DETOUR (1953) by Helen Nielsen

Nielsen_Detour_blacklizardDanny Ross is 18 years old and heading south, anxious to start a new life. A few hundred miles from the Mexico border his car packs up but is offered a lift by old Doc Gaynor, who is heading to Cooperton. They stop at a roadside cafe in nearby Mountain View, where talk is focused on the death the night before of town lush, Francy. When Danny goes back to the car to rejoin the Doc, he finds the old man bludgeoned to death and is promptly accused of killing him and maybe Francy too. It’s not long before he is on the run …

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Danny wasn’t running away from life; he was running towards it”

Danny, who is very scared indeed, is thrown into jail by Virgil Keep, the violent and choleric sheriff, who tries to beat a confession out of him without much success. Danny is found with just over $200 in his possession, the same amount the Doc had just collected at the diner shortly before being killed. This was seen by several witnesses including the excitable cafe proprietor Viola and her husband as well as one of the sheriff’s men, the hyena-like Jim Rice.  The beating is interrupted by news that Trace Cooper, the last member of the family who founded the town, has once again got drunk and smashed up the local tavern. Trace gets hauled in and thrown into the cell next door to Danny until he sobers up – but it turns out this is a ruse. Trace, who once upon a time was going to be a lawyer, has in fact been asked by Laurent, the once prominent but now retired attorney who bought Cooper’s debt-ridden property, to see if Danny is guilty as the whole town seems to think or is being railroaded, not least out of affection for the old Doc. Though maybe he has another motive …

“It was like finding a key only to realize that the door was still missing”

Nielsen_Detour-to-Death_prologueIn her introduction to the Black Lizard edition, Marcia Muller sings Nielsen’s praises for her focus on the psychology and emotion of the characters and this certainly is a major factor here. The basic setup is of course a time-tested one: an innocent is accused of murder and has to go on the run to prove their innocence, dodging both the authorities and of course the real killer. But one what takes away from reading this mystery is the depiction of the callow youth at its centre and the supporting cast of characters. Along with Keep’s strange and downtrodden wife Ada and loudmouthed Viola, our main interest is in a peculiar triangle with Trace at its pinnacle. It emerges that he and Francy were old friends and that when she got ‘in trouble’ Trace was named as the father, which broke up his relationship with Joyce Gaynor, the Doc’s daughter. It is Trace who rather grudgingly assumes the role of investigator in the story as he very quickly comes to realise that Danny must be innocent, despite his stubbornness and tendency to get into trouble much too easily. Indeed, this is as much a bildungsroman as a detective story. Which is both a blessing and a bit of a problem here …

“The curse of blood seemed to be following Danny Ross …”

Nielsen does a great job of depicting the small and claustrophobic Cooperton community in which everyone listens to everybody else’s phone calls and gossip is the only viable currency left in a once prosperous town now slowly dwindling to nothing. The townfolk quickly decides that Danny must have killed the Doc and maybe Francy too, even though Nielsen_Detour-to-Death_dellinitially her roadside death was thought accidental. But it emerges that the Doc spent some time with her at the hospital before she died – what if she was attacked and left for dead but had the time to reveal the identity of the killer only to the Doc – would that provide motive to kill the old man too? A viable alternative suspect emerges and Trace and Danny, now on the run, track the man down independently only to arrive to find his murdered body. This points to the highly contrived nature of the story (the killer, Trace and Danny all manage to track down a man on the run on the flimsiest of clues), which began with Danny having almost the exact amount of money that the Doc had. With its naturalistic characterisation and plausible scene-setting, this kind of unconvincing, coincidence-laden plotting stands out as rather mechanical. It doesn’t hurt the book too badly, but it might have been better if Nielsen had made it less of a mystery and more of a thriller as the attempts to misdirect the reader are too contrived to convince (I zeroed in on the murderer right away frankly). None the less, there is plenty going on here, the characters are compelling and the slow reveal of the various secrets, including one relating to Danny on the last page, are very nicely dovetailed. Nielsen doesn’t even rate a mention in many of the standard reference works in the genre (including Murphy, Herbert, Symons and Ashley) but I look forward to reading much more of her work in the near future. To start, you couldn’t do much better than check out Curtis’ blog, The Passing Tramp and John F. Norris’ magisterial, Pretty Sinister Books.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘multiple title’ category as it was also published as Detour to Death:

vintage-golden-pseudonym

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

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37 Responses to DETOUR (1953) by Helen Nielsen

  1. tracybham says:

    This is one of those claustrophobic stories that make me tense and I like to avoid that. But I have determined to try some authors that I have avoided for that very reason so maybe I will try this one too.

    • Actually Tracy, I thought the same going in and had these book ont eh shelves for about a decade before picking it up but actually it wasn’t like that – it’s actually a very traditional whodunit coupled with a ‘man on the run’ though this is a secondary plot. Definitely woht a look.

