His voice went flat. “They criticized me,” he said. “The criticized me for the way I went about things, my dreams.” His voice became like still water, like a nest of sleeping snakes, and you could feel the mad wrath contained within that voice. “They always criticized me, even when I did big things. I’m doing a big thing now. They won’t criticize me. If they do, I’ll kill them. Ignorance. There’s no room for it in my plans. No room.”
Returning again to Gil Brewer, one of the master authors at Gold Medal books. Along with Peter Rabe and Charles Williams, Brewer’s name comes up anytime someone mentions the best of Gold Medal’s crime novelists, and for good reason. His specialty was terror, placing his protagonists in the vise of gripping paranoia and psychological dread due to their actions, and conveying the protagonist’s stark terror to the reader. Sadly, Brewer would burn out in the 1970s and died in 1983, a few years before his works were rediscovered. A Killer is Loose was Brewer’s sixth novel, the third Gil Brewer novel I’ve read so far, and much like the others it’s solid.
Ex-cop Steve Logan is in economic free-fall; he can’t find work due to the damage done to his eyes, and is just about broke again, a dangerous situation to be in with a baby on the way and expectations for high hospital bills. When he can’t think of any other option, Steve heads off to pawn his last pistol, a fine Luger, to a bartender friend. On the way, he narrowly saves the life of stranger Ralph Angers from an oncoming bus. Soon, he wishes he hadn’t: Ralph somehow gets a hold of the luger, drills the bartender, and drags his pal Steve through a nightmare of murder and suspense. Ralph is mentally unstable, an eye surgeon who’s finally cracked, rambling on and on about the hospital he’s going to build in town as he calmly guns down anyone he imagines to stand in his way. Steve has no way to escape the eagle-eyed maniac before he forgets he owes Steve a life-debt… and all Steve can think of is how he’s needed at the hospital to be there at his wife’s side.
The sequence that stands out to me most sees Steve and Ralph trekking through a neighborhood, since Ralph is on a quest to follow some piano music; inside the houses, people are talking and eating pie, while outside Steve is tired from hiking and miserable from being abducted. That contrast of normalcy and Steve’s horrific situation is a perfect encapsulation of the book: the world doesn’t stop turning for most of its inhabitants, going about their daily routine, but for Steve it’s a descent into a strange and isolated hell. After breaking into the house that the piano music is coming from, the two find the player is a girl, which leads to a tense standoff: Ralph kindly demands she keep playing the song, as she grows more and more distraught. It’s a masterpiece of suspense, and one of the strongest sequences in the book.
A Killer Is Loose was written in rapid-fire haze of coffee and cigarettes in under two weeks, and was published in first draft form without revisions, Brewer’s standard operating procedure for his earlier works. It’s reflected in the sheer immediacy of the novel, its tense scenes with a sense of present terror. It also accounts for the novel’s flaws, such as the awkward introduction and end of Ralph Angers. The novel doesn’t have a sense of a linear narrative: Ralph makes off with Steve at gunpoint, after which the book is almost picaresque, a loosely-associated collection of scenes drifting from one scenario to another, all of which involve Steve being uncomfortable and somebody who antagonizes Ralph into opening fire. I guess you could argue that it reflects Ralph’s disconnection with the world, bumping into random situations as he goes about his grand plans, and it certainly leads to some fine, suspenseful scenes.
Brewer’s strengths are in putting an unsuspecting everyday everyman into chaotic and tense situations, creating psychological terror and paranoia that smothers the protagonist’s logic and assaults the reader. That’s where Brewer excels, and that’s the driving force behind A Killer is Loose: a suspenseful thriller, held hostage for 24 hours by a calm but brutal maniac. It doesn’t have a femme fatale character—unless you count Lillian, former strip-dancer and now Steve’s fellow hostage—which was something of a hallmark for Brewer; his other novels I read had a strong female lead to go with the everyman protagonist.
Another difference was Steve’s character; unlike a lot of crime novel protagonists, he’s comparatively cowardly, and wasn’t placed in this horrible predicament through his own greed. Steve Logan is an unlucky sap was was in the right place at the wrong time, so now his shitty day just got worse, nothing more. Steve didn’t do anything to deserve being in this situation, other than the bad karma of accosting a snotty rich man who never paid him, and between “snotty rich man” and “struggling soon-to-be-father” I think you can guess who gets my support. Which really makes Steve easy to empathize with: he’s weak, terrified, crippled by his damaged eyes, and desperate to get away to be by his wife Ruby’s side while she gives birth.
This was another solid crime novel; neat to see Brewer going in a different direction than normal, yet still depicting the psychological dread of a horrible situation. I have a few mild complaints—as I mentioned, the novel wanders from set-piece to set-piece, a grim cycle of building tension before Ralph kills someone and then wanders on to start the cycle over again, without really developing the characters or creating a sense of plot. Aside from that, the novel is excellent. Brewer created a sympathetic character and put him in some uncomfortably tense situations, with spectacular results; the book is all about suspense, and Brewer did a remarkable job at that. It’s a fast and grim read from one of the best in the Gold Medal field. Worth a look for readers of ’50s Gold Medal crime novels, and a must-read for fans of Gil Brewer.