Judson Phillips, also known as Hugh Pentecost, wrote a dizzying number of mysteries under both names, earning him the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1973. His first mysteries were about a gambler in New York City named Danny Coyle and his assistant Claude Donovan, nicknamed Harvard. The Fourteenth Trump (Dodd, Mead, 1942) is the second one.
Danny Coyle used to be a bookmaker but now he specializes in betting on anything at all that interests him. Currently his favorite bet involves the local district attorney, whom he loathes. The DA’s office is being investigated by a special committee headed up by Congressman Terry Reardon. Danny has bet a quarter of a million dollars (nearly $4 million in 2019 dollars) that when the investigation is complete, the DA will be out of office.
Reardon’s fiancé is found standing over the body of a man in his hotel room, holding a gun that has been recently fired. She denies involvement, saying she just arrived and found the victim, but she’s arrested for murder in what appears to be an open-and-shut case. She refuses to talk to anyone, including Reardon, but she does ask Harvard to pay her gambling debt of forty-seven hundred dollars (worth just under $74 thousand in 2019) at a questionable bridge club.
Danny assumes the arrest is a frame set up to embarrass Reardon and by extension, himself. He throws himself into the investigation to salvage his bet and his reputation, looking at the bridge club and its gun-toting staff closely, especially after he determines that the play in the club is rigged in favor of the house. Harvard’s girlfriend decides to help things along and engages in a flirtation with the worst of the thugs at the bridge club, putting herself and Harvard in danger.
Danny is a likeable character who inspires loyalty among his legion of informants. My favorite is Mickey, who runs a dice game in the subway station late every night to take advantage of men waiting for their trains. An involved plot includes an intricate examination of timing and of clocks that may or may not have been changed in order to provide an alibi. A plot twist from out in left field in the last chapter or two reminds the reader that the book was written during wartime.