“He said I should see a private detective and you were the cheapest one in New Orleans.”
As a member of the Hard Case Crime Book Club, I never know which book is going to appear on my doorstep. Some of the selections lean towards pulp, some have an edge of noir, and some are classic crime novels. This month, I opened the package to find Murder is My Business by Brett Halliday. Halliday is a new name for me, but there on the cover was the phrase: A Mike Shayne Mystery. That got my attention. See there’s a whole series of Mike Shayne films, and a DVD set featuring several of the Shayne films was released back in 2007.
A little investigation uncovered that Halliday’s real name was Davis Dresser, and that he wrote a long list of crime novels. Perhaps Hard Case Crime will pick up more of these titles. I hope so.
Murder is My Business, published in 1945, was not the first of Halliday’s novels to feature PI Michael Shayne, and the novel doesn’t give many details about this character–probably because we are supposed to be familiar with him already. Shayne has one of those laid-back, easy-going personalities that makes him very easy to underestimate, and naturally he uses this to his advantage. The book makes several references to Shayne’s red hair and the fact that he’s of Irish descent. Shayne also has a habit of tugging on his earlobe when he’s chewing over a theory.
When the novel begins, New Orleans PI Shayne is contacted by Mrs. Delray, a distraught older woman who’s received a letter from her son, Jimmie. Jimmie has spent the last five years working at a mine in Mexico, but he returned to Texas to enlist in WWII. The letter explains that Jimmie has been ‘recruited’ by a mystery man to enlist under another name in order to be part of a spy ring. The story stinks, and since Jimmie hasn’t been heard of since he enlisted, naturally his mother is worried. After the papers pick up a news story about an El Paso soldier run over in a car accident, his mother is convinced that the dead man is her son.
Shayne’s client has no money to pay the PI for his work, but he flies to El Paso to investigate anyway. The only reason the dead soldier made the paper is that the driver of the car was one of El Paso’s richest men, Jeff Towne. Towne is about to be elected mayor of El Paso, and the car accident that left a young soldier dead may damage Towne at the polls.
Shayne handled a case for Towne ten years ago, and there’s still a bad taste left in his mouth for the way in which he helped bust up Towne’s daughter’s romance with a poet. So Shayne takes the case–partly because he’s intrigued and partly because he sniffs that there’s money in this case somewhere for him. There’s also the unspoken idea that there’s unfinished business between him and Towne.
Murder is My Business is a great little tale–nothing too heavy, nothing too violent–although the body count rises as Shayne digs into this case of blackmail, murder, revenge, corruption and greed. The book is set in WWII against the various threats and paranoid theories of the times–Nazi spy rings and infiltration of the U.S. via Mexico.
The book’s strength is in its portrayal of the iconic PI figure operating in society. Apart from his secretary, Shayne has no relationships and no allegiances–except to himself. In the Delray case, Shayne gets mixed up in a hotbed of dirty politics, and while a lesser man would succumb to bribery from the highest bidder, Shayne finds the scrabble for money and power amusing. Shayne remains ambivalent to obsessions and impulses such as revenge, power, greed, and money that drive the other characters, and yet those characters, simply because Shayne doesn’t possess a shred of sentimentality, loyalty, or spout the right phrases, tend to view Shayne as some sort of flawed human being. Here’s an exchange between Shayne and Lance Bayliss, a one-time poet who’s one of those people who is always attracted to a cause and led by the nose by his mis-placed idealism. At one time, he admired the Third Reich, but after “Hitler marched into Poland,” he’s become a virulent antifascist.
“That’s the trouble with you here in America.” Lance Bayliss stopped in mid-stride to level a trembling forefinger at Shayne. “You underestimate the danger. You sit back and say blandly, ‘It can’t happen here.’ It can! It happened in Germany. you don’t realize the forces moving us towards fascism in the United States, with men like Jeff Towne eager to leave the movement.”
Shayne said, “perhaps,” remaining unperturbed.
“There’s no perhaps about it. Men like Towne have to be stopped before they get started. He was stopped until you stepped in with your talk of an autopsy to muddy the issue. You used to stand for something, Shayne. Have you changed that much in ten years?”
“I draw bigger fees than I did ten years ago.”
“Is a fat fee more important to you than the welfare of your country?” Lance’s voice trembled with wrath.
Shayne’s shady edge makes him a great gumshoe, and he’s a character I suspect readers could become fond of in successive volumes. He never gets excited, but he plugs steadily away, working with the cops, quietly determined to get paid, but that determination still allows for a few ethical manoeuvres in his pursuit of the truth. Shayne works as a loner, and in typical PI fashion he answers to no one except himself and the occasional paying client, and since he works outside of established institutions and hierarchy, he’s also free to break whatever rules and laws he can get away with.
Another great addition to the Hard Case Crime canon.