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Friday, January 18, 2019

GIL BREWER—THE DARK INVADER


GIL BREWER—THE DARK INVADER
*This post first appeared as the introduction to Stark House Press collection of two Gil Brewer novels, The Red Scarf and A Killer Is Loose, published in 2018... 

In 1969, I was fifteen-years-old and obsessed with collecting paperback tie-in novels based on my favorite spy and detective shows. Carefully read (so not to crease the spines) tie-in editions of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Mission Impossible, The Mod  Squad, The Rat Patrol, Mannix, Get Smart, and others still sit on my bookshelves fifty years later—touchstones from my teen years.

These franchise tie-ins were traditionally written on a work for hire basis, which provided a one-time fee to the authors. The writers were often picked for their ability to deliver a quick manuscript turnaround (sometimes in as little as a week), prior tie-in experience, or those in desperate need of a quick payday. They received no royalties for their work—even when a book sold over a million copies, which was not unusual.

Many tie-in novels bore little resemblance to the shows on which they were based as they were frequently contracted to be written prior to the show’s television debut—sometimes even before final casting for the characters was decided. The writer might only be given the first draft of a pilot script to work from—a document which would invariably change significantly before the show went into production.

There was a trio of paperback tie-in novels connected to one of my favorite TV shows—It Takes A Thief (The Devil in Davos, Mediterranean Caper, Appointment in Cairo). For three seasons on ABC, Robert Wagner starred as Alexander Mundy, a world class cat burglar and jewel thief blackmailed into using his skills for the United States government in order to stay out of prison. As with most tie-in novels, the three It Takes A Thief paperbacks were designed with eye-catching glossy covers displaying publicity photos associated with the show.

I will admit these covers were my biggest motivation for collecting TV tie-ins. I was not sufficiently knowledgeable at the time to care who wrote the books. It wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest. The only thing I was interested in was collecting the new books and stories connected to my favorite shows. As a result, the importance and history of the author behind the three It Takes A Thief tie-ins completely escaped me.

Ten years later, I had transferred my obsession for TV tie-ins to the dark world of noir. While devouring Cain, Woolrich, Goodis, and Thompson, I stumbled across The Red Scarf, a noir novel by some guy named Gil Brewer…

Wait...Why was that name familiar? I perused my bookshelves and there they were—the It Takes A Thief tie-in novels all three written by none other than Gil Brewer. I would later understand they were not examples of Brewer at his best—more rough first drafts than finely crafted finished products. They were written between 1968 and 1969. This timing was the most likely reason for their lesser quality, as it was after Brewer had suffered a mental breakdown and while he was in the middle of a slow decline into alcoholism. Brewer continue to ghostwrite novels and churn out salacious hack work (of even more suspect quality) under pseudonyms until the mid-seventies, but the It Takes A Thief tie-ins were the last books published under his own name.

While the attributes of Brewer’s It Takes A Thief ventures were questionable, I quickly found something different in the pages of his novel, The Red Scarf. It was something dark, raw, and utterly brilliant. Brewer infused it with anguished prose as terse as Hemingway’s as he thrust his protagonists into a twisted plot where the only choices available were bad, worse, and wretched. This was noir at its finest—comparable to any exploration of human darkness before or since.

Brewer’s father had written stories for the early air action themed pulp magazines. While Brewer was heir to his father’s skills for popular fiction, he was also heir to his father’s penchant for the bottle. A high school dropout, Brewer had a checkered history of employment before he enlisted in the Army during WWII. After the war, he settled in with his parents in Florida, where they had relocated from upstate New York.

Florida would provide strong literary fodder for Brewer. The heat, the oppressive, humidity, and the swampy atmosphere made it the perfect setting for stories inhabited by slatternly women and men living on the ragged edges of society.

His parents finally grew tired of his literary affectations (ponderous manuscripts with pretentious titles such as House of the Potato), his drinking, and his seduction of a neighbor’s wife (whom he would later marry). When his mother tossed him out, Brewer found himself desperate for money. Having no skills and no desire to work in any other occupation, he was compelled to set aside his desire for critical acclaim and write for—gasp—money.

He would always perceived this situation as an injustice. In the depths of alcohol soaked delusions, he would fall into deep depression over the failure to achieve his rightful place in the pantheon of important writers. Depression led to more drinking, which led to more depression, and the deadly spiral continued. In reality, Brewer was blind to the cold truth. He was an exceptional talent. He was an important writer. However, his talent and his importance did not lie with the glitterati, but with the common man who devoured popular fiction, and whom he understood on a base level. 

In the face of pressing need, Brewer aimed his typewriter at the voracious and well paying market for paperback originals—fast, entertaining reads for the working Joe who wanted a little spice (or what passed for spice in the 1950s) with his fiction. With the help of agent and former Black Mask editor Joseph T. Shaw, Brewer sold Satan Is A Woman to Gold Medal, seeing it published in 1951. Gold Medal was a genre paperback line created by Fawcett Publications, and the noir address of some of the most revered genre masters of a generation.

He sold two more novels to Gold Medal—So Rich, So Dead and 13 French Street—in quick succession. It was between the covers of these Gold Medal paperback originals where Brewer found the true home for his stripped down, biting, prose—one hundred and forty pages of short, uncluttered sentences, featuring sharp dialogue and a blend of equal parts despair, lust, and bad decisions. If Dante had envisioned an eighth level of Hell, it would be populated with characters and situations created by Brewer.

Over the next fifteen years, Brewer wrote thirty-three novels under his own name. Almost all were variations on the theme of an ordinary man led into wanton corruption and to his ultimate destruction by the type of women for whom wolf whistles were invented. Brewer took this base theme and overlaid it with a patina of erotic sleaze, banking on his stated belief that “sex…is the big element we deal with in life every day—the push and pull of human nature.”

His third book for Gold Medal, 13 French Street, gave credence to this assertion. With raw lust fueling the book’s squalid sexual focus, it sold over a million copies. While this sales achievement should have been reason for celebration, not everyone was please by the perceived immoral content of the book. Shaw, his agent, asked him not to rely so much on flesh and sex angles, and his editor—concerned about rumblings from censors and the morals police—insisted Brewer tone down his narratives.

However, despite their editorial disapproval over the subject matter of 13 French Street, Gold Medal gladly relied on the book’s salacious reputation to pimp new titles by Brewer. Even Brewer’s last novel for Gold Medal, Backwoods Teaser, published in 1960, bore the banner, By the Author of 13 French Street.

13 French Street would go into eight printings and numerous overruns. With this burgeoning success, Brewer refused to listen to the voices of caution. After reading the blatant promiscuity Brewer described in the opening to his follow-up novel, Shadow on the Dust, Shaw implored him to build the narrative more slowly, so readers would have a chance to develop some sympathy for the nominal hero. Again ignoring the advice, Brewer kept pouring on the sexual heat, only to find the completed manuscript rejected by Gold Medal due to it’s plot being entirely reliant on sex.

This was a bucket of cold water, which should have shocked Brewer into compliance, but still didn’t (or couldn’t) get the message. He was obsessed by the demons faced by all noir authors—words, alcohol, and lust. While other writers had the ability to show some restraint, Brewer—in spite of his anguished, paranoid, distributing of blame when inebriated—willingly embraced his demons.

Gold Medal tried to keep a tight hold on Brewer’s fiction, but he continued his fixation on sexual enthrallment in titles such as Hell’s Our Destination, 77 Rue Paradis, and A Killer Is Loose. Instead of rejecting the novels based on their supposed contempt of the subject matter, Gold Medal was hypocritically happy to pad their bottom line with the profits from Brewer’s lewd take on the human condition.

Chasing cash, Brewer was also slinging words at the short fiction market. It was here, in 4,000 to 10,000 words, where he turned loose sexual themes too indecent (by the morals of the times) for the 60,000 to 70,000 word paperback market. Unlike Gold Medal, the short story crime magazines had no scruples over what they published as long as it sold copies.

Apparently a taste of sin in a short story was acceptable, but a full meal in a novel caused indigestion. However, these stories of window peepers, panty sniffers, gropers, and other sexual fetishes—even short ones—still incensed the official moral censors. Criminal charges of pornography and sending obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent matter through the U.S. Mail hellfired down on the editors of cheap digest-sized magazines—such as Accused, Guilty, Pursuit, and Manhunt—all targeting those types of stories that were Brewer’s best work.

His addictions, unsteady work habits, and continued preoccupation with fetish based stories eventually led to him being dropped by Gold Medal (although he did make it back in to their ranks for a single novel a few years later). His novels spiraled down from the publishing high-rises (Fawcett Gold Medal) to the sidewalk (Crest, Lancer, Berkley) and then the gutter (Monarch, Banner). His short stories only occasionally found favor in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. More often they found minimal paying homes in Hustler, Adam, and even lower scale men’s magazines—which were almost always slow to pay what was owed.

Unfortunately, things got worse. A move to California with his wife Valerie left him without access to peer support of any kind. His struggles with alcohol took him away from the typewriter. His mental state was deteriorating. His inability to get the brilliance in his head onto the page resulted in confused and rambling book proposals destined for rejection.

When a serious traffic accident landed him in the hospital, he was not only physically injured, but virtually off the rails mentally. With professional help, he hauled himself back to the lip of the pit. He began writing solid prose again, but during his time away from the typewriter, the market for his stock in trade tales of dark sexuality had virtually dried up. He had traded Valium for alcohol, but the resulting addiction was even worse. He fought his way off the Valium, but took up with alcohol again—his need for addiction never defeated.

Moving back to Florida did not change the situation. With no choices left to him, Brewer gnashed and wailed, but was forced to turn to the lowest forms of hack work to establish any kind of cash flow.

