Tag Archives: PI series

The Count of 9: Erle Stanley Gardner (1958) Writing as A. A. Fair

“Double lives are simple. It’s triple lives and quadruple lives that give you the excitement.”

I’ve read earlier Cool and Lam novels: The Knife Slipped and Turn on the Heat. The Count of 9 hasn’t been published in over 50 years, and since it’s classic Erle Stanley Gardner, it’s also a refreshing change from the standard PI novel. Witty, snappy dialogue helps of course, but the heroes here, Donald and to a lesser degree his partner, Bertha, shape this gumshoe novel into a lively, engaging romp.

The count of 9

Donald Lam has finally made partner in the private detective company owned by Bertha Cool. He’s always done most of the leg work with Bertha arranging the jobs and spending most of the money while Donald is kept on a shoestring budget. The novel opens with Bertha landing a job to guard a society party from gatecrashers. This may sound like a strange assignment but the wealthy eccentric throwing the party, Dean Crockett II, threw a party three weeks earlier which resulted in the theft of a valuable carved Jade Buddha.

The job seems simple enough: Crockett, who is serious about his privacy and his security, lives on the twentieth floor of an apartment building. First all visitors check with the front desk, and then, if a visitor is approved, Crockett gives the green light which sends the elevator to the guest. This is “special elevator” which only travels to Crockett’s penthouse. For the night of the party, visitors must request permission for the elevator from the desk staff on the ground floor, and then Bertha’s job is to check the invitations against the guest list, but in spite of all these precautions a blowgun, poison darts, and a Jade Buddha, which matches the one that was already stolen, disappear from the Crockett apartment.

Crockett is furious, but his third wife, a former beauty queen, is a calming force. Since Donald and Bertha are already familiar with the case, they are hired to track the thief. Donald applies some basic logic and is soon hot on the trail of a very clever thief. But the case is complicated by murder. …

While Donald certainly has no small success with women, the novel places Donald on the opposite side of a lecherous photographer. There’s a very funny conversation between Donald and the photographer with the latter bragging about how he tricks women. Donald responds by pretending admiration which is covered with a patina of dislike. We get it, but the photographer, who is enamored with himself, misses the signals:

He opened another drawer, took out the usual eight-by-ten professional portraits, then some full-length shots with legs and bathing suits.

“Nice looker,” I said.

He hesitated a moment, then took an envelope out of the drawer. “You look like a good egg, he said.” “Maybe you’d be interested in these.”

I opened the envelope. It had a dozen five-by-seven shots of the same girl. This time she was posing for pictures I was certain had been suggested by the photographer. Clothes were absent. 

“How do you like that number?”

“Class,” I said.

“Lots of them are like that. I won’t monkey with them unless they’re real class.”

Donald Lam is an interesting protagonist. There are many references to his diminutive stature (made by the beefy Bertha Cool), and while Donald is capable and intelligent, he doesn’t come across as hyper-masculine. That said, he doesn’t need to prove anything. He’s always a sucker for a damsel in distress and Bertha can never quite understand his success with women. One of the funnier aspects of the book is Bertha’s attitude towards her own sex. She sees, and resents, how lookers get away with a great deal, and since it’s suspected that the person responsible for the theft of the first jade Buddha was a woman who hid the statue in her dress, Bertha states that she would “have picked her up by her heels, stood her on her head and shaken the damn thing out.

review copy.

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The Knife Slipped: Erle Stanley Gardner (1939) writing as A. A. Fair

“You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”

It’s been a long time, too long, since I read a Hard Case Crime novel, and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped  arrived at a good time. Gardner, using the name A.A. Fair, originally wrote this novel with the intention that it would be the second in the Cool and Lam series, but the book was rejected, partly, for the behaviour of Bertha Cool. This is a tale of a low-rent, bottom-feeder PI agency (owned by Bertha Cool) whose operative, disbarred lawyer, Donald Lam, investigates a case of adultery, triple identities and corruption.

the-knife-slipped

Bertha Cool’s agency is hired by a bossy mother-weepy daughter duo to investigate the daughter’s husband who was seen in a nightclub with a blonde “who wasn’t wearing a stitch more than the law allowed.” Bertha, who dominates the story, has a very particular attitude towards husbands –possibly because once she had one of her own.

By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do-those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighbourhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.

Bertha is an incredible, confident, tough-talking, penny-pinching character, and Donald, who’s barely making a living,  knows that “if you made anything out of her you sure as hell earned it.” Here’s Bertha laying down the rules to her clients:

“Twenty-five dollars a day,” she said.

“Twenty-five dollars a day is a lot of money,” Mrs. Atterby snapped. 

“Seems like it is to you,” Bertha Cool said easily, “not to me.”

Mrs Atterby hesitated. Her long, lean fingers gripped the black, patent leather handbag which was supported on her lap. You guarantee results?” she asked.

“Hell no,” Bertha Cool said, “we don’t guarantee anything. Christ, what do you want us to do, get him seduced?”

Donald begins the investigation, and the case of the cheating husband soon morphs into something much bigger and much more dangerous. Bertha Cool, the brains of the outfit, is a great character. While Donald is the operative, Bertha, who often talks about herself in the third person, is a huge (literally) presence, guiding the investigation every step of the way, and saving Donald’s neck more than once. She’s cheap (lets Donald drive her beat-up heap, springing for a new car when the junker breaks down), reads the odometer so that Donald can’t use the car for anything other than business, and keeps him on a pauper’s budget. But Bertha is also unflappable and commands respect from even the lowest, pavement-hugging-hood.

This PI story, with more than a smattering of humour and high on atmosphere rips along at high-speed, narrated by our flawed detective, a man who takes all the risks while his female boss maximizes profit. These two characters work well together, for as we see when the plot plays out, Bertha has a soft spot for romance, and is very well aware of Donald’s character weaknesses and his tendency to fall in love.

It was raining hard outside. It was a cold rain. The drops were big and came down hard, making little bursts of water where they hit the dark pavement. I heard her give a little exclamation behind me as she saw the weather. 

