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.