Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Canvas Coffin by William Campbell Gault

The Canvas Coffin by William Campbell Gault
Dell 795, Copyright 1953

Thanks to William Campbell Gault's fondness for sports, readers have been rewarded with a handful of wonderful stories that use a sport as the backdrop for mystery, murder, and detective work. Boxing is on tap here and the main event has an aging middleweight boxer who is a suspect in a murder case and he's determined to prove his innocence.

"Twice, he started that overhand right; both times I beat him to the punch. It would be unfair to Western Union to say he telegraphed it; it was more in the nature of a night letter."

Luke Pilgrim wakes up the morning after taking some serious punches in his title fight the night before; and can't remember if he killed a girl he was seen with after the victory party. He's no palooka; Pilgrim is a sympathetic, caring, middleweight champion. Puzzled and confused, he becomes tormented by what he may of done. Pilgrim realizes that to clear himself as a suspect, he must piece the events together and find out what occurred that night. But, justice is breathing down his neck and closing in, so he must continue to slug out of his lost memory any vague thought that could prove beneficial to solve the mystery.

The setting is the 1950s L.A. boxing scene, with its cynical atmosphere of smoky ringsides, mobsters, fixed fights, and and an assortment of characters with names like Muggsy, Noodles and Patsy. Between bout after bout, the Champ spends his time hunting down clues and people, to fit together what really happened that night and what his involvement was. It climatically comes down during his last big title fight, where Luke Pilgrim finally gets all the dots connected and confronts the men involved.

Written a couple of years before Gault introduced his compassionate P.I. Brock Callahan, it is obvious that the Luke Pilgrim character planted the seed for Callahan. The story has the same feel as those excellent early Callahan novels-in its pervasive mood, dialog and characters. Pilgrim even has a sophisticated girlfriend named Sally, who is essentially the Jan character in the Brock Callahan series. If you enjoyed those early Gault novels, you'll want to strap the gloves on for this one. It's wonderfully done.......

"Murder is more important than that; it's a double death, killing the killer as well as the killed, ending the dream and staining the soul. The newspapers love it, especially if one breast or more can be exposed, along with the inside of the thigh. "

Boxing has been the backdrop in other William Campbell Gault stories. In the excellent "The Hundred Dollar Girl," (1961) Tough wise-ass P.I. Joe Puma tackles murder and broads when a contenders' voluptuous wife hires him to investigate her husband's manager.

Gault boxing stories that were published in pulp magazines:

A Dilemma for Danny (1943)
Slug the Man Down (1948)
The Longest Count (1949)
Wake for a Warrior (1950)
Chop-’Em-Down Kid (1950)

1 comment:

Mike DeLisa said...

I'd love to know the sources for the short stories you mention!