Sunday, June 28, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #3: VIOLENT SATURDAY

The third installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early '90s:




THE STORY: A bank robbery throws a small Alabama town into chaos.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A major Southern novel disguised as a crime thriller. Or maybe the other way around.

"The three men arrived in Morgan Friday afternoon on the two-thirty train from Memphis. They were the only strangers to get off the train that day, and several people noticed them but didn't pay them much attention. They might have been salesmen or minor businessmen of some sort. They only reason they were noticed at all was because there were three of them."

So begins W. L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY. The three aren't salesmen, of course, or minor businessmen. They're big city bank robbers who descend on the small town of Morgan, Ala., to plunder the local Savings and Loan. As their plans proceed and the titular day looms closer, the town itself seems to tremble with anticipation, as if a storm were gathering on the horizon. But before that happens, Heath delves "Peyton Place"-like into the passions and private dramas of Morgan's citizens, none of whom are very innocent themselves. When the run-up to the robbery leads to the kidnapping of the book's ostensible hero, an "expediter" for the Fairchild Chenille Company, things start to go badly wrong. And the book earns its title in a climactic shoot-out that's startling in its realism, especially by 1955 standards.

One of the great things Black Lizard did during its original run was bring near-forgotten novels like this back into print (even if they promptly fell out again), and VIOLENT SATURDAY is maybe the best of the bunch. Unlike most of their reissues, it wasn't first published as a paperback original. Though it was Heath's debut novel, it was bought and published in hardcover by Harper, and the film rights sold almost immediately. It was filmed later that year at 20th Century Fox, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Victor Mature, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin in an early role. The story was transplanted to Arizona, with Borgnine as an Amish farmer (!) who helps foil the robbery. The film isn't available on DVD, but can be seen in its entirety on Hulu.

VIOLENT SATURDAY is very much a novel of its time, and the casual racial epithets can be a little jarring, even in context. But the finely nuanced social observations and expert build-up of suspense put it right in the forefront of American crime novels of the 1950s.

William Ledbetter Heath has become something of an enigma in the decades since the book was published. He wrote at least eight novels, three of those for younger readers, but all remain out of print. The Black Lizard edition of VIOLENT SATURDAY also contains a great introduction by Ed Gorman, with plenty of biographical details about Heath, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2007). Black Lizard also reprinted Heath's follow-up, the excellent ILL WIND, which again takes place in the fictional town of Morgan, though it's only marginally a crime novel. Last year, browsing in a used book store, I found a British edition of Heath's third novel BLOOD ON THE RIVER, which, as far as I can tell, has never have been published in the U.S. at all. Like those two earlier books, it's an almost flawless merging of character and action, deeply evocative of small-town communities in the rural South.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Peter Rabe's THE OUT IS DEATH

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