Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Murder and the Married Virgin by Brett Halliday (4/5)

Michael Shayne
It's no secret that I love vintage crime fiction.  One look at my 2011 reading list will tell you that much.  My favorite authors in the genre are Hammett and Chandler, but a close runner up has to be Brett Halliday.  He's not as hard-hitting as Hammet, nor is he as artful as Chandler, but there's a vintage charm about his writing that I find utterly enthralling.  When reading one of his novels, I feel I've been transported back into the heyday of hardboiled gumshoes, into a world of molls and gats and grifters.  Even Dashiell Hammett, the pater familias of all things Hardboiled, can’t utterly engross me the same way.  Sure the plots can be formulaic, sure the writing isn't especially amazing (it's still a long way from being bad, though).  I don't care.  I'm in it for the ambiance, and Halliday has that in spades.

Davis Dresser
Halliday was actually the pseudonym of Davis Dresser, the author of no less than fifty Michael Shayne detective novels.  He later commissioned other authors to ghost-write another 27 titles under the Shayne series for a total of 77 books.  His first Shayne novel, Dividend on Death was rejected by 21 publishers before being accepted by Henry Holt & Co. in 1939.  So for all you aspiring writers out there, the lesson is:  persistence pays off.  A few more interesting tidbits:  Twelve movies were made using adaptations of his Michael Shayne books, he wrote a slew of non-series mysteries, westerns, and romances under other pen names, and he was given an Edgar award for his non-fiction writings on the mystery genre--quite a pedigree, all told.

So why am I telling you this?  Two reasons.  One, the review for today is Halliday's 1944 title Murder and the Married Virgin.  And two, I've decided to honor this occasion with a giveaway of a vintage copy of another Michael Shayne mystery Framed in Blood.  It was originally published in 1951, but the giveaway copy is a reprint from the 60s.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  It's a consolation prize of a giveaway, but what do you want?  I'm a cheap bastard.  It says so in the bio.  Recently I found out that I'd accidentally purchased two copies of this little gem, and I thought, what better way to share the vintage love than to host a giveaway?  Take a gander over here for entry rules and all that jazz.  Sorry, entrants must be within the United States or Canada.  As we've already established, I'm a cheap SoB, and my shipping budget is limited.

O.K., where were we?  Oh, that's right.  The review.

The titular character of the Mike Shayne series is a tall, red-headed, wise-cracking P.I. with an unflinching sense of justice.  In the first novels he was based in Miami (and married, no less), but after his wife's untimely death in a later book he moved to New Orleans... and then back again, but that's beside the point.  This particular title takes place in New Orleans.  Shayne is hired by the fiancé of a dead girl to find out what happened in her apparent suicide attempt.  They were supposed to be married the very next day, but she supposedly went into her room, turned on the gas grate in the fireplace, and drifted off into the final sleep with a smile upon her lips.  She worked as a maid at the home of the Lomax family, the very same house where upon the night of her death an emerald necklace insured for $125,000 was stolen.  As it so happens (very conveniently so) the insurance company that issued the policy also hires Shayne to recover the necklace, and off he goes to rattle cages, stir the pot, and generally stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.  It quickly becomes obvious that both cases are related (duh) and that everyone involved knows more than they’re letting on (double-duh).  Shayne continues to bang his head against the wall until he finally breaks through to the truth, gathers all the players together, and then explains the mystery and sends the perpetrators off to the iron bar motel.

I warned you these things could be formulaic, didn’t I?  But formulaic or not, it’s still a lot of fun.  The writing is utterly pulp, and it’s so hardboiled it’s practically granite.  What I find most endearing, however, are the minor aspects of the story and the style.  The dialogue is crisp, the action is pumped with machismo, and the period-specific details (telephone operators, typewriters, drug stores, etc.) are as fascinating to me as shiny stuff to a barracuda.  I love just about everything vintage anyway, so when you throw mystery and murder into the mix I’m in hog heaven. 

I do have a couple of gripes, however.  After all, what self-respecting wannabe literary critic could pass up an opportunity to gripe?  First, the coincidence of being hired to work two sides of the same case is a little bit too coincidental for me to willingly suspend my disbelief (thank you S.T. Coleridge).  Coincidences are fine and all, it’s just that when applied incorrectly they can smack of “author fiat” rather than “random quirk of fate.”  In this instance I was able to get past it since it happened at the beginning of the book and the rest of the plot didn’t totally hinge upon it.  Second, the plot twist at the end was way too reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 short story “Pearls Are a Nuisance.”  If you haven’t read a lot of vintage crime fiction, you probably won’t even notice.  If you have, well, you won’t care all that much since you obviously like the genre to begin with.  You won’t mind that I just spoiled the ending either because you will have seen the ending coming a mile away anyhow.  I just can’t pass up an opportunity to sound smart and well-read.  It’s a curse, really.

At any rate, if you like old mysteries, or even if you don’t, I encourage you to give Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne series a try.  They’re short and sweet, so you won’t have to invest much time in them.  One lucky winner won’t have to invest any money in it either.  For the rest of you it will be marginally more expensive at around $3 or $4 a pop from a used bookstore (if that), but even for a cheap sucker like me that’s not half bad.  I give Murder and the Married Virgin four out of five stars.


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