Monday, October 12, 2015

So Wicked My Love

So Wicked My Love, by Bruno Fischer
October, 1954  Fawcett Gold Medal

I recently read the novella “We Are All Dead” by Bruno Fischer, which originally appeared in a 1955 issue of Manhunt and was later collected in Maxim Jakubowski’s anthology The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (review forthcoming!). I enjoyed it so much that I immediately picked up a few of Fischer’s novels.

Fischer certainly sounds like an interesting guy. He cut his teeth in the pulps, writing weird menace stuff in the ‘30s and ‘40s as Russell Gray. I read one of his shudder pulps a few years ago (not realizing at the time that Gray was Fischer and would eventually go on to writing pulp crime), and the shit was shocking – and I don’t just mean shocking “for its time.” It was hardcore torture porn sleaze, with women being roasted and flayed and etc. But Fischer wrote this kind of stuff for a living, and then, when the paperback boom of the late ‘40s began, he rebranded himself as a crime author under his own name, and apparently went on to great success.

Like “We Are All Dead,” So Wicked My Love also started life as a Manhunt novella; it originally appeared as “Coney Island Incident” in the November, 1953 issue. Fischer must’ve expanded greatly upon this story as the novel itself runs to 174 pages of small print. But given his pulp roots, Fischer is such a skilled writer that the novel speeds by. Sure, there’s a lot of padding, stuff that should’ve been taken out, and the plot sort of gets repetitive after a while, but the book just has that hardboiled vibe so many other such novels fail to attain. And you can see why Fischer had so many readers in his day; his writing is so good and so professional that you can’t help but admire his skill.

It all starts one summer day on Coney Island; Ray, a young vet of WWII who co-owns a trucking company in Manhattan with his dad, is trying to relax on the overcrowded beach when someone accidentally kicks sand in his face. It’s a pretty girl with flaming red hair, and Ray realizes he knows her: they grew up in the same part of New York and her name is Cherry Drew. He calls for her, but Cherry appears to ignore him, looking concerned about something, but later comes back and claims she didn’t recognize him. Cherry appears to have something heavy on her mind, but then so does Ray, as his fiance Florence broke up with him the night before. In a fit of pique he gives Cherry the engagement ring; otherwise he was just going to throw it in a sewer.

Cherry begs Ray to take her out of the city and at length he gives in to her pleas. They go back to her flophouse and she strips down for him, but before they can do the deed a thug comes in with a gun and demands money from Cherry. There was an armored truck robbery the day before, you see, with a guard killed and eighty thousand dollars stolen, and witnesses claim the getaway car was driven by a pretty young girl with red hair. Ray punches out the thug and Cherry produces a knife and coldly stabs him a few times, then helps Ray stash the body beneath the bed. So yes, Cherry is in fact the getaway driver, and what’s more she’s stolen the loot from her former partners and wants Ray to take off with her.

Eventually this leads to an entertaining sequence where Ray and Cherry are hunted at the Coney Island amusement park, Cherry’s former comrades stalking them in the crowd. Ray ends up taking out one of them with the rifle at a shooting gallery, after which he and Cherry split up. Ray, still holding the eighty thousand, goes home to find Florence, his ex, waiting for him. She’s realized she loves him and wants to marry him…oh, and where’s the engagement ring? He tells her he threw it in a sewer (which he tells himself is exactly what he sort of did) and they kiss and make up. They plan to get married, and meanwhile Ray stashes the loot somewhere and gives the cops an anonymous tip where they can find it.

Here is where the story expansion clearly occurred, as the tale is for the most part over now. Cherry’s still out there, as are her former comrades who now want Ray’s blood as well, but the money’s gone and our hero gets married, which as Sam Clemens once said is the end of any story. But So Wicked My Love spans an entire year, and during it Cherry Drew will come back into Ray’s life again and again, causing him nothing but pain and misfortune each time. But each time she is still wearing that engagement ring, which she refuses to return to Ray, saying it’s the only thing anyone’s ever given her without expecting something in return.

First she bumps into Ray and Florence at a nightclub. Cherry, her hair now blonde, already has a new man, but she still wears the ring Ray gave her. Florence clearly notices but buys Ray’s story that it’s just a coincidence that it’s the same style ring as the one he bought for her. Meanwhile Cherry insists Ray visit her; she’s now in a swank penthouse, put up by her sugar daddy. That night she almost gets a drunk Ray to sleep with her, but her sugar daddy barges in and an arbitrary scene ensues in which a dirty cop threatens to jail Cherry as a hooker. Ray goes off on the sugar daddy and shames him and then pays the cop twenty bucks to go away.

