Monday, August 31, 2020

Green Light for Death (Frank Kane, 1949)

We are used to our private sleuths being efficient, but Johnny Liddell tops them all in this one. Check out the recap of his first day on this case:
  • It opens in the morgue where he identifies the body of his client/friend Nancy and meets the Detective Seargent Happy (I kid you not!) Lewis
  • Together they go to the police station where we meet Lewis' superior Chief Connors. He's an asshole. See how crooked he is in the 'cool lines' section below.
  • Liddell goes back to the morgue to have a chat with the medical examiner
  • An hour later we find him lounging at the bar with "the ease born of long experience". He's then joined by Happy and they decide to pay a visit to Nancy's roommate
  • The interview with the redheaded singer Lorna Matthews goes well. She's more than willing to cooperate and not before long Liddell starts calling her baby.
  • He invites himself to wait for her in her apartment while she'll be out working. But pretty soon receives a couple of phone calls that confirm his suspicion of the foul play. 
  • He's back in the Connors' office.
  • The meeting doesn't go well. He's off to have another drink and to get his shit together. But this reclusion is abruptly interrupted by a couple of thugs who invite him to go see their boss.
  • It's one of those "engraved in lead" invitations so he has no choice but to accept it. He meets their boss and he's an asshole too.
  • In order to avoid charges of justice obstruction, our hero needs a new client. So he walks straight into the local newspaper office and arranges that they hire him as a special correspondent.
  • Then he drives to the town's outskirts where the club of the aforementioned asshole #2 is located. This, btw,  also implies that after his arrival at the train station he also needed to arrange a car rental after checking into the hotel.
  • He stirs some troubles in the club 
  • And drives Lorna home.
  • After dropping her off, he finds an all-night drug store and calls Happy to ask him some questions. At five o'fucking clock in the morning!

Talking about a slow day in the office!

And we are not even halfway through. Thankfully, by now Mr. Kane had sorted out his misconceptions about the time/space constraints and so Liddell's second-day appointment book is much thinner. He sleeps until noon, meets his reporter sidekick, obtains a pint bottle of Cognac, uses it to extract some info from a beautiful blonde, has sex with her (the blonde not the bottle), attends a briefing with his happy cop sidekick, and goes back to his hotel to take a nap! It's 8.45pm.

As brief as this segment is, it does give us the craziest part of the book. Liddell comes across a photo of some unidentified guy and promptly decides to charter a plane to send it to the New York agency headquarter so they can help him with identification. Furthermore, it's imperative that this photo gets back quickly in order for his inside man doesn't get compromised, so he makes his booking a round trip!

So yeah, by now our hero is out of steam and the author is out of ideas. For the remaining 100 pages Johnny will gradually abandon logical thinking and subtle approach to the investigation and instead rely on brute force. The whole thing dissolves into a bit of a mess with a far-fetched premise, silly twist, and resolution that one can see coming way ahead. Kind of a sloppy imitation of Hammett's Red Harvest. One of those that give you the impression that the author did have some initial concept but was simply too lazy to develop it.

But in spite of all that or maybe because of all that, it works really well. Even if you can't appreciate the chaotic storytelling and find our hero's relentless (even though not always rational) pursue of justice a bit silly, you'll find plenty of charm in this one.

3.5/5

Facts:

Hero:
This is only the second one of the series and Liddell is still working for an Acme Agency (that could explain why he can afford to charter planes for his mail delivery, right?) but he already has quite a rep:

"So you're the guy Nancy did all the raving about. To hear her go on, you're a cross between Sam Spade and Ellery Queen with a little Superman thrown in one the side."

The bad guy(s):
"This guy Mike Lane. What about him?"
"Bad business. The local Lucky Luciano and Buggsy Siegel rolled up into one. He looks fat and soft but he's strictly rattlesnake."

You did catch the misspelling of Buggsy Siegel, didn't you?

Dames:
Redheaded nightclub singer Lorna Matthews aka The Red aka Baby.
Cigarette girl Verna Cross. Miss Chenango County 1952. Blondie.

Location:
Fictitious burg called Waterville. A nod to Red Harvest's Poisonville?

Body count:
7

Blackouts:
Two of them. First, his ass gets kicked by the hoodlums:

He knew he was slipping, fought to maintain consciousness. There was another blinding flash behind his ear and he sank quietly into the engulfing depths of the black blot.

And a chapter later by the cops:

He hardly felt the rabbit punch that felled him, dropped across the unconscious body on the floor as though the ground had been moved out from under him.

Title:
"What's the green light mean?"
"It means the guy's a stoolie or a flycop. The floor men are to keep an eye on him while he's in the joint. When he leaves, we signal the boss here, and he arranges for him to get taken care of."
Liddell nodded. "Green for death. That's what I thought."

And this deserves some explanation. There's a major counterfeit money operation taking place in the Villa Rouge nightclub. The way it works is that when the big-time hoodlums (you know, from Chi) come to the place for the first time, the yellow stage light marks them. This triggers their background check and they'll get either the red or green spotlight next time. You already know what the green means but red indicates to Casino croupiers to let them win on the (obviously) rigged roulette tables so they can cash out their (counterfeit) money. This convoluted gimmick serves the purpose that they never know who the seller of counterfeit money is.

So yes, the whole thing is a bit bonkers. Leaving aside the unfortunate choice of colors (green for death, red for money?), I wonder if it doesn't violate the basic principle of trust between criminals. I mean, would you really go into the counterfeit money laundry business with somebody you didn't know?

Dedicated to:
TO MY MOTHER
with my deepest affection and gratitude

Edition:
Dell #918

There's no printing info on my copy which is a bit confusing. You see, it's copyrighted in 1949 but the novel actually takes place around 1955. Did I read a science-fiction story? Is my copy some hard-to-find collector item with the erratum on pg 116?

I googled it a bit and noticed it had been republished several times and that it also came out as a serial. So maybe my Dell edition came out later and was slightly altered since there's no usual "unabridged" note on the cover.

Doesn't really matter. I'm including a cool cover of one Crack Detective stories issue here and you can download another one here.

Cover:
Nice one by Victor Kalin. But couldn't resist adding yet another cover. Quite accurate btw as it depicts a scene in which Liddell breaks into "marijuana fueled orgy".

Cool lines:
Chief Connors' eyes stopped taking census of the flyspecks on the ceiling.

The cops in this town are so crooked they could hide behind a corkscrew without throwing a shadow.

The combination of her low-cut dress and Liddell's vantage point made the effect one of which Johnny eminently approved.

Back at the bar he ordered another brandy, tossed it off with a grimace. He was debating the advisibility of another to keep that one steady in his stomach when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

He cut off the sputtering from the other end by the simple expedient of dropping the receiver on the hook.

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