Two GOLD MEDAL Originals dealing
with sex and violence down Lou’siana way.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   
DAY KEENE – Notorious. Gold Medal #372, paperback original, 1954.

CHARLES WILLIAMS – Hill Girl. Gold Medal #141, paperback original, 1951.

   In Notorious, Carny boss Ed Ferron finds his show mysteriously shunned by the locals in Bay Bayou on opening day. He’s just coming off two rain-out stands, and a bloomer here will send him into bankruptcy. Keene fills in Ed’s background at this point. He’s an ex-con, having done three years hard labor for killing a man he found in bed with his wife — only to discover at his trial that the unlucky deceased was just one in a long and continuing line of infidelities.

   This has made him leery of cops and women, but when he sees young Marva Miller — returning home after two years in the Big City and a failed career as a nightclub singer — being molested by the station master at the depot, he wades in, decks the masher and offers the lady a ride into town, where they’re both inexplicably harassed by the locals. A trip to Marva’s ol’ homestead finds her drunkard dad recently murdered, money missing, and someone taking shots at them. They call the police, and in another unpleasant surprise, find themselves accused of the murder.

   The story that unfolds is a bit predictable, including the inevitable death of a would-be informer (“Meet me at Nine, and bring money with you. What I know will blow this case wide open!”) and a crucial plot twist strained my credulity a bit too far, but Keene keeps a fast pace, builds tension, and his evocation of carnies and small-town folk (Variously termed Gilhoolies, Puddle-Jumpers, and Thistle-Chins) is vivid if not always quite…..

   Well what’s the word I’m looking for?

   What it comes down to is a tendency of some writers to paint small towns as inherently corrupt, like smaller versions of Chicago, where Day Keene (born Gunard Hjertstedt) grew up in the 1920s. My own experience of small towns, while not extensive, leads me to believe that corruption is harder to get away with in a place where everyone knows your business. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that individuals are like any other commodity: valued more highly where there’s fewer around.

   This folksy attitude comes across colorfully in Charles Williams’ Hill Girl, which starts with Bob Crane returning to his rural home town after two years in college football and a failed career as a boxer. When Bob’s father died, he left his considerable assets to Bob’s brother Lee, but Bob’s grandfather left him the modest farm where he spent his boyhood summers, and he has a yen to get back to it.

   One doesn’t think of Gold Medals as bucolic, but there’s no other description for the feel of getting back to the soil Bob enjoys (and Williams evokes.) He gets along with his nearest neighbor, Sam Harley, contracts with a decent couple to help out on shares, and generally refreshes his soul as he works the land.

   The fly in the ointment, and the crux of the plot, is Bob’s brother Lee, wild, hard-drinking and married but nursing a letch for Sam Harley’s daughter Angelina. Bob sees enough of the relationship to nourish a grudge against the girl, who treats him with heart-felt indifference, but when things boil over and Sam Harley comes gunnin’ after Lee, Bob steps in and tells Sam he was the one Sam saw runnin’ away with his pants down.

   Williams injects a telling note of understanding here. Sam knows Bob is lying, but the lie will save face for all concerned, so he accepts it. All things considered, a live husband is better than a dead philanderer and facing a murder rap.

   So now the story centers on the uneasy relationship between shotgun-wedded Bob and Angelina, and here Williams crafts a nicely readable balance between their finer feelings and the fighting, drinking, and other Manly Stuff essential to any paperback original. And having resolved this, he neatly turns the plot back to Lee, and his passion for his brother’s wife.

   I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say that the situation develops with considerable excitement, and includes a magnificent scene that captures the edgy tension of a drunk with a loaded gun.

   No one did this sort of thing better than Gold Medal in those days, and I mourn the passing of this fast, brilliant writing wrapped in gaudy covers at the drugstores of my childhood.