Friday, January 28, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Red Scarf - Gil Brewer

We all know by now that a Gil Brewer novel isn’t going to be full of sweetness and light. All his hapless protagonists have to look forward to is bad luck, poor choices, and more trouble from more different directions than anybody could ever prepare for. And then . . . it gets worse.

That’s certainly the case for Roy Nichols, the protagonist of THE RED SCARF, a novel considered by many to be Brewer’s best and one that was out of print for much too long. Roy has a pretty blond wife and owns a motel in Florida, a business that would have done just fine if a proposed highway had gone through on schedule. Instead the highway was delayed and may not be built at all, and Roy’s motel is floundering on the edge of bankruptcy. As the novel opens on a cold night in Georgia with a mixture of rain and snow falling, Roy is hitchhiking back to Florida from Chicago, where he went to visit his brother and beg for a loan. The brother turned him down, and now he doesn’t know what he’s going to do to save the motel. He stops at a rundown diner (bad idea), winds up getting a ride with a beautiful brunette and her tough-guy boyfriend (worse idea), and ultimately finds himself with both the girl and a briefcase full of money that belongs to the mob on his hands. Roy tries to extricate himself from this awkward and potentially dangerous situation and even manages to get home to his wife and his motel, so for a while he thinks he’s succeeded . . . but no. Murder’s checking in. (I’m sorry. This stuff gets to you after a while.)

In all seriousness, this is a great noir novel. Brewer’s prose isn’t always the smoothest, but the story has such a headlong pace that it doesn’t really matter. And his only equal at depicting the angst and desperation of people slowly being sucked down into a whirlpool of failure and danger was Orrie Hitt. Reading a Gil Brewer book is like driving past a particularly gruesome wreck and hoping that somehow somebody made it out alive, although you don’t really see how that’s possible.

New Pulp Press, the fine small press publisher that reprinted Brewer’s FLIGHT TO DANGER a while back and is also doing some top-notch original books, is to be thanked and congratulated for getting THE RED SCARF back into print and available for Brewer’s fans to read, and with a very good Richie Fahey cover to boot. I can’t really say whether it’s the best of Brewer’s novels because I haven’t read all of them yet, but I can say that it’s very, very good, and if you’re a fan of noir fiction and haven’t read it yet, you ought to go hunt up a copy right now. Highly recommended.


George said...

I've been a big Gil Brewer fan for decades. THE RED SCARF is pretty close to his best, but all of his work is worth reading. I'm going to check out New Pulp Press. Thanks for the heads-up!

beb said...

I gotta say the old Crest Books cover is a lot nicer than the new cover. But that's just my personal opinion

Ed Gorman said...

To me this is his finest novel. All his themes--isolation, frenzy, dread and surreal atmospherics--come together here. Great post, James.

Kerrie said...

Hello James. This week's edition of Friday's Forgotten Books is now up at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. Thanks for participating.

Evan Lewis said...

Cool. I have a stack of old Brewers awaiting my attention.

James Reasoner said...

I went for years without reading Brewer because I didn't much like the first novel of his I read (WILD). But then I read the Hard Case Crime edition of THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN and realized what I've been missing.

Anonymous said...

I've read all of Brewer's book but two, and I believe THE RED SCARF is indeed his finest work. As Ed mentioned above, it encapsulates everything that made (most of) Brewer's work outstanding.
~ Ron C.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks. This is one I really must read.

Anonymous said...

All right, all right. I've had this book for years and haven't read it yet.
But I thought Brewer's A Killer is Loose was commonly considered his best effort. It sure knocked me over.
Is The Red Scarf really markedly better than Killer?
Geez, I know what I'm reading next.

John Hocking