Wednesday, April 13, 2011


From our recurring guest, DOC HERMES

Known by the blah generic title HEADS YOU LOSE in later paperback editions, this 1943 book is a perfectly enjoyable little mystery with two added points of interest. It deals with the rationing system used during WW II and it briefly touches on Mike Shayne coping immediately after the death of his wife Phyllis.

According to Davis Dresser (the original "Brett Halliday"), a movie studio was interested in Shayne but didn't want him with a wife in tow, so the author reluctantly dispatched her between books. After MURDER WEARS A MUMMER'S MASK, poor Phyllis died offstage in childbirth (and evidently the baby did, also). I really disliked this development, partly because I am just so sick of the hero's wife or girlfriend getting bumped off for plot purposes but also because Phyllis was a perfect counterbalance to Shayne's grim surliness. Bubbly, energetic, a bit vacant, she brightened up the stories and gave them some levity.

None of this is explained in BLOOD ON THE BLACK MARKET. We simply find out that she's gone. Shayne is now staying in his office in the same building, but he seems to be still keeping up the rent on the apartment on the floor above, where he and his wife lived. During the course of this case, trying to shake two police detectives who are cramping his style, the big redhead returns briefly to his old flat. ("....he turned on the lights and stood looking about the beautifully appointed and restful living room with an expression of acute sorrow tightening his face. Everything reminded him of Phyllis. Never would there be a wife like her again.")

Maybe he had a longterm lease on the apartment with time to run before it would be rented to someone else or maybe he's still renting it to possibly refurnish at some point, but it's evident Mike Shayne is in serious denial. He comes from the old cowboy school of the stony face and unflinching suffering in silence; it's hard to imagine him crying openly, even at her funeral. But when he has to break bad news to a pregnant young wife, it hits him hard again. ("He slumped low under the wheel. He had inured himself against hurt. Sorrow and grief were for lesser men than he, but as he drove toward Miami in the bright moonlight an acute pain gripped him.... Shayne suffered the agony of the damned, remembering his own slender, darkeyed wife who had not been so fortunate as the humble wife of Joe Wilson.")

All of this is only found in a few references here and there in the story. From the moment a desperate phone call from a man about to murdered wakes him, Shayne is just too busy to brood. A gas station owner he knew and liked is shot dead, and as our shamus investigates (for once, without even a chance at collecting a fee) he begins to uncover something bigger than the usual murders based on jealousy or greed.

Determined to find out who killed the station owner and also motivated by a genuine patriotism, Shayne lets it be known that he was told who was behind the killing. This makes him a walking target to the gang, of course, but it's a time honored way detectives and spies in pulp fiction entice their enemies out into the open (Just let them take a few shots at you so you can identify them.. this requires a bit of nerve, true.)

The investigation moves at a brisk clip (I read the book pretty much in one sitting, with no feeling of hitting any slack areas), and before you know it, Shayne is dodging rifle bullets and being slightly seduced by a woman lawyer (she snatches a gun from his hand and shoots a suspect dead right in the doorway, a startling moment for a first date). Hardly slowing to eat or sleep or change his shirt, Shayne is violently intimidating shysters and trading snappy banter with Police Chief Gentry ("This time you're going to have to put your cards on the table, Mike. Four men have died while you horsed around and acted mysterious"). Our boy takes a good amount of physical wear and tear, ending up in the ER getting broken ribs taped and putting salve on his bruised mouth for the rest of the case.

As a private eye, Michael Shayne does all right. He's tough enough; two goons take him for a ride at gunpoint and, without giving too much away, he's around for the rest of the book. Shayne is not a deductive artist anywhere near the Ellery Queen or Nero Wolfe level, but he understands human nature and can puzzle through alibis. At one point, he realizes one suspect knew something before the papers printed it and therefore is the guilty party; this is a fair clue an alert reader could have picked up on. He even assembles a dozen suspects and the police in one room to give the clarifying speech where all the loose ends are tied up.

The racket being busted this time seems to be a shady way of getting around gas rationing. (Starting in 1942, Americans were issued ration books limiting how much of some items they could buy, most importantly gasoline. This was evidently a way of conserving tires, as rubber was increasingly hard to get, due to the war in the Pacific.) Shayne is outraged by this scheme to beat the rations system, and he makes some pointed speeches about hoarders and black market operators. He may feel he can do more good work in a belted trenchcoat than an Army uniform, but the redhead's patriotism is genuine.
(In fact, he has a contact in Captain Ott of Military Intelligence and there's a reference to his having helped them before. ("Anytime you want a commission, Shayne....")

I like the details in this story about driving with dim headlights at twenty miles per hour during a dimout, everyone walking a lot more than usual, even the comments about how precious coffee is becoming. A casual reference to a zoot suit with brown and purple stripes is another reason why books should not be updated with topical references removed; little images like that, or Shayne crumpling his soft felt hat suddenly set the stories in their era and make them seem much more real. It's your nickel, start talking.