Saturday, 25 January 2014

THE LONELIEST: BRUCE ELLIOTT'S ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER

I knew Bruce Elliott's work, because he is one of the writers who filled in for Walter Gibson on The Shadow, when Gibson needed to slow down from the two novels per month schedule of being Maxwell Grant. Like Gibson, Elliott was a magician, and apart from the Shadow his published fiction is anything but prolific. His Shadow novels are relatively easy to spot, especially the ones that concentrate more on Lamont Cranston as a character, and less on the caped avenger himself-- there are three in which The Shadow doesn't even appear. So in my mind he was a footnote, and there was nothing to prepare me for the impact of One Is A Lonely Number, a pulp paperback written a few years after his adventures with The Shadow.

One Is A Lonely Number is published now by Stark House alongside Elliott Chaze's better-known and regarded Black Wings Has My Angel, which I wrote about in my previous post. It is sort of an all-Elliott pulp bonanza. One Is A Lonely Number was originally published in 1952 by Lion Books, reprinted in Justice Magazine in 1956 as The Cocktail Jungle, and then in 1961 by Tower Books as A Woman. If that spinning array of titles confuses you, that's the fate of stuff pounded out for quick cheap publication—Lion was a good step down from Gold Medal, who published Black Wings, and you can see some of the difference right away.

Elliott's prose isn't as penetrating as Chaze's, he hasn't set up situations and characters as carefully to reflect the action. No one is going to call One Is A Lonely Number astonishingly well-written' the way Barry Gifford described Black Wings. But I'd argue that Elliott's novel is, if anything, even more down and dirty, and the gritty flatness of the prose works even better to keep up the frantic downhill pace of the story.

Larry Camonille is on the run after a jailbreak in Illinois, and determined not to make the same mistakes that get his fellow escapees caught. He's operating on only one lung, the kind of defect that stands, in a Hemingway kind of way, for a flaw in his character, but he's doing just fine until he's picked up hitching by Vera Pool, and set up with a job at the Welcome Inn somewhere in Ohio. He's working with a teenager named Benny, who's got a girlfriend, Jan, who's got everyone's eye at the Welcome Inn. But she has an eye for Larry.

When you're a popular guy in this kind of noir, it's usually because someone wants something from you. And Vera Pool has a mother in law who's standing in the way of her happiness with the estate left her by her late husband. She's offering Larry five, then ten thousand dollars to kill her. But Larry has an eye for a set-up. He also has an eye for Jan, and Jan figures out who he is. But she doesn't want anything except to run away with Larry. And have him collect her inheritance for her, an inheritance which is being bled away from her by a crooked lawyer and his greedy wife. And she can't touch it herself, because she's only 14.

As the blurb on the front of the original paperback says: 'An escaped con seeks refuge-- finds jail bait!'

The small Ohio town is so corrupt and steamy it could be set in the deep south, and the pull of sexual attraction with Jan might have been written by James M Cain. Obviously, 1952's pulp fictions don't share our sensitivity to sex with underaged women, but even so, you know that it cannot end happily. And Elliott throws in a few twists, along with the almost requisite moment when the careful and smart Camonille makes one stupid mistake, with unforeseen but inevitable consequences.

Where this falls short of Black Wings is that Chaze's novel has two characters, on a relatively equal footing, and Chaze writes each of them with a distinct fatalism. Here the story is Larry's, and the escape he seeks he gets, but not the way he planned. This is a surprising, and surprisingly powerful pulpy read, and Stark House's double is a remarkable read.

One Is A Lonely Number by Bruce Elliott (b/w Black Wings Has My Angel)
Stark House 2012, $19.95 ISBN 9781933586434

1 comment :

jamesbchester said...

I'm an occasional reader of old pulps, but I've not read this one. In all the pulps I've read, I have yet to find a lost great novel, none of them have been that good, but they have all be fun to read, and few even stood out as very well written. One of my favorites of late is Bunny Lake is Missing. Quite a psychological thrill ride.