Friday, May 29, 2020

Forgotten Books: Barge Girl - Calvin Clements

With a Barye Phillips cover and a title like BARGE GIRL, from a publisher like Gold Medal, I expected a noirish crime novel with a regular guy protagonist falling for some beautiful but scheming dame who has an older husband who just needs to be gotten rid of so that she and the protagonist can live happily ever after. And as I started this 1953 novel by Calvin Clements, it looked like that was what I was going to get, as our narrator, tugboat captain Joe Baski, mets and falls for gorgeous young Stella Murk, whose much older, barge captain husband takes her for granted and makes her live in near-squalor on the barge.

The thing is, for the longest time Clements dances right up to the edge of giving us that plot but then pulls back, and as a result, the first three-fourths of BARGE GIRL never amounts to more than a well-written but slow-paced domestic drama that will tell you more about barges and tugboats operating on the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey than you ever wanted to know.

Maybe Clements was trying to subvert his readers’ expectations, or maybe he just wasn’t comfortable spinning a truly noir crime yarn. I don’t know. But BARGE GIRL was a considerable disappointment to me up until a late twist that almost salvages the book. The last few chapters pack a lot more punch and are more fun to read, although even then he seems to be setting up a twist that never comes to fruition. That makes the pretty good climax not as effective as it could have been.

Calvin Clements wrote a few novels but is best remembered for his long career as a screenwriter for movies and TV. He wrote excellent episodes of a number of different Western series. Based on BARGE GIRL, the only one of his books I’ve read, he wasn’t as skillful a novelist. Overall, though, the final fourth of this one impressed me enough that I can say I’m glad I read it. Don’t rush right out to look for a copy, but if you ever run across one, you might want to learn more about tugboats and barges than I did.


Jerry House said...

I had a copy of this one for years, James, but I never read it. My copy went walkabout some time back and I never bothered to replace it. Perhaps it's just as well.

August West said...

Satan Takes the Helm by Calvin Clements is a fantastic adventure noir with a femme fatale who hires a ship captain for her husband's boat. Coaxing the guy with her sex to murder her husband. Probably Calvin Clements' best novel.

James Reasoner said...

I think I have a copy of Satan Takes the Helm. I’ll have to give it a try.

Paperback Warrior said...

Good to know James. I was curious about the book. I read and reviewed his Hell Ship to Kuma novel from 1954 and found it average.