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”.