Sunday, October 8, 2023

Night Lady (William Campbell Gault, 1958)

I usually leave commenting on offensive language until the end. We all understand these pulpy paperbacks were written in another century when different morality codes were in place. Hell, sometimes their crudeness and political incorrectness even make them more amusing. But this time, I will make an exception since the very opening of Night Lady goes a bit loopy. Check this:

The thing you want to remember about wrestlers is that they are not always as virile as they look. It’s a trade that appeal to the narcissist. And from self-admiration it’s only a step to love of like for like.

And love of like for like can lead a man into something as socially respectable as Rotary or something as socially repugnant as homosexuality. 

What follows is a barrage of homophobic shit. Forget the "love of like for like". We get monsters (!?!), freaks, weirdies, homos, ugly slobs, pansies, etc. Relentless stuff. It's on almost every single page for the entire opening chapter. Then, for some reason, it finishes as abruptly as it started. Weird...

When this poisonous torrent of insults stops, the book becomes at least readable, but unfortunately, it is still not very enjoyable. The story involving corruption in wrestling showbiz is original, and most of the characters are interesting and decently fleshed out, but the plotting is terrible. Nothing really happens, and our gumshoeing hero is basically going around in circles interviewing the same people who were introduced at the beginning. 

Joe Puma is yet another Mike Hammer clone: a conservative asshole (btw, he doesn't work on Sundays), full of prejudice, old-fashioned ideas, and judgments about everything and everyone. But unlike Hammer's, his M.O. is a complete mess. For starters, there's this weird cooperation with the cops. Instead of simply having his best friend cop (as most of the other private eyes do), Joe works with the police. Literally - he actually mails them his daily reports!?

He's hardly efficient and thinks more about what he will eat for the next meal than what to ask his suspects on numerous pointless interviews. Or taking the whole afternoon off to take a girl out for a picnic!? Twice, to be precise. So, it comes as no surprise that as late as in chapter 8 (of 15), he starts whining about neither him nor the police making any progress.

But thanks to his incompetence, we are treated with a few unforgettable scenes.

He is still clueless in chapter 12, still whining (nothing, nothing, nothing….I had nowhere to go, no lead to follow or suspect to interrogate), so he gets the brilliant idea:

I got a big piece of paper and put down all the characters in this muddled murder and tried to connect them with lines of meaning, tried to find in the web of interconnecting lines, some road to revelation.

Huh? Can you imagine Phillip Marlowe doing something as idiotic as this? Hell no, the only diagram he would ever draw would be the one of some complicated chess game position. 

Can Joe Puma sink even lower? Well, yes, he can. In another scene, he finds himself stuck in an apartment with a girl and is reluctant to go out where a couple of hoods are waiting for him. So he asks the girl to watch over him through the window and call the cops if they get rough. It's not exactly something your typical P.I. would degrade himself to, but I'll let it slide. After all, he does work with the police, and this same pair kicked the shit out of him a few chapters earlier. But then comes the masterpiece: 

You don’t happen to have a gun around, do you?

Simply brilliant! Do you have a spare gun lying around!?!? Needless to say, I take back that Mike Hammer comparison, with apologies to all Spillane fans out there.

There's more, but let's not dwell too much on our poor Joseph. We still have an ending to discuss. It deserves discussing because Joe doesn't really break the case. The thing is that the villain is so fucking stupid that the case breaks itself. In short - the guy is involved in the shootout with our man Joe and the aforementioned couple of hoods. Both tough guys end up dead on the floor, but he simply walks away back to his office and later tells the cops he wasn't around. As simple as that. His word against Joe's.

Still unsatisfied, Joe just has to tie up the loose ends. He interviews one of his suspects' psychiatrist (who has never heard of doctor/patient confidence) and comes up with the final shocking twist. Without giving away too much (sic), it is linked to transvestitism! And we are treated with some more vulgar and primitive psychoanalysis:

It means an urge to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. Like women in riding habits and men in silk Hawaiian sport shirts.

Finally, there's an epilogue: a five-page scene in which Joe fights a professional wrestler! And yes, masculinity, heterosexuality, virility, etc will prevail in this final combat. The. Fucking. End.

I don't know. There must be Gault fans who consider him subversive for breaking pretty much all unwritten genre rules and not avoiding writing about "socially repugnant" topics. I'm not one of them. This was my third Joe Puma, which will remain so for a long time.


(I'm generously adding half a point for that "do you have a gun" scene.)


He looked at me enviously. “Tough. Smart, sexy, tough and active. Damn you, Joseph Puma.”

There are many female characters, and Joe - instead of investigating - takes some time off to summarise them all. You can find this on page 145. It's a pretty silly thing that finishes with

Nine women I had met and batted only .222. Figure it out for yourself, nine into two. That was pretty damned decent of me. 

Now is a good time to mention another repugnant, degrading human behaviour that troubles Joe. You see, he doesn't mind having sex with a girl on their second date. So it is even more shocking that we catch him later contemplating:

I’d had personal experience with her beyond the hearsay. And I am not young enough to believe that a girl who succumbs too quickly to me hasn’t succumbed as quickly dozens of times before.
Well, maybe it wasn’t a sin. Who am I to judge? But when it gets to be a compulsion it is sure as hell as much of a degradation as any other compulsion, including overeating.

In other words - it's "decent" of him to score, but it makes her nymphomaniac? What an asshole.


Body count:

The object of desire: keep the game (wrestling) honestly crooked.

Nothing special about the first one:

I went down half-conscious and caught a foot in the throat. I heard the wail of a siren right after they started to kick me.

I liked the second one more. After the shootout that leaves two bad guys bleeding on the floor, Joe gets smashed on his head with the vase by a pissed-off "stocky blonde":
And though I couldn’t see her, I could recognize the nasal of the stocky blonde who was neither sister nor wife. She said shrillingly, “Damn you, I warned you not to mess up the place!"

Had The Los Angeles Times published some bad reviews of Gault's stuff?

The paper was the Times. The Los Angeles Times. They do love to compare themselves to The New York Times but they are to The New York Times what Elmer Kenilstube is to Dizzy Dean. In case you never heard of Elmer Kenilstube, he pitched for Elkville in the Dakota League and set a record, losing sixteen consecutive games.

And he was most likely the only person on this planet who disliked Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobridgia:

I turned to the drama section and read about the stars, the feminine stars. I do love to read about them and imagine myself in their lives, dancing and like that. On the stars, the Times does an adequate job. American stars, I mean, and the skinny Italian ones. Those big Italian stars you can have, all tits and guts.

Cool Blurbs:
...starring Joe Puma, William Campbell Gault's greatest gift to private-eye lovers everywhere

A woman wearing a white sheath dress and a cerulean mink stole is seen leaving the scene of the first murder. The crime happened at night, hence - Night Lady?

Before you start googling, I did that for you: cerulean means "deep blue in colour like a clear sky". You are very welcome.

Crest #260, First Printing, December 1958

A beautiful painting, sort of subdued... more sad or maybe nostalgic than erotic. Uncredited, and I can find no signature.

Cool lines:

Did the killer know they were Sheila’s?
Sheila knew they were Sheila’s.
According to my theory, Sheila was not the killer.
So go back: did the killer know they were Sheila’s?

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