THE RED SCARF (1958) by Gil Brewer

Brewer_French-Street_Red-Scarf_bluemurder-mediumOne of the many Florida-set paperback originals written by Gil Brewer in the 1950s, it has a plot that mostly recycles James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice but also adds some very effective gear changes. Roy Nichols has been to Chicago to ask his brother for a loan to save his motel, but is hitch-hiking his way back to Tampa with nothing. At a diner he catches a ride with warring couple Noel and Viv that soon turns deadly when the car crashes. You see, there’s this bag of money that everybody wants …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason’at Sweet Freedom.

“It was raining and snowing at the same time; you know, just hard enough to make it real nasty.”

Roy is a classic pulp hero – an innocent fall guy, caught up in somebody else’s criminal scheme. It turns out that Viv (full name, Vivian Rise) has convinced her boyfriend (full name Noel Teece – the book is full of oddly named characters …) to abuse his position at work. He’s a courier for the mob, carrying cash for them. Only this time he didn’t reach his destination, and they know it. It turns out our two crooks are not too smart and after some heavy drinking while driving, Roy suddenly awakens down a gully with a broken finger, a shard of glass in his leg and only bits of the car (this is probably one of the niftiests scenes in the book, nicely jolting the reader by suddenly pushing the narrative much further forward). He then finds the suitcase with a broken clasp. It is full to the brim with money. Viv grabs it and ties Brewer_Red-Scarf_chestit shut with her ‘lucky’ red scarf. Noel is in the rest of the wreckage, apparently dead. She convinces Roy to help her get out of the country in exchange for some of the cash, which he desperately needs. He buys a new car (stupidly using his own name) and then has an almighty shock when he sees Noel in town, looking for them. Roy heads back home on his own, but is soon tracked down by Viv, Noel and a mob enforcer named Wirt Radan (where did Brewer get these names from?) and they are all after the cash. Then one of the three is killed, then another. The police arrive and quickly realise Roy is not being very forthcoming, as does Bess. Well, he isn’t, because all he cares about now is saving the motel by keeping the cash he has hidden away …

“That money. I had to keep it. Somehow. It beat like a very small drum at the back of my head. A small and very distant drum …”

James Reasoner reviewed The Red Scarf over at his blog, Rough Edges and thinks it may be the apex of Brewer’s work, as does the great Bill Pronzini, who wrote a terrific overview of the author’s career for MysteryFile.com. However, I can’t agree with them. To me the book is often trite and repetitive and the central situation seems to have taken the plot of Cain’s Postman and simply rejigged it. The narrator starts by getting off a truck and heading into a diner, where he meets a femme fatale. He gets involved in a scam involving a car crash and then another crook arrives to put the squeeze on, and then the cops get involved. There are some nice twists, like the jump forward to after the car crash (it’s a real surprise and feels like a chapter is missing) and the unexpected re-appearance of Noel. But this all belongs to the first few chapters. Once we get to Florida, most of the story is set in the motel and soon becomes confining and very, very repetitive with simple variations on a basic situation. Bess The Red Scarf by Gil Brewerwonders what her husband is up (is he being unfaithful?) to and keeps interrupting him when he sees Viv, while the latter is terrified and just makes matters worse for him by begging not to be left alone. And all the while, cops and crooks all put pressure on Roy. Its meant to be nightmarish and is thus exaggerated accordingly, but never convinced me. Ultimately the characters are just too thin – Roy is a fool under pressure, Bess is the square homemaker (and a bit of a ball-breaker), Viv is a scared femme fatale, Noel a very weak mobster, the cop is ‘all-knowing’ thanks only to his internal radar (despite a total lack of evidence), while the nasty Radan is, well, nasty. Even by 1958, this particular tale had already been told time and time again …

This is the third of Brewer’s books I have posted about here at Fedora over the last 18 months and I really much preferred the savage nihilism of The Vengeful Virgin and the downright perverse melodrama of Nude on Thin Ice and would certainly recommend those before this one.

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 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘colour in the title’ category:

029-Vintage-Brewer

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

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This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Florida, Friday's Forgotten Book, Gil Brewer, James M. Cain, Noir. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to THE RED SCARF (1958) by Gil Brewer

  1. Those are interesting plot twists, Sergio. As you say, it’s a story that’s been told. Several times. In several ways. But still something that captures the imagination. Shame the characters weren’t a little richer; then it might have been exceptional. Thanks, as ever, for a thoughtful and well-informed review. I learn every time I visit here.

  2. Yvette says:

    Not my sort of book at all, Sergio. I dislike small time crooks (or big time crooks for that matter) especially small time crooks who are also schlemiels trying to make a score (usually one last score before they retire or come out of retirement or go straight or whatnot – in this case, buy a motel (?) – so many books and movies are based on this tired old ploy that I always wonder what the big attraction is. Am I being too grumpy again? 🙂

    • Well, it’s a question of tone, right? I mean, caper movies like Ocean’s Eleven or Thomas Crown Affair are invetive great fun and not even remotely grubby or seedy. But no, I didn’t think this was a great one either Yvette!

    • Bev Hankins says:

      I have to agree with Yvette–not my kind of read. I seem to like this kind of caper plot much better in film (such as The Thomas Crown Affair that you mention below, Sergio). I’m kind of the same way with hardboiled and noir–give me Bogart playing a tough-guy detective on-screen over a mean streets detective novel any day.

