A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.
During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.
Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.
A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.
An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.