The Gesture by Gil Brewer from Best American Noir of the Century

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by David Corbett

Noir is No Excuse

The strength of “The Gesture” lies in Gil Brewer’s ability, like a fastball pitcher with a nasty slider, to bring the change-up with brutal effect. Sadly, the trick comes just once, and is not enough to save the story from its maudlin clichés and penny-dreadful payoff.

Curiously, the first three paragraphs elicit a pleasant frisson: crisp, evocative prose, setting up both the idyllic remote-island setting and the core conflict between the husband and his nemesis, a reporter he takes for a marital threat. Then poof, the thing pinwheels south—cranked up emotions, described not portrayed; rhetorical questions phonying up suspense; pointless exclamation points; and far too much pacing—back and forth, yes, back and forth, again, back and forth—for a five-page story.

And yet the overwrought rendering might be seen as a set-up for the crucial switch, when for one brief paragraph we hear the reporter’s voice, rendered in a letter. The language here is taut, clear and direct, so unlike what’s come before, demonstrating the delusional folly plaguing the husband’s mind. For a moment one suspects the clumsiness of what’s come before was precisely the point (instead of just bad writing). But the ending, which follows straightaway, is rushed and hokey. We get not so much a story as an idea of one—worse, a gimmick. One almost expects a descending slide-whistle glissando instead of a final period (or Elmer Fudd telling us, “That’s all, folks!”).

All of which means the most compelling part of this entry is the author’s biographical note, which depicts a relentless bull who cranked out nearly one hundred stories, a ghost writer for others (including Ellery Queen), and a novelist in his own right, whose The Red Scarf (1958) sold over a million copies. (Let me repeat: over a million copies.) Within only a couple years, however, fortune betrayed him. His end days were grim, marred by drink and afflicted with injuries sustained in a car wreck. His output dwindled. In short order, he was all but forgotten.

If only the one story lived up to the other.


David Corbett is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Devil’s Redhead (nominated for the Anthony and Barry awards for Best First Novel of 2002); Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book and a Macavity Award nominee for Best Novel of 2003); Blood of Paradise (An Edgar nominee, named one of the top ten mysteries & thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post , and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book) and Do They Know I’m Running?.

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