A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

BRIAN GARFIELD – Death Wish. McKay, hardcover, 1972. Fawcett Crest, paperback, August 1974. Mysterious Press, paperback, 1985. Other reprint editions exist. Film: Paramount Pictures, 1974.

   Brian Garfield is a highly versatile writer at any number of story types and forms. He began his career in the western field,where he published dozens of novels, including at least five of outstanding quality. In 1970 he shifted his sights to the contemporary novels with criminous themes that have earned him wide acclaim in this country ans best0seller status in England.

   These, published under his own name and the pseudonym John Ives, cover most of the criminous spectrum: action/adventure, political intrigue, comic farce, historical suspense, espionage, and urban crime. More recently, he has published a nonfiction book on western films, written screenplays, and formed his own Hollywood production company.

   Death Wish is probably Garfield’s most famous (some might say infamous) novel, not so much by its own virtue but as a result of the 1974 film version with Charles Bronson. It is certainly the work that catapulted him into national prominence, at least in part of his violent reaction to the film.

   The plot is simple and gut-wrenching. Paul Benjamin, a happily married cliff dweller on New York’s Upper West Side, receives a call from his son-in-law one hot, ordinary summer afternoon. Three young hoodlums have broken into his apartment (the building was supposedly secure) and brutally beaten his wife and daughter — attacks of such violence that neither woman survives.

   The police are helpless: they have no clear description of the youths, no way to track them down. Paul’s grief, frustration, and rage finally lead him to take action himself — to buy a gun and go hunting the three kids in their world: the deserted alleys and streets and byways of the city after dark. But his mission of vengeance soon assumes a much larger scope: It becomes a vendetta against all the criminals who prey on helpless victims, a one-man vigilante committee bent on destroying as many of the enemy as possible before he himself is caught.

   As the jacket blurb says, this “is the story of a society having a nervous breakdown. It is about something that causes a a secret uneasiness far back in the conscious minds of many people. What would happen to a man who is unable to keep to the narrow line that stands between being a victim or executioner?”

   Garfield does not glorify or advocate vigilantism: his is the story of Paul Benjamin’s descent into hell. The film version, however, does glorify Paul’s actions. Its makers misinterpreted the novel’s ambiguous ending and produced a paean to violence, an ultra-right-wing fantasy that ends with Bronson winking at the camera and silently promising more carnage to come.

   Garfield was so appalled at the film’s distortion of his novel that he ought — unsuccessfully, foe thr most part — to keep t from being shown on national television.

   In a sequel, Death Sentence (1975), Garfield completes Paul’s story, reaffirms the original intent of Death Wish, and makes a strong anti-violence statement. This novel, however, did not have the commercial success of Death Wish ad unfortunately seems to be one of Garfield’s least-known works. This reviewer, at least, accords it considerable respect.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.