Tag Archives: PI novel

A Coffin from Hong Kong: James Hadley Chase (1962)

The prolific author, James Hadley Chase, is probably best known for No Orchids for Miss Blandish. That book was my introduction to this British crime author. Then followed There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a much later Chase novel I couldn’t resist for its title and cover. There’s a Hippie on the Highway, the story of a Vietnam vet looking for work in Florida and stirring up some violent hippies, was a bit of a strange read, well come to think of it, so was No Orchids for Miss Blandish, but of the two novels, No Orchids was a better novel, IMO.

So this brings me to A Coffin from Hong Kong, my third excursion into James Hadley Chase territory. This is a fairly standard, but good, PI tale of low-rent investigator Nelson Ryan, a man who takes it personally when he’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit.

A coffin from hong kongRyan gets a call one day from a man named John Hardwick who wants to hire Ryan to follow his wife. Hardwick claims he’s leaving on a business trip and that the timing is perfect for Ryan to stake out his house that night. Ryan initially objects as he likes to meet his clients in person, but Hardwick is leaving town and sends a courier over with $300 to seal the deal. Now Ryan, a man who it turns out does have a moral compass, feels obligated to take the job–in spite of the fact that something doesn’t smell right:

I had been working as an investigator for the past five years, and during that time, I had run into a number of screwballs. This John Hardwick could be just another screwball, but somehow I didn’t think he was. He sounded like a man under pressure. Maybe he’d been worrying for months about the way his wife had been behaving. Maybe for a long time he had suspected her of getting up to tricks when he was away and suddenly, as he was leaving for another business trip, he had finally decided to check on her. It was the kind of thing a worried, unhappy man might do–a split-second impulse. All the same, I didn’t like it much. I don’t like anonymous clients. I don’t like disembodied voices on the telephone. I like to know with whom I’m dealing. This setup seemed a shade too hurried and a shade too contrived.

Ryan should have listened to his instincts….

I liked the set-up for A Coffin From Hong Kong as it shows the inherent vulnerability of the PI, a train of thought I’d been following after a recent re-watch of The Maltese Falcon, and the scene when Humphrey Bogart’s partner, on a lonely stake-out, is abruptly snuffed out by an assassin. Both James Hadley Chase’s character, Nelson Ryan and The Maltese Falcon’s (Dashiell Hammett) Sam Spade are loners who discover a moral compass while investigating their respective cases. Both stories also illustrate that PIs mine territory on the fringes of police work. Lacking the protection of a badge, they are bottom feeders with shadier cases that frequently nudge illegality.

Ryan finds himself stitched up for the murder of a prostitute from Hong Kong, and he’s subsequently hired by a reclusive millionaire to discover who killed the girl. Ryan takes the case because he’s involved in the murder up to his neck, and in a bid to solve the crime, he travels to Hong Kong to try and trace the life of the dead woman.

There’s a lot of snappy dialogue between Ryan and the police detective on the case, Detective Lieutenant Dan Retnick. Everything points to Ryan as the killer of the prostitute, and while part of the detective would love to nail Ryan for the crime, part of him recognizes a frame.

He brooded for a long time, then he took out his cigar case and offered it to me. This was his first friendly act during the five years I had known him. I took a cigar to show I appreciated the gesture although I am not by nature a cigar smoker.

We lit up and breathed smoke at each other.

“Okay, Ryan,” he said. “I believe you. I’d like to think you knocked her off, but it’s leaning too far backwards. I’d be saving myself a hell of a lot of trouble and time if I could believe it, but I can’t. You’re a cheap peeper, but you’re no fool. Okay, so I’m sold. you’re being framed.”

I relaxed.

“But don’t count on me,” he went on. “The trouble will be to convince the D.A. He’s an impatient bastard. Once he knows what I’ve got on you, he’ll move in. Why should he care so long as he gets a conviction?”

There didn’t seem anything to say to that so I didn’t.

