Friday, June 7, 2013

Forgotten Books: FREDERICK NEBEL's Fifty Roads to Town (1936)

Frederick Nebel, best remembered for his work in Black Mask and Dime Detective, had three hardcover novels published during his lifetime. I reviewed the first two, Sleepers East (1933) HERE, and But Not the End (1934) HERE. Are you ready for the last? Well ready or not, here we go…

Buoyed by good reviews garnered by the first two books, but disappointed in the sales of the second, Nebel hoped to repeat the success of Sleepers East with this one, which he began writing in 1935. At the time, he was still churning out MacBride and Kennedy stories for Black Mask and Cardigan tales for Dime Detective, and novelettes for slick mags, but he put them all on back burners long enough to produce Fifty Roads to Town, published in January 1936.

Like the first two books, it has a large ensemble of characters, making it difficult to pin down a protagonist. Two of the major characters are Edwin Henry, a henpecked salesman of fire protection equipment and assorted sundries, and Peter Nostrand, an adulterer hiding out from the cuckhold who’s determined to kill him. Nostrand’s hideout is a secluded “camp,” (actually a well-appointed cabin) and Henry blunders in, hoping to make a sale. When he’s set to leave, he discovers a flat tire and a flat spare. Next thing you know a big storm hits, and they’re snowed in together.

The setting appears to be the Maine woods, an area Nebel became familiar with after settling in a 200-year-old farmhouse near Ridgefield, Conn. Most of the action takes place either in the cabin or in an ancient hotel called the Outpost House, where we meet . . .

- Philip Prior, the wronged and sexually repressed husband. His wife has since left him, making him crazier than ever to kill Nostrand.
- Beryl Moore, a fun-loving but tenth-rate torch singer trying to reach Canada, where a job awaits.
- Allenby, the county attrorney who takes charge of the search for the missing Henry, and
- Edna Henry, the henpecked, who’s come to berate Allenby and everyone else in sight for not finding her husband fast enough.

There are many more characters, at least three of them with their own points of view, but these are movers and shakers of the story. Nebel makes them all come alive, and gives each a distinct personality.

Compared to Sleepers East, which was both happy and sad, and But Not the End, about folks trying to deal with the stock market crash, this is a fun book, and I'm pretty sure Nebel had fun writing it. When Henry’s disappearance catches the attention of the press, the search turns into a circus, with a famous aviator flying circles over the landscape, and a grandstanding guy with a sled-dog team pretending he cares.

It's not too surprising that Fifty Roads to Town is the only one of Nebel's novels to be reprinted between paper covers. An abridged version was published as a Mercury Book digest in 1940. The other edition shown here (a hardcover) was published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape.

Fox released a film version in 1937, which I have not seen, but it sounds like they turned it into a light-hearted (possibly even romantic) comedy. Don Ameche starred as Nostrand, who is hiding out to avoid testifying in a friend’s divorce, and Ann Sothern, his no-doubt romantic interest, is a character who’s not in the book at all. The novel, though laced with satire and humor, is not a comedy.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase!


Richard R. said...

You continue to tease us (make us want to drop everything and read another Nebel) with these, Evan. So would you say this is the best of the three, or would that be Sleeper's East?

Evan Lewis said...

Almost even, though I probably enjoyed this a little more thanks to the humor.

Rittster said...

Thanks for reviewing Nebel's three novels. Definitely appreciated. Have you read of the stories he wrote for Ellery Queen mag in the 1950's?

Evan Lewis said...

I have, and have some of the issues, but it's been a coon's age.

Evan Lewis said...

P.S. Hey Brian, when is your book coming out? I'll want to review it.