Friday, November 07, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “The Bloody Bokhara,” by William Campbell Gault

(Editor’s note: This is the 31st installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Shamus Award-winning Atlanta novelist David Fulmer. The paperback edition of Fulmer’s 2008 standalone thriller, The Blue Door, will be released next month, as will be Lost River, the new fourth installment of his series featuring turn-of-the-last century New Orleans detective Valentin St. Cyr. The opening of Lost River can be read here.)

First a confession, offered without the need for bright lights, cigarette smoke, rude sneers, and the back of a meaty cop hand.

I wasn’t drawn to William Campbell Gault by way of a lurid pulp cover featuring a blowsy, busty, blond-haired dame in a curve-jutting posture. Before I got to girls, my post-adolescence was inhabited by dreams of cars: fast cars, sharp cars, and the boys and men who owned and drove them. So I discovered Gault and Henry Gregor Felsen at the same time.

Gault was a writer with definite tone. Whether he was dealing in hot cars or hot lead, his brand of grit came from the same shadows of post-World War II America. Playing in both fields, he displayed a deep sense for the dislocation in the shallows of those years. From Midwest dirt tracks on hot Sunday afternoons to a seedy Los Angeles saloon in the wee small hours, the man nailed loners doing brave and often thankless work.

He wrote two successful gumshoe series, one featuring a private eye by the name of Joe Puma and the other with Brock (“The Rock”) Callahan in its lead role.

I was more intrigued, though, with Gault’s one-offs, all of which were published in the 1950s. He came off the line with the sharply honed Don’t Cry for Me (1952), but it was his third, 1953’s The Bloody Bokhara, that really caught and held me fast. It’s a fascinating and complex little book, which showed Gault at his most prolific in terms of tone and voice.

What surprised me with the first page was how much this tale was unlike a traditional hard-boiled mystery. The narrative kicks off reading like nothing so much as a Bernard Malamud miniature, beginning with a richly drawn ethnic business scenario. The story has much to do with fine rugs. Two, in particular--a priceless Kashan and a Bokhara that bears a distinct bloodstain. Hence, this book’s title. The rugs, with their fantastically intricate and colorful weaves, make a nice analogy for the tale to follow.

The protagonist here, Levon (“Lee”) Kaprelian, is the mostly dutiful son of an Armenian rug merchant. He is thrust into the middle of a case of murder after a visit from a shady lady with an interest in his wares. In more ways that one.

Because this is hard-boiled fiction, it involves a femme fatale. Two, in fact. This first is rich and beautiful and in possession of both rugs, plus dozens more. She involves our hero in a scheme--all aboveboard, at least at first--to unload the goods on other rich women who might be susceptible to a young, handsome salesman’s attentions. The second woman is Kaprelian’s Armenian-American girlfriend, cast as a gypsy beauty and with a clear stake in his affections. There’s also a requisite body of someone who might or might not have deserved to be deprived of life.

The Bloody Bokhara is a tasty tale, and I don’t wish to spoil it for readers to come. I’m much more interested in Gault’s stylistic maneuvers anyway.

Although he provides a classic setup for a hard-boiled mystery, there is much here that deviates from the stereotype. Gault applies a laconic style when it comes to his male characters. You won’t find much in the way of snarling coppers or cleverer-than-thou wiseacres. No one is all that confident, except for the fakes. The women have agendas other than snaring a male. These folks are, in today’s parlance, conflicted.

I also remember being surprised and pleased that Gault doesn’t shy away from the sensual in his yarn. For such a B genre, he delivers some finely toned pillow talk between--are you ready?--non-married partners. It’s only odd because at the time this book was written, doors usually closed and that was the end of that. The reader was left to dream up his or her own scenario for what followed. It was a very mature and open-minded approach, and I liked it. A lot.

I never knew I would grow up to write historical mysteries, but I learned something from Gault about research. Whether it was the esoterica of Oriental rugs or the variations of late-1940s racing engines, the man had the details down cold. The ambiance makes all the difference.

Of course, no book is perfect and Gault committed some misdemeanors along his way. The most apparent being his repetitive use of a name when one character is addressing another, sometimes in such a forced way that I wonder what he or his editor was thinking. It’s strikingly odd quirk for such a disciplined craftsman. But that’s pretty much all the fault I find with The Bloody Bokhara.

Gault went from his well-wrought early volumes to working faster. It’s what happens when the contracts say so. He wrote hard-boiled crime for the grown-ups and baseball, basketball, and football for the high-school crowd, and auto racing for both markets. He maintained his sharp eye, his good feel for honest emotion, and flair for action.

But as entertained as I was by his later books, for my money, he never again hit the notes of the first three. I remain a fan, nonetheless.

One other caveat: I discovered after I had chosen this book and gone to retrieve an old copy that we share a literary agency--him, back when, and me, now. Who knew?

And who cannot be touched by Gault’s famous quote, “The best revenge is good writing”?

Indeed, he was the proof of it.

READ MORE:William Campbell Gault; Weird Tales,” by Ed Gorman.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds terrific, especially if it's Malamudish.

Anonymous said...

Under "Books you have to read" I think you should add the "Mediterranean Noirs" by Jean-Claude Izzo & Massimo Carlotto. These excellent choices would be appreciated by the peeps that read this blog, i believe.

August West said...

An author that never disappointed the reader. Gault was one of the best hardboiled noir authors that came out of the post war era.

Anonymous said...

Never read it but this one satisfies my lust for stunning pulp artwork. That's a great cover.