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Category Archives: American

JONATHAN CRAIG. The Dead Darling (1955).

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

 

HAROLD ADAMS. The Man Who Was Taller Than God (1992).

ManTallerGOd.jpgCarl Wilcox, an itinerant man-of-all-work and an occasional sleuth, is not so much hard-boiled as he is parched and withered. He’s been worn down by the elements—sun and wind, lust and greed—that dominate the Depression-era South Dakota landscape in which he operates. To be sure, he retains a modicum of spirit, and it’s most evident when he’s flirting with the many lonely and attractive women who cross his path. Yet over everything that he does or says (Wilcox narrates his own adventures), there hangs an air of rueful impoverishment. Like his urban private-eye counterparts, like Spade and Marlowe and the rest, he has turned detached alienation into both an ethic and a style; unlike them, he can’t draw on the frenzied energies of a big-city environment to compensate for the bleakness in his soul. Called upon to solve the murder of a womanizing insurance salesman, Wilcox undertakes the task with little sense of urgency, and indeed with little sense of interest. It’s just another job to him, like the sign-painting gig that brought him to town in the first place. He works the case in the way of private investigators everywhere, by knocking on doors and riling people up, and in time the truth spills out. That revelation seems overly complex, given the rather minimalist quality of the narrative that precedes it, and Adams does too little too prepare readers for it. Still, it’s a conclusion that well suits the all-embracing drought of Wilcox’s time and place—a drought that was, according to Adams, spiritual as well as meteorological.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT. Red Harvest (1929).

Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” At a time when detective fiction was replete with high-society types who concocted elaborate killings and did so for obscure or highly contrived motives, Hammett introduced readers to thugs like Pete the Finn, Lew Yard, Reno Starkey, and Max “Whisper” Thaler. RedHarvest.jpgThese crooks are professionals, with appropriately professional motivations to kill, and they form part of the murderer’s row that the nameless hero of this novel must confront as he strives to clean up the dirty streets of Personville, a midsized mining town in the Mountain West. It’s a relentlessly corrupt town—locals and outsiders alike call it Poisonville—and the task of defeating its many bad guys requires a deep reserve of moxie more than it does a refined intelligence. “Poisonville is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it,” the Continental Op explains to one of the colorfully named thugs. (Nowhere in this book does the protagonist, who also serves as the narrator, refer to himself as the Contintental Op. But he’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency, so that’s how he’s come to be known.) As Hammett’s title foretells, the “harvest” that the Op carries out assumes a grimly sanguinary hue. By the Op’s own tally, there are 19 murders that take place between the opening and the closing of this case. Indeed, he commits a few of them himself, and he does it for a reason: As he says, it’s his job.

In that way, Red Harvest differs fundamentally from a standard mystery tale. Far from chronicling the orderly pursuit of truth and justice by a sleuth who embodies the power of human reason, this début novel depicts a random and cruel world in which circumstances can push even the otherwise noble Op to become (in his words) “blood-simple.” Where order does exist, as in the bureaucratic regimen followed by the Old Man, who runs the Continental office back in San Francisco, that mode of order bears no relation to the real business of fighting crime. When bullets are flying and bodies are falling, the Old Man’s expectation that the Op will file regular reports on his activity in Personville carries a whiff of the absurd. For the Op, detection is chiefly a matter of disruption. “Plans are all right sometimes,” he says to Dinah Brand, the femme fatale in this proto-noir effort. (With her, as with the menfolk of Poisonville, the Op follows a cagy, keep-your-enemies-close strategy.) “And sometimes just stirring things up is all right—if you’re tough enough to survive, and keep your eyes open so you’ll see what you want when it comes out on top.”

Even as Hammett charts new fictional terrain with this book, he also annexes features from established genres. He updates the classic western saga, for example: The Op acts the part of an outsider who brings the law to a far-flung outpost where ruffians had previously held sway. RedHarvest2.jpg He contends with bootleggers rather than cattle rustlers, and he relies on a flivver instead of a horse to get from place to place; nonetheless, his every move reflects the spirit of frontier justice. Traces of the classic mystery form are evident here as well. Despite his commitment to hard-boiled naturalism, Hammett displays a penchant for abrupt plot twists that reveal unlikely suspects to be surprise killers. Red Harvest originally appeared as a four-part serial in Black Mask magazine, and several times—at what would have been a climactic moment in one of those four segments—the Op manages to pull a trick rabbit out of his snap-brim hat. In each case, the guilty party has committed murder “for a reason,” but that reason isn’t what readers are inclined to expect. With sleight-of-hand plotting of that sort, Hammett pays homage to the very tradition of classic detection that he aims to transcend.