He wrote sex books under a variety of house names, spicy stories for the lesser men’s magazines, and gothic tales under the name Elaine Evans. Writing pal Marv Albert paved the way for Brewer to write two entries in the men’s adventure series Soldato, which were published under Albert’s Al Conroy pseudonym. He ghosted tales for Ellery Queen, Hal Ellison, and five novels of the Israeli-Arab war, which bore the name of Harry Arvay, an Israeli soldier. An opportunity to join the ranks of ghosts writing the Executioner series was promising, but fizzled when his work didn’t match creator Don Pendleton’s vision of the series. And he wrote the three It Takes A Thief novelizations, which still grace my bookshelves.

The alcohol took it inevitable price as even the hack work he desperately needed to survive became scarce. Brewer and Valerie agreed to separate, even though she would continue to support him emotionally and financially. In January 1983, Valerie found him dead in his apartment. It was an ignominious end to the career of a writer whose talent deserved so much more.

The irony, of course, is within a relatively short time following his death, Brewer’s best work began to be recognized. It started with the French, who have always known a good noir when they see it. A French production company bought the rights to A Killer Is Loose for a five figure advance, releasing a film version in 1987. The Red Scarf was reprinted in both England and France finding a hungry audience. Brewer’s short stories were suddenly in demand for prestigious anthologies, which further fueled interest in his work and distinctive style.

The two stories that started the Brewer revival, The Red Scarf and A Killer Is Loose, are perfect examples of Brewer’s ability to create nerve-wracking hell of rides of classic proportions. The sheer frenetic energy of their prose and their pervading sense of impending terror make their selection for this collection a natural pairing.

Originally rejected by Gold Medal and other paperback houses, the hardcover rights for The Red Scarf were purchased by a small lending-library imprint for a paltry $300 advance. Perversely, Fawcett, Gold Medal’s parent company, overturned the original rejection, buying the paperback reprint rights on the cheap for their Crest imprint, which had a much lower reputation than Gold Medal.

The Red Scarf, however, is the perfect noir, making its odd publishing history unimportant. It was my first true taste of Brewer—It Takes A Thief tie-in novels aside—and I devoured it.

Small business owner Roy Nichols and his wife are caught between the razor and the strap. Faced with financial ruin after his brother reneges on a loan, Roy is loath to tell Bess, his sweet wife, they are going to loose the roadside motel into which they have sunk all their cash and dreams. Desolately hitchhiking home, Roy is the perfect sap. When sexually charged slattern Vivian Rise and her shady boyfriend, Noel Teece, give him a ride, complications—as they say—ensue. Those complications involve a briefcase of illicit cash, a drunken car crash, a gambling syndicate who want their money back, a mob enforcer, and police both corrupt and straight.

As each startling twist unfurls, the cogs and gears of the story interlock smoothly. As the darkness of inevitability presses down, one bad decision follows another, and Roy is dragged deeper and deeper into the quicksand of despair and fear. We want him to save himself and Bess, as we cringe with each rachet of suspense.

Brewer manipulates his plot masterfully. His characterizations of all involved is irreproachable, his prose sharp and controlled, his dialogue as terse and as dry as a twig in the Sahara. You can’t stop reading even though you find you have stopped breathing.

Comparatively, A Killer is Loose was Brewer’s sixth novel. His specialty of trapping his protagonist in a web of terror, paranoia, and dread and empathetically transmitting those feelings to his readers had been honed to the sharpness of a killer’s stiletto.

Written in less than two weeks through a haze of cigarettes, coffee, and booze, A Killer Is Loose is raw first draft with resultant awkward flashes. However, the sheer immediacy of the narrative connects readers not only to the characters, but unexpectedly attaches them directly to the writer himself. The thin veil between Brewer and those devouring the story is remarkable. It verges on breaking the fourth wall, yet maintains its structure due to the rapid-fire unfolding of events.

With damaged eyesight, a baby literally on the way into the world, a backlog of unpaid bills, and the threat of high hospital fees on the dark horizon, ex-cop Steve Logan is forced to make a hard decision. He elects to pawn his prize Luger to a bartender who handles those types of transactions. On the way, his life goes from tough to terrifying as norish coincidences and complications descend on him like a fever.

Reactively saving the life of Ralph Angers, a stranger getting off an incoming bus, is the first good intention paving the road to hell. Ralph is quickly revealed to be an eye surgeon living in a world of dangerous delusions. He has no compunction toward killing anyone he perceives as trying to stop him from his fantasy of building a hospital. To prove his point, he snatches Steve’s Lugar and wastes no time killing the bartender with the pawnshop sideline.

Here, Brewer excels at his craft as he creates a nightmare of paranoiac proportions—a desperate man and a former stripper (this is a noir after all) caught in unrelenting suspense by a calm, but brutal maniac.

Don’t expect to sleep well after reading these splendid tales, which display the power of Gil Brewer—a man out of step with himself in a world too slow to recognize noir genius before the curse of self-destruction caught up with him.

1 comment:

  1. "I was not sufficiently knowledgeable at the time to care who wrote the books." Ditto at ages 14 and 15 when I bought the first two MAN FROM UNCLE paperback tie-ins by Michael Avallone and Harry Whittington, respectively. When I bought Gardner Fox's novelization of FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON at age 12, I knew Fox from his DC Comics work but not as a prolific pulp and paperback storyteller!

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