Thursday, December 14, 2006

4-11 Amok (May 1953)

The last of the ten Series novels not to feature Hank Janson, Amok adheres to the by now familiar formula of featuring a lead character to whom both fate has dealt a cruel blow, and who occupies the subservient role in a relationship where the woman proves to be the stronger character. The story is generally well-paced and eventful from the moment it opens with Jimmy Martin engaged in a game of gin rummy. Reliving childhood games, where stepping on a crack in the pavement is fantasised as invoking all manner of consequences, Martin fantasises that victory in the game will win him his life. Only as the narrative develops is it revealed that his opponent is a warder and Martin is awaiting execution on death row. From this point on the tension is maintained by the reader being kept unaware of the precise nature both of his crime and his relationship with the woman who assists in his escape until some considerable way into the story. Like its early predecessor, No Regrets For Clara, Amok does however contain an unsettling and essentially superfluous narrative theme that tends to overshadow other events. This concerns the kidnapping and sexual enslavement of a 20-year old woman by Martin's fellow escapee.

Following an introductory account of Martin's anxious thoughts regarding the execution he faces, the action takes off when, following smuggled instructions, he succeeds in getting transferred to the prison hospital. Here his "saviour" appears in the form of Al Dexster, a psychotic killer who, while achieving their escape, shoots dead two guards and the prison doctor. Martin then discovers the getaway car is driven by his fiancee, Marilyn. Dexster explains that he chose Martin because, facing death, he had nothing to lose while, unlike Dexster's accomplices, Marilyn could be relied on simply through the presence of Martin. The trio hide out in Dexster's parents' run-down smallholding, with Dexster displaying a typical callous disregard for his deaf-mute parents, coupled with an unwelcome regard for Marilyn. The partnership is also profoundly unequal, with Dexster ensuring his unwilling partners' compliance by hiding the guns plus, later, most of Martin's and Marilyn's clothes.

The story of Martin's past unfolds. An orphan who successfully graduated law school, Martin met Marilyn initially as a client. While their relationship grew, he defended unsuccessfully another client named Weechell, who subsequently placed a contract on him. One night, mistaking a stranger for an assassin, Martin shot and killed what in fact was an unarmed man. Charged with murder, he was sentenced to die.

Lacking funds, Dexster decides to rob a local bank but, on returning from a reconnaissance with Martin, he kidnaps a 20-year old woman who he subsequently treats as a sex-slave, chaining her to a bunk bed. Underlining his psychotic nature, a visiting salesman is summarily murdered. The bank raid goes off, with yet more deaths following at the hands of Dexster. While returning from the raid, Martin realises the only reason he is still alive is because Dexster craves Marilyn, but knows that hope of winning her over is futile if he kills Martin. Nevetheless, when Martin returns one day from snaring rabbits he finds Marilyn has been raped by Dexster. This act seems finally to goad Dexster's father into action, and he leads Martin to the cache of weapons. Dexster returns just as a police car enters the access road to the farm and, in a prolonged shoot-out, Martin succeeds eventually in killing his quarry. The tale ends with him having come full circle and awaiting once more the electric chair; this time praying that Marilyn's experiences will not have caused her any lasting harm.

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