Last month I reviewed the first novel published under the name of George Sanders, Crime on my Hands. This was a light, comic whodunnit set during the filming of a Hollywood western. A fictionalised version of Sanders was the detective.
Crime on my Hands was dedicated to the screwball mystery novelist Craig Rice, and it is widely assumed that she wrote the book for Sanders. His second book Stranger at Home is similarly dedicated to the novelist and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who in the mid-40s had a small but growing reputation in both science-fiction and crime).
The two books could not be more different. In Stranger, the narrator ‘George Sanders’ is abandoned, the style is more suspense than whodunnit, and the register is far more literary. The degenerate, 1940s LA high-life setting is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (and in 1946 Brackett was co-writing The Big Sleep for Howard Hawks). It feels like a much better book, or at least one with more serious intent.
Four years ago Michael Vickers was attacked and left for dead in Mexico, presumably by one of the ‘friends’ with whom he was holidaying. After recovery from his amnesia (he still has terrible headaches from his injury), and a long struggle to get back on his feet, he has come home to identify his would-be killer and take his revenge.
Vickers comes home to find a riotous party going on.
There were two radios going full blast. One had a rhumba band. On the other a woman with a bass voice was dying of a broken heart. No one was listening to either of them.
The living room was not particularly large, and it seemed to have several thousand people in it. The mass squirmed and shifted with a sort of yeasty unease, fraying at the edge into individual blobs. A man had gone to sleep under the big table […] Over in the corner a woman had broken the thin rhinestone strap that held her dress up. Four men were helping her.
Vickers’ first objective is to find his wife Angie somewhere in the chaos. But first of all finds one of his old friend’s cars in his garage.
Harold Bryce. Hello, Harold. It’ll be nice to see you again, old boy. Very, very nice… And nice to know what your car is doing in my wife’s garage.
In the morning after the night before, Harold Bryce is found floating in the ocean with a fatal head wound.
The police, led by detective Trehearne, rapidly identify Vickers as a suspect. And in truth his arrival and the death of Harold Bryce are too much of a coincidence to swallow. Meanwhile, Vickers’ objective remains the identification of his Mexican assailant. He locks himself and Angie up in their house.
I’m going to stay here, in this house, and I want no visitors that I don’t let in myself, and stay with every minute. I’m afraid of being killed.
And so begins a suspenseful game of cat and mouse with his ‘friends’, who drop by one by one. Not that any of them liked him in the first place.
He was proud, and he was dominant. Always dominant. He could do everything better than anybody else, and more easily, and more quickly. Make money, play games, take the most attractive woman for his wife.
(even his wife Angie wasn’t especially fond of the old Vickers…)
And people don’t particularly take to the new version, although there is the sense that at least he has become more real, somehow. He is still arrogant and self-satisfied, though.
His muscles weren’t smooth now. They were rigid and knotted, for use and not for play. The comfortable flesh had starved and sweated away, He rather liked himself better now.
Although you never find yourself sympathising with Vickers, it’s fascinating watching him try to ensnare his friends over the course of the novel.
Stranger at Home has some great set pieces. The party at the beginning is one of the most claustrophobic and chaotic I have read. The final chapters have an absolutely brilliant scene of waking up from unconsciousness into a shocking situation.
Excellent fare if you enjoy a paranoid thriller.
Ed Gorman’s Blog: For years there were rumors that Brackett had farmed the book out but I don’t think so. The writing is purely hers. Those sweeping sentences, those atmospherics, those bitter unhappy people. You find them in her science fantasy, her westerns, her mysteries. If there’s an influence here it’s Raymond Chandler, one of her idols. The difference is that Vickers, unlike Philip Marlowe, doesn’t observe everything at one remove. He goes through the novel trying to find the culprit–and learning in the process what an arrogant ruthless bastard he was to those around him.
Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine: There’s not a lot of action in the book. It’s all atmosphere and psychological suspense told in a terse, hardboiled style, with some great local color with Los Angeles in the late ’40s, too. It all works very well. Check it out.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.