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Category Archives: American

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

 

JEB RUBENFELD. An Interpretation of Murder (2006).

The idea of casting Sigmund Freud as the sleuth in a murder story, or at any rate as a walk-on sleuthing consultant, has an “overdetermined” quality, as Freud himself might put it. Like a detective, a psychoanalyst excels at finding the thread of significance that lurks within a jumbled skein of reported events. Both figures dedicate themselves to teasing out truths that others seek to hide. And for both, the saga of Oedipus serves as a model for the unraveling of life’s most profound mysteries. Rubenfeld wrests this analogy from its inert obviousness and yokes it to a real historical puzzle: Why did Freud, following his lone visit to the United States, develop a lifelong antipathy to that country—an antipathy so extreme that he once labeled the American experiment in civilization “a great mistake”? The fictional answer, Rubenfeld suggests, is that during his 1909 excursion to the New World the good Dr. Freud witnessed goings-on that would make even the most jaded Old World gentleman cough up his cigar in amazed revulsion.

InterpretationMurder.jpg In that year, Freud traveled to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to deliver a series of lectures; on his way to New England, he stayed for a week in New York, accompanied by an entourage that included Carl Jung. On the basis of those historical facts, the author erects a complex and adroitly managed plot that hinges on transporting Freud’s famous “Dora” case from fin-de-siècle Vienna to ragtime Manhattan. That case involved a dark love quadrangle in which, behind a façade of bourgeois probity, a man prostituted his daughter (“Dora”) to another man in exchange for conjugal rights to the latter man’s wife. Here, Dora assumes the form of one Nora Acton, a nubile “new woman” who lives with her family in a Gramercy Park townhouse. After a strange incident in which Nora reports molestation as well as memory loss, a young psychiatrist named Chatham Younger subjects her to a course of Freud’s newfangled talk therapy. Younger, an authorial creation who narrates bits and pieces of the novel, conducts his psychoanalytic investigation under Freud’s supervision. Alas, he fares about as well with Nora as Freud did with Dora—that is, not very well at all. Proper sleuthing work remains the province of Jimmy Littlemore, a police detective whose blandly stolid heroism adds (um) “little more” to Rubenfeld’s teeming cast of characters.

Younger, for his part, has much better luck with efforts to interpret the mysteries of Hamlet (What did the melancholy Dane really mean when he asked his “To be or not to be” question?) and of the Oedipus complex (Do children truly harbor feelings of homicidal jealousy toward their parents?). Those moments are among the choicest slices of Rubenfeld’s dense literary layer cake. Also worthy of praise are a series of ably evoked period locations, ranging from the exalted heights of a luxury apartment house (based on the fabled Ansonia, on the Upper West Side) all the way down to the pressurized depths of an underwater “caisson,” used in the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. Down there, as in the airless bottom of the human unconscious, a man might lose not only his breath but also his very self.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2017 in American, Historical, Novel

 

HELEN EUSTIS. The Horizontal Man (1946).

In the 1940s, at the moment when the classic whodunit reached unmatched heights of intricacy and sophistication, another kind of mystery tale started to overshadow that once-popular form: the novel of psychological suspense. HorizontalMan.jpgMysteries of the mind, in short, began to usurp mysteries of fact and circumstance. Stories that feature clues perceptible to the five senses and decipherable by rational thought gave way to stories that draw generously on psychoanalysis, a mode of thought and practice that attained its peak of public awareness during this era. This novel illustrates and embodies that transition.

Set within the confines of a New England women’s college, The Horizontal Man begins and moves through its early stages in the usual Golden Age manner. An instructor of English who had served extramurally as the campus Lothario is bludgeoned to death, and an assortment of jealous women and envious men loom as worthy suspects in his killing. But no detective emerges to sift through the clues, which in any case are fairly cursory. Instead, a loose-knit trio of amateurs—a love-struck reporter, the brainy co-ed on whom he has a crush, and a stereotypically wise psychiatrist—worry over the problem until a solution practically erupts in their faces. Although Eustis foreshadows the psychosexual nature of the crime, it’s unlikely that any reader, or indeed any plausible fictional sleuth, could have detected it. The handling of the pivotal trick reflects a shrewd and confidant authorship, but it falls short of what others have accomplished in this vein (see, for instance, Beast in View, by Margaret Millar), and from a 21st-century vantage point, it seems almost naive: So often and with such deftness have others turned this kind of trick over the past half-century that it now takes more to shock us than Eustis delivers.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in American, Noir, Novel