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Category Archives: American

TONY HILLERMAN. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973).

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Reservation Law and Order Department makes his second appearance in this book, which earned Hillerman an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1974. The author’s deft portrayal of the Native American detective no doubt played a key role in securing that honor. Marginalized from white enforcers of the law because of his race, and to a lesser extent from his own people because of the position he holds, Leaphorn carries an air of detachment—sardonic but also compassionate—that puts him solidly in the tradition of a lonely knight-errant.DanceHallDead.jpg Like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, he exhibits an appealing world-weariness that makes him seem to do good almost in spite of himself.

In this outing, Leaphorn must locate a Navajo boy who has disappeared and who might have information about another boy, a member of the Zuni tribe and the victim of a recent brutal murder. Several clusters of human activity on or near reservation land, each of them linked in some way to the two boys’ intertribal friendship, factor into the plot. There’s an archeological dig. There’s a youth commune. There is, it seems, a drug-smuggling outfit at work in the area. There are indications that people are engaging in certain mysterious rites of the Zuni tribe. The puzzle set against this richly variegated background is by no means dazzling; it features a shallow pool of suspects and a rather pedestrian set of clues. All the same, Hillerman handles the murder motive well, and he does the same with the subdued unfolding of a tragic resolution—one that leaves his hero’s battered faith in justice intact, but just barely.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2018 in American, Novel

 

STUART PALMER. The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).

By the time he penned this entry in the Hildegarde Withers saga, Palmer had spend a decent amount of time in the luxuriously appointed coal mines where screenwriters swung their picks during the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. And here, repeatedly, he makes sport of the antic plot contrivances that Tinseltow producers would foist upon the raw material that they had plundered either from life or from literature. As the book opens, Mammoth Studios is developing a motion picture that promises to retell the Lizzie Borden story. HappyHooligan.jpg Step by step, the producer Thorwald L. Nincom pushes his writing team to remold the ax-wielding spinster from Fall River, Massachusetts, into a proper celluloid heroine: Let’s portray her as innocent! (A preponderance of evidence, as well as the nursery rhyme that made her famous, suggests that she was guilty of killing her father and stepmother.) Let’s pair her with a handsome suitor! (She had no known love interest, handsome or otherwise.)

Despite that breezy approach to the historical record, Nincom cares about getting the details right. Which is why the studio ends up hiring Miss Withers to serve as a technical advisor on the film. (She happened to be in Los Angeles on an extended vacation.) After all, she’s a teacher, and she’s from back east, and she knows a little something about murder. The studio gives her an office in the warren of rooms occupied by Nincom’s writers, and before she can settle into it, one of her officemates becomes a fresh homicide victim. Who would want to kill a journeyman scribbler like Saul Stafford? The answer is to be found amid a bewildering swirl of circumstances—including signs that point to an unsolved New York City murder case, which gives Miss Withers an excuse to call in her old friend, Inspector Piper of the NYPD. She tumbles to the right solution on her own, but only after surviving attempts to kidnap her and to kill her, among other high-jinks.

Even as Palmer mocks Hollywood tropes, he partakes of those tropes with professional aplomb, and the novel reads to some extent like the treatment for a mystery feature that he hoped a real-life mogul would order into production. Happy Hooligan was never adapted for the silver screen, alas, but Palmer’s novel survives as a well-turned entertainment from the Silver Age of both classic moviemaking and classic detection. It’s a fun romp that, in keeping with the title, gives readers plenty to puzzle over.

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

ROBERT SILVERBERG. Blood on the Mink (1962).

