The anger in him was too large a thing, too deeply banked to permit of small irritations. The thing inside him was quiet and intent, having the power of long development, like a storm that gathers force in the secret waters of the ocean and moves stealthily inland for destruction.
Robert Colby never achieved the sales or the fame as other Gold Medal authors did; he never managed to produce a major hit despite valiant efforts. Even as names like Gil Brewer, Vin Packer, and Peter Rabe gained popularity and respect among historians and collectors, Robert Colby remained more of a footnote, falling short of the attention and recognition he deserved. Of all his novels, The Captain Must Die is recognized as an underrated classic; Ed Gorman called it Colby’s “masterpiece,” “deftly plotted and one of those hardboiled novels that is genuinely tough without showing off.” Repeated high praise of the book garnered my interest, and I made sure to pick up a copy during one of Prologue Books’ promotions.
Greg Driscoll is a wealthy and respected businessman in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. He has two cars, an upscale suburban home, a ten-year-old son off at summer camp, and a cold, distant, but beautiful wife Madge. And somebody is trying to kill him: three ex-G.I.s recently released from Leavenworth with a score to settle. They know Driscoll’s been stockpiling money in a vault built into his house’s basement. They aim to take that money and his wife, make Driscoll suffer for what he’s done to them, break him down through harassment and terror… and then end his life. And step by step, their careful plans begin to fray at Driscoll’s nerves; they may even be successful, if they can trust each other long enough to pull it off…
The story unveils itself through a series of flashbacks; at first, you’re left guessing why these three killers are gunning for Driscoll, but as their complex relationship comes out the reader starts to fit the pieces together…
During the war, Brick, Cal, and Barney were stateside to use their battlefield experience to help train new recruits. After a promised thirty-day furlough was revoked and the three G.I.s ordered back to the front, a disgusted Brick incites a desertion. When caught and brought before their commanding officer, Driscoll, the captain had the opportunity to drop the charge and shuffle them aboard a troopship heading back into the Pacific Theater. Instead, he had them tried as deserters—justifying to himself that the court would decide their guilt; in reality, it’s vengeance against Cal Morgan for having an affair with Madge. The following twelve years in Leavenworth destroy the lives of the three privates—careers evaporate, girlfriends disappear—leaving them with bitterness and resentment directed at Driscoll.
This fragmented plot and heavy use of flashbacks makes the novel more internalized and more past-tense. We jump between the various characters and see how the past clouds their judgment, making them into who they are today. That weaving narrative is often successful, despite the flashbacks slowing down the immediacy and faster pacing of the narrative. It must be said that Colby was no slouch with a pen. He was skillful at building tension, and provided some effective commentary on the effects of war. At its best, his writing is a kind of noir poetry, imagery brilliant and stark and on-par with Gold Medal’s best:
His arm dangling over the side of the chair, Barney let the beer bottle slip from his grasp and fall to the floor where it rolled away, drooling beer like saliva across the rug.
The real strength to the novel—what drives the plot, and then complicates it—are the personalities of the characters. We get into the minds of each of them through those flashbacks, seeing how they internalized the same sequence of events that put them in this situation. It leaves us with a fascinating set of conflicting viewpoints. Driscoll is presented as a snobby, elitist businessman, by-the-book and distant; he sees himself as doing the right thing, self-righteous his actions even though somewhere he knows the dark reason for having the men tried as deserters. Each of the ex-convicts sees themselves as victims, their lives crushed by the war and a prison term which they blame Driscoll for in its entirety—while Driscoll saw them as goldbrickers and rabble-rousers, lowering morale and confronting authority. The truth exists somewhere in between.
These are all failed characters—eroded to the core by the loss and rejection each has felt since the war. Despite his wealth and success, Driscoll lives in fear of poverty and another banking collapse. He’s bitter about his wife drifting away from him ever since he locked away her lover, and struggles along knowing someone is gunning for him, refusing to seek aid for fear of being seen as less than a man. The ex-cons have lost everything—each thinks back to an idyllic pre-war life with a career heading upward and a loving girlfriend—and all that’s left is a devilish desire for vengeance. The attempted desertion was just the catalyst; the war is the cause for the crushing weight that keeps them down, their many burdensome disappointments.
The Captain Must Die is a forgotten masterpiece. It has a few flaws—the fragmented nature makes for choppy reading, the flashbacks impeding the pace of the present narrative. (There’s also a few OCR errors in the e-copy, none bad enough to disrupt the reading experience.) But at its best, the prose shines, the dialogue is curt and sharp, the characters are rich in woe and motivation, and the plot arc is impressive. Robert Colby produced a well-executed novel of vengeance and lust with a distinct psychological element, and anyone with a serious interest in 1950s crime/noir should keep an eye out for this one. It’s an almost-perfect novel, and one of the most unique Gold Medals I’ve read.