What results is partly a tale of (new) Old West derring-do, partly a clue-laden puzzle story, and partly a study in modern existential sensibility. It is, in addition, a feat of true literary art.

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2014 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. Cat of Many Tails (1949).

This foray into the realm of serial murder stands out for being a departure for an author who typically focused on less anonymous forms of killing. In a postwar New York that feels grittier and more prosaic than the stylized metropolis of the early Queen books, a series of people are found slain by the same method—strangulation with a cord of Indian tussah silk—over the span of just a few weeks. CatManyTails.jpgNo apparent link exists between one victim and another, and the dead hail from every corner of Manhattan and from every rank in society. Tabloid newspapers, eager to exploit popular fear, dub the murderer “the Cat” and liken each victim to a cat’s tail; the escalating number of figurative feline appendages yields a sinister image that captures and discombobulates the collective mind of the city. Gotham authorities enlist Ellery Queen to apprehend the killer and to quell the frenzy, and he succeeds on both fronts, but not before the Cat has grown its ninth tail.

For both Queen the detective and Queen the author, serial murder poses an all-too-obvious challenge: Where motive appear to be absent, as it does here, everyone is a suspect. Or no one is. The author handles that problem ably, in part by deploying well-disguised clues that ultimately point to the motive and hence the identity of the Cat. Equally important, Queen in this outing tilts the narrative emphasis away from the genteel matching of wits between reader and detective—the hallmark of most earlier tales in the Queen cycle—and toward the careful depiction of a world shadowed by the specter of total war. (It’s intriguing to pair this work with another that appeared in the same era: “Here Is New York,” E.B. White’s famous ode to the city. As Queen does in this novel, White celebrates New York in all its quotidian glory, but an acute sense of dread colors his otherwise loving portrait of the place and its people.) Like others who had lived through the 1940s, the men who wrote the Queen books reached the end of that decade with a diminished faith in human rationality. One result of that change of perspective, not just in their work but across the entire genre, was a move toward telling stories in which the mechanics of crime and crime-solving give way to the dynamics of mental and social chaos.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2014 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle

 

RICHARD ALEAS. Little Girl Lost (2004).

The Aleas name is an alias—a nice touch, that. It belongs to Charles Ardai, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, a line of neo-retro paperback originals. (The pseudonym is also an anagram of Ardai’s real name.) This début novel is a product of that line, but it’s hardly a vanity publication. Paying homage to the wise-guy style and grim worldview of mid-20th-century noir fiction, Ardai shrewdly updates an old noir story: A private eye, bent on avenging the murder of a former lover, plunges into a grimy underworld that slowly reveals itself to be a hall of mirrors.LittleGirlLost.jpg The setting is New York City, circa 2003, a place where the hum of cell-phone talk and cable-news chatter threatens to drown out the sweet melody of doom that provides noir characters everywhere with their theme music. In Ardai’s arrangement, though, both the hum and the melody are perfectly audible.

The PI in this rendition of the story, a fresh-faced NYU lit major named John Blake, reads in the Daily News one morning about the killing of a stripper at her place of business, an East Village joint called the Sin Factory. He recognizes her face as well as her name: Miranda Sugerman. Miranda was his high-school sweetheart, and he hasn’t seen her since she went away to college as a pre-med student about ten years ago. How, in one short decade, did she go from such an innocent start to such a squalid end? To retrace her journey, Blake delves into the silicone-inflated stripper subculture, befriends a Sin Factory “professional” who develops a soft spot for him (in a heart that might or might not be of gold), and lands a client in the form of an Armenian-American drug dealer who wants him to find $500,000 in cash that Miranda might have helped to steal. Along the way, as he asks what became of Miranda, Blake ends up wondering what has become of himself.

Sure-handed plotting, clever but not too clever writing, and a classic twist ending—hidden from view by an equally classic diversionary move—make this Hard Case title easy to like.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2014 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

AARON MARC STEIN. Days of Misfortune (1949).

DaysMisfortune.jpgA lack of basic literary art characterizes this modestly sized but long-seeming episode from the casebook of archeologists Tim Mulligan and Elsie Mae Hunt. During a pause in their excavation of Mayan ruins near the secluded town of Mérida, on the Yucatan Peninsula, the pair dig up the recently slain body of an unidentified norteamericano. Because the dig happens to be located alongside the home of their friend and pilot Pablo, and because Pablo happens to have gone missing in the meantime, Mulligan and Hunt decide to embark on a more contemporary sort of excavation. They dig into the peculiar activities of several other American visitors to the area, and buried within the hodgepodge of gringo scheming that they turn up are the rudiments of a solid mystery plot. Likewise, the Mexican scenery and the aura of ancient evil that surrounds the so-called Days of Misfortune—five accursed, monthless days that lie stranded at the end of the Mayan calendar—afford a colorful backdrop that Stein (who also wrote prolifically and somewhat more famously under the name George Bagby) uses effectively at one or two points. Overall, though, he leaves the reader to sort through shards of clumsy exposition, flat characterization, and missed narrative opportunity.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

DAVID FULMER. Chasing the Devil’s Tail (2001).

