Tuesday 26 March 2013

Westlake on Rabe: A Shroud for Jesso & Kill the Boss Goodbye by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1955/6)

NB: A version of this post also appears at The Violent World of Parker.

Continuing the rolling – if intermittent – showcase of Peter Rabe books I've bought of late (well, over the last year or so, anyway) – with, of course, additional commentary on each by perhaps Rabe's greatest admirer, Donald E. Westlake, taken from Westlake's 1989 essay on Rabe – we reach Rabe's third novel:

A Shroud for Jesso, published, like Stop This Man! and Benny Muscles In, by Gold Medal in the States in 1955. Although once again this particular copy is the British Frederick Muller edition, issued... I don't know when, actually: there's no publication date inside. But anyway, it's essentially the same as the Gold Medal edition, with the same Lu Kimmel-illustrated cover.

This, according to Westlake in his "Peter Rabe" essay in Murder off the Rack, is where Rabe starts to come into his own – at least, "in the second half of" the book. Westlake calls the characters "rich and subtle, their relationships ambiguous, their story endlessly fascinating". For me personally, it's that ambiguity in Rabe's novels that makes them especially appealing: there's an unpredictability to his characters, and as a consequence to his plots; one never quite knows in which direction they're going to head next. He's also a dab hand at eliciting empathy with essentially unheroic or criminal characters, something Westlake, whose Parker series (written as Richard Stark) was almost certainly inspired in part by Rabe, naturally responds to, as evidenced by the elevated position in his essay he affords Rabe's fifth novel:

Kill the Boss Good-By, published by Gold Medal in 1956 (although as before, this copy is the Frederick Muller edition, bought at the last-but-one London Paperback & Pulp Bookfair), with terrific cover art by Barye Phillips. Westlake uses Kill the Boss Good-By to kick off his essay, ridiculing the title ("Why would anybody ever want to read a book called Kill the Boss Goodbye?") but calling the novel itself "one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written", adding "The entire book is spare and clean and amazingly unornamented."

For Westlake, Kill the Boss Good-By "was the peak of Rabe's first period, five books [the fourth being A House in Naples, 1956; I don't have a copy of that yet], each one better than the one before". He continues: 

In those books, Rabe combined bits and pieces of his own history and education with the necessary stock elements of the form to make books in which tension and obsession and an inevitable downward slide toward disaster all combine with a style of increasing cold objectivity not only to make the scenes seem brand new but even to make the (rarely stated) emotions glitter with an unfamiliar sheen.

Sadly, in Westlake's eyes, that peak was followed by a trough that lasted roughly ten novels; for him it wasn't until the late-1950s that Rabe regained some of his early promise, producing a "final cluster of five excellent books"...

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