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 …