The Plastic Nightmare and While Love Lay Sleeping by Richard Neely

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The Plastic Nightmare and While Love Lay Sleeping by Richard Neely pulp fiction

Like a lot of American pulp authors, Richard Neely started out a newspaperman. He then embarked on a successful career in advertising before turning to crime writing in his 50s. In 14 years he produced 15 novels. This volume contains his second and third books, The Plastic Nightmare and While Love Lay Sleeping, both originally published in 1969.

These psychological mysteries demonstrate Neely’s knack for topping a twist off with another twist and constantly flipping expectations. The well-off characters here are riding the post-War economic boom, and their stories are set against a background of rapidly changing cultural values. These are stories about sex, obsession, hypocrisy and double standards in apparently respectable society and, this being pulp fiction, it all leads to murder. Neely is clearly not enamoured with the free love camp. There’s a disquiet in his writing about the sexual revolution of the 1960s, an intriguing undertone that runs contrary to the main thrust of the narrative, a throwaway comment on the laissez-faire nature of the pill in the first novel is just one example. That tinge of conservatism noted, Neely was an original writer capable of pulling surprises. His stories are richly entertaining and suck us into the lives of his characters expertly.

The Plastic Nightmare

A man wakes in a hospital bed eight months into his recovery from a car crash in the hills above San Francisco after a New Year’s Eve party. Daniel Marriott careened off the road and plummeted 500 feet, breaking half the bones in his body. Fortunately, his wife Judith was thrown clear and uninjured.

Daniel has disturbing flashbacks of the accident but no memory of his former life. Thanks to plastic surgery his face has been reconstructed but psychiatrist Dr Ragensburg is convinced Daniel’s amnesia is due to suppressed memory rather than brain damage. Today is a big day, the facial bandages finally come off and Daniel goes home with Judith to their beach house. A vague unsettling memory of a holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, comes to him and he sees his business partner Jeb and the man’s wife Ginnie were there.

Judith tells Daniel they had grown apart but the Mexico trip brought them back together and that they were happy before the accident. They seem to be getting on now but Daniel still doesn’t feel Judith is telling him the whole truth and Jeb and Ginnie have a different view of the Marriott’s relationship.

Then the revelations begin, Daniel finds photographs of Judith with a man called Ridge Standish and learns he was consulting a private detective about her infidelity before the crash. Was Ridge in Mexico too? While Daniel investigates Judith, it hasn’t really occurred to him to question his own part in their marriage problems. There are twists in every chapter, the story does a 180-degree turn and everything we thought we knew tumbles down like a house of cards.

Neely’s plotting is masterly. This is an original riff on a well-worn theme and an insightful musing on identity, the power of secrets and the passions that lead to murder. Second guess all you want – The Plastic Nightmare will surprise you.

While Love Lay Sleeping

Paul Sevrance lost the love of his life in October 1946 when Cathie committed suicide. That’s 21 years ago now but the pain has never gone away. Since then relationships have been tough, his second marriage failed and he’s reticent about committing his current girlfriend, work colleague Barbara Wynn.

Paul is moving house, finally clearing out some of Cathie’s stuff, when he finds a letter addressed to him in one of her handbags. The letter was written on the night she killed herself. Paul was away in Japan fighting in World War II at the time, yet it says Cathie was looking forward to his return. She was hopeful.

Paul and Cathie met at an advertising agency in 1943 and were married a few weeks later, shortly after that Paul was drafted and sent overseas while Cathie set up an apartment in New York. Three years on Paul’s brother Rick tells him Cathie killed herself. It turns out she was pregnant. It couldn’t have been Paul’s child and the disgrace must have led her to kill herself.

That’s how things lay for more than 20 years but now Paul wants to know exactly what happened. Adlai Marston, head of the advertising agency Paul returned to after the War, is retiring. Paul and fellow vice president Tom Landon are up for the post and Tom is prepared to play dirty while Paul takes time out to investigate what happened to his wife. If it wasn’t suicide then Cathie was murdered and that puts Tom, Rick and Adlai all in the frame.

Once again, nothing is as it seems and when the past is revealed it’s an eye opener. I love the period detail in this story. You can imagine walking through a hotel lobby with Mantovani playing in the background and seeing the sharp cut suits, crystal whiskey glasses and cigarette fug in the meeting rooms. Dirty office politics, whiffs of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and sexism haunt the pages.

JF Norris notes in the introduction to this double-novel volume that While Love Lay Sleeping is reminiscent of Laura by Vera Caspary in its investigation of a dead woman, putting her life and relationships under the microscope, but it’s no spoiler to say that here Cathie really is dead and there’s no miracle return. Paul is a sympathetic, rounded character, you can feel his pain. He has been lied to by one or more of the men he’s trusted for more than two decades and his memory of Cathie has been sullied. This is a very credible study in grief.

Two well pitched noirs, dirty, squalid and gripping.

The Plastic Nightmare as Shattered is one of three Neely stories to have been adapted for film. It came out as Shattered, starring Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi in 1991. Watch the trailer below. Click here for more pulp crime fiction.

Stark House Press

CFL Rating: 5 stars

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