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Litchfield Reviews Satan Takes the Helm by Calvin Clements

Satan Takes the Helm by Calvin Clements

Calvin J. Clements’ (1915-1997) debut novel, first published in 1952, is so authoritative and instructive about best practices for commanding a vessel that you can’t help but admire the leadership skills of the shrewd, hard-bitten narrator, Martin Lewandowski. A tough, out-of-work seaman in San Francisco, Martin is put in charge of a freighter, the Eastern Trader, by the promiscuous co-owner, Joyce Sloan. She’s a beautiful, manipulative young woman who’s married to a hideously ugly older man with health problems. He’s unfit to captain the ship, and Joyce wants Martin to replace him.

If anything, Martin is just too good at his job. He’s precisely the type of guy you want to navigate a vessel out of a hurricane and chart a course to rescue men from a burning tanker. And there is nobody better at diagnosing engine trouble and discerning a loose crank-pin. But his efforts to whip the crew into shape, satisfy his superiors and turn a profit displease everyone. He has a problem with booze, though…and with his conscience.

Joyce doesn’t have a troubled conscience, though she should. She’s an amorous, scheming character with few scruples about using Martin to get what she wants. And, ultimately, Martin is what she wants.

The intense, claustrophobic relationship between the stubborn captain and the femme fatale boss is credible and well told. The plot, though simple, is never less than fascinating, and while I might have preferred a slightly different ending, I appreciate the professional, meticulous way the author brought the tale to a fitting conclusion.

When this superb hardboiled nautical yarn resurfaced this October, resurrected by Stark House Press as part of its Black Gat Books line, Bill Ott of Booklist called it a “solid noir, worthy of new life.” According to Ott, “Clements hits all the right notes,” even adding layers of depth to the two central characters.

August West of Vintage Hardboiled Reads, who championed this novel more than a decade ago, described the tale as “a voyage of deceit, dreams, contempt and murder” in which you can “feel the rust of the ship, smell the stink of the ports and sweat in your bunk.” While Pulp Serenade’s Cullen Gallagher referred to it as “a sea-faring murder mystery whose every paragraph is saturated with salt water, human sweat, and smoldering sex.” Clements, a fireboat pilot for twenty years, imbued the novel “with an atmosphere so authentic you can smell the ocean air.”

Despite its big first launch—via Gold Medal, no less—the novel missed out on critical reviews the first time around. It’s pleasing to read a fresh, positive one in Booklist. However, in my humble opinion, this is a book worthy of a starred review.

Until recently, I wasn’t familiar with Clements’ fiction. He was primarily a writer of westerns, penning dozens of television scripts for shows like “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman,” and “Wagon Train,” as well as motion pictures such as the classic “Firecreek” starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda. He wrote crime, mystery, and adventure stories, too—his TV scripts include “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The F.B.I.” His novels include three seafaring tales for Fawcett Gold Medal, and his short stories appear in magazines like Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post.

I’ve not read many of those, but “Too Clever” and “The Crooked Circle,” both from 1950, are two pulp tales that highlight his versatility. Clements’ competence in fleshing out his characters and maintaining the reader’s interest is his chief strength. Although, in fairness, the devious protagonist in “Too Clever” is as underwhelming as his feeble plan to get rid of his wife of 15 years. His murderous scheme, twelve months in the making, hinges on the ineptitude of his best friend, the local police chief. That relationship isn’t adequately explored, and Clements doesn’t assert plausible motivation for murder.

“The Crooked Circle,” on the other hand, is an assuredly crafted tale of crime in the horseracing world that gallops to an exciting, satisfactory finish. Here, a promising jockey lands the chance to ride a prize-winning horse but spares the whip in the final stretch and comes in second. Believed guilty of throwing the race, his license is revoked. But did he really make a mistake, or did the crooked owner cheat him out of victory?

The ambitious hard-luck hero, Danny Miller, is neatly portrayed, and Clements proves a dab hand at thrilling race scenes. On the basis of this short tale, and Clements’ masterful novel, Satan Takes the Helm, I’ll be seeking out more of the author’s stories.

You can read more about the title on the publisher’s website: http://starkhousepress.com/clements.php

(Black Gat Books, paperback, $9.95)