Monday, January 22, 2018

Winner Take All

Mark Steele is an out-of-work Man of Adventure bumming around San Francisco when he hears a knock at the door. The man on the other side of the door is a stranger - but one who looks exactly like Steele. This is the opening scene of James McKimmey’s 1959 Dell paperback, Winner Take All. This obscure crime novel has been given a second life through a 2018 re-release from Stark House Press. This new re-issue is packaged with a 1957 “innocent man accused” novel called Perfect Victim, also by McKimmey, as well as a 2004 interview with the author by “Noir Originals” scribe and author Allan Guthrie. 

It turns out that Steele’s doppelgänger is a heretofore unknown twin brother who was separated at birth. And while Steele lived a hardscrabble life fighting in wars and taking care of himself, Byrd planted his flag into the privileged trappings of the idle rich - trust funds, women, booze, and gambling. As hardboiled genre fiction fans might expect, the reason that Byrd seeks out Steele was not for a tearful brotherly reunion. He comes with an offer: Can Steele pose as Byrd to negotiate a settlement on a large gambling debt owed to the mob? Seeing an opportunity to turn a buck and find some action, the braver brother accepts, and the story is off and running.

It would have been easy for McKimmey to structure the novel differently - by having the non-violent brother drafted to take the place of his soldier-of-fortune twin and find his own manhood in the process. Instead, the author puts us into the mind of the brother who is more comfortable in a world of violence and unpredictability, and that adds to the fun of this one. While the set-up of this short novel is rather contrived, the execution is superb - mostly due to the author’s skill with first-person crime novel narration. The book has all the trappings of the hardboiled crime stories of the paperback original era - thuggish mobsters, a sexy femme fatale (or two) and twisty double-cross plot devices. It’s a blast of a story - violent, sexy, and compelling - and well worth your time. 

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