The Lover, The Mistress and The Passionate by Carter Brown
This collection of Detective Al Wheeler pulps, (nos. 13-15), from the back end of the 1950s are a window on the cultural obsessions and attitudes of the time, equally they are glorious escapism. This invitation to imbibe from The Mistress happens in the wee small hours but, as you will find, similar offers accompany breakfast, lunch, dinner and all times in-between, it’s part of the fun:
“I need a drink,” she said abruptly. “How about you, Lieutenant?”
Unless your favourite authors are James Patterson, Ian Fleming or Agatha Christie, Carter Brown outsold them. In his 1950s/60s heyday he was as popular as any writer, (think Mickey Spillane, Alistair MacLean). Carter Brown sold over 100m books, he wrote 215 novels, 75 novellas and was published in 27 languages and once knocked out 50,000 words in 72 hours. Alan Geoffrey Yates had twenty pen names, Carter Brown is the one that stuck. He’s Australia’s most successful author, born in Ilford he lives most of his life there. President John F Kennedy was a fan, as was Marlene Dietrich, and the French, who know a thing or two about crime fiction, loved him. American readers lapped up his US set detective stories, more than thirty of which were written before he set foot in the country. As you read this latest trio from Stark House you may find fault, hell this is pulp knocked out on the run, but it won’t be the location that jars.
Nicholas Litchfield’s introduction tells us that Carter Brown spawned Japanese and American TV series, radio shows, a couple of French films and even a musical by Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror Show fame. Lieutenant Al Wheeler was his most enduring character, described in the New York Time as ‘wisecracking, oversexed and irresponsible’. Having read these books that hardly cuts it but much of what you will read here is tongue in cheek not wish fulfilment. These stories are booze fuelled, orgiastic and screwball, (a favourite word in the first story). Very much of their time, sexist but not misogynistic, there’s no malice and the female characters have their own agency and some great lines. The women who fall for him just happen to be as obsessed by sex as Wheeler is.
“The corpse-littered Casanova!”
These novels are genuinely, intentionally, funny, there’s a quick wit at work here and the dialogue is crisp, one liners come at you like a Bob Hope sketch. I started out wondering what the appeal was, how could a guy who hadn’t been to the States take the pulp writing world by storm with his American sex and whiskey dramas. The answer is there’s real talent at work here, writing trashy this well and providing rollicking stylised entertainment is art. Be absorbed for a few hours, get a feel for the decade the books were written in and appreciate this is a writer who knows how to put a mystery together and to keep you turning the page. That said the titles tell you all you need to know about Carter Brown’s train of thought.
The Lover (1958). Sheriff Lavers ruins Lieutenant Al Wheeler’s dinner date with Annabelle because California has more than its fair share of screwballs. Bald Mountain is about 20 miles outside Pine City. A loincloth guru calling himself the Prophet has collected a $100,000 from the local wealthies to build a shrine to the Sun God. If it’s a scam the sheriff wants it closed down.
“I smoked five butts while she wound up things in the office – one cigarette while she cleared up her desk work, four while she did all the lily-gilding she didn’t need.”
Wheeler drives up there with Annabelle in tow, he listens to the prophet preach about the coming darkness and his ascension to the house of the Sun God. The cult are keen to show Wheeler everything is above board, then the party gets started. Annabelle is smart enough to make her own plans, Wheeler is intrigued by Candy Logan.
“When I need glasses at any distance to tell about something like that, I’ll get married,” I told her. “The fun will have gone out the living, anyway.”
In fact later than night he’s sleeping with Candy when Julia Grant is stabbed and left on the alter, two people with an alibi, that leaves everyone else a suspect. Is this murder part of the con or the consequence of jealousy and rivalry? Only Al Wheeler, whose principle weapons are whiskey and sex, can fathom the answers, Annabelle is not impressed:
“The sheriff is in his office if you wish to see him, Lieutenant. I fixed the rug in there this morning. If there’s any justice, you should trip and break your neck!” She banged her typewriter viciously to punctuate the sentence.
The Mistress (1958). This time it’s personal for the sheriff. The body of his niece is dumped on his driveway. Linda Scott hadn’t been in Pine City long, she came with her boyfriend Howard Fletcher from Vegas. Fletcher was a big wheel there but it looks like the syndicate crowded him out so he’s trying his luck further west. He already tried to buy the sheriff and when that didn’t work his last words were a threat. The sheriff thinks Linda’s murder was a last warning. Howard denies doing it, his fiery young sidekick Johnny Torch is an accident waiting to happen, but wheeler thinks someone might be framing the ex-Vegas hood. Nina, a showgirl also came with Howard, she says Linda wasn’t seeing Howard, she had a local beau, reporter Rex Schafer. Wheeler’s instinct is to head to Vegas for a meeting with the boss of the syndicate and the beautiful Gabrielle.
‘It’s not often I get to see such a lot of girl in the one piece,” I said. “I was just paying homage. I didn’t want to miss anything. You don’t have a guided tour by any chance?”
“You kill me,” she said, “but it’s a nauseating way to die! If you’re really a cop, and you sure act like one, what do you want anyway? It’s late and I’m missing my beauty sleep.”
Turns out somebody resembling Johnny Torch killed a man and left town with $70,000 of syndicate money, which has to be motive for revenge. The sheriff wants Howard banged up but Wheeler is resisting jumping to conclusions.
The Passionate (1959). An apparently healthy blonde woman in her mid-thirties drops dead outside a bar, heart attack, just one of those things. What makes this unusual is the body goes missing from the morgue, when someone saps the head mortician.
“Dropped dead,” I agreed. “There’s moral in that somewhere, Charlie. If she’d been inside the bar, a shot of bourbon might have fixed the whole thing.”
An anonymous tip off says the cops should visit KVNW TV studios of they want the body back. Penelope Calthorpe is trying to launch her acting career. Not that she needs the money, Penelope, (straight laced?), and Prudence, (prankster, anything but straight laced?), are twin sisters and they are seriously loaded. Wheeler watches Penelope as the cameras roll, some gothic nonsense he can’t follow, there’s a coffin, only what’s inside it isn’t a prop. It’s a very real dead guy, shot through the heart, Penelope hardly seems phased when she discovers this. A second body, the missing blonde turns up in the dressing room. Wheeler knows the dead woman was some kind of sick lure, the dead guy is the thing. Before they start investigating him as a John Doe another anonymous tip gives the cops a name – Howard Davis, and he just happens to be Penelope’s ex-husband. Funny she didn’t mention that. Another case requiring plenty of whiskey and copious copulation but Wheeler gets there in the end.
There’s a nice tension between Wheeler, who gives maverick a bad name, and the laced up Sheriff here. Annabelle is a match for anybody and all three stories are competent and interesting mysteries – the dialogue is bravura. Sure read it with a wry knowing sense of Carter Brown’s bad taste but have fun.
Review by Paul Burke
Published by Stark House Press (26 Mar. 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-1951473266