  2. Colin says:

    Now this sounds highly entertaining, and it’s totally unknown to me. Claustrophobic works for me, although I have to say the tangled relationships give me the impression it’s all incredibly complicated. Still, I can see myself giving this a go,

    • I think I may not have sold this the way I intended to! 🙂 At core it’s a traditional whodunit, but the desert landscape, the small town milieu and the unusual characters certainly make it stand out – and nothing to do with the classic film noir of the same title.

  3. Sergio – Thanks as ever. It sounds as though this has a solid sense of atmosphere and context. It’s interesting to see both the thriller element and the ‘whodunit’ puzzle in the same novel. I may have to give this one a go.

  4. My reaction to Helen Nielsen’s work is similar to yours. And some of the plot aspects didn’t add up to me.

  5. Richard says:

    I read this a few years ago, and thought it fairly contrived. You obviously liked it better than I did. By the way, if you’re not using Huben, you’re not using the best mystery reference.

    • I enjoyed it, but it certainly is contrived, no question about it. I don’t have a copy of the Hubin on my shelf, but my point was that she is missed out from a lo of more easily-available volumes infortunately.

  6. Sergio, for a moment I thought this was the book on which the namesake Tom Neal-Ann Savage noir film was based. Still, you got me interested in the novel and I’ll see if I can find a copy. I’d never heard of Helen Nielsen before.

    • Hi Prashant – I made exactly the same mistake when i first saw the book! Completely different animals, both good in their own way (though the movie really is a bizarre and wonderful bit of noir)

  7. I usually feel rather as Tracy does about this kind of novel, but you have certainly done a good job of making it sound tempting….

  8. neer says:

    Sergio, another book on my wishlist. Now if only we had enough time…

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    I had never heard of this author before.
    I note that 13 of her books have been published by Prologue Books and all are available at moderate rates in kindle editions.
    I’ll try some of her books soon.

    • I don’t have an e-reader but have to say, for sampling a new author especially, a low cast ebook is 100% the way to go – look forward to hearing what you think Santosh.

  10. Yvette says:

    Small towns full of twisted secrets – where would we readers be without ’em. 🙂 Never heard of this author either, Sergio. But this sounds okay enough. Love the title. Thanks for the intro. I’ve lately been cutting down on vintage a bit. Why? Well, because my more contemporary reading was lagging so far behind that I feared I’d never catch up. I wish there were more method to my madness. 🙂

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    I like that you say there’s a definite whodunnit aspect…otherwise I’d say this wasn’t for me either. Now you’ve got me curious…

  12. John says:

    Thanks for the link to my Nielsen posts. Yvette claims she never heard of this author yet she left a comment on my post for THE KIND MAN. […sigh…] Clearly, I’m not doing my job in cementing my influence into my reader’s memories. Need to brush up on my subliminal messaging skills. :^) Both THE KIND MAN and OBIT DELAYED were both inspired by traditional mysteries but have a modern flair to them. I like her pulp magazine vibe, too. I think she veers away from the whodunit aspect in her later books. I have a few more of her books on my shelves. I’ll report back when I discover if Nielsen can be labeled Highsmithian or Rendellesque in her work from the 1960s.

    P.S. Based on his opinions I’ve read elsewhere I’m betting Santosh will hate Nielsen. Want to lay odds? ;^)

    • Thanks John (the lovely Yvette is always cracking wise about her poor memory chum, she’s got you there 🙂 ) Certainly the fact that Nielsen scripted episodes for the Alfred Hitchcock TV anthologies suggests more suspense that traditional sleuthing, which is ultimately where Detour definitely belongs. I hope Santosh gets at least as much out of it as I did!

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        John, could you be more explicit ? Which blog? Which post?
        By the way, I will be holidaying in Bhutan during the next 10 days. Hence there will be no comments from me during this period.

        • Hello Santosh – you’ll never take John alive, he’s an expert josher 🙂 Hope you enjoy the book when yuo get round to it! I just had a friend of mine come back from Bhutan and she had the most amazing experience – hope it’s a great trip!

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            Expert josher? Well, was he joshing when he referred to “double turn in the air” in your post on The Key To Nicholas Street ? Because, even after seeing the film again very carefully, I didn’t notice any “double turn in the air” either literally or metaphorically !
            And, yes, your friend was correct in describing the Bhutan trip as an amazing experience.
            (I have changed my email address.)

          • Hi Santosh, welcome back – very envious of the travelling (haven;t been to that part of the world since the 1980s when I was in my teens). John usually has the advantage of knowing what he’s talking about 🙂 In the case of the French movie, the title is a play on words, referring to the dance move and the double lock on a door – metaphorically I think you can definitely see how the characters are going through a pattern that can be described as a sort of dance, don’t you think?

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

  14. Pingback: Writers Born At present – Helen Nielsen | TiaMart Blog

  15. Pingback: Detour – Helen Nielsen | Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

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