Friday, November 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: Homicide Johnny by Steve Fisher


This book wasn’t quite what I expected.

I amassed a lot of Steve Fisher novels twenty years back, when I was deep in the throes of hardboiled mania. I’d seen Lady In The Lake (with that incredible Fisher sceenplay) several times and scuttlebutt said he was a great hardboiled writer. But near as I recall, I never got around to reading one of his books.

Enter Homicide Johnny. Interesting title. Excellent cover. Originally published in 1940 by “Stephen Gould”, this was (I think) Fisher's fifth novel, right before I Wake Up Screaming.

I expected hardboiled. Well, it is - a little. But only in the attitude of our hero, small town homicide detective Johnny West. (Why such a small town needs a homicide specialist is never addressed, but we’ll let that go.) The prose is nicely crafted, even eloquent in spots, but never what I would call tough.

I expected sharp, memorable wise-guy dialogue, something on par with my favorite line from Lady in the Lake, where Robert Montgomery says to Audrey Totter, “Imagine you needing ice cubes.” Well, the dialogue is sharp, breezy, and sometimes playful, but it never sizzles. Johnny's investigative partner is town librarian Penny Lane (yep, no fooling), and the repartee between the two is sometimes reminiscent of The Thin Man. But I finished the book this morning, and couldn’t quote you a single line. 

I expected more thriller than mystery. Nope. This is an old-fashioned no-nonsense mystery. Every character we meet has a motive for the murders. When they’re caught in lies, they cover up with new lies, maintaining their suspect status right until the end. In the last chapter, when Johnny tells Penny he's almost figured it out, we get a one-page reminder of who the eight suspects are and what they’re doing right before Johnny’s big reveal. On the next page Johnny tells Penny (and the reader) that all the clues are out there and if she (they) were paying close attention the murderer should be obvious. Then, once the killer is exposed, Johnny talks for seven straight pages explaining to the murderer exactly what happened and why - stuff the killer already knows, of course, but the reader doesn’t. By today's standards, it's less than sophisticated.

About the cover: A fine job (as always) by Rudolph Belarski, but not quite true to the story. There is a hot blonde in the book, but she never takes off her starchy white nurse uniform. And there’s a scene where librarian Penny Lane pumps several bullets into an attacker in a basement, but her hair is the color of mahogany, and bare shoulders and heaving bosom are hardly her style. Nor is there any reason to believe it is unduly, uh… chilly in the basement.

If I’ve made Homicide Johnny sound like a bad book, I apologize. It was a quick read and I enjoyed it. I expect you’ll enjoy it even more, because you’ll know what to expect. A brand new paperback reprint is available on Amazon from a publisher called “Black Mask”, about which I know nothing. Amazon also offers a kindle version for $3.19.

Check out the list of this week's other Forgotten Books on Patti Abbot's pattinase.

11 comments:

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Doesn't sound like a bad book at all.

You had me at: "This is an old-fashioned no-nonsense mystery. "

Richard Prosch said...

Great post! Johnny West meets Penny Lane. It reels my pop culture noggin.

David Cranmer said...

Love that pulp cover.

Todd Mason said...

Well, paperback cover. There's a reason paperbacks were sneered at by snobs as much as pulps ever were, and the covers contributed. As late as the Beatles' notable song about the profession...

Richard Robinson said...

If that dame is in the book, I'll read it. If she's at the front door, I'd ask her to leave the gun outside and come on in. Whew, let me have a moment to cool off.

This sounds like a lot of fun, and the things you mention that make it less than a Evan-favorite sound okay to me, I like that fair play, all the suspects gathered, denouement, explanation thing.

Too bad the current edition cover is so awful!

Richard Robinson said...

Cheapest copy I see in decent condition at ABE is nearly $30. Rats.

George said...

I've read Steve Fisher's I WAKE UP SCREAMING, but now I'll have to look for HOMICIDE JOHNNY. Nice review and wonderful cover artwork!

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Sounds like it could be an Ellery Queen book with a little tweaking. Great post.

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting.

Evan Lewis said...

I appreciate you all stopping by. I'll have to see if I can dig up my copy of Murder of the Pigboat Skipper.

Laurie Powers said...

Sounds pretty intriguing to me, even the girly girl that I am. I've heard a lot about Steve Fisher.