For fans of noir/hardboiled fiction this collection of twenty short stories and two novellas by one of the masters is a treat. The two novellas, Death is a Private Eye and A Present for Cleo date from the early 1950s and they are mini masterpieces. Death is a Private Eye was written before Brewer published his first novel, it’s formative, has a Chandleresque feel to it (including a detective who gets sapped on the head a couple of times and a kittenish young woman), but reveals a real talent in the making. The progression and contrast with the more polished and original A Present for Cleo are evident. Written six years later, Cleo is a more mature story, more classic Gil Brewer. Both are rounded tales, strong on character and well structured. This collection is worth it for these two stories alone, this is not just for completists. The twenty stories are from the 1970s, they are much shorter, some are experimental, there are elements of the surreal here and, honestly, some are patchy. They represent a dramatic change in style, more than just a recognition that twenty years on people are looking for something new in their reading. There is something of the black dog that afflicted Brewer here. Most of these tales concentrate on one key pivot, a shock ending, or a sharp observation. These are edgy tales, some feel very personal to Brewer, they smack of memory and longing. I can see why some didn’t make it into print: too short, too strange but never bad. The majority are entertaining and Brewer’s flair is still obvious. This is an eclectic collection that has the power to surprise, fans of vintage Gil Brewer will see something different here in these stories. These are a few of my favourites:
A Present for Cleo, Feb., 1956. This story is a cracker, the opening is intriguing but that soon gives way to a sense of foreboding and danger. Nothing new under the sun, this is a tale of stalking. Paul Stapleton parks on a dirt road and starts hunting in a field with a Burma pole with a rope loop on the end. He works at the Ford Lyons’ Animal Ranch so he knows what he’s looking for – this will be A Present for Cleo. A snake, not just a rattler, a coral snake, red, yellow and black and highly poisonous. When he catches it he puts it in a red box and drives home.
Cleo Monahan is a beautiful girl but she’s uneasy, her mother knows something is wrong but what? Cleo loves Ted and he’s due home from college in a few hours, she should be happy. Maybe it’s that boy Paul, he might be bothering Cleo again? Cleo won’t talk to her mother about it:
“Cleo knew her as a thoughtful, knowledgeable person who could, . . . answer just about any question under the sun. The trouble was Cleo had long since vacated the questioning period of her life. She and her mother had never really been close.”
Esther Stapleton is sick of rowing with her brother, Paul, it’s been going on since their parents died. She’s been seeing Gregg Tillotson and Paul doesn’t like him. Anyway she’s going to meet him, Paul can have the house to himself.
Paul rings Cleo, asks her to come round, he’s got something important to tell her, he lies about Esther being in. If Cleo gives in she’ll be in terrible danger this is a present that can kill, will kill . . .
‘It’s pretty late, Paul.’
‘For gosh sakes, am I poison? please Cleo.’
A genuinely spooky story laden with atmosphere.
Number One, early 1970s. Underworld interview – Mr. Ferdon is a big man in the organisation and Hudson Simcoke has to convince him he’s worth it if he’s to get the job. From the moment he walks in Ferdon is picking on his name, he thinks it’s stupid. Ferdon is full of himself, he lays into the young man, doesn’t like his gun, a Luger, or his lack of experience, Simcoke never killed anyone. The interview is going badly . . .
This story flips on a coin, it’s smart, lean, and amusing.
Memento, early 1970s. A young man working in a jewellery shop when he sees a beautiful girl standing under the awning next door, she appears to be waiting, he can’t help staring. She’s there for ninety minutes and then she gets down on her knees on the pavement and peers into the grating by the road. Finally, he has to go help, can’t resist. She’s lost a ring, it means so much to her, so he helps her retrieve it . . .
I know what you’re thinking, but maybe that isn’t what’s going on here. This tale has a very intimate feel to it, a melancholic ending.
A Visit for Morse February, 1977
“Loretta, though she was terribly sensitive and rather psychic, had absolutely no premonition of what would transpire that hot August afternoon . . .”
Neither will you when you read this story, the twist is totally unexpected. Suffice to say, poor Loretta is looking after her 97-year-old mother fifty years after that hot August afternoon. Her siblings all flew the nest many decades ago. Every day Loretta thinks of Morse, her love and she hates the mother she dotes on . . .
Death is a Private Eye, circa 1950. William Death is sitting in his office on a steaming hot Florida summer day when the phone rings:
“It was a woman. They are always curious about my name, and I don’t blame them. We Deaths were in America to welcome the Pilgrims when they landed, so it’s a bit late to think of changing the name now.”
Mrs Grace Carter invites Death to Irving Carter’s mansion, he smells money. She, no they, really needed Death yesterday, then they could have avoided a death. Mrs Carter introduces her lover, Kirk Adams. Adams came armed with a knife to kill Irving Carter but someone beat him to it – shot him in the head, his body is in the garden house/office. Adams swears his innocence and Mrs Carter backs him all the way. Just as Death examines the body, the police turn up. Two and two make four so they arrest Adams. Mrs Carter offers Death $200,000 to find the real killer and get her man out of jail. The ex-wife and kittenish daughter and son live in the house too. The most obvious alternative suspect also turns up dead as Adams escapes police custody. When Adams saps Death he’s brought round by the seductively elegant Cadillac Smith, Caddy to her friends. The similarities to The Big Sleep are obvious, but things don’t play out the same way in this layered mystery: murder, cross, double cross. Solid hardboiled fun.
Gil Brewer was a special talent, an exceptional writer. There are glimpses of that in most of these stories, they are inventive and stylish. Brewer was a master of the short story and the novel form. The tragedy of Brewer’s life is that he never knew how good he was. He suffered from depression occasioned by alcohol and his life eventually span out of control. His long-suffering wife divorced him but never stopped looking out for him, calling in on him and paying his bills. That is until the day in 1983 when she found him dead in his apartment. As is the way of these things it was shortly after Brewer’s death that his fiction began to be re-evaluated, its exceptional quality recognised. He was include in anthologies and reprinted to general acclaim, his titles made appearances on the best of all time lists. Stark House Press have released six double headers by Brewer in recent years. In his early career Brewer had pretensions to be a literary writer, he has that kind of look about him. Reality bit when an affair with a married neighbour got him thrown out of the family home (the couple later married). Brewer began writing with the aim of actually putting food in the table. This led to a lot of cheap gothic and sleazy erotica which paid the bills. In among the personal trauma was a golden period of fifteen years where Brewer turned out over thirty thrillers; great crime stories, pure noir, classy pulp fiction that can hold its own with the best in the field.
Brewer is a master of the art of pulp. Where there are tropes there is also subversion. An enjoyable collection and if it leads you to the novels, here my review of The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose.
Paul Burke 4/3
Death is a Private Eye by Gil Brewer
Stark House Press 9781944520779 pbk Jul 2019