Friday, September 01, 2017

Forgotten Books: Color Him Dead - Charles Runyon


I don’t think Charles Runyon was ever considered one of the top-tier Gold Medal authors, but his books have plenty of admirers, including the late Ed Gorman, whose interview with Runyon can be found here. I don’t recall ever reading anything by him until now. COLOR HIM DEAD is one of Runyon’s early novels, published by Gold Medal in 1963. In a neat bit of plotting, it begins where a lot of other noir novels end: with the protagonist in prison, convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, the real killer being the woman he fell for before the book ever begins. Drew Simmons had an affair with the beautiful younger wife of an older, rich man who wound up dead, and Simmons went away for the murder.

But when he gets a chance to escape, he crashes out and tracks down the woman to get his revenge on her. The trail leads to a small island in the West Indies, where Simmons’ former lover is now married to a wealthy, brutal planter who owns just about everything and everybody on the island. And in another nice twist, there’s a good reason Simmons can’t just kill her and be done with it. Instead he winds up involved with the domestic drama playing out there, as well as some dangerous political intrigue.

It’s a great set-up, Runyon’s prose is very vivid, and all the characters are interesting. My only complaints are that the pace is pretty leisurely and the big finish maybe not slam-bang enough for my taste. But COLOR HIM DEAD is still a pretty compelling yarn and well worth reading. A tip of the hat to Fred Blosser for this one.

Now, as an aside, that bare-breasted native girl cover would never be deemed politically correct enough to publish these days. The art is generally credited to Robert McGinnis. In some ways it looks like his work to me, and in others it doesn’t. But I’m about as far from an art expert as you’ll ever find, so don’t go by me. There’s also some underage sex in the book, treated as no big deal, which might also render it unpublishable today, and plenty of racial content, although the only real racists in the book are villains. Just a heads-up for those of you who like to be aware of such things.

9 comments:

August West said...
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August West said...

Charles Runyon wrote three mystery novels in the 60's under the house name of Ellery Queen. All three are excellent. The Last Score (1964)- The Killer Touch (1965) - Kiss and Kill (1969) Some of his best work are in his Short Stories. I remember one that appeared in a MSMM titled "The Death Gimmick." It is a knockout.

I have a couple of copies of Color Him Dead (which the cover drew me in to buy) I plan to read one now. Great review...

Bill Crider said...

I read a couple of Runyon's books long ago and liked them a lot. I have this one and several others that I plan to get around to one of these days. He wrote a little SF, too.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I'm with Ed. THE PRETTIEST GIRL I EVER KILLED was a classic. I think I read THE BLACK MOTH too.

Todd Mason said...

I think the notion of a woman wearing a sarong knotted at the waist and also that much makeup would set off the bs-detectors for today's audiences...

I've liked the Runyon fiction I've read (all novella-length and shorter) in F&SF, HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: anthologies and elsewhere)...

Tim Hewitt said...

Just purchased a copy and very much look forward to reading it. Thanks for the review. (And yes, that's definitely a Robert McGinnis cover. It's even included in the recent "Art of Robert McGinnis" book from Titan.

George said...

Art Scott could probably expound on the McGinnis cover on COLOR HIM DEAD. Charles Runyon is a very underrated writer.

Ron Clinton said...

Funny, I almost bought this book (though a different edition w/ different cover art) a few weeks ago, but a few minutes spent flipping through it suggested that, while the plot was intriguing, perhaps my time would be better spent winnowing down my To-Be-Read pile. Your review, James, seems to affirm that was the correct decision.

James Reasoner said...

Many thanks for the comments, and thanks to Tim Hewitt for confirming that the cover is indeed a McGinnis. I have several more novels by Charles Runyon on hand and will be getting to them sooner rather than later, I hope. (But you know me, I have the attention span of a six-week-old puppy . . .)