There is sparse information available today about the life of mid-20th Century author Walt Grove. I speculate that he probably served as a pilot during WW2, evidenced by his aviator-themed novels like “Down” and “The Joy Boys”. Perhaps he's best known for his novelization of “The Wings of Eagles”, a 1957 aviation-war film starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. My first experience with Walt Grove's small literary catalog is “Hell-Bent for Danger”, a paperback published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1950. The novel was expanded from a 1949 short-story appearing in Colliers magazine.
Grove's opening chapter reads like vintage Gil Brewer in its presentation of a heated domestic dispute between main character Robert Warren and his wife Nancy. Feeling restrained in the cold cell block of marriage, Warren's response to his wife's request to return a package to a local department store is awe-inspiring. From the driver's window, Warren throws the package and it's spilled belongings onto the family's lawn as a horrified Nancy watches on. Quickly peeling out of the driveway, readers suddenly learn that this suburban married man and father has reached his breaking point.
Through Grove's skilled hands, “Hell-Bent for Danger” is like a psychological study of man's downward spiral. As a fighter pilot in WW2, Warren often wishes he could relive one more thrilling bombing run (perhaps a sentiment shared by the author?). His distressed mind even fathoms a new society where working men and women are pitted against savage lions before boarding trains and buses – the ultimate survival of the fittest every weekday morning. But thankfully, Warren's life takes a drastic turn when his old Colonel, a lowly drifter named Bobo, shows up to borrow money.
It's abundantly clear that the author enjoyed stretching Warren's emotional guy-wires tighter and tighter as the narrative threads shift into a surprisingly new setting. Bobo wants Warren to help finance a transcontinental air-shipping business. The goal is to begin a thriving new adventure, but primarily it's so both Warren and Bobo can experience the exhilaration of flying again. The issue is that Bobo's lover Annie is young, sexy and available for Warren's repressed sexual desires. Warren wants to rediscover the thrill of living, yet teeters on a balance beam between lusting for Annie or chasing high altitudes with his friend and former Colonel. Through a roller-coaster of emotions, Grove's narrative explores lust, life's complacency and even criminal intent high over the Canadian Rockies.
“Hell-Bent for Danger” isn't necessarily a crime-noir. It reads more like a tight, romantic-thriller but retains enough action and masculinity to attract crime-fiction readers. It's clear that Walt Grove was an incredibly gifted storyteller, and I’m curious why his literary career stopped at just a handful of paperback originals. Based on my small sampling size, we were surely cheated out of what would have been an outstanding, robust literary catalog. “Hell-Bent for Danger” is an outstanding novel despite it's genre misplacement.
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