Friday, May 10, 2024

Peter Rabe’s The Box

Peter Rabe’s The Box is a 1962 hardboiled crime novel with a tropical setting and maybe a dash of noir.

Peter Rabe (1921-1990) was an American pulp crime writer who deserves to be better remembered.

The Box begins with a man in a box. It’s a packing crate to be precise. His name is Quinn. He’s a lawyer and a racketeer. The box is a punishment. The idea is you put a guy in a packing crate in New York. The crate is put on a freighter. The guy has plenty of food and water but he’s in the box in complete darkness lying in his own filth. After going right around the world the crate arrives back in New York. By that time the guy has learnt his lesson and he’ll be a good boy in future.

Quinn only gets as far as a small city in North Africa, a city named Okar. Someone has noticed that the box doesn’t smell so good so it gets opened. And there’s Quinn. Alive, but not very happy.

Quinn recovers but he has two problems. He has no papers, and he has no money.

Okar is run by Remal. Remal is the mayor and controls every other public office. This is his town. He has some nice rackets going, small-time smuggling mostly but profitable. He doesn’t want anyone around who might make waves. He likes Quinn and he has no wish to do him any harm. He just wants him to leave.

Leaving would be sensible but Quinn is stubborn, and then there’s Beatrice. She’s Remal’s woman but there’s a definite attraction between Quinn and Beatrice. If Quinn stays he’ll need to earn a living and the only way he knows how to make a living is dishonestly. That means muscling in on Remal’s rackets. That could cause problems, and it does.

While there’s a good plot here the main focus is on Quinn’s psychology. When he got out of the box he found he’d lost his touch. His edge. All the habits that had made him such a smoother operator. He wants to get those things back, so he can go back to being the man he was. But there’s a niggling doubt. Maybe the man he was wasn’t so great. Maybe he’d been in a box his whole life, a box of his own making. Maybe he needs to get out of that box.

It’s important to note that Quinn has choices. Unlike most noir protagonists he is not trapped. What he has to do is to decide which choices to make.

There are no clear-cut heroes and villains. Quinn is a gangster but he’s not such a bad guy and he prefers to avoid violence. Remal is equally amoral but he’s a likeable rogue. Even the Sicilian gangsters who get involved at one stage are quite pleasant. Sure, they have to have guys rubbed out sometimes but it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. Whitfield, the shipping clerk who plays a key role in Okar and in the story, just wants to avoid anything unpleasant. He just goes with the flow. He’s the kind of character who would have been played by Wilfred Hyde-White had this story been filmed in the 60s.

There’s a nice atmosphere of tropical sleaze. There’s the quiet desperation and moral corruption of expatriates gone to seed.

Every character in the novel is corrupt but not evil. They’ve made easy soft choices.

There’s not much action but there is a little and there’s some decent suspense at the end.

Is it noir fiction? Perhaps, if you define noir fiction broadly enough. I’d prefer to think of it as hardboiled crime. Either way it’s a very good entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Stark House have paired this one with Rabe’s 1957 novel Journey Into Terror in a two-novel paperback edition.

I’ve also reviewed Peter Rabe’s excellent 1955 hardboiled thriller Stop This Man!

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