Gil Brewer’s Glands
by David Rachels
He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Nude on Thin Ice (1960) and Memory of Passion (1962) rank among Gil Brewer’s best novels, but they are not among his most read. In the main, this is because copies have been scarce. These novels have never been reprinted (until now), and used first editions have been priced for collectors, not for those of us who want to remove them from their mylar bags and actually read them. Many lesser Brewer novels are better known, buoyed by their initial popularity and subsequent availability in the secondhand marketplace. Before the recent flurry of Brewer reprints, the million-selling 13 French Street (1951) was the Brewer novel that noir fans were most likely to have read, simply because cheap used copies were fairly easy to find. Unfortunately, 13 French Street is not one of Brewer’s better books. The novel’s sex-driven plot may have thrilled readers in 1951, but today the book feels badly dated.
When Brewer died in 1983, his noir novels had all been out of print for more than fifteen years. The first reprint came in 1988, when Simon & Schuster packaged 13 French Street with a much better Brewer book, The Red Scarf (1955). In fact, The Red Scarf has long had the reputation of being Brewer’s best work, in part because it was anointed as such by legendary New York Times mystery critic Anthony Boucher.
Remove a few of the details specific to The Red Scarf, and you have the template for many great noir novels: an ordinary man sees a chance to cut himself in on some money, turns sharpie, and destroys himself in the process.
But The Red Scarf, however archetypal its plot may be, lacks the central element of a typical Brewer narrative: sex. Sex was Brewer’s artistic obsession, yet The Red Scarf is almost sex free. Brewer constructs the novel’s ordinary man, Roy Nichols, to be as sympathetic as possible. Desperate to keep his struggling motel afloat, Roy grabs the Syndicate money and takes great risks to keep it. Though he crosses paths with a gangster’s moll, he does not fall into bed with her. He remains true to his wife, Bess. If Roy loses his readers’ sympathy, he does so because his desperation for the money puts Bess in great danger.
Taken together, 13 French Street and The Red Scarf might leave us with the impression that, although Brewer used sex to sell a million books, he did his best writing when he left sex out of the picture. Nude on Thin Ice and Memory of Passion, however, leave us with a very different conclusion…