Originally published in 1952 on Fawcett’s short-lived Red Seal imprint, and now available from Stark House Press, One for Hell is one of the most astonishing crime novels I’ve ever read. Simply put, it’s in a class all its own. It is like Hammett’s Red Harvest told from the inside out—you’re on the wrong side of the law every step of the way, and there’s no Continental Op to set things right.
Like a one-man plague, Willa Ree rides into a sleepy Texas town and quickly turns it into a hotbed of crime, vice, and corruption. Beginning with petty thievery, he maneuvers himself into the local police force and spends more time breaking laws than enforcing them. The local government originally sees Willa as a patsy, just another cog in their wheel of graft. Once he has the badge, however, Willa reveals that he has grand criminal ambitions of his own, and they threaten to blow the whole town sky high and expose everyone involved.
Like Peter Rabe’s Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep, there’s something almost clinical about the way that Davis details the mechanics of the crime syndicate inner-workings. There’s no romantic subplot, no false notes of redemption, no attempt to soften the characters and make them likable. It’s as close to anthropology as it is to noir. But whereas Rabe was deeply concerned about psychology, Davis is more concerned with the behavior of his characters and the mechanics of their operation. Davis, prior to writing One for Hell, worked as a journalist in a town similar to the one he was writing about, and he had first-hand experience with corrupt law officials and small city vice. He knew what he was writing about, and it shows in his work. Davis writes with cold-blooded, matter-of-fact precision, and every step of Willa Ree’s crime spree rings unsettlingly authentic.
From bitter beginning to bitter end, this is hard-lived hardboiled.