2 out of 5
Peter Rabe’s Stop This Man! opens in a particularly wandering, woozy fashion, pinging between cops and feds and crookly types and then, finally, an oddly acting man in a blue suit, downing glass after glass of milk in a diner. The language slung by each character has good pep, and the environs are immediately of-the-time: we definitely feel like we’re in the midst of a 50s pulp, which is when the book was published, and is undeniably its genre. The problem is that the characters themselves aren’t particularly interesting; a couple of names stick out but not necessarily their personalities, and the rest of the cast tends to blend into one another. But lookit that title – it ends with an exclamation point! That’s promising, and I mean that sincerely. When we finally circle around to the gist – that blue-suited man has stolen a chunk of irradiated gold, leaving a wake of mutations behind him – the exclamation seems like it might fulfil its promise, setting up a story where our thief – Tony – is going to be on the run to hawk his wares before it destroys him, or melts, or whatever else the 50s science determines.
The loosey-gooseyness of why this particular gold, and why it was being experimented on wouldn’t be too much of an issue if Stop This Man! actually maintained the pace suggested by the title, but Rabe then fully commits to the wandering style of the opening, and never does much to add flavor to all those characters. Tony himself is bad news, and so it might be fun to watch him fall apart throughout the thing, but that’s not the m.o. either: Rabe writes ‘bad news’ with an undercurrent of badass tuffguy, and the book is wholly committed to the worst sins of its genre in terms of its female cast, letting casual rape and whatnot not be looked on with much disdain. When a writer uses that kind of stuff (purposefully or not) to enhance the tone, it can be a bit more tolerable, but Stop This Man! doesn’t get really get there – it’s oddly casual. The aforementioned dialogue pep does help, and Rabe will land on some great scenes that keep the cast down to one or two exchanging banter – a heist, a jail scene – but the way these figure in the overall narrative can’t be said to add much.
Towards the very end of the book, urgency returns, and the writer’s skills become more apparent. Alas, it’s been 200 fairly unmotivated pages to get to that point.