Friday, May 30, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “The Honest Dealer,” by Frank Gruber

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth Rap Sheet entry in author-blogger Patti Abbott’s new Friday blog series, highlighting “books we love but might have forgotten over the years.” The pick this week comes from Los Angeles writer Dick Lochte, the Nero Award-winning writer of Sleeping Dog [1986] and Croaked!, the latter being one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2007.)

OK, I’m not sure you have to read The Honest Dealer. If Frank Gruber were still alive, I doubt that even he would consider his 1947 book a necessity. But every now and then, after working my way through a couple of dozen contemporary crime novels, with their elaborate back stories and casts of thousands and plots that call attention to social and/or political ills, I like to treat myself to the kind of mystery that initially lured me to this genre--a yarn written for the sole purpose of providing sheer, unpretentious reading pleasure.

The Honest Dealer does that in spades. The literary equivalent of a classic B-movie of the 1940s, it immediately draws you in, moves at a breathless pace, has the requisite moments of suspense and humor, and ends with a surprise villain, neatly thwarted. There are a lot of books from the ’30s and ’40s that meet those requirements, but, for my money, Dealer is one that does it best.

In The Pulp Jungle (1967), Gruber’s breezy memoir of his early days as a pulpster, he recalled that, having realized the time had come to write a mystery novel, he read about 50 of them, one after another. That experience led him to conclude that the ideal mystery should combine Erle Stanley Gardner’s complexity of plot and pacing with Jonathan Latimer’s humor. The result was The French Key (1940), which he completed in just seven working days.

That book was well-received and wound up on several Best Mysteries of the Year lists. It introduced perennially down on their luck crime-solving book peddlers Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg. Fletcher is the glib super-bright member of the team; Sam is the good-natured but dim muscle. When moths start flying out of their empty wallets, they set up shop on street corners. Sam takes off his shirt. Johnny straps a leather belt around his massive chest, and, holding up copies of Every Man a Samson, begins his pitch to the gathering gawkers on how the book can help them become as strong as Sam. To illustrate the point, Sam inhales, the belt pops apart, and books are sold until the cops arrive to chase this duo away.

As best I can count, and it’s not easy because many of the books have been reprinted under different titles, there are 14 Fletcher and Cragg novels. They’re all entertaining. But they do vary in quality. In some, the mystery element is all but ignored in favor of Johnny’s con-man schemes. In others, the mystery is so complex or the surprises are so out of left field, that the humor is overwhelmed. But Dealer, a mid-series entry, is the pick of the pack, possibly because of its interesting setting and effective, cohesive plot.

The book finds Johnny and Sam driving through California’s Death Valley at night, for no explained reason, when they see a man in distress by the side of the road. He’s dying of thirst and a bullet wound. Before he expires, he gives Johnny a deck of cards and a poker chip and tells him to take the items to “Nick in Las Vegas.”

The boys then head for Vegas where Gruber, not a man given to literary flourishes, uses minimalist strokes to paint a vivid picture of the gambling and divorce capital during its crowded, bustling post-World War II years. While searching through the city’s large population of Nicks, Johnny and Sam attract the attention of a colorful local cop when they try to sell books outside a casino. The lawman is an example of Gruber’s anti-stereotype stance. Instead of being the usual dumb antagonist, he’s an easygoing, shrewd gent known as Catch ’Em Alive Mulligan, a once-famous hunter, “the toast of New York and Hollywood,” who lost his taste for the high life. “[W]hen I was hunting wild animals in Africa, I gave it all I had,” he tells Johnny. “I always do--I’m a cop now ...”

Instead of arresting this pair for disturbing the casino action, Mulligan orders them to leave town. When Johnny explains that they’re destitute, their car running on fumes, Mulligan gives them a silver dollar to get them on their way. Against Sam’s pleas, Johnny takes that money to a casino crap table and uses it to begin a winning streak that amazes even him. In just a few hours, he’s up $2,000, enough to earn them a suite at the best hotel, an introduction to this novel’s key players, and a pass from Mulligan, who’s amused by what his dollar has wrought.

Even with help from Mulligan, a wheeler-dealer bellhop, a meek but efficient Vegas private eye and his overbearing, penny-pinching spouse, Johnny can’t locate the elusive Nick or discover the secret of the deck of cards and poker chip he was given in the desert. And there are several thugs who drop by to cause him bodily harm before experiencing Sam’s eventual hard-knuckle payback.

As the plot progresses, Johnny’s winnings increase and Gruber delivers the element in his novels that made critic Anthony Boucher a fan--the insider’s description of the way a business or institution operates. This can be just an added attraction--how commercial recordings are made (The Whispering Master, 1956) or comic strips syndicated (The Mighty Blockhead, 1945)--but here, the crisp explanation of Vegas house rules of gambling plays a key part in the solution to the mystery, which intensifies, by the way, when the Death Valley corpse suddenly winds up in Johnny’s suite.

As was typical of crime novels of the day, Dealer is Robert B. Parker-short, maybe 60,000 words. Three to four hours of cover-to-cover fun. And as tight as Gruber keeps his prose, he manages to squeeze in a reference to Johnny’s past, the only one I can recall in this series.

Johnny is questioning and flirting with an about-to-be-divorced blonde who reminds him of Lana Turner. She’s curious about him and tries to get him to open up. “You said you were a book agent ...” she begins.
“Salesman--not agent ...”

“What’s the difference?”

“Plenty. One year I made seventy-five thousand dollars. I was in love and ambitious.”

“And what happened?”

“She married somebody else ... and I bought a horse.”
This isn’t just a tough guy hiding his sadness with a flippant remark. One of the more endearing qualities of both Johnny and Sam is their eternal optimism. In this case, Johnny is explaining that one thing didn’t work out, so he did something else. No matter how much money passes through their hands in the course of each book, how many devious murderers they unmask, how many beautiful women they embrace, these two inevitably wind up facing the future broke and on their own. And, surprisingly, they’re still smiling.

I wonder what Gruber would think of some of today’s most popular series heroes--sociopaths, alcoholics, whiners, bitter loners, paranoiacs, and worse. Would he go with the market flow and come up with his version of the depressed detective? I’d like to think he’d pawn his typewriter and buy a horse.

And, speaking of horses and optimistic sleuths, let me pass on the Friday favorites baton to a writer well-versed in these matters, Steve Hockensmith, author of the splendid Holmes on the Range mysteries, featuring the Amlingmeyer brothers, “Old Red” and “Big Red,” the latest entry in that series being The Black Dove.


Steve Hockensmith said...

Wow -- these books sound like they're right up my alley, and I've never even heard of Frank Gruber before.

You've set the bar high with your write-up here, Dick. It's a little intimidating how informative it is. I don't think I could write that much that well about *me*.

Would anyone mind if I just submitted a jpg of a book cover and the words "Check it out"?


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks so much, Dick. This looks like the kind of books I read when I first discovered what were then called "mysteries" and there was a pleasure in them that is rare today. Thanks so much for the thoughtful review.

DICK ADLER said...

Lovely. I'm searching Bookfinder as we speak.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Damn me, if I ever write a book, I want Dick Lochte to blurb it, and I'll give him the whole back cover if I have to. That's quite an enticing description.
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