Bill 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 with 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 finds 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 character 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 Thursday), 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.