Ross Duncan moves in the gangster world, knows the gangster ways and is all too familiar with the gangster’s needs, but he works in a kind of twilight zone of uncertainty. He’s a loner. He’s not a joiner. He’d rather not commit.
Ross Duncan has a conscience, a sort-of moral compass. He has limits. They are his to know and for you to find out. He’s a tough guy but there are some soft spots, too.
In setting up Duncan’s world, Christopher Bartley embraces the grim, edgy vibe of noir. Darkness, shadows, whiskey, cigarettes, dames, rain, clouds, Tommy guns. Scores to settle. Gangsters talk about murder and mayhem in pleasantries, like innocents. Bad guys get what they have coming. Nobody says “you dirty little rat,” but almost.
Bartley hugs the tropes, plays with them.
“Sleep had evaded me again, and then I dreamed I was dreaming and in that dream I lay awake in bed, glittering riches, and quiet stolen moments sifted through that dream of a dream.”
“She wore pearls around her neck and clinging silk dress the color gin forms when you add a squeeze of grapefruit juice…”
“We sat together like that for a very long time listening to the rain beat steadily against the window. Ten minutes went by and then fifteen, twenty … The rain continued its rhythmic tattoo and still we did not speak. It was a comfortable silence.”
We’re in 1930’s Chicago and They Die Alone leads Ross Duncan to a crossroads. He’s hired for a hit, but it’s more complicated than that. That is, deftly complicated. Not hard-to-follow complicated. Two rival gangs (one Irish, one Italian) each think they have their hooks into Duncan but, well, Duncan has his own plans based on his own code. (It’s a very clever play.)
Like many complex characters, Duncan has a past and some of the most evocative writing in They Die Alone is contained in flashbacks about a former partner and also in the re-telling of a bank robbery spree that goes awry.
Duncan strikes up a friendly relationship with a woman who rents him a room—and her son and their cat. He falls in love with a cool woman who once belonged to his former partner. She’s addicted to laudanum and he’s here to coax her back from the brink of self-destruction. Duncan learns from his lessons, hones his awareness for the “fine moral distinction” that weighs on his soul.
“Shades matter,” he insists.
Yes, it’s an ugly business. Yes, They Die Alone is marked by rough violence (and ample references to the mayhem caused by the real criminals and real crime-fighters of the day). But the focus is squarely on Duncan and the human consequences of struggling to stay alive when you’re playing a hideous game and looking—or maybe not—for a place to belong.
On Twitter: @christobartley (And if you follow him, you will receive a regular dose of vintage pics of Hollywood stars. He’s a solid curator.)