“Vic Lowney,” the wise-guy hero of this trim thriller, is about as real as the counterfeit $5 and $10 bills that his nemesis, a Philadelphia crime boss named Henry Klaus, has begun to put into circulation. To be sure, the man himself is real enough: He’s an agent of an unspecified federal department, charged with bringing Klaus to justice and with securing the engraving plates used to print Klaus’s funny money. But for nearly the entire tale, the agent remains incognito. (We learn his first name, but only that, in the final pages of the book.) The real Vic Lowney is a high-ranking operative in an LA crime syndicate. In the opening scene, the feds kidnap this thug during a cross-country flight to the City of Brotherly Love, so that their agent can take his place in a planned negotiation to distribute Klaus’s home-made cash on the West Coast. BloodMink.jpg The agent, who narrates his adventure in the snappy manner that typifies mid-century crime fiction, dons the “Vic Lowney” guise and proceeds to improvise his way into a dark corner of the Philly underworld. He tangles violently with Klaus’s right-hand man; he tangles romantically with the Klaus’s kept woman; he tangles conspiratorially with other mobsters who want a piece of Klaus’s counterfeiting operation. The risk that someone will blow the Lowney cover looms over every scene, but the agent maintains his subterfuge just long enough to complete his mission. From start to finish, he conducts his exploits in the ersatz currency of tough talk and brute action.

Somewhat disappointingly, Silverberg doesn’t do much with the rich theme of fakery. A writer with grander ambitions for this work might have leveraged its core plot to explore the metaphysics of imposture—to evoke the quandary of a good guy who must act in bad faith, or to probe the ironies that surround a counterfeit crook who pursues counterfeit money. Instead, Silverberg plays it straight, generating a story that functions almost wholly at the level of action. According to an afterword that Silverberg penned in 2011, he wrote the novel back in 1959 for a magazine publisher that went bust before the story could appear in print. A few years later, he yanked it out of his files to meet the needs of another publication, a magazine called Trapped. “Too Much Blood on the Mink” (as that magazine titled it) was an object of mass production, pure and simple. That fact is particularly evident in Silverberg’s prose, which is awkward in some places and flat or clichéd in others. Nonetheless, the style here is equal to the substance of the narrative. Blood on the Mink (as Hard Case Crime titled its soft-cover version of the book) offers a worthy sample of the wares that a fictioneer like Silverberg could churn out during his prime, and it embodies a casual professionalism that would do “Vic Lowney” proud.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Noir, Novel

 

MICKEY SPILLANE. I, the Jury (1947).

Mike Hammer made his famous, and in some quarters infamous, début in this brisk and bumptious private-eye novel. In some respects, it’s standard fare of its type. Hammer is a lone-wolf operator in New York City who, in the tradition of Sam Spade, has a loyal and fetching secretary, an adversarial relationship with local authorities, and a way of working a case that focuses less on interviewing suspects than on riling them up. From the start, however, many critics took exception to Spillane’s harder-boiled variation on themes first sounded by Hammett and Chandler. “Able if painfully derivative writing and plotting in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in Gestapo training school,” wrote Anthony Boucher in a brief notice in the San Francisco Chronicle. By the early 1950s, the Hammer series had become a cultural phenomenon that appeared to signal a big shift in what readers sought from the detective genre. At bottom, I, the Jury offers a tale not of crime and detection, but of revenge.
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The essence of the story is right there in the title: Hammer (who serves as both narrator and protagonist) sets out to deliver his own brand of justice to a killer, and he intends to relish every moment of that violent quest. A vigilante spirit was hardly new to detective fiction. Many works of the interwar period end with a scene in which the protagonist either goads a murderer into committing suicide or finds some other way to dispatch the culprit without the encumbrance of a trial. But such maneuvers are typically an afterthought, executed by a sleuth who acts more in sorrow than in anger. For Hammer, anger isn’t just a driving force; it’s a positive value. After Jack Williams, a cop and a wartime buddy of Hammer’s, turns up dead—someone had pumped a bullet into Williams’s stomach and then, it seems, cruelly watched the man’s life ebb away—Hammer launches into a soliloquy that outlines his plan and celebrates the primitive ethos behind it. “I’m alone. I can slap someone in the puss and they can’t do a damn thing … ” he says to the city detective who oversees the Williams case. “I hate hard, Pat. When I latch on to the one behind this they’re going to wish they hadn’t started it. Some day, before long, I’m going to have my rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I’m going to watch the killer’s face. I’m going to plunk one right in his gut, and when he’s dying on the floor I may kick his teeth out.”

