Monday, July 1, 2013

ONE FOR HELL, by Jada M. Davis

It's weird how, after so many years of reading paperback original noirs from the '50's, I'll still occasionally stumble across something I had no previous knowledge of. It's even weirder when it turns out to be something as remarkable as ONE FOR HELL, by Jada M. Davis.

How this one stayed under my radar for so long, I couldn't tell you. The only real review/synopsis I've found of it on line came from James Reasoner's blog, a couple-three years ago, when Stark House first re-issued it. But I can tell you this: the book belongs on the top tier of unsung classics of noir. It's great stuff.

The story follows a pattern most readers of this sort of book are familiar with-- an amoral protagonist (in this case, a drifter named Willa Ree) rolls into town, insinuates himself into it nicely, and then proceeds to take over. And it ends in tragedy, not just for the protagonist but for everyone he comes in contact with.

But where ONE FOR HELL really stands apart is in the author's willingness to push it beyond the bounds of reader comfort; Willa Ree is more than just amoral, he's thoroughly despicable. Over the course of the story, he robs, lies, rapes, kills. Without regret (except when things start closing in, of course, and even then it's only regret that he didn't cover his tracks better), and without a thought for anyone but himself.

Willa Ree belongs on the list of all-time most villainous noir sociopaths, up there with Roy Martin (AKA Drake) in Dan Marlowe's THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH, or Jim Thompson's Lou Ford and Nick Corey or Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley. And he's actually LESS likable than any of those characters.

Why then, was I so wrapped up in it, so on edge, as Willa Ree's world starts to spin out of control? Because Jada M. Davis is just THAT skilled a writer. The suspense of the last fifty pages or so is very nearly unbearable as Willa scrambles to save his ass, and you know, you just KNOW, that it's a lost cause. It's a real shame Davis didn't write much more. From what I understand, he only produced one other published novel in his entire life, and I don't know if that one was a noir of this caliber. Fortunately for fans of dark crime fiction, ONE FOR HELL is enough to cement Davis's reputation as a master of the form. Highly recommended.

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