Self-referentiality—the tendency to make knowing nods to the fictive nature of fiction—is endemic to the detective genre. The habit goes back at least as far as the gibes made by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson about the latter’s published chronicles of the former’s exploits. It can be a charming tic, now and again, but it can also test a reader’s capacity for suspending disbelief. Practitioners of the private-eye form often seem especially self-conscious about the highly constructed myth that lies beneath their works’ aura of gritty realism. Perhaps in that spirit, Browne peppers this tale about the Chicago-based shamus Paul Pine with references to other authors who specialize in mean-streets fare. At one point, he makes Pine interrupt his sleuthing chores to read a novel by William T. McGivern. A good guess here is that Browne knew McGivern from his work as editor of the pulp magazine Mammoth Detective. In any event, the shout-out comes across as a clunky bit of log-rolling. Such moves disrupt, ever so slightly, the spell of enchantment that this kind of story requires. Pine’s literary forebears knew better than to give up the game in that way: One struggles to imagine Sam Spade kicking back to peruse a copy of Black Mask while he waited for the black bird to turn up.
Browne’s novel, as it happens, follows the template that Dashiell Hammett created in The Maltese Falcon—a narrative framework that was, in turn, a clear tribute to mythic stories about knights in search of the Holy Grail. The quarry in this case is as fantastic as can be: a manuscript purportedly written by the hand of Jesus of Nazareth. As in the Hammett novel, the hero searches for clues and jockeys for position amid a cast of characters who all yearn for the same elusive object. The adventure starts with Pine going on a call to visit Bishop McManus, whose flock includes all of the Catholic souls in Chicago and who has an obvious professional interest in securing the manuscript. Thereafter, Pine tussles (and occasionally collaborates) with a pair of fetching women, Lola North and Constance Benbrook, either of whom might pass an audition for the femme-fatale role; with Frank Tinney, a homicide cop who is no fonder of private investigators than he should be; with Louis Antuni, a big-time mobster whose heyday was during the Prohibition era; and with a few other tough cookies. Topping off the confection is the looming presence of a mysterious master criminal named Jafar Baijan. (Both the spectral nature of the character and the ethnically indistinct name appear to prefigure Keyser Soze, the ostensibly invisible villain who haunts the 1995 film The Usual Suspects. Presumably it’s a coincidence. Or maybe the film’s creators had read this mid-century thriller.)
Although the plot borrows chiefly from Hammett, the tone and ambience of Halo for Satan point to a more profound influence: Browne, by virtue of this book and others in the Paul Pine series, was arguably the best of many would-be successors to Raymond Chandler. By transporting the Chandleresque tale and its tropes—the offbeat similes and the on-target social observation, the vision of an urban jungle in which upper-crust types mix with underworld figures—to a Midwestern metropolis, Browne shows that the formula could deliver its magic even in the absence of Southern California glamour. At the same time, he exerts tighter control over his characters and his plot than Chandler was typically able to muster. Through the sheer excellence of his craft, Browne achieves something that goes beyond mere pastiche. (It’s too bad that, instead of letting the craft speak for itself, he occasionally tries to get cute.)