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The Canvas Coffin

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Boardman, London, 1955
(price: 65p; 122 pages)
first published in Great Britain in 1953

The blurb on the back:

Luke Pilgrim, a middleweight champion, was punch-drunk after a bout with Charley Retzer, and he couldn't remember whether that night he had killed Brenda Vane, the girl he had taken home after the party, whose body had been found badly beaten up. Filled with horror he turned sleuth, and started on an unending search, running the terrified gauntlet between what he remembered, and what he might find out.
His girl friend, Sally, flew on from Chicago to help him unravel the hideous mystery. He vaguely remembered a windmill sign, and a bakery trademark, too remote it seemed to ring a bell. But doggedly he followed every hunch, every tip in a winding, heartbreaking probe. The few days amnesia held the secret fate of his life in a vice-like grip.
Staged against the racketeering, merciless background of the prize-ring this is a frightening and menacing tale of a fighter's struggle to prove his own innocence. With barely a clue to tell him how and where to begin, Luke Pilgrim has to find an answer which will lead him to his freedom or brand him as a murderer.

opening lines:
I remember he hit me with a high right hand about half-way through the seventh round.

According to the bibliographies online, William Campbell Gault wrote some twenty-four novels in just over a decade up to 1963, before seemingly disappearing. He re-emerged in the Ď80s for a few more books before his death in 1995. He also wrote under the names Will Duke and Roney Scott.

I have to say that this is the only one of his Iíve read, but I am impressed. We start with the Middleweight Champion of the World losing several crucial hours of his memory after taking a serious blow during a fight, and we end with a gangster-ridden world title bout, which seems somehow related to the murder that has dominated the intervening pages. Throw in a decent, honest manager trying to keep his boy on the straight and narrow, and an intellectual girlfriend trying to get him to read Hemmingway, and youíve got the makings of a decent little pot-boiler.

The tone is reminiscent of the hard-boiled tradition, but with this crucial difference: our hero here isnít an outsider commenting on a corrupt society, but an everyman trying to fit into the normal world, despite the corruption in his business. There isnít the sense of the Old Testament prophet raging against a fallen world of sinners, instead we see a man who knows that there is an escape route, that he can at some point soon retire with his girl to live a family life. Crucially, although itís set in Los Angeles, the presence of a decent middle-America hovers behind as a counter-weight.

My favourite bit is when this awareness of a better option manifests in an unexpected direction. Our hero finds his girlfriend in tears at the news that King George VI has died, and instinctively understands why sheís so upset:

I felt a little that way, myself. I'm not as sentimental as Sally, but in today's world, a gentleman sure as hell stands out by contrast. A quiet, mannerly man, dying inside and knowing it, carrying on in the gentle tradition, holding an empire together by the decency he symbolized.
In a world where the loudest liars got the most ink it was nice to know a gentleman's death didn't go unnoticed. (p.70)

Unashamed royalism in an American hard-boiled murder story. Who wouldíve thunk it?


Another boxing novel? Why not?