|Vintage Pulp||May 22 2023|
If it helps to persuade you, when you're an old woman you'll look back on even your worst one night stands with nostalgia.
Vintage thrillers and films often used Mexico as a setting, and we very much enjoy when that happens, due to our own numerous trips to the country and the many fond memories they produced. Wade Miller's 1950 novel Devil May Care takes readers to Mexico and does a better job of it than most books we've read. The trip happens when soldier of fortune Biggo Venn is sent to Ensenada on a mission that promises to profit him $10,000. Unfortunately, Biggo's contact turns up murdered, and out of caution he decides the smartest move is to wait for the unknown killer or killers to reveal themselves. He lays low and plays the role of gringo tourist. While doing so he meets up with a hard luck American named Jinny and a beautiful local named Pabla, both of whom are romantic interests, though in Jinny's case it's a love-hate dynamic.
Plenty happens with Jinny and Pabla, but Biggo's most portentous encounter is with fellow soldier of fortune Lew Hardesty, who's not only a rival suitor for both women, but keeps trying to horn in on Biggo's caper. The two eventually get into a vicious fight that settles nothing except that Biggo, who's ten years older, is losing his edge (though he dislocates Hardesty's jaw before the man pushes it back into place and comes at Biggo like a whirlwind). It's a good scene in a fun book. In fact, we think Devil May Care is Wade Miller (a pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and Bill Miller) at his/their best. The story is well paced, exciting, sometimes sad, and often funny. The authors use the rough-edged mercenaries-at-large premise brilliantly, as in this exchange between Biggo and Hardesty:
Biggo growled, “I thought you were in Bolivia.” Just because he had met one of his own kind made the outlook no brighter. Hardesty was a comrade but something less than a friend. He had a knack for showing up where he wasn't wanted.
“I was. Now I'm here.”
“Have you ever spent a summer in Bolivia? Very hot.”
Biggo understood the old pattern. Hardesty had been on the wrong side, whichever side happened to be losing that year. “Yes, Lew, I was thinking about you only the other night.”
“I love you too.”
“I know that. I remember the time you let me go out after that tiger in the Malay with a jimmied gun.”
Hardesty laughed. “That was a fine joke. Those man-killers are always old tigers, anyway. You've got more teeth than he had. Was that any worse than shipping me that opium in Transjordan? I sat in that mud jail for two months until one of your shells knocked out a wall.”
Biggo laughed in turn. “That was the gunner's fault. He'd promised me a direct hit.”
Much of the dialogue features similar banter, and not just between the soldiers. Hard luck Jinny can quip with the best of them:
Jinny said faintly, “I thought you went to jail.” She looked ready to be sick. She held a cracker halfway to her mouth, forgotten.
“Can't keep a good man down, honey.”
“What's that got to do with you?”
In the end the killers reveal themselves and Biggo—by now seeking revenge as well as a payoff—brings hell directly to their doorstep, or in this case to their yacht in the harbor. The climax brings a surprise or two, and Biggo's fate hinges upon who to trust, and who not to. Devil May Care is a wide-open sort of tale about dangerous men, but its title proves to be contradictory. Biggo pretends not to care about anything except the next mission and the next exotic port of call, but his acceptance of his own aging and his slim hope for retirement and a restful old age matter—in the end—more than anything else. The book has some moments that might make modern readers quail, but all the portrayals and reactions make sense in context. We loved this one.