First things first – though originally published under the ‘Ellery Queen’ byline, this novel was actually written by Edward D. Hoch. It proved to be the last of a series of paperback originals that used the pseudonym but in which the Queen character did not in fact appear (Hoch coincidentally also ghosted ‘The Reindeer Clue’, the last official short story featuring the Queen character). The protagonist instead is the Washington governor’s ‘troubleshooter’ Micah “Mike” McCall, here dallying with feminists while hot on the trail of a notorious stag film.
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, this week hosted by Evan Lewis at his Davy Crockett’s Almanack blog.
“Think like a man, drink like a man. That’s the only way to get anywhere in this world, McCall”
The troubleshooter series went as follows:
- The Campus Murder (1969) [ghosted by Gil Brewer]
- The Black Hearts Murder (1970) [ghosted by Richard Deming]
- The Blue Movie Murders (1972) [ghosted by Edward D. Hoch]
In the early 1960s the already fractious collaboration between cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the creators of Ellery Queen, effectively broke apart. Dannay would plot new adventures featuring the Queen character, which would then be fleshed out into novels by such ‘ghost’ collaborators as Theodore Sturgeon (once) and Avram Davidson (three times); Lee instead worked on a series of nearly thirty paperback originals that appeared under the Queen pseudonym but which did not feature the eponymous character. These were mostly written in collaboration with Richard Deming and Talmage Powell as well as the likes of Henry Kane, Gil Brewer and Jack Vance (whose The Madman Theory I previously reviewed here). As The Blue Movie Murders was completed after Lee’s death, it was the only one of the series to be edited by Dannay instead.
“Mike, if I want prestige, I invite Governor Holland himself. If I want trouble I invite you.”
The ‘troubleshooter’ series, presumably named in the same vein as the ‘Executioner’ books launched at around the same time, all featured Mike McCall and was designed as a continuing range of suspense yarns built around topical themes. All published by Lancer Books (though the second, following some legal hassles, appeared under their briefly used ‘Magnum Books’ moniker), the series was curtailed by Lee’s death and only ran to a total of three books. The first dealt with student unrest; the second with urban terrorism and racial tension featuring a thinly veiled variation on the Black Panthers; and the third with women’s lib, labour relations, racism, pornography, and the new ‘permissive society’.
“You’d object to Snow White“
“Damn right I would! Doing housework for all those dwarfs!”
Ben B. Sloane is a big shot Hollywood producer found dead in a motel in Rockview, a small town on the outskirts of the State currently in the grip of union strife at the local film processing plant owned by Xavier Mann, its richest and most powerful citizen. Indeed this really is a company town, one entirely in Mann’s pocket – even the Mayor is an ex-employee of the plant. Sloane was trying to track down Sol Dahlman, who twenty years earlier had directed The Wild Nymph, an erotic film that had achieved the status of an underground classic and which the producer thought was actually a work of genius – and which, possibly, had been shot at the plant circa 1950. Sloane had sent letters ahead of his arrival offering a reward for information on Dahlman to some of its most prominent citizens (including Mann), so perhaps he was killed by someone wishing to keep their past in the skin flick business a secret. With pornography hot on the agenda – thanks to the efforts of activist Cynthia Forrest, currently picketing the Governor’s mansion - McCall is dispatched to clear things up, much to the ire of the local sheriff as well as the striking workers at the plant, who believe he has been sent to break them up.
“McCall felt the sleeping animal within him waking at the scenes of lust intermingled with the touches of poetry and true romance”
He is treated much better however by April Evans, a mysterious young woman running her own investigation who refuses to explain her presence there. Things soon hot up when Forrest arrives doing what she does best – inflaming an already incendiary situation, with the press already in place to report on Sloane’s murder. And then there is of course the film itself, which McCall finally gets to see and ends up really admiring. This is a book that today, despite the apparently salacious subject matter, would probably have to be marketed to a Young Adult readership. It’s not just that it lacks sophistication but there is something almost childish and rudimentary about its language, which is remarkably simple and almost completely free of any naughty words (I counted one mild expletive). The little social homilies are rammed home with all the subtlety of a fairground barker while the characterisation is (literally and figuratively) basic and black and white. Even our macho and unreconstructed hero remains resolutely one-dimensional and absurdly clean-cut – but then all the character motivation is utterly bog-standard and one-note throughout. Which is not to say that McCall doesn’t let some real howlers through at times – for instance:
“Unlike some of the women’s lib supporters, who flaunted their masculine-lesbian tendencies, Cynthia Rhodes was all woman”
Oh boy! See what he did there? ‘O tempora, o mores’ indeed (though good luck finding anyone who would know a Cicero quotation in this book). In the end a surprise villain is unmasked (it is only a mild surprise and that because the motive is pretty thin) and the identity of the film director also revealed in an admittedly amusing little fillip in the final chapter. This then is a minor work, competently written and plotted but which ultimately adds little in the way of luster to either the canons of ‘Ellery Queen’ or Ed Hoch. At best though it is a fascinating footnote, full of the strangeness that was the tail end of the sixties as one tries to fathom what was going through the mind of the people who produced it and what potential readership they thought they were aiming it at. In this sense at least it makes for bizarre if occasionally intriguing reading for its depiction of a society whose WASP values at the time were clearly perceived by some as being permanently under threat, with McCall regularly having to dispense words of wisdom to the less enlightened people surrounding him before he goes and does some macho thing or other.