DEADLY WEAPON (1946) by Wade Miller

Miller-Deadly-Weapon-signet-pb_cropBill Miller and Bob Wade made their debut as novelists with this highly distinctive mystery that opens with a stabbing in the back row of a San Diego burlesque house. The victim was a fan of Shasta Lynn, the strip-tease star who was bumping and grinding to a packed audience at the time of the murder. Homicide detective Austin Clapp, Atlanta private eye Walter James and eye-witness Laura Gilbert have to solve the case.

I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘Staging the Crime’ category and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott, which today is being hosted by B.V. Lawson over at her In Reference to Murder blog.

“Are they always this confusing?” Laura Gilbert asked. “Murders, I mean.”

James has come to San Diego to see Fernando Solez, who worked front of house at the theatre but left his post every night to see Lynn’s act. Laura Gilbert had been sitting near Solez in the theatre and thinks someone may have sat next to him during the show at the fateful moment but can’t be sure. The cast of the review, from the lead comic with the many amorous pursuits, the buxom stripper with the surprising lack of a visible sex life, the voluble theatre manager and the stagehand who keep turning up in unexpected places, form a useful if predictable cast of suspects (and red herrings) but thankfully the expected backstage bitchiness and mini dramas are dispensed Miller-Deadly-Weapon-penguin648with fairly early on. Right from the start the cool but voluptuous Lynn is clearly hiding something and James is sure there is something ‘wrong’ about her, though he can’t quite put his finger on it. But there are secret motives aplenty here, even for fresh-faced Laura, who in an odd touch likes to be called by her middle name, ‘Kevin’ (a bit like Lauren Bacall being referred to as ‘Slim’ in the To Have and Have Not movie, I suppose). She is only 19, seemingly innocent and virginal but still won’t say what she was doing at the burlesque house. James takes her under his wing all the same and escorts out of the theatre – as they reach the street someone takes a pot shot at them and nicks her ear. But was she the real target?

“There are times when redheads should be seen and not heard.”

James, a prototypical hardboiled PI who quickly turns the head of raven-haired Kevin, continues his own investigation in parallel with the police (more or less with the connivance of the smart and surprisingly sympathetic Clapp) and come across as credibly tough (he is clearly attracted to Kevin but also happy to manipulate her to get closer to her father). He Miller-Deadly-Weapon-signetfinds evidence that Solez was involved in a dope smuggling racket out of Mexico and that the local drug connection may have a link between Kevin’s father and Shasta, whose ‘oddness’ is eventually revealed in a way that is likely to offend modern readers. Similarly, the book has the characters express some thoroughly questionable (well, reprehensible in fact) attitudes in terms of race and gender (there are references to jigs, brown boys, etc.). As so often with vintage publications, we are left with having to consider whether the views, ascribed only via dialogue to various characters, are being reinforced or condoned by the authors – or if they are merely used as plausible and realistic comments from people in a particular time and place.

“They’re dikes. Dikey as all hell.”

In terms of character and plot, given that this was freshman offering from two young authors still in their mid 20s, the influences are fairly easy to discern, most notably from the then two masters of the private eye novel: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. James is certainly patterned after Sam Spade from Hammett’s 1930 masterpiece The Maltese Falcon. James we learn is on the revenge path after Hal, the partner in his private investigating business, has been shot and killed (and there is even a hint that, like Sam Spade, James was rather attracted to Ethel, the man’s wife, who is also missing and presumed dead). James comes to San Diego with a lead pointing to the now dead Solez and a business card on the dead man’s body leads to a mysterious doctor, a drug-dealing quack with a line in mesmerism. This is almost exactly how the very similar Miller-Deadly-Weapon-prologuecharacter of Jules Amthor appears in Chandler’s 1940 Marlowe novel, Farewell, My Lovely. So what we have here is not an especially original novel in some respects – and probably not as memorable as some of the team’s subsequent Max Thursday series (in which Clapp also appears incidentally) either. But don’t let this put you off because it has some great things in it. The novel is very smoothly put together and has some great touches of humour in the dialogue (especially between James and Clapp) – and  really does have some genuine claim to originality, though really I can’t talk about it – yup, that’s right, it has a sensational surprise ending … indeed Ed Hoch praised it for “an ending unique in the private eye genre.”

I originally included this book in my (still evolving) list of Top 100 Mystery Books and it probably still deserves to be there. There is plenty of action, on both sides of the Mexican border, and as the bodies pile up (there will be nine by the end) we have several mysteries to explain – what happened to the wife of James’ partner, who stabbed Solez, who is the black widow stalking Kevin and who is the mysterious drug kingpin, Dr Boone? All is revealed with great skill in the final showdown in the burlesque house where it all began. Told at great speed (the action all takes place between a Saturday and he following Miller-Deadly-Weapon-hbThursday), this is certainly a great page-turner.  The use of spicy racial epithets does knock a star off the final score for me however (hell, Hammett and Chandler managed to get by without using such terms unthinkingly). Julian Symons also praised this book very highly and it remains a superbly plotted private eye yearn with a twist ending that will still surprise most readers – a very neat trick. 

A detailed profile of the team, and an interview with the late Robert Wade (who was still hard at work aged 92 writing book reviews for the San Diego Union-Tribune) can be found over at the Mystery File website: www.mysteryfile.com/Wade/Miller.html.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Dashiell Hammett, Private Eye, San Diego, Scene of the crime, Wade Miller. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to DEADLY WEAPON (1946) by Wade Miller

  1. Sergio – I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I must admit, the racism and other -isms would probably get to me, but when you have a really well-plotted novel with a well-drawn setting, it’s hard to completely discount a book on that score. Well, for the most part anyway… I’m not surprised this one shows both Chandler’s influence since among other things, he was based in Southern California. A great review as ever, for which thanks.

  2. Colin says:

    Sounds interesting. I’m going to have a look around for this one.

  3. I really like the review. I would usually not go for a book which seems in the James-Hadley mode but maybe this one will be the exception.

  4. I’ve enjoyed all the Wade Miller novels I’ve read including this one. I have the Signet edition that appears first in your fine review. These Wade Miller slim books compare favorably to the Gold Medal series that I’m so fond of.

    • Thanks George – we’ve got the same edition then as that is a scan of my copy (bought, I think, from the late lamented San Francisco Mystery Bookstore back in the 80s).

      • Todd Mason says:

        Ah, but which Signet? The first or the even more photo-realist second? Notable that the Penguin abstract, much less the latter-day reprint, aren’t even patches on the original sensationalist packages.

        Yes, one usually does have to stop to think about the usages, and their shock value vs. their default assumptions and to what extent new freedoms of language were being employed…

        Fine review. You do have me wondering about that un-overused-since ending…

        • Todd Mason says:

          Ah, still asleep…you both have the first NAL cover.

          • And good morning Todd mate … And do you know, didn’t realise that Signet and the likes of Onyx, Obsidian etc. were all subsidiaries of NAL – thanks for that, as always chum.

        • Thanks Todd – very fair points you raise about the changing styles (and the Penguin is rather good, isn’t it) – and yes, you could argue that George and I did not go for the subtlest cover on offer … In my case it was probably the cheapest! But I do like it a lot as it says quite a bit about the book’s POV, on which the ending does to some extent rely.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Oddly, I’d say I actually prefer the Signet covers to the Penguin, which is a not-bad but not inspired abstract in this case.

            Yup…NAL, which these days is a stablemate of Penguin in the conglomerate game, diversified their line with many brands over the decades…Mentor being the second important one after Signet, and Signet Classics being an important part of my early reading at least…Onyx being a much later example of offshooting…

          • Fascinating stuff Todd, truly – I had no idea just how many tentacles the Penguin group now had!

  5. Todd Mason says:

    I couldn’t remember if it was Bantam or NAL which directly budded from Penguin USA originally, but the web pages suggest it was NAL…while Ian Ballantine went from Penguin, to Bantam, to Ballantine and onwards, throughout his career, soon in tandem with Betty Ballantine…

    • I try not to think of this too much as a thing of the past (and not being an e-reader yet does make it simpler) but when I used to visit the US in the 80s and early 90s I used to love trying to track all the various publishers and imprints, big and small, that seemed to have proliferated so rapidly in the postwar boom and I used to just love having a fistful of paperbacks and just look in admiration at the various house styles – now mass market paperbacks mostly look the same to me …

  6. Richard says:

    I’m continually puzzled by the difficulty people seem to have with authors using the language of their time. Of course it’s always the “sensitive” words and phrases, the ones that were in later years deemed derogatory, that get the attention. No one minds a bit if a gun is referred to as a “rod” or “gat”. Even words that at the time were simply considered descriptive (redskin, darkie) are now unacceptable and shocking. I wish people would simply accept that words, like clothes, went with the times and are part of them.

    As for the book, I think I may have read it decades ago, it looks familiar, but I have no memory of specifics that even your fine review could shake loose in my memory.

    • Hi Richard – thanks for that. I do think there is a bit of a difference between historical terms that have changed meaning (like ‘gay’) and the use of racial and homophobic terms as insults – it may have been more common at the time perhaps, and must be acknowledged, but not everyone thought and wrote that way after all. I completely agree though that to impose modern standards on historical works is not always profitable and makes it hard to learn from the past. In the case of this book, Wade and Miller were I think looking to spice their book up with provocative ideas and language and probably betrays their inexperience as authors more than anythign else. Thanks again for the feedback.

  7. Kelly says:

    Great review, but I think I’m most pleased to encounter your evolving top 100 list. As a newer reader of your blog, it’s new to me. I was pleased to see some of my favorites on there.

  8. TracyK says:

    I am sure I am repeating myself, but I would get these books just for the old paperback editions. I think I would like reading this. Always like to try a vintage author if I can track the books down eventually. So thanks for alerting me to this.

    • I’m with you 100% on this TracyK – the look of a paperback is half the fun (and it was fun carrying my edition with the stripper on the cover on my way to work in the mornings …).

  9. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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