Friday, February 28, 2014

Chalk Line Books: The Secret Squad, by David Goodis

Chalk Line Books, 2014
kindle edition
 originally published in 1961 as The Night Squad

my copy from the publisher (thanks!)

"It's like a shell-game ... You pick up the wrong shell, you're done. And the odds are always two-to-one against you. At least two-to-one, that is.  In this case it's more like fifty-to-one. But that's the gamble you gotta take. There just ain't no other way to play this deal." 

Good crime for me is all about edge, and David Goodis has rewarded me many times over in just this one book. Having never read anything by this author before, after reading this one,  I'll be collecting his other novels for my permanent collection.  

Set in a run-down neighborhood in Philadelphia known as "the Swamp," the story follows former cop Corey Bradford as he becomes caught between a sleazy but respected businessman named Walter Grogan and the head of Philly's Night Squad, Detective Sergeant McDermott.  Bradford, whose dad was a cop,  lost his place in the force for shaking down locals for a few extra bucks & taking bribes. Now near broke, prone to double shots of gin and divorced, he happens to be in a local bar called The Hangout when some thugs try to take Grogan out.  Bradford saves Grogan from being killed, and impressed, Grogan tells Bradford he'll give him fifteen grand to find out who's after him.  Bradford takes the job, but it isn't long afterward that he's contacted by Sergeant McDermott of the Night Squad, a small group of cops who were often referred to as "barbarians," "butchers," and "gangsters."  McDermott wants Bradford to join the squad and try to dig up any evidence pointing to Grogan as a criminal, putting Bradford into a moral corner -- if he works for Grogan, there's all that money; if he does the job for the Night Squad, it's bye-bye cash and any promise of escaping the Swamp, where for most people, with the exception of a down-at-heel, gentlemanly drunk named Carp, he's persona non grata. 

"They gave him back his badge -- and sent him down into the brutal throbbing heart of the slums."

 The people in this novel are all damaged in some way or another, and the action takes place in a neighborhood that's run down with little chance of escape for the people who live there. They're set apart and almost isolated from the rest of the city due to the neighborhood's geography --- the Swamp is bordered by an area of muddy water that can suck a man down.  The name of this place is appropriate -- very few of the inhabitants have a lot of hope of getting out, and this comes out brilliantly in the author's development of  his characters.  And, as in any good edgy crime novel, there's no pat or contrived happy resolution for any of these people.

This is a story that I genuinely liked -- the action, even if it's in Bradford's interior monologues, is dark and stays that way.  The Swamp is so well rendered here that by the time you finish the novel, you're well acquainted with every shabby rooming house and every dark alley in the neighborhood, as well as the inner miseries of the people living in it.  I definitely want to read more of this author. 

Definitely not for people who like happy endings or cutesy/cozy mysteries, this book ranks high on the noir scale.   I highly recommend it.  

A word about this edition of the e-book: it's very readable, uncut, and has a few line drawings scattered throughout the text.  Very well done. 

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