Good writing is good writing. Able scribes known for their mastery of one genre often show themselves capable of seamlessly pulling off effective works when practicing other types of writing. I’m sure we could have a lively discussion here about our favorite books that are the results of authors doing a genre jump. When I think of classic works of noir fiction that were penned by writers not primarily known for working that terrain, I immediately zone in on Robert Edmond Alter, who mostly wrote kids books and only tried his hand at a few titles of adult fiction, yet authored Carny Kill, a standout of noir. Similarly, Clifton Adams was mostly known for his Western novels and stories, in fact twice won the coveted Spur Award for his efforts in that milieu. I strongly recommend his novel A Partnership With Death, which really can be viewed as cowboy noir. And when he wrote straight, non-Western crime fiction, Adams showed himself to be totally in command of his pen. One of his noir novels, 1955’s Death Sweet Song, is outstanding.
Originally published as a Fawcett Gold Medal title, Death’s Sweet Song, like many great examples or noir fiction, centers around one troubled character—a person who lives in a way that has them going against the ways of the indifferent-to-hostile society around them. Adams’s distressed lead character in this book is a 30-ish guy named Joe Hooper. Before we get into Joe’s deal, let’s let him tell us about Creston, Oklahoma: his hometown and the setting of the story he narrates:
When you take 66 into Creston, your first impression is that it’s a pretty good-sized place. The first things you see are the oil-well supply houses, big sprawling buildings and sheds, and long rows of powerful cementing trucks, pumpers, testing and drilling equipment. Acres of buildings and acres of trucks, millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. It’s pretty impressive the first time you see it.
Right next to the railroad are the grain elevators, great towering cement columns standing solid and proud like lonesome skyscrapers in the middle of the prairie. And then there’s the big overpass at the railroad. You cross the overpass and drop down on the other side and you’re in Creston.
You take one look at the town and feel cheated.
You’ve been led to expect great things and here you are in the middle of another one-horse prairie town. I’d lived here all my life, knocking out four years in the Army, and I never failed to be disappointed when I looked at it. It was a fairly clean town, as prairie towns go, once you moved away from the cluster of produce and feed companies that huddled around the grain elevators. Coming down the town side of the overpass, you could see it all. The straight, treeless streets. The frame houses and parched lawns. The new, raw-looking high school, the cement tennis courts, the white afterthought of a steeple on the Baptist church.
It was my home. A place where eight thousand people, more or less, lived, loved, hated, worshipped, spawned. I knew everybody and everybody knew me, and that’s the kind of arrangement you can get pretty sick of after a while.
If Joe appears more than a little embittered about his place of residence, he has some reason to feel that way. The son of a kindly doctor, Joe decided to skirt his dad’s working lifestyle of unpredictable hours and struggles to collect fees from poor farm folk, and instead opted to become a businessman. After his stint in the service and following some undistinguished employment in odd jobs, Joe opened a motor court. You see, a super highway was supposed to be put in over a part of Creston, and that’s where Joe set up his court of five basic rooms, a service station, and a general store. Problem is, that chunk of super highway never got built, thus there are no passing travelers to get reeled in by the promise of a rest from driving. So Joe’s business is tanking, and the locals seem to get a charge out of needling him about his failed enterprise. Any time he crosses paths with another member of the Creston citizenry, the others almost always say something along the lines of, “How’s the tourist court business?” (snicker, snicker).
So Joe’s pissed. He goes around with an I’ll show ‘em chip on his shoulder. He sees himself as somebody bigger than the commoners that surround and taunt him. He wants to get out of Creston, and go somewhere bigger and better, where he can thrive. The way Joe sees it, a person who wants to make something of his or her self just needs to be able to recognize opportunity when it comes, and to have the courage and vision to seize the chance. Here’s how he puts this:
There is no mystery about how one man gets to be a big shot while the man right beside him remains a bum all his life. One man saw the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when it appeared, recognized it for what it was, grabbed it.
There’s no mystery about it at all. The only two requirements are plenty of patience and a world of guts.
