Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday's Forgotten Books, March 17, 2017


(from the archives)

LONESOME ROAD (reviewed by Al Tucher)


By George Harsh.

Since 1986 I have worked as a cataloger at the Newark Public Library, which has existed since 1883. The library has some very deep collections, and exploring them is both my job and a perk of my job. A recent project in the biography section brought me into contact with Lonesome Road, a 1971 memoir by George Harsh.


In 1928 Harsh was a rich, arrogant, idle young college student in Georgia. He and other rich, arrogant, idle young men spent much of their time discussing their superiority over the masses and the uses to which they should put that superiority. This was only four years after the Leopold and Loeb case, but it seems part of the “superman” pathology to dismiss possible lessons from anyone else’s experience. The young men in Harsh’s circle decided that they were able and therefore obligated to commit the perfect crime.


For the thrill of it they began a string of armed robberies. When a store clerk resisted, Harsh was the one holding the gun and the one who fired the lethal shot.


The police easily caught the young supermen, and Harsh was sentenced to death. His codefendants received life sentences, and the prosecutor, troubled by the disparity, succeeded in having Harsh’s sentence commuted to life. Writing years later, Harsh is unsparing toward his young self. He deserved to hang, he says, but he received more mercy than he had shown with the gun in his hand.


He spent the next several years on a Georgia chain gang that was brutal even by the standards of the time and place. Eventually, he became a trusty with a job as an orderly in a prison hospital.


Here we encounter the first of several plot twists that only reality can get away with writing. When an inmate needed an emergency appendectomy, a freak ice storm kept the staff physicians from reaching the hospital. Harsh, who had assisted at several such operations, performed the surgery and saved the man’s life. The governor of Georgia pardoned him.


The year was 1940. George Harsh felt undeserving of peace and security while so much of the world was at war. He traveled north and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Harsh flew numerous bombing missions over Germany. His luck ran out in 1942, when he was shot down. His captors sent him to Stalag Luft III.


Fiction writers, try getting away with that one. In the 1963 film The Great Escape, the character called Intelligence, played by Gordon Jackson, is based on Harsh. He was not one of the 80-plus POWs who made it through the tunnel before it was discovered, which was just as well. Only a handful made it to safety. The rest were recaptured, and the Gestapo summarily executed more than fifty of them.


Harsh survived a brutal forced march westward, away from the advancing Red Army. His narrative ends there.


His story does not. In 1945 he was in his mid-thirties and had spent mere days as a grown man neither incarcerated nor at war. In another twist that in its own way might be the strangest of all, he worked for a while as a publisher’s traveling sales representative. The experiment in freedom was not a success. The memory of his crime tormented him, and he attempted suicide. Later he suffered a stroke, and in 1980 he died.


No collaborator in the writing of this book is named. If it is Harsh’s work, it counts as a remarkable achievement. He knows when and how to make his writing as terse and urgent as Morse code in the night, and his meditations on freedom, imprisonment, violence and war come with a hard-earned authority.


Did George Harsh atone for his crime? It’s a tough call that will vary from reader to reader. Does his book deserve a place on the shelf? In my mind, beyond all doubt.


Sergio Angelini, OUR GAME, John LeCarre
Yvette Banek, CORPSES IN ENDERBY, George Bellairs
Joe Barone, THE BEEKEEPER"S APPRENTICE, Laurie R. King
Bill Crider, ONCE AROUND THE BLOCH, Robert Bloch
Martin Edwards, THE TEST MATCH MURDER, Denzel Batchelor
Richard Horton, THE SUPER BARBARIANS, John Brunner
Jerry House, THE MOON METAL, Garrett P. Serviss
George Kelley, POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON'T LOOK FRIENDLY, Adrian McKinty
Margot Kinberg, LA CONFIDENTIAL, James Ellroy
Rob Kitchin, THE LAST WINTER OF DANI LANCING, P.D. Viner.  
B.V. Lawson, A LONG FATAL LOVE CHASE, Louisa May Alcott
Evan Lewis, WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA, Don Pendleton Steve Lewis, KILLED IN  PARADISE, William I DiAndrea
Todd Mason, POPCORN AND SEXUAL POLITICS: Movie Review from Kathi Maio
Neer, THE THIRD EYE, Ethel Lina White 
J.F. Norris, GARNETT WESTON
Matt Paust, THE COREY FORD SPORTING TREASURY, Chuck Petrie, editor
Reactions to Reading, THE CASE OF THE LATE PIG, Margery Allingham
James Reasoner, JUST THE WAY IT IS, James Hadley Chase
Gerard Saylor, THE BODY LOVERS, Mickey Spillane
Kevin Tipple, IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE, Jeffrey Cohen
TomCat, THE TIME OF LONDON ANTHOLOGY OF DETECTIVE STORIES, John Sladek
TracyK, DEALBREAKER, Harlen Coben
Westlake Review, BAD NEWS, Part 2

4 comments:

J F Norris said...

Mine's up now. Will you please include with the others?

Garnett Weston's Multiple Murderer Crime Novels

Thanks.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

Al/Patti, i`m headed for THE BELKO EXPERIMENT this week-end not BEAUTY AND THE BEAST ! ! !.

Margot Kinberg said...

As always, Patti, a great selection of posts. Thanks for including mine.

Mathew Paust said...

The flu has kept me away from the library the past couple of days, and I've just now read Al Tucher's fine review. I'd love to get my hands on that book!