Thu 3 Jun 2010
DAN J. MARLOWE - The Vengeance Man. Fawcett Gold Medal d1645, paperback original, 1966. Reprint paperbacks: Black Lizard, 1988; Stark House Press, 2007.
Like his masterpiece The Name of the Game is Death, Dan J. Marlowe’s novel The Vengeance Man revolves around a small, insular community filled with intersecting characters and multiple hidden agendas. In fact, the book’s hard-boiled lead, Jim Wilson, makes a point of constantly calling out just how small his backwoods town is, and at certain key moments, turns the claustrophobia of the small town experience to his advantage.
At first Marlowe paints Jim Wilson in broad strokes, portraying him as a typical criminal leading man — low on patience, tough as nails and borderline sociopathic. But as the novel progresses, the novel works to fill in details, giving us a much more personal take on Wilson’s personality. Details emerge on everything from a youth filled with abandonment and abuse to Wilson’s strange passive aggressive relationships with women.
By about hundred pages in, you feel that first-person voice creeping under your skin. You can almost smell Wilson’s rage at a town that he feels betrayed him. And while you’re seeing the world through his revenge-tinted eyes, you can’t help but have a slight fear of whatever his next move might be. The result is something similar to the first-person work of Jim Thompson in novels like Hell of a Woman and The Nothing Man. A frightening insight into the killer mind the none-the-less manages to humanize at the same time. The effect can be chilling.
The book opens with Wilson murdering both his cheating wife and her lover in a flea bag motel. After a carefully orchestrated, if somewhat unrealistic scheme sets him free, he unleashes a campaign of terror on the town — with the end goal of setting himself up as the most feared and powerful man in the community. A title he aims to usurp from his political string-pulling father-in-law, Judge Tom Harrington.
As the story moves forward, we ping-pong between dueling political forces: politicians, bankers, and worst of all, banker’s wives. Of course, we know it’s going to end badly for Wilson. But trying to anticipate when the rug will get pulled, and who will do the pulling is something Marlowe has refined to a pretty fine science.
Throughout the book Marlowe keeps the plot moving at a fast clip with the occasional detour for the sake of color and atmosphere. But there’s nothing even remotely indulgent. As for the quality of the writing, it recalls Gold Medal books at the top of their game: clean, simple and hard boiled.
If there’s a fault to the book it’s the weak characterizations outside of Jim Wilson and his Femme Fatal counterpart. Tom Harrington, for example is built up throughout the first half of the novel as possibly the most dangerous man the south has ever seen. Yet by the time we finally meet him it seems as though Marlowe was unsure how to bring this to life. In the end we’re left unsure exactly what kind of threat he really posed.
The same can be said of other characters throughout the book — from Wilson’s best friend, to his friend-with-benefits. The argument could probably be made that keeping these characters so peripheral helps establish an atmosphere where shocking revelations are truly shocking. But when you don’t have a preconceived notion about a character, surprising the reader with new information doesn’t end up being much of a surprise.
Still, this is a small flaw and it shouldn’t dissuade you from reading one of Dan J. Marlowe’s best books outside of the Earl Drake series.