NUDE ON THIN ICE (1960) by Gil Brewer

Brewer_Nude-on-Ice-Memory-of-Passion_SHPThis thriller comes in s new volume comprising two previously hard-to-find titles by paperback maestro Gil Brewer from those very nice people at Stark House Press, the imprint specialising in new and classic crime fiction. Originally entitled ‘Naked on Ice,’ this is not a delirious case of Noir on skates but a prototypical softcover mixture of crime, sex and most of all money for what might even be termed an example of Marxist Noir! Our damned narrator is Ken McCall, not an especially nice guy …

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

“The instant I read that letter from Carl, I knew this was the chance. The cross-eyed gods of the universal cash register had punched the No Sale key, and the drawer was wide open—waiting. All I had to do was reach in and take the money and fill my pockets.”

Ken is a small time criminal and a drifter, unable to stick with any job (even of the criminal variety) for very long. He is haunted by the memory of a bad relationships when he skipped out (after tying her to the bed) with a woman’s life saving (and then of course lost them, all in a matter of hours). Out of the blue he receives a letter from a rich old carousing buddy, Carl, who tells him that by now he must be dead and that there is $2,000 in it for him if he will go and console his widow, Nanette. Ken bails on Betty, his latest conquest, and heads off from Miami to Carl’s mansion in Albuquerque in the depth of a snow-sodden winter. He finds a drunken Nanette stuck in Carl’s huge and forbidding mansion with her decrepid and senile father-in-law (previously thought dead), the mysterious and sexy teenage vixen Justine (with a passion for Polaroid selfies), a lawyer with a much too personal manner and a very odd odd-job man, Elmer. It is in an atmosphere of doom, perversion and ultimately nihilistic self-destruction that this psychodrama plays out as Justine gets Ken deeper and deeper into her murder plots and the search for $400,000 in cash …

“It’s so damned easy to ignore wisdom when it whispers.”

Brewer_Nude-on-Thin-Ice_avonIn his introduction to this volume, David Rachels tells us that this was perhaps the first of Brewer’s novels in which sex was really brought to the fore, occasioned in part by the switch in publishers from Gold Medal to the rather less prestigious Avon. Certainly, from its title and spicy cover, one expects something fairly exploitative, which to a degree is what we get. There is a fair amount of violence and rough sex, and a brief rape fantasy too (I shudder to consider why these recur to the extent that they do in paperbacks of the era); but what we also get is an experience that becomes genuinely surreal as it progresses, something that positively oozes from the fairly bizarre melange of elements that make up its constituent parts.

“What had happened was bad. Everything was going wrong, and I was still nowhere.”

The mansion for instance is straight out of Poe and has a master bedroom with Jackson Pollock paintings on the wall (which Ken appreciates as he is an artist manqué) and a fairly large Japanese tree planted in the middle, just underneath a gigantic skylight! There are plenty of sexual perversions (and character names) worthy of De Sade while Zen Buddhism and the hot jazz of Charlie Parker are also thrown in for good measure. Bill Pronzini has gone out of his way to praise Nude on Thin Ice as among the best of the author’s work (you can read his fascinating article on Brewer over at Mystery*file) and certainly there is much to grab your attention here beyond the standard sex, murder and money triangle plot that Brewer re-used time and again in his books. The finale, after an Usher-style conflagration, bares some comparison with Jim Thompson’s then recently published The Getaway (review coming to Fedora very soon), but if it lacks the insanity of that book, it none the less provides a haunting finish to a book that is well above average and worthy of rediscovery.

“O my god, not this, I thought. Not this, McCall. Not murder.”

This handsome volume has just been published in an omnibus edition by Stark House Press, and many thanks to them for supplying the review copy. The book is available directly from them and from all the usual outlets – here are the details

Nude on Thin Ice / Memory of Passion
By Gil Brewer
ISBN: 978-1-933586-53-3 (paperback), 286 pages, $19.95
www.starkhousepress.com/

For more information about Brewer’s life and work read Chris Morgan’s exceptionally detailed essay, ‘The Brutalist: A Gil Brewer Retrospective’ for the LA Review of Books, and the dedicated website: www.gilbrewer.com/

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Country House Mystery’ category:

vintage-silver-card14

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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43 Responses to NUDE ON THIN ICE (1960) by Gil Brewer

  1. Sergio – It’s always good to hear when books are given new life. And what an interesting exploration of psychology, sex, menace and noir. It feels (to me anyway) reflective of the interest at that time in the origins of thinking and behaviour and the sort of noir way of exploring that interest. Fascinating!