  3. John says:

    Thanks for letting me know this is lesser Brewer. (Does that make it a Lite read? Couldn’t resist.) Not read this one, though I have that edition pictured above where it was reissued with 13 FRENCH STREET. I’ve read just as many Brewers as you have. As for best of the three I’ve sampled it’s a toss up between the “vet noir” book he wrote, FLIGHT TO DARKNESS, and VENGEFUL VIRGIN which is downright nasty. Almost as nasty as Block’s MONA (aka GRIFTER’S GAME) which I still think takes first prize in nihilistic noir. I have Brewer’s most lauded book (A KILLER IS LOOSE) buried in a box somewhere and I may have to dig it out and read that and review it later this month.

    • Santosh Iyer says:

      The darkest noir that I have read is The Prisoner by Boileau-Narcejac (English translation of Les Louves)

    • Thanks very much for that John – I got that edition because I remembered you saying promising things about 13 French Street, which I have not read yet but look forward to. I may go hunting around for Killer is Loose depending on what you say …

  4. pastoffences says:

    Weird coincidence – Pulpetti also posted on The Red Scarf last night: http://pulpetti.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/gil-brewer-red-scarf.html

    • Thanks for that Rich – heading over now … Though I am now instantly reminded why I look at Juri’s site so rarely as it is virtually impossible to post comments on the posts – am I missing something, or do you have to have a gmail / blogger account to comment?

      • Richard says:

        To me, that’s not as bad as requiring the commentor to sign on through Facebook, on which apparently the world assumes everyone as an account. I don’t, and don’t want one. As a result I rarely visit those sites. I wonder why people restrict their blogs that way?

        • Well, yes, I don;t like either, but Juri must have noticed that this is a massive restriction on the level of traffic for the site, It’s unfortunately a massive hassle for me personally because I have a gmail account I use for work but obviously I blog using other software so not only does it create a massive conflict between the accounts, but I would have to create a blog, using the office account, just to post a response – which is absurd.. All Juri has to do though is slightly alter the security settings

          • Todd Mason says:

            I’ll certainly let him explain beyond he was being massively spammed at one point, both by bots and a human malefactor.

            Interesting contrast between your reviews, and as I noted at his post, Pronzini didn’t note the sale to MERCURY MYSTERY either, which in this case would’ve been a salvage market if a bit better one than Bourgey. Perhaps the higher-paying pb original folks felt that it was too derivative as well…even if they were willing to offer it as a Crest book for less money shelled out by Fawcett.

            Meanwhile, most Blogger blogs will allow you to post as Name/URL…while all WordPress blogs love to forget our data and require re-entry…

          • Blogger will do the name/URL which is just dandy but only if you set it accordingly, whereas I frequently have to go through about half a dozen stages before being able to post a reply on some sites (not your though – and thanks for that)- if you don’t set it that way, well, it’s a damn pain in the arse, (as we say and Angleterre). Thanks for curating today Todd

  5. Colin says:

    Yes, this sounds like a well-trodden path indeed. I wouldn’t rule out reading it though as it depends on your state of mind whether or not you’re prepared to accept or tolerate such a familiar premise.

    • Exactly Colin – I would definitely recommend the other Brewers I mentioned first but when the likes of Bill Pronzini single this out, you have to listen!

      • Colin says:

        Yes, although I have found the recommendations of respected writers have disappointed me too in the past – I sometimes think that maybe we set extra store by them just because their reputations demand those higher expectations – which is just a roundabout way of saying that perhaps our own perceptions and preconceptions are as much to blame.

        • Well, I was watching an episode of CASTLE (to which i have become suddenly utterly devoted having dodged it for 7 seasons …) in which he talks about adding blurbs to books his agents has sent to him without actually reading them …

  6. Interesting! I rather enjoyed this one, and was impressed with the intense pathological dread in Florida, but found VENGEFUL VIRGIN too derivative of Cain’s POSTMAN… You seem to have had the opposite effect! 🙂

    I do agree that this tale had already been told many times over… My one complaint about Brewer is that too many of his books stick with that same formula, though some like A KILLER IS LOOSE followed the formula more loosely.

    • Thanks Chris – looking forward to KILLER IS LOOSE (which i need to get) – what i liked about VIRGIN was the particularly nihilistic ending, which felt much more powerful. Otherwise, I agree, it’s just the usual Noir conflation of POSTMAN and LADY CHATTERLEY 🙂

  7. neer says:

    The plot does seem to be one that has been rehashed a number of times yet if I come across this book, I’ll like to read it. Thanks for the review Sergio.

  8. Matt Paust says:

    Appreciate the warning, Sergio, especially of the cop-with-internal-radar. Soon as he’s on the scene we know it’s only a matter of time before the jig is up.

  9. Gil Brewer was a very uneven writer. He could write brilliant prose and he could write crap. But I always found an energy in his writing that was often missing in better writers’ work.

  10. tracybham says:

    Reading about the different takes on this book was interesting. I have The Vengeful Virgin, but I have not yet read that or any books by Brewer. He may be a bit too noir for my comfort level, but I have learned to give noir a chance. I have enjoyed some books in that category recently.

    Oh, and the vintage covers are wonderful.

    • Thanks Tracy – while I prefer Vengeful oversall, I should point out (I feel) that Red Scarf is not nearly as bleak. Red Scarf is in fact more of a suspense yarn and even comes with a hopeful outcome – Vengeful on the other hand is just one of the bleakest Noirs ever!

  11. Not familiar with this author at all, though feel I should at least have heard of him. Will look him up, though you’re not making this one sound like a must-read….

    • I think its a useful primer for his work (which tends to read like Miami-based James M Cain) and at least has a fairly positive finale. Not like the others I have mentioned …

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