The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the letter Q, and my second nomination this week is …
A QUEER KIND OF DEATH by George Baxt
“I loved the boy,” she cackled, “but he did need murdering.”
Before making his accomplished debut as a novelist with this seductively unorthodox whodunit, George Baxt had already established himself as a scriptwriter of several modestly effective British thrillers and horror movies. The best of these include three notable collaborations with producer Julian Wintle and director Sidney Hayers: Circus of Horrors (1959), Payroll (1961), from the novel by Derek Bickerton, and Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn) (1962), a fine adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 classic take of modern witchcraft ‘Conjure Wife’ and which Baxt was asked to rewrite following attempts by such noted authors as Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson (all three would ultimately share on-screen credit). Baxt’s background as a screenwriter, and as a supplier of gossip to Walter Winchell back in his days as an agent in New York in the 1950s, are well in evidence in A Queer Kind of Death, which made a considerable splash when it first appeared.
Probably the book’s best review, and the one emblazoned on many a reprints, was the one by Anthony Boucher in the New York Times where, inter alia, he said:
“This is a detective story, and unlike any other that you have read. No brief review can attempt to convey its quality. I merely note that it deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality, that staid readers may well find it “shocking”, that it is beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit … and that you must under no circumstances miss it.”
Superficially this a very traditional mystery with a cast of eccentric and volatile characters from New York’s high society drawn along very familiar lines – there’s the elderly recluse who knows more than she’s saying, the aging socialite desperate to hang to youth by any means necessary, the wise cracking bar owner, the failed author, a resentful spinster and so on – and all they have in common, apart from their own venality, is that they all had motive enough to want the murder victim dead. To cap it all, the crime is solved by an intelligent cop with all the suspects reunited at a climactic party – but despite appearances to the contrary, this is defiantly not The Thin Man.
The protagonist is Seth Spiro, a writer with a few TV scripts and two commercially unsuccessful novels to his name – he is separated from his wife Virginia, a literary editor who eviscerated her husband’s first book and who seems unable to let him go, despite leaving her for another man. That man is Ben Bentley, a small time model who exploited his own sister to gain access to the narcotics at the hospital where she works as part of a nasty sideline in drug importation when not bedding a succession of lovers (male and female) to fuel his more onerous obligations as a heavy-duty blackmailer – and despite his natural charm and rampant sexual charisma, someone has killed him. Ben was found dead in his bath, electrocuted when his radio fell into the tub …
“Such a tragic way to die … Electrocution! And just when its been outlawed by the state.”
This is a brilliantly funny and unexpected novel, campy and bitchy at one moment and then soulful and introspective shortly afterwards. Its depiction of the 1960s gay scene in the Big Apple may or may not be accurate but it is described with relish, intelligence and wit but with no traces of sentiment or special pleading. This is especially true of its detective, the hip black inspector Pharoah Love who calls everyone ‘cat’ and who is always at least one step ahead of the crowd but whose love affair with Seth is described with great tenderness. Love would be the central character in four further novels published by Baxt over the course of nearly thirty years.
This book may have been going deliberately against the grain but with its deft characterisation and clever plotting there is never any real sense of strain or that it is having to make an effort to explain a social milieu which only some of its readers would have recognised. Baxt’s experience as a writer of screenplays does mean that he sometimes cuts abruptly from one scene to another, and then back again, occasionally disrupting the flow of the narrative as one would in a movie. Occasionally this dilutes the intimacy of a more sustained point of view as we share, for instance, both sides of a telephone conversation – but on the other hand, Baxt also uses this technique to great effect so as to craftily hide clues in plain sight.
With its outlandish characters, fiendishly clever plot (there are two stunning surprises sprung within just a few pages of each other at the end) and a detective in Pharoah Love truly like no other, this is an utterly sui generis experience – truly a classic of its kind and quite unforgettable. Miss it at your peril.
One of the few detailed profiles of Baxt and his work can be found over at Brook Peters’ An Open Book blog.
The saga of Pharoah Love continues in Swing Low Sweet Chariot (1967), to be reviewed here in a couple of weeks …
Boucher’s comment that the book “deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality” is pretty funny to me these days. I love those sweeping generalizations about subcultures. As if there aren’t other more instantly recognizable subcultures “wholly devoid or ethics or morality.” How about Capitol Hill in Washington DC? ;^D
I love these books. Great review – especially in talking about Pharoah and Seth. Thanks for bringing them to the attention of the masses. Have you read all of them? After Topsy and Evil (#3) Baxt returned to the saga in the 1990s (when gay books were much easier to get published) with two more: A Queer Kind of Love and A Queer Kind of Umbrella.
