Okay, so the title should read What I Read, but What I’m Reading sounds better.
I read Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin years ago when re-issued by Hard Case Crime. I remember enjoying it, but I’m going to re-read it because I have no recollection of the story. This is common with me. Stories I read. Stories I write. When I complete them, they disappear.
As I’ve become interested in the source material for Film Noir, the name Gil Brewer came up from time to time as an excellent practitioner of the genre. I’m not sure if any of his books were ever adapted for film during the Cycle (1940-1959), and I’m too lazy to research it. But it pricked my interest. So when Stark House Press offered an overstocked copy of a Gil Brewer double-shot of A Devil for O‘Shaughnessy and The Three-Way Split for three bucks, I revisited Brewer.
Most interesting from that encounter was learning Gil Brewer had lived most of his adult life, his writing life, in my native hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. The introduction painted a grim portrait of Brewer’s life (again I’m too lazy to go see who wrote that introduction) that possibly explained the dark depictions of the human soul found in his work. I read Devil, which was an unpublished manuscript being released for the first time. Unfortunately, it was written during the depths of Brewer’s downward spiral of heavy drinking and self-doubt. It is a fair novel, with some bright spots. I haven’t gotten around to reading Three Way yet.
The Red Scarf reads very much like Devil because Brewer’s authorial voice is distinctive. His prose is concise. His first person POV in-looking. But where Devil sagged in storytelling and plot (plus there’s too much woo-woo for my liking), Scarf masterfully works the noir pallette. It tells the story of Roy Nichols, a down on his luck motel owner hitchhiking home to St. Pete from Chicago. He becomes ensnared in the sticky web of Vivian Rise and her boyfriend Noel, who are transporting a briefcase full of mob money. Yep, it’s the story of a doomed protagonist (he has a beautiful innocent housewife back home), a femme fatale, and a satchel of money. We’ve all seen this before, but the reason we have is that it makes for a compelling story. And Brewer delivers. This thing reads like the best of B-Movie film noir. That’s a compliment.
I said Brewer had a distinctive voice, and he does. At least on the two books I’ve read recently, the writing is undeniably his. Now I don’t find his voice as compelling as a Chandler or Robert Parker or James Lee Burke, but it is there, and that is more than can be said of many contemporary writers, who have polished away any defining features of their prose. For that reason, Brewer’s voice is a welcome reprieve. The book also is a complete, satisfying novel coming in at maybe 50,000 words. There’s a lesson here (even for yours truly) on the power of brevity and simplicity.
I recommend The Red Scarf and look forward to reading more Brewer.