This is a good example of the 1950s crime-noir novels Hard Case is hell-bent on reprinting. Cay Morgan elbowed her way into jewelry smuggling, a tough woman in a man’s world, and held her own for quite a while. That came to a crashing halt when one of her rivals, The Trader, had her abducted and…well, branded, as a warning to stay out of his business. Needless to say, she packs up her revolver and a hired detective and sets off to Mazatlan, hoping to track down one of The Trader’s known associates… to give The Trader one in return.
Cay is one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across—a woman protagonist, and a strong one at that. At the same time, she’s human enough to let her emotions get in the way… which proves problematic near the end of the book. As far as books go, it’s an above-average example of noir crime. The book has some good plot twists, and the development leading to the conclusion is spot on. The Mexican setting is nicely described, a sunny, tropical paradise with The Trader lurking underneath. And the characters are all great, well-rounded and developed so they all feel very human. I’m not sure that branding is as truly horrible as we’re led to believe—having just read Gun Work, where the protagonist is tortured and maimed—but I assume it was a lot more horrific back in the 1950s.
This is one of those Hard Case Crime books I ended up really liking, for no particularly great reason. It’s well-written, has a unique protagonist, and is moderately surprising, but it’s still a very basic ‘50s crime paperback, and is far from the best in the Hard Case library. Still, the fact that I really liked it has to count for something. It’s well-rounded and very above average, and one of the better crime revenge stories I’ve read, thus earning my stamp of approval.
I forgot to mention two things when I first posted this review. Number one, Wade Miller was a pseudonym for Robert Wade and William Miller, who co-conspired for a number of excellent mystery novels back in the day. Once I’ve completed my epic quest to acquire more shelves, Wade Miller novels are going to be high on my buy list, thanks to Charles Ardai’s Hard Case bringing him—er, them—to my attention.
Number two: Cay Morgan is one of the few great examples of a hardboiled heroine in crime fiction. (Which might be a good reason why it’s stuck with me to become a favorite of mine, who knows.) It’s kind of like reading a novel from the femme fatale’s point of view… only, one who’s been wronged, and sets out on the path of vengeance. She’s a fantastic character: strong but feminine, capable of falling in love, sometime vulnerable, but someone who can dish out a world of hurt to those who’ve wronged her. Having read about thirty more Hard Cases since then (I think I read it in 2008), I’ve come to appreciate its female protagonist more.
Branded Woman might not be the best Hard Case Crime, but it is probably my favorite in the line so far. Recommended.