Peter Rabe,
The Return of Marvin Palaver
& The Silent Wall
(Stark House, 2011)

Stark House has been reissuing Peter Rabe's noir novels from the 1950s to widespread acclaim. Rabe was a master of the suspense novel and wrote some of the most offbeat and imaginative pulp novels around. When he died, there were unpublished novels in his trunk. These two remained unpublished for 15 years until Stark House decided to bring them out. While neither could be considered Rabe's best work, they are worth the wait.

The Return of Martin Palaver is perhaps Rabe's most unusual work. In it, the title character, an unscrupulous and slightly crooked scrap metal dealer, is in the middle of a deal that will allow him to get the best of another scrap dealer, Sidney Minsk, who has been his biggest rival and pain in the neck for his whole career -- when Palaver abruptly dies of a heart attack.

Palaver has no intention of letting something as small as his own death get in the middle of a big deal, one that will allow him to be avenged by what he perceives to be thousands of insults and bad deals from Minsk, so his ghost stays around to close the deal, by manipulating the minds of the people involved. For Palaver, winning is more important than his immortal soul.

Although this short novel plays it for humor, it still deals with Rabe's most characteristic situation: a man driven beyond his limits by a sort of a quest, a search for something, usually peace.

The Silent Wall is a variation on this situation. A World War II veteran returns to the small village in Italy where he was stationed during the war, seeking the peace he felt there previously. While there, he innocently insults a local mafioso. Suddenly, he is not allowed to leave town. He can do whatever he wants, move about freely, see and talk to whomever he wants. He just can't leave.

Eventually, of course, he learns that his imprisonment came about for a more complicated reason than he believed; he discovers the people of this village believe he is guilty of something far more serious than insulting a local mafioso.

Shortly before his death, Rabe gave these two manuscripts to his fellow mystery writer, Ed Gorman, who tried to get them published but couldn't. Maybe he couldn't find anyone willing to put them out because Rabe's time in the spotlight had passed and his career was in a deeper decline than his health. Then again, maybe it had something to do with elements of the manuscripts: The Return of Marvin Palaver is short, only 11,000 or so words, too brief to be published as a stand-alone novel, while The Silent Wall presents us with perhaps Rabe's angriest central character, a man who is forever losing his temper, losing at the same time some of the reader's sympathy.

Whatever the reason, the novels exist now and they contain some of Rabe's best writing and more of his masterful plotting and construction of suspense. During his lifetime and after his death, Peter Rabe never disappointed a reader.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

1 October 2011

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