The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose by Gil Brewer - book review: Full of frantic characters, anguished prose, and impending terror

The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose by Gil Brewer
The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose by Gil Brewer

While hitchhiking home, a desperate man with a briefcase full of cash is pursued by the police and the mob, and a hapless ex-cop becomes captive to a deranged, psychotic killer, in two dark, raw, outstanding noir classics.

Hugely popular and prolific during the 1950s, selling millions of copies of paperback originals, the late Gil Brewer is considered one of the best American crime writers of his era. Between 1950 and the late 1970s, he authored hundreds of short stories and dozens of novels, including The Red Scarf and A Killer is Loose, two early career novels commonly cited as among the author’s finest.

As veteran LAPD detective-writer Paul Bishop says of these novels in his introduction to this combined edition, Brewer’s ‘specialty of trapping his protagonist in a web of terror, paranoia, and dread and empathetically transmitting those feelings to his readers had been honed to the sharpness of a killer’s stiletto.’

Originally published in the Mercury Mystery Book-Magazine in 1955, and later in book form as a Crest reprint by Fawcett, The Red Scarf sold more than a million copies and received numerous favourable reviews in leading periodicals.

Anthony Boucher of The New York Times, who was never a fan of Brewer, singled it out as the author’s best work, calling it a ‘pointed and restrained’ full-packed, effective tale, and New York Times bestselling author Bill Pronzini proclaims ‘the characterization is flawless, and the prose is Brewer’s sharpest and most controlled.’

Taut and suspenseful, this is a lean, unembellished story about Roy Nichols, a foolish, down-on-his-luck Floridian motel owner who succumbs to temptation and is swiftly caught up in a perilous situation involving determined thieves, a vicious mob enforcer, and a shrewd police lieutenant determined to uncover the truth.

Behind on his loan payments to the bank, and with his application for a loan extension turned down, Nichols returns home from Chicago in desperate straits. His brother, ‘a twenty-four-carat stinker,’ has just refused him a loan, believing him to be a bad investment, and he is so hard up for cash that he has to hitchhike his way back to Florida.

When a truck drops him off in the middle of nowhere, he makes the mistake of buying a coffee at a crude, dilapidated diner known as Alf’s Place. Described as ‘a bent-looking shed with a drunken gas pump standing out front in a mess of mud,’ the ‘sick wreck’ of a building, bearing cardboard signs out front, is no better on the inside.

Shortly after arriving, Nichols gets into a fight with Jo-Jo, ‘a young, rough, country lush’ who is harassing one of the customers , a beautiful, shapely woman named Vivian Rise. Nichols knocks the brute unconscious and, by way of appreciation, Vivian persuades her tough boyfriend, Noel Teece, a courier for a crime syndicate, to give Nichols a lift home.

Alas, during the journey, the liquored-up Teece, anxious that the mob are tailing them, drives recklessly and crashes the car. Although Nichols and Vivian survive the crash with minor injuries, Teece appears to be dead.

Nichols then discovers among the wreckage a damaged briefcase, held together by Vivian’s lucky red scarf, filled with thousand-dollar bills. It is money that Vivian and Teece have stolen from the mob.

The promise of some of the cash is all the persuasion Nichols needs to flee the scene of the accident with Vivian and shelter her at his motel while she makes plans to leave the country.

It leads to a gripping, maddeningly claustrophobic situation, with the increasingly frantic Vivian, trapped and restless, sensing the mob closing in on her, and the obsessive Nichols, sick with fear and paranoia, compelled to lie to his wife and tortured by feelings of guilt and impending doom.

Arguably more blood-tingling, the second novel, A Killer Is Loose, is an unbearably tense, breathtakingly good thriller first published in 1954 as a Fawcett Gold Medal original. Penned in less than two weeks, this was Brewer’s sixth novel and, as with The Red Scarf, it is a fast-paced, first-person narrative featuring another luckless everyman who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and caught up in a nightmare situation.

This time, the protagonist, Steve Logan, is an unemployed ex-cop with a damaged eye who hasn’t held a steady job in over a year. His expectant wife, Ruby, is about to give birth to their first child, and Logan is desperate for money to support his growing family.

When he tries and fails to collect on a $270 debt from a wealthy yachtsman, he decides to sell his precious, reconditioned Luger to bar owner Jake Halloran.

Unfortunately, between socking the yachtsman and attempting to flog his gun, Logan saves the life of Ralph Angers, an eye surgeon and a Korean War vet who is a stranger in town with plans to build a hospital.

Logan’s heroic deed has disastrous consequences for the entire community, as Angers is mentally unstable and, once in possession of Logan’s ‘hunk of temptation’ gun, becomes a psychotic killer, callously gunning down innocent townsfolk.

Somehow, Brewer maintains the harrowing and relentless journey of terror, with Logan a hostage to Angers, helplessly witnessing each of the needless killings and unable to put an end to the violence.

In one disturbing, yet memorable scene, Angers forces a petrified eleven-year-old girl to play the piano for him. Pronzini has described it as ‘a scene Woolrich or Thompson might have written and Hitchcock should have filmed.’

It is hardly surprising that Brewer sold the film rights to the book as A Killer is Loose is a uniquely brilliant, unforgettable crime tale with an unpredictable plot, a sympathetic narrator, a frightening killer, and one heart-pounding, hair-raising moment after another. Full of frantic characters, anguished prose, and impending terror, it is perfectly paired with The Red Scarf.

(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)