Yucca City turned out most of the lights at midnight. The clouds had settled low enough so the lights from the metropolitan district below were all blotted out. The Mountain Crest apartments seemed to be shut off from the rest of the world, an island of wan light isolated in a sea of darkness. 

The afterword from Russell Atwood contains some interesting information on the series and how the two main characters changed in the books that followed this second, rejected, story.

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Strip for Murder: Richard Prather (Shell Scott mystery ) 1956

“Never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind though; I’m broadminded.”

Strip for Murder (1956) is my first foray into the life of Southern California based, former Marine turned PI, Shell Scott, and after reading this well-paced, witty, action packed detective story, I know it won’t be my last. Author Richard Prather (1921-2007) wrote over 40 Shell Scott mysteries, and Open Road Media has made these great little mysteries available at a very reasonable price for the kindle. Crime and humour are not natural bed mates–and if not done with just the right touch, you can end up with a novel written in bad taste. Donald Westlake knew how to blend crime and humour, and if you enjoy Westlake’s humour, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Strip for Murder.

strip for murderAt 176 pages, there’s very little down time, so the book begins with Shell Scott, inappropriately dressed, attending a dinner party for the “Smart Set” at the home of the woman who’s just hired him, millionairess, Mrs. Redstone.

And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, “Hot Hula.” At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt, It was just colorful.

According to Mrs Redstone, the mother of two adult daughters, Sydney and Vera, she’s convinced that Vera’s new husband, Andon Poupelle is not the Wall Street man he claims to be but is in reality a slimy fortune hunter. The last detective Mrs Redstone hired for the job has been murdered after he delivered a glowing report about Poupelle. Mrs Redstone wasn’t entirely convinced by the report but the death of the detective who wrote it led her to talk to the police who recommended the services of Shell Scott. So Shell’s job is to dig around and see if there’s any dirt on Poupelle.  While Poupelle may have convinced Vera Redstone that he’s something special, after an exchange of words, Shell knows that Poupelle is a slimy gigolo at best.

Wherever there’s big money and women starting downhill, you find slobs like Poupelle hanging around giving them a push.

The last PI on the case was found shot dead near to two significant locations: Castle Norman–a swanky gambling joint dressed up as, you’ve got it, a Norman castle complete with knights on their steeds and a murky moat. The other significant location is Fairview, a nudist colony for health nuts, and after some shady incidents involving the case occur there, Shell Scott is ‘forced‘ to go undercover as the calisthenics director at the colony. When he first arrives he has no idea about the nudist part–he thinks he’s going undercover at a health retreat. The first inkling Shell gets that something is different is when he’s greeted at the main gate by a naked woman:

She was a little dark-haired doll and nobody I knew, but you can bet it was somebody I wanted to know.

She wasn’t in any terrific hurry; nobody was chasing her. Not, I thought, dazedly, yet. She ran right up to the gate and stopped. At least she stopped running, but it was quite a spell before she stopped moving completely.”Hi,” she said.

I still had some of that tightness in my chest, but that seemed to be the least of my worries. I said, “Hello there!”

She smiled, and it seemed to me that she smiled all over. “You’re Mr Scott?”

“Yes. She-er, Don Scott. You call me Don.”

“Fine. We were expecting you.”

Wow, I thought. Maybe my reputation had preceded me. If this was what happened when I was expected, I was never going anyplace again without letting people know well in advance. Hell. I’d flood the States with posters: Scott is on his way!

In between pretending to be the new calisthenics instructor at the nudist colony (and there are a lot of laughs in these scenes,) Shell navigates the dark streets of LA hitting up a series of lowlife informers, such as grifter Iggy the Wig (who wears “a rug to keep him glamorous,”) and Three Eyes (he sports a glass eye,) for information about Poupelle. Meanwhile he’s shadowed by a bunch of gangsters including Egg Foo, Folsom graduate Sardine (you’ll understand the name if you read the book) cheap thug Garlic, and a “lop-eared gunman named Strikes.” But there are some great female characters too, including burlesque dancer, Babe Le Toot, “sex cyclone,” dancer Juanita who “looked as if approximately five feet ten inches of well-stacked woman had been mashed down into five feet seven inches, the excess bulging out and overflowing in enjoyable places,” and Daphne, the secretary of a geriatric loanshark, Offenbrand:

She was wearing a dark skirt, above which was a pink sweater she might have knitted herself, getting halfway through with the job before saying the hell with it. Offie was so old I figured she was on display for the customers. I got younger every minute. She was strategically seated, so that she smacked you in the eyes when you entered, and she was strategically built so that she smacked you in both eyes. Hell, she smacked you all over.

Here’s Shell at the nudist colony looking at a guest named Peggy.

She turned sideways, leaving me enough room to get by. She really was cuter than the dickens. I thought of Laurel and looked at Peggy. Sometimes I hate myself. I went out, but as I went by Peggy I gave her a little pat on her behind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grab it and yank it around or anything, just gave it a friendly cuff. Nothing crude, you know.

strip for murder vintageI’ve been on a bender watching Mad Men over the past few weeks, and it’s fascinating watching history through the characters who work at a Manhattan advertising agency. Sexism is rampant, but for the most part the dominant offenders are oblivious to the way they tread on women. And that’s what’s so interesting and refreshing about Shell Scott. He celebrates the differences between the sexes rather than denigrating the females he encounters, and as a series character, he’s fascinating. He’s a lone PI, keeps a small office in downtown LA on Broadway, drinks bourbon and water, drives a Cadillac and has pet guppies for company. He also has a good relationship based on mutual respect with the local PD, and while he’s for hire, there’s a core of decency that runs right down his spine and which wrestles with his libido. While Strip for Murder may appear to be a cheap little pulp detective tale, it’s much better written than I expected, and the author is comfortable with taking some risks through memorable, over-the-top scenes. The tale begins with Shell being embarrassingly ‘underdressed’ for a swanky society party and the author keeps that theme and works it into this frothy and yet deadly serious tale. As for the “hot hula” shirt Shell wears in the first scene, even that has significance on the final page.