Hello John and thanks very much indeed for the kind words. Although Boucher championed all kinds of books that might not have otherwise made it to the mainstream, there is a distinct feeling here that he is trying to cover all bases and pre-empt what was perceived as a potentially dismissive response – which is fairly transparent and presumably would have been them to. So A for effort, but a D for execution perhaps …
I will tell you, compared with my blog entry on QUILLER, our man Love is so far not getting a lot of attention on this particular blog, so further Baxt proselytizing is clearly required! I plan to review TOPSY directly after SWING LOW but I have not in fact read the final 2 ‘Love’ books that Baxt published in the 90s and have no idea what they’re like other than from secondary sources (which tend to be less than complimentary). How do you rate them overall? I just got the DOROTHY PARKER book and hope to get to that shortly. I also plan on doing a short review of PAYROLL which is easily obtainable in the UK in an excellent DVD transfer (no extra, but it looks fantastic given the vintage and its relative obscurity as a medium budget crime melo). The least I can do for such a fine author!
An interesting post, and I’m surprised to see a positive take on George Baxt. I read “The Affair at Royalties” and hated it. It infuriated me so much, it wound up as the catalyst to start my blogging career. I was particularly angry that I spent money on it, and another Baxt (“The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case”), and they both seemed to have the same level of intelligence in their satire. (My opinion of “Hitchcock” is based on the opening two pages, but I recognized everything I hated about the other book.)
Did I just catch Baxt on a bad day? Well, I sure hope so. The book I read was atrocious in every way- you have now successfully made me doubt my conclusion that Baxt had no talent. But at the same time, I doubt I’ll read more of ol’ Georgie. Why? Well, here’s an interesting (and entirely true) story: “The Affair at Royalties” began O.K., but at the 40 page mark, its quality sharply declined for the rest of the novel. At that 40 page mark, I put the book down, and that very night, I was severely ill (I won’t go into details here). While science may scoff at the notion that a book induced this illness, it makes for an interesting theory.
Overall, excellent post, despite my skepticism that Baxt could have written anything worthwhile.
Hello Patrick, welcome, and thank you for your contribution to what I hope will be a long and fruitful dialogue!
I do sincerely believe that reading A QUEER KIND OF DEATH, with its great cast of oddball characters and clever plot may be able to cure a great many ailments … but cannot in truth comment of ROYALTIES as I have not read that one! You are not alone in picking that volume as being inferior Baxt however as a number of writers have also marked it down. I plan on blogging on several more Baxt titles over the next few weeks – it’ll be interesting what reactions this throws up.
Thanks for the kind welcome. If you don’t mind my asking, where else have you seen comments on “Royalties” labelling it inferior? I was unable to discover anything about it when I searched the wonderful world of Google.
Consider me a reader from now on- I’ll be sure to check in when you next offer your perspective on Baxt!
Having previously blogged on my favourite crime & mystery encyclopedias and resources, I thought I should check them to see what they had to say on this particular Baxt. I find that Ashley, Reilly, DeAndrea and Murphy, while writing very, very positive appraisals of Baxt’s work in general, ignore ROYALTIES completely, so I suspect I inferred a criticism there.
Hello Patrick – I’ll see if I can get a few quotes for you when I get home. Online there are a few negative comments to be found, most especially this massively negative one, which of course you are well acquainted with: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCchdq6NBn4.
I’ve read several Pharaoh Love books and was wondering when someone would write about Baxt’s ulta-cool, ultra-hip, leading man. I should have done so on my blog, but truth be told, it’s been a while since I read them and I couldn’t remember much about the books except that I was very fond of them and also that one had an ending which was a very pleasant surprise. I’ve often wondered why no one has attempted to make these into films, but silly me.
These books do deserve all the attention they can get. Maybe it’s time for me to re-read. 🙂
Hi Yvette, glad to meet another Baxt fancier – I only have the initial trilogy from the 1960s but re-reading QUEER KIND OF DEATH was a great experience as it was just as good as I remembered it, which seems rarely to be the case for me I must admit.
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