This was the second, and last, of the novels featuring private detective Jim Sader published under her ‘Dolores Hitchens’ byline by Julia Clara Catharine Dolores Birk Olsen Hitchens (1907–1973), who also wrote as D. B. Olsen, Dolan Birkley and Noel Burke. Nearly 30 years ago Bill Pronzini famously called Sleep with Slander, “the best hard-boiled private-eye novel written by a woman – and one of the best written by anybody.” How does it stand up today, especially given its difficult subject – violence against children?
I offer this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Do you mean,” Sader said, “that you abandoned him? That none of you offered him a home? you left him there in that condemned house with an old woman who hadn’t even been paid for keeping him? With nothing to eat?”
Long Beach private investigator Jim Sader is hired by Hale Gibbings, the unpleasant and arrogant but prosperous senior partner in a long-established architectural firm. The task is to find a missing child, one that according to an anonymous letter is being mistreated. Gibbings’ motives are unclear however, insisting that he be kept out of the investigation to safeguard his family’s reputation – his daughter Katheryn was unwed when she had her child 5 years earlier, the father having died while she was pregnant, so he insisted she give it up for adoption to the well-to-do Mr and Mrs Champlain. But he has lost track of the family and the letter has unexpectedly stirred unwelcome feelings of regret and perhaps even guilt in the way he separated his daughter from her only child.
“Don’t tell me that a horned toad of your age and disposition is taking up philanthropy.”
Sader has some serious misgivings (and he’s right as his client is being very far from forthcoming about the real situation) but is driven by a desire to save an innocent from any more harm. He contacts Wendy Nevins, a high-living glamourpuss who arranged the original introduction to the Champlains but she is evasive and unhelpful, a pattern that continues to reassert itself, with no one really wanting to help. Mr Champlain it turns out died in an air crash and shortly afterwards his wife Tina picked up sticks, abandoned all her old friends and family and started anew – leading to Brent Perrine, who was planning to marry her and who confirms that Tina dies in a boating accident and that he has no idea where the child, Ricky, is.
“Believe me, Mr Sader, you’re working in the dark”
Sader knows that Brent and his drunken father Ralph are hiding something and needs to figure out if it’s the same thing that Wanda is also keeping from him. It then emerges that the large insurance payout following Mr Champlain’s death may have made Ricky very rich – is that why someone is hanging on to him? And why did Tina pay the hefty deposit on Wanda’s house for her – was she being blackmailed? When Wanda and one of her scary attack dogs are murdered and Sader is placed at the scene by an anonymous call to the police, the race to find Ricky becomes even tighter, leading to a memorable sequence in a secluded cabin built in the shadow of huge statues sculpted in the style of the Easter island monoliths.
“I’m full as hell of similes but I can’t figure worth a hoot.”
Hitchens does a superb job of making Sader a knight errant very much in the idealistic Philip Marlowe mould, a credible moral centre for the story, the only one who really cares about a child he has never even met. A fifty-year-old man with only a couple of hundred dollars in the bank, no family and a propensity towards drinking he is having to keep in check, his frustration at the endless series of hurdles that he encounters is well handled, as is his rising fear for the child’s safety and his anger that nobody else really seems to care about his. There are plenty of big twists, including a real doozy at the halfway mark, and a surprise villain that is very well concealed, though I will admit that I found their motivations for their actions to be somewhat contrived at times.
The book can’t boast the poetic and descriptive flourishes of Chandler’s prose, the rich characterisation of Hammett or the incredibly complicated plot circumlocutions of Ross Macdonald – but does, none the less deserve, to be placed with such exalted company as this is a very fine detective novel, with a complex but rewarding plot on an unusual theme, impressive lead character and a good twist at the finale. In its concern for the young and the theme of the uncovered past is particularly reminiscent of Macdonald at his best and, I am glad to say, never seems exploitative in its use of a child in jeopardy. If you are a fan of private detective stories and you haven’t read this one yet, then you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as you can – you won’t regret it.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘had to borrow’ category: