THE TIGER AMONG US (1957) by Leigh Bracket

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:

  1. Why Shoot a Butler by Georgette Heyer
  2. The April Robin Murders by Craig Rice and Ed McBain
  3. ?

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

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22 Responses to THE TIGER AMONG US (1957) by Leigh Bracket

  1. John says:

    I completely understand that book malaise you have suffered. (” Exhibit A, your honor. A review of The Bornless Keeper) I started then stopped three books in succession that failed to hold my interest before I decided to just give up on reading what I thought I should be reading for the blog and start reading only what I really wanted to read.

    Later this year I’m hoping to get to read Brackett’s hardboiled PI book, NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE, that was directly responsible for her getting The Big Sleep script gig. It’s in one of the many boxes of books I’m “supposed” to read. ;^) This one you reveiw here I don’t know at all, but it sounds a lot like some of the juvenile delinquent books Vin Packer wrote. She wrote from the kids’ point of view more often, though. And yet another movie adaptation! Where is the time to read and watch all of these great finds?

    • Well exactly John, thanks very much for that. That distinction in your head between what you know you will enjoy reading and what you feel you ‘should’ read for reasons of work, or commitments, or book challenges, or just because some lovely person gave it to you as a gift or because you know it will probably make you a better person!! I really liked No Good from a Corpse actually and would certainly recommend it as a genuine hardboiled book from the classic era, especially being such a huge Chandler fan as she is quite clearly channeling him. Never read Vin Packer though..

      Shame about the Yuill, though the others really are much better and very different – have you read William Hjortsberg&gt? Falling Angel (especially good) and Nevermore are highly entertaining combinations of detection and the occult.

  2. I also sympathise with your block, as I suffered the same thing – prime cause, bookwise, being an attempt to get through A Morbid Taste For Bones. Hope you’ve knocked it on the head!

    • Cheers Steve – well, I do need to finish these two books that have become slight millstones and hope to do that over the weekend – we shall see … In the meantime, more Jago & litefoot and Ed McBain to come shortly!

  3. Mike says:

    Leigh Brackett, eh? I’m expecting snappy, hard-boiled dialogue and smouldering tension, though that’s just based on the screenplays. Great review – I’ll need to check the book out. As for reader’s block, it’s something I get often, especially now I have a job I drive to and no longer getting the train means one less obvious reading time. My hope is that purchasing a Kindle will eradicate the malaise.

    • Cheers Mike – absolutely the only upside to the commute is the reading time! In terms of the Bracket style, it is not really true of this book though as John mentions above, her debut, No Good from a Corpse, is most definitely of that ilk. The good PuzzleDoctor (also represented above) says that his Kindle has made a huge difference to his reading – I think I will probably have to invest in one this year finances permitting …

      • Mike says:

        They make a big difference – I wish I’d had one when I was reading A Dance of Dragons, George R R Martin’s latest tome, and definitely a heavyweight tome. Not sure what commuting is like where you are, but my experiences of train travel were daily torture, unless Northern Rail UK were into re-enacting the Black Hole of Calcutta experience for commuters. Vanishing into a book was the only reprieve…

        • There are probably people out there who have a great daily commute and I look forward to meeting them just to get a bit of perspective and indulge in some reverse schadenfreude. For me, traveling to London from Reading, it used to be 110 minutes door-to-door: 25 minutes on the bus surrounded by screaming schoolkids, followed by 30 minutes on the train (standing) and then 10 minutes on the tube (standing and usually truly jammed) with lots of standing around in between. I still commute but I basically realised that the only way to not suffer was to leave 45 minutes earlier and cycle to the station (weather permitting). I now leave the house at 7 on my bike, get the 7.21 train and with luck am at the office by 8.10, which feels like heaven compared to before. But back to fiction! I have not moved on from volume 1 of the Martin series because I can’t bear the through of carrying such a chunky volume with me! I do also listen to a fair amount of audio drama on the commute which i really enjoy (especially the Big Finish I’ve been reviewing here of late).

  4. I’ve read most of Leigh Brackett’s science fiction, but only a few of her westerns and mystery novels. THE TIGER AMONG US sounds enticing.

    • Hi George – I think this is probably her most distinctive work in the genre and, within the limits of the time it was produced, I think it remains a significant effprt. By focusing on the relationship between the husband and wife at the heart of the crime scenario, it also manages to pypass some of the more outdated cliches associated with the juvenile deliquent cycle of the 50s.

  5. Hi Sergio! I loved the topmost cover of THE TIGER AMONG US. It’s a terrific illustration but then, as you know, I have an incurable weakness for all things drawn and quartered – cartoons, comics, illustrations, posters and the like. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with Leigh Brackett including this novel but I enjoyed your splendid review nonetheless, especially the bit about how reading this book in a day cured your reader’s block. I have often switched books myself, if only to cut the boredom of reading a book that’s taking too long to finish.

    Your experience with train commute (as recounted in your reply to Mike’s second comment) is akin to mine in Bombay’s crowded suburban trains running between downtown (where I work) and the northern suburbs (where I live), a good 50-minute commute by “slow” trains that stop at all stations, not counting frequent cancellations. But it’s still the best place to read books or newspapers, listen to music, play games on your handset, chat with friends and fellow commuters, and munch among other lucrative pastimes. I have started and finished reading most of my books on the “Black Hole of Bombay” though Indian Railways has now introduced airier, roomier and snazzier 12-coach trains in place of the earlier dark and dreary nine-coach locos. I carry three books and half-a-dozen comics in my bag every day and it’s beginning to weigh on my shoulders. It’s my comfort zone.

    • Hi Prashant, that description of your commute to work sounds fascinating. The last time I was in ‘your neck of the woods’ was the late 80s, when it wasn’t Mumbai yet, so I think my experience of aircon free trains and using buses and coaches with wooden benches is probably extremely out of date! Lie you though, i think I would feel lost if I had to travel without at least two books in my satchel or at least a newspaper – and I always make sure I have plenty of podcasts and audio plays to listen through headphones on my PM3! You never know when there is going to be a delay lasting several hours (it uusually happens at least once a month).

  6. Todd Mason says:

    Marijane Meaker (aka Vin Packer and M. E. Kerr among other names) is definitely worth investigating for you, I’d say…you know she and Highsmith were lovers for several years and never completely out of each other’s orbits. Meaker and Highsmith’s roughly autobiographical novels (of their respective youths) reviewed.

    • Wow – I had no idea that was the same person. I don’t have Meaker’s memoir about Highsmith, only read reviews of it (great comment on Amazon entitled, “Glad she’s not my ex!”). I have the Highsmith novel on my shelf (under its UK reprint title, Carol) so I’ll definitely have to pursue this – really interesting, thanks very much Todd.

  7. Deb says:

    My rule of thumb is, if a book hasn’t grabbed you by page 50, it probably isn’t going to and life’s too short. It’s not your fault, it’s not the writer’s fault, no one can read and enjoy everything that gets published, it’s just not possible. Move on without guilt.

    My favorite Leigh Brackett story (probably apocryphal, but I wish it wasn’t) is when she and Wiliam Faulkner were working on “The Big Sleep,” they couldn’t figure out who killed the chauffeur. After reading the book several times and remaining baffled, they finally called Chandler to ask him–and he didn’t know either.

    • Thanks Deb – I think you’re probably right (though I am pretty stubborn when it comes to finishing a project, which doesn’t help). It is a great story about the chauffeur (who I think committed suicide in the book, right?).

      • Deb says:

        I hate to confess it’s been over 30 years since I read THE BIG SLEEP (probably time for a re-read). I seem to remember the car being found (in water?) with the dead chauffeur inside, but questions about how he died remaining. Perhaps someone who’s read TBS more recently than the Carter Administration will oblige and refresh my memory.

  8. Carol says:

    This must be fate at work. I just finished an article about the filming of “Hatari,” for which Brackett wrote the script. Then I posted my review of “Be Shot for Sixpence” on Bev’s blog, and discovered this post on Brackett. Clearly, it’s time for me to read her work. Thanks for an excellent review.

    • Hi Carol, thanks for the feedback and shall definitely look out for your Hatari article and the review. Brackett published a lot more in the science fiction genre but this was, I think, her next to last crime novel (The Silent Partner was her last, in 1969, and unrelated to the terrific movie of the same title released in 1978).

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