The Long Ride (1961) is another corker from James McKimmey, who may be my personal favourite discovery of 2015. The story begins with a Midwestern bank robbery - one that goes horribly (bloodily) awry. The suitcase o' loot winds up in the hands of a complete bystander, a bitter young man.
One thing leads to another, and our 'innocent', an undercover FBI agent, and the bank robber all wind up sharing a car out to San Francisco. All, of course, under assumed identities and with (theoretically) no knowledge of the others. Also in the mix - and the car: four innocent (?) women, each with their own quests, motivations and suspicious backgrounds.
What follows is a road trip equal parts tense and comedic. Wells, the murderous bank robber, is a particularly chilling villain, a calculator of a man, with absolutely no regard for human life. By contrast, Allan is a hot mess, a small-time chiseler that's completely over his head. Sadly, John, the agent and our ostensible protagonist, is the dullest of the three men, and even the dash of romance inserted into his point of view chapters fails to liven him up. But his phlegmatic perspective gives the reader a relatively balanced view of the happenings, especially as Wells and Allan lose their respective grips on sanity.
The comedy comes from the overlay of the everyday. The two antagonists - and our agent - are all perpetually frustrated by the presence of the innocent bystanders. The ordinary chaos of a long road trip, with strangers, no less, wreaks havoc on their nerves, as the men try to stay polite, stay 'ordinary' and not tip one another off about their true motives and schemes. Imagine the scheming required just to sneak off for a quiet dinner with one - but not all - of your road trip companions. Now multiply that by all the Machiavellian cross-plotting around hidden money and murderous intentions... Unlike, say, Vanishing Ladies, the comedy elements don't track from the tension - if anything, they provide a twitchily nervous laughter, one that underlines how high the stakes are at any given moment.
And After Midnight (1966), by Helen Nielsen. Simon Drake is a worthy entry into the world of fictional defense attorneys. A talented Chicago attorney, he's moved out to California to become a 'full-time bon-vivant' - although he still seems to find the time to mooch around the District Attorney's office in search of mental stimulation.
In After Midnight, said stimulation comes in the form of Wanda Warren, the beautiful young wife - now widow - of Roger Warren, a wealthy local. Roger's impulsive marriage to Wanda got him disinherited by his class-conscious, ex-Admiral father. Living beyond his means to a young wife he doesn't understand, Roger and Wanda fight all the time. Er. Fought. As, very close to the start of the book, Wanda wakes up to find Roger dead and the bloody knife that killed him in the bed beside her.
A beautiful widow, fighting the powers that be, seemingly doomed by circumstantial evidence? This (especially the 'beautiful' part) is exactly the sort of thing to bring Drake swanning onto the scene. He picks up Wanda as a client, and then gets to snooping...
Easily the most light-hearted of the five books in this 'set', After Midnight is about as charming and cheerful as a murder mystery can get without degenerating into outright twee. Drake, although set up as a playboy and a bit of a goof, is largely a secondary character in his own book - he's merely a guide through the highs and lows of Marina Beach, and the misfits that populate it. That said, his very presence is 'lightening' - the book begins with a grim domestic dispute, but Drake's air of confidence, and the sheer frothy chutzpah of his being, comes as a comfort to reader and client alike.
Nielsen, who lived on the California coast for over sixty years, has notes of John D MacDonald in her writing as well. Her commentary, however, is more humorous and less acerbic than JDM's take on his beloved Florida. With tongue firmly in cheek, Nielsen busts out gems such as:
Marina Beach was a development. There is a subtle difference between a development and a resort. A resort is a community designed primarily for the pleasure and exploitation of tourists and the wealthily retired. A development is something quite different. A by-product of the Freeways, it is a suburb for working commuters - a gaudy collection of plate-glass structures of the Libby-Owens school of architecture, serviced by fantastic shopping centers with hundreds of acres of parking space. A development is the child of abundance and mobility, and it rises Phoenix-like from the ruins of abandoned cultures dating back to the mid-twenties.
As a setting for a murder mystery, you couldn't wish for anything more. The rest of the book is in a similar vein - there are serious human emotions at play, but presented gracefully, and with a light touch. And, for bonus points, Nielsen herself seems a bit of a badass.