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JONATHAN CRAIG. The Dead Darling (1955).

28 Nov

“This case is beginning to get to me. We’ve got more suspects than we can keep track of, and nothing solid on a single one of them. And no real clues, either. All we really know for sure is that Jean Proctor is dead.” So says Stan Rayder, a police detective who works out of the 6th Precinct in New York City, to his partner, Pete Selby. Exhausting one half-promising lead after another, Rayder and Selby (who narrates the novel and also takes a lead role in it) retrace the steps that marked the dead woman’s trouble-strewn path. Jean Proctor had been a wayward soul of just 19 years, tragically housed in a beautiful body that (as Selby and others note repeatedly) had undergone a decade’s worth of hard, big-city experience in a very short time. DeadDarling.jpg Her path starts uptown, where she had been the unhappy daughter of an Upper West Side family, and it ends downtown, where she had become an unhappy denizen of the Greenwich Village Bohemian scene. She had fled her puritanical father a couple of years earlier, and since then she had done what young women like her often do in the Village: a little modeling, a little sugar-daddy action. Along the way, there was a brief, ill-conceived marriage to a guy who’s now a Bowery bum. One morning, a former roommate named Norma Johnson goes to Proctor’s apartment and discovers her lifeless body. It’s an apparent suicide; she’s found with her head in an oven. But, quickly enough, Rayder and Selby establish that someone killed her with a blunt instrument before faking the suicide. In the time-honored way, they proceed to interview the people in her life—the married businessmen who knew her as a good-time gal, the lesbian painter who wanted to know her better, the reefer-fueled jazzman who saw another side of her. The cops investigate their way into a corner (“no real clues”) and then make their way out of it, and the case comes to a satisfying and reasonably clever finish.

The Dead Darling, the inaugural work in what became known as the 6th Precinct series, is contemporaneous with the launch of the far better-known 87th Precinct series, authored by Ed McBain. (This book, in fact, came out before the first McBain title.) The two series have a lot in common: a commitment to urban realism, a knack for finding poetry within the confines of the procedural, a vision of the big-city cop as a fellow who is two parts working stiff and one part village priest. McBain, with his ability to sustain a multi-decade saga and to manage a complex ensemble cast, was Craig’s superior as a storyteller. Yet one weak point of McBain’s otherwise massive achievement involves the decision to situate his fictional police squad in a fictional city. Steve Carella and the other boys of the 87th seem pressingly real, but that’s not true of Isola, the notional metropolis where they work. By contrast, the Manhattan on whose streets Selby and Rayder wear out their shoe leather has exactly the kind of presence—the kind of felt substantiality—that Isola keenly lacks.

[ADDENDUM: Information about Jonathan Craig or the 6th Precinct series is hard to come by. The standard reference works on the genre that I own are mostly silent about both the author and his work, and the Web also appears to include few links to meaningful data on either score. Even the fairly exhaustive directory of sleuths at the Thrilling Detective Web site lacks an entry on Selby or on the 6th Precinct. The English version of Wikipedia has no entry on Craig (although, curiously, the French Wikipedia site does have one). But John at the Pretty Sinister site has mounted a worthy effort to preserve the memory of Craig’s achievement and it is to John’s posts about the 6th Precinct tales—including his review of Dead Darling—that I owe my discovery the series. Thank, John!]

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4 Comments

Posted by on November 28, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

4 responses to “JONATHAN CRAIG. The Dead Darling (1955).

  1. macavityabc

    November 28, 2014 at 2:03 PM

    I really like this series.

     
  2. John

    November 29, 2014 at 10:13 AM

    You’re welcome, Mike! So glad you enjoyed this book. There are some excellent books in this series with ingenious plotting and detective novel tricks. But sadly the last three are uninspired and a bit too heavy on the cynicism. I’m really shocked that no one has ever reprinted these books. I kept pushing to pursue the rights for all of Craig’s books for Raven’s Head Press but the owner rarely followed through with my suggestions.

    Jonathan Craig’s short stories which show off a range of moods and unusual plots first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Many were reprinted in the numerous Hitchcock anthologies published throughout the late 1960s and into the mid 1970s, I’m always looking over the table of contents of those books looking for stories by Craig, Ed Lacy and Helen Nielsen.

     
  3. Mike

    November 29, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    Thanks for the comment, John, and thanks again for recommending the series to all of us who read you. My hunch is that publishers figure that readers today who like McBain will just read McBain, and that differentiating the 6th Precinct from the 87th Precinct is a losing game for marketers. I also wonder if publishers don’t shy away from short novels like those by Craig; by comparison, most novels issued today are (intentionally, it seems) rather bloated.

     
  4. Brian Busby

    September 7, 2016 at 2:11 AM

    I’ve long been drawn to Craig, so am always interested in reading others’ thoughts and reviews. Thank you.

    It’s a curious thing about French Wikipedia, isn’t it. So many forgotten and nearly forgotten pulp writers have entries – Douglas Sanderson and David Montrose come first to mind – but not on English Wikipedia. A true mystery

     

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