Friday, 25 September 2009

JOHN MC PARTLAND'S FACE OF EVIL: A Forgotten Friday Entry

Though I was reading an original 1954 edition, The Face Of Evil appears to have been reprinted a couple of times,which means it's hardly forgotten, but John McPartland remains one of the lesser-known and celebrated Gold Medal authors. Although this is, at times, a very powerful book, it also suggested some reasons why McPartland remains overshadowed.

Bill Oxford is a fixer, nominally employed by an advertising agency, but a guy who, after serving as a journalist on the Army paper Yank during the war, has seen his work grow progressively more and more slimy. He started providing girls for parties, then girls to do other things. Now he's been sent to Newport Beach, to blackmail or otherwise destroy a local lawyer, Ringling Black, who has the goods on the man the LA big shots want to run for the Senate. So he's in a bar in Newport Beach, eyes a woman named Nile Lisbon, gets in a fight with her escort, a truck driver named King McCarthy, and later, when the woman returns, he's about to go off with her when her new escort shows up, and, as fate would have it, it's the man who's his target. From there, the story moves with breakneck pace, as Bill starts to re-discover his conscious, helped by the timely arrival of a girl he helped 'ruin', just in time for him to use her against the white knight named Black. But as he does, he discovers he's being shadowed by a peeper, Harry Podden, who's there to make sure he does what he's supposed to do. Follow that?

Although the plot is tricky enough, McPartland mostly keeps you guessing because you never know who you can trust. Nile is an assistant DA, but likes rough stuff; she's the widow of a popular local lawyer, and has her appetites, but it's all kept hidden. Is she using Bill? Is she lying when she says she's testing him? When Ann Field, the girl from his past, shows up, is she working with Podden, who's got the power to inform Bill's bosses he's not doing their bidding, which will get him sent to prison, because of course, they've got the goods on him too. But mostly it's within Bill Oxford himself, can he trust his own instincts, or have years of visiting the gutter ruined his perceptions?

McPartland doesn't quite write well; at times the prose flows cleanly, like you expect from Gold Medal books from the era, and at times he is striving for effect. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, and overall he may promise more than he delivers in terms of action. This may account for his lesser renown.

But at times, his world is remarkably oppressive, classically noirish, very much like Megan Abbott but without the knowing dreaminess of her prose. It is a world of corruption, a world that can corrupt even the strongest men of the 'greatest generation'. The women are dangerous objects, there to be used unless they can use you, and it was great fun casting Nile and Ann in my mind (maybe Jane Greer as Nile and Jocelyn Brando, pictured left, as Ann). Just check out the names: Nile, with its serpentine suggestions, and Lisbon, exotically foreign.King McCarthy, the bruiser. And Ringling Black, the one honest man in the book, whose name denotes circuses. Ann Field, the suggestion of pastoral bliss. Bill Oxford, the man in the button-down shirt.

In fact, if you watch Mad Men, you can see exactly the same character, the same dilemma, in Don Draper: 55 years later the shows creators are working at the interface of appearance and reality, which McPartland was doing at the coal-face, as it were, writing about Bill Oxford. And that's where the story really has its force, because, like Mad Men but far more intensely, The Face Of Evil is about the corruptions of a society which, on the surface, is perfect. It is the noir scraping away of the varnish to reveal the rot underneath. Bill Oxford is a man who has learned to navigate through those swamps, but sees, bizarrely, in the person of a twisty woman with a mean streak and men hidden away, a chance to get out. I can't think of a book that dissects this basic contradiction of noir better.

Eventually, Bill makes his decision, and the book proceeds toward what qualifies as a happy ending, with even the college kids on spring break on the beaches playing their All-American violent part. And this is where it loses all its convincing power. Because we know that people who fit into round holes don't all of a sudden turn square. We know that the society Oxford has been working in is the real society, the way the world works, and he isn't going to be able to find happiness walking away from his troubles. The book ends on a note of optimism, but it's about as convincing as those endings tacked on to pre-code crime movies to tell us crime never pays, after we've just been convinced that of course it does. We don't believe it for a second.

The Face Of Evil by John McPartland
Gold Medal no. 393, 1954, 25 cents

1 comment :

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Michael. Always a pleasure to read your reviews.