Stark House Press has just released a reprinting of Gil Brewer's 1958 novel “The Red Scarf” and his 1954 book “A Killer is Loose”. The two works are packaged together with a forward from the esteemed Paul Bishop, author of “Lie Catchers” and “Deep Water”. Brewer is a staple of the crime paperback empire, writing over 30 novels in a career that spanned 1951-1970. Despite being a fixture in the genre, his selling prowess never came to fruition.
“The Red Scarf”, the subject of this review, is described by Bishop as “noir at its finest – comparable to any exploration of human darkness before or since”. While I wasn't as moved as much as Bishop, I found this crime novel intriguing in its dissection of greed and its effect on the human condition. It's a familiar and rather elementary story involving a briefcase of stolen cash from the mob. It seems to be the premise of nearly every noir crime, some sort of heist that goes incredibly wrong for the inexperienced planner and performer.
Roy Nichols and his wife Bess are in a tough spot. They own a roadside motel that doesn't actually feature a road. The acquisition of the motel was in hopes that a planned road would be built through town. However, the city has nixed the idea and Roy has been rejected for additional loans by the bank and his own brother. Roy runs into Teece and his wife Vivian on a lonely stretch of road. Teece is running money for the mob from state to state and has decided to steal a briefcase of cash. After wrecking and seemingly dying, both Roy and Vivian escape unhurt and venture to Roy's motel in Florida with the money. It's here that things get somewhat complicated.
Teece wants to pay Roy to keep her safe at the motel. She's fearing the mob will find her and the money. Roy, hoping to keep all of this a secret from Bess, agrees but second guesses everything. He is constantly looking over his shoulder for the police, mobsters and even a dead Teece in fits of paranoia that may not be worth the price. When the police and a hitman start snooping around the motel...things get wacky and unhinged.
Brewer tinkers with everyday people and puts them in precarious situations. Thus, “The Red Scarf” wraps snugly around the reader, tightening in just the right places to make this one a stressful, high-tension read. The police interrogations are worth the price of admission and watching Roy's nervous antics and jitterbug dances between Bess, Vivian and the law were particularly enjoyable. While there isn't a great deal of action, suspenseful negotiating more than makes up for the absence of guns and fists. I'd recommend “The Red Scarf” to anyone looking for suspenseful fiction. Buy your copy here.