Now Cherry’s lost her swank digs, and she still blames Ray for giving away “her” eighty thousand dollars. She demands a thousand bucks from him, which he “owes” her, so she can get to safety in Mexico. Ray gives her the money but Cherry ends up getting caught by her old criminal pals, and is used as bait, calling him late at night and claiming she was abducted and mugged and is now in a remote log cabin in New Jersey. Ray, who has gotten married in the interim, kisses Florence goodbye, whips out his old service .45, and drives out to New Jersey. This is the highlight of the book, as Ray becomes a veritable Mack Bolan, taking out one thug and then shooting the leader of the pack in a gunfight as he saves Cherry.

This really is the end of the book, really, but we’re only halfway through. Instead it’s really just the end of the crime/suspense angle, for the most part. Rather, So Wicked My Love becomes more of a drawn-out soap opera sort of thing in the final half. Cherry again pops up again and again, demanding this or that from Ray, trying hard to get him to fall for her, and Ray constantly finds himself at her bidding. Not because he lusts for her, but because he pities her, and also because he realizes he’s to blame for her miserable lot in life: Cherry grew up in poverty, her father the town drunk, and Ray blew her one chance for freedom when he gave back that eighty thousand.

An interesting note is that Cherry’s sexiness is only played up during her first appearance (clearly the material from the original story). Here Fischer often mentions her big ol’ boobs and nice physique and attractive face. As the book progresses, Cherry’s sexy looks are downplayed and instead Fischer only notes her babyish face; or, as the book nears its close, her tawdriness, how she’s truly become the daughter of her drunkard father, a cheap floozy just looking for her next bottle of booze. It’s an interesting trick Fischer pulls off, as he makes the reader just as attracted to Cherry as Ray is when he meets her, but as the book progresses we gradually begin to both detest and pity her, the same as Ray does.

In other words, Cherry is in no way a “sexy female villain” or even a femme fatale. She’s more annoying than anything, constantly whining or “wheedling,” as Fischer puts it. No one can do anything right, so far as she’s concerned, and she’s overly critical and demeaning and bossy. So she’s more like the average wife than a sexy female villain!! I’ve read that Fischer, like Gil Brewer, was fond of using dangerous females in his books, but just judging from the two books I’ve so far read by each author, Brewer goes more for the archetypal pulp villainess whereas Fischer goes for something a bit deeper, as Cherry Drew is a very well-drawn character and not a mere caricature.

But the novel does tend to go on too long (just like my reviews), turning into a veritable soap opera as Cherry appears again and again in Ray’s life, getting drunker and more slovenly each time, yet still wearing that ring and still harping for him. The crime vibe briefly returns when Cherry and her juvenile delinquet-esque husband of a few months become armed robbers, Cherry dubbed “the blonde bandit” by the newspapers. But the husband’s soon caught (another man destroyed by Cherry, muses Ray) and once again Cherry’s coming to Ray for help, as he’s the only person she’s ever been able to rely on. It’s at this point that Ray tells Florence everything, and she’s one of those super-understanding wives who only exist in fiction; she tells Ray he’s basically a hero and loves him even more.

I thought the inciting incident would return for the finale – one member of the heist gang, a sadist named The Barber, is still unaccounted for by novel’s end, and I figured he’d show up in the eleventh hour for revenge – but instead it all continues on the soap opera thread. Exactly a year after the beginning of the novel, Ray and Florence rent a beach house and are having a grand time, when Cherry shows up. This time she’s finally lost the ring (sold for four hundred bucks), and she’s even more slovenly than before; now she’s a brunette. That night a drunken Cherry waltzes around the house nude, having already unsuccessfully thrust herself on Ray, and the next afternoon she tries to kill Florence – hating her for “stealing” Ray from her.  Ray snatches the weapon from her in time and kicks her out of the house, telling her he is done with her for good now.

Fischer delivers a downbeat ending (SPOILER ALERT: Cherry slits her own goddamn wrists in the bathtub!), but I have to say I didn’t mind it. As mentioned above, Cherry Drew becomes one hell of a pain in the ass over the course of So Wicked My Love, lacking all the charms of your typical pulpish female villain. I was not only glad to see her finally go but was also glad that the novel was ending, about fifty pages after it should have.

But as mentioned Bruno Fischer’s writing is so competent, professional, and inspired that I’m certain I’ll be reading more of his work – in particular The Lustful Ape, which he first published under his Russell Gray pseudonym for Lion Books in 1950 before reprinting it under his own name for Gold Medal in 1959.


August West said...

Nice review of a fine author. My favorites are "Fools Walk in" and "The Evil Days."

Zwolf said...

Love Bruno Fischer. :) There are a couple of volumes of his Russell Gray stories out there - Hostesses in Hell and My Touch Brings Death. Kinda pricey at $20, but worth it.

Fischer's House of Flesh is another must-read.

You really can't go wrong with any of those old noir authors. Even the "hack work" back then looks like Shakespeare compared with most of what we get nowdays. Hell, David Goodis has gotten a Library of America volume -- that's how classic this stuff is becoming.

AndyDecker said...

Fischer is great. His shudder pulp work is unbelievable, but his crime novels are unjustly forgotten. They are so well told and, well, adult in their tone.