Here are the opening paragraphs from this book:
He slouched through the squalid gaudy Mexican Quarter. He could feel the bulge of the gun butt against his flat belly, held there, beneath his coat, by his belt.
I’m going to kill her, he thought. I won’t turn yellow this time. This time I’ll do it. I’ll kill her. I mustn’t get caught. I can run fast. I’ve got good legs. I can run like hell.
If you’re like me, there’s no way you’re going to read a classic noir opening like that and not keep reading.
Not surprisingly, after the first chapter ONE BY ONE flashes back to tell the story of how the protagonist, telephone lineman Jerry Ryan, gets in such a bad predicament that he’s considering murder. It was a woman, of course. Jerry is in Los Angeles, separated from his loving wife Verna by work (it’s the fall of 1932 as the book begins, in the middle of the Depression), when he makes the mistake of helping an attractive young woman who’s being thrown out of a dime-a-dance joint. The woman, who calls herself Dolly Dawn because she’s trying to break into the movies, latches onto Jerry with the desperation of a drowning man grabbing a life preserver. She convinces him to give her a lift to Las Vegas, where he’s headed for a new job. Jerry is basically a good, decent guy, but he rationalizes himself into bed with Dolly and that turns out to be a huge mistake. Since he took her across a state line and then had sex with her, she tells him that she’ll turn him in to the cops for violating the Mann Act unless he continues to take care of her and pretends to be her husband.
After the noirish beginning, ONE BY ONE turns into less of a crime novel and more of a lurid, soap-operatic melodrama, as Jerry continues trying to get out of Dolly’s blackmailing clutches only to be thwarted by her again and again. That doesn’t keep it from being compelling reading, though. This novel was originally published in 1951 but reads like it was actually written during the Depression, as Nichols paints a vivid picture of shabby desperation among the cheap hotels, boarding houses, freight yards, and gin mills of small towns in California, Washington, and Oregon. Jerry is one of those likable, not-too-bright schnooks who populate novels like this, and you can’t help but root for him even though you know he’s going to do the wrong thing nine times out of ten. All of it leads up to a somewhat odd ending that I’m not sure if I like or not.
This is the first novel by Fan Nichols that I’ve read. I don’t know anything about her except that she wrote a lot of what would have to be considered hardboiled sleaze, even though she started in the Thirties before that genre really existed. ONE BY ONE was originally published by Arco Publishing, a hardcover house that put out books a lot like the ones that Beacon would be doing as paperback originals a few years later. Nichols continued to write through the early Sixties, including books for Beacon and Monarch. I liked this one enough that I’ll continue to keep an eye out for her books, although I probably won’t go on-line and order a big stack of them like I have with some authors. I certainly plan to read more by her, though, and if you run across a copy of ONE BY ONE for a reasonable price (I paid three bucks for mine at Half Price Books), my recommendation is to grab it.