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Underground Reading: Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer

Underground Reading: Say It With Bullets by Richard Powell

Say it with BulletsThis is the latest installment in my steady quest to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week (two this week, as we're making up for lost ground). You can follow along here. 

Richard Powell's Say It With Bullets (original publication, 1953) is a serious (or not so) change in pace from the last few books. If Charles Williams was some sort of rough whiskey, burning all the way down, Richard Powell is serving us a big fizzy glass of soda pop. Possibly with a bendy straw and everything.

Bill Wayne was a pilot in China in 1949. Betrayed by his buddies and business partners, he's shot in the back and left to die. He doesn't, and, a few years later, upon his return to Philadelphia, someone takes a shot at him again. Bill's a little pissed off and understandably so. He's got his buddies' addresses and is determined to check in on each and every one of them. Someone tried to plug Bill (twice), and he's going to plug them right back.

The answer? A bus tour! In a set-up so ridiculously contrived that people are probably still rolling their eyes sixty years later, Bill hops a bus that goes from point A to point E, with stops at B, C and D - all conveniently the locations of his old pals. Because the gods of pulp never take a break, the tour operator is a foxy (but spunky!) blond... and another blast from Bill's past: Holly, the kid that grew up with him and never got over her crush (naturally).

Bill's presence on the bus is so goofy that even Holly makes fun of him, pointing out that he's the only one there that's not middle-aged. (A line actually ruined a few chapters later, when Powell mentions a twenty-something in passing.) And, indeed, Bill's clearly having a rough time. While the other passengers enjoy arts, crafts, rodeos and sight-seeing, he's grumping about in the back of the bus and eschewing all sorts of human contact. Bill's not dumb, and he knows he's drawing attention to himself, but he just can't bring himself to perk up and play part of the crowd. Nor does it help that, with every new city, he's disappearing to stalk his human prey.

Bill's first 'reunion' isn't a particularly happy one. He interrogates one of his army buddies, discovers that there's a scheme going on and is then knocked unconscious. Bill wakes up to discover that (dun-dun-DUN), his old buddy is dead - and Bill's being framed for the murder. So now, on top of everything else, someone's trying to kill Bill (or set him up for murder, not entirely clear), kill everyone else and polish off whatever scheme he's stumbled upon. 

It just gets... wacky. There's a session in Reno that involves a lot of strange luck, a lot of on-again, off-again flirting with Holly, a square-jawed cowboy 'foil' who makes the romance incredibly awkward and, somewhere underneath, some sort of mystery. The thing is, very little of it makes sense. Bill's motivated by a weird fusion of revenge and gumption. He learns very quickly on that he's not capable of bloody vengeance, but then he continues with his quest out of... stubbornness? The murder frame is a railroad, but it goes both ways - Bill could easily pull out and just, you know, go home. The villain's motives are also unclear. Initially, s/he wants Bill dead. Then s/he wants Bill framed for murder... even though both could've been staged simultaneously in the scene above. But, even though Bill's set-up, the villain never closes the trap, instead, s/he watches as the whole situation spirals further and further out of control. It doesn't help that, although the villain is almost immediately obvious, s/he doesn't quite fit in a 'detective club' kind of way.1

The first time I reviewed Say It With Bullets, I found it sort of interesting in its backwardness - Bill's mission is so ridiculous (and he's being such a dick about it), that the reader winds up cheering for him to throw in the towel. This time around, I actually enjoyed Bill's cantankerous character a little more. It is hard to empathise with his overall quest, but on a page-by-page basis, his slightly-ridiculous reasoning has a certain grumpy logic. His ham-fisting flirtation, leaps of logic, counter-intuitive criminality... he's just kind of fun. Holly's actually the more interesting character, and certainly the more clever of the two, although, again, her raison d'etre (she's weirdly in love with Bill, despite his dickishness) is hard to swallow.

I suppose Say It With Bullets isn't exactly a let-down, but it is a change of pace. It is goofy and contrived, but it is also funny. As a package, it isn't quite up to the quality of the series' darker fare - something like The Gutter and the Grave, for example, has a razor wit and an actual mystery behind it. But Say It With Bullets has some good lines, two enjoyable (if frustratingly inexplicable) characters and, if nothing else, it is a valuable look at the "lighter side" of hard-boiled.

Cover by Michael Koelsch - I think the style and general 50s aesthetic is a great match, but I wish it fully embraced the goofy. Make it even more campy, perhaps. (Incidentally, for those that have read the book - depending on when this takes place, isn't he wearing the wrong buttons? Discuss!) (Also, what's going on here?!)

1: Spoiler footnote! Although Bill theorises a 'sixth' man back in China, it is a little ludicrous that there was another big ol' white dude walking around that he failed to notice. According to the 'rules', the sixth shooter would need to be the Chinese black-marketer... Instead, it feels like the entire Chinese backstory was just wedged in to make 'sense' of the story - a bit like the tour bus of contrivance).

Another perspective on Say It With Bullets over at Yellow and Creased.