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...

Monday 9 September 2013

Wild by Gil Brewer (Crest Book 229) (1958)

Lee Baron is an inexperienced Florida private detective who swiftly finds himself immersed in an increasingly complex and violent series of events after he is visited by an old flame called Ivor Hendrix. It appears that Ivor wants Lee to smooth things over between her and her husband Carl after he has caught her in a compromising position with another man. However, when Lee arrives at the Hendrix residence, he finds a man's armless corpse with its face caved in, as well as some evidence that suggests the victim was involved in a recent unsolved bank heist. From here, the incidents pile up in fast and furious fashion as the corpse vanishes, potential suspects arrive on the scene - including Ivor's voracious sister Asa Crafford - and Lee finds himself dodging the bullets whilst barely suppressed romantic yearnings for Ivor re-emerge and things get progressively murkier, as well as murderous...

Boasting two femme fatales and fast and furious action, Gil Brewer's Florida noir private eye novel should be more exciting and gripping than it is. Although the events barrel along at a rapid clip, they progressively loosen their grip on the reader's interest due to formulaic plotting and disappointingly one-dimensional characters who present more as types than people. Lee is a cliched lone wolf private eye of a kind that must have seemed derivative even in the late 50s when Mike Hammer knock-offs were plentiful in both hardcover and paperback original genre novels.

The pair of femme fatales are similarly generic archetypes (and for British readers their masculine-sounding first names can be rather jarring and distracting), and supporting characters generally lack both depth and shading. The twists and turns of the plot just about maintain interest and there is a rather clever twist in the tail - albeit one reliant on some criminal types failing to case a residence thoroughly enough - and the occasional brutality and hard-edged violence add a much-needed air of menace to the proceedings.

However, Brewer seems to be on autopilot for much of the novel, deploying often clunky metaphors amidst some surprisingly flat patches of writing. Overall, this is a rather mechanical, one-dimensional disappointment from an author who was clearly capable of delivering far better hardboiled or noir novels, most of which were paperback originals that epitomise the best of the breed. Newcomers are best advised to begin their Brewer browsing elsewhere (13 French Street, A Killer Is Loose or The Red Scarf are my preferred starting points), as there is plenty of good stuff to uncover from an author who, when he was writing at his peak, was amongst the best of his kind.

AFTERWORD: Gil Brewer is one of my favourite hardboiled crime writers of the 50s and 60s, although his earlier books generally eclipse much of his later work when his powers were clearly waning. However, Wild presumably sold well enough at the time to justify the mid-60s Gold Medal printing shown above, even though it may have seemed rather dated even only seven years after its appearance as a paperback original (and I'm not just referring to a Marilyn Monroe reference) as private eye novels were by then being refined by the likes of Ross and John D. MacDonald.

Brewer's decline was almost certainly due to his well-documented increasing dependence on alcohol and possibly related bouts of depression (his final books included pseudonymous porn novels written when the markets had changed and left him short of paid work that seemingly didn't pay him enough to provide a secure and stable living); although there are still some diamonds to be found in the rough of his later output.

At their best, his books are capable of immersing his readers in an often bleak world view, predominantly one fuelled by characters' sexual obsessions that define their destiny (happiness is generally a commodity in short supply). Brewer also wrote some wonderful crime short stories that resemble short, sharp literary jabs rather than the relentless pummelling that his novels often deliver.

As many of these, some of which were written pseudonymously, were previously uncollected and often only available in increasingly expensive crime fiction digests (for example, Guilty, Hunted, Manhunt and Pursuit Detective Story Magazine, amongst many others), I can highly recommend Redheads Die Quickly (University Press Of Florida, 2012), which is edited by David Rachels. This collection of many of the best of Brewer's short stories, includes a bibliography of his short fiction and an introduction by Rachels to Brewer's life and work that explains why his writing is essential reading for all fans of classic hardboiled crime and noir fiction.