Written by Jada M Davis — You can be forgiven for wondering where we dug this one up, if you’ve never heard of One for Hell. I must confess it had flown under my radar. I became aware of it reading Heath Lowrance’s blog, Psychonoir, and it seems he first heard of it via James Reasoner’s Rough Edges blog. Perhaps the obscurity of this book can be put down to the sheer number of paperback originals printed in the 1950s. There were so many, it seems inevitable some gems were buried in the deluge. Or maybe it’s because Davis wrote so few books and concentrated on his journalism instead. Either way you can now enjoy One for Hell following its re-issue by Stark House Press. It includes an introduction by the author’s son.
Willa Ree arrives in the West Texas oil town of Breton having stowed away on a box car. His possessions total ten cents and a scuffed suit. Almost the first thing he does is smash a jeweller’s window to steal what’s on display. At a local cafe he meets Councillor Ben Halliday and the two men size each other up. Halliday sees a criminal he can control, a man he can rely upon to do the dirty work the current chief of police doesn’t want to handle.
Halliday and his political cronies are getting some small kickbacks from liquor licenses and such, but like all greedy men, he isn’t satisfied. The mob has gambling tied up and the county sheriff has prostitution. So Halliday wants Ree to muscle them out. Ree sees a sucker, somebody he can work with at first until he’s established, then squeeze out. Halliday parachutes Ree into the post of chief of detectives, alienating a cop called Wesley who had been promised the promotion.
Whilst waiting for the word from Halliday to begin moving in on the sheriff’s territory Ree continues his own crime spree, robbing places until he gets lucky and catches a safe cracker at work. He’s able to blackmail Baldy into an uneasy alliance – he acts as spotter whilst Baldy does the jobs. When Ree and Halliday’s group first shift the sheriff out the way and take over the prostitution racket, things go well. However it’s not long before they start to go wrong.
Halliday’s political cronies start to sense that Ree is not the stooge they took him for, and the sudden increase in burglaries hasn’t gone unnoticed. Suspicions turn to murder as Baldy and Ree argue over a $40,000 score and disgruntled Wesley discovers the loot before Ree can get to it. The sheriff isn’t the soft touch Ree thought him to be, and whilst appearing to concede some territory has ambitions to win it back. As the various parties struggle for control of an increasingly chaotic situation, Ree’s criminal behaviour escalates as his desperation grows. More murders and rape follow.
One for Hell is gripping and tough, and in the best tradition of 50s noir, nobody leaves unscathed. It is also a fascinating portrait of boom town politics and graft, and Ree is as deftly portrayed a sociopath as I have read. The book has been criminally overlooked during the years, and deserves a place on your bookshelf next to Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars