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 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”
I 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 it is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook. None the less we read with horrified fascination as the couple agonise in their set-up, 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 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: