“I threw the blonde a couple of come-on glances, just in case, but I made about as much of an impression as a fingerprint on an ice cube at a hot party.” So says New York private investigator Peter Chambers about three-quarters of the way into this narrative—a brief, busy, boisterous work that makes little impression on a reader’s mind beyond that of trying very hard to summon a bit of the magic that earlier writers had breathed into the private-eye genre. Kane’s approach to the genre falls short of capturing its real spirit, but goes long in conjuring up its formal elements. His “come-on glances” (and he throws more than a couple of them) assume the guise of tropes that were familiar even in 1947, when this début effort first hit bookstalls: the cocky shamus with a drone-like partner and a tart-tongued secretary; the curvy torch singer who pals around with slick underworld types, whenever she’s not palling around with the shamus instead; the wealthy client who surely know more than he lets on; the male suspects who are all either smart but weak or tough but stupid; the female characters who all want something from the detective that the men in their lives can’t give them. Scenes alternate between swank uptown joints like the Club Nevada, where the shamus and the singer and everyone else seem to converge, and seedy downtown haunts like the stoolie’s den where the shamus gets the straight dope on a crooked lawyer. Coursing through it all is a stream of wised-up wordplay, occasionally clever but often simply manic in tone.
No less manic is the plot, which spins around and around—a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of action. There’s a pattern to the pandemonium, but good luck to any reader who tries to discern it by squinting into the pinhole lens of Kane’s narrative. At its center is Chambers, who happens to be down the road apiece when a shootout erupts in front of an Upper East Side apartment house. Bullets, some of them from his gun, sail to and from a taxi parked outside the building. Left in the wake of all this gunfire are a pair of dead bodies, one of them belonging to the wife of Blair Curtis, the proprietor of a posh jewelry concern. Curtis, meanwhile, had recently received a blackmail threat, and he hires Chambers to investigate both that threat and this fresh murder. Plenty of suspicious characters orbit the case, and Chambers pursues his suspicions wherever they lead, pausing for hardly a moment when they lead him to stumble upon more dead bodies. Detection for him takes the form of gadding about town and gabbing with assorted high-hats and lowlifes until he jostles the truth loose from its hiding place, mostly by the sheer force of his activity.
Kane musters a few sharp clues, but he conceals them from readers all too well, largely as a consequence of his pell-mell way of telling a story. When Chambers at last unveils what all of the clues mean, the reader’s likely response is not a frisson of recognition, but a wrinkled brow of confusion—not “Aha!” but “Huh?” The star sleuth, at that point, might as well be lifting prints from the ice in his drink.
[ADDENDUM: For the edition of Halo for Nobody that I read, a mid-1950s paperback reprint, some publishing genius decided to change the book’s title to “Martinis and Murder.” It’s a random change of the sort that was typical of that period, when a little alliteration was thought to go a long way—and when the hard-boiled detective story was thought to be a mere box of tropes that one could mix and match, and then market. People in the novel, including Chambers, do a lot of drinking, but they don’t imbibe martinis in particular. (In fact, there are probably more murders committed in the book than there are martinis consumed.) The phrase in the original title has some poetry to it, and Kane actually uses it in the story. All the same, that original title isn’t all that original: Howard Browne came out with Halo in Blood in 1946, one year earlier than Halo for Nobody.]