So Many Doors by Oakley Hall - book review: An unforgettable story of spurned love, flawed passion and pride, caustic obsession, and distrust and despair.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist Oakley Hall delivers an affecting, murderous tale of love and desire, jealousy and shame in the years following the Great Depression in this newly reissued crime novel.
First published by Random House in 1950, So Many Doors is the debut novel by influential American writer Hall, an English professor emeritus at UC Irvine and author of 25 books, who died in 2008.
During his distinguished career, Hall won numerous awards, including the Wrangler Award and the Western Writers of America (WWA) Spur Award for his magazine pieces.
His western novel Warlock, a finalist for the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, was made into a film by Twentieth Century-Fox starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn, and his 1963 book, The Downhill Racers, was later filmed by Paramount as Downhill Racer starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman.
So Many Doors, which he wrote while studying at Columbia University, was initially overlooked when it came out in hardback, but the paperback went on to become a big seller and received wide critical acclaim.
It is a dramatic, bleak tale about two inseparable lovers, consumed with overwhelming desire and corrupting jealousy, and the havoc their relationship causes to those around them.
Divided into five sections, each told from the viewpoint of a friend or relative who interacted with the pair, the story spans a period of ten years, beginning in the early 1940s.
The beautiful, wayward Vassilia Baird, known simply as V, is the centrepiece of the tale. While growing up on a ranch near Bakersfield, Southern California, she wins the affection of wealthy neighbour Roger Denton, an educated ‘lonely old bachelor’ who dotes on her and expresses to her overly protective father his desire to marry her.
Despite Denton’s wealth and considerable property, including 80 acres of farmland, V’s father is appalled by the idea, believing the man, who is a similar age to himself, to be too old. He defers the discussion until his teenage daughter has graduated from school.
It is then that the tall, handsome tractor driver Jack Ward, a conceited, womanising man in his mid-twenties, appears on the scene, changing the course of V’s life forever. Hired to pull up some stumps on the property, he casually seduces V, intending for it to be a brief affair.
However, V’s father becomes aware of the situation and realises, with terrified outrage, that his daughter is ‘crazy in love’ with Jack. Fearful his daughter is headed for a life of hardship and strife, he becomes ‘fiercely loyal’ to Denton, if only for the financial stability the man can offer her.
Alas, Jack has made such an impression on V that she is utterly besotted with him and unwilling to give him up. Leaving her old life behind, she moves in with Jack, and so begins a reckless, destructive affair, with Jack treating her callously and two-timing her.
Following the advice of Jack’s best friend, Ben Proctor, V uses her sexuality to her advantage, incessantly flirting with other men to punish Jack, and deliberately toying with his emotions to control him.
Hurt and humiliated and in a state of perpetual torment, Jack lashes out at friends and rivals for V’s affections until, eventually, tragedy ensues.
Feeling like she is ‘a cancer in him,’ Jack tries to start a new life away from V, but he is repeatedly drawn back to her, continually striving to make her ‘belong to him again.’ It is an imprudent pursuit that ultimately leads to death, destruction, and heartbreak.
Hall’s vivid characters and intense, emotionally charged prose elevate So Many Doors to a compelling, unforgettable story of spurned love, flawed passion and pride, caustic obsession, and distrust and despair.
(Hard Case Crime, paperback, £7.99)