Sunday, April 8, 2018

Violent Hours

I’ve been beating my head against the wall trying to learn anything useful or interesting about the author of “Violent Hours”, Robert Walsh, but I’ve been coming up empty. I do know that he was a real guy, not a pseudonym. I also know that “Violent Hours” was his first published novel as a Signet paperback original in 1958, but it didn’t seem to be reprinted thereafter. I can find zero evidence that he ever wrote another book that ever saw the light of day.

“Violent Hours” is a half-decent crime novel that had the potential to be great. The story takes place over the course of 22 hours with each chapter comprising a small block of that time (kinda like Fox-TV’s “24”). At 126, big-font pages, it’s a quick novella-length read. 

Our setting is the sleepy, isolated, town of Sareto. Far away from the main highway, the establishment of Sareto doesn’t take kindly to strangers. When a Yankee named Bill Carney is stranded with car trouble, the local mechanic is compelled to report the presence of the stranger to Monty, the town’s sinister land baron. Carney’s first impression is that Monty may own the town, but it’s not much of a prize. To Carney, the town of Sareto looks “like a forgotten prop in a low-budget Western.” 

There is a tense and unsettling feeling to Sareto, and the dark underbelly of this dysfunctional town was the book’s strongest feature. We meet the sexy waitress, Marylou, who grew up with an unbalanced mother and a father who looked at her with lust in his eyes. It’s through Marylou’s perspective that we learn about Monty’s wealth and his history of deliberate cruelty. We later learn that the counterbalance to the Monty’s power is an earnest newspaperman who is preparing to blow the lid off Monty’s corruption through a tell-all article in the town’s paper. Soon enough, the journalist and the stranger meet and discuss a plan to expose Monty to the entire town. All of this is happening in the hours before, during, and after a town dance and beer fest sponsored by Monty to placate the townsfolk and ensure their continued loyalty. 

At its core, “Violent Hours” is just a western novel. In fact, I have a theory that the author may have written this short book as an 1800s western, and New American Library offered to buy it if he changed the setting to the 1950s by simply adding an automobile and a telephone. Consider this: A stranger rolls into a lawless town under the thumb a corrupt boss and a feckless sheriff. The mysterious stranger attempts to bring needed justice to the cowed townsfolk. Violence ensues. The time frame is really immaterial to the story.  

Unfortunately, after a promising start, “Violent Hours” quickly fizzles out. The writing is adequate but nothing special. The bad guys are truly reprehensible and our hero is sufficiently reluctant to get dragged into the internal workings of a small town’s drama before doing just that. The book just lacks originality or any character with real charisma. You’ve seen this story before in many different forms, most of which are more compelling than this iteration. 

Fun Fact: The cover art on “Violent Hours” was painted by Robert Emil Schulz, an artist whose claim to fame was drawing the Brawny Man on the paper towel rolls (good work if you can get it, I imagine). It’s a well-packaged, good-looking book worth owning for the cover alone. The story inside, while not terrible, just isn’t the best use of your time.

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