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.


mybillcrider said...

I read this one a year or two ago. Good stuff, all right.

Anonymous said...

I'm almost sure I read one of CA's Westerns in our library, but I don't see it in the catalog now. We also had a bunch of Whit Masterson titles that I see have been culled out. I really don't understand why. But this title looks good to me. Thanks for reviewing it.

Ed Lynskey

Cullen Gallagher said...

Motel Noir. That should be a collection.

Do you know the name of the Day Keene book? I quite like his stuff and would like to read more. I have a few of his in my TBR pile, not sure if any of them have to do with motels (fingers crossed!).

Ed Gorman said...

I'm pretty sure it's Take a Step To Murder, a Gold Medal. It's of its time because it opens with a reference to Sputnik. It's a good one, Cullen.

Dan_Luft said...

You could say that motel noir reached its end in the late 60s with Dan Marlowe's "Four for the Money" where the motel was just a front for some tough-guy bank robbers.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Cullen and Ed,
Day Keene also wrote "Home is the Sailor," a 2005 Hard Case reissue of the 1952 original. Definitely motel noir.


Frank Loose said...

I loved this book. Terrific story, mood, and as Ed mentioned - desperation. I have a "mental list" of books to-be-read-again, and this one is on it. I wish he'd written more like it.

Regarding other books where a motel plays an integral role, we suggest we include Gil Brewer's The Red Scarf, and Charles Williams' Talk of the Town. Another book that has major scenes in and around motels is by Lionel White. You don't hear much about it when White's name comes up, but his book Marilyn K. is one heckuva read and one of my favorite Whites. Anybody else read it?

Max Allan Collins said...

Cover model is obviously Barbara Nichols.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

I thought the girl on the cover looked like Marilyn Monroe?

Anonymous said...

Frank, yes, I've read MARILYN K. and enjoyed it very much. White can be a bit uneven, but his good stuff -- of which I'd include MARILYN K. -- was much more the rule than the exception.

As I've mentioned on several recent discussions on the topic, I love motel noir. The seediness and desperate air of the confined setting makes for a perfect noir playground. I've thought a number of times over the last couple years how it would make for the perfect anthology...if no one's going to try and put one together, I might just have to give it a shot myself.

In the meantime, I'll be sure to keep an eye out for this one. Thanks for the tip, Ed!

~ Ron Clinton

Juri said...

Ron: we meet again. I live in another part of the world, but there's the internet. Should we give it a try?

In one of Maxim Jabukowski's pulp collections there's a non-crime story by Evan Hunter that's set in a motel. And Donald Westlake has a sleaze novel that's set in a motel. (Virgin's Summer or something like that. Just posted the Finnish cover for that on my blog.)