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Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

You don’t hear much about whole families going missing like that. Like … not together, and definitely not down in south Devon. That place is so safe. It’s like a theme park.”

I decided to read Tim Weaver’s novel, Never Coming Back, without knowing that it is number 4 in a series (Chasing the Dead, Dead Tracks, Vanished). Never Coming Back is this British author’s American debut, and for reasons that I don’t understand, the 4th in the David Raker series is the first to see the U.S market. Actually I’m really glad that I didn’t know about the other three novels, as I wouldn’t have picked up number 4, and that would have been a mistake.

Yes, there’s a backstory to the book, to David Raker’s past life and exactly why he has chosen to be a PI who specializes in missing persons cases. That back story is covered here–covered very well, I’ll add, so crime writers could do themselves a favour and read this to see how the author plays catch-up for those readers who’ve missed earlier books or need a reminder. The back story is always a problem in a series. How much do you include? How much repeat ground do you cover? Reading Never Coming Back made me want to read the 3 backlist novels, but I never felt confused about the plot or characters.

never coming backNever Coming Back finds David Raker in Devon, in the house he inherited from his parents, recuperating from savage wounds and an abandoned relationship. He’s not alone as he shares his house in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with former Met copper Healy, freshly fired from the force. Raker acknowledges that he has “the same kind of ghosts as Healy,” but that Healy, who’s floundering around “full of anger and resentment and bitterness,” isn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. A body washes up on the shore and amidst the fallout, Healy decides policing is what he does best, and Raker is contacted by Emily, an old girlfriend, for help locating her sister, brother-in-law and their two children who vanished without trace several months previously. How can four people vanish without a trace? There were a few reported sightings, but the case became cold fast. Perhaps even too fast…

Here’s Emily describing the family’s mysterious disappearance, and the house as she found it, “like a museum,” a “snapshot of time.”

“Their cars were still on the drive, the lights were on in the house, so I rang the doorbell, five, six, seven times.”

A pause.

 […]

“I walked through to the kitchen and the dinner was still cooking.”

“It had just been left like that?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I remember it vividly. The potatoes were still cooking even though there was no water left in the pan. The pork steaks were burned to a crisp. Vegetables were half prepared, just left on the chopping board. It was like the four of them had downed tools and walked out of the house. There was nothing out of place.”

She turned her coffee mug, lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the opposite really. Everything was in place. Even the table was set: cutlery laid out, drinks prepared.”

“Did it look like they’d left in a hurry?”

She shook her head, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of hesitation as if she’d remembered something but wasn’t sure whether it was even worth bringing up.

“Emily?”

“The milk,” she said.

“Milk?”

“The fridge had been left ajar. This big four-pinter was lying on the floor, and all the milk had poured out of it, across the linoleum, but that was it.”

The novel goes back and forth in time with the back story concerning the disappearance and the present with Raker investigating the cold case. There’s a little awkwardness to this at first, but this disappears as the plot swings forward. On the down side, there were a couple of clues …  the noise of inconsistency, that Raker should have investigated but didn’t. These things, because they were neglected or failed to sound alarm bells, allowed the plot to move forward in a specific direction, so I’d fault the novel there. Now either Raker needs to go back to PI school or I’ve been reading too many crime novels. Take your pick.

But… those complaints aside, Never Coming Back is a riveting story. I read the book in two sittings and deeply resented any interruptions. In spite of its minor faults, this is a moody, dark, atmospheric novel, packed with incredibly suspenseful, descriptive scenes.  Suspense wrapped with dread kept me turning the pages. The author shows terrific skill in building scenes through description: a deserted country house, the steely cold secrets of the indifferent ocean, and the eerie remains of Miln Cross, a coastal village swept into the sea –we know that bad things happened in these places, and there’s the feeling that we are not just reading safely at home–instead we accompany Raker to these places where the suspense, violence and sense of impending doom are tangible. Noise and silence play important roles in this book, and while those two elements are literal, they are also figurative: the noise of clues in an otherwise ordinary domestic scene and the silence of the missing:

I ignored him, ignored the sound of the water stirring on the lake, something gliding across its glassy surface. The rain had eased off, but there was the whistle of a soft breeze, like air traveling through the neck of a bottle. And behind it all was the sea, its noise smothered by the whispering reeds

And another evocative passage:

As I got to the first of the houses, the whine of the wind seemed to fade away into a gentle whisper, a strange disconcerting sound like voices–deep within the roots of the buildings–talking to one another. There was a sudden stillness to the village, its street protected from the breeze coming in off the water, even from the sound of the sea itself: there was no roar from the waves anymore, just a soft slosh as they grabbed and shoved at the plateau the village rose out from. When I paused for a moment at the open window of the first building, it hit home. Miln Cross was a graveyard, its hushed silence the same as every place I’d ever been where people had been taken before they were ready. In those places there was always a residue, a feeling that echoed through it.

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King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“You’re lucky you’re a Fed,” I said. “Putting a bullet in you isn’t worth the red tape… Let’s have those hands up.”

Mike Hammer, that ultra-tough, individualistic PI is back in another Mickey Spillane/Max Allan Collins collaboration, the unabashedly primal, King of the Weeds. This hard-nosed tale of long-delayed revenge is set against a challenge to both the capabilities of the aging Hammer and also to the career of Hammer’s long-time pal, Captain of Homicide, Pat Chambers.

Spillane intended King of the Weeds to be the final Hammer novel, and according to an intro by Max Allan Collins, it’s the sequel to the 1996 Black Alley, the last Hammer novel published by Spillane before he died. Max explains that Spillane set aside King of the Weeds in order to write The Goliath Bone. After Spillane’s death, his widow gave Max all of her husband’s unfinished manuscripts; this was Spillane’s wish, and now Max Allan Collins has finished six novels for grateful fans. There’s always buzz about whether or not unfinished novels should stay that way, but in this case, it’s a definite: hell, no!

king of the weedsKing of the Weeds finds Hammer in his mid 60s, slower, older, and not fully recovered from bullet wounds taken the year before. He’s engaged to Velda, his savvy, sexy and tough secretary. Retirement is just around the corner, but before Hammer can file his PI license for the last time, the past comes back with a vengeance. It’s a near miss for Hammer when an assassin hunts him down early one morning:

When you suddenly realize you’re about to be killed, all your mind does is tell you that you were dumb. You had the experience, you had the physical abilities, you had the animal instincts.

