Friday, October 30, 2020

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Real Gone Goose,” by George Bagby

(Editor’s note: This is the 167th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
The 1960 paperback cover art on George Bagby’s The Real Gone Goose promises a page-turning 1950s beatnik bacchanalia; but surprise, surprise—instead of finding Mingus, marijuana, and murder, The Real Gone Goose is a page-turning procedural that details the crime-solving process of New York Police Homicide Inspector George Schmidt. Readers disappointed by the false advertising of this cover, however, will quickly become engaged, as I was.

The story (originally published by Doubleday in 1959) is recounted by Schmidt’s sounding board and chronicler, who also happens to be named George Bagby, a bit of literary trickery that hints at the author’s avant-garde past. In the novel, Bagby is a bachelor and somewhat on the Walter Mitty side. A successful writer just past age 40, he’s feeling “stodgy and middle-aged.” These whispers of mortality are exacerbated when a comely young hipster named Sabra moves next door to Bagby’s Greenwich Village apartment. Soon the building is hosting not only Sabra, but her entire tribe of self-described “exiles,” rebellious 20-somethings who leave their doors wide-open to any crasher, and who expect George to do the same—as well as supply some of the booze for their moveable cocktail parties and solid-citizen put-downs. The hipsters may be united in their disdain for squares and their post-war conformity, but all is not Edenic in their self-created Heaven-on-earth.

Sabra (real name Barbara Wilson Leckey) is the wet dream of every beatnik in this cool coterie, but her ex-husband just happens to be a suit-wearing stockbroker with deep pockets. He checks in now and then, sometimes using force to punish those suitors who employ violence to control his former spouse. The rumor in the building that Sabra and Bagby have a romance underway is preposterous and is just the beginning of Bagby’s problems. When he returns home late one night to find Sabra shot dead in his apartment with his own pistol, it becomes a dilemma with existential consequences.

To Bagby’s benefit and detriment, Inspector Schmidt is assigned to this case. And while the Doctor Watson/Sherlock Holmes relationship these two enjoy continues, from here on out Schmidt must tread more carefully than usual and not show preferential treatment when his wingman becomes suspect number one.

Sabra’s love interest at the time of her death was Blair Nolan, “a bum out to make a buck.” After the murder, he suddenly cleans up his act, goes on a shopping spree at Brooks Brothers, and regains his job as a talented but unmotivated CPA. Because of his known physical mistreatment of Sabra, he’s on the NYPD’s radar, and the cops lean on him with plenty of weight. The means for Blair’s transformation came from Sabra, who left an unaccounted-for stockpile of cash in her apartment. The motivation for his transformation is Nolan’s failed attempt to woo Sabra on her own anti-establishment terms. Once she tired of the squalid beatnik life, he reasoned, he could swoop in and return her to the safety of the upper-middle-class, and take her to his bed. When this most plausible suspect is eliminated, though, Schmidt and Bagby (when it’s legal or permissible) put their heads together to determine who was where, when they were there, and if they had a motivation to kill the young woman. Unfortunately, all of the physical evidence points directly at Bagby. He and Schmidt begin to follow the money to the mysterious source of Sabra’s bankroll, and by then armchair sleuths should be hunkered-down and nose-deep in The Real Gone Goose, keeping pace as the crime is solved.

The cover of The Real Gone Goose shown at the top of this piece was published by Permabooks in 1960, and features art by Harry Bennett. Just above are two other versions, the one on the left from Doubleday’s 1959 first edition, and on the right, T.V. Boardman’s 1960 version, with art by Denis McLoughlin.

Not content to play it straight, Bagby has fun with the mystery-fiction form. The Real Gone Goose is a parody of the classic locked room whodunit, in which a murderer perpetrates a crime under circumstances that seem to make it impossible for that crime to have been committed and for the perpetrator to be detected. In Bagby’s New York, the city that never sleeps, doors are left wide open and apartments entered with the willy-nilly rhythm of a Marx Brothers movie. The goose, obviously the one that lays the golden egg, is Sabra, and she’s gone.

The fact that this novel’s main character and author share a name might briefly put one’s head aspin, or at least cause some scratching in puzzlement. But George Bagby was the nom de plume of Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985), who wrote more than 100 novels, 49 of them in the Inspector Schmidt series. His first publications were avant-garde works championed by Theodore Dreiser. However, Stein didn’t gain popularity until he began producing mystery fiction in the mid-1930s.

The Real Gone Goose will keep readers busy as they try to solve the crime in step with Bagby and Schmidt (everybody loves a mystery, don’t they?), and Bagby leaves just enough clues to keep attentive readers headed in the right direction. As far as judging a book by its cover, be attentive to those bearing salacious and misleading art—you might not be as disappointed after all.

No comments: