Clifton Adams (1919-1971) was primarily known as a western writer in the 1950s and 1960s, but he also authored a handful of solid noir crime paperbacks that were largely forgotten until they were resurrected by reprint publisher Stark House. “Whom Gods Destroy” from 1953 was a Fawcett Gold Medal original that has been re-released as a double along with “Death’s Sweet Song.”
Our narrator, Roy Foley, is a fry cook at a diner who receives word that his father has just died. Roy reluctantly takes a Greyhound bus back to Oklahoma to make the burial arrangements for the town’s drunken cobbler. This brings back a flood of good and bad memories from Roy’s youth that drive the plot in this thin paperback.
A flashback chapter fills the reader in on Roy’s background. He grew up barefoot and dirt poor in the hard-scrabble part of town. Despite these humble origins, Roy was the town’s star quarterback and smarter than most of the rich kids in his school. He had a crush on the wealthy Lola and dreamed of going to college on a scholarship and making something of himself.
All this came crashing down when Lola laughed in his face at the prospect of them ever being together. Disgraced, Roy left town and never returned until it became time to bury his father 14 years later. Upon his return to his hometown, he learns that Lola is married to a highly-regarded pillar in the community.
After the Volstead Act ended prohibition in the U.S., Oklahoma was one of two states that continued to outlaw alcohol - a practice that continued for over twenty years thereafter. This kept booze bootleggers in business in Oklahoma and presents a money-making opportunity for Roy when he meets up with an old high school buddy in the smuggling business. Roy wants to get in the illegal liquor racket figuring it will make more than fry-cooking and might just show Lola that he isn’t actually white trash.
The bootlegging business is intertwined with local public corruption, and that brings Roy and Lola back into the same orbit. The hurt and hard feelings from a high school snub never fully go away and motivate Roy to climb his way up the bootlegging ladder as a form of comeuppance. His obsession with Lola never dissipates and fuels many bad decisions over the course of the novel.
Like his other noir books, “Whom Gods Destroy” is compelling as hell. The only problem is that Roy is more than a bit of a jackass, and it’s hard to root for him knowing that everything he does is motivated by avenging hurt feelings from his adolescence. You really have to be comfortable with a seriously-flawed main character to enjoy this paperback. Even so, the plot twists and turns in delightful ways that keep the pages turning long after bedtime. Highly recommended.
I wish Clifton Adams wrote more crime novels in his career. I’m only aware of five:
Death’s Sweet Song
Whom Gods Destroy
Never Say No To A Killer (as Jonathan Gant)
The Very Wicked (as Nick Hudson)
The Long Vendetta (as Jonathan Gant)