The genesis of this paperback is a bit confusing, so do your best to follow along. In 1946, “The American Magazine” published a short story called “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin (1912-1964). The story must have been well-received because it was adapted into a screenplay by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman for a 1955 movie starring Spencer Tracy called “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Before the movie was released, the screenplay was then adapted into a Fawcett Gold Medal novelization by Michael Niall released in December 1954. Here’s the catch: Michael Niall is a pseudonym for Howard Breslin, the guy who wrote the original short story in the first place. The good news is that the novel “Bad Day at Black Rock” is nowhere near as confusing as the paperback’s origin story.
It’s the Summer of 1945 and a passenger train stops in the small, Western desert town of Black Rock. The only passenger to disembark is John Macreedy, and you can be forgiven if you picture him to look a lot like Spencer Tracy. The mere fact that the streamliner stopped in the dust-plagued and shabby town is a big deal because no passenger train has stopped in Black Rock for four years. Suffice to say, this isn’t a place accustomed to strangers.
Macreedy is greeted with hostility and distrust from Black Rock’s permanent residents. This is a story of dueling secrets. The people of Black Rock clearly have something to hide. Conversely, Macreedy’s real purpose in town is initially a mystery to both the guarded townies and the reader. I’m not going to spoil it here, but Macreedy has travelled to Black Rock to solve a mystery and right a wrong that never should have happened. But is he a private detective? A government agent? A lone vigilante?
The town’s boss is named Reno Smith, a vividly-drawn character filled with menace and power beneath a veneer of charm and reasonableness. Although this was basically a contemporary story of the 1940s, the paperback has the vibe and structure of a novel set in the Old West - a stranger blowing through a dusty town with a secret headed for a violent confrontation with the existing power structure among the tumbleweeds.
A book like “Bad Day at Black Rock” succeeds or fails based on the strength of the secrets the characters eventually reveal, and the solutions here are pretty satisfying. Although the paperback is only 143 pages, there was quite a bit of filler added to create some bulk to what was probably a perfectly lean short story. The final confrontation was solid and also recalled the explosion of violence found at the end of most Western novels.
Overall, “Bad Day at Black Rock” was a decent, if unremarkable, diversion. I predict that it won’t be your favorite book, but you also won’t regret the couple hours it takes you to finish it.