Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Revenge is Bitter-Sweet" by H. A. DeRosso

I have been collecting and reading the old "Alfred Hitchcock's" anthologies published in the 1960s and 1970s for years.  When I see one in a used bookstore or thriftshop I snap it up so quickly I developed carpal tunnel, but wow is it worth it.  These old anthologies are loaded with top-notch stories from the best author's of the early paperback pulp era.  I read my first Robert Colby, Dan J. Marlowe, and, at worst, a few dozen more terrific writers in the pages of these anthologies.  I also read "Revenge is Bitter-Sweet" by one of my favorite unheralded writers, H. A. DeRosso, a few years ago in Alfred Hitchcock's Death Bag.  The following review went live at my blog Dark City Underground August 21, 2010, and I still really like the story.  

H. A. DeRosso is best known for his dark Westerns.  His better work is unusual—it tends toward dark, but it has vibrant and visceral settings and descriptions.  His protagonists tend to be indecisive and lost. His work is frequently, and correctly, compared with Cornell Woolrich’s bleak and violent noir.

His Westerns are amazing.  They were original in an era when the genre was cluttered with stereotypes and cheese, but he was also an accomplished writer of pulp crime.  His crime stories vary from readable to damn good; an example of the later is his 1960 story “The Hired Man”.  I recently found a crime story he wrote in the collection Alfred Hitchcock’s Death Bag.  It is titled “Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” and, while it isn’t as nearly as good as “The Hired Man,” it is an entertaining and well developed story.

Will Owen is bitter and angry.  Another man caused his father’s death and the woman he loves is lost to him.  The story opens with a late night appointment in the woods.  Will is anxious, but it’s not from pleasant expectation.  He is anxious because he is he is going to get some long awaited revenge for his father’s death.

“Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” is a twisty story with a surprise ending—it opens rushing down one avenue and quickly turns down another. The climax, and the twist, is planted early in the story.  The author didn’t cheat.  Unfortunately it was also quite easy to guess the surprise before it was revealed.  A situation that would destroy most stories, but it didn’t matter much with this one. It was the journey and the writing that made it work.

The protagonist is a believable character that displays emotions relevant to us all—sorrow, anger and guilt in shifting shades.  The setting is brilliantly conceived and executed to support the thematic emotions of the story.  It is a dark and gloomy rural wilderness that matches the internal sufferings of the protagonist.  A place that is likely very much like Mr DeRosso’s native Wisconsin.

The prose isn’t exactly hardboiled, but it is far from delicate.  There are passages that feel like a dark and masculine poetry—
“The car stopped. The lights winked out. The night shadows dwelt in unruffled peace again.”
“Revenge is Bitter-Sweet” was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which is one of the more mainstream magazines that published Mr DeRosso’s work.  And it is easy to identify the difference between this story—aimed at the fat part of the market—and his Westerns, which tended to be published in smaller, edgier magazines.  The elements are all there, but it is muted just enough that it loses the gritty power of his best work.

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