Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Fifty Roads To Town by Frederick Nebel (Jonathan Cape, 1936)

The Outpost Hotel in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, is the staging post for several lost souls who converge during a snowstorm. Reluctant fire extinguisher salesman Edwin Henry stops off during one of his occasional visits and subsequently becomes trapped on an impassable road. Seeking refuge in a log cabin, he is reluctantly welcomed inside by Peter Nostrand, a man whom Henry had previously encountered, first on the road travelling to the Outpost Hotel and later at the hotel where he had signed the register as Thomas Layton. Nostrand has good reason to be hiding out incognito, as he had been caught in flagrante with Irene Prior by her husband Philip, who had shot and wounded him and who subsequently swore to kill him. With a heavy snowstorm marooning Edwin at the log cabin, and without a phone to tell his wife Edna of his whereabouts, a manhunt is soon in full swing. And as other stragglers from the storm arrive at the Outpost Hotel, they are joined by the vengeful Philip Prior and a frantic Edna, whilst Edwin begins to suspect that Peter Nostrand is not who he seems to be.

This is the third novel by one of the unofficial founder members of the 'Hardboiled' school, a man who already had around two hundred published short stories to his name and whom Black Mask editor Joseph T. Shaw apparently considered to be the equal of Chandler or Hammett. This is more of a melodrama than a hardboiled thriller, and one which essentially turns on the idea, latterly expressed in the novel that 'It is the unforeseen signpost that makes or breaks a man'. With a highly readable, tight and pared-down prose style honed in the pulps, Nebel moves the tale along at a brisk clip, rapidly building the tale through the motives and actions of the disparate characters.

Underpinning the tale is a strong sense that it is the inability of human beings to connect that determines their outcomes, even when - or perhaps particularly - when they are flung together in an intense melting pot where they are forced to depend on each other. In this sense, it is a rather bleak tale (as well as one that makes me curious to see the 1937 film loosely based on it and which, according to IMDB, is a comedy about a man - presumably Nostrand - who 'hides out in the country to avoid testifying in his friends' divorce' and who is mistaken for a gangster by various people), and one which interestingly does not resolve itself neatly as there are some neat twists in the tale which doesn't end happily for many of the characters.

Given the rather bleak psychological undertone and often dark tonal shadings - particularly in the final pages when the tragic climax plays out - this appears more modern than one might expect from a text originally set down in 1936 (notwithstanding the presence of some stock 30s stereotypes including a wisecracking tough cookie torch singer, a hardboiled newshawk, and a slow-witted hotel employee whose physical ticks seem to have been created with an eye on his cinematic comedy potential).

Highly recommended if you can find it at a reasonable price (and apologies for the rather grotty front cover, but this is the cheapest copy I could find - as well as the only UK edition I've ever seen offered for sale).

VERDICT: Roadworthy

AFTERWORD: I have no idea why this title - or Nebel's other full-length novels - are almost impossible to find or, more importantly, have never been reprinted (although the highly obscure Century Mystery Weekend to Kill - originally issued as a double with Hugh Pentecost's Secret Corridors - has been reprinted by Wildside Press). He was a key hardboiled author of his day who remains generally unsung and virtually unknown outside a small core of genre enthusiasts and who, on the basis of this novel, is certainly worth reading and championing.

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