlog of manuscripts when he was finally picked up by Gold Medal.

Then take a look at these vintage covers which certainly reinforce the idea that women are evil seductresses, but Williams is a much more sophisticated thinker than that. In his world, women, some women, use their looks and sex to move ahead in society–men after all, have the power, the wealth, and the career choices, so women use other means to gain control.

Hill Girlvintage big city girlriver girlhell

The Hill Girl of the title is a bootlegger’s daughter named Angelina, and that name seems a little ironic the first few times we see Angelina with her long honey-coloured blonde hair, more or less dressed in rags that do little to cover her figure. She’s bad-tempered, unhappy and more importantly, as we see as the plot plays out, she’s jail-bait or even worse … shotgun bait. But let’s back up a little. Hill Girl is the story of sexual obsession, two very different brothers, Lee and Bob, and the woman who comes between them. Yes, you guessed it … Angelina.

Bob, the younger son, moves back to his family’s hometown to take over and run his deceased grandfather’s farm. You’d think, initially, at least, that Bob is the black sheep of the family since the eldest son, Lee, who’s married and lives in the family home, inherited everything from his father who was known somewhat dauntingly as The Major. As the story unfolds, the ‘good son’ and the ‘bad son’ designations shift around, and we see that Bob, the younger brother, although he fought with his father and was persona non gratis in his father’s home, is actually the ‘good’ son while Lee, who inherited his entire father’s estate worth around $30,000 (Bob was left $1) and married a wonderful, kind woman named Mary, is the bad seed. He’s just smooth enough to hide his rottenness.

The book opens with Bob’s return and his auspicious, as it turns out, meeting with bootlegger Sam Harley who lives along Black Creek bottom. Then failed pro-boxer Bob returns to the family home which is now owned by Lee. Brief homecoming over, Lee drags Bob out to get some moonshine from Sam, but his real reason for going to Sam’s is Angelina. Lee lusts after the bootlegger’s daughter and there is a very tense scene with Lee bound and determined to have Angelina in spite of the threat of Sam’s shotgun. The roles of the brothers are very quickly delineated. Lee is hellbent on pursing Angelina and Bob, the only brother with a conscience, is determined to save him from being shot….

Lee, of course eventually gets his way with Angelina, and in some rather crude descriptions reveals how little he values Angelina, and as it turns out, how little he understands her. While Williams creates some fascinating female characters in his books, Angelina is the weakest-drawn character here, first she’s bad, bad, bad, and then she turns into a completely different person. Angelina first appears to be a savage, surly, empty-headed teen nymphet who is Trouble, “a sex crime looking for somebody to happen to,”  but later Williams moves in on this character with generous sympathy, so we that we are now supposed to see Angelina as kind and naïve. Cooped up on the farm and kept as unpaid labour she longed for simple items such as shoes or a dress that fits, and her rebellious, self-destructive behaviour is aimed at her father and loathing of her life more than anything else. So Angelina as ‘bad,’ vanishes. While the character shift isn’t convincing, Williams shows how women are forced to operate in a world dominated by men, so there are some interesting observations on the subject of how men treat women as though they’re owned like any other possession. Here’s a scene in which Angelina wants to get her hair bobbed–something forbidden by her father:

You’ll like hell do what you please,” I started, and then caught myself and shut up. After all, it was her hair, and Sam Harley had been telling her she couldn’t cut it all these years and trying to browbeat her, and look where he had wound up in her eyes. You couldn’t get anywhere by trying to bully her. She didn’t bully worth a damn. You might get your way if you overpowered her, but it wouldn’t be worth what you lost in the process.

This is a remarkably sensual novel with descriptions of physicality–the nature of uncontrollable sexual desire but also the joy of working hard and enjoying nature.

The days are long in April, longer in May, and longer still in June, but they are never long enough. They begin with dew on the grass and the long-legged shadows of sunrise and end with whipoorwills calling in the darkening bottoms and swallows circling and diving at dusk. And all day long, through the hot sweaty  hours, the work goes on.

