Tuesday, June 02, 2009


It’s not often the old phrase, “They don’t write’em like they used to” is accurate, at least not as a positive notion, but W.L. Heath’s Violent Saturday is just such a novel. It is the type of novel you don’t see much of anymore, or more likely, the type of novel that has always been rare. It straddles the line between thriller and literature like a lighted tunnel between heaven and hell. It is a violent novel that has all of the assets of a well-crafted thriller, but it adds the deliberate pace, the characters, and the illumination of a well-rendered piece of art.

Violent Saturday is the story of the small southern town of Morgan, Alabama. It opens with the arrival of three strangers—three men who wouldn’t be noticed except there are three of them and they are obviously traveling together. The men arrive into town quietly, but they have sinister plans to execute before they make a hasty and very loud and violent exit. The plan: rob the local bank and retreat back to Memphis with the cash. The set-up is seemingly simple and very much within the parameters of a streamlined and linear hardboiled thriller, but Mr Heath does something unique and almost magical with the story. He takes the emphasis away from the criminals and instead focuses the story on the town and its inhabitants.

He examines, with a rough and steady hand, the lives of the men and women who populate Morgan. He pans across the socio-economic reality of the 1950s American South; from the country club set, to the working class, to the lower classes of both black and white. The images are vibrant and subtle with a subtext that is cached with hard and damned uncomfortable truths—his portrayal of the black is uncompromising and harsh in both their status as the underclass and their seeming invisibility within the culture. He also digs into the dogma of status and class with a quiet and grim portrayal of the fallen—the families that once where something, but are now no more than forgotten town litter. It feels a little like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

This isn’t to mean that Violent Saturday is without plot, but rather Mr Heath fused a heap of meaning into the premise of a hardboiled thriller. He muscled the story with a crisp and literate style. The dialogue is true and, at times, nearly beautiful in its simple and truthful sounds—

“With who?”
whom darling.”
“All right, with whom, then.”
“With myself. I needed some air.”
“Bill Clayton must have needed some too.”
“Really? I wouldn’t know about that.”

“He was with you.”
“No, he wasn’t.”
“That’s a lie.”

* * *

“Hey, you in there.”
“Come on in!” Shelley called.

Another silence.
“Throw the key out to us and we’ll leave you alone.”
I bet, Shelley thought.
“You hear us?”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
“We’re coming in after it, if you don’t throw it out!”
“Come ahead! I got it right here in my hand.”

Violent Saturday is a helluva a novel and it will appeal to both the reader of thrillers as well as a more literary set—it has the story to satisfy the first and the meaning and depth to satisfy the later. The best part is it does what literature should. It shines a light on the human condition while telling a terrifically entertaining and vibrant story.

A NOTE. Violent Saturday was originally published in 1955 and made into a feature film starring Victor Mature, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. It was directed by Richard Fleischer. The original Black Lizard books republished it in 1985 in mass market with a wonderfully insightful Introduction by Ed Gorman.


Frank Loose said...

Thanks for posting this review. I've not heard of this author or the book. You have peaked my interest and I plan on searching out a copy.

Ben Boulden said...

Frank. It's well worth searching out. The Black Lizard edition is fairly common--I paid a few dollars for it at a used bookstore--and the Introduction is worth reading.

Happy hunting.

Frank Loose said...

Hey, Ben. I ordered a copy from Amazon. They had several Black Lizard editions available as well as some First editions. Looking forward to reading it. Thanks again for the great article.

Frank Loose said...

Hey Ben ... Everything you wrote about the book was dead on. I just finished reading it and thoroughly enjoyed it. As you described, it was is a mixture of literature style writing and crime. Heck of a good read. Some of the best dialogue i have read. Period.