“He was wondering what in hell he was mixed up in…It wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. He wasn’t coming out of this untouched. That was certain. For the first time in his life he felt helpless.”
For ten years, Red Bailey has been running from the past. As a seedy private detective in New York City, he accepted a job that changed him forever. Now he only wants to forget, burying himself in rural California where he runs a service station, trying to convince himself he could really marry the girl next door. But Red’s past is about to catch up with him, and she’s just as tempting, and just as deadly, as ever.
Build My Gallows High is remarkably fatalistic even for noir. Here, one gets the sense that Red was doomed long before anyone from his past turned up at the service station. The seeds of his destruction were sown even before the first page of the book; it’s just taken ten years for them to take root and flower. The crime plot is fiendishly complex, full of double and triple-crosses, but the reason behind it all is straightforward enough: love.
This novel is best known today as the source material for Out of the Past, perhaps the quintessential film noir. The film and the book depict the same characters and events from opposite points of view, like photo negatives of each other. Out of the Past is aptly titled, as its protagonist Jeff is haunted by the memory of a doomed romance. When he is drawn back into a present-day crime, that job merely serves as the excuse for a profound meditation on the nature of love and salvation. Build My Gallows High, by contrast, lives determinedly in the present. Geoffrey Homes is heavily focused on the modern crime, with Red’s old love affair serving as little more than the deus ex machina that returns him to a world he hoped he’d left behind.
The plot begins very simply, but it gets complicated fast. Ten years ago, a gambler named Whit Sterling hired Red Markham (as he was then known) and his partner Jackson Fisher to find a woman. Not just any woman, but his girl, who plugged him full of lead and took off with more than $50,000. Sterling doesn’t care about getting the money back. He only wants the girl. Even after she left him to die, he wants her back.
Red is skeptical—until he sees the girl. They fall in love under the Mexican sun, and she convinces Red that, if he gets her off the hook with Sterling, they can live happily ever after. It doesn’t quite work out that way.
It would be all right, he kept telling himself, because he wanted it to be, because he didn’t want to lose her, because he wanted to stay blind. When you create something, you hate to see it dissolve into nothingness.
Now, ten years and one murder later, Mumsie is back in his life.
Yes, that’s right. Mumsie. This seductive creature who lures men to their doom is named Mumsie McGonigle. It throws the whole book off balance, having a femme fatale with a name this a) ridiculous and b) Oedipal. Even passing observations like “Mumsie still had great legs” take on an uncomfortable subtext.
Red’s entire past entanglement with Mumsie, Sterling, Fisher, and police chief Guy Parker is recounted economically, with only a tinge of romanticism here and there. In the space of a few pages, we go from “I adore you” to:
He’d get over it, he knew. He’d be lonely for a while, lonely for a myth. And Mumsie? With that wad of money she should be very happy. Money was something you could hold and count. Love? Hell, you could pick that up in a Mexican cafe when you needed it.
Most of the book is focused on the new heist these old enemies drag him into. Parker wants Red to steal a mysterious object from an attorney named Lloyd Eels, with the aid of his secretary Meta Carson, who is in on the plot. Red can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong about the whole setup.
Red stood up. He was tired of answering questions. He was tired of asking himself questions. What was going to happen would happen and that was that. When you came right down to it, it didn’t matter much. It really didn’t matter at all. Even if he was a worthy citizen full of good deeds and honors, it wouldn’t matter.
Mumsie doesn’t play a significant role until the brutal climax, but when she does, watch out.
Red claims he is driven by his desire to get back to the woman he truly loves, Ann Miller. Still, even if he can avoid having Mumsie expose his past misdeeds, Red believes that after what he has done, he can’t settle down with Ann and lead a normal life. His sins will contaminate her. “One day you’ll look at me and all the things I’ve done will haunt us…Love’s easy to kill.” Instead of treasuring the friendship of the Kid, his deaf-mute employee, Red feels only guilt, knowing he doesn’t deserve such devotion.
Homes initially seems to present a stark divide between the purity of nature and the filth of the city, but this line grows muddier and more ambiguous as the story progresses. Red’s life in Bridgeport seems to promise a clean, fresh start. Nature constantly renews itself, covering the dead places with new growth. He had hoped it might do the same for him. When Red returns to New York, he contrasts it unfavorably with Bridgeport. “There was a garbage can at the right of the entrance and someone had kicked it over. The sight of it made him wonder why anyone lived in New York.” At the same time, however, he notes that “in other places when you heard children’s voices in the dusk it filled you with loneliness, but not in New York.” As much as he tries to convince himself otherwise, Bridgeport is not truly his home, and never will be.
It first seems that Red is the serpent who brings sin to Eden, attracting city gangsters who are infecting the innocence of nature. The truth is more complex, however. As competing factions of cops and criminals descend upon the area, it’s as if entering this primeval forest puts them in touch with their fundamental natures. Each person faces moral choices there, not in a dark alley, but out in the open, in the bright sunlight. Some choose one way, some go another, but the opportunity for evil is available to all, even in these idyllic surroundings. After all, there’s nothing more natural than dirt.
Build My Gallows High grapples with the question of whether one is doomed forever by the past. Is there any point in trying to overcome what he has done, or is Red beyond redemption? Red has struggled with this problem for so long that it’s almost a relief when the matter is taken out his hands and he can sink gratefully back into the muck. Build My Gallows High shows how hard it can be to move beyond the past, and how comforting it is to seek refuge in hopelessness. How much easier it is to believe there was never any other way.
At 153 pages this is a slim but rich read full of great quotes and fantastic noir moments. At the heart of this dark tale are the moral choices made by Red–a man whose poor decisions have led to a one-way ticket to his doom.
Build My Gallows High is out of print and used copies are expensive. The film version, Out of the Past, is a must-see; it is available on DVD/Blu-ray and for digital rental or purchase.