Only Detect

LAWRENCE G. BLOCHMAN. Recipe for Homicide (1952).

A tale that pivots around an apparent scheme by Communist saboteurs to poison several batches of U.S. Army soup rations just can’t date very well, and this novel fully reeks of the McCarthyist hysteria of the Korean War years. At its best, it serves up choice artifacts to include in a time capsule of that period: scenes from both the shop floor and the executive suite at the Barzac Canning Company, located in a Midwestern industrial city called Northbank; glimpses of thriving mid-century American institutions, including the stock market, the public-relations industry, and the FBI; and, yes, samplings of the addled public mood that emerged after McCarthy and his ilk had Red-scared a good many Americans out of their wits. Much less fascinating, however (yet also typical of its era), is an assembly-line mystery plot that combines a fetish for science with a bias toward random, hurly-burly action. Dr. Daniel Webster Coffee, a pathologist at the Pasteur Institute, delivers the science; readers can watch as he and his comic sidekick, Dr. Motilal Mukerji, run a Reinsch test or section the brain of a murder victim. Covering the action side, meanwhile, is Bob Gilmore, PR manager at the soup company, who gets caught both in a political crossfire and in a literal crossfire. These two protagonists—neither of them quite fits the role of detective—take turns at stirring Blochman’s weak broth.

[ADDENDUM: For a shrewdly observed and generally countervailing perspective on this book, see the review posted online by Mike Grost. Certainly, Grost gives Blochman more credit than I do. “Blochman,” he writes, “shows US daily life as the operating ground of many powerful forces, technological, scientific, economic, political. It comes across as a very interesting, dynamic place.”]