Walter Johnson alights from his boxcar in Middletown Minnesota. Hungry and worn down, he sets off to seek sustenance. His walk into town is interrupted when he looks up and sees a woman waving at him from her window and gesturing for him to come into her home. In spite of his instincts, he goes up and meets Elizabeth Frazer, a lady who is hot on the outside and ice cold within. She entices him with the promise of food and maybe a little something extra for afters, then nails him by shouting to her neighbours that there’s been a murder. Said neighbours show up and it seems that Johnson has been caught red handed, until he reveals that his red hand is actually wooden and wouldn’t be capable of committing the crime in question.
The sensible thing for him to do at this point would be either to run or to wait for the authorities to prove his innocence. Instead, he waits for things to settle and is pulled into the orbit of Elizabeth whose magnetism and allure prove to be irresistible. They drive west, avoid the attention of the police and settle down into a life of the humdrum. Things should go fine, only Elizabeth isn’t happy with surviving or being average. Her discontentment grows until she pulls out another trick from her bag. This time, she’s feigned her own death and once again pins Johnson down as the perpetrator. This time, however, Johnson isn’t so lucky. He’s sent down and spends the next ten years in prison.
While away he meets a forward thinking warden who suspects Johnson is innocent. The pair spend time discussing the world and putting things right until it’s time for Johnson to leave, an improved and contented citizen with a free spirit. The warden has provided him with the tools for survival and the connections to make sure civilisation won’t chew him up and spit him out.
Everything should be fine. The world should unfold at Johnson’s feet and provide him with more than enough to satisfy his needs. The problem is he has a passion for revenge that won’t leave him alone. The shadowy compulsion to track down Elizabeth grows until it is his reason for being. All his wonderful wisdom and philosophical leanings are trampled underfoot by his desire and as he journeys in pursuit of his prey, his life slowly unravels.
So Deadly Fair is a delight. That said, it took a while for it to grow on me. The first person narrative seemed a little clunky at first. I reckoned a tidy edit might make all the difference and create a smooth passage through the opening pages. I was also a little uncomfortable by being addressed directly by the protagonist every so often. These jabs interrupted my flow and caught me off guard when they came.
As the story unfolded, many of my early issues disappeared. I came to appreciate the voice and the conversational style, not least because it allowed a deep understanding of the character’s reasoning. Johnson’s back story is slowly exposed and adds layers and depth. His views of the world and his love of travelling and getting by are so pragmatic that they verge upon the romantic. His drive and lack of control in the face of his desires is well explained and adds solid foundation to his decision making, even when his choices seem to be utterly insane.
The story itself is handled really well and any contrivance is justified as the plot moves on and comes to its unexpected climax.
This one is a slice of authentic American noir. It carries a familiarity that is comforting and yet has a freshness that needs to be savoured and appreciated. The pictures come in black and white and the shadows are everywhere. If it was never made into a B-movie then it should have been.
Hats off to you, Gertrude Walker. Thanks for the journey.