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I have to say, crime novels have some of the best titles. Particularly older paperback fiction, with titles as awesome as Say It With Bullets. That alone is a great setup to any number of cover blurbs, and the cover art plays right into this: here’s the protagonist about to tell some off-cover sap something really important with his revolver. When rooting around for a new book to read, a snazzy title and interesting back cover blurb are what sells me on a book… as was the case with Say It With Bullets.

When revenge is the word of the day… When you have something to say… When you need to be heard…

HCC-018 - Say It With Bullets - Richard Powell - 1953

I don’t get your angle at all,” Ken said. “Not unless you’re shopping for a husband and figure this guy’s better than nothing.”

She took a deep breath and said, “I think I understand why people might want to shoot you.

Bill Wayne is on a Treasure Trip tour through the American Southwest to see five old war buddies—guys he got into business with, flying cargo around post-war, pre-Communist China. Only Bill isn’t out to collect souvenirs and postcards. One of his buddies shot him in the back, and Bill means to find out which one. So he’s tracking them down, one by one, looking for answers on why he was left for dead. And if they’re not up for talking, his .45 will talk for them. There’s just a couple of snags. Bill isn’t sure he can actually go through with the dirty deed himself—will he freeze up if things come down to killing? Worse, he perpetually has to dodge tour hostess Holly… the home-town girl who swooned at his high-school football stardom. Then there’s the issue of the millions of dollars in Chinese gold bricks buried in the middle of a lake…

In a lot of crime fiction, the protagonist is completely hard-boiled: no qualms about lying, stealing, or especially killing. What makes Bullets a more interesting and complex piece is the fact Bill doesn’t fit this mold: he’s mad as hell and wants vengeance, but he’s unsure he can actually go through with it. The first scuffle leaves a man dead, but Bill’s not sure he’s the one who pulled the trigger. And when he finally comes clean to Holly in the middle of the book, she postulates the theory of a sixth shooter: someone from his days in China that Bill’s memory has completely repressed… someone using Bill as a patsy to shield their own murderous revenge. There’s a lot going on here: plenty of mystery and ambiguity, a plot of surprising depth, and a multi-faceted protagonist.

The review blurb on the back cover by Anthony Boucher of The New York Times praises Powell’s “light wit and hard action.” That is spot-on description, as Bullets is riddled with a dry, sardonic wit and heavy on classic two-fisted noir action. Powell blends dark and violent material with great wit; not enough to change the book’s tone, but solid zingers like those from a good Dashiell Hammett character. Only this time they’re from the author. From the first paragraphs, I knew this was going to be a fun read:

At the overnight stop in North Platte, Nebraska, Bill Wayne didn’t copy the other tourists in the party when they bought postcards to mail to friends. He was running a little low on friends these days. Once he had classed five guys as friends but they had picked up a habit of doing things behind his back, like shooting at it. The only wish-you-were-here postcard he wanted to send them was a picture of a cemetery.

Among the queer angles of the case was the fact that he didn’t know exactly why the shooting had started. He was on his way now to visit his former pals and ask how come. In case they didn’t feel like answering he had brought a .45 automatic to talk for him.

Ok, it comes on a little heavy early on—yes, yes, I got it; Bill was shot in the back—but the wit builds in quality and quantity, ending up complementing the rest of the novel. At one point, Bill attempts to start a fistfight in a bar to act as an alibi, but everyone he tries to scuffle with apologizes and buys him a drink. Later on, he tries to lay low in a casino, where he’s unable to fail any games of chance—bringing plenty of attention to himself. Dry humor makes or breaks older crime fiction, and Powell has a knack for it.

The cover is another by Michael Koelsch, who did a fine job for Somebody Owes Me Money and the upcoming Blood On the Mink. This one’s in a slightly different style; it reminds me of 1940s-50s era movie posters. Bold strokes and great “desert sunset” background colors, and a nice pose from the starring roles, although Bill spends most of the book with a .45 automatic, not a revolver. Koelsch did nail Bill’s perpetual scowl; he’s a surly, despondent sort for most of the book.

Not only does the cover look like a movie poster, the book reads like a movie, and was optioned by Caribou Films in 2006. It doesn’t look like anything’s come of it since, but this one would make a damn fine film—if given a ’50s setting. Modern forensics can overcome a lot of what Bill’s using to cover his vengeance, and bus tours are awfully dated in the age of plane travel and staycations.

Graphic Books 093 - cover by Walter Popp

Say It With Bullets is a solid mix of great tough-guy lines and twisty-turny mystery, making it more than a simple revenge tale. Bullets is a great example of why many retro pulp and noir novels deserve to be reprinted: it’s fast, it’s complex, and most of all, it’s fun. There’s nothing really wrong with the book, though I can see its humor falling flat or not working for some readers.

The town of Winnemucca was about six gas stations long by four taprooms wide. But the place had quite a hotel. It was sleek and modern and had a tiled patio decked with gay umbrellas around a swimming pool. He relaxed in his air-conditioned bedroom and studied the play of light on the swimming pool below his window and on the Tom Collins glass in his hand. Things were going to look brighter as soon as he got outside the Tom Collins and inside the swimming pool.