“Brainquake” by Samuel Fuller (Hard Case Crime, 312 pages in trade paperback, in stores)
It’s a rare book published by Hard Case Crime that isn’t hard-boiled crime fiction, and “Brainquake” is not one of those rare books — at least, its rarity is not for that particular reason.
“Brainquake” is a rarity in that it is considered a “lost novel,” written by film director (“The Big Red One” as well as numerous others) Samuel Fuller. It has been available in French and in Japanese since the 1990s, but this is the first time the book has been published in its original English in the United States.
Fuller’s story is about Paul Page, a man who has a developmental disability resulting from a medical condition that gives him horrific headaches and, occasionally, makes him respond physically, and violently, to hallucinations. He calls these seizures “brainquakes,” and because he is unlikely to be able to hold down a regular job as a result, his father manages to get him a position with a local crime syndicate as a bagman.
In other words, Paul picks up bags of money — often extremely large sums of money — and delivers them to designated recipients. He has no idea how much money, nor where it comes from, nor how it is to be used. Nor does he care.
The ideal bagman has no family, no romantic interest, no drug habit or anything else that might cause him to consider breaking the level of trust given to him in carrying all of this money. Break that trust, and you die.
Until now, Paul has been an ideal bagman. But he has fallen for a lovely woman he refers to as Ivory Face, because he doesn’t know her name. He has seen her walking her baby in a baby carriage in the park, and he sits on a park bench to watch her, and he writes her poetry, and he secretly leaves a rose and a poem at her door every day.
But as the novel opens, Paul finds himself experiencing a strange emotion — jealousy — as he sees a man walking with Ivory Face in the park. The emotion is short-lived: the baby carriage has been rigged with a pistol, and when the baby reaches for the tail of a toy monkey to restart music the monkey has been playing, the trigger of the pistol is pulled and the gun fires.
Suddenly there is a dead man in the park. A dead mobster, that is, whose wife is told she may need to come up with $10,000 at short notice if she wants to remain living.
The reader may have an idea where this goes from here, perhaps with Paul dipping into a bag of cash for the 10 grand his secret sweetheart needs, but Fuller has put a different twist into the story and it isn’t as simple as all that.
“Brainquake” takes the reader on a noir roller-coaster ride, building the evidence to one conclusion, then dropping away and spinning toward another, then looping back in building up to yet another. Thrown into the mix are a mob enforcer who likes to drive nails through the hands and feet of his victims, a boss whose soft-hearted reaction threatens her future, a mole inside the operation who is setting up bagmen to be robbed and murdered and a pair of brothers who seem to be somewhat short on brotherly love.
A word to the wary noir aficionado: If you start this book, don’t plan to do anything else for a while. Like sleeping.