I’ve read and enjoyed many books by Gil Brewer over the years, but for some reason, two of his earliest and most successful novels have sat unread on my shelves for quite some time now. So I took the arrival of Stark House’s latest Gil Brewer double volume to be an omen that I ought to go ahead and read them. I’m going to start with SATAN IS A WOMAN, which was Brewer’s second published novel. He had previously expanded a Day Keene pulp novelette into a full-length novel that was published as LOVE ME AND DIE under Keene’s name. My review of that one can be found here. SATAN IS A WOMAN was published by Gold Medal in 1951 with a great Barye Phillips cover and launched Brewer’s career under his own name.
Larry Cole, the narrator of this novel, is one of Brewer’s everyman
protagonists. He owns a not-too-successful beachfront bar on the west coast of
Florida, is a World War II veteran, and is trying to live a respectable life
even though he comes from a family of criminals. His father was a mob gunman,
his mother was a prostitute, and his older brother Tad has been mixed up in
plenty of shady deals. When they were growing up, Tad tried to keep Larry on
the straight and narrow despite his own activities. As the novel opens, Tad is
on the run from a murder rap and hiding out at Larry’s house. He gets caught
and sent to prison, and while Larry would like to get him a better lawyer and
try to help him, there doesn’t seem to be any way for him to do so. The guilt Larry
feels over this tortures him.
He's about to feel a lot more guilty, because one day a beautiful blonde named Joan Turner walks into his bar, and that starts Larry on a path that includes robbery and multiple murders. Larry wants to do the right thing, but he’s so caught up by love, lust, and circumstances that he seems doomed right from the start, in the finest tradition of noir novels.
Then, late in the novel, Brewer springs a really nifty plot twist that I didn’t see coming at all. It was a real “D’oh!” moment for me because everything is set up fairly, right out in the open, and with Brewer’s angst-ridden, breakneck style, I just went right past all the clues. I love it when that happens.
SATAN IS A WOMAN is one of the best-written Brewer novels I’ve read, with plenty of action and some poetic, poignant moments that are very effective. There’s also a long scene set in a rowboat on a stormy sea that gave a confirmed landlubber like me the galloping fantods. It’s wonderful stuff.
I can see why SATAN IS A WOMAN sold well and made Brewer a successful author right off the bat. It’s really, really good. I give it a high recommendation. The new Stark House reprint, along with Brewer’s all-time bestselling novel, 13 FRENCH STREET, will be out next month and is available for pre-order now. I’ll be getting to that novel very soon.