I had heard brief mentions of Gil Brewer here and there for quite some time, but it was Bill Pronzini who compelled me to drop my life and track down some of his books.
"You want to know what the life of a working mystery writer is really like? Gil Brewer could tell you. He could tell you about the taste of success and fame that never quite becomes a meal; the shattered dreams and lost hopes, the loneliness, the rejections and failures and empty promises, the lies and deceit, the bitterness, the self-doubts, the dry spells and dried-up markets, the constant and painful grubbing for enough money to make ends meet. He could tell you about all of that, and much more. He would, too, if he were still alive. But he isn’t."
You can read the full essay online over at Mystery*File (it originally appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine, and later in Carroll and Graf’s The Big Book of Noir). It’s a compelling portrait of a writer whose brief rise and heavy fall is a bleak and anguished as any of the characters in his books.
It was with this preconception that I picked up his early success 13 French Street, originally published by Gold Medal in 1951. My edition is the fourth printing from 1954 (Gold Medal #418) with cover art by Dom Lupo. I was immediately struck by the foreboding poetry of Brewer’s language, and the sense of impending regret that lingers anxiously over each of the narrator’s actions. And then, at the bottom of the first page, came this line:
“Yes. Already I sensed the beginnings of panic. The first hint of futility and hopeless outrage.”
The story has hardly started, yet defeat has already set in. We’re not dealing with a noble detective, or even a sleazy philandering P.I. No—Brewer presents us with a regular guy, someone like your or I, whose soul can only stand so much, and whose resistance – even to his own desires – sometimes falters. And other times it just fails.
Alex Bland – the perfect name for an “everyman” – takes leave of his museum work and girlfriend, Madge, to visit an old army buddy, Verne Lawrence. Only it wasn’t Verne who implored him to make the trip—it was Verne’s wife, Petra. Walking through the doors, he finds a doddering old mother; a best friend on the brink of financial, psychological, and physical collapse; and a designing wife who longs for something –and someone - more. Most horrifying of all, however, is the possibility that Alex himself may have been complicit in the whole affair.
Structurally, the novel is very bare bones – the action is mostly confined to the house, very few “major” incidents, and the drama kept to a realistic minimum, with many of the scenes resembling passive-aggressive domestic gatherings that end with softly-slammed doors and drowned in drink-after-drink. Rather, the novel is fueled by Alex’s own inner struggle – at first to resist Petra’s advances, but then his inability to restrain his own. There’s no doubt that Petra is a corrupting influence, however Brewer doesn’t paint any easily black-and-white picture of Alex. There’s more than enough suggestion that Alex, himself, was already harboring a dark soul, and that it just took the right moment for this part of him to manifest itself. And even at the book’s conclusion, when readers would expect the reign of terror to be over, and for Alex to return to his “regular” life, Brewer refuses to allow for Alex’s soul to be cleansed. He got his hands dirty, and they’re going to stay that way.
And as for Brewer’s prose? It would be an understatement to say that he has a way with words. But it’s absolutely true – I was entranced by the desolation of his phrases, and found myself taking down more “favorite lines” than from any other book in quite some time. Below are but a handful of them.
“So here I was. And already I wanted to run. I wanted to get away. It was all wrong.”
“The hills were savage with color in the failing twilight. Almost as I watched, night began to creep along the sky, tugging a black blanket in its teeth. The wind began to die. It was very still out there, almost as if the evening were holding its breath.”
“I should have struck her and run. Because the fuse was lit now—the long hot fuse that would blow me to hell.”
“I stared down at the rug’s thick nap. It snuggled against the baseboard of all four walls, a heady, unbelievable auburn glinting in errant light like the coat of a freshly slain animal.”
“I was drawn into the room as I was being drawn to Petra. It was like standing in a vacuum that had become feverish, the airless air writhing against itself in a kind of savage, futile bewilderment, like two newly awakened lovers in the dark.”
“She headed for the kitchen. I went into Verne’s study and drank from the whiskey decanter. I choked the stuff down. But it didn’t help. It didn’t stop my heart from whacking in there and it didn’t stop that sense of being stifled, of being wound tighter and tighter and tighter.”
For more info on Gil Brewer, read a reflection by his wife, Verlaine, here. You can also read an excerpt from Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin over at Hard Case Crime.