Friday, April 20, 2012

Forgotten Books: Sleepers East by Frederick Nebel

After writing a brief Nebel bio for the brand new Black Dog Books collection, Empire of the Devil (pic below), I was in the mood to take another ride with Fred and his cast of characters on an eastbound train. And hey, it was a great ride!

Nebel wrote this book over a period of eight months, during which he "slowed down" to a mere three novelettes a month for his magazine markets, which at the time were primarily Black Mask, Dime Detective and Collier's. His inspiration came from the 1932 hit film Grand Hotel, based on Vicki Baum's 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel.

The big idea was to throw together a varied cast of characters, each with his or her own backstory and subplot, in a confined setting and force to interact, creating new directions of drama. (Sounds like a reality TV show, doesn't it?) The film starred Greta Garbo (and yes, she actually does say "I want to be left alone."), two Barrymores (John & Lionel), Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year.  

Grand Hotel inspired many other films and novels, but reviewers judged Sleepers East (1933) one of the best. One thing that set Sleepers East apart was that five of the twelve main characters were not simply random, but boarded the train to pursue their own agendas regarding a soon-to-begin murder trial. This murder angle, though, seems to have led some reviewers to consider the book a mystery. My judgment is . . .  it ain't.

Yeah, one of the dozen main characters is a lawyer, and he's defending the accused killer, who's a notorious mobster. There's also a dirty private dick and an inept railroad detective among the dozen. But there's no whodunit here, no crime committed in the course of the book, and very little violence. That's not meant as criticism, because it's a fine story, but most of the conflict revolves around personal aspirations, political problems and romantic entanglements.

With twelve point of view characters, it's hard to point to a protagonist, but the guy who starts and finishes the book, and with whom we probably identify most, is a henpecked husband trying to leave his boring life behind. He fails, but still feels richer for this brief taste of freedom. Other characters go through changes too. One gets her first taste of happiness and ends up dead. One is forced to see the ugly truth about himself. Another is forced to face the ugly truth about someone else. Some folks lose love and (just possibly) find it elsewhere. One is killed by his own obsession. One guy's obsession causes the tragic death of another. 

Yep, there's a lot going on, but it's handled nicely, and all comes together, and reviewers at the time agreed.

The following excerpts appeared on the dust jackets of Nebel's later novels, But Not the End (1934) and Fifty Roads to Town (1936):

"Frederick Nebel is a man to be watched. Sleepers East is conspicuously one of the best train-murder stories we have had, ingeniously constructed and adroitly written. The book is both unusual and brilliant."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"The story has full measure of action, suspense and emotional conflict . . . and thrills a-plenty."
New York Times Book Review

"An author new to the book field has crashed through with a novel for anybody’s entertainment . . . The book has extraordinary suspense."
The Saturday Evening Post

"Unusual, full of action and well handled."
St. Louis Globe-Democrat

"Another thriller on wheels is Sleepers East—with a gangster’s murder at the core of the mystery. The action is lively."
New York Herald Tribune

"Nebel writes astonishingly well. The plot is adroit, ingenious, quick-moving, thrilling."
Town and Country

"There is a thrill on every page . . . Racy and fast-moving. Recommended for those with a flair for the more sensational type of mysteries."
Providence Journal

"Frederick Nebel has provided characters who are ‘people.’ . . . A fine, clean, hard, realistic job of writing. Its temper sings like a sword’s."
Cleveland Press

"A fascinating story . . . splendidly done. The characters are all excellently drawn and humanly interesting."
Boston Transcript

Nebel, of course, was much more than a mystery writer. He began his career writing adventure and aviation stories, dabbled in westerns and eventually focused on selling romances to the slicks. That early adventure work - some of his most entertaining stuff - has been dang tough to find. And that's why I'm especially glad to see this new collection from Tom Roberts' Black Dog Books

Empire of the Devil gathers two short novels, four novelettes and two short stories and packs them with an extensive Nebel bibliography. Plus a fine intro by Mr. Roberts, and a few words about Fred himself - from me. More info, and your best place to order, RIGHT HERE.

Forgotten Books is a presentation of pattinase!


George said...

I love BLACK DOG books! Can't wait to read this!

Anonymous said...

Nice review, Evan. I have Empire of the Devil on order.

Tom Sheridan said...

I wish someone would reprint SLEEPERS EAST!

Walker Martin said...

In addition to the collection coming out by Black Dog Books, Altus Press has published THE COMPLETE CASEBOOK OF CARDIGAN by Frederick Nebel. Volume two will be out soon.

Evan Lewis said...

I want it/them, Walker.

And I, too, wish someone would reprint Sleepers East. There was a G&D hardcover back in 1933, but it's never even been in paperback.

Joel Lyczak said...

I am sure the Gales and McGill series Nebel wrote for AIR STORIES will find a publisher one day. Great stories of two pilots raising hell in the Orient during the late 1920s.