It is an oft-repeated cliché that reading can be a ‘magical’ experience. It is certainly a special kind of pleasure but sometimes I think ‘alchemical’ may be a more appropriate term, not least because it can rely on so many different factors: time, place and opportunity as well as disposition and emotional well-being. When one falls off the (bookworm) wagon, trying to fully understand why this has happened can be frustrating when taking into consideration so many potential factors. Was it fatigue from work, the sudden drop in barometric pressure … or something else? This malaise had been upon me recently and ultimately I decided to resolve the issue by giving up on the books I had been struggling with and instead find one that also dealt dramatically with some sort of existential conundrum that mirrored my own sense of lassitude. This is where Brackett’s novel comes in …
I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels by women authors from the Golden Age published pre-1960 as well as Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.
“You’re a grown man and these are boys. You feel degraded to be afraid of them but you are afraid.”
Although hardly an unknown author, Leigh Brackett doesn’t even rate a mention in several standard crime and mystery textbooks: you won’t find her listed in Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing or even Bruce F. Murphy’s Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery for instance. This is probably because most of her output was devoted either to screenwriting or in the science fiction genre. She did however write five crime novels and those in the know, like Bill Pronzini in 1001 Midnights, consider The Tiger Among Us to be the best of her few excursions into the genre. It is a story of vigilantes or juvenile delinquency; or both; or neither, depending on your point of view. The protagonist, Walter Sherrin, is a shining poster boy for 1950s Eisenhower America: he’s white, middle class, has a nice little home in the Ohio suburb of Mall’s Ford, a car that is nearly paid for, is married to a very pretty wife he loves and they are rearing two young children. But the seeming comfort of this conformity is soon to be shattered when, working late and heading out to buy coffee, he is set upon by a gang of teenagers. Badly beaten, he spends nine days in a coma and only just pulls through. When he awakens, his sense of self slowly begins to erode. No one has been caught and he never even got a good look at the boys that assaulted him, though he knows that the ring leader was called ‘Chuck’. Beyond that, he finds his private life in a real mess. His wife has left the city after receiving a threatening message from the gang. Is this enough to solve my case of reader’s block, you may ask?
“If you don’t find them, I will. I will if it takes me from now on. And when I do I’ll make ’em wish they’d never been born.”
Well … After getting stuck on not one but two books – a historical novel that was just a bit too slow and a funny and clever contemporary story of a teenager that, being in hardback, I didn’t carry on my commute to work but which was also proving to be slow going as I always seemed a bit too tired at the end of the day to really enjoy it – I top-sliced my TBR pile and dug out this book, hitherto languishing unread on my shelves since the mid 90s. I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of unread books lying around my crowded little place (I’d probably fill the bath with them if I had one), but it’s hard sometimes not to feel discouraged. So many words, so many new works to discover, and so little time. All that space, all that thought, all that creative work just within reach … and then there are all the DVDs I bought and have yet to watch, all the radio plays and podcasts I was hoping to listen to, all the blogs I was going to read and all the blog posts I was going to write … The ‘tiger’ may be the atavistic animal instinct that lives in us all in this novel, but the crushing failure to act is the true elephant in the room (to mix one’s metaphors). I reasoned that Brackett’s highly regarded novel might provide me with the right kind of jolt as it is about what happens when your everyday routine gets subverted, even if the protagonist has rather more to contend with than a mild attack of reader’s block (in fact I sincerely hoped it is something considerably more dramatic). And it worked – I read the novel breathlessly in a single day, and darn if it didn’t dynamite the logjam that was plaguing me!
He was afraid, and with him fear was a disease that twisted him out of all normal semblance.
Walt feels especially hard done by, not just for the physical hurt but due to the tough realisation that his wife never received a threatening letter – she couldn’t cope with the idea that he might never come out of his coma and bailed on him, taking the kids with her. This part of the story is one of its more unconventional aspects and Brackett deserves real credit for the psychological acuity. Indeed Walt’s growing paranoia and realisation that he developed something akin to a genuine blood lust makes for a fascinating development, especially because our hero’s paranoia turns out to be justified – hell, even the little neighbourhood boy out walking his dog turns out to be in the employ of the gang! But this is not a small town expose but a suspense thriller and in other respects the story is rather more pedestrian. Felling let down by the police, despite the generally sympathetic help of the local detective, Walt decides to go it alone and get revenge. Once again Brackett handles this well, with the first attempt seeing him make a colossal mistake when he think he recognises the car of the gang and instead terrorising a pair of innocent young girls who immediately shout rape. This gets reported in the press and alerts the gang that he is trying to track them down, which initiates another round of intimidation. The stage is now set for a game of attrition – who will break cover first, who will crack under the strain, and will Walt and his young wife ever trust each other again?
The escalation in violence is presented as an inevitable development of the worsening of the ‘sickness’ of the gang, and especially of its leader Chuck, so that their actions become more violent and reckless. Brackett lacks the kind of insight into an unusual or ‘disturbed’ mind that maybe Robert Bloch or Patricia Highsmith would have brought to the subject and reading this book won’t help you understand, even if fictional terms, how something like the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida could happen the way it did. It basically follows a pattern established in films of the 50s like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and in fiction by the likes of Evan Hunter’s The Blackboard Jungle (1954), which look at the phenomenon of youth violence in terms of generational conflict. Here the point of view is exclusively that of the adult and if not especially revealing or penetrating, none the less the narrative is very smoothly handled, moving from one suspense sequence to another and leading to a traditional shootout which is certainly dynamic and very cinematic in its treatment.
Not a surprise this as Brackett already had many scripts to her name by this point (most notably the 1946 version of The Big Sleep and the classic siege Western, Rio Bravo), though she was not involved in the 1962 movie adaptation of Tiger. Retitled 13 West Street, Alan Ladd starred as the everyman protagonist (it would be the last film of his he would live to see released) while Rod Steiger plays the cop. Like the novel, the movie does not delve too deeply into the motivation behind the gang’s behaviour and displays an occasionally hawkish sensibility, which is at odds with the more sensitive characterisation – but no matter, this doesn’t intrude too much on the suspense, which ratchets up nicely at the gang eventually graduates to murder. To see clips from the movie, visit the TCM website here.
This book is my third review submitted as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge specifically the ‘Golden Age Girls’ section – so far I have read the following, but am definitely open to suggestions: