Quinn thought for a moment and then he said, “I don’t have any papers.”
True enough, thought Whitfield, and for that matter you don’t have any pants either, and so forth. And not much brains left, is my feeling, and I must say a sad shock you are to me and my cinema knowledge of the American gangster.
By the time he reached the North African port of Okar, the captain has had enough of the strange noises and foul odor coming from the phone-booth-sized box in his cargo hold. After badgering the port’s clerk Whitfield to allow this strange box to be unloaded, they find the ravening Quinn held inside, ex-lawyer to the Mob, stuffed in the cargo crate on a round-trip ticket from New York across the Mediterranean and back to New York again. After his recuperation, Quinn finds himself born anew on the sands of the desolate Okar. What does with this new-found freedom, his new clean slate? Resort to his old ways, of course; Quinn dives into Okar’s seedy underbelly rife with smuggling and slave-trading with the goal of claiming this tiny criminal empire for himself. The local mayor and crime lord, Remal, has organized a small but profitable smuggling operation, connecting it with the Sicilian Mafia. And Quinn has decided to shake it up.
The last Peter Rabe novel I read, Stop This Man!, was also his first; it had a very traditional narrative style with basic but energetic prose. The Box sees Rabe’s prose in full-blown glory, a poetic and elliptical style that weaves in and out of perspective and point-of-view, at one moment full of lush description, at another full of tense but vague dialogue, then winding into stream-of-consciousness rich in color metaphors. This writing style can be slippery to grasp, which makes reading The Box a methodical enterprise, since now and then it jumps from third-person to first-person perspective, and then between characters, with little or no warning. It captures the characters’ thoughts and emotions for a moment, but the constant point-of-view flux complicates reading. Characters rarely say what they mean, the dialogue full of cryptic double-meaning. For all that, it’s a mesmerizing read, if only because the prose is so vibrant yet alien.
It’s important to emphasize that Rabe had a doctorate in psychology, because that knowledge shines through in works like this one. That elliptical, evasive prose mimics thought patterns very well, hence why I say stream-of-consciousness—colors become feelings, concepts and ideas collide as one leads to another. Not only are the characters’ thoughts random and chaotic, but we intrude upon them at random intervals; with multiple characters in a room during a tense confrontation, we might delve into the thoughts of all of them, one after another. The constant flux between ideas and description, the jumps from character to character, creates a fluid atmosphere while adding depth to the characters. Rabe works hard to construct a tense and imprisoned atmosphere; even after being freed from his prison, Quinn is still stuck in a world of boxes and enclosures, and the writing reflects that.
He didn’t say anything else but felt pressure from inside from the sight he saw there—the girl on the table who acted as if she were not there, the men in the room, and things like ropes and wires, the most delicate parts of which they were made.
And Remal trades in this. I drop out of a box, thin-skinned like a maggot, and a cold bastard like Remal, moving the ropes and wires inside his anatomy, steps on me.
According to an interview between Peter Rabe and George Tuttle, The Box was one of Rabe’s favorite works, and one of the few to retain his original title. I can see why it would be one of his favorites, just as I can see the original cover’s blurb that Rabe is a great stylist of suspense. Rabe is a unique stylist and one of the best Gold Medal authors, a step ahead of many of his contemporaries. At the same time, I can see why Rabe’s writing is not what most readers look for in their fiction—it’s beautiful but awkward, lucid yet perplexingly obscure. A lesson in contrasts, where characters say what they mean without really saying anything. I thought The Box was a fantastic and layered read, but expect others could find it maddening.
So, a hesitant recommendation: don’t expect a traditional fiction narrative and you’ll be richly rewarded, since this is not your typical tale of private eyes and underworld goons, nor written in a typical prose style. Instead, it’s unique and vibrant, if chaotic. Definitely a keeper in my opinion. But, again, judging by the befuddled and confused reviews I’ve seen on Amazon and Goodreads, I realize that Peter Rabe is a specific taste.
I’m glad to see so many Rabe novels back in print; Stark House Press is releasing them in pairs (including The Box doubled with Journey Into Terror) for around twenty bucks, and Hard Case Crime did the copy of Stop This Man! a few years back. I read the e-book version of The Box, a reader review copy I got from the great people at Prologue Books, available for the affordable price of $4 for Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, and iBooks. I noticed a few of the standard OCR errors that crop up in ebooks (missing quotations marks, periods and commas switched, “Rental” instead of “Remal” once, etc.), but it was otherwise quite readable, and well worth the time I took to do so.