Thursday, February 10, 2022

Back Country, by William Fuller


Stark House, 2022
originally published 1954
197 pp


Newly out this month, Back Country is yet another entry in Stark House's Black Gat series, "the new face of vintage mystery."  Originally published in 1954, this book is the first of six to feature Brad Dolan, described by Bill Pronzini in the introduction to this book as
"Hardbitten veteran of two wars, with a checkered past in which he ran guns from Tangiers to Saudi Arabia and smuggled aliens into the Louisiana marshes from Mexico. Former advertising exec embittered by the blatant infidelity of his ex-wife Dusty. Adventurer who resorts to violence and to skirting, bending or breaking the law when circumstances warrant. Wanderer whose primary ambitions are fishing and 'blue water, sunshine, and freedom..."

He also enjoys classical music and "can talk a little Nietzsche."

During his service in Korea,  Dolan's leg had been badly injured, and he'd been stuck in a ditch for seventy hours in minus-thirty conditions, after which he decided that he never wanted to be cold again.  Making up his mind that he'd either go to the Southwest or to Florida, a letter from a friend inviting him to Miami cinched the Florida move, so after a stint at Walter Reed hospital and a medical discharge, he was on his way.   After having left Highway 41 to make an inland crossing to the east coast, he made it to Carter County when his car threw a rod.  He made his way to a  town named Cartersville ("the Florida the tourists never see"), not  exactly his idea of the Florida paradise he'd been aiming for, but in need of a mechanic, he's pretty much stuck at least for a while.  It doesn't take long before he finds himself in trouble at a backwoods juke where he offers to buy a gorgeous blonde a drink, gets knocked out in a fight and wakes up in time to find himself taken to the county jail.  Turns out he chose the wrong blonde ... she's the wife of Mr. Rand Ringo, who pretty much owns the county, "lock, stock and barrel."  Ringo needs someone like Dolan to run his operations, someone with "know-how and intelligence and guts," and thinking he can cut himself in on some of the  action, Dolan decides to stick around for  a while.  He's given money and a place to live, and it seems that Mrs. Ringo has taken a liking to him and becomes a regular visitor (wink wink nudge nudge).   That's before he falls for Ringo's daughter, once again "getting jammed up with women," which seems is a weakness of his.  Not only is he caught between a rock and a hard place in that arena, but when Ringo tells Dolan just what he wants him to do, Dolan's not having any of it.  

original 1954 cover, from Amazon 

Subplots follow and tie in to the main storyline, and as promised in the introduction, there is definitely an "explosive climax."   Dolan's got guts and a brain, but above all he's definitely not someone who can be owned, making for a nailbiter of a showdown.  

 Just so it's clear, given that it's the 1950s and especially given that the story is set in central Florida,  racist comments run through this novel that are extremely difficult to read, but as Pronzini notes in the introduction, racism is endorsed neither by Fuller nor by his creation, Brad Dolan.   And speaking of central Florida, I live in south Florida and have been in the area of the fictional Cartersville many times  and his sense of place, even today, is spot on.  

Back Country sold out its first printing -- half a million copies within three months. I can see why -- it's a powerhouse of a novel,  especially for a first in series. This is serious pulp goodness that should not be missed.   There are no dull moments and I spent much of the time wondering how the hell Dolan was going to get himself out of the predicaments he finds himself falling into.  He's an awesome character and more importantly, Fuller was an awesome storyteller, enough so that now I have to find the other five books.  

My many and grateful thanks to Stark House for my copy of this novel.   Definitely recommended. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Embezzler, by James M. Cain


Avon Book Company, 1944
(Avon Murder Mystery Monthly No. 20)
originally serialized as "Money and the Woman" 1938
108 pp


Ask someone which books they've read by James M. Cain, and my guess is that the answers won't likely include this book, The Embezzler.  Actually, until I started reading my way through the séptimo circulo list, I didn't even know it existed, and I'm sure I'm not alone here.   

Set in the Los Angeles area, bank vice president Dave Bennett has been sent from the home office to a Glendale to check up on "not what was wrong" with the Anita Avenue branch, but rather "what was right with it."  The ratio of savings deposits to commercial was "over twice" that of any other branch, and he'd been tasked by his boss to find out "what the trick was" so that it might be something that could be used at the other branches.    When the novel begins, he's working as acting cashier.  The man responsible for such great numbers is the head teller, Charles Brent, but  Bennett likes neither his method nor the man himself, the latter for reasons he doesn't quite understand.    

Two weeks after Bennett arrives, he receives a phone call and a visit at his home from Charles' wife Sheila, who has a strange request.  Charles, it seems, needs an operation immediately to repair a duodenal ulcer, "verging on perforation," but he is worried that things will "go to ruin" at the bank if he's not there.  Would Bennett let her take his place at the bank?  She's definitely qualified, having worked at the bank in the past, and she knows "every detail" of her husband's work. As he considers his answer, it strikes him as a good idea, not only because of the "general shake-up" Brent's absence would cause, but also because he'd "liked this dame from the start."   So Sheila's in, and one day while she's out trying to bring in a loan, Dave takes over her window and discovers just that Brent's work success hides something else -- an $8500 discrepancy in the books.  Even worse, he discovers that Sheila knows all about it, but he's in love with her -- what to do?   Everything rests on Dave's decisions from this point on.  

By this point in the novel, I already had a feel for what was about to come, and for the most part, I was right.  What kept me reading wasn't so much the action here but my deep  mistrust of Sheila pretty much to the end so I had to see what happened on that front.  I mean, Cain had  already written Double Indemnity, albeit in serialized form (1935 -- it also appears along with The Embezzler in Three of a Kind in 1943)  so I couldn't help but wonder if Dave's judgment would be clouded by his instant infatuation with Sheila, or if she was going to turn out to be another Phyllis Nirdlinger taking Dave down the road to destruction.  No spoilers from me on that score. 

All in all a decent read, but I was more than a bit disappointed with the ending which one reader on goodreads described appropriately as a "major no no" for noir.   No spoilers from me, but jeez -- given all that had come before it just did not work.   Think "sappy" and you've pretty much got it.  

from IMDb

I would love to watch the film made from this novel in 1940, and I found a place that has transferred it to dvd, mine for only $25. Done, making me a happy person.    Unfortunately the shipping was like $45, making me an unhappy person,  so I guess I'll wait and hope to find a copy another time.   

If you're a fan of James M. Cain's books and want to read beyond the better-known novels, this would be a good place to start; in any case it's much better than his The Cocktail Waitress, which was just sleaze, and not good sleaze at that.  This one was just okay.