Someone who venerates plot to the extent I do should not have enjoyed this book as much as I did. There’s a Nancy Drew-esque dollop of convenience at every turn, and a series of coincidences and sudden realisations that just happen to tie these actions together far more tightly than seems possible at first glance…and I should abominate such quick answers. But, holy hell, it’s also superbly written, and rich in the pulp sensibilities that resulted in me crowning Jim Thompson one of the four most important male crime writers of all time. Classicaly constructed it isn’t, but gloriously entertaining it certainly is.
The plot jumps all over the place, but at heart concerns the young New Jersey prison warden — “It was a public scandal making you a warden so young,” he’s told at one point — George Peters who, in the opening chapters, is visited by a female reporter and invited into the confidences of a man on death row who is about to be executed. These two events have nothing to do with each other, but each will shape the plot that emerges: Peters is sent (anonymously) a series of old letters hinting at a forbidden romance between two parties and, as a result, is then made an offer that ties into that prisoner’s invitation of confidence which will in turn send him chasing all over the country in search of…
Okay, yes, I’m aware this sounds ridiculous. It should not work, it’s clearly just the loose amalgamation of a couple of ideas, all turned around to face the same way so as to give the appearance of a structured narrative. But each step is so vibrantly realised — from that initial, baffling prison episode to mixing with New York mobsters to a party for a murderer to church via a poem and onward to the Great Lakes and an impossible murder that ties everything together — that I just fail to see how it couldn’t be loved. Stepping outside of my genre for a minute, this most brings to mind the SF masterpiece The Stars My Destination (1957) by Alfred Bester, in which a man travels through all manner of settings and trappings, adopting a series of identities on the way to his ultimate revenge. The creativity Bester applies there is evident here, some 25 years earlier, with a pulp stylisation it’s difficult to dislike:
“Sure,” I drawled, “I’ll get it for you, Raffy. I’ll have it here before the peep of dawn. Keep the wool on.”
Raffy turned to the man sitting at his left, who in the dimness looked the color of an old leather binding. “Peru, he’ll bring it, get me?”
“Yeh,” said Peru, who had few words.
Throughout, Markham’s characters are sharp and their dialogue honed to perfection without feeling artificially buffed so that it shines. He constantly undercuts any accusations of faux posturing by quietly and easily scarifying all such expectations in the quiet enrichment of his milieu:
The Captain was nothing to me, of course, but given an audience Jobson cared little for that. He commenced with the first coming of the Captain to Middlehaven which, as it antedated Jobson’s own coming by an indeterminate period, was referred to as “some time back yonder”.
21 thoughts on “#360: The Devil Drives (1932) by Virgil Markham”
Aha! I was right…but not exactly for the reasons I predicted. I’m sure someone will chime in with an “If you like this, then you’ll love” kind of recommendation. And so I’ll beat TomCat to that. DEATH AT DUSK is one of Markham’s earliest books — I believe it’s his first detective novel. I think you’d enjoy that a lot. That one is drenched in eccentric prose (“wildly exuberant” is how Martin Edwards described it) not at all the kind of pulpy, breezy feel of this one. It’s supposed to be in imitation of an old Gothic novel. After THE DEVIL DRIVES I think it’s the easiest Markham mystery novel to find. His later books are not so great like INSPECTOR RUSBY’S FINALE and SHOCK! But nearly all of his books are very hard to find and terribly expensive when they show up so I don’t imagine you’ll be able to feed your Markham craving any time soon.
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Uh…make that DEATH IN THE DUSK.
Thanks, John, I did have Death in the Dusk pegged, so it’s good to know that it’s one to keep an eye out for having enjoyed TDD. Certainly, in spite of its relative ease in acquisition, it doesn’t appear to be in any of the places I’m looking, but I’m hardly short of books (I have bought more than I’ve read so far this year…I will never get this TBR into manageable shape ever again) and more than content to wait.
I have Death In The Dusk. It is 390 pages long ! I read it long, long, long back and I remember liking it then.
A late response, I know. Anyway, Death in the Dusk is something else altogether. A bizarre, blood-soaked fairy tale, written as an eccentric detective story, which should be read and soaked up at your leisure. When you have nothing else on your mind. And even then, it’s a book that’s hard to warm to and can only really be appreciated for what it is trying to do and how.
So keep that in mind when you get around to it.
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I am….fascinated. I’ll keep an eye outbut I don’t expect to stumble over it any time soon. Thanks for the primer.
Well, shoot now I’m going to have to track this one down – although under no circumstances will I be buying the edition with that cover. it does give me inspiration for my next haircut though…
Regarding your twitter feed – did you just pick up those two Crofts books and that Dickson? I have the exact same editions of all three of those books.
There is — sort of — a reason for that cover, but it’s no doubt one of the oddest (covers and reasons) probably ever selected for the reissue of a book. If I had my choice of covers I’d go for this one and will keep an eye out for that edition anyway…this “multiple edition sickness” is beginning to really take a hold of me it seems…
As to the Crofts and the Dickson — yup, got ’em in the post today; given their relative scarcity I thought I better buy them up when the opportunity presented itself (Kate, not being a Crofts fan, alerted me to those ones). They’re in pretty gorgeous conditons, considering their age, so I’m rather pleased to have them.
Actually, I was wrong – my Crofts are Penguins, but they are the 1960-1970’s editions that have illustrations on the cover. I picked up Golden Ashes, Death of a Train, The Pit Prop Syndicate, The Sea Mystery, The 12:30 From Croydon, and Inspector French’s Greatest Case – all for about $15 total.
I’m leaning towards starting with The Sea Mystery, based on your review. I figure I want to start with a really strong title to assure I get my interest up, rather than taking my chances with something more obscure.
And…. I just picked up your “choice of covers” for The Devil Drives for super cheap.
Darn it! I was finished buying books for this month! I’ve been trying to limit myself to one purchase a month (although that could be a pack of books). So far this month I’ve “restrained” myself to The Hogs Back Mystery and a seven pack of Michael Gilbert.
Well, aren’t you the well-connected, books-on-tap GAD enthusiast we all aspire to! A marvellous haul of late, I’m actually pretty jealous…
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Ok, so having finally read this (and enjoying the hell out of it), I can’t think for the life of me why this cover was chosen. There are two characters in the book with red hair, but I don’t quite get why they would feature on the cover, nor why the picture is done in that double exposure style. Or, for that matter, why the hair style is so strange. I don’t recall either of the characters being described as having the world’s worst hair cut.
Yeah, sorry, in the intervening 8 months I have forgotten my semi-justification for the cover art. One of the characters had red hair, I remember that much, so perhaps that’s what I was going for? Note to self: be less vague; sometimes people remember when you say things.
Delighted you enjoyed this, however; it’s a weird book, but that in no way counts against it. Given that Ramble House are reprinting new titles at quite a rate again now, I wonder if they’ll ever get to anything else by Markham. I’d love to read more of his work.
My review of La Toile De Penelope by Paul Halter is now available at Goodreads.
SOunds like a lot of fun — thanks for sharing. One of these days, perhaps…
That is certainly up there in the least-appealing art I’ve ever seen. I feel thoroughly loathed by that cover.
That darned contagious enthusiasm of your review does mean that I’ll have to put this on a someday-maybe list, though.
Oh, I’m certainly tempted by this as it sounds quite entertaining. I couldn’t face any book with that cover though – that is every kind of ugly and kind of disturbing.
Colin, you need to get in touch with Ben in that case — he has a rich source of every kind of book ever, it would seem, and found the best cover of this ever for zero money in zero time!
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My talk on VM:
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