THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN (1958) by Gil Brewer

This is a ripe piece of pulp noir, from its alliterative, catchpenny title to the de rigeur cover art featuring piles of cash, a disrobed woman and a gun. One of the many  paperback originals written by Gil Brewer in the 1950s, it was recently reprinted by Hard Case Crime. It provides an interesting variant on the beloved plot used by James M. Cain in Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice where a couple decide to murder a rich old man for his money and then fall out.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“I knew I’d never get enough of her. She was straight out of hell.”

Jack is a repairman who comes to install two TVs and an intercom system for 18-year-old Shirley, the adopted daughter and carer for Victor, a rich but bed-ridden old man. Right away they get the hots for each other and almost as soon recognise that if they could just get their hands on the old man’s money (possibly as much as half a million), they would head off into the sunset together. So Jack comes up with a plan to make it seem as though the intercom system failed so she couldn’t hear the old man’s cries when he had one of his frequent attacks. But there are problems to contend with – the old man’s doctor who wants to get him into hospital, a nosy neighbour who has her eyes on Jack and his ex-girlfriend, an alcoholic named Grace who utterly fails to live up to her name and who just can’t let go. At the exact halfway mark all the main characters converge at the old man’s house (somewhat implausibly but dramatically none the less) and murder ensues. Will Jack and Shirley get away with the money and live happily ever after – or does that even matter for them?

“For only a moment, she was dying. Her eyes looked up at me in awe and confusion from the cramped position of neck and head. Then she was dead”

Brewer-Virgin-crownI picked this book up at the recommendation of John Norris, the sage author of the Pretty Sinister Books blog. He’s never steered me wrong so far and the mighty Bill Pronzini has also sung its praises over at the wonderful Mysteryfile. So is this book any good? Well, obviously the initial set up gets no points for originality as is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook. None the less we read with horrified fascination as the couple agonise in setting up a plan, which then starts to go awry and are torn by their panic and frustration as their carefully laid plans are being spoiled by the vagaries of chance and the unpredictability of people’s passions. We can’t possibly be rooting for the murdering protagonists, can we?

“She looked hot enough to catch fire, but too lazy to do anything but just lie there and smoke”

There are some very discordant moments here, such as when Brewer has his narrator equate his lust with rape, and there is that fairly typical depiction of women as either castrating harpies or insane murderers that so is so redolent of this type of fiction and which today is so awfully dated but which tells you a lot about male anxieties and fantasies of the time. What really puts this book over, apart from its efficient plot construction and the effortless way in which it puts the screws on its protagonists is the neo-Marxist way in which money really does blow the couple apart and become the root of all evil and the memorably nihilistic finale. It is reminiscent of the best of Jim Thompson (if not quite that insane) and is certainly what is most memorable about this efficient, above-average suspense thriller. Despite a title that is a bit of a misnomer (though I doubt anybody really cared at the time), this makes for an exciting read with its strong use of Florida locations, well-calibrated suspense and fiery finish – indeed, it would be wrong to spoil it, but to say that the ending is the best part of a thriller is always a good thing I think.

“She wasn’t what you would call beautiful. She was just a red-haired girl with a lot of sock.”

I’ll certainly be reading some more of the author’s strange brews (sic) again – in fact, very shortly indeed, thanks to those very nice people at Stark House Press who have just reissued a double bill of Nude on Thin Ice and Memory of Passion. Ed Gorman’s typically incisive and knowledgeable review of Vengeful Virgin can be found at his blog here and a really detailed review by ‘Admiral Ironbombs’ can also be found over at his Battered, Yellowed and Creased blog. In addition, Chris Morgan wrote a terrific overview of Brewer’s life and work for the LA Times Review of Books, which you can access here. Also, the first-ever collection of Gil Brewer short stories, Redheads Die Quickly and Other Stories (edited by David Rachels) has now come out, and it includes the first-ever authoritative list of the author’s short stories. It includes 25 stories, all published in the 1950s – for a complete listing of the contents, click here. It is now available from the University Press of Florida and from various e-tailers such as Amazon – click here for more details.

For more information on the Brewer, his tortured life, and his books, including a moving memoir from his widow, visit: www.gilbrewer.com. The Gil Brewer Appreciation Society on Facebook can be found here.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Author you have never read before’ category:

markg8-1B-vintage-golden

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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31 Responses to THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN (1958) by Gil Brewer

  1. Kelly says:

    I’m working my way through the Hard Case Crimes. This is one of the titles I’m most looking forward to.

  2. I’ll admit, Sergio, I know less about pulp noir than I know about some other sub-genres. This one does sound reasonably engaging through. And what a perfect example to share with us – thanks.

  3. Yvette says:

    Sergio, what can I say? This sort of thing is so not my cup of tea. But to each his own, m’dear. :) Still, as usual, I enjoyed reading your post. What is this strange spell you have?

