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Category Archives: American

WALTER MOSLEY. Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).

In his début work, Mosley embraces many of the stylistic trappings and plot devices that define the Southern California private-eye adventure. And he adds a decisive twist: His hero, Easy Rawlins, is black. The case starts when a white man named DeWitt Albright—a slippery fellow whose motives are dubious but whose cash is quite real—hires Rawlins to locate a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s a white woman, Albright explains, but she “has a predilection for the company of Negroes.” DevilBlueDress.jpg Little by little, an apparently straightforward skip-trace job draws Rawlins into a vast whirlpool of corruption, and he will need to work fast and smart in order to escape the ordeal with his life, and with a remnant of his dignity. Broadly speaking, then, Rawlins confronts practical and existential challenges that would be familiar to any number of fictional gumshoes. Yet he isn’t just another lone knight on the model of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Along with his dark skin, Rawlins bears a dark outlook that reflects his position in American society. He has meaner streets to ply than his white counterparts do, and the dangerous women who cross his path are all the more dangerous because they (most of them, at any rate) are on the other side of the color line from him. Rawlins had known violence and tasted freedom during the Second World War—the action takes place in 1948—and he has come home to find that in postwar Los Angeles violence is all too common and freedom is all too rare. By offering a stark glimpse into the mind and spirit of Rawlins as he carves out a life in that time and that place, Mosley elevates the tale above most works that follow in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald

The plot, however, exhibits the kinds of defects that often mar the hard-boiled form: It’s ridiculously complex, and it relies more on frenetic action than on thoughtful detection. As if to obscure the lack of clues that he provides, Mosley serves up a half-dozen corpses; in effect, he substitutes a process of elimination for one of investigation. As a result, in a reversal of what the best detective novels offer, the buildup proves more compelling than the payoff.

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

 

HOWARD BROWNE. Halo for Satan (1948).

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. HaloSatan.jpg 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.)

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

ELLERY QUEEN. Double, Double (1950).

DoubleDouble.jpgDid Queen the author tire of Queen the detective and come to despise him, much as Arthur Conan Doyle became wearily contemptuous of Sherlock Holmes? True, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (the men behind the Queen pseudonym) never tried to do away with Ellery—unlike Doyle, who took the drastic, albeit reversible, step of killing his brainchild in print. But in several novels from late in their career, including this one, they subjected their sleuth to a fate arguably worse than death: They made him dangerously incompetent. In this outing, seven dead bodies pile up before Ellery, who narrowly misses becoming the eighth, sees the light and nabs the killer. Until then, he stumbles in the dark, unable to comprehend why anyone would commit murder to the tune of an old nursery rhyme, the one that goes (in the American version used here) “Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.” In answer to that question, Queen the author devises a plot of surpassing and largely satisfying complexity. All the same, he (or “he”) forgets that most detective novel readers are looking for more than a puzzle that they can’t hope to solve. In addition, they want to follow the exploits of a sleuth who can solve it.

[ADDENDUM: Several of my recent posts, including this one, stem from an effort to dredge up old notes on books that I read a decade or more ago. Although I’ve spruced up these notes somewhat, they stand as remnants from a time when approached reviewing detective fiction—and, indeed, reading detective fiction—differently from how I do now. For one thing, these older reviews are shorter. I drafted them before I created Only Detect and before I aspired to do more than jot down a brief “note to self.” For another thing, they reflect a single-minded focus on how an author sets and solves a puzzle. Today, I admire a fine corkscrew plot as much as ever, but I’m also inclined to celebrate other attributes that cause a detective novel to succeed or fail.]

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2018 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER. The Long Goodbye (1953).

This is quite a long book, as detective novels go—longer than it needs to be, but not longer than it should be. Viewed from the perspective of narrative economy, it contains a great deal of waste. There are scenes that extend for a beat or two (or three or four) more than is necessary, and scenes that hardly seem necessary at all. It’s a loose and shaggy affair, with a generous supply of Chandleresque lyricism but without the staccato narrative drive that marks the author’s best earlier tales (and, interestingly, with fewer dazzling similes than his most devoted readers might expect). It is, of course, a lavish bid by Chandler to combine a standard private-eye caper with a straight literary novel. As a detective novel, it’s much less tightly woven than it could have been. As a study of mood, of character, of modern social life, it lacks a clear sense of focus. Unlike The Big Sleep, this work doesn’t create a template that other writers could (and did) eagerly follow. It’s a one-off accomplishment. Yet, even so, it’s a real accomplishment.

LongGoodbye.jpgAs in a traditional detective story, specific problems that involve concrete events are what drive the investigative action. What happened in the guesthouse of the Encino estate where the heiress Sylvia Lennox joined the ranks of the naked and the dead? (She was found there without clothes and with her face smashed in by a bronze statuette.) What happened in the hotel room in Otatoclán, a remote Mexican town, where Terry Lennox passed his final days? What happened in the writer’s den of the Idle Valley house where Roger Wade died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot on a lazy, lonely Southern California afternoon? Philip Marlowe arrives at answers to these questions—but only after following a convoluted series of deductions (some accurate, some not) and confessions (some true, some false),

Marlowe also explores a murkier problem: What makes people tick? And what sometimes causes a spring to snap inside them? Many scenes in the book appear to exist only to cast light—sometimes harsh and sometime mellow—on Marlowe’s relationships with the Lennoxes, the Wades, and a few others in the same upscale social set. Chandler indicates that Marlowe is 42 years old when the events here take place, but he confers on his otherwise robust hero an outlook that’s typical of late middle age. (When he wrote the book, Chandler was past 60.) The tone is one of dyspepsia and disappointment, and the perspective is that of a man who has seen the bottom of too many glasses of whiskey. For Chandler, a craving for booze is both the most predictable cause and the most telling symptom of a human spirit that has gone sour. In The Long Goodbye, he manages the rare feat of making alcoholism (a very dull subject, in the main) a convincingly integral trait of two superbly drawn characters. By implication, he sketches an effective portrait of another alcoholic man: himself.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle

 

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