With Lee’s crude descriptions of Angelina’s sexual appetites, the book was no doubt ahead of its time, but now it seems dated. Stylistically, Hill Girl seems a lot less smooth than River Girl; it seems to be a much earlier novel even though they were both published in 1951. Back to that question of manuscript backlog. Definitely not the author’s best work, but fans will want to read this–although copies are not cheap.

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Filed under Fiction, Williams Charles

Whom Gods Destroy: Clifton Adams (1953)

“The Blue Star was one of those cement-block and stucco buildings that you seen thrown up along highways around towns like Big Prairie. In the daytime they look like misplaced chicken houses, but at night, with their neon trimmings and their tinted floodlights bathing false fronts in soft blues and purples, they take on a kind of cheap glamour.” 

Death’s Sweet Song, is the story of Hooper, a WWII vet saddled with a mortgaged gas station and five cabins which theoretically are supposed to be filled with tourists. Many people would envy a man who owns his own business, but to Hooper, the gas station is a trap which threatens a lifetime of hard work and very little recompense. When a man and his blonde sexy wife drive into the station, Hooper throws himself headlong into a life of crime, hoping that he can escape to the type of life he longs for. After reading, and thoroughly enjoying Death’s Sweet Song, I quickly turned to Whom Gods Destroy as both novels come in a double-bill from Stark House Press.

Death's sweet songWhom Gods Destroy, also from Clifton Adams is an examination of the corrosive nature of hate and revenge as seen through the rise and fall of Roy Foley, a man who returns home to Oklahoma following the death of his father. Foley, born in an Oklahoma slum in the small town of Big Prairie, once had dreams to attend college on a football scholarship and become a doctor or a lawyer, but taunted by wealthy teen beauty, Lola, Foley ran off rather than face his humiliation. When the novel opens, Foley is working as a cook in some hash joint when he gets the news of his father’s death.

I was in Bakersfield, California when the news came. It was the busiest part of the lunch hour and I was slicing tomatoes to go with two orders of cutlets when the Western Union kid came back to the kitchen and said, “You Roy Foley?”

I said I was and he handed me the telegram and a pad to sign.

Somebody was dead. I knew that much because, in my family, that’s the only thing a telegram can mean. For a moment I held the envelope in my hand, looking at it, knowing what was in it, and feeling absolutely nothing. Not even curiosity. The orders were piling up and it seemed more important to get those orders out than to see what was in the telegram.

So I went ahead and fixed up the two orders of cutlets and dished up the vegetables and put the two platters in the service window. Then there was a little breathing spell so I took out the envelope and opened it. It said; “George passed away today. Funeral Friday.” It was signed “May Lou Smothers.”

So help me, it took a full minute or more before it finally came to me that “George” was my old man.

About that time Charley Burnstead, the counter man, put his head in the  service window  and said, “Burn two on one!”

I put the two hamburgers on the grill and split the buns and put them on to toast. That was the way I  got the news.

Foley sells his car and heads back to his small hometown of Big Prairie, Oklahoma where he reconnects with Sid, a man who once lived in very similar circumstances. Now Sid, although almost perpetually drunk, has managed to climb the rungs to success. He drives a flashy car, lives in a nice house, and appears to have hit the big time. His secret…Prohibition. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, Prohibition was not appealed in Oklahoma until 1959, and when Foley meets up with Sid, Sid is making sure that the voters keep Prohibition alive and well in Oklahoma. Hell, it’s good for business!

Foley takes one good hard look at boozed-up Sid and decides that if this idiot can make it, so can he, and he expresses interest in learning the bootlegging business. Sid is only too happy to throw a carrot his friend’s way. Soon Foley, starting at the bottom of the ladder as a humble runner, is learning the business and plotting to take over the town.

