A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini

GEOFFREY HOMES – Build My Gallows High. William Morrow, hardcover, 1946. Paperback reprints include: Jonathan Press J35,digest, no date [1948]; Ace D-185, 1956, published dos-à-dos with The Humming Box, by Harry Whittington; Zebra “Movie Mystery Greats,” 1988.

GEOFFREY HOMES Build My Gallows High

   From 1936 to 1946, Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring) published a dozen very good mysteries set primarily in the valleys and foothills of north-central California. Build My Gallows High is the last and best of the twelve, and so firmly established Mainwaring in Hollywood (he had been writing B movies since 1942) that he produced no more fiction during the last thirty-two years of his life.

   This novel was filmed, from Mainwaring’s screenplay, as Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas — one of the half-dozen best noir crime films ever made.

   Both novel and film are powerful studies of one man’s struggle to maintain the hope of his future when his jaded past catches up with him. Red Bailey is a former New York private detective, the kind “who first looked at a client’s supply of thousand-dollar bills, then at his social-and legal-status” before taking on a job; an angle player who made his big mistake when he went to work for a gambler named Whit Sterling.

GEOFFREY HOMES Build My Gallows High

   The job (told through flashback) was to find Sterling’s ex-mistress, Mumsie McGonigle, who shot and wounded Sterling and then ran off with $56,000 of his money. Red tracked Mumsie to Mexico, met and fell in love with her; and when she claimed she’d only shot Sterling in self-defense, Red stupidly double-crossed the gambler and helped Mumsie cover her tracks from Mexico to California.

   But their relationship wasn’t what Red expected. When his former partner showed up at their country hideaway, murder drove the final wedge between them — and Red realized how badly he’d screwed up his life.

   Determined to put Mumsie and the rest of it behind him, he made his way to a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, opened a gas station, and spent most of his free time fishing. He even met a new woman, one he learned to love more than Mumsie, one he planned to marry. Now, for the first time in his life, he is content.

GEOFFREY HOMES Build My Gallows High

   But then one day his past shows up in the person of a flashily dressed Greek gunman employed by Guy Parker, a crooked cop Red knew in the old days who now operates a gambling club in Reno. Red accompanies the Greek to see Parker, and finds that Mumsie is now Parker’s live-in girlfriend.

   Parker wants Red to do a detective job for him; if he doesn’t agree, then Parker will tell Whit Sterling where to find him. Red smells a setup of some kind, with himself square in the middle, but what choice does he have except to do as Parker asks? Up to a point, that is …

   This is a taut, hard-edged thriller, powerfully told in a clipped style reminiscent of Hemingway’s, with superb characterization and a hammer-blow climax. Anyone who has seen and admired Out of the Past will find Build My Gallows High every bit as memorable.

   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.

GEOFFREY HOMES Build My Gallows High