The publishing company Hard Case Crime specializes in pulp mysteries, new and reprinted. It upholds the tradition of pulp magazines and paperback originals by adorning each of its covers with a garishly colored painting featuring a woman dressed to get sex. (As a joke, it even did this when it reprinted Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear—it attributed the public-domain novel to A.C. Doyle.)
Oakley Hall’s So Many Doors, a reprint from 1950, is no exception, but the novel doesn’t tell the story of that mythical creature the femme fatale, the woman with enough agency, even in the first half of the twentieth century, to compel good men to commit horrible acts they otherwise wouldn’t have. (Well, semi-mythical.)
Rather, the novel deconstructs the femme fatale, showing how men not used to thinking before acting weave their trouble around a woman who happens to have a fuller figure than other women. The woman at the center of the novel is named Vassilia; people call her V. We see her through the points-of-view of five different people.
The novel is pre-television slow. I’d been wondering whether my internet-jittered brain can still enjoy such a novel—and it can—though occasionally, in the middle of a paragraph, it would ask from the backseat, “Are we there yet?”
“He passed a water truck and two motor graders working up on a levee, and then beside the road a bulldozer and a pick-up truck were drawn up together. Two men were bent over the bed of the pick-up, in which engine parts were spread. Baird pulled off the road behind them and got out. A cloud of dust caught up and settled over him, and he wiped his sweating, dusty face on the sleeve of his shirt. The cat skinner and the mechanic nodded to him. The cat skinner wore a sweat-soaked singlet and a striped cap, and his face and arms were burned black. The mechanic, in stiff, greasy overalls, squatted and hunted through his tool chest.”
So Many Doors is not a pulp novel, or even really a crime novel, though it’s not out of place on Hard Case Crime’s roster. It opens with an accused murderer in his cell, refusing counsel from his court-appointed attorney, and ends with a twist I didn’t see coming. The novel is great California literature—it takes place in the Central Valley down to San Diego County, and from the Depression to post-WWII—and it deserves whatever readership this reprint will give it. –Jim Woster (Hard Case Crime, hardcasecrime.com)