Spillane’s writing ranges from “able,” as Boucher calls it, to sub-literate, yet it has a blood-simple authenticity that carries a certain charm. The killer isn’t hard to spot, at least not for anyone who has the barest exposure to stories of this kind. Spillane works up a couple of nice clues, and he shows Hammer going plausibly through the motions of drawing conclusions from them—but solving a puzzle rates as a distantly secondary concern. To Hammer, every problem is basically the same; what matters is whether he can nail his quarry.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel

 

THOMAS STERLING. The Evil of the Day (1955).

EvilDay2.jpg Gathered together at an old and opulent palace are the corrupt and manipulative man who makes his home there; his devious factotum; a rich harridan and her paid companion; and two men who have ostensibly come to provide succor to their ostensibly ailing host. Each of them possesses great wealth, or desperately wishes to possess it, or both. The situation not only echoes that of many classic whodunit tales but also resembles the scenario of a truly classic work: the comedy Volpone; or, the Fox (1605–1606), by Ben Jonson. Indeed, several of these characters confess that they know the play and that they mean to turn this knowledge to their advantage.

Sterling, at any rate, puts his own erudition to good use, adding to the raw material of that source work the clues and the trickery of a detective story. In doing so, he forsakes none of the original’s comic flair and sardonic worldliness, and he leavens the plot with trenchant musings on death and its relation to life that transcend the humble mystery genre. Like its Renaissance forerunner, the novel uses Venice as its metaphorically freighted locale.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

JOHN DUNNING. Booked to Die (1992).

BookedDie.jpg Is ownership of certain modern first editions a cause worth killing for? The premise here is that Denver, Colorado, serves as home to a handful of people who might answer “yes” to that question. Though no less plausible than many reasons for fictional murder, this motive is more fanciful than most, and a story that hinges on it needs to have just the right tone. By writing in the voice of Cliff Janeway, a hard-boiled homicide cop with a mania for old books and a breezy way of turning a phrase, Dunning manages that difficult feat. And, despite a couple of hastily smoothed-over plot points, he turns out a neat, well-clued puzzle.

The weakest element in this biblio mystery concerns Janeway, who comes across too starkly as a creature of fantasy. Nowadays, we want our detective heroes to show a modicum of vulnerability; here and there, they should appear to struggle with a case as much as we might struggle with it. Or, if they must be idealized avengers of crime, then we expect them to battle not only the world’s evil but their own dark side as well. Janeway refers to a childhood bereft of love and stability—formative years that left him with a violent streak—and in one pivotal episode, he unleashes that violence. But he glides through most of this adventure with a facile mastery of both himself and his situation, and along the way we become largely indifferent to his fate.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. The Murder Is a Fox (1945).

The word Fox in the title refers to an interlocked pair of Fox families, one of whose members killed Jessica Fox by putting a poisonous dose of digitalis in a glass of grape juice that she drank one morning in 1932. According to the local keepers of the law, it was Bayard Fox, Jessica’s husband, who did the fatal deed, and when the action here commences he has served 12 years in prison. Bayard and Jessica’s son, Davy, upon his return in 1944 from heroic wartime service in China, fears that murderous blood flows through his veins. MurdererFox2.jpg That fear becomes acute after he awakens from a jealousy-infused nightmare to find his hands wrapped around the throat of his loving wife, Linda.

Enter Ellery Queen, playing the role of sleuth-cum-shrink. At the behest of Linda, Ellery travels to the scene of the crime—the Our Town–inspired community known as Wrightsville—and reopens the earlier murder case on the theory that proving the father’s innocence will expel the son’s demons. That aspect of the book, partaking of the Freudian conceit that truth about the past can set the soul free (just as clearly and unambiguously as a surgeon’s knife can remove a cancerous growth), is contrived and overdone. What redeems this tale are Ellery’s rivetingly intricate reconstruction of the crime; the author’s trenchant exploration of several big themes, including the power of a paternal legacy, the quest for knowledge, and the ironies of fate; and a splendid use of setting. Wrightsville, which Queen generally treats as the habitat of comically limned mid-century American types, emerges as a scene of subliminal tragedy, a place where the hard granite of pride and pretense is shot through with the soft clay of human weakness.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2017 in American, Novel, Puzzle