Bruce Elliott is probably best remembered by fans of pulp fiction for writing a handful of unremarkable stories for 'The Shadow' magazine, but Stark House has rediscovered and rereleased his 1952 noir novel “One Is A Lonely Number,” originally a Lion Books paperback. The new edition is paired with “Black Wings Has My Angel” by Elliott Chaze, a highly-regarded novel that I hope to read and review soon.
The writing in “One Is A Lonely Number” begins promisingly: “It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy.” The vivid descriptors continue with a prostitute exhibiting “too-full breasts that slopped over each side of her rib cage.” Right away, it’s clear that author Bruce Elliott intends to bring his A-Game game to noir fiction writing.
Larry is one of ten escaped convicts from Joliet prison following nearly five years inside. After getting laid with a hooker, his next order of business is to get down to Mexico. This isn’t just a tropical place to enjoy freedom for Larry, but a necessary move for his respiratory health. While incarcerated, one of his lungs was removed due to tuberculosis, and the warm Mexican air will be easier on his taxed remaining lung.
As he makes his way down south, he finds himself in a small town enjoying the company of multiple voluptuous and willing women while working at a local bar and eatery. The female characters in this book are all filled with treachery and emotional instability. The femmes are fatale, but they never pretend to be innocent or honorable. This is also a highly sexual - if not always graphic - fugitive story, but Elliott’s excellent writing makes the misogyny sing. This dim view of fictional females isn’t unusual given the genre and the 1952 publication date, but “One Is a Lonely Number” probably isn’t the wisest anniversary gift for your new bride.
Eventually, the opportunity to commit some profitable crimes is presented to Larry, and the allure of some easy cash to stake his trip to Mexico is too attractive to decline. There’s a plot twist regarding one of the women that is a real curve ball, and Larry’s reaction to it is totally depraved. This is a book that could never have been published in today’s climate as the societal norms have shifted too greatly.
“One Is A Lonely Number” is a total blast of a crime novel. It’s weird as all hell and unlike any other book of the era that I can recall. The plot holes can be overlooked because the fast-moving paperback is just so damn full of surprises. A giant standing ovation for Stark House for bringing this lost classic back to life. Highly recommended.