Friday, March 1, 2024

James O. Causey's Frenzy

Frenzy, published by Fawcett in1960, is one of the three excellent noir novels written by James O. Causey between 1957 and 1960. These novels were quite successful at the time but for reasons unknown his writing career petered out after Frenzy.

Norman Sands (the first-person narrator) is a loser and a louse. He’s a two-bit grifter working as a shill in a casino. Or he was working there, until he slept with Robin. Robin was a singer at the casino but she belonged to the boss. The boss didn’t take kindly to the idea of her sleeping with Norman. Norman gets a severe beating and, totally down-and-out, he winds up in his home town. He left Mason Flats after an unfortunate fight which left another kid dead. That was a decade-and-a-half ago.

We get his backstory early on. He started messing up his life really early. There was a woman, Laurie, with whom he was hopelessly in love at the age of sixteen but there were plenty of other reasons that he became a loser and a louse.

He discovers that his brother Matt is still planning to marry Laurie. Matt is a failed businessman.

Mason Flats is about to be hit by oil fever. Nobody is sure if there is any oil or how much there is but there’s plenty of greed. For a smart guy like Norman, who knows all the crooked angles, that’s an opportunity. The problem is Murdoch. Murdoch owns Mason Flats. He owns the Chief of Police. He owns the mayor. There is plenty of corruption in the town and Murdoch has a finger in every corrupt pie. He’s not going to be pleased about a city punk moving in and running his own corrupt schemes.

Norman is confident he can outwit these dumb hicks. He’ll have to use Matt. Matt is dumb and naïve but even worse he has a streak of idealism. He is however necessary to Norman.

Women always get Norman into trouble and another dangerous woman is about to enter the scene. Shannon is a thousand-dollar whore. She belongs to Murdoch. It would be crazy even to consider taking her to bed but she has a fabulous body and Norman thinks she’s worth the risk. Maybe she’s in love with Norman. Maybe she just sees him as her ticket out of Mason Flats. Maybe she’s crazy and unstable. She’s certainly ruthless. Norman doesn’t care. He wants her.

Norman’s chief asset as a grifter is his persistence. He can have the daylights beaten out of him and immediately he’ll start working on a new angle. You can admire his refusal to give up, or you can shake your head in wonder at a dumb punk who never learns his lesson.

Norman is dumb and smart at the same time. His schemes are clever and devious and daring. That’s the smart part. He’s also a small-timer trying to play games with the big boys and the big boys play very rough. Norman is out of his league. He might be smarter than Murdoch and his cronies but they have organisation and muscle behind them and they’re utterly ruthless. If Norman makes one slip-up he’s a dead man. He really should quit while he’s ahead but he won’t. That’s the dumb part.

Norman is definitely a louse. But he’s a louse with complicated motivations. Of course he wants big money but women are perhaps a bigger motivating factor. His relationships with the three women - Robin, Laurie and Shannon - are complex in both emotional and sexual ways. Mostly Norman wants to prove he’s not a loser. He has a pathological need to win.

Norman Sands may be the most vicious treacherous conscienceless amoral protagonist in all of noir fiction. He will betray anybody and everybody. No scheme is too dirty for him. Despite this he’s fascinating. His risk-taking is breathtaking. He never ever gives up. And perhaps he does, in his twisted way, love one of the three women. Even scarier, perhaps he loves all three, but not in a way that could possibly be described as healthy.

The three women are rather complicated as well. They’re not straightforward femmes fatales. Shannon is the closest to being a classic femme fatale but her motivations are understandable from her point of view. Given that Norman is far more morally corrupted than Shannon he certainly does not need a femme fatale to corrupt him. He’s more dangerous to these women that they are to him.

This is noir fiction on steroids and it’s excellent. Very highly recommended.

Stark House have issued all three Causey noirs in a single paperback volume and it’s a must-buy. I’ve also reviewed his two earlier noir novels, Killer Take All! and The Baby Doll Murders.

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