BERNARD MARA – A Bullet for My Lady. Gold Medal 472; paperback original; 1st printing, March 1955.

   I didn’t buy my copy of this book when it first came out, although I might have and I lost or misplaced it later on. But I have had the copy I just read for probably just under 35 years. How do I know? (You ask.) Inside the front cover it has the stamp of a used bookstore I used to go to, a place called Tessman’s, and that’s where I spent all of my spare change when we first moved to Connecticut in 1969. All told, I must have stopped in there on the average of once a week. The price is stamped in, too. All of the paperbacks they had were 20 cents each. Gee, how I’d love to back there today.

   But I digress. Bernard Mara was one of two pseudonyms used by the rather famous Irish-born Canadian author Brian Moore. You might recognize him as the author of such novels as The Luck of Ginger Coffey, I Am Mary Dunne, The Magician’s Wife and others. He was nominated for the Booker award three times, and none other than Graham Greene called him “my favorite living novelist.” (Taken from his 1999 obituary in the LA Times.)

   Not bad for someone who started out by writing paperback originals for Harlequin-Canada, Gold Medal and Dell:

          — as Brian Moore

Wreath for a Redhead. Harlequin #102, Canadian pb original, 1951.
= Reprinted as Sailor’s Leave, Pyramid #94, 1953.
The Executioners. Harlequin #117, Canadian pb original, 1951.
= No US edition; reprinted in Australia by Phantom Books (paperback).

         — as Bernard Mara

French for Murder. Gold Medal #402, pb original, May 1954.
A Bullet for My Lady. Gold Medal #472, pb original, Mar 1955.
This Gun for Gloria. Gold Medal #562, pb original, Mar 1956.
= Reprinted as Wild as by Edwin West in a pirated edition (Zodiac pb, 1963).

          — as Michael Bryan

Intent to Kill. Dell First Edition #88, pb original, 1956.
Murder in Majorca. Dell First Edition A145, pb original, Aug 1957.

   You might find this interesting. Here is how one Internet source describes his early work:

   … Following a tentative start as a short-story writer, he began trying his hand at hack thrillers in the Chandler-Hammett mode, under the name of Brian Mara, before taking off into serious fiction in 1955 with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

   Other than the books above, only a few of his later books could be described as being mystery-related. Using Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV as a source, they are:

The Revolution Script. Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1971.
The Color of Blood. E. P. Dutton, 1987.
Lies of Silence. Doubleday & Co., 1990.
The Statement. E. P. Dutton, 1996.

   Copies of A Bullet for a Lady, in about the same condition as the one I have, are offered on ABE at $30.00 and up. Not bad for a 20¢ investment, and now I really wish I could go back. (And take a look at the prices wanted for the Harlequin editions. They don’t seem to be scarce, but my oh my.)

   What I do not think is precisely true is that Moore was writing in “the Chandler-Hammett” mode. I think someone was stretching matters there, using the only names the writer could think of (or thought his readers could identify with). Hammett and Chandler are always used as a crutch by (and for) people not so familiar with the field, when they cannot come up with names on their own.

   I’m reminded a little of Eric Ambler myself, but with a hero a little more knowledgeable and capable than some of the innocents (more or less) in Ambler’s work, guys here and there overseas, mostly postwar Europe, who fall into trouble and struggle to get out, and trouble not of their own doing. The adventuresome kind of guy, scraping by, doing this and that, independent and on his own. Jack Higgins’ earlier heroes fall into this category, people like Jack Nelson in The Khufra Run. But since he came along later, then how about Harry Bannock in Edward S. Aarons’ Girl on the Run?

   It is no coincidence, I do not believe, that the Aarons book was also published by Gold Medal, nor that later on many of Higgins’ earlier books first appeared in paperback in this country as Gold Medal’s.

   The hero in Bernard Mara’s book is Josh Camp, and he is a partner in a small (two person) aviation company based in France, specializing in small jobs that take them all over the world. In 1955, when this book was written, the world was huge, and men who flew around it on their own were greatly to be admired.

   When Camp’s partner goes missing in Spain, Josh does not hesitate. He immediately goes to find out what went wrong. And as soon as he lands in Barcelona, he is met by a beautiful woman who tells him that Harry is dead. This is on page 7, and this is where the story begins.

   Mara [aka Brian Moore] had a way with words, even at this early stage of his career. Josh checks into the hotel where Harry stayed in Barcelona, and the elderly bellhop leads the way to up to his room. From page 22:

   We went up. My room had a thirty-watt light bulb, a bathroom so small you could shave and shower at the same time, and a small balcony looking down at a street as narrow as an alley. A sign on the back of a door said it cost the equivalent of seventy-five cents a night. I gave Grandfather a bill and he left. The place was clean, but being in it made you feel dirty. I took my jacket and shirt off and began to wash. Harry must have been pretty broke to stay here. Not that we hadn’t stayed in worse places when the going was rough. But Spain is the cheapest country in Europe and Harry was on expenses. Still, if he was running from something, the Strasbourg was an ask-no-questions joint.

   The language is picturesque, and for readers never more than 200 miles from home, Mara/Moore makes them feel as if they were. I must have led a sheltered life myself. Look at the lady on the cover. If I ever met a lady like that, I know that I wouldn’t be able to say a word. I wouldn’t even begin to know what to say.

   In the first 50 or so pages, Josh meets: three women, all enigmatic but beautiful in varying ways; one tough guy; one second- or third-rate toreador; a dwarf; miscellaneous (but not very friendly) cops; and assorted cab drivers and hotel staff. They all have different agendas, especially the three women and the second- or third-rate toreador. All the cops care about is getting Josh out of the country, and they give him only 24 hours to do so. And therefore only 24 hours to discover how Harry’s death happened and who was responsible.

   When I got to page 57, I made myself a note. It says, “Do you know what? None of this makes any sense.” On page 67, Mara/Moore rightly decides that a sort of a recap is in order, and by page 84, the true story starts to come out. What it is that the bad guys want and at the same time, to some extent, at least, an idea of who the good guys are.

   As you may know, Gold Medal paperbacks in the 1950s were usually only 160 pages long. They could almost be read in a day, and this book is no exception. It may surprise you if I were to tell you that it is the first half which is the more interesting – the half in which confusion is king – but it is so. Once the story rights itself around and heads off in the right direction, it is as if the mystery is gone, as if the story from that point on is a mere formality, as though (but not quite) it’s only going through the motions.

   Go figure. An “A minus” perhaps for the first half, and a “C plus” for the second. The works out to a solid “B,” doesn’t it? That’s just about what I would have called it, anyway. If I were still using letter grades.

— December 2005