Friday, August 19, 2011

Forgotten Books: The French Key by Frank Gruber

When I started reading this book I had a headache. But after a few breezy chapters, the headache was gone. Such is the power of easy reading.

Reading Frank Gruber is sort of like watching Bones. You turn your mind off and let the story wash over you, and when it's over you feel mildly satisfied and mildly refreshed.

The French Key introduced Gruber’s two most famous characters, Johnny Fletcher and Sam Cragg. But as I mentioned some months back in a review of the short story collection Brass Knuckles, Fletcher and Cragg were actually just re-envisioned versions of two earlier characters, Oliver Quade the Human Encylopedia and his assistant Charlie Boston.

Both Fletcher and Quade are mobile-mouthed book salesmen, and Cragg is basically Charlie Boston with muscles. In both series, our heroes are perpetually broke and one step ahead of the law, but somehow find time to chase women and solve murders. It’s all good clean fun.

As with all Gruber mysteries, this one revolves around a field the author found interesting. In this case, it’s coin collecting. The mystery has nothing with a French key (which, we learn, is a what vindictive hotel managers use to shut deadbeats out of their rooms), but concerns an 1822 five-dollar gold piece, considered the rarest of all American coins.

When The French Key was published in 1939, the coin was worth about $10,000. So how about today? An Internet source says there are only three known survivors, and two are in the Smithsonian. The one in private hands sold for $687,500 back in 1982, and is now valued at five million. Not bad. How much of that is due to inflation, and how much to collector mania? Elsewhere in The French Key, we learn that a New York eatery sells hamburgers for a nickel. I’ll let someone else do the math.

Republic released a film version in 1946. I haven't seen it, but Gruber wrote the screenplay himself, so it's probably not all bad. And Mike Mazurki (whom I remember best as Moose Malloy to Dick Powell's Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet) played Sam Cragg. According to IMDb, Johnny was supposed to be a private detective. Republic probably figured it would be hard to sell a book salesman hero to movie goers. If there was ever another movie based on this series, I'm  not aware of it.

FORGOTTEN BOOKS are hosted this week at pattinase (I think).


Deka Black said...

The prices people can pay sometimes for a item considred as "collector item" never cease from surprise me.

But is a good theme for a noel, of course ^^

Randy Johnson said...

I have that Brass Knuckles collection, but haven't gotten to it.
Johnny and Sam are favorites, too, and I've read about two thirds of their tales.

Anonymous said...

I hope that headache stayed away. This one looks like a kick, and I have to find a way to slide my eyes across the pages. I read something by him a long time ago, not this or the other series you mention, maybe a western? As I recall Gruber can be very entertaining. That seems odd casting in the film.

As for the value of the coin, inflation would not account foe even half of the price, but rarity does.

George said...

I read THE FRENCH KEY decades ago. Gruber's work is always worth reading.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've liked me some Frank Gruber. Haven't seen this one though.

J F Norris said...

I like these guys. they get a bad rap in some of the detective ficiton history/critiques. I also liked Gruber's more hardboiled, book collecting, private eye Simon Lash.

Oscar Case said...

I liked Mike Mazurki in his roles, haven't read the books though.

Ron Smyth said...

I've read several of these romps. They're a lot of fun.

Ron Smyth

Peter Rozovsky said...

I found a copy of this last week, and I think you capture its appeal nicely. I am enjoying it, and I think Gruber must have been a thorough-going professional to create such an impression of smoothness and ease.
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
Detectives Beyond Borders