While Death’s Sweet Song is the story of a heist, Whom Gods Destroy is the story of how hate and revenge fuel one man’s rise and fall. Foley arrives in Big Prairie and decides that he wants some of the sweet money action for himself, but he’s initially a powerless punk. He makes a grab for a higher rung on the ladder but continually finding himself thrown out of the game, he scrambles to find a way back in in an ever-repeating cycle of creating bargaining chips. In Death’s Sweet Song, there were two women on opposite ends of the decent-rotten scale. The two women in Whom Gods Destroy,  Vida married to Sid and Lola now married to the county attorney, aren’t so easily defined. Foley has a love/hate thing for Lola, and those two feelings are so twisted together, they can’t be separated.–at times his desire for her blinds him to all other considerations, and it seems as though with his obsession to ‘show’ Lola he can’t make a move without being reminded of his humiliation, back in high school, at Lola’s hands.

Just as Hooper in Death’s Sweet Song lays bare his raw justification for murder, Foley painfully, and unsparingly rolls out his humiliations and the rage that carries the seeds of his own destruction. Lola is the first and most significant person to humiliate Foley, and then the novel comes full cycle when he learns just what a coward he is in an incident involving Vida. In between these two events: Lola at high school, and much much later with Vida, a lifetime has passed. Foley has beaten and murdered his way to the top, but what has changed? Absolutely nothing, and that is the moral abyss that faces Foley–not what he has done, but what he failed to do. I can’t praise this little known noir novel enough.

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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’ll Die Next! by Harry Whittington

“Look at me. I did one exciting thing in all my life. I married you. That’s all. And it looks like the excitement hasn’t even begun yet.”

You can’t read vintage crime without coming across the name Harry Whittington (1915-1989), and lucky for readers, epublishers are reviving many vintage titles that were previously only available in old, sometimes pricey and frail, paperbacks. Of course, you can’t beat those vintage covers if you’re a collector, but all too often the price of these little gems is not-for-the-average-reader.

According to the introduction to You’ll Die Next!, written by crime author Mike Dennis, Whittington “churned out over 200 novels–though the exact number has never been determined.” Dennis adds Whittington, known as the “King of the Paperback Originals,” used “over a dozen pen names” and “at his peak [he wrote] seven novels a year.” His record output was “seven in one month.”  You’ll Die Next! is short (123 pages) and manages to keep up a breakneck speed of action. This is definitely pulp but it’s merged with noir–our Everyman hero is a very average man, who lives in a modest house and works a boring job, but fate puts him on a collision course with murder, revenge and deadly violence, and this all happens after he opens his front door….

you'll die next digitalHenry Wilson, “an ordinary, homely guy”  can’t believe his luck when he meets, courts and marries sexy Kit-Kat club singer Lila.

It’d always worried him. He knew what he was, a guy making $65 a week take-home pay from a government vet administration office. She had guys paying sixty-five bucks for flowers she sniffed maybe once and dropped into the waste basket. At twenty-three Lila had everything. She could have married mink, Cadillacs, Bergdorf-Goodman accounts.

They’ve been married now for six months, and part of Henry, the part that can’t believe his luck, is waiting for something to go wrong, but so far, married life is idyllic. Lila may look slightly out-of-place in a tiny, drab house, wearing an apron and cooking meals for her husband, but she insists that she loves being a housewife. The novel opens with a scene of domestic intimacy–Lila in that apron, cooking for Henry when the doorbell rings. It’s one of those moments, when you want to urge the character not to open the door, but Henry answers this call from fate, and his life begins to spiral out of control….

Within just the space of a few short nightmarish hours, Henry Wilson has lost everything that he worked so hard for. Suspicions about Lila drive a wedge through their married life, but that’s only the beginning. Soon Henry has lost his job, can’t go home, and can’t even seek help from the police. A fugitive from both the cops and the insane crooks bent on retribution, there’s nowhere to turn and no place to hide. The big question here is what can Henry Wilson do to save himself and Lila?

Once Henry opens that front door, the action doesn’t stop, so this is a quick read, pulp action with noir undertones. There’s not much time spent on character development as most of the plot shows Henry reacting to nightmarish adversity, on the run, trying to recoup some of his old life, but since he doesn’t know his enemies, he’s always at a disadvantage. Henry has to somehow turn around the action, so that he’s no longer a victim, so that he’s no longer reacting to the violence and actions of others–no easy feat to think and act like a criminal when you’re a low-level government paper pusher.