  2. Great review. I’ve been enjoying Gil Brewer the more of him I read — he did some real knockouts, The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose I thought were pretty good.

    Nude on Thin Ice is one of the few Brewer novels I don’t own yet, but I’ll probably buy a copy from Stark House. They sent me a review copy of their Wade Miller double last year, and I’ve been buying their books ever since. Great selections, solid production values.

    • Thanks Chris – yes, I got the Wade Miller too and plan on reviewing Kitten with a Whip very shortly. This is only my second Brewer but am planning several more!

  3. neer says:

    Sergio you seem to be reading a lot of ‘sex/ murder/ double dealing’ books. Like the others reviewed recently, this too seems interesting, in part because of your excellent review. But now I am looking forward to a more genteel mystery. :)

    • Is that true? But I only did an Agatha Christie the other week :) Actually, I have another Christie title coming up shortly and then an Evelyn Anthony mixture of espionage and romance!

  4. Colin says:

    The setting, and indeed the whole set-up for this, sounds fantastic and full of possibilities. I recently ordered the Charles Williams double from Stark House based on your recommendation, and this seems like a good one too.

    • Glad you liked it and I really hope you enjoy the Williams – Brewer seems much darker if not as obsessinve as say Jim Thompson – you probably have to be in the right mood but I was easily won over but then Stark House are doing some very good work …

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I think it’s great that outfits like this are bringing forgotten works back in print and genre fans do need to support their efforts.

        • It would be nice to think that these kinds of publishing endeavours will go on forever in paper as well as electronic format so I certainly want to back them as much as I can! I have several more of their books lined up for review, I can promise you that!

          • Colin says:

            I definitely hope it’s turning a satisfactory profit, both to allow the continuation of the line and also encourage similar efforts elsewhere.

          • There is no denying that the interest in seeing these old paperback originals republished in partly historical / academic but they can tell you a lot about the time in which they were produced, as Bernadette so rightly pointed out in her comment about the bargain-basement approach to promoting books that feature sex and violence.

          • Colin says:

            This is true. I actually think that era of publishing was more up-front about such things, even if the slightly lurid covers generally exaggerated and promised more than they delivered. Nowadays, you’ll find much more salacious and exploitative content hidden within studiously tasteful covers.

          • That is a very fair point Colin – if one is going to be vulgar and exploitative, I guess I’d rather they were upfront about it. On the other hand, one might just prefer that they weren’t – it is disconcerting to have to look back at so much from the 50s, 60s and 70s and find it so wanting in this way – yes, we knew precisely what they were doing, but ‘scantily clad lady on the cover’ war just so ubiquitous as to be risible – I am always reminded of that sequence in Seven Year Itch in which Little Women gets spiced up for a paperback reprint – and that was a joke from 1955!
            SEVEN YEAR ITCH

          • Colin says:

            Yes, you know I reckon the practice really says as much about us as consumers as it does about the marketing strategy itself.

          • That’s really depressing …

          • Colin says:

            I know – I’m on form today! :D

          • Sometimes it’s hard to be a new man …

          • Colin says:

            Just being able to say sometimes there draws my admiration. You’re obviously doing better than I am.

  5. I know I am not meant to judge a book by its cover but I can’t help it. I am so heartily sick of naked and near-naked women on the covers of crime fiction. And I’m afraid even if I could manage to deal with that a novel featuring rape fantasy is taking things too far (I fear I am becoming more prudish the older I get – I can remember thinking I wouldn’t do that when I was a youngster but, as in so many things, I am turning into my parents).

    • In terms of the actual book, the title is meant to be taken literally (the issue of who took the photo of the nude woman on the ice being a plot point) and the original Avon cover reflected that while the new edition is to a degree slightly more discreet I suppose. And, in fairness, the ‘rape fantasy’ that I alluded to is approximately six words long – it stuck out not because it is even remotely violent (all the sex is consensual and the eponymous woman in question here has all the power in this book, from beginning to end), it’s just that the narrator equates the violence of his emotion to something akin to rape, which was presumably thought of daring at the time – it is, however, just one line of dialogue to cover a passing throught. If Brewer had said ‘ravish’ instead this would be more akin to a Harmony bodice ripper (which, let’s face it, usually features semi clad men and women on their covers).

      Well, I hope you enjoyed the review at least.

      • Oh that’s true about the bodice rippers – though I don’t read those either :)

        And I suppose the weariness I feel is bound to be misplaced – at times perhaps a naked woman is appropriate for the cover of a crime novel. But not in the huge percentages they feature. It’s hard to even articulate why they affect me – just the general ‘oh here’s another dead/raped/abused woman’ feeling they give collectively I guess. I feel like I’ve reached my lifetime fill. Which is odd since I still am happy to read this type of fiction (though I am increasingly wary of ultra-violent text too).

