Where the earth is unmasked it is called desert. It is the naked face of the earth and it is strangely expressionless.
Robert Wade and William Miller; when their writing prowess combined, they formed the pseudonym Wade Miller, probably my favorite go-to ’50s noir author. After creating one of the best post-war private eyes, Max Thursday, they went on to become one of the best and more prolific Gold Medal names, writing an impressive body of fiction up until Bill Miller’s untimely death in 1961 from a heart attack. Kiss Her Goodbye was one of their few non-Gold Medal works, a Lion Book from 1956. After a film deal starring Charlton Heston and Barbara Lang fell through, it became a rather forgettable 1959 movie. Stark House Press is bringing it back in September 2013, doubled with Kitten With A Whip for $19.95; in the interest of full disclosure, my copy came three months early with an “Advance Copy – Not For Sale” sticker on it.
Ed Darnell and his sister, Emily, are on the run from themselves. Emily had encephalitis as a child and has the mind of a twelve-year-old trapped in a young woman’s body. Ed’s taken it upon himself to protect her, not just from himself, but from the vulpine men lusting after her body—because when that happens, Emily gets scared, and the fight-or-flight instincts kick in, overriding what little willpower and memory she has. They’ve already fled their home in Oregon, as well as their fresh-start in Bakersfield, when they arrive in the small desert town of Jimmock. Taking up residence in a small roadside cottage-to-let, Ed is pressured into giving it yet another go of having a new “normal” life, Ed getting a swell job driving a delivery truck and setting up food displays for a local company. But can they ever be safe, at rest, when there’s always the chance something—someone—can set off the delicate balance in Emily’s fragile mind, causing her to react with violence?
Of course, there are complications. The first comes in the form of Marge, secretary of the trucking company he hires on with. She wears a ring but is in reality a young widow, and the two of them start off on the right track. Emily, however, is jealous because Marge gets to go out into the world and do all the things she’s not allowed to. The second, and more dangerous, complication is Ed’s employer Cory Sheridan, who is a casual and friendly fellow. Despite being married, Cory has an eye for the ladies, and when he sets sight on Emily he’s unrelenting in his pursuit. Ed tries to stave him off at every turn, but it’s a lesson in constant futility, as Cory bounces back from each rebuff with a new plan to “get to know” Ed and Emily as just a trio. Soon, Ed must choose between his employer and his sister—an obvious choice in Ed’s book.
I find it hard to categorize this novel; there’s not very much criminous intent, nor is there an underlying mystery. Things are very straightforward: Ed is driving himself hard and fast to keep his sister protected, and Emily goes casually about her life not knowing the attention she’s attracting until someone reaches out to her, at which point she panics, reacting violently. In part it’s a human drama, the last of a family versus the world. It is clearly noir, bleak and beautiful in its depictions of the grim lows and exuberant highs of human emotion—love, lust, fear, hatred. And it’s a perfect snapshot of the 1950s, from its mores and fashions to its glass-bottle Cokes and roadside travel lodge cottages.
Two passages in particular stand out to me, evoking Ed’s existential woes, his desire to protect his unstable sister from harm within and without:
What does a twelve-year-old kid know anything about it?” Ed demanded bitterly. “She eats it up. What kid wouldn’t? Everything and everybody strikes Emily as nice, especially the men. She doesn’t know how a man’s mind works. She doesn’t know that when she smiles at them she’s inviting them to take her out into the bushes. She thinks she’s just being friendly.
Both of these occur in chapter six, where Ed sets down his burden with the help of Tubbs, manager of the auto court Ed’s renting a cottage from. Tubbs is a large man with a larger still heart of gold, and has prodded Ed to open up and vent out some of his frustrations after heat-stricken Emily goes off the deep end and claws a doctor’s face. To be honest, at this point in the book Ed has proven to be a decent guy, but he’s got a short fuse about anything dealing with his sister; he can overreact in a heartbeat and says cruel things he doesn’t mean, especially to Emily. In a way, they each see half of the truth of the world: Emily sees only goodness and happiness, while Ed sees its hidden darkness and danger, and fights an unending battle to keep the darkness at bay. The conversation with Tubbs lets his bitterness air out, displaying Ed’s fear and frustration and the crushing weight he carries:
The hell of it is, Tubbs, I can’t ever be sure who’s to blame for these things. I never personally see what happens. I always come in just to clean up the mess. Like this afternoon. Was it her kid’s mind or her grownup body that did the damage? I mean, did she get scared at nothing, like a kid, or did Vinson try to play around with a goodlooking patient?
The novel itself doesn’t have much “crime” or “mystery” element, but it’s noir to the bone. Ed can be a hot-headed jerk, snippy and short-tempered, but he’s doing it from the fear and love for his sister. She doesn’t know any better, which is what makes her dangerous: the unknown, the mystery triggers that makes her snap, her short memory that causes the reality of her violence to flee her mind. It’s a potent existential crisis, a soul-crushing portrayal of two people struggling to tread water. It pulls at your emotions through powerful characterization, written in unadorned prose that moves steadily on like a freight train towards an uncertain twist in the tracks.
Like all Wade Millers, a masterful and highly recommended novel. Not their greatest work, but perhaps their most unique. A melancholy tale of self-sacrifice, familial love, and rebirth, done in the finest noir tradition.