With this book, Matthew Branton brings together the world of failed Hollywood, S&M publishing, gangsters, real estate, pulp scribes, cancer clock-watchers and Nazi gold. It’s the sort of thing that’d usually have a ROLLICKING or RIP-SNORTING emblazoned on a cover that you’d notice in an airport bookstore.
Because that’s what this is. Though it’s sold as a pulp fiction – which is certainly is – it’s very much an Airport Book. Something you can read on the plane, that’s engaging and detailed and eminently forgettable: a brain defragger, a time-passer. Something you’ll enjoy and then leave on the shuttle bus afterwards and not feel too bad about it.
There’s some great truisms scattered throughout the book, and some of the characters’ thoughts make it clear that Branton is writing in a style, rather than at the limits of his abilities. The House of Whacks is a period piece – Chicago 1950, to be precise – though it also has Los Angeles and New York in its sights. But Chicago – with all the gangster manoeuvring that name entails – is the focus. It’s where the shit comes down, and where the plan – to nick a load of Nazi ingots – is hatched by a couple of groups at the same time.
The prose zips along, mostly staying out of the weeds. A couple of places felt a little overwrought, but they moved along fairly quickly. If there’s a criticism, it’s that the end of the book can’t quite fulfil the promises made in the lead-up to the grand finale – it sort of just… ends… but I was happy enough with what I’d read to not feel gypped by such failings.
This book receives a bit of stick for the simplicity of some of the language, and its repetitive nature. I guess this is justifiable, but to indulge it is perhaps to approach the book in bad faith. It’s a pulp knockoff; a book whose main characters are hacks, molls and gangsters. It’s not high-lit, and crucially, Branton’s not trying to make it so. This isn’t tarted-up noir. It’s a little knowing, yes, but its simplistic recitation is, I think, a conscious choice rather than evidence of shithouse technique.
Let’s face it: if you’re looking at adverb variation as a marker of quality in a book about an S&M/gangster/writer/Nazi gold heist, then you probably aren’t its target audience. If you can deal with that chain of ridiculous world-collisions without having your disbelief prodded, you’ll enjoy it.
I did. Like I say, it’s a resolutely airport book, and a nice sniffer of pulp’s stocking hem.