Here it is the middle of May—mid-June by the time I get this posted—and I haven’t read any Hard Cases this year. Well… that’s not true. I’ve posted six reviews, of which three were read this year; it just hasn’t felt like I’ve been reading enough Hard Case Crimes yet. So, without further ado, I dug a couple out of (a) to-read box. In no particular order, and for no particular reason, I started off here.
This one, Stop This Man!, sounded interesting enough. Tony Catell is a three-time loser; fresh out of his third prison stint, the fifty-year-old hood has pulled off the big one of his career: he made off with a thirty-six pound block of gold—solid gold!—from some university. But when he shows up and tries to fence the thing, he runs into a few snags: it was used for some scientific test, and is now irradiated, poisonous, killing everyone it comes into contact with. Tony, being Tony, shrugs this radiowhatsit nonsense off as flim-flam, and sets out to find someone—anyone—who’ll be willing to buy his gold. At his high market price. Never mind that he’s getting sicker and sicker…
Tony Catell is, amongst other things, an unlikeable douchebag. No real way to beat around that bush. He’s so self-sure and cocky, picking fights with everyone he runs across who doesn’t do things his way. His actions lead to the ruin, downfall, and even death of people around him—the book opens with some old lady in a roach-ridden apartment complex dying because Tony left the gold in a closet, with only a layer of plywood between it and her bed. He’s also a misogynistic jerk, not below using force to get the women he desires, damn the consequences. Heck, the gold’s only worth around twenty grand, and he’s adamant this will be his ticket to the big leagues and be his ticket out of loserville. Add to this his ignorance of radiation…
Which, to be honest, sounds like utter Macguffin crap: the whole radioactive gold setup. It has a half-life of one day (!), and when the radiation’s finished decaying it’ll become pure, stable mercury (!!)… yet it’s still killing everyone who wanders within fifty feet of it for more than an hour. That sheer amount of killing radiation, with that kind of half-life, sounds like someone got their science wrong. Alright, fine, it was 1955, so we’re seeing the author’s perceptions, the era’s knowledge of radioactivity. But why isn’t Tony dead from it halfway through the book, since he’s been around it the longest, if it’s so deadly? It’s a great concept, if one that lacks… science, reality, things like that… so I’ll suspend my disbelief and roll with it.
But the nuclear gold isn’t enough to pin the entire novel upon. Around halfway through, Tony tries to pawn it off via the Syndicate in L.A., and is caught in a deal where they’ll buy it, for close to his stated price—but only after Tony pulls off another heist with them. His attitude gets him into constant pissing contests with a hot-headed Syndicate torpedo, which then blossoms into outright rivalry when Lily, one of the girls Tony was eying three cities ago, shows up in the hood’s care. This also introduces us to three characters who are the most likeable people in the book, who have sharp senses of humor even in the worst of situations.
Peter Rabe is one of the Gold Medal crime stable, whose name crops up often on vintage crime sites. I’d never read anything of his before—or even heard of him. His prose is alright, if, like many of his contemporaries, unexceptional. Tony’s characterization as an unlikable misanthrope and misogynist is near deplorable, but that might have been the point; I’ll withhold judgement on Rabe until I’ve read more from him. (I’ve just found out this was his first novel, to boot.) Since Rabe paints the dark criminal underbelly of America, it could be his norm, the unlikable everyman trying to get ahead in the cutthroat shadow world. Rabe has a knack for pulpy paperback charm, and the writing in Stop This Man! was good enough; I’m more a fan of its core concept, despite its questionable science.
You could say that Rabe is most interested in the chaos of Tony’s savage existence, running between seedy deals and painted strippers. Every now and then, one of several FBI agents tasked to Tony’s case will make an appearance, straight man foils to Tony’s energetic chaos in a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” vein. We start with one of them, Jack Herron, a name that crops up every few chapters as Jack studies the wreckage left in Tony Catell’s wake before jumping back to see Tony’s latest antics. Of course, since the ’50s was the era of moral underpinnings, the set a good example/and thus justice must prevail mentality, these guys start off as Feebs always two steps behind, and only catch up to Tony through a contrived series of events near the end.
To say that Rabe was interested in a grim, seedy underbelly was to understate that fact. At one point, Tony is “caught” by a small-town Arizona sheriff—in a fit of irony given today’s Arizona politics, because Tony was a stranger who couldn’t provide proof of his origin. This sheriff is one of the few characters darker than Tony, a sadistic fiend who even the other townsfolk dread and dislike. In Rabe’s hardboiled landscape, a position of authority is just an elevated position of savage toughness. Tony takes no small pleasure in taking the man back down—twice, the latter a finality—after he performs the second or third of Tony’s many beatings. And for once, I think Tony was in the right.
Early on, the novel felt like a string of connected events happening to one character, not like a proper plot. The move to L.A. acts as a foundation for the novel, bolstering its flagging middle; the overall feeling is still disjointed, and the transition from Syndicate to conclusion is a contrived mess. But the first acts develop Tony and introduce characters, necessary actions because of their roles when Tony attempts to play gangster. For a while, Tony begins to see Lily as a way out of this life of crime—ironic, since the gold heist was to be his ticket into the big leagues. But as we all know, happy endings are not for the grey and morally ambiguous, and the plot transitions into a chaotic, desperate showdown.
Pointing out that Tony as a character was a despicable sleazeball is to repeat myself once too often. But that’s the sticking point of this book. It was a fun little novel; despite a good effort, parts of it just didn’t click. The plot was disjointed, but it works well enough; the main idea is pure gold (har) if implausible. And for all my talk of the novel as a shadowy reflection of the American dream, its atmosphere isn’t very polished, and good atmosphere is the trademark of the best noir.
The plot takes a while to get moving, but by the end, things have coalesced into a cyclone of misery which Tony bats around without even realizing, like the primordial bull in a china shop, digging his hole deeper and deeper with each radiation-soaked death he causes. Stop This Man! is a wry, wary novel of the 1950s underworld; it might not have put them in the right places, but it has all the right pieces of a good crime novel.