But you were dumb,

Maybe you had played the game too long. Maybe that last round of injuries had left a deeper wound than you thought.

The little man in the tailored navy blue suit, a raincoat draped over his arm, was waiting on my floor when the elevator opened and I stepped out. He never raised his head to look at me, the brim of his pale blue hat even with my nose. He smelled faintly of too-strong aftershave. I thought nothing of it, but did wonder why that raincoat was dry on a rainy morning like this.

So I got off and began to walk away, knowing–just a stupid fraction of a second later than I should have–that he was a killer and I was the target, and I jerked my head around to see the face of the bastard who would take me down. He was just inside the elevator, his foot holding the door open while he aimed the silenced gun at me from six feet away, the weapon emerging for a good look at me from under that draped raincoat, and both of us knew there was no hope for me at all, because it was six-thirty in the morning and no one but me would be on the eighth floor this early.

This is the book’s opening paragraphs, and if you like the tone, the voice, and the pacing, then you’ll enjoy this rugged tale which pits an aging Mike Hammer against someone who wants him dead. During his checkered career, Hammer has made more than his share of enemies, and the list of those who would be happy to see him dead is so long, it’s not worth wasting the paper. Hammer suspects that the attempted hit may have something to do with 89 billion dollars of stashed mob money or then again perhaps the hit was placed by slimy Rudy Olaf, a man Hammer and his old pal, Pat Chambers put away in Sing-Sing forty years earlier for a string of robberies and brutal murders targeting gay men, known as the Bowery Bum slayings. Seems that a certain lowlife named Brogan, a “crony” of Olaf’s has decided to step up on his deathbed and confess to the crimes. Rudy Olaf is about to be released as a man who served a wrongful imprisonment, and he’s certain to harbor a grudge against Hammer and Chambers. But is the grudge big enough to propel a hit man Hammer’s way?

Hammer tries to discover who wants him dead while juggling the decades old Rudy Olaf case with the mystery deaths of New York cops who are dropping like flies in mysterious circumstances. Some of the deaths appear to be natural; other cops just seemed to be in the wrong place at the right time, but others are slaughtered in a “serial killing by coincidence” way.  According to Chambers, the chances of this number of cops dying in such a short period of time are “about ten times the likelihood of winning the Irish Sweepstakes.” With no clues why the ranks of the NYPD ranks are being decimated, Pat Chamber’s career on the line, and with both the mob and government after Hammer to spill the location of $89 billion in mob money, it’s up to Hammer to tie together all the connections between these problems.

This is a hard-hitting, fast-paced Hammer tale, and while Hammer may be in rocking chair territory, in this novel, Hammer’s aging actually works for him. With his low-rent office, he’s always been easy to underestimate, and that’s the mistake his enemies make repeatedly. He may be gray, he may be a little heavier and slower, but he’s still intelligent, aggressive, and with a savagery just beneath that laid-back façade–a PI whose sense of justice has no place within the confines of an institution.

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The Lady in the Morgue: Jonathan Latimer (1936)

Solomon’s Vineyard is the entertaining, witty story of PI Karl Craven whose job to track down a missing rich dame is complicated by the fact she’s living in a well-guarded cult. Craven is a flawed character; he’s always on the lookout for the next meal, the next woman, and the next brawl. In The Lady in the Morgue, PI Bill Crane is also hunting for a mystery blonde, but in this case, she’s may already be dead. Screenwriter and author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1983) wrote a total of 5 Bill Crane mysteries in the 30s:

Murder in the Madhouse (1935)

Headed For a Hearse (1935)

The Lady in the Morgue (1936)

The Dead Don’t Care (1938)

Red Gardenias (1939)

So here I am reading the series out-of sequence.

LADY IN THE MORGUEThe Lady in the Morgue opens in Chicago with the morgue attendant receiving a crank call for a Miss Daisy Stiff, who according to the attendant can’t come to the phone as “she’s downstairs with th’ other girls.” Crank calls are obviously a regular occurrence with this job, and the attendant has fun with the caller and with the two newspaper reporters sitting in the waiting room. An unidentified blonde, who checked into a “honky-tonk” hotel under the name Alice Ross has been listed as a suicide, and the reporters, along with PI Bill Crane are waiting in the morgue for someone to show who can identify the dead woman. There’s already an aura of mystery surrounding her death, and the waiting reporters speculate about the reasons why someone this beautiful would end her life. It’s an eerie, uneasy scene in the middle of a heat wave set against the maniacal  “feverish” cackles of a drugged  “crazy dame” in the nearby “psychopathic hospital.” Then Crane and the reporters decide to play a tasteless game and place bets on the contents of each vault.

Brilliant white light from a long row of bulbs on the ceiling of the room made their eyes blink. Their nostrils sucked in the sweet, sharp sickening antiseptic smell of formaldehyde. Icy air caused their shirts to stick clammily to their flesh. The steel door shut with a muffled thud, and all three of them momentarily experienced a feeling of being trapped.

While the game is a great excuse to pass time, and more importantly to eye the stiffs in the vault, it’s also a perfect scene which shows both the atmosphere and the callous behaviour of the reporters. Then there’s Crane using his opportunity to eyeball the mystery woman. The people in the vaults are no longer human; they’re just a sideshow, and the beautiful blonde suicide is the prize exhibit:

The attendant was looking at the girl’s body. “I wonder how long a guy would live if he had a wife as swell as that?” He ran a yellow hand over her smooth hip.

“You’d get used to her after a while,” said Crane.

“I’d like to try.” The attendant’s yellow face was wistful. “I’d be willing to trade my wife in if I could get a model like this.”

