Having stumbled through the maudlin nightmare that was Steeber and Bernstein’s other published novel by Panther Books (previously blogged) I decided to punish myself further by tackling what I hoped would be a better novel. Was it?
One if by Night was published by Panther Books in 1953 and large, spanning over 220 pages of text. Unfortunately, Panther used very thing cover stock and my copy split in half. There currently is a paperback copy for sale on ABE, and two hardcover copies in jacket.
Blonde, dressed in red, smoking a cigarette, while a man with a cig in his mouth leans against a wall listening to her sell him a story. Oh yeah, that dame is selling, selling his soul and a grand or more of his cash, earned from beating dice. But in order to court death and steal his money, you’ve got to have something on him.
Blackmail…sure. She’s working the extortion racket, her and Joey Bernard, the prick that sicced her on him. But this all goes back a ways, back to Los Angeles, where he is planning to murder Lola, his wife. She’s two-timed Rex, our anti-hero protagonist, with every single dick in-and-out-of-town she could place her hands on. He’s had it. She’s certified DEAD. He just has to find her.
A “friend” he knows to be whoring her meets with him and they drink. Rex browbeats the fellow verbally into confessing her whereabouts. She’s at a lousy, cheap hotel. They go there. He goes in, intention: murder. She’s already dead. Someone beat him to it. Only thing is, she’s clearly been battered, beaten, badly done in. Rex is known for knocking her around, spousal abuse.
He freaks, panics, leaves, visits another dame he throws in with whenever he’s down-and-out, she’s too good for him, and maybe really loves him. Gives him her 4-1-1. He pockets it, doesn’t think, doesn’t even look at it. No idea what she wrote. Doesn’t care. Departs again, and crashes his car over the cliff. He’s thrown clear, but his face is an absolute disaster.
Painstakingly, he drags his warm corpse up to the roadway and a trucker stops, pulls him in, and realizes the bloodied mess might be worth something, to someone. Rex is brought to an unscrupulous medico, and while out, gets rid of the trucker but locates the scrap of paper. Phones the number. Gets the girl. She comes out, pays off the medical cretin, takes Rex away, selling her wheels for quick-cash and heads southeast to New Orleans.
Rex can’t control his gambling compulsion and wins $3,700. The house isn’t happy. They know he’s no good, let’s him have the money, but don’t come back. Why should he? He’s got moola again, ready to move on. Only he doesn’t. He and the girl stick to New Orleans. Bad play. Another louse recognizes Rex for who he is, tries to blackmail him. No luck.
Enter the girl on the cover. Rex calls her “Beautiful,” for lack of another name. She blackmails him; he hustles her down by half, but has zero intention of paying her. Why should he? She doesn’t seem to know him, right? She zings him in the end, confessing who he is, she’s in it with Joey Bernard, they got the screw and gonna twist it sharp.
Departing, he’s shocked to be busted by the other girl. How did she know where to find him? He’d left her at the hotel. Turns out Joey phoned her, said he was an old friend, and Rex was two-timing her with a stunning broad. Coughing up the location, she locates Rex and spots the pair framed in the window by the light, close, seemingly intimate. She’s jealous; it’s all she needs to see. Trust is out the window.
They have “it” out in the street, and he can’t clear his name. How can he? Rex slaps her around after she calls him “little” this and that too many times, she runs away and he chases her. Can’t have the world without her. Who writes this crap? Someone that saw one too many Bogart film, perhaps. It reads like a part written for Bogart, anyway.
I won’t go into the sewage that pads out the rest of the novel but will state that Rex’s name is remarkably cleared of all wrong-doing, but a vengeful L.A. detective tracks Rex down in New Orleans and gives him days and days of “treatment.” Rex refuses to break. He didn’t murder Lola. Next chapter, we find Rex asking for his lawyer. Geezus, Steeber and Bernstein sure know how to skip details. Turns out another of Lola’s lovers (Ray) murdered her, or, was accused of it, after he confessed to some intimate details.
The assault and battery of Lola, pre-death, was due to Ray finding her with Rex’s “friend” from the start of the novel. Ray is a beast, and batters the lover to the ground. He’s not getting up. He then savages Lola, then leaves. She swallows a bottle of sleeping pills, liquors it down, and that’s that. Suicide, essentially. Coroner pronounces her dead not from the beating, but self-inflicted. Rex is a free man, only the L.A. copper in New Orleans doesn’t know it yet, for several days…
So, Rex is free, he loses the girl that rescued him. She wants a decent man in her life. The money, the $3,700??? Gone. After being released from his New Orleans beatings, he returned to the hotel. It had been cleaned out. Nothing remains. Rex is back to zero, penniless. The scene fades away with Rex watching a distant boat on the Pacific, wondering where it is going…
Now, I’m sure SOMEONE out there enjoys this sort of story. It’s the stuff noir lovers love to watch on the silver screen. Clearly the two Steeber and Bernstein novels were originally rejected screen-plays. They were then converted into novels but failed to land an American publisher, and eventually landed in England via Panther Books.
The cover entices the reader with the header “SHE made him feel SMALL…CHEAP.” Trust me; well before I finished this book, I felt the same way. Used. The only thing not cheap about this novel of the underworld was the 2/- cover price. I’ll bet back in 1953 the poor slobs that purchased this sewage howled. They wanted their money back. I sure do. However, if you are a completist collector of noir fiction, this one is a must for you.