Where did you come from, Jenny? Why did no one trace you here? Did no one love you, care about you, in the place from which you came? What had life and people done to you, Jenny, that made you so desperate as to write to a Lonely Hearts Club, to meet and love a murderer?
|1953 Bantam paperback|
George Weaver is an unhappy businessman, a realtor whose office is in Kansas City. When he has a nervous breakdown his doctor tells him to take the summer off, and so he goes to Taos, New Mexico, where he expects to enjoy the view of the mountains. In Taos he isn't particularly happy, and turns to drink.
One reason Weaver isn't so happy is that he is sick of his wife, Vi. Vi is a poor housekeeper, a bad cook, uneducated, stupid, and fat. He had his nervous breakdown largely because he was working long hours to have an excuse to get out of the house, which he found intolerable because of Vi's incessant playing of the radio--those radio dramas and the lame music Vi adores drove him up the wall. Everything about Vi drives him up the wall, all her little errors and solecisms, the grammatical and typographical mistakes in her letters, for example. This is oddly appropriate, because the Bruin Crimeworks edition of The Far Cry that I am reading is chock full of missing and inappropriate punctuation that I am finding very annoying. I want to support the work of people who are making these old books available, but I have to recommend that, if you want to read The Far Cry, you look for some earlier edition which, presumably, will have fewer printing errors.
Anyway, one reason that Weaver can't really relax in Taos is because he knows his wife will soon join him.
Soon after his arrival in Taos, Weaver runs into an old friend, Luke Ashley. Ashley is a sort of journalist--he sells copy to true detective magazines, and spends his time driving around the country investigating murders to write up. He tells Weaver about the murder of Jenny Ames, which took place eight years ago like twenty minutes drive outside of Taos, at an isolated house with no running water in a one-horse town called Arroyo Seco, a tiny burg where there is a lot of tension between the Hispanic population and the Anglos. (Brown doesn't say "Hispanic" or "Latino;" I guess the politically correct term in 1951 was "Spanish-Americans"--at least that is thge term used again and again here in the novel.) When Weaver sees the house he decides to rent it, and Ashley suggests that, if Weaver gets bored, he can investigate the Ames murder and send him any info he uncovers--if Ashley sells the story he will give Weaver half his fee. Ashley doesn't stick around, but heads to Hollywood, having secured a gig as technical adviser on a crime documentary.
Weaver tries his hand at painting watercolors but finds he's no good and tries to read mystery novels but finds he just can't focus, so he takes up Ashley's suggestion--George Weaver, real estate man and unhappy husband, becomes George Weaver, novice sleuth! He does the stuff people always do in these detective stories, like talking to people who had met the victim and the murderer and going to the local newspaper to read eight-year-old stories covering the coroner's report and inquest and so forth. Jenny Ames came to Arroyo Seco to marry an artist she apparently did not realize was a homosexual, Charles Nelson, who was renting the house now rented by Weaver. Jenny had met Nelson through the mails via a Lonely Hearts service, and the charming Nelson had, it seems, gone to see the young woman in her home town and gotten her to fall in love with him; she agreed to join him in Arroyo Seco and marry him. But, when the excited and naive young girl arrived, there was no wedding service scheduled--instead Nelson killed her with a knife and buried her in the desert, skipping town the next day. The cops, ignoring the claims of a ten-year-old Latino kid who witnessed Nelson raising a knife to Jenny, didn't start seriously investigating until two months later, when a hunter stumbled on a woman's body in a shallow grave. The local cops and the local reporters had no luck figuring out where either Ames or Nelson had originally come from, nor where Nelson went after the crime. (I know, big surprise, the government and the media let us down yet again.)
|Two French editions--does that look like early 1950s attire to you?|
(NOTA BENE: The MPoricus Fiction Log spoiler policy.)
Weaver gathers the clues, figures out Jenny's real last name and home town, drives out to that southern California town where Jenny and Nelson first met in the flesh, and he and we learn the whole story of Jenny "Ames" and Charles Nelson. Nelson the gay painter had tuberculosis, and tricked Jenny into falling in love with him because Jenny's father worked at a bank, and she resented her parents, committed Baptists who kept Jenny away from boys, even after she was 21! The charming Nelson convinced the sad romantic kid to steal ten thousand bucks from the bank; when she brought the money to him in Arroyo Seco he killed her and then took the money to a T.B. specialist in Arizona. All for naught--Nelson's T.B. was incurable, and he died after spending two years in the clinic. As for Jenny's parents, they sold their house to pay the bank the money stolen by their daughter and to keep Jenny's theft as much of a secret as possible.
|My copy; the cover image is a close replica of |
that from the jacket of a British
hardcover edition from 1952
Throughout the novel Brown has been giving us little hints here and there that suggest similarities between Nelson and Weaver. Nelson is a homosexual painter, and Weaver, while not himself gay, has little interest in sex (in particular he has no interest in having sex with Vi anymore) and, while not an actual artist, Weaver has an interest in art and high culture and over the course of the novel has painted (poorly) and taken meticulous and successful photographs. (Remember, kids, this is the early 1950s, so Weaver has to do all kinds of calculations related to light levels and shutter speeds to take decent photographs.) Weaver has even said that he admires Nelson's paintings and wishes he could paint as well. On the final page of the book Weaver and Vi enact the horrible scene Weaver has been playing out in his mind since he first heard about Jenny Ames as he grabs a long kitchen knife (that he used to dig up Jenny's suitcase) and murders Vi with it. In his warped mind, at least, Vi has become Jenny and he has become Nelson.
The Far Cry is much better than The Five-Day Nightmare. A good story needs conflict, needs tension, and this novel is full of it. The tension between the white and Latino communities. The tension between Weaver and his wife Vi. Weaver's worries about money, about his sanity, his (not exactly successful) efforts to control his drinking, to find distraction from his business problems and his marital problems by painting or reading or investigating the death of Jenny Ames, and then his worries that he is becoming obsessed in an unhealthy way with the dead girl.
All the little elements of The Far Cry are also interesting. In The Five-Day Nightmare the protagonist had to talk to a used car dealer and then a banker in an effort to raise money--boring! In The Far Cry the protagonist talks to a detective magazine writer and to an art gallery owner about some canvases he found in the shed behind the rented house as he endeavors to figure out if they are the work of Nelson. I find writers and painters more engaging than used car salesmen and bankers.
As I have said on this blog a hundred times, I love stories about risky or failed or disastrous sexual and family relationships, and in The Far Cry we have three: Jenny's betrayal of her stifling parents, Nelson's seduction and (attempted) assassinations of "Ames"and other women, and George Weaver and Vi's unhappy marriage. In this novel love is a lie used by the evil to manipulate the innocent or an impossible dream that traps foolish people in misery.
Brown is a good writer when it comes to prose and when it comes to constructing a plot--the sentences in The Far Cry are all good and even when stuff that is crazy happens nothing feels cheap--and The Far Cry is also full of emotion and tension. I like it. Expect to find me reading The Screaming Mimi and some Brown SF stories published during WWII in the near future.
*This novel is not about a woman who manipulates men, but men who manipulate women. Don't judge a book by its cover!