Tuesday, March 27, 2012

William P. McGivern’s The Big Heat

William P. McGivern’s novel The Big Heat was the source for Fritz Lang’s classic 1953 film noir of the same title. McGivern enjoyed considerable success as a novelist and screenwriter in various genres.

The movie followed the plot of the novel fairly closely, even including the famous coffee pot scene (if you’ve see the movie you know which scene I’m talking about and if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil the shock effect). The most significant change was to the character of Max Stone who becomes Vince Stone in the movie. The Max Stone of the book is equally vicious but he’s a man driven to viciousness by fear, while the Vince Stone of the movie is a more confident, and more overtly sadistic, character.

Dave Bannion is an honest cop in a city in which honesty is a rare commodity. Corrupt city officials and politicians are in the pockets of gangsters like Mike Lagana. Lagana lives a life of genteel elegance in a luxurious mansion surrounded by beautiful gardens, but he started life as a brutal gangster and a gangster he remains.

Bannion has always been aware of the underlying corruption of the city but up until now it hasn’t had any direct effect on his life or on his work as a Homicide cop.

All that will change. At first it seems like a routine case. A police clerk has committed suicide. There are no suspicious circumstances. The dead cop, Tom Deery, was the sort of guy who goes through life without attracting much attention. He had always been assumed to be honest, he had no obvious vices. His wife claims he was very concerned about health problems and that seems like a satisfactory explanation for his suicide. Then Bannion gets a telephone call from a woman. She tells him that she’s sure the dead man had no health problems and she doesn’t believe he would have taken his own life.

A bit of digging around reveals that this woman. Lucy Carroway, had been Deery’s mistress some years earlier. Deery’s widow assures Bannion that Lucy was still bitter that the affair with her husband ended and Bannion is satisfied that that explains her story. Even the fact that Tom Deery used to own a holiday house is not especially suspicious. A police clerk might have been able to afford a little luxury like that if he was very careful with his money, and besides maybe his wife or his family had some money. Bannion is happy enough to close the case. Until Lucy Carroway is murdered.

This seems like a boy of a coincidence, and Dave Bannion doesn’t like coincidences. And the murder was particularly brutal but it wasn’t a sex crime. Bannion is now convinced the Deery case is worth looking into more deeply. He still doesn’t think he’s run into a major criminal conspiracy but when he’s ordered peremptorily to drop the case the pieces start to fall into place. If the big boys who run the city want him to stop investigating then there must be something to investigate. Something big. Bannion is not just honest, he’s also stubborn. His refusal to drop the case will have catastrophic personal consequences for him, consequences that will see him handing in his badge and conducting his own private war against organised crime, a war of revenge.

He will find himself up against Mike Lagana, and against hoodlums like Max Stone.

It’s a pretty good story. The main weakness is the ending which is much too pat and too neat and doesn’t quite ring true. The story shows us a world of moral squalor but also a world of moral ambiguity. People aren’t always crooked because they’re bad. Some are just weak. Or frightened. Even the tough guys are sometimes prone to fear. And even gangster’s molls like Debby (Max Stone’s girlfriend) can turn out to be capable of extraordinary courage and decency. The ending undercuts this a little as the author tries to tie things up too comprehensively.

There’s plenty of hardboiled dialogue and plenty of atmosphere. This is pulp fiction but it’s not too pulpy (not that I have a problem with pulp fiction that’s very pulpy indeed). McGivern’s style is straightforward but effective.

Bannion is a hero but he’s a hero with some flaws and he’s generally believable. McGivern gives us some memorable villains and, in the person of Debby, a complex female character whose motivations are entirely believable.

A fine crime thriller. Not quite as good as the movie, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of since the movie is very very good indeed. Definitely worth a read.

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