That question is posed to Ross Duncan by Obadiah, a central figure in Christopher Bartley’s Unto the Daughters of Men.
Duncan, responding, shrugs and says: “I had a lot of time to read in prison and I used it.”
Yes, Ross Duncan. Gangster, tough guy, philosopher, observer of human nature. He reads the Bible for comfort or clues. He shoots when it’s necessary, throws a hard punch to make a point, talks up the dames at the bar. More than anything, he thinks about how people are put together.
It’s 1934. We’re in New York. It’s the fifth year of the Great Depression. Organized crime is discovering a new foundation for its thriving illegal empires. J. Edgar Hoover is after bank robbers—bank robbers like Ross Duncan. But Duncan also gets called on to handle specific jobs and the one in Unto the Daughters of Men is a beauty.
The aforementioned Obadiah, grandson of a runaway slave, is the doorman and all-around helper guy for “the Colonel,” a former soldier and senator. People tend to ask Duncan probing questions about his character and the Colonel wastes no time. He asks Duncan if he believes in the Devil.
“Wouldn’t I be a fool not to?”
“That’s a casual answer,” replies Colonel Bennett. “I am not asking you about a symbolic figure who represents all that’s bad in the world. I am asking about a literal Devil: Satan, Lucifer – God’s adversary, the fallen angel. Most men have an abstract notion of good and evil, but few anymore actually seem to believe that there is literally a Devil set on tempting them to spend an eternity in hell, a literal Hell. He opposes God’s plan. Do you believe he exists?”
I’m not giving away Duncan’s answer here. Suffice it to say that these are the issues that gnaw at Duncan on a daily basis. He struggles with right and wrong and, of course, does lots of right and plenty of wrong.
The Colonel has a proposal. He needs a man like Duncan, one with a “definite code.” Dorothy, one of the Colonel’s granddaughters, the one blessed with “God’s light and grace,” is died of a heart condition. The other granddaughter, Veronica, was last seen with a gangster, Remo Marsden, whose business is gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Since the Colonel is frail and knows his days are numbered, he needs Duncan to find Veronica and “bring her home, anchor her here where she is supposed to be, help bring her to a point of common sense.”
There’s been blackmail and rumors of a “blue photograph.” The Colonel wants bad-boy Remo out of the picture and Veronica back home and out of trouble.
This is a nifty, enticing, and delicious set-up, especially after what happens just a few moments after the Colonel extends his request for help.
Duncan finds trouble. In fact, he wastes little time entering the bad guy’s lair. Duncan cuts to the case. There is drinking, smoking, guns, cars, chases, a dame named Delilah and a thug named Beef Parker. There is also one of the most remarkable, near-poetic slow-motion car crash scenes you might ever read.
Bartley is in total control, start to finish. The Duncan novels are classic gangster stuff. The beginning, middle and end of this plot all carry the same steady, relentless tug of dark noir and all its smoky-boozy flourishes. (Getting Duncan to quit tobacco? Might be the battle of the century.) Duncan gets nicked and bruised and beaten and bloodied. He unravels stories, cuts through lies, shrugs off the pressure to keep his nose out of other people’s business.
But Ross Duncan keeps on ticking, fighting, and asking questions of others and questions of himself. He’s always working on the puzzles that get handed to him and he’s always working on the puzzles about the human condition, about good and evil, about God and The Devil, about right and wrong. (Good thing, there’s no easy answer in sight.)
The Ross Duncan novels (okay, I’ve only read three) offer a killer combination of a compelling character and cool, memorable stories.
Previous Q & A with Christopher Bartley and review: Naked Shall I Return
Previous review: They Die Alone