Gil Brewer,
Angry Arnold, The Erotics, Gun the Dame Down
(Stark House, 2015)

In the 1950s, mass-market publishers like Gold Medal books issued a steady stream of noir novels -- short, tough, sexy and violent paperback originals that generally featured scantily clad women draped around men with guns on the covers and first-person narration of fast-moving stories characterized by tough guys who aren't as tough as they think they are and who find themselves involved with women who are way too much for them.

Gil Brewer wrote those novels. Well, about 60 of them, with titles like Satan is a Woman, Little Tramp, The Bitch and Sin for Me. Brewer wrote the type of books my father read with great pleasure all his adult life, though he'd always tear off the covers so no one would know what he was reading.

He passed his love for hard-edged noir on to me, and I've been reading these things all my life, too. So have a whole lot of fans and collectors, who have until recently had a hard time fleshing out their collections because these were not books designed to remain in print long. One time around the paperback racks and they were gone.

Today, though, reprint houses like Hard Case Crime and, especially, Stark House have come along to bring new editions of these titles into the world. The title under consideration here is a one-volume edition of three genuine treasures: Gil Brewer novels that until now have not been published.

Brewer was one of the best of the grind-it-out guys, men and women whose living depended on them being prolific, always having a new title ready to go. At their peaks, many of these writers cranked out a couple of books a month, which probably accounts for the high degree of alcoholism and mental breakdowns these authors suffered.

Brewer's special formula concerned a not-too-bright young man who was lured into a criminal conspiracy by a sex-demon female. His was a dark and twisted world where love often resulted in bullets and booze, where no one could be trusted and few people were actually what they appeared to be.

These three novels, discovered in his effects long after his death, are pretty typical of his work. Gun the Dame Down, the earliest of the books, shows one of Brewer's quirkiest habits: the way he names his characters. His protagonist? Private detective William Death. Death is hired by the type of family who populated Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe novels and the routine little case he is given soon explodes into convoluted, roundabout metaphorical basket of snakes. (The metaphor becomes literal at the end of the novel.) When he is hired by Grace Carter, he immediately encounters Kirk Adams, who says that he came to the house to kill Grace's husband, but he was already dead when he got there. Death is hired to find the killer but soon discovers that this is much more than a simple murder case.

One of the complications is that every female character in the book also wants to sleep with him, often at the oddest times. Tip for male amateur detectives out there: when you're trying to escape from a man with a gun, that is not the best time to encounter a sex-starved woman.

The Erotics pretty much lives up to its title. In it, Chris Pope is an once well-known and prosperous artist who, because of a scandal, has lost his reputation. When the sexually adventurous Bernice -- only Gil Brewer would name a femme fatale Bernice -- enlists him in a murder-robbery plot, Pope discovers he can't go through with it, even though he discovers that the intended victim is the man who maliciously ruined Pope's life. The next morning, however, he discovers that the man he left unconscious is now dead, the money he was going to steal is gone, and his fingerprints are all over the death house. Pope has to avoid the cops while he tries to find the money, which, poor fool, he believes will provide a future for him and Bernice. Again, many sexual adventures ensue.

Angry Arnold -- perhaps Brewer's most poorly chosen title -- is a serial-killer novel. Arnold suffers from sexual urges and has since his car wreck several years back -- Brewer isn't all that careful with motivation; it's action that counts. When one of Arnold's urges hits, it results in the death of a young woman. In the meantime, detective Bill Madden is working a serial killer case in which the killer sends the police body parts from his victims. We know Arnold is the killer he is looking for. We also know that Arnold has targeted Madden's wife for his next victim.

With Gil Brewer, subtlety doesn't matter. You are immediately drawn into his labyrinthine plots and ever increasing suspense. Brewer's characters get themselves into a situation and work their way out of it, only to find themselves in a deeper one. The escalating tension keeps you turning the pages. And your pleasure in his work leads you to seek out more of it.

Stark House, keep them coming.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

12 September 2015

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new