Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Case of the Wandering Redhead by Leigh Brackett, 1951

I’d never read Leigh Brackett until now and I’m glad I finally did. I found her short story The Case of the Wandering Redhead in the pages of New Detective Magazine, February 1951, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is the introduction to the story.

“Here is the most ruthless man you’ve ever met—a filler whom death could not soften nor bullets stop—yet whose relentless fists battered to their last futile gesture that softest thing a man ever finds—the heart of a woman in love. It is with a definite sense of accomplishment that we welcome Miss Brackett to these pages—which many of you will find unforgettable!”

The “ruthless man” is Marty James, a territorial gangster who lives by guns and fists, and the narrator of the story. He is wildly in love with Sheila Burke, a stunning redhead he wants to marry even if she detests the very thought of it. She refuses him point blank, just the way he’d shoot his adversaries. Sheila has good reason for not wanting to have anything to do with him.

“Can I get it through your head? I hate you, Marty. I hate everything you stand for. All I want out of life is decency and peace and maybe a little happiness. You can’t give me any of them.”

But Marty has no plans to leave her alone. In fact, he is trying to force her to marry him, when his sidekick calls him away on urgent business only to betray him to a rival gangster eyeing his turf. Marty fights and shoots his way out of captivity and returns to Sheila, with a rib wound and two bullet holes in his thigh.
 

Six flights, with thin snow beginning to fall, thinking of Sheila’s voice saying, There’s blood on you, Marty. You’re not in my world.

I thought, All right. That’s the way it is, Sheila. That’s the way we’ll play it. I was colder than the snow, and numb.

How Marty James plays it is a foregone conclusion.

The Case of the Wandering Redhead is a cracker of a story. I was fully absorbed in the reading of it. The two main characters, Marty and Sheila, are drawn well. In the words of the gangster, human enough to go crazy over a girl. Brackett’s narrative style is clean, almost poetic and visually striking, as if the story is playing out on screen. Consider this passage.


I looked at her. She was beautiful. She was like something the wind might cut out of a snowbank, with the red fire of her hair on top. Her eyes met mine, and there was an awful coldness in them, like I’d killed the spark inside her.

The short story is a classic example of the hardboiled crime fiction of the Golden Age.

Recommended.

18 comments:

  1. I like the sound of this, Prashant. A good hardboiled story has complex characters, and it sounds as though Marty and Sheila are solidly drawn.

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    1. Margot, the two lead characters are "solidly drawn and they complement each other, and bring the story alive.

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  2. I have not read any of Leigh Brackett’s books – yet. The old movie director Howard Hawks hired Leigh Brackett to work on several of his films (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and others). I read that on first meeting the writer, Hawks was surprised to find that the author of some very hard-boiled fiction was a woman.

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    1. Elgin, thanks for that little anecdote. I read online that Brackett wrote scripts for some well-known films, including an "early draft" for "The Empire Strikes Back". I plan to read her science fiction next.

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  3. I haven't read this author, either...looks like she wrote some amazing hardboiled stories. Thanks for the tip!

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    1. Elizabeth, the author specialised in science fiction, though she also wrote crime fiction. She seems to have preferred the short story format over full-length novels.

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  4. Oh, I've enjoyed Leigh Brackett in the past. I'm sure I'd agree with you here.

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    1. David, I look forward to reading Leigh Brackett's sf stories.

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  5. This sounds like an intriguing story. My problem with some older fiction is the way women are depicted. How do you think Brackett fares in this regard?

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    1. Thank you for visiting my blog. I can't answer your question because I'd never read anything by Leigh Brackett before this short story. Although, she has portrayed Sheila Burke as a strong and determined woman with a mind and will of her own, as opposed to the rather sorry character of Marty James.

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  6. This story actually a reprint from Flynn’s Detective Fiction [v152 #1, April 1943]

    She also wrote some western fiction...mostly film tie-ins...

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    1. Todd, I'd no idea Leigh Brackett wrote western fiction. But I'm looking forward to reading her sf stories.

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  7. And I believe she worked on an early draft of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. That's one versatile career.

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    1. She did do that, David. I read about it at Wikipedia and a couple of other websites. I assume THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK script might have gone through a few revisions before the final script.

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  8. Another one I've heard of but never actually tried. Nothing in the tubs I'm afraid.

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    1. Col, I think Leigh Brackett wrote more short stories than full-length novels. I haven't come across her books either.

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  9. I associate Leigh Brackett with film scripts. This sounds like a tough and compelling story.

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    1. Moira, this is a crisply written short story, as I imagine the rest of her work to be. I believe she wrote the scripts for John Wayne films including RIO BRAVO among others.

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