Friday, June 15, 2012

FFB: The House of Numbers - Jack Finney

The dilemma Arnie Jarvis faces in The House of Numbers (1957) is how to pull off the absolutely impossible. Arnie has assaulted a guard while incarcerated in San Quentin Prison. It's a severely punishable offense according to the California penal code. Arnie has been told the only witness to the assault - a prisoner who was released a few days after the incident and who kept his mouth shut so he could get out of prison as scheduled - is about to return to San Quentin to give testimony at the behest of prison administrators. And when he does Arnie is doomed. See Arnie may be in the clink for a relatively minor offense (check forgery and fraud) and his sentence may only be a few years but the legal sentence is five years to life. That makes him a lifer. As a lifer who assaulted a guard the penalty for his crime while in prison is death.

And you thought California was one of the progressive states.

Arnie knows his only solution to living a long and healthy life is to get the hell out of San Quentin. That means an escape. But escaping San Quentin is practically impossible the way the prison is now set up. His cell mate Al gives him a long lecture on all the ways inmates have tried and failed: disguised as a priest; hiding in abandoned areas of the yard; even foolishly sneaking into a scrap metal truck, and making the fatal mistake of hiding in a heap of junk that became a death trap. You name it, it's been done, Al tells Arnie. What a prisoner needs to do is think of something impossible like maybe escaping from San Quentin vertically - a helicopter, maybe. But as far as hiding long term or trying to walk out in disguise -- forget it. All those variations are known and escape is easily thwarted by the prison staff these days. They'll find you and then you're in for good.

UK 1st edition, the only hardcover version
With the help of his brother Ben and girlfriend Ruth, however, Arnie comes up with a plan, one that no prison staff would ever dream of. Ben will sneak into the prison and become Arnie's accomplice while both are inside. An extremely dangerous idea and one that is filled with more risks for Ben than Arnie.

Added to the complications is the fact that Ben and Ruth, passing themselves off as a happily married couple in suburbia, have made the mistake of moving into a house right next door to Mr. Nova. Nova is a repellent, slovenly, very nosy neighbor who goes out of his way to tell Ben he knows him from his frequent visits to San Quentin, And how does Mr. Nova know that? Well, he's a guard there. Oops. "Of all the joints in all the San Francisco suburbs he walks into mine" to paraphrase Rick Blaine. Nova becomes Ben's adversary in more ways than one throughout this often tense story.

While reading of Ben and Arnie's elaborate plan the reader also learns about 1950s era prison life, surprisingly tame compared to 21st century prisons. Fights break out, that's for sure, but there's hardly any mention of male-on-male sex, the strange protection relationships that develop, or the smuggling of goods in and out of prison. The world of Oz, the TV show that revealed prisons in all their seediness, is several decades off in the future so don't expect too much gritty realism in this depiction of the prison world. Finney apparently did his research by interviewing Warden Harley Teets (to whom he dedicates the book) and making a few visits to the building, but was only willing to go so far in describing the ugly, lonely life of prisoners in the "pastel colored" walls of the modernized San Quentin. He captures the mood and feel of the isolation and claustrophobia, but I know it had to be nastier than the relatively sane, polite, and clean world he describes.

My only criticism of this book is Finney's ill timed brotherly feud in the final pages. Ben decides to announce he and Ruth are in love at the most inopportune moment in the book.  It's beyond awkward -- it's just eyeball rollingly stupid. The two brothers behave like high school kids fighting over their girl while Ruth stands by futilely crying out to them to stop their verbal and physical fighting. All this in the presence of a hostage they have been forced to hold temporarily. It nearly ruined a fast paced, suspenseful story for me.

Jack Palance & Barbara Lang in the 1957 fillm
This is Finney's third novel. At one time it was very hard to find; it's one of those paperback originals that never went into multiple printings. There are currently several copies out there for sale, but most of them are in the "collectible" price range from $16 - $50, a handful of the more pristine copies are priced between $50 and $75.  A UK edition was published in hardcover and that's equally expensive. For $450 you can buy a copy of the Eyre & Spottiswoode hardcover and get a book with age toned pages, shelf lean and a price clipped and chipped DJ. Nice. There's someone I'll never buy books from

The House of Numbers was also filmed and released a few months after the book was published.  In the movie version Ben and Arnie are look-a-like brothers (not twins) making the cell switcheroo more believable. In the dual role of Ben/Arnie is young Jack Palance, just making his way into the tough guy movie roles that would make him famous. The movie has never been released on DVD though it was shown on the big screen during the Noir City Film Festival  in 2011.

