Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Forgotten Books: Death's Sweet Song
Motels seemed to fascinate Gold Medal writers of the early Fifties. John D. MacDonald did at least one book with a motel setting, Day Keene did at least one, too, and I'm pretty sure there were two or three other writers who used motels as the focal point of their stories. John D. in The Crossroads talked about the serious business of running a big motel with all the amenities. But Keene and the book at hand, Death's Sweet Song by Clifton Adams, used failing motels as the reason their protagonists were willing to take a walk on the wild side.
Now Clifton Adams was mainly a writer of westerns and very good ones, too. Donald Westlake always pointed to Adams' The Desperado as one of the best of the Gold Medals (he was also right to note that its sequel, Noose For A Desperado, stunk).
Adams did a number of crime novels both under his own name and that of Johnathan Gant. Death's Sweet Song is the best of them about a man who needs money to save his motel who is all too easily talked into crime by a married couple he meets when they rent a room.
What gives the book its flavor is its desperation. Adams, whatever he was writing, worked in one of two modes. One was irony which he kept broad enough so that mass audiences could grasp it. It played off as humor. The other was a sweaty frantic fatalism that gave several of his westerns a true hardboiled edge. The opening page of A Partnership With Death is about as bleak as western fiction, H.R. DeRosso not withstanding.
This is a book that should have at least a small contemporary audience. Adams was an intriguing writer who had his own voice, his own style and his own angle of vision. I wish he'd written more crime novels.