After reading my first Whittington, Don’t Speak To Strange Girls, I knew I wanted to read more. A lot more. As luck would have it, 280 Steps had a $3 Kindle special on their Whittington novels, celebrating the release of Any Woman He Wanted. And of those, I was strangely drawn to A Night For Screaming. Maybe it’s the amazing cover to the Ace original, an influence you can see on the ebook. Maybe it’s because luminaries like Bill Crider and Ed Gorman speak of it with such regard.
The original, like a lot of Whittington’s work, goes for a hefty sum on the secondary market. 280 Steps sells the e-edition at a reasonable price for Kindle and Kobo; if you prefer the dead tree edition, Stark House Press has you covered, doubled with Any Woman He Wanted to boot.
Mitch Walker is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. As a rookie cop, the last thing he wants is for his partner to beat a confession out of him, so he’s fled to the farmlands of Kansas in hopes of escape. Broke, down on his luck, and with the local police after him for panhandling, Mitch takes a chance and signs on to a local farm as a laborer—a sprawling farmstead that’s half volunteer, half county prison. The farm owner is a rather intense nutjob, his wife is a loose woman, the foreman is oblivious to the racketeering run by the abusive straw-bosses. And stuck right in the middle is Mitch, with his old partner still on his trail…
Whittington’s writing is smooth and unobtrusive; it’s not full of deep metaphor or flashy imagery, but it allows you to read at a mile-a-minute pace to keep up with the plot. It’s the kind of writing that works best because you don’t realize it’s there; it allows you to get into the plot and read away. Not only does the book grab you with its pacing and tension, it doesn’t know how to relent. And man, did Whittington learn how to plot: he pulled a few brilliant surprises that threw me for a loop yet still fit perfectly into the plot. A very engaging novel.
While he’s always a free man—just a wanted one—it felt like Mitch was back on the chain gang now, plus the novel had a strong sharecropper-in-hell vibe. It’s a perfect locale to show the depth of misery men like Mitch have fallen to: the conditions are hellish, the work is back-breaking, the straw-bosses are grifters who dislike anyone rocking their boat. What the owner and foreman says is true—the men are free to leave at any time, are free to have whatever meal they want, are paid a day’s wage for a day’s work—the work itself is soul-crushing, even for men who are already broken. At one point, one of the old-timers continues working through his break:
All right, Hogan,” I yelled at him. “Sit down for God’s sake.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Howell said.
“Nothing. He’s afraid if he stops working, you’ll fire him.”
“Fire him?” Howell said. “Hell, where would he go?”
“That’s what troubles him,” I said.
In one way or another, each man at the farm is like that: nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, and nothing to live for except another day’s work for another day’s wage. Mitch doesn’t plan to stay at the farm for long, and says so to the farm’s management when they ask. But the trick is that nobody shows up wanting to work the fields for eight dollars a day unless, like Mitch, they’re running from something. The irony of the farm is that only the prisoners are locked in with barb-wire fencing. The volunteers are free to go at any time, but are locked in by their pasts.
That said, it’s a minor element of the novel, and shows up in the one section where the plot sags for the briefest of moments—the first of the chapters at the work-farm. The opening chapters of Mitch evading some over-zealous local cops has some rich characters and taut suspense, as does the ending, a real beaut of an ending where all the tension at the farm explodes. The story toys with becoming a chain gang/farm hell novel as it builds the farm setting, but doesn’t go that route; it starts going places in its third act, and that’s when it hits you with whammy after whammy that I swear you won’t see coming. And I think it’s a stronger book because of that.
If this is Whittington, I’ll take more please, a helluva lot more, all that you’ve got and then some. Don’t Speak To Strange Girls I read just a few weeks ago, and liked for the exact opposite reasons I liked A Night For Screaming: the former was an intense slow-burn character drama, the latter is a thriller with rapid-fire pacing and unexpected twists. And I think it’s a great sign when an author can write such different works that I find equally appealing for their own strengths.
A Night For Screaming was one of the fastest reads I’ve had in a while, a book with fire in its veins and murder in its eyes. The plotting is fine-tuned to the point of near-perfection; it brims with tension, pulls off multiple surprise twists with ease, and wraps everything up in one neat package. If you are a reader of classic crime fiction, run-don’t-walk to your nearest book purveyor and pick up this gem. Color me impressed, and glad that I picked up all those Whittington ebooks when I had the chance.