The nice touch here is the domestic, idyllic beginning and the way in which Whittington shows that everything Henry values is destroyed once he opens that front door to the outside world.  Henry’s life with Lila is threatened by some very unpleasant characters seeking revenge, but Henry’s marital bliss is also threatened by his doubts about who Lila really is. At one pivotal point in the novel, Henry meets a stranger who senses trouble involving a female. The strategic placement of this character, who is superfluous to the plot, serves to echo Henry’s doubts about Lila as he offers comments that gnaw at Henry’s psyche:

I can tell you this, friend,” the stout man said. “women are all trouble. Good ones. Bad ones.” He shook his head. “They don’t mean to be, some of ’em. But they are.”

While Whittington cleverly structures  the life of an Everyman for readers to identify with, he also accentuates subconscious fears that a desirable woman is really just stringing along her sucker of a husband  until a better gig turns up. And this is the power of this pulp novel–Whittington taps into those fears, and it’s fairly easy to identify with Henry, a man who’s led a life of boring predictability, always taking the safe road. Before Lila, Henry was “a guy in a rut. A guy digging a groove into a grave.” Lila is Henry’s one deviation from his staid life, and that’s why he expects something bad to happen. Now finding himself beyond the safety net of society, and relying on his own resources, he must somehow rescue his life before it’s totally destroyed.

Punks, pimps and prostitutes–all were wearing the uniforms of their trades. A Salvation Army band added to the din, playing with all its strength at two bums watching from the kerb: Neons glittered, rose red and bile green, and reflected kin the dirty puddles at the kerb.

you'll die next

 

Review copy.

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Chance by Kem Nunn

The essential feature of a shared psychotic disorder (folie à deux) is a delusion that develops in an otherwise healthy individual who is involved in a close relationship with another person (sometimes termed the “inducer” or “the primary case”) who already has a psychotic disorder with prominent delusions and who, in general, is the dominant in the relationship and is thus able, over time to gradually impose the delusional system on the more passive and initially healthy individual.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an interest in fiction involving therapists–add that to noir and you’ve immediately got my attention, so when I read about Kem Nunn’s new book, Chance, I thought I’d probably like it. I was wrong, I didn’t like it; I loved it.

chanceEldon Chance is a middle-aged San-Francisco based forensic neuropsychiatrist, whose life, until just recently was going extremely well. Married for over 20 years to “aspiring photographer,” Diane, and the father of a teenage daughter, Nicole, his life seemed enviable. But Diane’s affair with “a dyslexic personal trainer ten years her junior,” has led to divorce proceedings. Their pricey home is up for sale, Nicole will no longer be able to attend her expensive private school, and Chance has moved into a tiny apartment, so tiny, it can’t house his expensive antique French furniture set which looks ridiculous jammed into its new surroundings. Things aren’t quite bad enough apparently … Chance receives a notice from the IRS that he owes over 200,000 in back taxes and fines.

Chance considers selling his fancy French furniture to a nearby antique shop he frequents. Problem is that because it lacks the brass metalwork, it’s not considered complete and he can only get 50-60 thousand for it. If the furniture had its original metalwork, however, the set would fetch around twice that according to antique shop owner Carl. Carl, however, employs a giant of man, an incredible craftsman named D (whose bald head sports a huge tattoo of a black widow spider), and according to Carl, D can replace the metalwork to Chance’s furniture so cleverly that no one will be able to tell the difference. With the metalwork intact, the furniture can be sold for top dollar.

