This pair of hitherto hard-to-find mysteries come in a new volume from those very nice people at Stark House Press, the imprint specialising in new and classic crime fiction. Dixon is an author that seems really ripe for rediscovery, much of his work buried in the avalanche of often luridly illustrated paperbacks published by Fawcett in the 1950s. Here we have two very different books: a small town police procedural and a story of a recovering alcoholic and a reputed femme fatale in San Francisco’s high society.
I offer this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog and Bev’s Vintage Scavenger Hunt.
“We haven’t had a lynching in California in a good many years, but that’s no guarantee we couldn’t have one if you start walking around loose …” – Cry Blood
Both published by Fawcett in 1956, these two books offer a fascinating contrast in style and content. Cry Blood is a story of a man wrongly accused when a fourteen-year-old school girl goes missing the same weekend that he was away at a secluded cabin, unable to account for his whereabouts. First her shoes and then the rest of her clothes are recovered from his basement and soon he is being held for the crime and the whole town turns against him. Even his wife gives up on him immediately and as evidence stacks up against him, we have to decide if he is guilty or being set up – and if so, why and or course, by whom? The characterisation, despite a lot of naiveté on the part of the protagonist, is quite satisfying and complex – in the married couple we are given a compelling personal history that ends up having a bearing on the case as their inability to have children, due to a botched termination, is then used against the protagonist to suggest he was frustrated by this – and the couple’s subsequent lack of ‘marital relations.’ As the situation pushes the husband and wife further apart, she only seeing the situation from her own point of view in terms of loss of social standing, there is a hilarious scene in which her selfishness even gets the goat of a cop who thinks the husband is guilty:
“Mister,” he said slowly, biting off each word, “right alongside that restaurant is a cliff that drops three hundred feet straight down to the ocean. Policeman or not, by God, I’ll turn my back if you’d like to kick your wife over the edge of it.” – Cry Blood
It is a common theme – the small town that becomes a mob when it rounds on one of its own – but is handled very well and at various moments I certainly really shared the sheer anguish of the protagonist’s plight. The eventual resolution is a bit predictable as the hunter becomes the hunter, but there is a pleasing ambiguity in the depiction of the lynch mob mentality that is unexpected and welcome.
“He was certainly different from any other alcoholic she had ever known.” – Killer in Silk
Killer in Silk is a very different sort of book, telling the story of an alcoholic writer who reaches rock bottom in San Francisco after running away from too many binges in Hollywood. He gets sent to Irene Wilson, a rich heiress who takes in drunks and helps them recover, apparently out of guilt for having driven her husband to drink – this before she accidentally shot him. But was it accidental? Of the two books I found this to me the most satisfying and, as I discovered from Donald Napoli’s ver informative introduction, it does seem to be much more in line with Dixon’s output which tended to focus on young men on the make causing a stir in rich society. Here we have a plot on which an author of tough and unsympathetic novels meets a member of the elite who may or may not be guilty of murder (imagine Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell meets Claus von Bulow or Oscar Pistorius with the genders reversed) and result is highly compelling. Of the two novels in this collection, Killer in Silk is my favourite (despite the terrible title), playing to the author’s strengths in drawing strongly defined contrasts in high society, while also being a bit less conventional as we see the story from the point of view of both the broken protagonists. Both offer emotionally involving stories of men and women thrown into a chaos not entirely of their making – while the plot mechanics of the crime plots are not all that plausible, they are more than adequate and bring both stories to a satisfying climax, just like they were supposed to..
“You mean to tell me she keeps a scrapbook about her accidental killing of her own husband?” – Killer in Silk
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. In comes with a new introduction by Donald S Napoli, who previously reviewed both of these novels at his unmissable blog, Reading California Fiction. The book is available directly from Stark House Press and from all the usual outlets too – here are the details
Cry Blood / Killer in Silk
By H. Vernon Dixon
ISBN: 978-1-933586-79-3 (paperback), 292 pages, $20.95
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt, the two covers (the Stark House one is taken from the Fawcett original for Cry Blood), fulfilling the ‘two people’ and ‘blonde’ items: