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Tag Archive: Understudy for Death


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.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarentino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

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