Review by C.J. Bunce
Crime novels tend to include an element of mystery. Usually the attraction for the reader is going along for the ride with the detective, the cop, the private eye, or the wrongly accused. Some novels have variations on the theme, but few are purely character studies that begin with the reveal of the murderer and then take readers on the pathway of whydunit. That’s not 100% what’s going on in Oakley Hall′s So Many Doors, but it’s close. First published in 1950 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 60 years, So Many Doors centers around Vassilia Baird, a teen girl who, despite her father’s best efforts, ends up in the arms of a bad boy, resulting in a downward spiral that leads to her death. Hall’s writing has a storytelling quality that may make it a good study for writers, but, despite his quick prose, it is bogged down with ugly characters in the obscure world of Depression era bulldozer operators.
At first Baird is the obvious character whose cause needs championed–an innocent. But without explanation, she’s transformed overnight into a femme fatale. Hall does not give the reader enough access to her to understand anything personal, any motivation, any reason other than she’s in the position of the novel that a reader should ordinarily be sympathetic toward, until she isn’t. Hall never gets into her head, instead choosing to provide access to others who were part of her life, including an odd father, a would-be friend, a creepy much older neighbor, and her murderer. Readers will not likely find those characters as particularly real either, or follow common sense (or decency toward others in many cases), or participate in the average person’s experience with the human condition. And the single twist is predictable. It’s unfortunate, because the set-up is brilliantly introduced upfront: A public defender is assigned to the bad boy, who refuses his services and admits to murdering Baird (known throughout the story as “V”). But that’s followed by 300 pages of waiting for something exciting to happen and the action never again matches the first chapter.
The fact that So Many Doors saw acclaim in 1950 is unfortunately telling about the era, a story full of shockingly smarmy or cowardly men on the one hand and stock naïve and stock evil women. It wants to be Vera Caspary’s Laura, but isn’t. Instead the leads are caricatures of characters with little chemistry out of The Great Gatsby, embedded in a setting from The Giant and East of Eden and unpleasant interactions and relationships like those found in On the Waterfront and Dangerous Liaisons. That kind of tale may very well still have an audience out there, but the sum of the parts may not add up for modern readers.
Oddly enough the novel seems misplaced in the crime genre. It’s more dramatic in scope like those films mentioned above, and like modern stories Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or Legends of the Fall–not what you’d typically think of as crime or pulp (and not as riveting). For fans of Hard Case Crime’s more hard-boiled, resurrected finds, it’s an unfortunate follow-up to last year’s lost-and-found novel, Charles Willeford’s similarly jolting Understudy for Death (reviewed here at borg).
All that said, Oakley Hall’s writing is impressive. So Many Doors is like a graduate school writing project: Can you introduce the big reveal immediately and write a compelling narrative from five vantage points and still build to the same kind of satisfaction readers expect in a standard-format story? Into the Wild is an example of how master true-life storyteller Jon Krakauer accomplished this more successfully. It’s more interesting to pay attention to what Hall is writing and how he does it, than the actual content.
One important note for fans of pulp art covers: The new Hard Case Crime trade paperback edition features a new cover painting by Robert McGinnis, working from reference photos shot by pulp illustrator Robert Maguire—the first ever collaboration between these two well-known painters of paperback cover art.
Most of the imprint’s discoveries come with a certain revelation along the way, a co-discovery by the reader and understanding that this lost story is, indeed, another great find. Unfortunately that’s not so here. So Many Doors is available now here at Amazon.