Friday, March 12, 2010

FORGOTTEN BOOK: Sabotage by Cleve F. Adams

I love this book. I’ve been wanting to read it again for the past several months, but it was buried so deep in storage it took several back-breaking hunting trips to finally find the right box. (The same box also contained all Adams’ other novels, along with a bunch of books I forgot I had - Christmas in February!)

Sabotage ran as a six-part serial in Detective Fiction Weekly in 1939 and was published in hardcover the following year. The book introduced Adams’ number one detective Rex McBride, a character who has - like Adams himself - been both ignored and reviled for far too long.

Back in the extremely socially-conscious 80s, an intelligent and well-meaning critic labeled McBride a racist and a fascist. That’s unfortunate, because other critics took up the cry, tarring the reputations of both McBride and Adams. A later critic, a guy I both like and respect, called McBride “one of the most repugnant characters in detective fiction history.”

Well. Because this is a G-Rated blog, I’ll restrain myself and answer, “Bunk!” Were these guys reading the same books I was?

I think McBride (and Adams) got a bad rap. In Sabotage, McBride exhibits no fascist behavior. He’s tough when necessary, but he’s a long, long way from Jack Bauer. The racist charge is inflated as well. In this book’s 252 pages, there are two instances of racial insensitivity (not uncommon in 1940) and one of them offends McBride himself.

And repugnant? Not from where I’m sitting. McBride doesn’t care what his employers think of him, and tells them so, but he stays the course and gets the job done in spite of them. He chases women, but only as far as they want to be chased. When one who’s a bit too young and innocent offers herself to him, he sets her straight and sends her home, at his own expense. McBride may try to act like a heel, but he always ends up doing the right thing.

As David Vineyard pointed out recently on The Mystery File, Sabotage borrowed the bones of its plot from Hammett’s Red Harvest. Well, why not borrow from the best? Actually, though I do see the similarity, Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing all followed the Red Harvest story more closely than did Sabotage.

Adams’ style is smooth and laconic, with a rhythm every writer should envy. Though I hadn’t read him in twenty years, the first two pages of Sabotage sucked me right back in and slapped a smile on my face. I invite you to enlarge the pulp spread below and see for yourself. If you like what you see, you’ll find ten other books bearing his name (five featuring Rex McBride), and three more under the pseudonym John Spain. Though none have been reprinted in over 50 years, low demand has kept the prices reasonable. I guess that’s something we can thank the critics for.

 (click to supersize)

Tomorrow: “Jigsaw” - a complete (and no doubt never-reprinted) Cleve F. Adams novelette from a 1939. Ya’ll come back, now.

Links to more Forgotten Books await you at Patti Abbott’s pattinase.


George said...

I actually have that hardcover copy of SABOTAGE with the green cover. Over the years, I've enjoyed Cleve F. Adams' works.

Richard Prosch said...

BIG thanks for this one. It's interesting to see how authors are raised and lowered by the critics over time. Mickey Spillane comes to mind though he might be on an "up" cycle?

Rittster said...


We've discussed this extensively, just I'll just say I completely concur with your analysis. After reading UP POPPED THE DEVIL (the book with the "American Gestapo" line), I thought, "Huh? Did I skip a chapter somewhere?" If a critic is going to call a character a "supreme male chauvinist", a "royal ass", and a "cosmic oaf" (not to mention a facist and a racist), then that's who I expect to find, damn it! Instead, by the end of the book I just wished McBride had been a stronger character, no matter what his stripe.

Anyway, I recently bought Sabotage in an edition published by "Mystery Novel Of The Month" and retitled DEATH BEFORE BREAKFAST. So I'll have to see if McBride is more of an insensitive chauvinist, ass, or oaf in this book. Though from the looks of your review, I doubt it.

darwination said...

I checked this out on your recommendation and loved it. It starts fast and keeps up a breakneck speed. McBride is just barely keeping it together, and it's really a wonder the way he sorts out what's been going on in this modern Deadwood while juggling a number of fantastic women. He gets no sleep and is never far from the bottle. When he doubles his expenses shooting craps and doesn't even remember within the first pages, you know you are in for a booze-soaked thrill ride. Smash-mouth but also funny and charming, you can't help but like McBride. He may be weak, but I think he's very human in a way many dicks aren't. As for the label racist, I really don't see where that would come from (as for fascist, that word gets bandied about so often, I don't even know what it means anymore). The one instance I recall where a slur is used distinctly upsets McBride as a lousy thing to say.

I'll be tracking down the sequel for certain, because I must have more. Thanks for the posts on Adams, and I'll be watching your fun blog.