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Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

A taste for noir

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Wild to Possess and A Taste for Sin by Gil Brewer. Stark House Press, 2006.

One of the great delights of reading is to come across an exciting, new author for the first time. Even more delightful is the realization that the author has written more books for the reader to track down and enjoy.

The re-issuance of two of Gil Brewer’s books — Wild to Possess and A Taste for Sin (Stark House Press, $19.95) — should be an occasion for applause among many readers of suspense, mystery, or noir novels. Brewer, who was born in 1922 and died of acute alcoholism in 1983, was a writer popular in the 1950s, a leading author of noir detective and suspense novels (Noir film was also popular during this same decade, an unusual phenomenon in an era often thought of as an age of prosperity and general contentment).

In A Taste for Sin, Jim Phalen is a luckless liquor store clerk who has caught the eye of Felice Anderson, a teenager married to a much older man named George, who works as a chief clerk in the local bank. Felice has already lived a wild life of violence and sexual activity. She most enjoys sex when she has the illusion of being raped and has devised a scheme to kill her husband and escape with a million dollars (worth about four million by today’s currency rates).

Deciding that she needs Jim to assist her in her plans, she seduces him and then convinces him to help her. Not only does Jim Phalen help her; he comes up with an ingenious way for them to make the plan work. Little does he know that the vicious Felice, who murders another man in Jim’s presence, has plans for him, too.

Many elements contribute to the success of this novel. The narrator has a style as taut as a triggerman’s finger. Brewer wastes no words. He writes prose with a machinegun staccato that keeps the reader turning the pages, and the surprises and plot changes come as fast and as natural as a bodyguard’s left hook. In this scene, for instance, Felice has just killed a blackmailer with a ball-peen hammer:

I went kind of crazy for a moment.

I grabbed her and dragged her away. She struggled wildly for a few seconds, her eyes blank. Then she went on hitting the ground with the hammer. It didn’t sound much different from Krueger’s head. It dug in the same way too. I caught the hammer and flung it aside.

“Felice! For Christ’s sake!”

She sat there on the ground, staring in a trance. My Spanish bomb.

I went over to Krueger. He was as dead as a man can get. He looked as if he’d tried to eat a live grenade.

Brewer’s characters also draw the reader into this world of shadows, lust and greed. His male protagonists are working-class men drawn by their own vices to crimes and dark schemes. They are the patrons of pool halls and bars (liquor has the status of a character in Brewer’s novels), ex-enlisted men and men whose brawn, brains, and talents nearly always add up to trouble.

Brewer’s female protagonists tend to be young, beautiful, sexy and dangerous. Frequently they play the men for suckers and maneuver them into terrible perils and snares, all the while offering sexual enticement and favors for bait. Felice Anderson, for example, convinces us of her power in the way she moves both Phalen and her husband against each other, using her beauty and sexuality to persuade them to do as she wishes.

In addition to the two novels in this volume are essays about Gil Brewer and his work. Gregory Shepherd specifically addresses Brewer’s talents and his penchants for certain types of characters. Verlaine Brewer, Gil Brewer’s wife, gives us insight into the writer’s life: his alcoholism, his love of work and friends, his quick wit, his breakdowns. Bill Pronzini’s article is particularly interesting because he quotes frequently from Gil Brewer’s letters, which reveal a man who loves writing and is tormented by his insecurity and by his addiction to alcohol.

One attraction to these essays and to Brewer’s fiction is that he was independent of the university positions that support so many writers nowadays. He was a man who wrote for a living, who sat in his kitchen and hammered out books on a cheap typewriter on a cheap desk. From 1951 to 1979, he knocked out some 50 books, some under his own name, some under various pseudonyms.

Of Brewer’s “characters motivated by their need for money and their desire for sex” Gregory Shepard wrote:

At first you are appalled. Then you are mesmerized. And finally you are caught up in Gil Brewer’s obsessional world, his sex-drunk men, his scheming women, all in pursuit of the big payoff.

Welcome to Gil Brewer’s world. Nobody else can take you there. And it’s a helluva trip.

•••

Readers who enjoyed At Home with Books should take a look at Marie Proeller Hueston’s Decorating with Books ($24.95). Hueston’s lovely book not only gives tips on such topics as lighting, creating reading nooks, and decorating but also includes pages titled “A Closer Look,” which describe in detail how books and furniture fit together from the standpoint of an interior designer. Her creative use of books as functional decorative objects — that is, to enliven a room as well as to be read — should give fresh ideas to bibliophiles and book collectors no matter what the size or nature of their libraries.

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