Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"So Rich, So Dead" by Gil Brewer

Gold Medal No. 196, 1951

“There was this rushing hum . . . Marie reached out toward me, both hands outstretched, her eyes pleading. She was clothed in something silken, diaphanous. Her hair flowed across her shoulders in that soft jet, like the overside of a cloud when the moon is down. She reached toward me, drifted close, yet came no nearer. I tried to tell her to go away, leave me alone.”

So begins the tale of Bill Maddern. Bill is a P.I., running an agency with his brother. He returns from a trip to find his brother dead and a mysterious message regarding a half-million bucks his brother located for a client. He also finds out that his nightmare about Marie came true. She is found dead in his office as well-

"There’s no use going into it. It was sordid and mean and something you have to see sometimes in this business. But you don’t have to think about it if you’re on the outside. You can forget, because it wasn’t you or yours. It was somebody else; somebody your reading about. She had been literally beaten to death. The things that had been done to her probably nobody will ever know except for the killer himself. She’d gone out fighting for her life. She wasn’t Marie now. This wasn’t Marie."

Bill quickly becomes suspect no. 1 in his bro’s murder and goes on the lamb. While hiding out from the police and working to clear his name, Bill meets up with a variety of ne’er-do-wells, including a strange little man named Leander and his babe, Rita. Bill also befriends a sweet young lass that agrees to become his new secretary - after a couple minutes conversation. Suspicious you ask, no, of course not . . .

I’m a huge Gil Brewer fan and have been steadily hunting down and reading his novels. Unfortunately, So Rich, So Dead is my least favorite, so far. Most of the characters, particularly the ladies, are flatly drawn and relatively lifeless. The plot slogs along without too many stand-out scenes or ideas. The nice emotional hook set up with the death of Marie isn’t effectively woven through the plot as Maddern’s driving force. Maddern seems more concerned with making sure the money is secure and clearing his name than he is of getting revenge for Marie's death. You'd never catch Mike Hammer acting that way. The ending, which I gather was supposed to be a surprise, was about as cookie-cutter as you can get for an early 50s P.I. story.

The Leander and Rita characters are the most interesting thing here. Rita’s a blond bombshell that Maddern can’t seem to resist despite knowing she is poison. Brewer informs us, in that subtle 50s kind of way, she “enjoys” the pain Leander dispenses with his cane. Together they put Maddern through the wringer and that is where the book is at its best.

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