A better class of holiday reading with Brett Halliday's Murder Takes No Holiday, Hans Heinrich Ziemann's The Explosion and Susan Howatch's Call in the Night.
I'm sure I've read a Mike Shayne mystery before - in fact, I'm almost positive I own a stack of them, but, for the life of me, I can't remember anything about them. Which is part of the reason Murder Takes No Holiday (1960 - although this is a 1973 edition) was such a pleasant surprise. Everything about this book (that is, the cover) screamed trashy PI pulp, and, although it was, it was also a lot of fun. (The original cover is better.)
Mike Shayne is a Miami PI who, as we've learn, is in dire need of a holiday. His last case/fracas has resulted in broken ribs, a nervous secretary/girlfriend and a grumpy doctor. Like it or not, he's being packed off to St. Albans. (Un)fortunately, a few of Mike's other friends see this as an opportunity - a perceptive customs agent thinks that there's something dodgy on the island and, as long as Mike is heading that direction...
It doesn't take long, by Shayne is quickly in a mess. The island cops think he's a criminal. The island criminals think he's a cop. There's some sort of secretive British agent stomping around and an equally enigmatic (if less clothed) French dancer. At the centre: a young pair of married Americans, including the widow of one of Mike's cop buddies. Whether or not his ribs can take it, Mike sees no choice but to get involved.
The resulting melee is a bit... by the book, but despite the lurid cover art and copy, Mike's not sleazy. He plays fair with everyone (good guys and bad), and, despite the frequent opportunities, never hops in bed with anyone. Travis McGee - he of the quick judgements and loose morals - could learn a lesson from Mike Shayne. The mystery itself is a bit goofy: it is one of those linear set-ups where Mike starts with a single clue and then follows it to the next and the next and the next; nothing new is ever introduced, and he constantly circles back to the same few people. (Convenient that St. Albans only has one criminal, right?) But Halliday has a knack for bringing characters to life in a few short sentences: the frustrated barman (forced to wear pirate garb to please tourists), the grieving widow (and her penchant for cakes) and the irritable chief of police. This, plus Shayne's own wry sense of humor, keeps the book going and, despite the simple 'mystery', keeps it entertaining.
Hans Heinrich Ziemann's The Explosion (1979 - originally published in Germany, 1978) is a by the numbers disaster novel. The first half of the book establishes the intricate, invulnerable structure while seeding a few tiny problems, the midway point is where everything goes wrong and then the second half is spent reacting to the chaos 'that could never happen'! Arthur Hailey's Airport is still the best of the lot, but Hailey's ability to explain (and subvert) complex structures is probably unmatched. Other greats include The Glass Inferno and Condominium. (I've not read The Poseidon Adventure, yet, but apparently it is up there as well.)
In the case of The Explosion, the invulnerable structure is Helios - the new nuclear power station that's set to supply Germany with a tenth of her energy needs. The local population of Grenzheim are skeptical, but an overbearing finance minister and greedy mayor have managed to get the project through. Political corruption has triumphed over the environmental reactionaries (plus their Communist allies - who, in one scene, are all savagely beaten by a high school sports team. What the hell?!)
From the eyes of the plant manager, we learn how Helios is amaaaaaazing. Sure, there are some tiny accidents (oops, radioactive trash!), but they are quickly resolved. But in the background, The Explosion builds tension with a series of short scenes, all involving a terrorist and his plot. As the plant gets closer to operation, the bulk of The Explosion focuses on the clash between the government and protesters (and the unlikely love affair between the plant manager and the head of the local anti-nuclear movement). But while they're all monologuing at one another about the virtues and dangers of nuclear power, the terrorist is doing his nasty work...
Predictably, at the halfway point, it all goes to hell. And, although the first half of The Explosion is nothing to write home about, the book does take a turn for the worst once the speculation goes epic. The small town politics of Grenzheim and the many micro-factors that all add up to Helios' success and/or failure - they're vaguely interesting: it is a essentially a battle between people. Motivation counts, as does ingenuity and creativity. But when The Explosion... er... explodes... the book becomes Man vs Nature. Despite Mr. Ziemann's attempts to keep the narrative on a personal level, individuals are no longer significant. The story, such as it is, suffers for it.
Susan Howatch's Call in The Night (1967) is easily my favourite of this batch - an atmospheric thriller along the lines of Mary Stewart or Helen McGinnis. Ms. Howatch (says Wikipedia) wrote a few "gothics" along this line (disclaimer: I don't see this as particularly gothic) until she switched to family sagas (in the 1970s) and eventually Anglican-infused historical fiction (in the 1980s). A curious sort of progression.
Regardless, Call in The Night is a corker. Clare Sullivan is living a fastidious and respectable life on her own in New York. She has a small but tidy apartment, a nice and uninspiring job and a savings account that's just about to reach the point where she can buy the little red car she's wanted for so long. Her younger sister, Gina, has an infinitely more adventurous life - as a model, she's always swanning off all over the world, escorted by invariably inappropriate men. Clare, despite only being a few years older (and, as she says, far less experienced) has resigned herself to being Gina's 'agony aunt'. Gina sends her ridiculous letters, Clare sighs, fortifies herself with a very small gin, and sends advice by return.
The pattern of Clare's life is brutally disrupted when Gina calls in a panic - from London, no less. She's been on a job in Paris, hopped over to London with a (male!) friend and now... who knows? Her voice is just shy of hysterics, and she's pleading for Clare to come and... click. Clare, rightfully, is a little upset by this turn of events. She calls Scotland Yard and gets them on the case. She calls Clare's Parisian flatmates and gets them on the case. She frets, she paces and she suddenly decides to do something completely out of character: she flies to Europe.
Clare's adventures in Paris - and later London - are fairly tame examples of detective work. She finds all the suspects one at a time, which include Warren, Gina's former fiance and Garth, the enigmatic gentleman who escorted Gina to Paris. Clare's twin problems are that a) she has no idea who to trust, as everyone seems a bit dodgy and her instincts are completely out of whack (Garth = quite yummy, which doesn't help...) and b) no one seems particularly worried. As a result, much of Clare's 'legwork' consists of sight-seeing, accompanied by one or more handsome young men, and rather guiltily having a nice time. Call in the Night isn't fueled by tension so much as it is punctuated by guilt - Clare starts enjoying herself, realises she shouldn't, then does a burst of frantic poking around.
The result is a rather lackluster thriller, but also a surprisingly enjoyable romance - the Garth/Clare frisson is a blast, as they're both clever, strong-willed people with their own schemes and plots. (Schemes and plots that are rather disastrously upended by their shared attraction.) It also helps that Ms. Howatch has, similar to Mary Stewart, a spectacular knack for scenery. Unlike Ms. Stewart, however, Call in the Night is almost entirely set in urban locations - allowing Ms. Howatch to elegantly depict the nooks and crannies (and restaurants and nightlife) of Paris and London. From the cool leather of the taxi seat to the taste of the Vichyssoise, the author captures all the tiny touches of both cities.
The net result: a thriller that isn't very thrilling, but more than makes up for it with terrific characters and a gorgeous atmosphere. Definitely the find of the holiday, and I'll be looking for more of Ms. Howatch's books in the future. (Maybe not the Anglican sagas, but, you never know...)