Lawrence Lariar was a cartoonist who edited a popular series of anthologies in the 1960s reprinting the best cartoons of the year. Less famously, he also wrote crime novels under the pseudonyms Michael Stark, Adam Knight and Marston la France - as well as under his own name. “The Day I Died” is a 1952 stand-alone crime adventure published as a Signet paperback under Lariar’s name. The novel is currently available as an eBook from Mysterious Press.
The premise of “The Day I Died” was too delicious for me to leave unread on my shelf. Tom Coyle is a loser with no reason to go on living. Today, he’d be diagnosed with depression and properly medicated. In 1952, he’s just regarded as a sad sack and his desire to end it all seems quite reasonable. Rather than committing suicide, Tom makes a devil’s bargain with a local underworld boss. The mobster takes out a life insurance policy on Tom and gives him $10,000 to live large for the next four months. After a period of cash-rich debauchery, an “accident” will occur ending Tom’s life and quietly giving the mobster a healthy payday.
With the exception of the insurance company, everybody wins, right? Tom is spared another day living a life he hates, but he gets to taste the good life he otherwise couldn’t afford for a few months Meanwhile, the godfather makes a tidy profit from the insurance proceeds. What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it seems. During his four month countdown to death, Tom finds love, begins to enjoy himself, and has second thoughts about his death wish. For the first time in his life, Tom actually wants to live. However, the gangster isn’t excited at the prospect of extinguishing the deal. Can Tom do anything to cheat his own contracted death?
Chronic depression is serious business, and the author does an admirable job of illustrating the hopelessness of Tom’s mental state for the book’s first half. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a pleasant or exciting reading experience. It takes way too long for Tom’s devil’s bargain with the mobster to happen, and the reader is stuck bearing witness to his intense sadness for far too many pages before Tom receives the money and the ability to enjoy himself for a bit.
Once Tom starts to party in the Miami sunshine with the mob’s money, the reader is forced to endure a tedious relationship drama with a series of overlapping love triangles. Simmering in the background is an underworld rivalry with stakes never made completely clear. Lariar essentially takes a cool idea and pisses all over it with wooden characters, a meandering plot, and tepid action. By the time the big twist ending happened, I was too bored to care. I was ready to see Tom just die to end the misery of this wasted opportunity of a novel.
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