12 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed reading about this one John, thanks. I've never read it and have not seen the movie either - sorry to hear it is out of circulation. Just the other day in fact I was looking at the Finney novels on my shelf and a couple (THE NIGHT PEOPLE and THE CLOCK OF TIME) are still unread and I was thinking I really should give them a go.

    The trailer is pretty amusing:
    http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/94095/House-of-Numbers-Original-Trailer-.html

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    1. Thanks for that, Sergio. "This is Barbara Lang with a face and figure you won't soon forget!" Such a figure they had to split her name on two halves of the screen in the credit sequence. HA!

      I did my usual trolling of YouTube looking for the trailer or scenes because I wanted to include them in the post. I came up with nothing. Had I but known it was screened on TCM...

      Have you ever seen Five Against the House? It's the movie based on Finney's first novel. Interesting casino caper with great performances from Kim Novak, Kerwin Mathews (exceptionally good!) and Guy Madison. But when Brian Keith starts to fall apart it gets excessively melodramatic. And the script can get grating -- it's the usual talk, talk, talk by monologue maniac Stirling Silliphant.

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  2. I'm so glad you mentioned the movie because, as I was reading your review, I was saying to myself, "Wait, I've seen a movie version of this plot." I haven't read the book, but I saw the movie on TCM about a year ago and remember it being tense and suspenseful.

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    1. I'd like to see it one day but the lack of a DVD version makes it unlikely. And I'll never get a chance to see it on TCM should they ever rerun it since I'm a cheap ass and won't subscribe to cable TV.

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  3. Jack Finny was an amazing writer. It's hard to come up with a writer who wrote so many different kinds of books. There's a huge difference between THE BODY SNATCHERS and ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (a great caper novel!).

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    1. I agree. Though here, in one of his earliest novels, he tends to indulge in page long monologues in the dialog. I need to find an anthology of his short stories.

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  4. A number of his short stories are available at http://homepage.mac.com/cssfan/jackfinney/work_date.htm

    This site seems to list most of his magazine stories and provides links to some of them, so you have to click each story to see if it's available for viewing. A small inconvenience to get Finney's stories.

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    1. Thanks, Jerry. I stumbled across that strange website last night when looking for other possible editions of The House of Numbers. I say strange because it purports to be a tribute site to the author but 3/4 of the site is nonexistent with links that go nowhere or don't work at all. The magazine story section seems to be the only portion that was worked on. There is a great illustration from Cosmopolitan where House of Numbers first appeared in a shorter version, but it depicts one of the most surprising parts of the story so I decided not to use it here.

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  5. He's in desperate need of a big reprinting of his stuff. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (or is it now called SLEEP NO MORE?)is just about the only thing of his that is still generally available. It's a great book, but he wrote so much else that is worth re-reading. As regards his short stories, a number of the time-travel/fantasy ones get reprinted, but there is a gripping little tale of a man who gets trapped on the ledge of his apartment building, called CONTENTS OF THE DEAD MAN'S POCKETS which is rarely seen today. It's one of the best things that he ever wrote, but you can only read it on the internet.

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    1. I'd love to see Stark House reissue Five Against the House and the book reviewed above as one of their two-in-one reprints. Assault on a Queen deserves a reissue as well. Why is there no Finney anthology of his magazine stories? Shameful.

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  6. I don't think I've ever read anything by John Finney though his name rings a bell and I can't think why. Still, I enjoyed reading your review as I always do, John.

    Jack Palance. What a strange, strange man.

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  7. Enjoyed the review as usual, but really appreciated the information on pricing and editions. You've included that sort of thing before, but I always enjoy learning something new, and feeling that some day I might get the opportunity to use the knowledge when trolling through a used bookstore.

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