Jada M. Davis’s novel ONE FOR HELL, published in 1952 by Red Seal Books, a cousin of Gold Medal also published by Fawcett, has long had a reputation as a lost classic and one of the finest hardboiled crime novels ever written. Well, guess what? It deserves every bit of that reputation.
ONE FOR HELL is the story of Willa Ree, a tough, down-on-his-luck drifter who drops off a freight train in the West Texas oil town of Breton. Determined to make a big score for himself, Ree is single-minded in pursuit of that goal, almost to the point of being a force of nature as much as a character. He’s a ruthless sociopath, and when he gets involved with the crooked politicians who run things in Breton, they see him as a perfect instrument for strengthening their hold on the town. What they don’t know is that Ree has plans of his own that may wind up bringing down all of them.
The plot snakes back and forth relentlessly, involving murder, robbery, lust, and long, tense scenes of brutal violence and suspense. Although Davis concentrates on Willa Ree for the most part, there are also vivid portraits of other desperate characters in the small town. The book never specifies that it takes place in West Texas, but I’m convinced that it does. I’ve been around enough oil towns to recognize the setting, which Davis recreates with gritty accuracy. The pace is fast, and the writing, which approaches a stream of consciousness style at times, is raw and crude and very powerful. Oddly enough, although Willa Ree is an irredeemably evil character, at times the reader almost roots for him to succeed, because nobody else in ONE FOR HELL is very sympathetic, either, and Ree is almost admirable in his single-mindedness. Almost, but not quite.
After reading this book, I really don’t understand why it hasn’t been continuously in print and compared to the best work of James M. Cain. It certainly belongs in the same tier as the best of the Gold Medal writers such as Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, and John D. MacDonald. Maybe it’s because Davis wasn’t prolific, publishing only one other novel that I’m aware of, THE OUTRAGED SECT, which came out from Avon in 1956. If he had written more, maybe ONE FOR HELL would be better remembered.
Thankfully, it hasn’t been completely forgotten. Stark House is about to reprint it, and they deserve a lot of credit for doing so. You want a “lost classic” that’s the real thing? ONE FOR HELL is it. It’s also one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, and if you’re a fan of hardboiled fiction, I can’t recommend it highly enough.