Stop This Man, by Peter Rabe

The publisher Hard Case Crime has been responsible for the return of many long out-of-print noir novels by once-popular crime authors. One of these, a novel by Charles Williams, was an unequivocal classic, and I found others (like the two by Robert Bloch) to be interesting as artifacts of the time and place in which they were published. Peter Rabe is another of these authors, seldom mentioned these days but better known during the 1950’s. Before Hard Case Crime brought back Stop This Man in 2009, several of his other novels were brought back into paperback by Black Lizard in the 1980’s.

rabe_hcc

Robert McGinnis cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

Stop This Man! (1955) is Rabe’s first published crime novel, retitled from The Ticker by its original publisher, Gold Medal. It is a noir piece featuring the obsessed ex-con Tony Catell and Lily, the dancer he tries to take with him on his desperate hunt for the good life. Hard Case Crime kept the exclamation point and paired it with a vintage gray Robert McGinnis cover. Here, a swollen and hunched Tony is shown with a resigned-looking Lily, both characters seeing their fate. Tony’s ambitions are going to take these two only so far, in all likelihood not far enough away from that Los Angeles smog and apartment stairwell.

The great writer Donald Westlake acknowledged Rabe as a significant influence, and we can see a prototype for Westlake’s famous series character, the roving thief Parker, in Rabe’s creation Tony Catell. Tony, recently released from his third prison term, has just robbed a government-funded laboratory of a large brick of gold. This gold has been made radioactive by secret military experiments, and is fatally toxic to those exposed to it. As observed in this review, Rabe uses the gold to illustrate the moral underpinnings of a story otherwise composed of standard noir trappings.

At first, the idea of a radioactive brick of gold may look like a ludicrous premise, but there is some plausibility to it. It is possible to manufacture by intense irradiation a significant quantity of a radioactive gold isotope, most likely as a result of a nuclear explosion. There has been at least one proposal to jacket a nuclear warhead with gold to create radioactive gold dust upon explosion and extend the bomb’s fallout over multiple days.* However, creating radioactive gold in the quantity suggested by Rabe, especially as the result of a controlled experiment, would be prohibitively expensive. One isotope of gold, Au-198 will undergo beta decay (creating the harmful radiation) to transmute into a stable mercury isotope, Hg-198. Unlike the claim made in Rabe’s book, this mercury is not “safe,” although it would be no longer radioactive.

Like Westlake’s The Seventh, one of my favorites from the early Parker novels, STM focuses of the aftermath of a heist, rather than the heist itself, impressive as it would have been. This allows Rabe to make Tony’s obsession with getting the most out of the gold bar the driving force of the story. When he returns to an apartment where he has it stashed, we are told in no subtle terms what lengths Tony is prepared for to get his way:

. . . Two guys down the block were walking too slowly.

Cops.

Catell controlled a panicky urge to run and took a step toward the wall of the nearest building. He lit a cigarette. Looking over his cupped hands, he saw a man climb out of a truck, turn toward him, and stop. The guy wasn’t wasn’t sure, but he was watching. Who did they want? Schumacher? Himself? Suddenly a strong hot hate boiled up inside him, killing his doubt, his fear, his short moment of hesitation. Nothing was going to get in his way, nothing! Catell didn’t wonder how they had found Schumacher, whether they knew the gold was there, or whether they knew about him. He didn’t stop to figure what to do, or how, or when. Catell turned into a thing possessed with one thought only: Get that gold!

Maybe the exclamation point in the title was a warning. Rabe may lack the wordsmith’s craft but the psychology he describes is solid. He might have doubts about what he is attempting to do under the nose of the law, but he does not entertain them for long. It’s the character trait needed to take the repeated risks that Catell does.

STM was criticized as an uneven effort with promising elements by Donald Westlake in a 1989 essay, and it’s easy to see what he meant by this. One large problem is that there are several moments where it’s not clear how one event, or character’s action, follows the previous one. This is the result of a lack of revision on the author’s part, which he frankly admitted to in a late interview. The pickpocket Turtle is more irritating than anything else, and I never was too concerned about what happened to him as the last heist scene worked itself out. Certain events included to fit the pulp fiction model, such as the rough handling of Lily and Selma (the only two significant women in the book) and their compliance with it, date the novel badly. The lawmen characters are so flatly depicted that they are hardly worth describing here.

However, Rabe’s effort contains plenty of interesting pieces as well. STM starts in Detroit, where Tony meets (and later burglarizes) Selma and a connected club owner named Paar. Paar manages to defuse a tense encounter between Tony and others in his club, and rationally points Tony to California when confronted with his obsessive nature. Selma, though in a permanent drunken haze and used by Tony in more than one way, refuses to be permanently discarded. This contrasts strongly with the hot-headed Los Angeles club owner Topper and Lily, whom he treats as his property. Lily passively accepts her subordinate place in both relationships to Topper and Tony, as something for them to feud over. In this story, the Midwestern characters seem to be made of tougher, or at least more cunning, material.

Additionally, there is an episode where Tony gets pulled into a contest of wills against a greedy and sadistic Arizona sheriff. These scenes were Rabe’s strongest, and rescued the middle of the book. The toxic nature of the gold bar, and the inevitable demise of those who try to possess it, is affected usefully; it represents the disease that infects the corrupt parts of the society it passes through. Despite its overtly macho elements, uneven characterizations and other flaws, STM makes Rabe another interesting name from the paperback noir era. 5/10.

* Instead of gold, ordinary salt would be a much more practical choice for this purpose. The sodium would become highly radioactive and extend fallout for about 15 days. It’s a grim possibility that “salted” nuclear bombs have been created.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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4 Responses to Stop This Man, by Peter Rabe

  1. fredfitch says:

    Rabe studied psychology, actually taught it at the college level as an older man, once the writing career stalled (Westlake feared this would happen to him too, see The Hook.) I think what Westlake learned from him, more than anything else was motivation–both positive and negative lessons.

    There are a lot of models for Parker, but I’m not sure Catell is one of them. He’s too emotional–so again, that would be a negative lesson, something Westlake didn’t want for Parker, who has emotions, but experiences them differently than others. I’ve called the entire Parker saga a study in comparative psychology–Parker contrasted with more ‘normal’ criminals and civilians.

    Obviously the gold bar is a metaphor, and Rabe wasn’t too concerned with whether it was scientifically plausible or not–he makes it seem plausible to most readers, myself included. But fascinating all the same, your commentary on it. I don’t see how anyone could improve on this review–Rabe improved a lot on the book in the years that followed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Having recently read The Box from later in his career, I have to agree with you that Rabe improved a lot. That book has a level of sophistication far beyond what we see here in Stop This Man, and I’m tempted to give it another read before officially trying to make sense of it.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Plunder of the Sun, by David Dodge | gaping blackbird

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