Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dead Can Tell by Helen Reilly

Helen Reilly (1891-1962) wrote nearly 40 mysteries between 1930 and 1962. Her primary series character was Inspector Christopher McKee of the fictional Manhattan Homicide Squad. She is credited with writing some of the earliest known police procedurals, using forensics and scientific investigation to solve the mystery. Michael E. Grost (http://mikegrost.com/classics.htm) has an essay on her use of scientific detection principles in her books on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki:   http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931406/Reilly%2C%20Helen

She did keep herself informed in the realm of forensics research. In The Dead Can Tell (Random House, 1940) she makes use of the new method of rebuilding the face of homicide victims based on the skull bone structure when they cannot be identified any other way.

In this story, the ninth appearance of McKee, Steven Hazard and Cristie Lansing accidentally meet after ending their relationship years earlier. They are both reminded of what they gave up, especially Steven, who married on the rebound, only to regret it bitterly. He takes a promotion within his company that will take him out of the country and plans to take Cristie with him, after initiating divorce proceedings and handing over virtually all of his assets to his wife Sara. To his great surprise, Sara will not grant him the divorce he wants. Within 24 hours, her car is seen to roll off the street into the river. When the car is recovered within hours, there was no one in it. When her body is recovered weeks later, the medical examiner’s findings are death by accident.

A few weeks after the funeral, Inspector McKee receives an anonymous letter that says Sara Hazard was murdered. While he has no real evidence that the death was anything but accidental, he begins investigating. He learns that Sara Hazard’s maid has disappeared with some of Sara’s jewelry. He finds that Sara was deeply in debt and indulged in blackmail to keep herself afloat. It took no time to discover that her husband wanted to end their marriage. With the list of her enemies growing almost daily, Inspector McKee finds it easier and easier to believe the death was deliberately contrived.

While it’s clear that Reilly did indeed incorporate police procedures into the plot of her book, she wasn’t consistent with their application. For instance, she did not observe the preservation of the chain of evidence as it related to one of the guns in the case. It probably wasn’t as important then as it is now.

The general style of the writing and many of the characters in this book remind me of the Lockridges’ work. Perhaps also because it is set in New York, where most of their books were set. I intend to locate a few more in this series for my TBR stack. Recommended especially for anyone interested in the history of police procedurals.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Slayground by Richard Stark

Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was an assiduous and creative author with about 100 crime fiction novels and dozens of short stories to his credit under various pen names. His fecund imagination earned him the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993 and the Eye Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 2004. Possibly his most enduring creation is Parker, a professional thief with ice water in his veins. Parker is preternaturally level-headed under pressure, managing inept colleagues and one impossible escape after another. Parker has been featured in graphic novels as well as movies.

My favorite of the 24-book series is Slayground (Random House, 1971), which takes place during the winter at an amusement park shut down for the season. As is often the case, a robbery getaway doesn’t go quite as planned. Parker takes the loot and dives into the park, thinking to lay low for awhile and then quietly escape. A group of crime gang members are in the vicinity for their own reasons and decide to relieve Parker of his cash. Parker is frustrated to learn there is no back exit to the amusement park. With the gang protecting the only way out, he proceeds to protect himself and his hard-earned money.

The suspense rolls off the page in this short book. Under normal circumstances, the thugs should have had no trouble in dealing with one lone gunman. But this gunman was Parker, who has the ingenuity of MacGyver in turning whatever equipment or tools are at hand into effective weapons.  The casualty rate was much higher than they expected. Part of the tension comes from the jarring juxtaposition of an amusement park, the site of light-hearted entertainment, turned into a war zone. Rapid pacing, terse prose, eminently readable.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Innocent Bystander by Craig Rice

Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig (1908–1957) wrote a number of mysteries, short stories, and screenplays under the name Craig Rice after beginning her writing career as a journalist in 1930. She is mostly known for her comic mysteries with Jake Justus, a clueless press agent; Helene Brand, an heiress; and John Joseph Malone, a not especially successful lawyer, all hard drinkers in Chicago, where most of her books were set.

Innocent Bystander (Simon and Schuster, 1949) was an anomaly in her mystery fiction. Set on the carnival boardwalk in an oceanside town in southern California, it is a stark tale that leads with Tony Webb, a recent “graduate” of Sing Sing, who’s looking for vengeance against the mob boss who sent him to prison. The boss turns up dead in a Ferris wheel on the boardwalk and the local police set out to find Tony. A young woman was having a portrait drawn by a carnival sketch artist near the ride at the time and she is believed to have witnessed the murder, so she is included in the search.

Tony has heard from his friends in the carnival that she saw him and he is looking for her to remove her as a threat. One of the detectives is smitten with the girl’s appearance and he wants to save her from Tony. A corrupt detective is determined to find the girl first and brutally beats the carnival sketch artist, trying to obtain information about the girl from him, unaware and uncaring that the artist was both hearing and speech impaired.

While we know something of what many of the characters are thinking and feeling, we do not have insight into the girl except through how the other characters experience her, giving her an opaque mystique.

The boardwalk setting and the closed-in interactions of the carnival personnel to protect themselves against the police are the most interesting aspects of the book. The chase through the hall of mirrors reminds me of Richard Stark’s Slayground, set in a carnival closed for the winter. Otherwise it is a hard-boiled story lacking in Rice’s much vaunted humor, a definite departure from her usual mysteries.

For more information about Rice, see Jeffrey Marks’ 2001 biography of Rice, Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery, her entry on the Golden Age Detection blog, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931419/Rice%2C%20Craig, and a well-done article on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Rice_(author).