Thursday, October 04, 2007
The 1000th post: H. A. DeRosso
This is the thousandth post on Pulpetti. At first I thought I should do a long post and ruminate on what I've accomplished ("Oh my God, what have I done?") and dug up some worthier posts, but then again I thought: what's the point? (And it would've taken up a considerable amount of time and I feel narcissistic enough as it is, without pointing out with my fingers: look how marvellous I am, did you think of that, etc. Even though I know some people who would expect that from me. I'll write my memoir later.)
Instead I'm writing about the grittiest and darkest western novel I've ever read. I've read some gritty and dark western novels before - for example The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Tilburg Van Clark - but they don't come near H. A. DeRosso's first novel from 1953, simply called .44. I don't know if that was DeRosso's own title - the American paperback publishers were in the habit of changing names of the manuscripts - but it's catchy nevertheless.
I've also read several noirish western novels - for example by Lewis B. Patten and Gordon Shirreffs -, but this is what you usually call noir: the hero is a total anti-hero, he won't do anything to stop his downfall and the ending sure ain't happy. There's also the femme fatale, and there's also a loot which never surfaces, by the way, which increases the noir feel in the book.
I don't know much about H. A. DeRosso - I don't think many do. He was born in 1917 and he died presumably in 1967. His first short story appearance seems to have been as early as the mid-thirties, when he contributed to the Western Novel and Short Stories pulp magazine. As you can see from his pulp magazine bibliography, he wrote almost mainly for the western pulps, ending up in 1970, which begs the question on when he actually died. He also had some stuff in the crime pulps and digests, such as Manhunt, and also something called "The Quest of Quaa" in the short-lived Rocket Stories in 1953, which seems like a pulp fantasy story. Doesn't feel like a genre a writer like DeRosso would've tackled. I've read three of his western short stories in Finnish and they were all very good and very noirish: one of them opens up with the "hero" waking up in middle of the desert tied up to the sand. There's a femme fatale, of course, and 100,000$, the basic ingredients of a good noir story.
.44 was the first of his five western novels and the reprint from 1998 is available through Abebooks cheaply. It's about a man who's fallen into being a hired killer. He hates every minute of his life and he fears the day he starts to like his job. In the beginning of the book he's set out to kill his latest victim. The victim doesn't defend himself, just stands there and stares at him. When Randall - that's the hero's name - pushes him far enough, the man draws and is quicker than Randall. He gets a bad shot and Randall kills him. Scared out of his wits, Randall decides to hunt down the man who sent him to this job.
This is a clever take on Hemingway's short story "The Killers", even though similar things happen in the film Robert Siodmak made based on that story in the late fourties. DeRosso has another goal in his mind, though: his focus is on the killer who wishes to put an end to his life, not on the victim. And Siodmak's killers (and later Don Siegel's) are not victims of cruel life, like Randall, they are only professionals who think maybe there's a reward somewhere in there. Randall hears pretty soon that there's a reward, but he's not interested in it, which baffles his enemies.
DeRosso's style is terse and sometimes poetic. It's also a bit clumsy sometimes, which may be a result of not enough proofreading and editing. There are some empty holes in the drama (not necessarily in the plot), but I don't mind that when the dark atmosphere and claustrophobics are as intense as they are here. All the characters in the book are doomed, some because of their laziness to do anything worthwhile, some because they are set to do something bad and try to come up with a reward. (In this DeRosso is quite different from another writer whom I consider to be another top noirist in westerns: Dean Owen. Owen's characters seem paranoid and maniacally driven, while in DeRosso's universe no one simply cares.)
This was never translated in Finnish. Thanks to the late Kent Johnson, I got a good copy of the original Lion publication and I finally got around to reading it. There's not much on DeRosso in the web, but Bill Crider just won't let us down. I think Ed Gorman has written about him, but not in his current blog. The older ones seem to be down. Peter Enfantino mentions some of DeRosso's crime stories here - in an article that's quite intriguing in its own right.