Monday, May 2, 2022

Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase

Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase is a 1954 noir novel and it’s a wild roller-coaster ride.

Lorenz Heller (1910-1965) wrote pulp crime novels under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms including Frederick Lorenz.

Lee Mayo owns a gambling club. He wakes up with a shocking hangover and no memory of the previous night but there’s a girl in his apartment. The girl is Della, a drop-dead gorgeous photographer’s model. She had poured him into his car and driven him home and put him to bed. Nothing happened between them. Lee would have been too drunk to do anything anyway. Taking him home had been a nice thing to do but Della gets no gratitude for her actions. Lee behaves like a pig and says some very cruel things to her and makes her cry.

As she’s leaving she overhears a conversation and realises she now has an opportunity to get her revenge on Lee Mayo. Lee has a devious plan to make some money and Della can throw a spanner in the works.

Lee has bought Ralph Stallings from a cab driver for five hundred bucks. Stallings had passed out dead drunk in the guy’s cab and the driver, Artie, recognises him as the Ralph Stallings who is notorious for being a fabulously rich guy who gets drunk and gambles and always loses, and always loses on an epic scale (his last gambling escapade cost him two hundred grand, an almost unimaginably vast amount of money in 1954). A professional gambler who could get his hands on Stallings when Stallings was hopelessly drunk could easily inveigle the guy into a game and fleece him for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It wouldn’t present any difficulty at all - when Stallings is drunk his desire to gamble is overwhelming, and he always loses. A drunk Ralph Stallings is like a gold mine. And that’s why Lee Mayo bought him from the cab driver.

He also bought him because he has a personal grudge against him. Stallings stole his girl, and married her.

This is where the book’s many plot twists start to kick in (and we’re only a few pages into the book), and it’s where the book’s character complexity starts to kick in as well. Lee Mayo isn’t really a bad guy. Once he’s had time to think about it he’s horrified that he could even have considered his plan to milk Ralph Stallings of all his money. Lee is no Boy Scout, he’s done bad things, but he is definitely not that low. He’ll go and pick Stallings up from the hotel where the cab driver stashed him and take the poor guy home.

But it’s too late. He gets to the hotel and somebody has already taken Stallings. We know that it was Della, who had seen the opportunity to revenge herself on Lee and make some money by selling Stallings to some other big-time gambler. But Lee doesn’t know that it was Della. He doesn’t even know Della’s name. He doesn’t know that she now has Stallings.

Or does she? The trouble is that people keep thinking they’ve got Stallings only to find that someone else has slipped away with him. Some people want him for their own nefarious purposes. Some people are trying to rescue him. But nobody can keep hold of him. Or even keep track of who might have him at any particular time.

Della turns out to be a bit like Lee. She has some serious characters flaws. She has a fiery temper which causes her to do bad or unwise things at times and she drinks too much. But in spite of these flaws she’s basically quite a nice person. She had plans for Stallings but like Lee she couldn’t go through with them.

Then there’s Enid Stallings, Ralph’s wife. She’s done bad things as well but like Lee and Della she’s really not such a bad person. One nice thing about this novel is that there’s no Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy. Both the main female characters are basically good but flawed.

Lee is like that. At the beginning he behaved like a complete jerk towards Della but that was because he had a rotten hangover and was in a bad mood. As soon as the girl fled he started to feel bad and decided he would have to apologise to her. And he really would have done so. In Lee’s mind making a grovelling apology to a woman you’ve treated badly is a whole lot better than feeling like a heel.

Graham Greene once said that human nature isn’t black and white, it’s black and grey. That’s certainly true of this novel. There are plenty of genuinely vicious low-lifes in this story. There are other characters who do bad things because they’re incredibly stupid. Then there are three characters who definitely represent shades of grey. They’ve done bad things but they’re not morally completely lost.

Another thing I like is that the book does not rely on sudden changes of heart (which always seem unconvincing). The morally grey characters are perfectly consistent in their behaviour. They make mistakes that are consistent with their known character flaws and they try to make amends in a manner which is consistent with their known character strengths.

And the plot twists just keep coming. No matter how much the plot twists and turns and no matter how delightfully crazy it gets it remains coherent and believable, because the motivations of the characters are believable.

The Savage Chase is enormous fun, it’s occasionally quite funny, it has plenty of suspense and action, it has some genuinely interesting characters who are likeable because they’re so flawed and so human. This really is a terrific little novel, one of the best I’ve read this year. Very highly recommended.

Stark House Noir have reprinted The Savage Chase in a paperback edition with two other crime thrillers, Kermit Jaediker’s Tall, Dark and Dead (which I reviewed here recently) and D.L. Champion’s Run the Wild River (the latter of which I haven’t read yet).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review - never heard of this but sounds really interesting. I'll keep a look out for it.

    "the book does not rely on sudden changes of heart"
    Yep - pet hate!