Crane has been hired by his employer, Colonel Black, to ascertain the identity of the young woman, and while two men show up to ID the blonde, someone else steals her body from the vault….

With the disappearance of the corpse, the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity deepens. Courtland, the scion of a wealthy east coast family turns up as a representative for his relatives who are concerned that the corpse may be a well-heeled heiress. But there’s another claimant, an unhappy gangster who is looking for his runaway wife, and in the wings there’s a third man also on the hunt for the gangster’s wife. With his sidekicks Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley, Crane is determined to recover the corpse and discover her identity. His investigation involves feuding gangsters, a snobby, wealthy matriarch, a sleazy hotel, a dance hall that’s little better than a bordello, and even a little grave robbing.

While Crane, with stubborn tenacity wants to solve the case, he’s not exactly the type that sticks to the rule books. Strongly individualistic, he’s not the sort to be hampered by rules or status., and when it comes to his cases, he brags “I solve ’em, drunk or sober.” He’s the type of man who appears to be easy-going, but in reality his seeming easy-going nature is a just a mask for doing things his way, at his pace. And above all, he’s going to enjoy himself in the process. Once Crane learns that he’s working for a wealthy family, he decides to cash in on the old expense account, and he rents a very nice room in a decent hotel, and then takes advantage of room service.

He even thought up an additional reason for taking the suite. It had windows on two sides of the hotel, he explained, and that gave you variety. You could look at the City Hall, or you could look at the Ashland building. Or, if you wanted to drop bottle, you had a choice. You could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Randolph Street, or you could drop them on the heads of pedestrians on Clark Street.

Crane also likes to knock back whiskey with his breakfast, and at one point he decides to question a woman who works at a club:

O’Malley shook his big head. “You don’t want anybody to go with you. That’d be foolish. Two persons would make them suspicious. They’d think it was the cops, and everybody’d close up like clams.

“No, I thought about that.” Crane took a long, reflective drink of whiskey. “They won’t think we’re cops if we get drunk enough, not if we get blind drunk.” He waved an arm at Courtland. “that just goes to show you nothing is wasted, not if you’re wise. You and I have been drinking all day. If we were to go to bed it’d all be wasted. yes, sir, every drop, Every sweet little drop.” He sampled his own drink to show what he meant by a sweet little drop and continued. “But I’m wise. You think I just drink for amusement?”

Then he asks his buds “well, gentlemen,” Crane demanded; “which one of you are willin’ to sacrifice your integrity and get drunk so’s you can come with me?”

Bill Crane, a complete reprobate, is an amusing anti-hero, the typical sort of PI, low-rent and unimpressed by status markers. While he doesn’t appear to take the crime seriously, this is just his style. While there’s never any doubt that he’ll solve the mystery, the fun comes from reading his tactics: sleeping in, consuming huge breakfasts, and generally enjoying himself when he can. There are a few scenes between Crane and the female sex, and Crane isn’t exactly much of a gentleman. The Lady in the Morgue is highly recommended for fans of vintage crime novels

Lady in the morgue2Review copy.

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Duffy by Dan Kavanagh (Julian Barnes)

“That was one of the points about corruption: you never thought about the side-effects at the time.”

Duffy, the first novel in a British PI series from author Dan Kavanagh caught my attention mainly because Kavanagh is the pen name for none other than Julian Barnes, and when you consider how serious his recent novel is, you realise that an author’s writing life consists of very specific phases. I’ve been a fan of Barnes for many years–loved Flaubert’s Parrot and Staring at the Sun, so Julian Barnes writing a crime series?… I’m in. The series was published back in the 80s, and that probably explains why the tone reminded me so much of Before She Met Me, a Barnes novel published back in 1982.

duffyDuffy begins very strongly with a bizarre home invasion. Mrs McKechnie, a middle-class woman who would seem to have no enemies whatsoever is tied up and cut by two men. It’s a very professional job (except for what happens to the cat), and the incident seems to be a message for Brian McKechnie, a London businessman who sells party items at his drab little London office. Under the threat of additional violence, McKechnie is then systematically squeezed for cash; it seems to be a case of blackmail as the perps know that McKechnie’s “mistress [who] doubled as his secretary,” but if it’s simple blackmail then why the home invasion and the violence towards McKechnie’s innocent–albeit dull–wife? The local Guildford police are mystified by the case and consider the incident the “work of a maniac, pair of maniacs,” while the London police obviously don’t give a toss.  Enter PI Duffy, a bisexual ex-copper set up on vice charges and drummed out of the force in disgrace.

Life for Duffy has been going downhill since he left the force. He’s hobbled together a PI firm that mostly dabbles in petty jobs, and while he manages to pay the rent, his relationship with his girlfriend, Carol, never recovered. When he’s contacted by McKechnie to investigate the identity of the man behind the pressure, Duffy steps back to Soho on to his old turf– hookers, peep shows, porno films, and porn mag shops, and once Duffy starts digging he realizes that his unresolved past is connected to the McKechnie case.

In spite of its subject matter, Duffy has a light, ironic and amusing tone. This is partly Kavanagh’s style but it’s also the colorful characters who step across Duffy’s path. Everyone in the sex biz is a professional here, and that includes an aging workhorse hooker, and a motley bunch of peep show girls, and there’s even a gang boss whose taste for decorating could be amusing if he weren’t so vicious. Duffy once worked vice, but now he’s just another customer cruising through the tacky sex shops of Soho where sex isn’t glamorous or even exciting–it’s just damn hard work.   If you’re the type who’s offended by the Blue World, then this is not a book for you–if however, you have no problem with Duffy attending, and sharing details of peep shows and moronic porn films, then you may enjoy this off-beat PI tale:

He glanced at the rack of Big Tit mags, whose publishers had always seemed to work harder at the titles of their mags. D-Cup was still going strong, he noted, and so was 42-Plus. Bazooms was there too, making tits sound like ballistic missiles, and a new one called Milkmaids.

At one point, Duffy sits in on a porn film, and his description of the thin, ridiculous plot is really very funny, but best of all, for this reader is Duffy’s explanations for just how a copper becomes corrupt:

Still, every year around the Golden Mile brought different temptations. He knew how it happened: you didn’t take the free booze even if everyone else did; you didn’t take the first girl you got offered; you turned down the smokes and the snort; and then something quite trivial happened, like you asked for a couple of days to pay at the bookie’s. Quite suddenly, the place had got you. It wasn’t necessarily that there was a particular gang always on the look-out to bend coppers (though sometimes there was); it was somehow the place that got you. It was one square mile of pressure, and everyone had a weak point.

Duffy, a man with a fetish for neatness, makes an interesting series character. He knows how to BS the punters who want all the bells and whistles of PI work, but nevertheless he takes his job very seriously. The novel argues that working vice, stepping in a world in which every imaginable desire is for sale, is a corrupting environment which will stain any copper who lingers there long enough.

Review copy

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The Master of Knots by Massimo Carlotto

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a fan of Italian author Massimo Carlotto. If you want to read some of the finest Italian crime fiction written, then seek out Death’s Dark Abyss or The Goodbye Kissboth books offer views of Carlotto’s dark worlds of crime, worlds in which morality is an idea for textbooks and has very little to do with the choices life puts in front of us.

But first a word about Massimo Carlotto. His non-fiction book, The Fugitive, recounts how, as a member of Lotta Continua, he was charged with a crime he did not commit.  After three trials he was acquitted, but when the acquittal was overturned, he faced a sentence of 18 years in prison. Carlotto went on the run and eventually ended up in a Mexican jail.

Carlotto knows first hand about ‘justice,’ imprisonment, and institutional violence, and no doubt all this experience is what makes his novels seem so authentic. While he’s written stand-alone novels, there’s also a PI series which features Marco Burrati–otherwise known as the Alligator. The Master of Knots is number 5 in the Alligator series, and while there are some references to the past, I don’t think it’s essential to read the prior 4. I haven’t. 

master of knotsThe Master of Knots finds Marco in his club, La Cuccia which also serves as his unofficial PI office. Marco’s past includes 7 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, so he is forced to register the club in someone else’s name. Business is good, and there’s no financial need to take PI cases, but Marco feels driven by a need to seek justice for those who either have no recourse to the law, or those, who, for a variety of reasons, find the legal system ineffectual or out-of-bounds. Marco’s long-time girlfriend Virna (Bandit Love) who’s unaware of Marco’s past does not understand Marco’s desire to take investigative cases, and this has led to a severance of their relationship. To Marco, his PI work “gave some meaning” to his life, and he can’t let it go.

Marco’s help is sought by a rather weasely man named Giraldi, who claims that his wife Helena, an S & M model with a perfect body, has been kidnapped after keeping a rendezvous with a stranger she met on the internet. Marco dislikes Giraldi immediately, and after a cursory overview of the facts, Marco knows that the husband’s story stinks, but he agrees to take the case.

This missing person’s case takes Marco and his associates, aging old-world gangster Rossini (who sports a gold bracelet, a “scalp,” for every man he’s killed), and anti-globalist activist Max deep into the secret world of S & M. Max, who considers that Helena is in the hands of a “maniac” feels a moral imperative to become involved while Rossini considers the case as something outside of a gangster’s interest. The three men soon penetrate the secret world of S & M, learn the rules for encounters, and conclude that according to Giraldi’s story, his wife Helena, an experienced “slave,” broke every rule in the book. This leads Marco to conclude that either Helena was careless or that Giraldi is lying through his teeth, and if he’s lying, what does he hope to gain? Marco initially doesn’t understand the attraction of S & M at all, but gradually he comes to accept that for some people it fills a deep-seated need.

Playing a role was not a performance they put on just to have some enjoyable sex. There was something deeper that drove people to construct perfectly organized double lives. It was vital that nobody outside the S and M scene should know a thing, not even their nearest and dearest. Discovery would destroy their lives totally.

Cracking open the S & M circuit is no easy matter–especially when those involved are suspicious of outsiders and cautious when it comes to interactions. The lives of S & M players are by their very nature secret, and everyone Marco meets leads double lives. With the help of a couple of Sardinian computer hackers, Marco accesses forums and e-mails of the sites Helena cruised. As Marco goes deeper and deeper into the S & M world, ugly memories from his prison years float to the surface. These are things he’d much rather forget, but seeing sex and violence entwined disturbs Marco and his two associates deeply.

The Master of Knots is the story of a missing S & M model, but it’s much more than that. The impact of violence is central to this story, and S & M–with its variety of sexual encounters performed with mutual consent, rules and various safety boundaries has spun out of control into something much more dangerous. The entire concept of S & M is outside of Marco, Rossini, and Max’s experience, and they don’t understand it, but when they uncover blackmail and underground films that fetch a high price, they are motivated to solve the case.  Marco learns that some S & M “masters” have their very own, well-equipped secret dungeons. For a man who’s endured false imprisonment, torture, and beatings, the idea that some people elect to engage in S & M, even with its rules and boundaries, is simply inconceivable.

Violence–its use and misuse appears frequently in the novel. Violence towards women, violence within the prison system between inmates and between inmates and guards, and then there’s violence of the state towards those who disagree with government policies. We see the latter through Max’s new-found activism, and his refusal to listen to Marco’s warnings concerning the very real possibility of violence at the G-8 protest. Marco has moved on from activism–hence the PI work, as it’s an arena he can control. Max, however, is eager to attend the protests–even though it’s guaranteed to turn violent, and Max, middle-aged and overweight, will make an easy target. Here’s Marco warning Max about the realities of prison and finding yourself in the hands of the State:

“Back in the days when grassing up your comrades was just getting to be the height of fashion, those involved in armed struggle began to lose any trust they had ever had in one another. So every time one of them went to see the doctor, the prison governor, or the prison admin office, he had to be accompanied by a fellow comrade just to make sure he didn’t cut a deal with the cops. But in the end they always found a way.”

“So?”

“Torture had fuck-all to do with it. The only thing they were afraid of was doing time and growing old behind bars. They got off lightly, every last one of them.”

“I can’t see what you’re driving at.”

“You can understand and forgive someone who talks because his nuts are in a vice. Anybody can have a moment’s weakness, but ratting is something else. So before you get yourself in trouble it’s best to work out whether or not you have the balls to do prison.”

Carlotto’s novels are lean, hard-boiled and devoid of sentimentality. Marco, Rossini, and Max are the good guys here, but their methods are unorthodox, illegal, and very violent. There are no rules for these men; they do what is necessary to solve the case, and in this instance, the mystery surrounding the missing S & M model, turns even their stomachs. There’s no sense of do-gooding here–it’s more a matter of clearing out cockroaches. Since Marco operates in his own criminal world with underworld contacts, the police are always in the periphery of Marco’s shady world. While Marco is the brains of the outfit, Rossini is the enforcer who clearly enjoys his work. Marco admits:

The rule is that when you need information, first you ask nicely and then you break bones. Face it, it’s a method we use, too. Intimidation, violence, and blackmail are the only techniques for making people talk.

At just 179 page, The Master of Knots, part of Europa Edition’s World Noir series, is a slim, quick, and enjoyable read. There were a couple of gruesome moments but the details were not slobbered over. Finally,  I loved the character of Donatella Morganti. Marco finds her extremely attractive–until she opens her mouth, so just a touch of humour slips into the story. Anyway, another engaging entry in a good series.

Translated by Christopher Woodall.

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The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

Parker Bilal is the pen name for Jamal Mahjoub–an author who has already published a number of novels, and now with this pen name, the author introduces an intriguing new character for what promises to be an excellent series. The Golden Scales is set in Cairo, and the protagonist is low-rent PI Makana. Makana, a political refugee, just barely manages to eke out a living while haunted by memories of his past life as a Sudanese police inspector.

It’s 1998, and shabbily-dressed Makana lives on an awama–a type of tiny ramshackle houseboat which in reality is a “flimsy plywood construction nailed haphazardly on to a rusty pontoon.” He’s behind on his rent and his landlady, Umm Ali is growing impatient. He’s lived a sort of twilight existence working the occasional PI job now for seven years after fleeing from Khartoum.

Usually his clients thought they could get him to work a little more cheaply and discreetly than a local investigator might. Still, in recent months he had found himself struggling. The work had dried up, no one had any money, and Makana was faced with the fact that if things did not improve soon he would have to think about finding some other kind of gainful employment. His needs were not excessive, his one vice being tobacco; other than that he lived the kind of frugal existence that would have shamed a wandering Sufi.

Luck seems to turn to Makana’s favour when he receives an unexpected visit from an employee of Saad Hanafi–one of Egypt’s richest men. Hanafi has his finger in almost every conceivable industry–real estate, construction, and he even owns a wildly popular football team known as The DreemTeem. A number of legends surround the mystery of Hanifi’s ugly past, and while it’s difficult to ascertain just how much is true and how much is fabricated, it is clear that as a young man, Hanafi was involved in major criminal enterprises. These days, however, Hanafi has gilded his reputation with generosity and “The DreemTeem was part of his PR makeover.” Hanafi has discovered a unique way to gain popular support in a country wracked with horrendous poverty:

In this world, it seemed, if you wanted to assure yourself of a seat in the temple among the great and godly, owning your own football team greatly improved your chances. And whereas most teams were associated with one particular part of the city or another, the Hanafi DreemTeem represented the aspirations of millions. This was what he really offered : a dream that everyone could share. In a draw held once a month, he gave away an apartment to some fortunate person. On television you could watch them screaming and fainting as they were given the news. They wailed and howled and fell to the ground. They tore at their hair, and jumped up and down. People supported Hanafi’s team because they wanted something to believe in.

Makana is summoned to Hanafi’s palatial home because the DreemTeem‘s star player, Adil Romario is missing. Just as there’s a legend about Hanafi’s ill-gotten gains, there’s a legend about Adil’s success which involves a story in which Hanafi discovered Adil as an urchin on the streets of Cairo. Hanafi claims he loves Adil like a son, but that after a row, Adil went missing. Makana’s job is to track Adil down and make him return. To Makana, something doesn’t feel right about the case, but he needs the money and takes the job.

Makana’s search for Adil takes him to the DreemTeem‘s manager, a corrupt Italian with mafia connections, Adil’s love interest the actress Lulu Hamra, and to the shabby film studios belonging to Salim Farag. Adil had an ambition to leave the pressures of the DreemTeem behind and become an actor instead. He certainly has the looks for it, but film clips at Faraga Films reveal a lack of talent. And then there’s a predatory Russian in the background. What is his involvement in Adil’s disappearance?

As Makana hunts for Adil, he meets Liz Markham, a British woman who’s searching for her daughter who disappeared in Cairo 17 years earlier. Makana, who mourns for his own lost daughter, experiences a moment of empathy with Liz, and later, he becomes convinced that the mystery of the missing Markham child is somehow connected to the disappearance of Adil Romario.

While Makana investigates the disappearance of Hanafi’s prize football player, an embedded narrative slowly reveals Makana’s past in Sudan.

Then one day the country awoke to find a new regime had arrived, announcing that the solution to all their problems lay in a more rigorous embrace of Islam. The self-styled government of National Salvation promised to overturn the hierarchies of class and ethnicity to make all equal under the sun of religious faith. 

Makana’s memories reveal a country plunged into religious fanaticism, and this story line, slowly parcelled out over the course of the novel,  reveals just how those who formerly enforced Sudan’s laws are subverted and corrupted. In his role as a Sudanese police inspector, Makana was supposed to investigate murders, but when purges and murders are committed by the people running the country, he finds himself in an untenable situation.  

