"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
SQUEeze play by James mckimmey
Reviewed by Lee Horsley
"And he was certain, because he could feel it in the pit of his stomach, that they were going to make it. Not a million bucks. Leave that to the fiction writers. But a cool one hundred G’s, maybe. That was the kind of money it took the average guy ten to twenty years of hard labor to earn. They could get it in hours." (Squeeze Play, 39)
Much of James McKimmey’s gripping, intricately plotted novel, Squeeze Play (Dell, 1962), is set in a Lake Tahoe casino, the scene of an elaborate, carefully planned scheme to walk away safely with "a cool one hundred G’s". Squeeze Play is a novel in which all of the main characters are – or ultimately become – gamblers of one sort or another. Throughout, there is a dialogue between "taking a chance" and fatalism, between game-playing and passivity. The game-player or gambler is a familiar figure in mid-century American crime writing. In the 1930s and 1940s, characters who rely on the roll of the dice or the spin of the roulette wheel are generally (like the protagonist of Richard Hallas’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, for example) committing themselves to a doomed enterprise. Their gambles signify desperation; their games are played in the vain hope of breaking free from a cycle of defeat and degradation.
The world of Squeeze Play is less grimly deterministic, partly because the powers-that-be are less corrupt and less indiscriminately destructive than those that lurk behind the scenes, controlling the course of events in much earlier literary noir. Nevertheless, these established powers (though "straight") have in place some very effective methods of surveillance, and the plans of the aspiring crooks are very much shaped by the nature of this vigilance. The casino, a "vast amphitheater of entertainment," has seemingly omniscient observers ensconced behind an array of mirrored panels "on the ceiling everywhere through the entire building, overlooking cash registers, crap tables, roulette wheels, any place where money changed hands" (38; 42). McKimmey’s schemers, however, see themselves as quite distinct from the compulsive gamblers they intend to prey on, and as clever enough to evade the watchful eyes of both police and casino owners. Suspense is heightened in the novel by the gradual revelation of machinations that do actually seem to offer the criminals a chance of success against this "legitimate house" and that threaten to bring destruction on the protagonist, who becomes increasingly enmeshed in their trap.
"He awoke in the strange room and stared at the ceiling, puzzled" (5): McKimmey’s central character, Jack Wade, is seen in the first chapter literally waking up to the danger he is in. By the end of the chapter he is running blindly, in the position of one of the classic types of noir protagonist, the traumatised "wrong man". With his sense of masculine competence and potency on the verge of collapse, Jack is the victim of an accusation of double murder that he finds incomprehensible. As the narrative shifts to the events of the preceding eight days, and we begin to piece together the explanation of the situation he is in, we share Jack’s conflicting emotions and our sympathies very much remain with him. But McKimmey’s use of multiple viewpoints - of shifting close third-person narration – ensures that readers are also given sharp insights into the motives, the anxieties and weaknesses both of the conspirators and of one of their other main victims, Binny, the wife of Jack Wade.
For all of the main characters in Squeeze Play, the inducement to become gamblers and game-players is a sense of their own entrapment. The femme fatale (Elaine Towne) and her chosen ally (Frank Delli, a dealer at the casino) are both looking for a way out, battling against a humiliating conviction that their lives have been wholly determined by the misfortunes of their earlier years. Frank seems always to have had a sense of personal failure hanging over him. He is a loser with a past he wants to leave behind – "he’d been on the outside, a fumbler. He hadn’t been much good at anything he’d tried..." (38). Frank’s feeling of inferiority and his terrible need to assert himself are glimpsed, for example, in a scene juxtaposing his childish bravado with the masculine competence of the sheriff. In contrast to the sheriff, who bags mountain lions, Frank uses eight shots to blast away a tiger-striped domestic cat that startles him, reflecting, "Somehow there was something about this that was more complete, more definite, as though he had really done something, shooting the hell out of that damn cat. . . ." (44-5) The self-confidence of this chronically weak character increases under the tutelage of the determinedly competent Elaine, to the point at which he feels equal to acts of violence more serious than cat murder - even equal, perhaps, to committing his own act of betrayal.
Elaine, driven by the overwhelming urge to escape from a background of "cheap, patched-up dresses" and a "shack-like house on the outskirts of town", rejects a passive domestic role to pursue success in a game of her own choosing. Convinced that sufficient will and ruthless intelligence will save her from the fate of her mother, "an empty shell of a woman" whose main attachment was to her husband and who was capable of nothing more than "a child’s ability to meet life", Elaine clings to the belief that careful planning can guarantee the success of her quest for "enough money for everything, piles of it, heaped dollar upon dollar" (88-9). Everything depends upon her meticulous plan, and she sees the game she sets up not as a gamble but as a sure thing: both she and Frank feel "certain…that they [are] going to make it." As the novel builds to a climax, though, we increasingly wonder whether the foolproof plan may actually turn out to be more akin to a desperate gamble, at the mercy of life’s sheer unpredictability, beset by human instability, errors of judgement and the erratic behaviour of Elaine’s co-conspirator.
Jack Wade and his wife Binny, also struggling to reverse a fate that’s been monstrously unkind to them, are not buoyed up by a conviction that they can seize control. Both, following the death of their young son, feel at the mercy of life’s randomness. Binny, a character of considerable pathos, is addicted to drink and gambling, and obtains only temporary respite from her feeling of total helplessness: "…the gambling…gave her more and more freedom, covered the constant feeling of insufficiency, insecurity, and gave her the momentary courage she could not live without" (49). Jack, on the other hand, strikes us as temperamentally unsuited to gambling. Throughout most of the narrative, he tries stoically to endure his ever more miserable lot – unhappily married, downtrodden and persecuted at work – until danger makes him less risk averse, finally driving him to become a player himself in a last-ditch effort to clear his name. Too decent and acquiescent for his own good, Jack ultimately has to choose to take a gamble. It is only by refusing to surrender passively to fate that he stands any chance of avoiding the defeat that awaits most noir protagonists. As he moves closer to making his own play, he increasingly speaks like a gambler – "then we’ve got half a chance", "my best bet" – until finally he is ready to act, "feeling a peculiar calm because he was at last going to do something…" (168-9). Readers of Squeeze Play, of course, can understand but not share Jack’s feeling of "peculiar calm", since his decision carries us into the final scenes of a plot so tense that we are compelled to read anxiously and rapidly to the end.
Copyright© 2004 Lee Horsley