Steve Lewis asked if I’d write an occasional column about Gold Medal Books.  How could I say no?  Being a contrary sort, however, I’m going to begin by talking about two books that aren’t Gold Medals, though they could have been, as the GM tradition is actually alive and well.  Thank goodness there are at least a couple of writers who aren’t trying to write bestselling novels the size of Toyotas.  They’re writing slim books in which the spirit of Gold Medal Originals lives on.

    The first writer I want to mention is Bill Pronzini, and the book is Step to the Graveyard Easy (Walker, 2002).  It begins when Matt Cape’s wife catches Matt in bed with a young hottie.  In short order, Cape has left his wife, his job, and his so-called life behind and taken to the road.

    This could be the opening chapter of any number of Gold Medal novels, and what follows is equally familiar.  Cape travels aimlessly, ending up in San Francisco, where he’s cleaned out in a card game by Boone Judson and a cutie named Tanya.  Cape, who’s discovered an element of toughness in his character, gets back the money he lost, along with some mysterious photos.  He tracks the cardsharps to Lake Tahoe, where he finds the people in the photos and warns them that they may be in some kind of danger.

    And that’s when things begin to get beyond Cape’s control.  Like a lot of Gold Medal heroes, he’s just an ordinary guy who gets caught up in a plot that turns out to be not at all what he expected.

    I don’t want to give away any more of the story here, but if you’ve read any Gold Medal books (or any other noir thrillers for that matter) you might not be as surprised by what happens as someone coming to this with no background.  And even if you’re a step ahead of Cape, you (like me) might find a great deal of satisfaction in reading a book that has lean prose, snappy dialogue, and a clever plot.  And that’s only about half the length of the current crop of crime novels.  [SPOILER]  My only complaint is that the “surprise” ending is telegraphed in several ways, including the book’s title.

    The second writer is Ed Gorman.  Ed’s written several noir westerns, and a couple of them were even published by Gold Medal (look for Sharpshooter and Wolf Moon).

    More recently, he’s published Lawless (Berkley, 2000).  The book is set in 1893, but all you’d have to do is change the setting to 1953 to have the perfect Gold Medal novel.  Sam Conagher is an ex-con who winds up in the town of Templar, where he encounters his former lover, a prostitute named Callie, and his former cellmate, Earl Cates, who’s now a bible-thumping sheriff.  Sam meets Nora Rutledge, the beautiful daughter of the richest man in town, and dreams of marrying her and becoming part of her family.

    Naturally things don’t go well at all.  People aren’t what they seem, events spin out of control, and by the end of the novel Sam finds himself in a jail cell about to be hanged for a murder he didn’t commit.

    I was reminded a little of Jim Thompson, a little of Elliott Chaze.  Here’s one evocative passage:

    For just that brief time, there in the breeze and the sunshine and the birdsong and the clock above the bank doors tolling noon ... for just that moment I didn’t hate either of us the way I usually did ... or blame each of us the way I usually did ... there was a sweetness in both of us for just that moment and she must have felt it, too ...

    Naturally the moment doesn’t last, and at the end of the book Gorman gives us the nearly perfect noir ending and final line.

    So the next time you start thinking they don’t write ’em like they used to, check out Pronzini and Gorman. You’ll be glad you did.


Note:  This first installment of Bill Crider’s column for the print version of Mystery*File appeared in issue #40, December 2003.

To access other installments of this column, go here.

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