Joe’s big chance, as he sees it, starts when he gets some unexpected guests at the tourist court. A slick character named Karl Sheldon, who is not from Creston, shows up in an expensive-looking ride and with his platinum blonde honey of a wife at his side, looking for a room. Joe can’t understand why a couple posh characters like the Sheldons want to stay in Creston, and in one of his shabby units. But things become clear enough when Joe overhears the couple talking with a local con who comes to visit them in their room: the three of them are planning a heist in Creston, are going to rob a local box factory where the owner does a cash payday for his employees.
Joe, who once worked at the factory, decides he wants in on the job. This will be his means of busting out of Creston, when he gets his share of the thirty grand the crooks think they can pull from the place. He insinuates himself into the robbers’ team, and in fact, convinces the Sheldons to take him into their gang while brushing the other guy off. And Joe doesn’t only want a third of the loot from the job; he also yearns for Sheldon’s beautiful wife, Paula, who seduces him shortly after learning he knows about their larcenous plans. Joe explains how he sees the situation:
I knew what she was, and it made no difference at all. She was hard, as ruthless as she was beautiful, as brittle as fine china. Well, I could be hard, too, and ruthless, and brittle. I had taken it on the chin plenty trying to play according to the rules. Now, for the first time in my life, I felt strong; I felt I could do something really big, and to hell with the rulebooks.
Death’s Sweet Song is a timeless story of one alienated person in an uphill battle, trying to get even with the rotten world around him. The planning of the factory heist, the job itself, then all that happens in its aftermath is the main storyline behind this fine novel, and is what provides some of its can’t-put-it-down suspense.
But the real lifeblood of the story is the relationship between Joe and Paula. As Joe tries to keep himself from being caught for playing a role in the robbery, he finds that he has to keep coming up with progressively more drastic solutions to problems that keep cropping up, both during the job and after. Meanwhile, he is struggling with trying to handle the mercurial, hardened femme fatale blonde. The sexual energy between Joe and Paula, and the head and heart games they get into together, are on a par with the similar plotline in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. And the interactions between Joe and Paula make for some of the most enjoyable passages in the book. Here are a couple of examples:
I had hardly heard what she was saying. She had moved closer, pressing against me, and then those white arms crawled around my neck and she turned her face up to me.
“Do you understand, Joe?”
The only thing I understood was the excitement that took hold of me when she touched me, as the softness of her seemed to melt against me, as I tried to capture that red mouth that kept slipping from one side to the other.
“Joe, do you understand what you must do?”
She was a fire inside me, spreading through me, racing like flame. She was still talking as I forced her back. I tightened my arm around her, bowing her back, bending her knees, and suddenly both of us came crashing down on the bed. She was still talking.
“Joe, nothing must happen to stop this factory job! No one must know about it! No one!”
“I said I understood.”
“Promise, Joe, that you’ll tell no one!”
“Great God, what do I have to say to convince you? All right, I promise!”
Only then did she stop squirming and fighting, only then did I capture that red mouth of hers. Her arms tightened around my neck in the kind of nervous excitement that is impossible to fake. Her dagger-sharp nails gouged into my shoulders as she pulled me down with her, then she took my hand in hers and guided it, and for a long while there was no sound in the room except that of our breathing.
I wheeled her around, pinning her arms to her side, and when I put my mouth to hers it was like setting fire to a keg of powder. Her arms went around my neck. She melted and flowed against me and I could feel the nervous ripple of her body, the softness of her, the heat of her.
Then it was over. She slipped away.
“You’d better go.”
“Like hell!” I reached for her again and she whipped her hand across my face with a crack like a pistol shot in the silence of the room.
“Get out of here!” she hissed.
I almost hit her. I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and arms grow taut as I took a quick step toward her. She didn’t move. She just stood there smiling that insolent smile, and I grabbed her by the front of her dress and slammed her against the wall. She went reeling back, then fell over a chair and went down to her hands and knees. Even then, in the midst of rage, I thought what a hell of a woman she was.
The people at Stark House Press plan to bring out a new edition of Death’s Sweet Song sometime later this year, or in early 2014. Look out for it as you whizz past the forgotten motor court.
Image of abandoned Rt. 66 site in Texola via 1 Dusty Track.
Brian Greene's articles on books, music, and film have appeared in 20 different publications since 2008. His writing on crime fiction has also been published Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. Brian's collection of short stories, Make Me Go in Circles, will be published by All Classic Books in late 2013 or early '14. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.