Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Will to Kill -- Robert Bloch

Dan Stumpf suggested that I read one of Bloch's early crime novels, and this is the one I grabbed. It's very short, probably not more than 40,000 words, more like half of an Ace Double than a "real" book. I have no idea Don Wollheim decided to publish it as a single, but here it is.

Bloch liked Ripper tales. His story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" is a classic, and he later wrote a novel called Night of the Ripper. This Ace book is from 1953, an early entry in the Ripper novel sweepstakes. There's a good bit of Ripper lore in it, but it's not really a serial killer story, though it appears to be at first. It's narrated by Tom Kendall, who has an annoying habit of waking up in rooms with dead women. Well, it happens twice. I'd call that a habit. He has another problem, as well. He's subject to blackouts, dating from his time in the Korean conflict. Naturally he's doesn't remember killing the women, but he thinks he might have.

However, we readers know better. Why? Because Kendall owns a little store where he sells stamps and used books. Would a guy like that kill anybody? The few scenes in the store with Kendall's customers are great. People in 1953 were collecting the same things they do now (Planet Stories, for example), but I'll bet they paid a lot less.

Although the book was published over 50 years ago, some it sounds right up to date. This passage for example: Some of them wear khaki, some of them wear blue shirts, and some of them wear the same beat-up old overcoat winter and summer both, rain or shine. Rain or shine, you find them on the sidewalks and on the concrete steps —the bugs that swarm out from underneath the stones of a big city. The red-rimmed eyes look at you, but seldom see. They're really gazing out of present time—at yesterday's dreams or tonight's bottle. The cracked lips move, because the winos like to talk. Sometimes they talk to each other, sometimes they talk to themselves, but most of the time they talk to people who aren't there:
people who haven't been there for years because they're dead, or divorced, or run away.

Oh, it's easy to be smug and smart and superior about the crum-bums—until you look in the mirror and wonder what a week without shaving would do to your face, and what would happen if your clothes got worn and you couldn't afford the price of a haircut. Almost anybody can look like a crum-bum after just a month. And all you need to make a start is just one little push. Lose the job, lose the house, lose the wife or the kids, or just plain lose your nerve—and then start looking for what you've lost in the bottom of a bottle. A month? You can turn into a crum-bum yourself in one minute, if the minute is bad enough. Sometimes, though, you don't go all the way.

This is a well-written mystery, lots of misdirection, good use of obvious suspects, and a surprising solution. Maybe it's a stretch, but it works pretty well. Not Bloch's most famous book, by a longshot, but a quick, entertaining story.

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