by Bill Crider


   There are plenty of undiscovered treasures waiting out there in those old Gold Medal Books, some of them by authors you may never have heard of. Clifton Adams is a case in point.

   His name is probably much more familiar to readers of western novels than to readers of crime fiction because he was much more successful as a western writer. But he wrote a couple of crime novels for Gold Medal that are well worth seeking out, Whom Gods Destroy and Death’s Sweet Song.

   These books are of the James M. Cain school, and while they don’t quite come up to the best of Cain, they belong on the same shelf.

   Both books are set in small Oklahoma towns. Whom Gods Destroy is the story of Roy Foley, who returns to his hometown of Big Prairie on the death of his father only to discover that his life is still ruled by his feelings of love and hate for a woman named Lola.

   In fact, his feelings for her have pretty much driven him crazy, though he doesn’t know it. He finds another woman named Vida (I’ll leave all discussions of symbolism to the English majors among you), but even his attraction to Vida isn’t enough to save him.


   To hear him tell it, Foley is one of those hardluck guys, plenty smart, but he’s just never gotten the break he deserves. He thinks he’s found the chance in Big Prairie, however. He’s going to take over the thriving bootlegging trade in the town, and he’s going to do it fast.

   He gets off to a bad start, as his first plan goes wrong. So does his second. And his third. Each time something goes wrong, he pays a price, and just when his plans finally seem to be working out, things fall apart.

   Roy winds up in a cheap hotel and in despair: “Out of the emptiness, I kept thinking: What are you going to do, Foley? What are you going to do? There had to be an answer — if I could only find it. Lost somewhere in the violence and rage there was an answer.”

   The guy in Death’s Sweet Song is Joe Hooper. He owns a little filling station with a couple of tourist cabins out back in Creston, Oklahoma. Like Roy Foley, he’s waiting for his big break, and one day it shows up in the persons of a safecracker named Sheldon and his wife, Paula.


   Paula is one of those women who often turns up in stories like this: bad clear through, and as beautiful as she is bad.

   Before long, Joe finds himself involved in robbery and murder, and at the end of his downward spiral, he’s thinking a lot like Foley: “I looked at them and they were waiting for the answer. They wanted a simple, clear-cut answer, and there wasn’t one. It was a long story, almost a month ago, I thought; that was when I saw her for the first time . . . Less than a month ago it had been. It seemed like a thousand lifetimes.”

   The simple plot summaries don’t do much to convey the quality of writing in these books. It’s the real thing. Uncluttered prose, smooth, and assured, with just the right amount of description to make things real and immediate.


GOLD MEDAL BONUS: If you’re curious about Adams’s westerns, I highly recommend two of his earliest, The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado.

   These are dandy noir westerns with a protagonist worthy of Jim Thompson. They’re hard to find, though. They hardly ever turn up even on eBay. Copies of Death’s Sweet Song and Whom Gods Destroy show up now and then, and no one even bids on them. Maybe people don’t know what they’re missing, but if you’ve read this far, you don’t have that excuse.

NON-GOLD MEDAL BONUS: Adams also wrote a paperback original for the Ace Double line. He used the name Jonathan Gant, and the book is one half of D-157, Never Say No to a Killer.

   It seems to have been influenced by Horace McCoy’s Kiss Tomorrow Good-Bye, as it’s narrated by an intellectual killer and begins with an escape from a prison work gang. Roy Surratt deludes himself in much the same way that Joe Hooper and Roy Foley do, though he’s well aware that he’s far from the innocent they think themselves to be before they begin their crime sprees.

   This book has a nice twist in that it doesn’t appear to be a mystery novel until the very end, when it’s revealed that one character was indeed doing some detecting and putting the clues together. Maybe this one’s not quite in the league with the two Gold Medals, but it’s worth a read.

   In a way it’s too bad that Clifton Adams found his biggest success writing westerns and didn’t write more crime novels. He was very good at it.


Selected Bibliography:

       ● Death’s Sweet Song. Gold Medal #483, pbo, May 1955.
       ● Whom Gods Destroy. Gold Medal #291, pbo, March 1953.

       ● The Desperado. Gold Medal #121, pbo, 1950.
       ● A Noose for the Desperado. Gold Medal #168, pbo, 1951.

       ● Never Say No to a Killer, as by Jonathan Gant. Ace Double D-157; pbo, 1956.

Editorial Comments:   This column first appeared in Mystery*File #42, February 2004. Covered in previous installments appearing online are authors Day Keene, Dan Marlowe, Charles Williams, Marvin Albert, and Bill Pronzini & Ed Gorman.

   A checklist of the western novels Adams wrote as Clay Randall can be found here earlier on this blog.   [LATER:]   In comment #5, I’ve listed all of Adams’ westerns that I own which were written under his own name.

   And look for additional commentary by Bill on the Jonathan Gant book over on his blog, where it was a “Forgotten Friday Book” a week or so ago.