Home > 1940, 20th Century, American Literature, Crime Fiction, Homes Geoffrey, Made into a film, Noir, Polar > Why in hell did the past have to catch up with him now?

Why in hell did the past have to catch up with him now?

November 17, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes. 1946. French title: Pendez-moi haut et court.

He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in. An ex-cop who ran a gambling joint in Reno and a New York attorney. A woman, with class written all over her, who was somehow tied in with Parker and who didn’t hesitate to sell out the man she worked up. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless. Not afraid—because he couldn’t find anything to be afraid of.

Homes_pendezThat’s it in a nutshell. Former PI Red Bailey is spending a bucolic life in Bridgeport, California. He runs the gas station, goes fishing and has a loving relationship with the young Ann. In this sweet opening chapter, everything seems peaceful except that Red doesn’t want to commit himself to Ann because of his past. He’s sitting on a time-bomb and he knows it.

Precisely, Guy Parker, a ghost from his past, comes back in his life and blackmails him into flying to New York to get a line for him about the lawyer Lloyd Eels. Parker is now shacked up with the siren Mumsie McGonigle. She was involved with Red ten years ago and is part of his muddy past as a PI. Red doesn’t want the job but doesn’t have a choice. Either he does it or Parker uses the information Mumsie has given him about their common past to turn Red to the police.

So Red leaves for New York, only to realise that there is more to this job than it appeared. He’s in such a trap that it seems impossible to come out of it unscathed.

As a reader, I took side for Red, even after discovering what he had done to be in such a predicament. I wanted him to have a way-out although what he has done is condemnable. It’s a strange thing to root for a character when you perfectly know that in real life, you wouldn’t support someone who has committed such a crime. His choice for a quiet and honest life seems to redeem himself. But still. Isn’t it normal that he pays for what he’s done?

I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the descriptions of the places. I was in the mountains with Red and Ann when they went fishing. I thought the picture of the popular New-York quite lively, like here:

The hockey players had departed, but Forty-Eighth Street wasn’t quiet. Women yelled at each other across the narrow way or screamed for their offspring. The offspring paid little heed. Two girls traded witticisms with a man in a delivery truck. A crap game was in progress on the sidewalk in front of a small grocery. The woman who ran the place stood in the door watching the boys roll the cubes against a brick wall.

Homes_buildI find this paragraph very cinematographic. You can see the scene in your mind. Geoffrey Homes was the pseudonym of the screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, so it’s probably not surprising.

This book has been in the “upcoming billets” box of my blog for a while. I procrastinated and waited a long time to write my billet, mostly because I’m not comfortable with writing about crime fiction. I have said this before and unfortunately, I’m forced to acknowledge that my skills don’t improve. When I write about literary fiction, words come easily. For crime fiction, it’s laboured. I never know where to stop writing about the plot without giving away too much information. I have difficulties to analyse the characters without mentioning spoilers. I doubt my billet conveys how much I enjoyed this book and what a great read it is. So it goes. It is highly recommended and if you still hesitate about reading it, pay a visit to Guy’s blog and discover there his excellent review about it. Finally, as you can see from the book covers, Build my Gallows High was made into a film, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum. I haven’t seen it and this one I want to watch.

  1. November 17, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    I think that’s the thing about noir, you (sometimes) sympathize with main character who commits the crime–and since many of the other characters are morally dubious too (as in this case), you end up understanding what happened. There are many exceptions to that, of course, but that is definitely true in this case. Red was a sucker–the lowest point on the food chain, and since he’s led a clean life since he tried to drop his past, we know he’s not a bad person. He just did bad things. Mumsie on the other hand will land on whoever has the most $$.

    Yes, the film is terrific, but then the laconic, eternally casual Mitchum was a perfect choice for the role.


    • November 17, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      I think it may come from our Judaeo-Christian background. It is normal to forgive to someone who obviously makes amends, changes his way of life and forgive past mistakes coming from a lapse of jugement.

      I couldn’t help thinking about the case of Cesare Battisti.


      • November 20, 2013 at 7:45 pm

        “I couldn’t help thinking about the case of Cesare Battisti.”
        Yes I can see that.


  2. November 17, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Great commentary Emma.

    Your point about rooting for someone who you would not like in real life is well taken. That is one of the great things about literature. We can really empathize with all sorts of folks that the realities of reality might not let us do.


    • November 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      You’re too kind. It don’t think this post deserves a “great commentary”

      Literary fiction gives us the opportunity to enter the minds of people we would never know in real life. They’re fictitious but often so plausible than they still give an idea of the human mind.


  3. November 18, 2013 at 12:23 am

    I like the quote that you include in your review. To me, these little details are what separate good crimr fictuon from mediocre ones. I like this inclusion of everyday, simple observations and then something happens and breaks them, or we are taken back to the main character and his/her own worries and what a nice contrast then this provides to such quoted scenes.


    • November 18, 2013 at 10:12 pm

      You’re absolutely right. These descriptions and comments or little observations about life are what make a difference between mundane crime fiction and literary crime fiction.


  4. leroyhunter
    November 18, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    The film version is, as Guy said, an aboslute classic.
    Wait! Where have I heard that before?!?

    Seriously, you’ll enjoy it. Kirk Douglas is great in an unusual (for him) role as a villain.


    • November 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Didn’t know that Kirk Douglas is the villain in the movie! Want to watch it now! The only movie of his that I have seen in which he is not the hero, is ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’. I think that was his first or one of his earliest movies.


      • November 18, 2013 at 10:16 pm

        I’ll leave a comment when I have seen the film.


    • November 18, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      I don’t know where you mean. A wine cellar maybe? 🙂
      I intend to watch the film this time.


  5. November 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! I haven’t heard of Geoffrey Homes. From your review, he looks like a fascinating writer. Will add this book to my wishlist. Guy is a real noir expert 🙂 Loved that cover with Robert Mitchum. Mitchum is a real cool actor – I loved his movie ‘The Night of the Hunter’ which I watched sometime back. I will keep an eye for the movie too.


    • November 18, 2013 at 10:15 pm

      Guy is definitely a noir expert.
      I agree with you, both covers are fantastic. I have to admit I prefer the French one.


  6. November 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    I could immediately sense that you liked this very much. Not sure why but i could and you made it sound very good, one I’d definitely like to read.
    I’m pretty ecrtain the fact that he was a screenwriter had an influence. I like that type of writing.


    • November 20, 2013 at 10:41 pm

      You’d probably like it, Caroline. I thought he wrote well.


  7. April 16, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    I’d missed this review until I saw it in your end of year roundup. I think I may have missed Guy’s too. I don’t recall even being aware that there was a book (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I know of it).

    I think it’s natural with most noir to start rooting for the protagonist, partly because however bad what they’ve done is it’s human to feel for an animal caught in a trap.

    Judging how much plot to reveal is always tricky, particularly with crime where it would be so easy to damage someone else’s enjoyment by revealing too much. I struggle with the same myself. Some of what I thought worked best in the Abbott I just wrote up today I couldn’t even refer to as to do so would involve massive spoilers.


    • April 16, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      I can’t say I rooted for the protagonists in The Postman Always Rings Twice but in this one, yes, I did.
      Guy manages to find the right balance between the information on the plot and the analysis of characters. I haven’t found that balance. Yet (I always hope to improve…)


  8. April 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    No, fair point, they were less sympathetic. Jim Thompson’s protagonists tend also not always to be terribly sympathetic now I come to think of it.


    • April 17, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      Good point about Thompson.


  1. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am
  2. February 10, 2014 at 11:46 pm

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