PETER RABE – Murder Me for Nickels

Gold Medal 996; paperback original. First printing: May 1960. Trade paperback, paired with Benny Muscles In: Stark House Press, 2004.

   First of all, if you havenít read it, you might want to take a look at an interview that George Tuttle did with Peter Rabe, shortly before his death in May 1990. Itís on the primary Mystery*File website, complete with cover photos and a bibliography which I compiled for the author, making it unnecessary for one to include one with this review, or at least I wonít need to if you go and come back.

Murder Me for Nickels

    When I was 16, 17 and 18, Peter Rabe was one of my favorite crime fiction authors, but itís been several years since Iíve read this particular one, until now. Itís probably been even more than several. The usual trepidation comes into play at times like this. The question at the back of my mind is ó and I imagine this happens to everyone, eventually ó is he as good as I remember him?

   The answer is yes, but I know Iíve just read this with different eyes and a different mind than when I read it for the first time, having just finished my first year of college in 1960 and plenty wet still behind the ears. Youíll get the present me talking about it now, not the callow youth I was back then.

   My favorite detective writer back at that time was Erle Stanley Gardner, to make a small distinction between styles, and Iíll be catching up with one of his books sometime in the near future. My other favorite mystery writer, noir style, was Cornell Woolrich, whoís still the master of whatever genre of mystery fiction you may care to put him in.

   Reading one of Rabeís books, though, is like opening a case of dynamite. You do it carefully, and you hold your breath just a little. Jack Saint Louis is the primary character in this one, and the narrator. Heís the right hand man of Walter Lippit, businessman racketeer and owner of the single jukebox supplier for a 30-mile radius around town. I donít think the town is specified, but itís not a small town, and itís not that far from Chicago.

   Jack is tough when he needs to be, but heís also smart when he needs to be, which is often, as he has a few things on the side, such as Walterís girl friend Patty and a recording studio of his own. When outsiders begin crowding in on Walter, the intricate balancing act that Jack is doing becomes more and more difficult to maintain.

   Told in an authentic but subdued tough guy vernacular, this is a straightforward gangster novel, not pulp fiction, but an intellectual gangster novel, but a nuts and bolts one, not a literary gangster novel such as The Godfather. Every once in a while, though, Jackís emotions canít be held in any longer. When he lets loose, watch out. Heís still tough and terse, donít let me mislead you. Letís see if quoting from page 113 will show you what I mean:

   I have never shot anyone, and I donít think shootingís easy. It isnít like throwing a stone, or a punch, or anything like it. You press the trigger, and the thing is out of hand. Itís out of your hand; something else does the hating, and youíll either fear the damage youíll do or you know ahead of time that youíll be left as before; same hat, same rage, just a bullet gone. And someone dead whom you did not even touch.

   Benotti rushed me. While I stood around he made his rush. He cracked me across the side of the face and before the pain even came I felt like going to pieces. I had held back too long. I rocked across the aisle, hit a rack, and cracked open. That ball inside, is what Iím talking about. Then I was almost done and so was Benotti. My reach is better and I had the pistol.

   I pistol whipped him, and I hit and hit, but not a watermelon, or a sack, but always Benotti.

   He was just short of raw meat when I left him and I was done.

Murder Me for Nickels

   Rabe is a wizard at dialogue, too. One early sexy love scene between Jack and Patty goes on for six pages, for example, and over 80% of it is in dialogue, with just enough narration by Jack to, well, itís just enough. After reading this, you will be convinced that every other paperback writer goes in for overkill.

   If this is not your kind of book, I think this review will have convinced you of that. If it is your kind of book, I think this review should have convinced you of that also. What more can I tell you?

— March 2007