This book was published in 1997 by Gryphon Books (in what I assume was a small print run) and promptly forgotten. But that was the second time it had been forgotten.
“Murder Wears a Halo” made its first appearance in the Feb. 1944 issue of Mammoth Detective, then lay wasting away for 53 years before Gryphon got hold of it.
Why? I’m not sure.
Howard Browne is fondly remembered for his four Chandleresque Paul Pine novels (Halo in Blood, Halo for Satan, and Halo in Brass by John Evans, and The Taste of Ashes under his own name). Among his other novels is If You Have Tears, which he once referred to as his “James M. Cain book”. Well, I’d have to call Murder Wears a Halo his James M. Cain/Erle Stanley Gardner book.
For the first half the novel, Browne is in Cain mode. Chicago pulp writer and nightclub denizen Don Hearn meets 18-year-old Loa, lovely, innocent, and straight off the farm, who is obsessed with writers - and he in turn becomes obsessed with her. Their relationship is on-again/off-again, and Loa goes out with other guys, but that’s really all that happens. No crimes are committed. There isn’t even a mystery.
Both halves of the book are good. Browne’s writing is tight, smart and consistently entertaining. I read the whole thing in a day, and my attention never flagged.
But what makes this novel really special is that the narrator is a pulp writer. How many books can you name, written by a top-notch pulp writer, where the hero is also a pulp writer?
The first half of the book (the Cain half) is packed with pulp talk. Don Hearn talks to the reader about his writing, he and his friends talk writing, and when the girl Loa comes along, he discovers the subject of writing makes her dreamy-eyed - so he talks about writing even more.
Some of the pulp talk is clever and thinly disguised. Hearn sells a couple of stories (“Blood on the Sun” and “Sunken Sub”) to a mag called Argonaux. At one point the shows Loa a copy of Sleuth Stories, “a Green Star weekly of the Mooney line,” where his story “Death in Brass” is featured on the cover. The cover blurb reads “Also stories by Hugh Sale, Burt B. Cave, Richard Collier and others” (I’ll let you transpose those for yourself). Later, he sells a story called “Guns Along the Hudson” to Mammoth Detective, and mentions other real writers and magazines, so the line between fiction and reality is blurred.
But that’s not all.
When Loa starts asking serious questions about writing, Don Hearn holds forth on the business of being a pulp writer. And while this is technically a fictional character talking, it’s clear Howard Browne is giving us the real lowdown on what it’s like, and what it takes to write for the pulps.
At the time this story appeared in Mammoth Detective, Browne was assistant editor for the magazine (a novelette, featuring series character Wilbur Peddie, skip tracer, appeared in the same issue under Browne’s name). He also had editorial duties at Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures. So when it came to pulps, he knew what he was talking about.
For those of you who’ve read this far, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that this book is not easy to come by. There are a few copies offered on the ‘net, but I didn’t see one for less than $35. I don’t own a copy myself. I read the story in Mammoth.
The good news is . . . there’s enough serious pulp talk here to put together a short memoir/how to piece of Howard Browne's views on writing for the pulps. One of these days I hope to do that.
P.S. Does anyone know where/why Browne got this fascination with "Halo" titles? This story predates the three Paul Pine "Halo" books. And I have another Mammoth with a novelette called "Halo 'Round My Head", also predating Pine. The mystery is - I found no reference to a halo in Murder Wears a Halo. I suppose the girl Loa could be thought of as angelic, but the point is never pressed. The title just seems to make no sense.
For links to this week's other Forgotten Books, see Patti Abbot's pattinase.