Gil Brewer,
A Devil for O'Shaugnessy
& The Three Way Split
(Stark House, 2008)

Gil Brewer, an almost completely forgotten mystery and suspense writer from the 1950s, was for a brief time a commercial giant in the world of paperback originals. A star for Gold Medal books, he published around 22 novels with the house, many of them million-sellers. Unfortunately, times changed, tastes changed -- with the exception of Gil Brewer's taste for whiskey, which simply increased through the years. By the time of his death in 1983, no one remembered either him or his work. In fact, the first critical essay on him was Bill Pronzini's "Gil Brewer: Forgotten Writer."

Now, Stark House, the California publisher specializing in reprinting old noir novels from the '40s and '50s, has brought out two of his books and five of his short stories in a single volume. The resulting book shows Brewer at his strongest and at his weakest.

A Devil for O'Shanaugnessy was never published in Brewer's lifetime. Discovered among his effects after his death, there is evidence that it was sent to his agent but none that it was ever submitted to a publisher. Reading it, you can understand why. By the time he wrote it, Brewer was suffering from alcoholism; his health, energy and creativity were shot.

It has a typical Brewer plot: a man who is not quite as clever as he thinks he is becomes involved in a criminal plan, discovers that he's being dragged under by people who have agendas of their own and must extricate himself from a really bad situation. In this one, Tolbert O'Shanaugnessy is talked into impersonating the long-absent grandson of a wealthy woman so that he and Miriam, his partner in this enterprise, can split the grandson's inheritance; that is, after O'Shannaugnessy kills her. The plot is complicated by the fact that O'Shanaugnessy discovers he likes the old woman and is falling in love with one of her employees. There is also the grandmother's pet monkey who, she is convinced, is the reincarnation of her late husband.

Like Brewer himself, O'Shannaugnessy is a drunk, always running for the brandy, and suffers from really bad digestion so he is always eating Tums. Whenever Brewer needs O'Shannaugnessy to be offstage, he sends him after more Tums.

In all, the book is a mess. What redeems it is that Brewer was the master of the plain style; he always writes in the first person, in a loose and conversational tone that breaks down the distance between narrator and reader, allowing you to get inside his narrator's head. Even if he has lost some of his power by the time he wrote this book, there is still some fine writing in these pages.

The other novel in the book, The Three-Way Split, is one of Brewer's strongest. He's writing at his peak here and even violates his standard plot formula. In this one, Jack Holland, a down-on-his-luck captain of a charter fishing boat, discovers a sunken galleon that just might contain a fortune. While he tries to find a way to get his hands on the money, his father, a charmingly sociopathic criminal, shows up, discovers Jack's plans and bullies his way into a partnership. So do the mob men who show up wanting to kill Jack's father.

All of this plays out crisply, neatly and winds up with all of the conspirators on a boat trying to doublecross each other, get the money and escape before the storm that's building swamps the boat, killing them all. The Three-Way Split is Brewer at his most compelling. There are no shortcuts in the characterizations, no stretching of credibility, only good prose and solid storytelling.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 March 2009

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