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Richard Matheson: Noir (Three Novels of Suspense)

 

Crescent Blues Book Views Forge (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-765-31140-2

Book: matheson, noir
The three short crime novels collected in this volume originally saw publication early in Richard Matheson's career, when he wrote almost exclusively for the paperback pulps. Already established in the fantastic genres with short stories like "Born of Man and Woman" (1950) and "Third from the Sun" (1950), his first novels -- Someone Is Bleeding (1953), Fury on Sunday (1953) and the somewhat later and slicker Ride the Nightmare (1959) -- indulged his taste for crime.

In Someone Is Bleeding, young Dave picks up or is picked up by pretty widow Peggy on the beach, and falls almost obsessively in love with her. Yet Peggy already suffers the obsessive attentions of the crooked lawyer and psychopath Jim Vaughan, whose "chauffeur," the ruthless hitman Steig, graduated from the Chicago mobs. The exact relationship between Peggy and Vaughan mystifies Dave -- and us -- for much of the novel. Is she in love with Vaughan and merely toying with Dave, or does she find herself trapped under Vaughan's blackmailing thumb? As murdered bodies begin to pile up, Dave gets tantalizing glimpses of the tragic past that left Peggy sexually frigid. But the circumstances shift with the teller and the moment.

Matheson does a marvelous job of juggling all these uncertainties in a novel that genuinely grips despite its somewhat bumpy prose. The sequence in which Steig chases Dave with the intent of "eliminating" him takes the reader on a particularly white-knuckle ride.

The other two novels prove conceptually simpler, being more suspense novels than mysteries. In Fury on Sunday Vincent, who hit the heights as a concert pianist before being locked up in an institution for the criminally insane, ruthlessly murders a guard and escapes, intent on avenging himself on those in his earlier life whom he reckons destroyed him. The portrayal of the various characters Vincent manages to bring together and the relations between them give its novel its genuine strength. They include tarty Jane and Stan, the older husband whom she loathes and habitually cuckolds; and Ruth, the woman toward whom Vincent nurtures an idealistic but insane love, and her regular-guy husband Bob. In a manner remarkable for its time, the novel confronts Vincent's sexually tormented past so that, even while his homicidal mania chills us, we also feel a strong sympathy for him.

In Ride the Nightmare, Chris and Helen Martin seem to share an untroubled life with their daughter Connie -- not a cloud on the horizon. But within minutes everything changes as figures begin to appear from a past of which Chris told Helen nothing. Before they know it, the Martins are indeed riding a nightmare, with seemingly no possible outcome but the deaths of all three as they vie with a pair of ruthless gangsters. Making the mayhem all the more frightening -- the crime in Chris's past, while genuine enough, in no way justifies its horrific consequences. Ride the Nightmare lacks the psychological depth of the other two novels, but that proves no demerit in a novel designed sheerly to thrill -- which it does.

Matheson's noirs stand up well against those of other, better-known exponents of the genre such as James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, and certainly this book well rewards your reading.

John Grant

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