Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although the superficial meaning of any murder mystery is contained in the answer to the questions of how the crime was planned and who did it, the great writers in this genre add something more, and in the case of “Nevada Gas,” it is a chilling view of life in the amoral twentieth century. Unlike Raymond Chandler’s later famous creation, the knightly Philip Marlowe, Johnny DeRuse is not interested in seeing that justice triumphs or in helping people. In Johnny’s world, there is no good or bad, only the next piece of luck, be it the turn of a wheel, the flip of a card, or the draw of a gun. The only value is staying alive, and if that means killing someone else, so be it. When Dial shoots Kuvalick, apparently killing him, “no emotion showed in his face, not even excitement.” However, Johnny is hardly better than Dial; he is only a bit cagier. He kills three people and also shows no emotion. In a world where there are no rules and everyone is out to get everyone else, there is a premium on staying one step ahead of the competition, as Johnny does by carrying one gun where it can easily be seen and taken, and then saving the day with his surprise leg pistol and, as Kuvalick does, by pretending to be dead until the right moment. The intellect is used not to enrich the mind and spirit but to defeat the next person, and cleverness is prized where there is no wisdom. Even Johnny’s name, a pun on “the ruse,” suggests trickery.

Johnny does not ask people for information; he pays them for it. The standard is economic, not moral. When Johnny speaks of changing his life, the reader cannot believe it, for there is no better life to achieve. Love is never even considered, even as a ghost of a youthful delusion, for Francine tells George that she will not leave Johnny for him, not because she does not love George enough but because he does not have enough money. Thus, when Francine stares at the sleeping Johnny at the end of the story, she looks at him not with love, which is impossible in the world they inhabit, but with admiration.