Someone is murdering the “sporting women” who make the Storyville section of New Orleans what it is. Or, rather, what it was—for the year is 1907. Storyville, a 14-block area that became a district of legally sanctioned vice in 1897, is a thriving hub of morally dubious activity. The fabled “oldest profession in the world” flourishes there, and so does the world’s newest art form, a style of music known as “jass” or “jazz.” (The heyday of the District, as it was known, lasted until 1917. That year, the U.S. Navy deemed it to be a threat to wartime discipline and shut it down.) This tale opens with the killing of one prostitute. Then comes another. And another. And so on. Each homicide takes place in a different Storyville brothel, and the method of murder differs each time as well. The only element that unites these crimes, other than the victim’s mode of employment, is the placement (by the killer, presumably) of a black rose on or near the corpse.

ChasingDevilsTail.jpg

For writers today, especially those who deal in tales of historical crime, the serial murder of fallen women is an evergreen trope. A string of dead whores calls forth the cultural memory of Jack the Ripper, and it makes for a powerful, readymade theme. Yet it’s a theme that, all too often, allows writers and their readers to keep a certain distance from the dark material at hand: The poor “unfortunates” who become murder victims loom as faceless emblems of a benighted time gone by. Fulmer, to his credit, deploys this trope in a nuanced and credible way. Shrewdly, he abandons the common genre practice of using first-person narration, and thus he’s able to offer a sympathetic, God’s-eye view of the women who plied their trade in the mansions of Basin Street and vicinity. He observes, for instance, that they frequently (and understandably) sought comfort and intimacy not from men, but from each other. More generally, Fulmer excels at delivering incisive pen sketches of lived experience. In his authorial care, we come to know—or believe that we know—what it felt like, and sounded like, and smelled like, to stroll the banquettes of the Vieux Carré in the early years of a new century.

Writerly flair also gives Fulmer an edge when it comes to populating the tale with actual personages of that time and place. That standard technique of historical fiction can result in awkward efforts to blend historical truth with fictional truth. (It can be especially problematic in a detective story: Readers know that such “real” characters aren’t plausible murder suspects.) But Fulmer has a deft way of bringing into his narrative such people as Tom Anderson, the so-called King of Storyville; E.J. Bellocq, a photographer whose portraits of Storyville prostitutes form a powerful, haunting record of those women and their milieu; the fabled whorehouse madams Lulu White and “French” Emma Johnson; and, most centrally, the cornet player Buddy Bolden—a titanic presence in the early history of jazz and also, in Fulmer’s telling, a tragic figure who was essentially driven insane by his own talent.

Another emissary from the history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, offers the bit of aphoristic wisdom that provides a title for the book: “You best be careful if you go chasin’ the devil’s tail, ’cause you just might catch it.” Fulmer has Morton spout that line to Valentin St. Cyr, the fictional sleuth who has star billing here. BellocqPhoto.jpgSt. Cyr, half African and half Italian by descent, functions ably in the half-lit, half-legal world of the District. Employed as an enforcer and problem solver by Anderson, and by some of the savvier Storyville madams, he is just the right fellow to launch a hunt for the “devil” who’s terrorizing the Crescent City.

That hunt, unfortunately, isn’t as compelling as it might be. Readers have scant opportunity to follow St. Cyr in working through a set of clues, because real clues are thin on the ground. (That black-rose motif? It never amounts to much.) There’s a big, stinky red herring: Each of the slain women had a clear connection to Bolden, and Bolden conspicuously lacks an alibi for each murder. There’s a long, anguished, but essentially empty quest by St. Cyr to find an alternative explanation for the killings. (St. Cyr, a boyhood friend of cornet player, never harbors any doubt as to Bolden’s innocence.) Finally, there’s a flash of insight that leads the detective to discern the unlikely suspect who is, in fact, the culprit. Fulmer, though, does little to set the stage for that epiphany. Some readers will be able to guess at least part of the solution, but only because there are only a few directions in which the story can go. Chasing the Devil’s Tail, in short, is a tale in which the chase has far greater resonance than the moment of capture.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2014 in American, Historical, Novel