        But always enjoy the reviews :)

        • I’m with you – that kind of cover was just cheap and lazy apart from anythign else anf it would be nice to think we’ve all moved on really. With this book it’s a bit of a deliberate provocation I suppose, and is a reprint of a text from a very specific time, but I must admit (and no disrespect to the publishers who kindly let me have a review copy), I was a bit embarassed to hold it while travelling to work and did in fact cover the cover (sic).

  6. John says:

    Another literally blazing finale in a Brewer book! He really did become sort of formulaic, didn’t he? Nice review. Glad to see this one has been reprinted. The Avon PBO has been a hot collector’s item for a long time with most copies for sale priced in the “collector’s market” range. Mostly because of the cover, of course, not because of the content.

    More and more I find myself choosing reading copies with less lurid covers. But I confess I have on many occasions hid the cover of a paperback with a potentially embarrassing or exploitive illustration from the prying eyes of my fellow commuters. These days with so many people buried in their damn smart phones I doubt any really cares or is even the slightest bit curious about what someone else is reading on the bus or train. Still there is always that thought in the back of my head of not wanting to be thought a creep or a perv by the woman sitting next to me. ;^D

  7. I have this on order. I had the original paperback edition and donated it to SUNY at Buffalo. Glad Gil Brewer’s work is being made available to a new audience.

  8. Yvette says:

    As always, Sergio, I enjoyed reading your review even if I knew going in (just by the title and the cover) that I’d never read the book. Never heard of the author either. But then I’ve never been a big fan of all that noir stuff. I’m with Bernadette, the older I get, the more prudish I become or at least, the less patience I have with nonsense. Maybe I mean men’s nonsense. Ha! But women’s nonsense is kind of annoying too, come to think of it. HA!

    • Thanks Yvette, and I agree because to me, nonsense is nonsense, and if you have the time and the inclination, then you can put up with it – but I agree, it’s an indulgence really. Brewer was certainly talented, well above the average I think so i am enjoying discovering his work, even with the questionable marketing!

  9. TracyK says:

    I am not sure that this author is for me, but I definitely will try some of his books eventually. So thanks for the reviews.

    • He’s a new writer for me too, Tracy K – but with such praise from the likes of Bill Pronzini and John F. Norris, I really couldn’t resist – and if their particular type I have enjoyed both of these – they certainly deliver very memorable endings, which is always praiseworthy i think”

  10. Richard says:

    Gil Brewer is an acquired taste that I’ve failed to acquire. Nice review, appreciate the insights.

  11. I once had occasion to read paperbacks of Gil Brewer and Carter Brown but never did, for whatever reason, and not because of the covers, of course. This was much before I delved into pulp/noir fiction. I do, however, know that the novels (probably early/original editions) are available at secondhand bookstalls downtown and I’ll see if I can lay my hands on some. Thanks for the review, Sergio.

    • I hope you manage to track some down Prashant – I’d love to know your take on them – I certainly plan to try a few more, though admittedly the first two I’ve read were very much cut form the same cloth so i want to see if there is going to be a bit more variety in the basic plot and characters.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    A fine review, as we’ve come to expect. A niggle: “the hot jazz of Charlie Parker”–this is a bit like referring to the cozies of Gil Brewer…Parker was primest mover of bebop, though Gillespie and Monk were among those giving him a run for that title, and hot jazz was a term more aptly applied to the more intense and adventurous work of the ’20s and to some extent the ’30s–Louis Armstrong was hot, and even Django Reinhardt was of le Jazz Hot…but Parker was bop.

    That Avon cover was pretty literal, all right…that would be some painful iceburn however briefly. I’m not sure that Avon was less prestigious at the time than Fawcett (except perhaps in the eyes of the very knowledgeable observer, say “Anthony Boucher”/”H. H. Holmes”)…but it probably paid less well. I wonder who edited the crime fiction for Avon in those years, when Donald Wollheim was handling horror, sf and fantasy for them.

    • Thanks very much Todd – well, OK, let;’s say we are going my definition of hot … in the book it is meant to symbolise abandonment from strict rules of convention I suppose – i was fascinated that it was added clearly as a signifier to whatever the standard reader of these kinds of books would have been perceived to be – as you say, it would be fascinating to know more about who was running these editorial lines then and how narrowly they defined their readership – and thanks for pointing that out about the photo, I;d meant to and plain forgot!

  13. Those are startling covers – perhaps if I was doing a No Clothes in Books entry ever….

  14. Pingback: April 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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