Sunday, March 6, 2011

"The Red Scarf" by Gil Brewer

Crest Book No. 310, 1958
New Pulp Press, 2010

"About eight-thirty that night, the driver of a big trailer truck let me out in the middle of nowhere. I had stacked in with a load of furniture all the way from Chicago and I should have slept, too. I couldn’t even close my eyes."
Roy, desolate at failing to get a loan from his brother, is hitching his way from Chicago to Florida.  He and his wife, Bess, own a motel in which they sunk all of their chips.  They are riding out the hope that a new highway would be located an built fronting the motel.  Word is the new highway will be re-located, leaving their motel a stranded money pit.     

“ALF’S BBQ Drinks Sandwiches”

"The sign was done in blue lights and it kind of hung like a ghost there in the dripping trees. It swung and you could hear it creak. Just the sign, and nothing else.”

In Alf’s, Roy bums a ride from a shady looking couple, Vivian and Noel.  He quickly realizes he is stepping in the middle of a hornet’s nest.

"I sat there without saying anything for about a mile. Just waiting. It wasn’t the cigarette smoke in this car, or the hot air from the heater, either. You could taste the trouble that had been going on between these two."

There is an accident and soon Roy finds himself face to face with a pile of cash, bucks that could solve all of his problems with the motel.  Vivian refuses to explain where the cash came from and begs Roy to help her get out of the country.  Its obvious to Roy that the cash is blood money of some kind and that Vivian is on a lunatic run from big trouble. She carries the money in a case secured by a bright red slash - her scarf. 

Soon Roy is hiding Vivian out in the motel and dodging questions from his wife.  Brewer relentlessly tightens the screws on Roy, and ratchets up the tension for the reader.  Roy must somehow dodge Bess and keep Vivian from blowing his chance at that money. 

"I left her standing there and cut around the other side of the garage. She worried me plenty. I heard her walking the other way on the gravel. It wasn’t good having her here. I had to keep elbowing out of my mind who she really was, the things she’d been mixed up in, and the people she knew. But that money kept chewing at me."

Complications continue to mount as a strange man starts asking for Vivian and the cops come sniffing around.  Roy madly tries to keep all of his balls in the air, desperate to get away with a scheme that is obviously impossible to carry off.  Brewer treads familiar ground, telling a simple story about a man that knows he is treading a doomed path, but can’t break himself away from the false hope that lies just ahead.

While all of Brewer’s novels are good, there are those that sit on a higher tier than the rest.  The Red Scarf is one of those.  Brewer was at his best when he kept both the plot and the writing simple.  The writing in the The Red Scarf is tight. He crafts rapid-fire sentences, which hit like quick jabs to the nose.  The story plunges forward, like a roller coaster headed for a brick wall.

Thanks to New Pulp Press, The Red Scarf is readily available in a handsome re-published edition.  As Dr. Steve Brule would say, check it out.            

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Moonraker" by Ian Fleming

Penguin 2003 (Orig. 1955)

It was the beginning of a typical routine day for Bond.  It was only two or three times a year than an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant . . . .

The first part of Moonraker gives us a glimpse into an ordinary day at the office for Bond.  The films would leave us to believe that there is no such thing.  Rather, Moonraker explains most of Bond’s time is spent in the office reading boring intelligence briefs, followed by cards or cocktails in the evenings and high stakes golf on the weekends.

M breaks Bond out of one of these routine office days with a curious question about an English celebrity, Sir Hugo Drax.    Drax is very wealthy and a war hero.  After the war he made a fortune in metals trading.  Now he is on the cusp of becoming an immortal British hero, having developed a super atomic rocket with a range to cover all the major capitals of Europe, the Moonraker.  Despite Drax's success, M is troubled about a recent discovery:   

“That’s about it,” he said slowly. “I don’t’ know much more than you do. A wonderful story. Extraordinary man.” He paused, reflecting. “There’s only one thing . . .” M tapped the stem of his pipe against his teeth. “What’s that sir?” asked Bond. M seemed to make up his mind. He looked across at Bond. “Sir Hugo Drax cheats at cards.”

Turns out Drax has been playing high stakes bridge at M’s club, Blades and has been on a very unlikely streak of luck. M enlists Bond and his card skills to find out how Drax is cheating.  Nobody can understand why a man in Drax’s position would risk ruining his reputation through card sharping at one of London’s most exclusive clubs.  A most entertaining evening at Blades ensues.  The card battle equals or bests the baccarat battle in Casino Royale

Soon Bond finds himself with a huge wad of cash won from Drax and a new assignment to examine the security arrangements at the Moonraker site.  Bond, along with a beautiful Scotland Yard agent, Gala Brand, soon discovers that everything is not as it seems on the Moonraker project. 

Moonraker deservedly is a favorite of many Bond enthusiasts.  It drags just a bit during Bond’s initial days at the Moonraker site, but picks up quickly and keeps taut right through to the fantastic finale.  It would have made a great film, too bad those in charge of Moonraker the film decided to try to cash in on the Star Wars craze instead of sticking to Fleming’s great story.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Angel's Ransom" by David Dodge

Dell D304, 1956

"The girl came running out of the dark, almost on the stroke of midnight. ... From the desperate hurry of the clicking heels he guessed that she was frightened, too frightened to realize that she was running toward a dead end." 

Sam Blake is the captain of the Angel, a yacht owned by a rich American playboy, Freddy Farr. The girl running through the midnight darkness is Marian and she claims to be running from an ill intentioned stranger.  Blake provides refuge for Marian on the Angel and then walks her to safety.  Marian leaves her purse behind on the Angel . . . .

The next morning after Freddy Farr comes aboard with an odd assortment of guests Marian returns to retrieve her purse.  More strangers arrive and in a matter of moments the Angel’s captain and passengers find themselves yacht-jacked, while the rest of the crew is stranded on shore.

Some thugs headed up by a viscous little man calling himself Holtz have concocted a plan to steal a chunk of change from Freddy.  The plan requires the yacht to motor off of Southern France while one of the conspirators travels to Switzerland to tap Farr’s account.  A contest of wills erupts between the criminals and the passengers.  Blake is caught in the middle trying to keep his boat and his passengers safe. 

"Take a hint, Captain.  You’re going to have a lot of time to be figuring ways and means to get around us. Don’t try it. This job has been figured right down to the last hair. Do what you’re told, steer the course you’re told to steer, and nobody will get hurt."

There is something special about Dodge’s writing in Angel’s Ransom.  There isn’t anything fancy about it.  No attempts at cheesy hard-boiled dialogue. No half-baked attempts to engage in fancy similes.  There is precious little description.  Rather, the story progresses with simple straightforward writing that, despite the lack of description, is amazingly cinematic.  The characters were vivid in my mind as were their actions and the settings.  This kind of evocative yet simple writing requires true talent. 

Dodge was a CPA that became a writer largely because of a bet with his wife.  He bet her he could write a better mystery novel than those they were reading during a rainy vacation.  The resultant novel was published in 1941.  He won five bucks from his wife. Dodge went on to write numerous crime/mystery novels and humorous travelogues.  His most famous work is To Catch A Thief.  A couple of his novels were republished by Hard Case Crime and are readily available. 

Check out the latest roundup of other "forgotten books" over at Evan's blog