This thriller comes in a 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 …
“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.”
In 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 thriller, 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
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: