Friday, November 27, 2009
Forgotten Books: Homicide Johnny by Steve Fisher
This book wasn’t quite what I expected.
I amassed a lot of Steve Fisher novels twenty years back, when I was deep in the throes of hardboiled mania. I’d seen Lady In The Lake (with that incredible Fisher sceenplay) several times and scuttlebutt said he was a great hardboiled writer. But near as I recall, I never got around to reading one of his books.
Enter Homicide Johnny. Interesting title. Excellent cover. Originally published in 1940 by “Stephen Gould”, this was (I think) Fisher's fifth novel, right before I Wake Up Screaming.
I expected hardboiled. Well, it is - a little. But only in the attitude of our hero, small town homicide detective Johnny West. (Why such a small town needs a homicide specialist is never addressed, but we’ll let that go.) The prose is nicely crafted, even eloquent in spots, but never what I would call tough.
I expected sharp, memorable wise-guy dialogue, something on par with my favorite line from Lady in the Lake, where Robert Montgomery says to Audrey Totter, “Imagine you needing ice cubes.” Well, the dialogue is sharp, breezy, and sometimes playful, but it never sizzles. Johnny's investigative partner is town librarian Penny Lane (yep, no fooling), and the repartee between the two is sometimes reminiscent of The Thin Man. But I finished the book this morning, and couldn’t quote you a single line.
I expected more thriller than mystery. Nope. This is an old-fashioned no-nonsense mystery. Every character we meet has a motive for the murders. When they’re caught in lies, they cover up with new lies, maintaining their suspect status right until the end. In the last chapter, when Johnny tells Penny he's almost figured it out, we get a one-page reminder of who the eight suspects are and what they’re doing right before Johnny’s big reveal. On the next page Johnny tells Penny (and the reader) that all the clues are out there and if she (they) were paying close attention the murderer should be obvious. Then, once the killer is exposed, Johnny talks for seven straight pages explaining to the murderer exactly what happened and why - stuff the killer already knows, of course, but the reader doesn’t. By today's standards, it's less than sophisticated.
About the cover: A fine job (as always) by Rudolph Belarski, but not quite true to the story. There is a hot blonde in the book, but she never takes off her starchy white nurse uniform. And there’s a scene where librarian Penny Lane pumps several bullets into an attacker in a basement, but her hair is the color of mahogany, and bare shoulders and heaving bosom are hardly her style. Nor is there any reason to believe it is unduly, uh… chilly in the basement.
If I’ve made Homicide Johnny sound like a bad book, I apologize. It was a quick read and I enjoyed it. I expect you’ll enjoy it even more, because you’ll know what to expect. A brand new paperback reprint is available on Amazon from a publisher called “Black Mask”, about which I know nothing. Amazon also offers a kindle version for $3.19.
Check out the list of this week's other Forgotten Books on Patti Abbot's pattinase.