Self-Made Widow by Philip Race. Fawcett Gold Medal (1958), 190 pp.
Korean War hero Johnny Babcock, too sensitive to be a good steel salesman, is ready to abandon the corporate grind. But he needs to support himself and his beautiful and sympathetic wife, Edna, a former chorus girl. They have a drastic plan to raise a lot of cash. First, Johnny takes out a large life insurance policy from a skeptical agent named Freese. Then he picks up a homeless guy with a physique similar to his own and arranges to take him into the mountains east of Los Angeles. All of this puts a strain on Johnny, who responds, as he often does, by tying one on at a downtown bar. Dee, a pretty hooker, tries to pick him up. They spend several chaste hours together before Johnny wobbles home. Edna is angry, but the plan is still intact.
The book has lots of potential. The first line -- “Don’t tell me about failure” -- suggests that Johnny will be an engaging narrator. The riff on Double Indemnity offers interesting possibilities. The author keeps everything under control for half the book, in which he provides a vivid description of life on Skid Row. By then, however, it’s clear that Race has backed himself into a corner. For everything to work out satisfactorily, Johnny and Edna need to make some abrupt personality changes, and the ancillary characters need to grow in number and importance. If the author had gone for an edgier finish, he might have avoided the clumsy plot maneuvers in the second half of the novel. As it is, the book offers an entertaining read that is not quite satisfying.