Friday, June 25, 2021

Gil Brewer's The Three-Way Split

The Three-Way Split is a 1960 pulp noir title by Gil Brewer.

Gil Brewer (1922-1983) was an American pulp writer who started out with literary aspirations which he could never quite let go of. He enjoyed considerable success in the 50s churning out paperback originals for Gold Medal. By the end of the decade things had started to fall apart for him. He was drinking heavily and in 1964 he had a major breakdown. His established markets were drying up. He survived, just barely, writing for men’s magazines and doing novelisations of TV series but alcohol and money problems haunted him for the rest of his life and his writing career was one long downhill slide.

The Three-Way Split comes right at the end of his golden decade.

Jack Holland ekes out a living in Florida taking drunken tourists on fishing trips in his boat. He has a girl, Sally, and they’re madly in love and want to get married but Jack thinks they need to wait until he has enough money. Sally suspects that he never will make money and should look for a regular job but that would mean giving up on his dreams although Jack doesn’t really have a clear idea what those dreams are.

Then two things happen. One of them might finally give him hope. He knows that the other will mean nothing but trouble. The hopeful thing is that he finds a wreck. A really old one that nobody has ever found before because it’s only now become visible after a hurricane swept away the sand in which it was buried. A wreck could mean treasure.

The bad thing is that his father turns up. Sam Holland must be in trouble yet again otherwise he wouldn’t be turning up in Florida. This time it seems that Sam has landed himself in really big trouble, since someone has sent a guy to kill him.

The problem with treasure-hunting is that it costs money. Jack’s pal Mike is an ex-Navy diver and he has an old diving suit but Mike’s too old to dive now. Jack’s never done more than skin-diving. The wreck is at least a hundred feet down and Jack has never done that kind of diving. It’s a job that requires more than two men but but if they tell anyone then there’ll be hordes of treasure-hunters but with more money and better equipment. For Mike and Jack to do the job alone would be crazy but what choice do they have? Of course they don’t know that there’s actually any treasure. The wreck could be a Spanish galleon and there might be gold, or there might not be. Jack desperately needs to believe that there is gold there.

And if Jack’s father finds out he’ll want to be in on the action. Mike’s a straight arrow, and So is Jack in his way. But Jack’s father Sam Holland is a grifter and a crook and a gambler and Mike isn’t going to want anything to do with a man like that. Jack’s big chance has come at last (or so he believes) and his father is going to ruin it the way he’s ruined everything else in his life.

There’s also the matter of the guy sent to kill Sam Holland. And Jack’s relationship with Sally is problematic. Sally’s sister Vivian is likely to be a problem as well.

The climax of course comes out in the Gulf, diving for that treasure but there’s more than money at stake. There’s survival.

There’s a good tight noir plot here but it’s the characters that make it interesting. Jack despises his father and while they’re very different men (Jack is honest and decent while Sam is twisted and worthless) there are some similarities. They’re both looking for one big score. Jack wants it to be honest, that’s the only difference. Jack is no more capable of holding down a steady job and being a steady solid citizen than his father. They’re both unrealistic dreamers. They both want easy money.

There’s also a similar contrast between the two sisters, Sally and Vivian. Sally is the good girl although she’s no plaster saint - she’s driven almost crazy with her physical lust for Jack. Vivian is the bad sister. Vivian doesn’t have a problem with lust because she always gives in to it. As with Jack and Sam they’re the good side and the bad side of the same personality.

Jack is a genuine noir hero. He’s a good man but with weaknesses. He’s a decent guy but he’s desperate. He needs that treasure. What will a man do for that sort of money? And what would Sam do for that sort of money? Sam is a bad man but is there any good still left in him?

The Three-Way Split is fast-moving action, perhaps more adventure noir than straightforward crime noir although there are certainly crimes committed. It’s not one of the great noir titles but it’s solid entertainment. Recommended.

I reviewed another Gil Brewer novel, The Vengeful Virgin, a long while back.

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