Friday, July 18, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“Don’t Cry for Me,” by William Campbell Gault

(Editor’s note: This is the 13th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from award-winning novelist-editor Ed Gorman, the author most recently of a political thriller titled Sleeping Dogs.)

I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust
’Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself
--Bruce Springsteen
When a novel wins praise from both Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald it’s probably worth a look.

It was 1952 when William Campbell Gault’s Don’t Cry for Me took the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. And quite a first it was. While the story proved to be nothing revolutionary, the voice certainly was. The narrative is so intimate, it sounds like a man talking to his shrink. Or going to confession.

Protagonist Pete Worden came from an upper-class family, excelled in football in high school and college, and even had a brief stint with the Los Angeles Rams. He also did himself proud in the Big War.

His older brother, John, handles the family estate. He gives Pete $100 a week to live on. He thinks Pete is a bum and he resents giving him even that much. While the money isn’t enough for Pete to keep his souped-up Merc in proper shape, or to do much besides live on the edge, he has his girlfriend Ellen Gallegher and a safe harbor from the nine to five.

When we meet Ellen, a damned good looking, damned smart woman, we know Gault is leaving the tropes of pulp crime fiction behind. She’s from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and was a good Irish Catholic Girl until she read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was when she gave up papism.

The plot of Don’t Cry for Me gets rolling when Pete comes home to his small apartment and finds a dead man in his favorite chair. The police are curious and so is local mobster Nick Arnold. Pete wants Mike Kersh to be his bodyguard. And Mike is no standard-issue thug, either. Almost as soon as we meet him he’s explaining to Pete why he quit the Communist Party in the ’40s, because the meetings got so contentious. Now he’s just a Democrat.

Pete gets some help puzzling through his investigation of the dead man’s murder from his neighbor, a pulp writer who specializes in suspense. The neighbor has a lot of parties. Pete gets to hear numerous drunken pulp writers bitching about editors and publishing markets, and getting scared because the pulps are vanishing. They really sound like actual writers. Piss, moan, whine. You know--us.

You see what I mean? Within the confines of a detective story plot, Gault gives us real people in the Los Angeles of the early 1950s. People in these pages argue about books--Ellen loves Sartre, Pete hates him--movies, radio shows, politics. There’s even a brief discussion about what it takes to get a 3 percent GI loan if you’re interested in moving into a housing development. And there’s a great deal of general anxiety about the atomic bomb tests going on and what they portend for the human species.

But what this novel is always about is the disillusionment of Pete Worden with the world in general, most of the people he knows, and above all with himself. He knows he’s a bum, a cipher, and a fake.

While this novel isn’t in league with The Day of the Locust, Gault’s snapshots of Los Angeles between the world wars (the book is filled with references to draft notices and young men getting ready to be shipped out to Korea--the next war, as Pete cynically calls it) are incisive and melancholy.

Don’t Cry for Me is also a love story--a good one and a true one. And a painful one, besides. Ellen Gallegher is one of the most interesting women I’ve found in crime fiction, simply because I’ve never met anybody like her before or since. A sensible, working-class young woman who reads a lot.

The novel has aged well, except for the occasional coy boy-girl dialogue so popular back then (John D. MacDonald used it all too often, too) and a few William Saroyanesque (Saroyan being Pete’s favorite writer) literary quirks. And at least some of the characters are from central casting, especially the homicide detective. But Gault gives them at least a superficial humanity.

The Springsteen quote at the top of this post expresses the theme of Gault’s book and Worden’s dilemma exactly. The latter trusts nobody, especially himself, and it’s this quiet misery that gives the novel its anxiety, passion, and troubled honesty.

You’ll note that I haven’t described the plot. It’s a good one, complex and well-fashioned and fair-played.

But this isn’t a book about plot. It’s a book about people.

* * *

Check back here next Friday, when Robert J. Randisi will be picking The Rap Sheet’s latest “forgotten novel.” Randisi is the author of more than 500 books. He’s also the founder of the Private Eye Writers of America, creator of the Shamus Award and, with Ed Gorman, co-founder of Mystery Scene magazine. Presently, his Rat Pack novels are garnering the best reviews of his career. The third installment, Hey There (You With the Gun in Your Hand), is due out in early December.

READ MORE:An Author from the Old School,” by David Laurence Wilson (Noir Originals); reviews of Gault’s The Canvas Coffin, The Convertible Hearse, and Vein of Violence, by August West (Vintage Hardboiled Reads); “William Campbell Gault” (Ed Gorman’s Blog).

No comments: