The sign was done in blue lights and it kind of hung like a ghost there in the dripping trees. It swung and you could hear it creak. Just the sign, and nothing else.
I find it ironic that a publishing house named New Pulp Press was the first to release Gil Brewer novels as e-books; I snagged The Red Scarf during a freebie promotion on Amazon, though New Pulp also released Brewer’s Flight Into Darkness. Gil Brewer was one of the old Gold Medal/Fawcett Crest authors who wrote dozens of books but died in impoverished obscurity after drinking himself to death. Nowadays his name makes the rounds as one of the underrated masters of his era. Brewer is one of many authors who’s getting a comeback, allowing us modern readers to judge his mastery for ourselves, thanks to digitization and a renewed interest in old pulp paperbacks from companies like New Pulp Press, Hard Case Crime, Stark House, and Prologue Books. The first (and only other, so far) of Gil Brewer’s books I’ve read was the Hard Case edition of The Vengeful Virgin, and while I wasn’t blown away by it, it was a memorable novel. Good enough that I’ll give Brewer another shot.
Roy Nichols and his wife Bess bet everything they owned on a Floridian motel running along a proposed highway route, but fate is conspiring against them: the highway construction has stalled, and the bank is knocking on Roy’s door looking to collect. Hitchhiking home from Chicago after begging his brother for aid, a dejected Roy stops at a hole-in-the-wall diner for coffee and smokes. He ends up bumming a ride from a shady couple, Noel Teece and Vivian Rise, who seem to spend most of their time at odds. An auto accident leaves Noel broken at the bottom of a cliff, and a panicked Vivian convinces Roy to leave him behind by flashing a suitcase of money at him: Noel is a courier for the syndicate, and the couple had figured to make off with the Mob’s earnings and flee the country.
Roy sees his salvation in that suitcase: as long as he can help get Vivian to South America, he’ll receive a hefty share of the loot. That’s the plan, anyway, but no plan survives contact with the enemy—in this case is Writ Radan, Mob enforcer. Trapped like rats in Roy’s motel, Roy has to survive a careful balancing act: assure his wife that he’s not sleeping with Vivian, evade a nosy police lieutenant who’s too good at his job, and worst of all, deal with the battered—but still breathing—Noel Teece, who’s come to collect his cash.
The 1950s were a major crossroads in the evolution of the mystery novel; the locked-room murder and tea cozy mysteries had given way to the hardboiled detectives of the inter-war years, and the ’50s began to branch out in new directions with the crime novel. Crime as the moral fable, crime as the just punishment for those attempting to get ahead by flirting with the underworld. Here, we have an everyman protagonist—not a hardened criminal or hardboiled detective, but a terrified citizen desperate to pay off his loans—evading the underworld and attempting to get away with Mob money. Brewer’s work is not at all like a typical “mystery;” it reads more like a psychological thriller, as Roy’s panicked mind runs circles in his claustrophobic paranoia.
And that’s exactly where Brewer excels: the maddening, almost suffocating paranoia. His writing style is rapid-fire short and simple, almost primer-like at times, though he’s quite capable of infusing it with vivid imagery (see the quotes I have on this post). It stumbles along at a headlong tilt, and while it lacks flair, that makes for streamlined reading that’s hard to put down. It’s Brewer’s exact plotting, and the internal desperation of his protagonists, that sells me one his craft. Roy is quite sure he’ll get out of this okay, if only he keeps trying, though he’s not exactly proactive—he’s outwardly passive, even as he’s internally isolated with his own frenetic desperation and fears. For me as the reader, it added to the tension, knowing full well that Roy is doomed and that the hammer must fall sooner or later.
Let’s face it: Roy is a sympathetic character, only wanting to do what’s right for himself and his wife, backed into poverty and debt by forces outside his control. We want him to succeed. But he goes in over his head, fighting against the syndicate for more money than he really needs, fueled by the irrational false hope that something will come around the corner to pull him out of this mess. Roy never stops being a sympathetic character, despite his crazed desperation and stubborn refusal to explain the situation to anyone, further complicating everything. And while the ending isn’t as grim as most other doomed crime novel protagonists, Roy Nichols is fighting against a world without free rides, where greed leads nowhere but to self-destruction.
I mentioned before that Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin didn’t overly impress me. The Red Scarf, on the other hand, exists on a different plane. The tight writing and tighter pacing leads the novel down a dark path, the tension increasing along with Roy’s impending doom. It’s a short book, and was hard to put down, making it a rapid-fire read. I now see what others see in Brewer, because The Red Scarf is a forgotten masterpiece. For the noir fan, this is a must-read: a treat. I’m impressed with New Pulp Press that they gave the Kindle edition away as a freebie. (Then again, I’m giving them free publicity; it must be working.) Update: what a coincidence, the Kindle edition is back as a freebie; get it while it’s hot.
Ebook Comments: New Pulp Press has a crisp and clean job, very well done, with great font sizing selections. The book had one of those scathing reviews on Amazon for errors, but having read it, I can say it’s been cleaned up. I didn’t notice anything wrong at all. A quick check shows that it’s been pulled from the Amazon.com store, which is a shame, and I don’t see it up for Kindle either. I think its price was the same as for the other Brewer from NPP still on Amazon, Flight to Darkness for $4.99; though as mentioned I picked it up when it was a freebie, which I guess counts as a review copy.