Robert Edmond Alter (1925-1966) sold dozens of short stories to crime-fiction digests including Manhunt and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine in addition to authoring several children’s books. However, his long-form fiction for Fawcett Gold Medal consisted of only two novels, Swamp Sister and Carny Kill, both of which were published in the year of his death, 1966. America’s fascination with noir fiction involving sexy and unsophisticated women from the backwoods continues to fascinate me, so I decided to try my luck with Swamp Sister.
The paperback opens with a two-person plane - a Piper Cub - destined for Jacksonville, Florida crashing in the remote swampland due to an engine failure. The crash kills two men including a passenger carrying a briefcase filled with a $80,000 in cash.
Four-years later, “The Money Plane, ” as the locals call it, is a thing of legends among swamp people. 20 year-old Shad Hark has been searching the swamp for years looking for any sign of the downed aircraft with no luck. A New York insurance investigator tickled the town’s imagination after the crash with the news that there is wreckage somewhere out there containing $80,000 among the alligators and Spanish moss. Most locals have long since given up the hunt and some have died trying to find it on their own.
Persistence pays off for Shad one day when he finds the Money Plane deep in the watery woods protected by aggressive gators and cottonmouth snakes. He crawls into the tiny cabin, and recovers the briefcase. Because he’s a moron, he uses his Bowie knife to slice the briefcase to ribbons to get at the money. Because of this bad idea, Shad has $80,000 but no way to carry the cash back home. He decides to stash the majority of the cash in the jungle with the plane and fills his pockets with what he could carry.
The author makes the unfortunate literary choice to write the dialogue in the patois of dipshits from swamp county. This makes for a condescending and cumbersome read filled with sentences like, “Shaddy, you ain’t forgit you’n me is going gator-grabbing?” This crappy writing bogs down the plot considerably. To be honest, it’s a fairly lousy plot to begin with, but Alter’s tin ear for dialogue certainly doesn’t help.
Shad’s in love with a swamp girl named Margy with a heart of gold, and he takes her into his confidence about his plan to recover the stashed funds. Meanwhile, Shad’s spending of $10 bills recovered from the wreckage attracts the attention of a different group of shotgun-toting dipshits from town - as well as a trap set by the man from the insurance company who alerted the locals to the existence of the money plane four years earlier.
This book mostly sucks. Some of the jungle scenes with the characters dodging gators and cottonmouth snakes were somewhat exciting, but overall Swamp Sister should have been left to rot among the fetid, torpid waters of history. It’s been reprinted a couple times over the years, but new cover art failed to put a glossy sheen on this turd of a book. It’s still early, but this is the worst book I’ve read in 2020 thus far. To the Hall of Shame with thee!
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After that wrecking ball of a review I don’t suppose there’s a lot of point in coming to this novel’s defense, but here I go anyway.ReplyDelete
This is a solid suspense story with a vivid sense of place, a worthy hero, a distressingly competent villain and a swift engaging pace.
The climax is brutal and unexpected, with the hero scrambling to survive.
Barry Gifford edited the Black Lizard line of noir titles in the 1980’s. Black Lizard reprinted a chain of almost uniformly excellent novels, including work by Jim Thompson, Paul Cain, Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, Dan J. Marlowe, and Fredric Brown. I’ve read all of these and never, until reading this review, did it occur to me that Alter’s Swamp Sister might not belong in their company.
Allow me to suggest that this novel was not selected for re-printing by Black Lizard Press because it was a ‘turd’.
Read it years ago and enjoyed it. It's gotten good reviews elsewhere.ReplyDelete
More research is indicated...Alter published other men's adventure novels: THIEVES LIKE US, THE RED FATHOM, PATH TO SAVAGERY. He was an impressive talent when he died suddenly.ReplyDelete
Been on my shelf too long. Now I'm going to have to read it to find out if it's as bad as described. I enjoyed CARNY KILL.ReplyDelete