Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Halo for Satan (Howard Browne writing as John Evans, 1948)

Private detective Paul Pine is hired by a priest, an ageing mobster and two beautiful women to find some ancient manuscript written by, ahem, none other than our saviour Jesus Christ. With such an incredibly preposterous plot vehicle (and I'll get back to this, no worries), this one didn't promise much initially. With all respect to Browne and despite his reputation...

But it gets better and better with every chapter. Classical hard-boiled detective novel (see facts below), filled with dames, gangsters, sinister killers, tough cops etc. Everything is a bit over the top, but the plot is really cool and every now and then, the author throws a curveball that misleads the reader. Of course, everything culminates with an excellent and surprising whodunit that makes sense. The story is easy to follow, and it's driven mainly through snappy dialogues and action. Honestly cannot remember the last time I read such a good Chandler imitation.

Pine shares a lot of characteristics with Marlowe: he is cool, smart, streetwise, witty, resourceful, efficient (he hardly sleeps and spends nights being interrogated by the police after finding corpses), follows his moral code (I like to keep my promises!) and - above all - he has an attitude. The Attitude! I loved the scene where he takes his money out of the wallet before handing it to a cop for identification. Hilarious! I will be tempted to do that myself next time police stop me :)

But there are, of course, differences too. He reads a lot and, in fact, keeps books instead of a bottle in the office drawer. In this one he reads a couple of paperbacks written by Philip Wylie and William P. McGivern (The women in it were beautiful and the private eye was brilliant). Pine is not as cynical (disillusioned?) as Marlowe, and his methods differ a bit. For example, I was surprised he had given his client's name to both the police (in fact, he made a deal with them and used the client's name for barging) and mobster...

And before I wrap this up, what about that Christ nonsense? Manuscript actually never materialises and it (supposedly) gets burned before the end. So it is either another curve ball thrown at us to make the plot more interesting, or it's maybe simply a "stuff that dreams are made of".

Either way, this is excellent stuff. More than appropriate for the 100th post of this blog.



"Private investigations." Her voice quavered ever so lightly. "Does that mean you're a detective, Mr.Pine?"
"Just a private kind," I said. "I couldn't arrest anybody, if that's what you mean."


Body count
7 - not forgetting Kurt in LA, but not counting Louie who died peacefully in his sleep.

A lovely girl, Lola North. Enough figure and not too many years and a face that could come back and haunt you and maybe stir your baser emotions. A girl who could turn out to be pure as an Easter lily or steeped in sin and fail to surprise you either way. 

Constance Benbrook was a beautiful woman whose glands were stronger than her inhibitions. Shake the tree even gently and she'd fall right in your lap.
He gets knocked out twice:

Whoever was behind the blackjack must have been an old hand at the game. I never heard a thing.

Something came down on the back of my head and simultaneously I felt the gun torn from my fingers.
The pavement reached slowly up and laid itself against my cheek.
But this time we gave a halo to the wrong man. This time it was a halo for Satan. 

Cool illustration of the scene in which Constance finds Pine regaining consciousness.

Cool lines
"How do you know he's dead?"
"The blood ran out of him and hardly anyone can live without blood."
That one got what it deserved. "You drunk, young man?"[The Coolest!]

"Have you get anything, Paul?" She sounded anxious.
"Leprosy. Go away."[The Coolest!]

"Don't give me that," I said nastily. "You could sit on his belly and eat your breakfast. You're tougher than the sides of a battleship and we both know it."

No more fear in her face now. Fury, the kind of fury that would put claws at my throat in the next three seconds. Hatred, the kind of hatred that pulls triggers. The jungle looked at me out of those wild brown eyes and I stepped back one step.

She was as confident and at ease as a Mississippi congressman up for re-election. She was a widow with millions in the bank and a smooth story ready to tell: two things every cop would respect.

Her left hand was hanging limply at her side. Her right hand was pointing a small blue-steel automatic at the sweet roll I'd had for breakfast.

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