Jada M. Davis,
One for Hell
(Gold Medal, 1952;
Stark House, 2010)

One for Hell is a long lost minor classic. It appeared originally in 1952 from Gold Medal books, quickly went out of print and was never reissued -- probably because its author, Jada M. Davis, did not go on to build a writing career, choosing instead a steady paycheck from the telephone company where he became a senior PR executive, a much more lucrative life than trying to survive writing paperback originals.

Still, you have to wonder what other novels would have come had Davis continued to write. If this book is any indication, he could have become one of the major hardboiled writers, whose name would have been mentioned in the same breath as Jim Thompson, Dan Marlowe and John D. MacDonald. He was blessed with a strong style and a unique vision that had no sentimentality in it, a view of life as bleak as a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie.

In a way, One for Hell is Horatio Alger gone berserk. Willa Ree comes into a small Texas town in a boxcar. He's as far down as a man can be, but with a set of essential skills, the ability to read people as sharply as a professional poker player and a willingness to obey no command but his own, Ree quickly makes himself a place in this town by finding a set of politicians as crooked as he is who need a crooked and pliable sheriff.

However, the politicians guessed wrong on Ree. Certainly, he is crooked. He is, in fact, even more corrupt than they are, but he's no team player. He doesn't care about anything or anyone but himself. He is after all the money, all the women, and he is perfectly willing to kill anyone who stands between him and what he wants.

The endearing thing about noir novels is that their protagonists are never quite as clever as they think they are and their greed always make them go one step too far. When that happens to Willa Ree, going along as he tries to keep his budding empire from devouring him, is a wild and fascinating trip.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

8 January 2011

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