I’d never heard of Gil Brewer before. I found the Hard Case Crime copy of THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN in a discount bin for $5 and snapped it up mostly on the quality of the publisher, as well as a little on the title. Salacious pulp titles are better than Cards Against Humanity every single time.
The cover copy told me Brewer had also written “SATAN IS A WOMAN,” and a quote from Anthony Boucher, from The New York Times, informed me what I held in my hands was “A Cainlike story of greed, sex and murder, culminating in retributive horror worthy of Jim Thompson.” Bold words and so it was on tipping point to reach apex of my ‘to read’ pile and Bill Pronzini’s quote slid the nail in my coffin with ease as he said “[Brewer] produced some of the most compelling noir softcover originals of the 1950s.”
Yes, I was excited. And, yes, the book completely lives up to all of this hype.
The book opens with Jack Ruxton meeting Shirley Angela as he comes to perform some repairs and alterations to the house she lives in where she cares for her flagging stepfather. Naturally, a plan is hatched to dispatch of the old man and abscond with his bountiful dollars. Because that’s what two pretty young things consider when the passion and the fury takes over. They think they sniff a happily ever after because the lust fuels a whiff of satisfaction right now. They cannot keep their hands off each other and yet Ruxton still thinks, “I knew I’d never get enough of her. She was straight out of hell.”
He’s letting himself be led down, and why not? A short fall is better than the long flat most people face for their whole life.
So the plan is set but the execution takes a long time. They have too much time to think and worry and ponder. The tension builds, the opportunities to bail out mount. But neither stirs. They are dedicated to the path, this is premeditated murder in the first degree. Even when a nosey neighbour and Ruxton’s jealous and drunk ex stick their heads in the way, they find them pummeled back. There is no stopping this plan, there is no hesitancy in their desire. There is no hurdle too complex even when it’s more murder.
In the hustle of a possible discovery, Shirley stabs the neighbour, Mayda, in the back, killing her. They’re in for a penny, so they’re in for a pound, but weaseling out of this trap proves the kind of mental undoing that would destroy lesser people on the spot. Ruxton takes the body and decides to dispose of it in some nearby water. Ruxton enters into the messy business of staging her alleged death by driving her car around at night in the hopes it’ll be seen, and then slamming it into the canal. This sets up a car crash/drowning, but to account for the knife wound, he turns it into an accident wound by busting off a piece of the convertible soft-top housing and jamming the steel into the open wound. It’s gruesome business and the kind that doesn’t sell your soul so much as shred it up and feed it to the dogs. The three-headed kind who are waiting for you at your next stop.
Once you’ve gone that extra step, you don’t deserve any kind of happily ever after you were aiming for. And Ruxton certainly doesn’t get it. The deed is done but things begin to go shaky, his resolve is wobbly, the paranoia sets in. He diverts, steals a gun, he’s making all the wrong moves, and well knows it, but doesn’t really know how else to play it. He’s made big moves but in this world he’s not a big mover, he’s a guy who installs electronic equipment. He’s a nobody with delusions of money, promised him by some girl he barely knows, and which legally may be problematic even before then [due to obscure inheritance laws and rules, or so he’s told]. It all looks sour.
What follows is a frantic conversation between these blood cross’d lovers. He’s panicking, she’s a little fawny and clueless, and between them the errors and tension are thicker than a bank vault wall. The volleyed dialogue tears you through the pages and your heart starts to race with them. Brewer certainly knows how to make people yap and have it mirror the tone of the narrative at that point – seductive, frantic, suspicious.
The most fascinating aspect of the whole book is not that killing an old man is a risky move, or covering up another woman’s murder is a bold and terrible thing to do, it’s that these things are not Ruxton’s downfall. He’s lost from the very first line of the book because that’s when he meets Shirley. She is a girl with passion, a girl who draws you in, but ultimately she’s a girl who draws you down because she’s considerably unhinged due to this abundance of passion.
Ruxton knows this all along but he sweeps it away, partly for the lust, mostly for the money. But in the end, this decision is his undoing as Shirley becomes fixated on Ruxton’s previous girl, Grace, who hounds Ruxton and so Shirley starts imagining how he is playing her under the guidance of another woman. Shirley gets bad ideas in her head and cannot shake them. In fact, she inflates them constantly and in the final sequence of the book she gets loaded on whiskey and expands her problem big enough to engulf them both.
Brewer illustrates an image of Shirley, wielding Ruxton’s gun [because it was his choice to introduce a weapon to this venture and so naturally it will come right back in his face], stark naked in front of a fireplace. A raging fireplace. A scene of over $340,000 in bills going up in smoke. She stands there and she screams insanity at Ruxton and then she shoots him dead. Dropping to kneel next to him, she then takes her own life.
Only Ruxton doesn’t die, and he’s stuck, almost paralysed, watching her commit suicide, the money turning to ash before him, and then watching as the police do eventually track him down and take him in. He wishes he was dead, it would all be easier, but it’s more painful if he’s left to go to trial, to wait it out, and to eventually burn at the hands of others. It’s a fait accompli but he has to feel the dread anticipation, he can’t escape it. When you think it would’ve just been easier to die, you know you are below rock bottom. And he knows he has no one else to blame.
Gil Brewer writes a phenomenally on point description to start a chapter and it summarises Ruxton’s core problem, as well as standing as a lovely way to describe noir in its entirety.
“Doom. You recognize Doom easily. It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy.”