These two novels in one volume remind you just how good, just how inventive and stylish great pulp fiction actually was. Brewer was a master of the form but the tragedy of Gil 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 recognised for its exceptional quality. He was include in anthologies and reprinted to general acclaim, his titles made appearances on the best of all time lists. Born in 1922 in New York State, Brewer served in the army during the war before re-joining his family in Florida (that location was the inspiration for a lot of his fiction). In his early career Brewer had pretentions to be a literary writer, maybe he had some idea he could be the new Papa Hemmingway. Reality bit when his 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, it wasn’t about ideals but money. This led to a lot of dross, a lot of cheap gothic, sleazy erotica that paid the bills. In later life it was this kind of work and writing a few scripts for TV that he lived on. 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 sight the best in the field. First to The Red Scarf, but one last note, the introduction by Paul Bishop is informative but also makes you feel the enthusiasm of a fan. After reading it I couldn’t wait to get tore in. Bishop says, “This was noir at its finest–comparable to any exploration of human darkness before or since.”
The Red Scarf (1958)
You get the feeling that somewhere in the past Roy Nichols had a good life. He married Bess, they loved each other to distraction, and they got themselves a motel business with his GI loan. The problem now is that The Southern Comfort Motel is struggling. There was a new highway planned for right outside the motel but the authorities are now reconsidering. Which is just what the bank won’t do over the loan, they won’t extend, which means foreclosure looms. So Roy heads to Chicago to appeal to his brother Albert. Only Albert thinks Roy needs to fend for himself, so he says no to lending him money. Roy hitches back to Florida, he comes across a cheap diner between lifts. He’s sipping a coffee when a young woman bursts in, in the middle of a row with her boyfriend, she wants to eat, he wants to keep driving. While the owner fills the car, the cook gets fresh with the girl. When he starts pawing her, Roy decks him. Roy then asks Viv and Noel for a lift, still rowing they agree. It’s an uncomfortable ride but things get worse when Noel panics because they are being followed, he takes a blind bend too fast and the car careens off the road. When Roy comes around, Viv is calling for Noel, they’re both dazed, hurt:
“I yanked it out. It hurt and the blood was warm, running into my shoe. I move my foot and it was alright. It hadn’t cut anything that counted.” [Roy]
Noel is dead and there’s a briefcase full of money right there in front of Roy, Viv says,;
“We’ll take the suitcases and get out of here. Down the road somewhere…..I’ll pay you well. If you don’t help me, they’ll find me.”
Roy needs the money but he’s not sold on this plan, he’s an honest guy. Only he’s caught up now, whether he likes it or not. If he takes the money, he could pay off the motel debts, but he doesn’t know where she got the money, it ain’t honest though. This simple description gives you an idea of the territory but not the intensity of the scenes, the interplay between the characters, the sense of desperation and fear, and of course the sexual tension. The situation that Roy finds himself in is already dark but things are only just beginning to develop. It’s about to get very dark. The pace is fast and gets faster. The plotting is clever and perfectly balanced all the way to a poetic ending. Terrific, nervy, exciting.
A Killer is Loose (1954)
A Killer is Loose and today is going to be the worst day in the life of Steve Logan, even though it should be the happiest. He steps outside the door into a nightmare, leaving his heavily pregnant wife, to collect an old debt. They badly need the money for the doctor.
“You know how luck works a cycle, good or bad, with both kinds equalising when you score it out; so after enough bad you don’t worry at all because it’s got to change. Well, I’d gone six months beyond that, even.”
Steve was a good officer until some guy stuck a finger in his eye half blinding him, now he can’t fly and can’t hold down a job; he’s tried being a mechanic and a carpenter but he always gets found out. Now he doesn’t even look at the job pages. Ruby is about to give birth but the two are arguing again. Steve takes his last gun out of the drawer, he even loads it, Ruby jumps to the conclusion that he might be about to do something stupid. Still she can’t stop him leaving, he’s in a huff, but he asks the neighbour to take care of his wife before he goes. First stop is Harvey Aldercook’s yacht Rabbit-O. “I knew that if it didn’t work with Harvey Aldercook I was going to use the gun for something. That was for sure.”
Aldercook owes him $270 for a job he did on the boat a few months ago, all he paid was $10. It doesn’t go well and the two men fight which ends with Aldercook in the water. Steve leaves empty handed and he’s walking down the street when he sees a guy step in front of a bus. He shouts to no avail so he lunges for the guy saving him, it’s the worst decision of the life. The man invites him for a drink just as the neighbour comes up and tells Steve that his wife is at the hospital, she needs him. Steve knows the barman and he sells him the gun for a few dollars. The rescued stranger asks to see it, before anyone knows what is going on he kills the barman. Then he coolly introduces himself, “Pal. My name’s Ralph Angers. What’s yours?” He tells Steve he has a plan but they need a car and they need money, Steve is wary of the gun. When he’s challenged by a cop Ralph shoots him too. Steve is desperate to get away, to get to the hospital but Ralph isn’t listening. At Ralph’s hotel there’s a naked girl, Lillian, he took her clothes so she couldn’t escape, now he has two hostages. Ralph makes it clear what will happen if Steve tries to leave, “I would kill you, pal. I would have to kill you see?” Things are set to get worse… Steve wants to get away and get Lillian out too but Ralph hasn’t finished killing yet!
Told in the first person by Steve, you really feel the tension as he is at the mercy of a madman with a god complex, likely to do anything except what a sane person might expect. All because he did a good deed. This is a novel that revels in that noir quality of the run away plot, where the characters are overwhelmed by event they can’t control. It’s a very dark tale of a man who has snapped (it’s not random), this is the kind of thing we refer to today as PTSD. A Killer is Loose is the kind of story made popular by Hollywood in the 1970s, when they caught up, it’s a little too grown up for the cinema of the 1950s when it was written, so Brewer was ahead of his time. Amazingly this story was written in just two weeks; it’s essentially a first draft, so forewarned by Bishop in the introduction I was expecting a rough and ready read. In fact the clunky bits are very few and far between. I sense a couple of purple prose phrases that might not have made a more considered draft but all in all this is accomplished and original tale really well told. A thriller with the volume turned up to 11.
Brewer is a master of the art of pulp. Where there are tropes there is also subversion. His novels read at break neck pace and you can’t help but feel for the guys suddenly caught up in a tornado. One thing I wasn’t expecting was a sophistication to the femme fatales but Brewer isn’t just drawing eye candy, although they are beautiful women (again subverting the tropes). These two stories are pulp classics, alive with atmosphere and heart.
Paul Burke 5/4
The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose by Gil Brewer
Stark House Press 9781944520557 pbk Jun 2018