Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


JOHN McPARTLAND – The Face of Evil. Gold Medal #393, paperback original, 1954., softcover, 2006.

   There’s always a little trouble. Some lad from New York’s midtown or Chicago decides to make himself a score for ten thousand or so with a touch of blackmail or extortion. “Call Bill Oxford. He’ll handle it. The kid’s tough and smart and he knows everybody.”


   Bill Oxford is tough as nails and not very nice. He used to be a hot shot newsman during the war, worked on the legendary military paper Yank with people like Marion Hargrove (See Here Private Hargrove, well known screen and television writer), then, still young, he went to the city, got a job as a ‘sharpshooter’ on a big paper, the kind of guy who knew people and things, the kind of guy who would put a blackmailer or extortionist in their place for you, fix a scandal, break a few skulls. Then he went to work in advertising for the Agency, for Roger Mooney …With Roger Mooney you say, ‘Sure, Roger,’ and jump through whatever hoops he’s holding.

   Roger Mooney has a client running for office in Balboa, California. He’s not a very good candidate, in fact he’s a very bad one, and he has some problems, namely an honest lawyer named Ringling Black, who has the goods on the client and is about to broadcast them. All Bill Oxford has to do is fix things.

   â€œYou go down to Balboa. Frame this Black. Frame him hard and fast. Maybe with a woman. Something like that, something plenty nasty.”

   You don’t have to be all that clever to figure out this is a paperback original from Gold Medal by the underrated John MacPartland, whose books like Big Red’s Daughter, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, and Tokyo Doll were hardboiled in the vein of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams — not just a rehash of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, but a new vision of the hard-boiled nineteen fifties, suburban rather than urban, small town or small city politics instead of Chi town or NYC.

   MacPartland’s mean streets were often in such settings. His prose was hard and tight with flourishes of dark beauty, but never showy:

   Two women called to me, “Bill!” Nile’s voice and Ann’s. I walked along the night-black street alone.

   Outside it was cool and dark with a fresh wind from the bay. I left the car in the parking lot and walked toward the couple of blocks that were downtown Balboa.

   Downstairs for a drink at the bar. It was crowded now, and there was the laughter of women, the low voices of men. A good bunch — the women all beautiful or close to it, the men rich-man brown and with good clothes.

   I went to her, quietly, and put my arms around her, hunted her mouth with mine. She pushed at me with her hands, tried to say something, and then I found her. It was stepping out of reality into something I had never known before. This was the whirlpool.

   Sometimes I would try to say something, a fragment of a word, a quick whisper of “Nile!” Nothing else. The drunkenness burned away, and I forgot everything but Nile.

   There was no exhaustion, no satiety. In time, a long time, there was a gray light on the long row of windows, a rim of light over the roundness of the hills.

   There are two women, Nile Lisbon, widow of well loved John Lisbon, friend of Ringling Black, girlfriend of tough sadistic King McCarthy, and Balboa’s assistant district attorney, a woman too dangerous to be with and too beautiful to ignore. In anyone else’s hands Nile would be a femme fatale, in MacPartland’s she is bruised and lost and hard to resist, good and bad, sweet and sour. You would know Nile if you saw her, be attracted, but unless you were Bill Oxford you would likely back away:

   She was the kind of woman a man noticed, mostly because of her eyes. Dark, almost black pools, they had a warmth that I felt could turn to fire. She had turned her head, looking over the shoulder of the man she was with, and we looked at each other. The third or fourth time it happened he noticed it and I paid some attention to what he was like.

   Nile gets Oxford in a fight with King the first thing. It doesn’t seem to bother him much. Then there is Ann Field. Six years earlier there at been a thing between them:

   Yeah, sure, Ann. Cute and trim as a palomino colt, that girl.

   Not now though. Ann has changed and how she feels about Bill has changed:

   Now she was sleek, a jungle animal who’d been caught and caged in a filthy zoo too long, the kind of girl who describes herself as a model but who does no modeling. Her eyes weren’t wide, nor was the world new and good to her. Any man could see all that.

   Ann doesn’t have good memories of Bill: “Don’t hello me, you son-of-a-bitch. I’ll kill you and spit on your corpse.”

   Then to round things out there are the hard drunk kids in town for spring break and Mooney’s enforcer Whitey D’Arcy, who owns a car dealership and owns more than a few cops. Mooney and D’Arcy play hard:

   Mooney had used hired killers where it had been necessary years ago. California had been a rough state in the late 1930’s. The chips were down for Mooney today.

   Whitey D’Arcy was not an idiot. We both knew what it was about. If I gave him trouble I’d pay for it, hard, but not here and not now. Likely I’d get my kidneys broken; it was the number-one big payoff for trouble guys.

   Bill finds himself suddenly with a conscious and a need to pay back for his sins. Redemption could get him killed when Ringling Black is shot and the evidence against Mooney’s client goes missing. The cops work for D’Arcy and want Bill, and his only allies are the seductive Nile and the wounded Ann.

   Maybe the ending is a little sentimental. Maybe it should have been harder and with less hope, more Woolrich’s doomed fate haunted heroes or one of David Goodis hopeless losers, Jim Thompson’s amoral heroes would have handled things differently.

   I like how MacPartland ends it. He writes hard-boiled movie prose and writes well. You can hear the music rise and see John Payne or Robert Mitchum and maybe Liz Scott or Gloria Grahame walk away, a little less hard, a bit wiser, a touch more human than they began:

   Ann and I left the Hut and walked toward the ocean. We could hear the music and the young voices of the nine days of Easter through the night.

   The roar of the long combers breaking into the surf was loud and the moon was rising in silver over the sea blackness. “This is what I wanted to do with you six years ago, Bill. Walk along the dunes and wait for the night to end.”

   â€œWe can do it now, Ann. It’s not too late for us.”

   Maybe it is, maybe not, MacPartland clearly likes the idea they can be saved, but he hasn’t sugar coated who Ann is or what Bill was. He has portrayed them as who they were, shown us what they could do and did do. He’s taken us down darker and meaner streets than the romantic private knights of Chandler or the tough birds Hammett gave us. These streets are inhabited by people we know and people we saw in the towns we lived in. Those of us who worked on newspapers or advertising knew the Bill Oxfords of the world. Some of us have known Nile Lisbon and Ann Field in one guise or another.

   If you worked in advertising you knew Roger Mooney, maybe not quite so lethal, and you surely knew of Whitey D’Arcy if you never knew him personally if you grew up in a certain size city.

   The Face of Evil, sometimes it is in a mirror, sometimes it is someone we know, a power broker like Mooney, a big fish in a small pool like D’Arcy, sometimes a bully like King. Sometimes it is just the corruption of small town America. John MacPartland captures the loss of innocence, the yearning for something that never really was, the hope of redemption, and the cost of making a stand finally.

   This isn’t a great book, but it’s a very good one. It will keep you up to finish in a single reading and leave you satisfied. It’s one of those Gold Medal novels that you recall with real fondness and if you write yourself a touch of awe. Maybe he isn’t in the very first rank, but he isn’t far off it either. It’s nice to read a book once in a while that just reaffirms why you started reading in this genre in the first place. There are times you don’t want a masterpiece, just a master at his best.