Normally a very cautious person, Chance, pressured by necessity and now unmoored from the supports of his previously structured life, begins to make a series of bad decisions–one of those decisions being, of course, to sell the furniture with the newly attached metalwork crafted by D, and while that is fraudulent, Chance’s mistakes go further than that. We know he’s going to head for disaster from the way he thinks about the female patients who come his way. Bear in mind that he’s not dealing with mentally healthy women when he finds himself noting their attractiveness, their sexuality and possible availability. One of his patients is a substitute teacher named Jaclyn Blackstone who appears to suffer from a dissociative identity disorder. While Jaclyn is estranged from her violent, jealous husband, Oakland homicide detective, Raymond Blackstone, she claims that a second personality, “Jackie Black,” engages in rough sex with Blackstone. Dr. Chance finds himself attracted to this patient, but which one tweaks his interest: Jaclyn or Jackie?

Chance can dissect human psychological problems in a few sentences and produce neatly written reports that will appear as evidence in court cases, but as it turns out, he sucks at predicting human behaviour or avoiding disasters in his personal life. Involvement with the elusive Jaclyn combined with the threat of physical danger sends Chance to D, a disciple of Nietzsche, initially for advice, and then for assistance as Chance becomes increasingly drawn into the dark secrets of Jaclyn’s world. Unlike Chance, D doesn’t live inside textbooks and knows that sometimes you have to be prepared to back up your position with violence.  As D tells Chance, “there are no victims just volunteers.” D, who has a thing for exotic weaponry, sees where Chance is heading and warns him:

“Ever heard of The Frozen Lake?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Then you haven’t heard of it. It’s the thing you want so badly you’ll go to the center of a frozen lake to reach it.”

“Where the ice is the thinnest.”

“But you won’t think about that. Everyone else will, just not you.”

With D as a guide to the netherworld of violent encounters, physical confrontation and surveillance, Chance follows Jaclyn down the “rabbit hole,” and one of the big questions is: who can he trust? Is D, with his penchant for violence, a fantasist? And what about Jaclyn? Who is she really? What happened to her last therapist? Is she, as Chance’s fellow therapist suggests, just “finding one man to save her from another?”  Chance deals with various mental issues all day long–but in the past there’s been a nice clinical line between him and the patients he evaluates as part of the report process for insurance companies and court cases. His life has been admirable, clean, ordered and now it’s in chaos, spinning out of control, and D advises Chance to change his role:

People talk about self defense. Self-defense is bullshit. I’m defending, I’m losing. I want the other guy defending while I attack. Doesn’t make any difference how many people I’m fighting. I want them all defending because that means I’m dictating the action. I’m the feeder. As long as I’m the feeder, I win. I don’t care if it’s a dozen. Right now, this cop is the feeder. You’re the receiver. You need to turn that around.

Chance is a fantastic noir novel–that’s not to say that it isn’t flawed because it is. The novel is padded with patient evaluations and a few pieces of diagnostic information, and if you (unlike me) don’t like novels that include therapy, this aspect of the plot may have no appeal. The ending is dragged out, and there’s one knife lesson scene towards the end of the book that seems ridiculous, but frankly I don’t care; I thoroughly enjoyed the book for its psychological complexities, its setting, its characters (D Rocks!) and the entire way that the book exemplifies the noir genre. Kem Nunn is termed an author of “Surf Noir,” but Chance, a very cinematic novel, is set in San Francisco–a city, with unconventionality practically a by-law, that is a natural setting for noir. Chance has spent over twenty years building his life and his reputation, and now his life is in disintegration, falling around him like a house of cards. He’s tempted by money; he’s lured by sex–add corrupt cops, Romanian gangsters and a run down massage parlor in Oakland, and suddenly he’s in so deep there may not be a way out….

Chance imagined himself no stranger to the machinations by which people went about establishing the architecture of their own imprisonment, the citadels from whose basement windows one might on occasion hear their cries.

Review copy.

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River Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

“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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Big City Girl: Charles Williams (1951)

“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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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 Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Ride the Pink Horse , a brooding tale set in a dreary New Mexico town during its fiesta, written by American crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993).  Due to his lack of funds (and no hotel room), the story’s protagonist resentfully finds himself befriended by the local Mexicans and Indians, while he longs to be one of the privileged white crowd who command a seemingly better life of swanky hotel rooms, fine dinners, and good-looking blondes. In The Expendable Man, Hughes explores racial divisions but from an entirely different aspect.