There are some racist remarks in the novel from the police–but Ryan obviously doesn’t share their views. I liked this novel, and while I guessed one element of the plot, I didn’t guess the identity of the killer. I also really liked the character of Ryan. He’s a bit sleazy–taking the case when he knows better because he needs the 300 bucks, taking whiskey on a stakeout and eyeing every female he encounters, but still at his core, there’s a sense of right and wrong, and even though he’s embroiled in the case initially because he’s framed for a murder, there’s a sense of justice at the base of his search for answers. Chase’s style is spare and unadorned, and goes well with the subtly understated moral undercurrents. The novel, a good place to start for those who’d like to try Chase,  concludes simply and yet very very poignantly.

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg

“There’s no reason to spend more than thirty bucks a night for a mattress, a toilet, and a sink, especially for a hardened, professional private eye on assignment.”

I needed to read something distracting–something light, something funny, and so I picked by Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg. Yes, I know the title doesn’t seem to imply the qualities I sought, but this very entertaining crime book made me laugh out loud upon occasion, and it proved to be a great distraction from the darker side of life. Most of the novel’s strength can be found in its protagonist, 29-year-old Harvey Mapes–an underemployed security guard who’s addicted to crime novels:

I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books before. McGee is sort of a private eye who lives in Florida on a houseboat he won in a poker game. While solving mysteries, he helps a lot of ladies in distress. The way he helps them is by fucking their brains out and letting them cook his meals, do his laundry, and scrub the deck of his boat for a few weeks. These women, McGee calls them “wounded birds,” are always very grateful that he does this for them.

To me that’s a perfect world.

I wanted his life.

This is the story of what I did to get it.

If that quote appeals to you, then you’re going to enjoy the book.

Harvey’s job is boring, so it’s really no surprise that he ends up trying to live the fantasy life of his crime heroes:

My job is to sit in a little, Mediterrean-style stucco shack from midnight until eight A.M. six days a week, outside the fountains and gates of Bel Vista Estates, a private community of million dollar plus homes in the Spanish Hills of Camarillo, California.

Harvey’s job is to sit there, monitor the security cameras, and wave residents through. Once in a while, he writes what is called a “courtesy ticket” to residents  who ignore the stop sign. He doesn’t “have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler.” Of course, at best he’s ignored and at worst, he’s treated rather badly, and since he sits there all night long alone, it’s no wonder that he reads crime novels and begins fantasizing about a different sort of life.  Then one night a resident, Jag driving (“the one with a forest of wood and a herd’s worth of leather,”) Cyril Parkus makes him an offer. Here’s Harvey’s take on Parkus:

Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look at how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.

Harvey agrees to meet Parkus at Denny’s the next morning. Parkus thinks his wife, Lauren, is up to something, and it’s Harvey’s job to follow her and find out what that ‘something’ is. 

“Harvey, I’ve got a problem and, since you’re experienced in the security field, I think you’re the man to help me,” he said. “I need someone followed.”

“Who?”

“My wife.”

I knew he’d say that.

I sipped my Coke and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. In that instant, I’d become the hero of one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks, the ones with the lurid cover drawing of a busty girl in a bikini wrapping herself around a grimacing, rugged guy holding a gun or a martini glass.

I was now that guy.

So Harvey’s dream comes true–he’s a daylighting PI working on $150 a day plus those ever-important expenses.

As the novel continues, pepto-bismal popping Harvey bluffs his low-rent way through various dangerous scenarios relying largely on the scenes he’s read in his favourite detective novels. Things turn deadly, however, as the case intensifies and the body count rises. Laid-back Harvey makes a wonderful narrator as he makes his way through the 2-star motels, the cheap diners, and the tacky trailer parks that are part of his investigation. Every page is full of his  low-key humour which is accompanied by wry observations, and he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself:

I had no self-defense skills at all, unless you include running and hiding.

Author Lee Goldberg is also a screenwriter and producer. He’s written the Monk series, the Dead Man series, and a couple of Charlie Willis books. Watch Me Die was originally called The Man with the Iron-On Badge, and I prefer that title as it matches the novel’s tone and low-rent feel. And I prefer the original cover too.

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Filed under Fiction, Goldberg Lee