Makana’s department was placed under the command of Major Idris, a stiff-necked military man who not only knew nothing about police work, but didn’t want to know. He didn’t have time for it. To Major Idris, it was all a matter of filling out the right forms and keeping his nose clean. A party member, he was on his way up. Nothing else mattered. Catching criminals was certainly not a priority. Praying was a priority. Keeping his superiors happy was a priority. With Idris came a flood of similar types, Makana had no idea where from. He had never seen them before. They seemed more concerned with flushing out potential critics of the regime than pursuing law breakers.

It wasn’t just the formalities which had changed, it was the very nature of crime itself. You picked up a victim by the side of the road with a bullet in his head, or a man with water in his lungs lying in the middle of the desert, and you asked yourself, how could this have happened? Nobody really wanted to know. As Major Idris reminded him more than once: “You’re a smart man, Makana. Smart enough to know that if I tell you these things are out of our hands then there is no need for you to worry yourself further.”

For those who like their crime fiction to take place in foreign locations, The Golden Scales holds great appeal. Not only is there plenty of local colour and a strong sociopolitical context, but the story takes us from the unrest in Sudan, to the marketplaces of Cairo, to the Pyramids, a swanky casino which bans locals, and the private estates of the fabulously wealthy. Throughout the tale, we see a nervous Cairo determined to facedown Islamic fundamentalists and reassure tourists in spite of the ever-present threat of political instability. In The Golden Scales–which is, by the way–a reference to justice, the author has created a unique PI–a character whose story is yet to be completed.  It’s refreshing to read a tale of a PI who’s not alcoholic and not unhappily married for once.

In spite of the story’s serious political issues, there’s a light sense of humour which balances the tale. Here’s Makana making an observation about Hanafi’s tacky decor:

Two giant glazed ceramic leopards stood guard by the entrance. A reminder that when you had all the money in the world, you didn’t need taste. 

Review copy from publisher.

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More Beer by Jakob Arjouni

“The most revealing thing about a murder is its motive. And the most revealing thing about a motive is the victim. It’s as simple as that.”

I have read a number of books that indicate a surprising lack of basic knowledge when it comes to writing about so-called eco-terrorists. These ‘thrillers’ include fictional characters who are activists engaged in acts of sabotage against, let’s say, laboratories that conduct experiments on animal subjects, urban sprawl, or slaughter houses. The authors of such books frequently choose to ignore the basic tenet of Ecotage and the direct action performed by environmental groups such as ALF and ELF–that is destruction to property and not to human life. So with those reading experiences in mind, it was simply refreshing to come across More Beer, a German crime novel written by Jakob Arjouni.

More Beer is the tale of a German/Turk PI named Kemal Kayankaya who’s roped into a very messy case. This is an ecotage case in which four young activists from the Ecological Front raided a chemical plant and blew up a waste pipe. Chemicals from the Bollig plant had been discharged into a nearby lake for some time, and several children in the area “developed strange skin problems” as a result. In spite of the fact that the Bollig plant could be forced to pay damages to the families of these children, no substantial change had been made to the chemical plant procedures. It is business as usual for the Bollig plant, and the ecological activists decided to raid the plant and blow up the waste pipe “to get the debate going again.” But something went wrong, and the owner of the plant, Friedrich Bollig was shot dead with “four bullets in his chest and head.”

According to eyewitnesses at the scene, there were five men running around that night, but only four were arrested. The men, who refuse to talk to the police and refuse to identify the fifth man, admit blowing up the pipe but deny that they had anything to do with Bollig’s death. According to their lawyer, Anastas, without the identity of the fifth man he finds it impossible to “mount a successful defense.” Anastas believes his clients are innocent of murder and admits that “these four are as far removed from killer commandos as a delegation of allotment holders would be.” 

In spite of some skepticism Kayankaya agrees to take the case. On the one hand, he finds it bizarre that ec0-saboteurs would end up killing someone, but then to say that these 4 men who were on site to blow up a waste pipe just happened to be there when Fredrich Bollig was murdered by someone else seems to be stretching any notion of coincidence. But there are some things that bother Kayankaya about the case. How did the police catch the saboteurs so quickly? Some eyewitnesses say that they heard shots prior to the explosion, but then supposedly Bollig went to investigate the explosion and was then shot. Kayankaya knows that he must investigate the conflicting eyewitness statements and establish the exact sequence of events and that he must also ascertain who would benefit from the death of Bollig.

While some people at the Bollig plant are very cooperative, others are hostile. As the investigation deepens, it also becomes increasingly dangerous for Kayankaya–especially since as a Turk he’s already subject to a large amount of prejudice from witnesses and from the police investigating the case.

More Beer includes some marvellous characterisations which raised the book above the norm for crime fiction. Here’s Hertha, the owner of Hertha’s Corner, a seedy 24-hour bar:

The proprietress pushed through the brown bead curtain, took my cup away and brought it back with a refill. Her ample bosom was swathed in a ball gown from which her arms, neck, and head protruded like sausages. Her rear was adorned with a purple satin bow, her wrists with fake gold bracelets. Her hair had been dipped in liquid silver. Hertha was the owner of Hertha’s Corner–open twenty-four hours. The place was large, dark, and empty. The dusty bottles behind the bar were lit up by fluorescence. Raindrops rattled against the dirty windowpanes. In one corner stood the table reserved for regulars, with its wrought-iron emblem, a wild sow waving a beer stein. Hertha was rinsing glasses. A fly landed on my mutilated sandwich. I lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings around the fly.

Kayankaya discovers more than one skeleton in the Bollig family closet, and it seems as though Bollig’s murder has managed to sway public opinion favorably towards the chemical waste company responsible for damaging the local children.  Kayankaya keeps digging and his investigation brings him to the attention of the sadistic Detective Superintendent Kessler–a man whose slight physical presence belies his nasty nature.

More Beer, part of a series of Kayankaya mysteries, is written with a light touch of humour with PI Kayankaya mainly amused by the bizarre characters he meets during the course of his investigation. These colourful locals include the heavily-tanned, merry widow Barbara Bollig,  and Nina Scheigel, the vodka-guzzling wife of the night watchman. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. 

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Review copy courtesy of Melville House Publishing via netgalley.

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