Friday, April 09, 2010

Forgotten Books: One by One - Fan Nichols

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.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Not much crime, a lot of melodrama, sounds right up my alley.

Frank Loose said...

James ... The first paragraphs are certainly strong and the story sounds interesting, and one that i will have to search out. Did you know about this author/book before you bought it, or did you buy it on a lark?

The title reminds me of another book you posted not long ago --- One is A Lonely Number. Also, a terrific read and one i would not have ever stumbled across without your review.

I recently read a terrific book that also takes place during the depression, and was published not long after - in 1940. As such, I think it was really an early crime novel, and reads like a blend of crime story and William Faulkner's south. Title is They Don't Dance Much, by James Roos. Quite good at examining the human heart. Have you heard of it? I believe it was the author's only book.

Frank Loose said...

Based on a quick Amazon and Alibris search, copies of this book are readily available. It looks like it was also released as a HB, and i see where she wrote for Ace and Simon and Schuster. I ordered a copy. Thanks for the post. Always a good day when you can discover a new author!

James Reasoner said...

This book reminded me a little of Megan's work. Nichols didn't have the skill with words that Megan does, but there are still some similarities.

I had a couple of books by Fan Nichols before the fire but never read them. So the name was familiar to me, and it's hard to pass up a book with a cover like that, too. Again, I used to have a copy of THEY DON'T DANCE MUCH but hadn't read it and haven't gotten around to replacing it. I will one of these days, though. Maybe sooner than later, based on your recommendation of it.

Frank Loose said...

Yea, I kinda liked the cover, too.

Evan Lewis said...

Fan?? Short for something?

James Reasoner said...

No idea what Fan is short for, if anything. I was sort of hoping that somebody who read this post would have some biographical info on her and would share it with us.

Frank Loose said...

James ... It appears that her real name is Francis Nichols Hanna.

beb said...

James, you mention how this book begins with such a great noir opening. Have you come across a lot of books that have a great 1st page but can't quite carry it for the rest of the book? This might be a topic of a blog posting in its own right. I can't say that I recall man books that failed to live up to their 1st chapter but I assume there must be some out there.

Richard Heft said...

Fan Nichols also wrote a Gold Medal (an early one, #251) titled THE CAGED.

chip said...

I am currently reading this book under the title "DOLLY". " She was young-Stacked-Luscious- and the worst tramp in town!