SLEEP WITH SLANDER (1960) by Dolores Hitchens

Hitchens_Sleep-with-Slander_ssThis 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.”

Hitchens_Sleep-with-Slander_pocketSader 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:

vintage-silver-marked-card-xxi

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

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This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Bill Pronzini, Los Angeles, Private Eye, Ross Macdonald and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to SLEEP WITH SLANDER (1960) by Dolores Hitchens

  1. Sergio – It certainly seems to have all the hallmarks of a fine thriller. It is hard to be fair, I somethings think, when one’s in company like Chandler and Hammett. Still, I like the premise, and the characters seem nicely noir too. An excellent review as always, and something to put on my list, methinks.

  2. neer says:

    I agree with Margot: the premise is very interesting. Will definitely search for this book. Thanks Sergio.

  3. Colin says:

    A new one for me. I agree with the previous comments – it sounds quite enticing.

    • Well worth getting Colin – I admit, I was put off by Pronzini having to say it was the best by a woman, but I suppoes in the 40s and 50s there were very few that werre trying the traditional Private eye genre – but if you like Ross Macdonald, then you will really like this.

      • Colin says:

        Duly noted. You seem to be featuring a lot of female authors recently (good for you) and it’s an area I really ought to expand on for myself.

        • Rumbled! Yes, I promised myself that I would try a lot more women authors, especially as so many new ones had been recommended to me of late – plenty more to land on these shores, I promise.

  4. I read SLEEP WITH SLANDER long ago and became an instant Dolores Hitchens fan. She’s a very underrated writer. Hopefully, your fine review will entice some new readers to read her wonderful mysteries!

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    The book is out of print. Only used copies are available.

  6. Richard says:

    I’d seen the Pronzini quote, but haven’t read the book, which seems to mostly deal with apathy on the part of everyone but the P.I. Maybe someday.

  7. Absolutely fascinating Sergio – the name sounds familiar, but I don’t think I’ve read her. I just looked at her list of titles: real hard-boiled stuff. Will look out for this or another by her.

  8. Yvette says:

    Great title. Never heard of it before. (No big surprise there.) But you’ve made this sound like a book I want to read, Sergio. If I can get my hands on it, I definitely will. Thanks, kiddo. 🙂

  9. John says:

    “Only used copies available” As if that’s everyone’s last resort these days. Ugh. This is one definitely worth reprinting. Anyone listening out there? I’m out of the indie press world and can’t help in this regard anymore. Me and Raven’s Head Press have parted ways. Don’t even ask. (…grumble, grumble…)

    Nice to see this book highlighted, Sergio. And done so perspicaciously too! ;^) Pronzini’s write-up in 1001 Midnights got me to seek out a copy. And now I have two! One in the Blue Murder reprint at the top of your post. The other is one of my prizes — a copy of the Bloodhound edition from TV Boardman just like the one you posted in the comment section.

    • I do really like that cover for the Bloodhound edition as it does picture probably the most visually arresting sequence int he novel – Oh damn, John, really sorry to hear about the parting of the ways with Raven’s Head (planning to close out my Golden challenge with the Masur in fact), what a shame.

  10. Good choice and review, Sergio. While I’m with everyone above about looking for a used copy of this and the other Jim Sader book, I’m pretty sure I have come across her novels except I can’t say where. Sader sounds like an agreeable PI.

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    I haven’t read any by her under the Hitchens name. I did read a D. B. Olsen (Death Walks on Cat Feet) earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. It was a much more cozy mystery than what this sounds. And I have to say–I probably won’t be taking this one up–I don’t do well with stories about violence involving children. I never did–but once I became a mother it became even more difficult.

    • I take your point and I feel the same way about kids in jeopardy but this book goes to quite a lot of trouble to never present the child as actually being in danger – it’s just a case of finding it. Most of her stuff was cosier I think, but I do think this one is pretty impressive Bev – may be worth a look, certainly comparable to Ross Macdonald – how do you feel about his work?

  12. Pingback: 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenges – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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