The novel begins with UCLA medical intern, Hugh Denismore, driving his mother’s white Cadillac to the family home and his niece’s wedding in Phoenix. He’s driving through Indio–a bleached out desert town, and immediately we know that there’s some unspecified problem. Hugh feels uncomfortable and threatened by some of the rowdy behaviour of the locals. After getting something to eat at a drive-in restaurant, he continues his journey in the hot afternoon sun, and then around sundown, he sees a hitchhiker, a young girl, standing in the shade of a tree. Hugh hesitates and then decides to stop and give her a ride….

The girl, who claims to be 18, says her name is Iris Croom. She has a story about how she ended up hitchhiking in the middle of the desert, and part of that story includes an aunt who lives in Phoenix. Hugh doesn’t believe the girl, but he senses her very real vulnerability underneath her prickly, sly, and opportunistic behaviour. Suspecting that Iris is a minor, perhaps 15 or 16 at most, and knowing that he can’t take Iris over the state line, he drops her off at the bus station at Blythe and buys her a bus ticket to Phoenix. Hugh travels on thinking that this will be the last he sees of the girl. He’s wrong.

The Expendable Man begins with a sense of underlying tension and with the feeling that the characters exist in an indifferent environment in which a human being could easily disappear without a trace:

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.

This bleak indifference reflected in the geography of the desert continues throughout the novel through the behaviour of a number of people who, as fate would have it, can affect Hugh’s future.

Hughes crafts her novel cleverly. There’s an unexplained and seemingly out-of-place nervous edge to Hugh’s behaviour. He feels uneasy when the rowdy Indio teenagers harass him, and he worries that someone will see that he gave Iris a ride. Why is he worried? Why is he troubled by a few rude locals?

Far ahead on the road, he saw the shape of an oncoming car as it lifted itself over a culvert. He switched on his lights. The sky was still pale, the pale lavender of twilight, but the sand world had darkened. It was difficult enough to drive at this hour, the lights would identify the presence of his car to the one approaching. When the other car passed his, headed toward Indio, he saw it was yet another jalopy filled with kids. it was hopped up; it zoomed by, with only scraps of voices shrilling above the sound of the motor.

In his rear-view mirror, he watched until it disappeared in the distance. Just for a moment, he had known fear. It might be the same group that hectored him in town. The trap might be sprung by his picking up the girl; they might swing about and come after him. Only when the car had disappeared from sight, did he relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.

What are the “old experiences” that cause him to remember a sense of fear?

To dismiss one of the central issues of the story as a writerly conceit would be both erroneous and an underestimation of this very clever, extremely well-paced and well-crafted mystery novel. While Hughes constructs what appears to be an easy-to-guess and predictable situation, in her hands, her final novel shows a writer at the peak of her creative talent.  In Ride the Pink Horse, Sailor feels the impact of being a nobody in a dreary backwater town, and in contrast Hugh, in The Expendable Man, well on his way to affluence and a prestige career discovers that his world of privilege is a fragile facade which is rapidly ripped away when he becomes the prime suspect of a murder investigation. And it’s a credit to the skills of the writer that the novel’s tension does not exist in Hugh’s identity, but in the mystery that unfolds. Ride The Pink Horse and The Expendable Man cover some similar territory: power, race & privilege. Both novels also explore societal divides but whereas Ride the Pink Horse suffered from a lack of tension, the tension in The Expendable Man never lets up. Dorothy B. Hughes is probably best remembered for her novel In a Lonely Place which was made into the iconic noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and one of my eternal favourites, Gloria Grahame. In spite of a number of crime novels to her credit, Hughes is in danger of slipping into ill-deserved obscurity, so fans of American crime fiction should applaud this New York Review Books Classic edition which should, thanks to their reputation, go a long way to ensuring Hughes is not forgotten.

 Review copy from the publisher

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