Just read three novels in a row from Peter Rabe. You know him? He was one of those remarkable Gold Medal writers of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. I still maintain that those fellas (and occasional dames) were the tightest, leanest group of writers ever to walk this here planet, and every time I’m in need of inspiration, they are the scribblers I go to.
Peter Rabe, though… he was in a bit of a class by himself. Style, man, that’s what I’m talking about. He was as lean and tough-minded as any of his contemporaries, but his best work was also laced-through with a kind of vivid, hard-boiled poetry, a really unique cadence to his sentences that continuously draws a reader in and touches something indefinable inside.
“There was a cool, watery smell in the air. Jesso looked back at the row of trees, and then the villa again. He didn’t often feel like this, but suddenly it was as if he were out of place. Jesso hunched his shoulders. It sure didn’t feel like home territory. Hell, there was no more home territory. There was nothing but Jesso with a two-day beard, his stolen clothes, and a half-crazy scheme that hadn’t even begun to take shape. He rubbed his face and then he made a noise as if he meant to laugh but thought better of it. Christ, a real one-man operation. He always wanted a one-man operation, and now he had it; right in the neck he had it. Or it had him. A free hand and nobody underfoot. It had come true so completely that he didn’t know whether to laugh or to swear.”
You see what I mean? Stripped down, almost stream-of-consciousness, but still amazingly vivid and emotional. The repetition of certain words, the short, sudden sentences. It all equals powerful and involving story-telling.
The first Rabe I read was, by coincidence, his first published novel (not counting a memoir thing he wrote), Stop This Man! It wasn’t bad. The story moved along nicely, and the only real bad thing you could say about it was the somewhat idiotic and unfunny comedy relief. If you haven’t read Rabe, I really recommend you DON’T start with Stop This Man!
After that, I moved on to the Stark House double edition of Anatomy of a Killer and A Shroud for Jesso. Both brilliant in their different ways, but of the two, A Shroud for Jesso is better.
The most striking thing to me was how all three novels were completely different. Yeah, they all feel into the crime fiction genre, but the characters, the stories, didn’t resemble each other in the least. Rabe was not a guy to write to formula, which itself was a surprising thing considering how many books he wrote. Even guys like Charles Williams or Day Keene or Harry Whittington had formulas they fell back on.
But not Rabe. He was a true original. If you haven’t read him, I suggest you get on it. You won’t be disappointed.