by Henry Kuttner
“The first step, I thought. After this I can’t go back. I’ve made the first move and it leads right on to the last.”
Nick Banning, traveling east, stumbles across a well-off, eccentric couple on a ranch outside of Phoenix. He accepts a job as a kind of handyman for the couple alongside their two servants, partly because his ex-wife now lives and works in the city. Sherry left Nick for a reason. He’s got a temper and a propensity for letting it get him into trouble, but if he can just scrape together the money Sherry needs to get her start in showbiz he might still have a chance with her.
This is a short book, barely novel length, and reads quickly. It’s not a mystery but carries that dark, gumshoe feel we associate with noir as Nick finds his way into violent situations over the course of trying to win Sherry back. The two servants are oddly withdrawn but friendly enough, and the owners of the ranch, the Count and Countess, are bizarre creatures straight from an asylum—the kind of characters that are well developed enough to be both unsettling and unknowable.
The last 20 or 30 pages ratchet up both the action and insightful writing to the point many of the best lines are from the end of the story. As a whole, Man Drowning is lean and fast, intimate and violent without being over the top, and its characters are just far enough outside of crazy to be real. Noir fans are going to find a lot to like here.
“You’re all alone, on the desert, under the sky. It takes quite a while, sometimes, to find out that there’s only one person on earth. Only one real person alive. Yourself.”