Here’s a nifty little classic, a one-hit wonder (Benson wrote no other tales of detection) whose praises have gone mostly unsung. So let’s do some singing. First, nearly every trope of the private-eye tradition is present and accounted-for: the average-Joe PI with an above-average lode of moxie and a bleak back story; a bewitching client who brings the sweet promise of doom; a hothouse plot, powered by secrets that lurk in the past and driven by lowlifes of the sort who gather wherever there is money or sex, or both, in super-concentrated form. Benson evokes the old tropes with care and with style. (“It had been a gory evening. I could almost smell the scent of death clinging to my clothes. A little blackmail. A little killing. A little clicking of a camera shutter mushrooming into manslaughter and suicide. A nice business I was in.”) At the same time, he treats each character and each situation with an offbeat insouciance that breathes fresh life into an established genre.
Second, this elegant little book is exactly what a novel should be, whatever its genre: a narrative with the soaring profile of myth, yet rooted in the grimy rich soil of life as it’s lived—lived, say, in “Chicago, August 1958,” to use the dateline that Benson pointedly attaches to his saga. One day during that steaming-hot month, in that big brash American city, a woman visits the seedy Loop office of Max Raven, detective. She’s a ripe young beauty who calls herself Naomi, and she’s married to a much older man, a wealthy patriarch with the Biblically blunt name of Jedediah Cain. Someone has obtained a stash of dirty pictures in which she plays a starring role, and she wants Raven to find that someone before the pictures fall under the fearsome gaze of old man Cain. Raven does eventually finds the blackmailer, after trolling through cheap nightspots and dingy residence hotels on the South Side of Chicago, after a jaunt to New York (where Naomi started her breathtaking rise in the world and where Raven started his less-than-brilliant career), and after falling in love with his client. He falls hard for Naomi Cain, like a side of beef falling in a Chicago packinghouse. Sure, he knows how to slice the odds as he plummets into obsession. But knowledge gets him nowhere: “Suddenly it seemed that whatever it was that governs the lives of people had thrown us together into a relationship that never could have been casual. … I knew it wasn’t good and I stood there and the thought came that I might be doing the smartest thing I’d ever done by nipping the thing in the bud. But I didn’t.”
[ADDENDUM: The original title of this book was Cain’s Woman—”Woman,” as in the title to this post. But for the version that I read, which Harper Perennial issued in the mid-1980s, someone decided that Cain’s Wife had a better, more up-to-date ring to it. (See the cover image of that version, at left.) To be sure, in a post-feminist age, the suggestion that Naomi Cain is a possession that belongs to her husband strikes a jarring note. But that archaic notion plays a part in this tale, and it’s hardly the most politically incorrect feature of the book.]