Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Bruce Elliott’s One is a Lonely Number

Bruce Elliott’s noir novel One is a Lonely Number was published as a paperback original by Lion in 1952.

Thirty-two-year-old Larry Camonille has just busted out of prison. He had five years still to serve in Joliet but those five years would have been a death sentence for him. He has tuberculosis. In a healthy climate he might live for years. In a prison cell he’d have been dead in a year or so.

Right from the start things go wrong. He had some money stashed on the outside but when he got out he discovered that his girl had taken off with it. He’s just spent his last five bucks on a whore. He needs to get to Mexico. The Mexican climate would be good for him. But he needs money. He has a good plan to get some easy money fast and it works, and then things go wrong again.

He decides to hitch-hike and he’s picked up by a middle-aged woman named Vera. She arranges for him to get a job in Max’s road house. He works in the kitchen. He gets on well with Warren, the chef, and with Benny, the young kitchen hand. The job is fine but it’s women that are the problem. He has bad luck with women. They complicate his life and he can’t afford that. Vera complicates his life. She wants his help. It means easy money. It’s a bad idea but he’s tempted.

He’s also tempted by Benny’s young girlfriend Jan. Larry should see the red flags there but he doesn’t. He sleeps with her. She also wants his help. It also means easy money. It’s also a bad idea but again he’s tempted.

Larry is vaguely aware that he’s not in control and that he’s being manipulated but he can’t quite figure out how and why. If he doesn’t figure it out he’s in big trouble.

Larry isn’t such a bad guy. He’s not violent. He has a gun but he doesn’t really believe he’d ever be able to use it. In general he has no desire to hurt people. He thinks he’s tough but he really isn’t. Ruthlessness just doesn’t come naturally to him.

Larry isn’t stupid but he’s not quite smart enough. He’s smart enough to know not to trust people, but then he trusts them anyway. He thinks he knows what he’s doing but he’s just getting into more and more trouble. He’s becoming entangled in a web but he doesn’t know who is spinning the web.

There are plenty of dangerous women in this novel but they’re all different. They’re not just a succession of femmes fatales. Only one is truly evil. The others are desperate and quite capable of getting a guy in hot water but maybe they’re just as trapped by life as Larry is.

There’s no shortage of noir bleakness. Every time Larry thinks he might be about to get an even break something else goes wrong. Sometimes it’s his own fault, or at least partly his own fault. He seems incapable of making coherent long-range plans, and prison escapees who don’t want to end up back inside need long-range plans. Sometimes it’s someone else’s fault. Sometimes Larry just isn’t quite sharp enough to anticipate the blows of fate.

I like it when I don’t know how a story is going to end but when it does end the ending just feels right. It couldn’t end any other way. That’s the case with this book.

The sense of impending doom is overwhelming. There’s not a great deal of violence. There’s a certain amount of sleaze and you can smell the sweat and desperation.

One is a Lonely Number is top-quality noir fiction and it’s highly recommended.

Stark House have paired this novel with Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel in one of their terrific Noir Classics two-novel paperback editions.

No comments:

Post a Comment