Monday, 14 April 2014

Penguin no. 1236: The Big Heat
by William P. McGivern

Cover illustration by Derek McKay,
from the series commissioned
by Abram Games.
That was the essence of police work; checking everything. A cop had to investigate all the obvious details, ask all the obvious questions, plod about doing things that frequently seemed pointless and stupid. The man-in-the-street and the editorial writers on the papers could tell him a quicker way to do it, of course. they knew that such-and-such an angle was impossible, unlikely or foolish. they didn't have to check it; they just knew. But a cop couldn't afford these seemingly logical short-cuts. He had to do all the tedious, useless work, because occasionally the impossible, unlikely or foolish areas of investigation turned out to be the most profitable ones.

Things seem to be awry in Philadelphia in the 1950s. It is suggested here that the police have been co-opted to protect the criminals while they distort the efficient functioning of the administration. It means that someone like Mike Laguna can live in an expensive house in a middle-class suburb with a policeman permanently stationed outside his home, protecting his interests and those of his family, while he continues unimpeded as the head of the mob controlling the city. Every citizen bears the burden of such a corrupted system, as mob-controlled tenders and workplaces mean inferior but overpriced goods, shoddy workmanship, and public assets which deteriorate faster than they should, while costing more.

The Big Heat is in some ways an examination of exactly what it is that allows such a system to develop and then keeps it in place. It is suggested to be a consequence of the interaction of several factors - an uninquiring media, an apathetic population content to be saved from the need to take any action by a belief that all politicians and administrators are as bad as each other. It is also requires the willingness of those occupying high positions to allow their influence to be bought. And it is underpinned by a kind of defensive group-think in which those serving the public, such as the police, reflexively reject the views of anyone who condemns their actions or seeks to hold them accountable.

This story provides a contrast with the contemporary D.A. stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, such as The D.A. Calls a Turn and The. D.A. Holds a Candle, in that this is not quite the story of one honest and courageous man standing up for what is right. It reads, instead, as a call to action - an assertion that everyone must be willing to take a stand against corruption, if the problem is to be solved.

Irrespective of build, courage, knowledge or determination, a lone man is suggested here to be necessarily vulnerable and easily thwarted, so that one man on his own can never be the entire answer. The hero of this story is a decent and honest man, but his primary motive is revenge, and even that it isn't enough: to take on the mob he needs help; the big heat referenced in the title - a concerted push to rid the city of the corrupt element - only begins because several people are willing to act in support of one man whose overarching concern is retribution. He intends to make every mob member pay for what he has suffered through their actions, and there are enough people willing to support him.

At first there seems nothing suspicious about the suicide of police officer Tom Deery. But when Deery's friend Lucy contacts Dave Bannion of the Homicide Bureau late one night and insists that something is wrong, he follows it up, albeit reluctantly, simply because he believes in being thorough. He becomes suspicious when Lucy is killed the following evening in a manner which has all the hallmarks of a mob-killing, and even more so when he comes under pressure from his superior to abandon the investigation. Bannion is stubborn, however, and unaccustomed to being intimidated, and he rebels when he realises he is being squeezed, visiting mob boss Mike Laguna to give him a warning. The consequences of that visit are unimaginable.

I found the level of violence portrayed in this novel to be confronting, but I suspect that was William McGivern's intention. There is no glorifying in horrific detail, and the story is not unnecessarily graphic, but there is a strong focus on the callous way in which opponents are despatched. Murder follows murder, and the methods favoured by the killers make it clear that the deaths have some association with organised crime. These men are portrayed as being without empathy; they will kill or maim another human and feel as much compunction as they would in stepping upon an insect. And they do this despite the fear they know in the contemplation of their own deaths.

William McGivern seems to be both telling a story and arguing a case: he takes the arguments which might be used to avoid taking any action, puts these statements into the mouths of his characters, and sets about refuting them. A member of the homicide squad, for example, hypothesises in the first chapter that inefficiency is the necessary correlate of long-term incumbency, and that there is no intent to evil by either side, each being equally honourable out of office and equally inefficient within. But the story that follows suggests that his thesis is naive - it abets corruption by assuming it away, and the criminals know people think this way and use it to their advantage: if they can only lie low long enough, prior to elections, so that incriminating stories are kept from the newspapers, they can rely on their enablers being returned.

And any honest policemen are inevitably up against it because k there are vested interests spread throughout the police force and the judiciary whose primary concern is to shut any investigation down. It was a confronting story to read, but a fascinating survey of just how things can go wrong.

First published 1953. Published in Penguin Books 1957.


  1. McGivern was a crime novelist who wrote mainly between 1948 and 1984. The Big Heat may be his best novel; it is probably his best-known novel because Fritz Lang directed a great picture from this book.

  2. Actually, McGivern did a lot more than that...he'd been a fantasy and sf writer, primarily, in the 1940s before his WW2 service, one of the most talented and occasionally among the more ambitious of the writers who were hacking it out for Ray Palmer's fiction magazines at Ziff-Davis Publications in Chicago, most notably the pulpiest era of AMAZING STORIES and the slightly more interesting FANTASTIC ADVENTURES (though for a while Palmer also had MAMMOTH DETECTIVE and MAMMOTH MYSTERY to fill, so McGivern contributed there as well). After the war, he found employment as a police reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper, wherein he came face to face with the nature of entrenched corruption and machine politics, and began writing the likes of HEAT, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, ROGUE COP and SHIELD FOR MURDER (which I like a lot in the shorter form it was published in by the elite pulp magazine BLUEBOOK; I haven't read the novel yet, but understand it's not as sharp). All of these were filmed, and he would be more often employed as a scriptwriter in later decades than as a novelist. His stay in Philadelphia left us a small but rich legacy of bleak, hardboiled (and some noirish) crime fiction, and it's a pity he didn't find more of an audience than he did.

  3. My Friday "forgotten books" entry reprints a review of some of his later fantasy writing, for FANTASTIC ADVENTURES now edited by fellow crime-fiction writer (and fellow eventual Hollywood emigre) Howard Browne, in an issue led off by a novella by similarly-describable peer Robert Bloch, who like Browne and McGivern wrote decent and better work for Palmer's magazines while publishing his better work in the likes of WEIRD TALES and other magazines, and whose novels include PSYCHO, which has tended to dominate his resume since...

  4. This week's list of FFB includes your review here:



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