Friday, June 29, 2012

FFB: Be Silent, Love - Fan Nichols

US 1st edition (Simon & Schuster, 1960)
Once in a while I come across a writer whose work has been labeled uneven to mediocre, often dismissed or derided, who has nonetheless written a single book that will redeem that writer's maligned reputation in my eyes. Such a writer is Fan Nichols. The book in question is Be Silent, Love (1960).

Don't be put off by the title which seems to evoke a romance novel or a HIBK mystery. Be Silent, Love is neither. It's not often I resort to catch phrases and reviewer speak, but here I have to. This book a page turner par excellence.

The story can be reduced to a single sentence: a hit and run accident brings misfortune to an adulterous couple who try to cover up the accident. Their predicament is further complicated when the victim, a teen age high school football star, dies of his injuries. If you were to read such a capsule blurb you would probably choose to pass on reading it. Sounds way too familiar, right?  Smacks of  movie-of-the-week melodrama -- or worse -- sentimentalism.  You would be very wrong.  And you'd be missing out on a thriller that truly thrills.

The UK edition (T.V. Boardman, 1961)
Nichols has concocted cliffhangers at the end of each chapter so that it is nearly impossible to stop reading. The tension mounts, the plot complications always increasing. The story is a study in Hitchcockian relentlessness. The more Kay Hubbard tries to do good the worse things get. Her lover, David Drake, was driving the car. It was his idea not to stop. His reasons are plentiful: he may be separated from his wife, but he is legally still married to her; the car, a prize won in a charity raffle, is uninsured and Kay has no driver's license; and most importantly he has his reputation as a rising executive in his advertising firm always in mind.  David appears to be concerned about Kay's safety and possible arrest, but really he only cares about himself.  The reader knows this, Kay doesn't. This makes for some interesting plot developments as the story winds its way through a maze of misadventures, coincidences and machinations.

While Kay and David do their best to deceive the police and newspaper reporters little do they know that Pete Lockley, the owner of the cabin they have been using for their trysts, has seen David drive away at night in the red Thunderbird that caused the accident.  Later Pete who thinks Kay is married to David sees her in the company of Bill Webb, a high school teacher who is doing some sleuthing about the accident on his own.  Lockley who has some questions about the night of the accident innocently calls out to Kay: "Mrs Drake!" and she freezes.  Bill is confused.  Kay is scared out of her wits but thinks quickly and dismisses Lockley as a man who has mistaken her for someone else.  This seemingly innocuous incident will have dangerous repercussions for the rest of the book. It is an example of how tightly plotted the story is, how nothing is misplaced in the intricate structure, how everything that happens matters to the story.  It really is a marvel of storytelling.

Fan Nichols began her career as a mainstream novelist, then ventured into the romance genre, eventually blending her fondness for career driven female characters with a penchant for seedy and tawdry settings.  Slowly she added criminal themes to her books and the bulk of her work was sold to publishers who specialized in genre paperback originals.  Her stories of backstage romances with Machiavellian show girls and bar room temptresses sport titles like Angel Face, Ask for Linda and Devil Take Her.  While some of them can be labeled crime novels (often with a minimum of bad deeds) most of them are pale imitations of the kind of book James M Cain wrote far better.

Be Silent, Love, however, is a fully developed crime novel and probably Nichols' most gripping story. There is a lot at stake.  The characters are desperate, trapped, driven, using and abusing each other all in an effort to get at the truth or, in David's case, to escape punishment. And poor conflicted and tortured Kay is caught in the middle.  Whose side will she turn to?  Will she give in to David's selfish scheming?  Or will she confess all to Bill who suspects she is hiding an awful lot? Will Pete Lockley use his eyewitness testimony for personal gain? Or will he do the right thing and go to the cops? This is certainly one of Nichols' two best books. The other is The Loner, a dark and frightening study of a mad killer obsessed with strippers. But while that story tends to dip a bit too deeply in the lurid and fantastical, Be Silent, Love is more realistic yet just as gritty and dark.

Luckily, the critics and publishers recognized the greatness of this little book as there are at least three different editions available: a US hardcover, a UK hardcover, and a US paperback reprint with the not much better altered title The Girl in the Death Seat.  All three are available through a variety of online selling entities and all copies I found (for a change) are sensibly priced. Any reader in search of an entertaining read loaded with genuine suspense, a page turner for the summer, a "really good beach book," should look no further than Be Silent, Love. Just overlook the poor title and dig right in.  I guarantee you won't be able to stop after the first chapter.

3 comments:

  1. Sounds great John, thanks very much. Never read a word by this author and as always am in awe of you reach when it comes to such titles. I've just ordered it and shall report back!

    ReplyDelete
  2. When you give a book this kind of review, I've just got to read it.

    ReplyDelete

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