  4. Colin says:

    Sounds like another winner from HCC! I’ve picked up lots of these but somehow neglected this one. I don’t know how – such a loaded title and cover art.

    • It is a truly prototypical example of the genre, no question abotu it, but very well done – one could argue that, coming as it does 25 years after Postman Always Rings Twice, that maybe the premise was more than a little shopworn by then, but it definitely has an edge – personally I would have preferred a bit of Jom Thompson intensity in the mix but it definitely works and truly, the ending is a beaut.

      • Colin says:

        That’s a good enough recommendation for me. I just followed your link to the Brewer site as I basically knew nothing of the man. Sounds like he had one tough life.

  5. Although Gil Brewer was an uneven writer, I really enjoyed THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN. I’m happy that HARD CASE CRIME and STARK HOUSE are making Brewer’s work available to a new audience.

  6. John says:

    So glad you’ve finally dipped your toes into the dangerous and murky waters of Gil Brewer’s twisted world. Nihilistic ending indeed! I was horrified while reading the final pages. I’ve read a three or four Brewer books sicne and his portraits of amoral women would be fantastic fodder for your favorite Freudian. (How’s that for some kitschy alliteration?) I finally found an afforadable copy of his most lauded book — “masterpiece” some say — A KILLER IS LOOSE and hope to post a review in the coming months. There will be blood, so to speak, in our dueling Brewer tributes.

    For anyone interested I have written two reviews of other books by Gil Brewer: Flight Into Darkness. and Play It Hard.

  7. Richard says:

    To me, Brewer is an acquired taste that I’ve yet to fully embrace – if one can be said to embrace a taste – but continue to think I should. I decided to get the REDHEADS DIE QUICKLY collection to see how he does in short form.

    • I think you can embrace anythign you like Richard, your secret’s safe with me! I’m going to be reviewing a few more as they are now available and it is certainly bracing stuff!

  8. Sergio, I think I’ve read only one Hard Case Crime novel mainly because I haven’t seen them in bookstores in Mumbai (Bombay). But it’s the kind of stuff I’d love to read both for its content and printing. Thanks for the various links, too.

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    LIke Yvette, this is definitely out of my comfort zone (which may mean that I need to consider it or one like it for that square on the bingo card). But your review makes it sound very enticing. Splendid work as always, Sergio.

  10. Piero says:

    Sergio, grazie per il tuo intervento sul Blog Mondadori. Devo chiederti un piacere: Devo mettermi in contatto con Curt per chiedergli se abbia il saggio di Carr The Grandest etc e se me lo possa mandare. Ovviamente casomai lo avessi tu, non disturberei lui. Il fatto è che per di più tutte le comunicazioni all’indirizzo email suo che ho io, cioè Praedstreet etc..mivengono rimandate indietro come se quell’indirizzo non fosse più quello. Ha cambiato per caso emai che tu sappia?
    Piero

    • Ciao Piero – ma, io ho solo quell’indirizzo – gli mando un messaggio addesso – ma non hai THE DOOR TO DOOM? Il saggio e’ incluso li e si puo’ avere per pochi soldi su Amazon UK – esempio qui. Dovrebbe costare meno della version so Amazon Italia, che comunque sta qui.

  11. TracyK says:

    Another author I should sample. Not sure I will like his books but you never know. I will have to space out my sampling of the authors of this type.

  12. Pingback: New Arrivals and Current Reading, March 31 – April 6, 2014 | The Broken Bullhorn

  13. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just finished reading this book. I didn’t particularly like it.
    The plot idea is good and has been used successfully by James M. Cain. The writing style is also quite good.
    What irked me were the unbelievably silly mistakes made by the murderers. It is because of these silly mistakes that they get caught and not due to any clever detective work.
    When Jack plans the murder, wouldn’t he care to find out when Shirley would get the money after her stepfather’s death? Yet he doesn’t know this and is deceived in the matter by Dr. Miraglia.
    Jack writes down the murder plan on a paper to ensure that there is no flaw and then leaves it to be found by others. This is unbelievably stupid. When a murderer writes down the plan on a paper, wouldn’t he be anxious to destroy it quickly or keep it well-hidden?
    Jack takes the original condenser out of the intercom claiming it to be defective and then stupidly leaves it behind on the windowsill to be found and checked by others. Would a murderer really make such a mistake?
    There are other examples.

    • Sorry you didn;t like ti as much as i did – though, actually, I quite liked the fact that they weren’t too bright and were so easily fakes out by Miraglia – I thought this was pretty consistent all the way through (i.e. they weren’t only dumb when ti suited the plot) which made it OK – the plan was never going to work, surely? Having said that, it didn’t help that they ended up committing an extra killing in advance of the plan, so you could argue that this made it even easier for them to make mistakes?

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