Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

FRIDAY, MARCH 30, 2007

The Vengeful Virigin
F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted that Hemingway (then at his peak) wrote with the authority of success while Fitzgerald (then in
the dumps) wrote with the authority of failure.

The authority of failure is what animates virtually all of Gil Brewer's work and certainly The Vengeful Virgin (now out from Hard Case Crime) is no exception. In outline it's nothing new--a very James M. Cainian scenario in which a TV repairman gets involved with an eighteen year old temptress who is taking care of a dying old man (and one we don't take to at all). He's promised to leave her a fortune when he dies. The trouble is he's dying very slowly. It won't surprise you that the temptress has thoughts of inviting the Reaper in a little ahead of schedule.

What makes this one of Gil Brewer's most successful novels is that a couple of the plot turns are truly shocking and that he is in complete control of his material. He paces this one well right up to the end. And the end is a powerhouse.

I mentioned the authority of failure. In Brewer's case it's usually because his protagonists let their dissatisfaction with their lot become a kind of self-pity that let's them justify whatever they need to do to improve that lot. They generally learn too late that maybe the old TV repair gig wasn't so bad at all.

Contrast this attitude with the reckless but doomed romantics of Charles Williams (whom I prefer). They're smarter than Brewer's men and there's rarely any self-pity. They seem to be on some kind of quest, which is a twist on the Cain-style tale. Yes they meet a bad girl. Yes they do something stupid. But what gets them through is enormous energy and a sense of mission and an undertow of anger. They're like Brewer's men, too, failures. But they are the tarnished knights that Phillip Marlowe and all his imitators only pretended to be.

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