Three thrillers from the late 1950s and early 1960s - featuring Ed McBain, Wade Miller and Maude Parker.
Vanishing Ladies (1957) is a stand-alone mystery from Ed McBain, originally written under the pen name Richard Marsten. I have a vague theory that the Marsten books are a little 'grittier' than the McBains, but there's a small sample size, and frankly, Vanishing Ladies disproves it - it could very easily pass as one of the more slapstick entries in the 87th Precinct. Detective Philip Colby takes his girlfriend, Ann, on a road trip.
Circumstances force the pair into a seedy, secluded motel, and, in the middle of the night, Colby realises Ann's gone missing. It gets even more odd from there - the motel is revealed to be a high-end brothel, and, in an act of Kafkaesque proportions, the local community all band together to convince Colby that Ann never existed. Frustrated, Colby calls for backup, and the middle part of the book is told from the perspective of Tony Mitchell, one of his colleagues.
The mystery itself is over-complicated, with an increasingly precarious tower of villains and motivation that seems way too complex. Ann has been kidnapped to cover up for a different crime, one that, all things considered, would have been infinitely easier to hide in infinitely less felony-compounding ways. Moreover, McBain deliberately subverts the book's tension - Ann's disappearance and the web of lies are a wonderfully frustrating setup. But the book is unwilling to commit to the atmosphere of fear, instead undermining it with banter, pratfalls and cheap character quirks. And when there are moments of true horror (corrupt deputies are hit in the head with axes?! Ann's been kidnapped by a brothel?!), the book just drifts past them, keeping the tone light. All in all, not one of McBain's - or even Marsten's - finest. A middling mystery and too contrived to even feel like a decent cultural artifact.
Maude Parker's Along Came a Spider (1957) is a taut little thriller, something between a locked room mystery and a domestic noir. The Prestwyck family are wealthy, talented, attractive and completely screwed. The family patriarch died after a long illness, and left the estate in the care of his second wife - his nurse. The terms of the will are particularly crippling, leaving his daughter and grown grandchildren completely at their step-mother's mercy. Although good breeding - and financial desperation - means that they all still 'get along', the family can't help but hate 'the Spider' and her hold over their family. As well as their general resentment, they all have specific motivations for loathing her as well - everything from health-related to personal vengeance to political aspirations. So when she turns up dead... an accident related to an obscure hair dye allergy (less silly than it sounds, honest)... well, everyone's relieved. And everyone's also a suspect.
Along Came a Spider is narrated from the point of view of a complete outsider - Tom Ridgely,a genial lawyer who is drawn in completely by coincidence: he represents a man interested in purchasing some rare prints from the estate. Our protagonist's amazement at the situation turns into admiration for selected members of the family, and despite himself, he's drawn into this web of lies and scandal. It is, all things considered, a conventional whodunnit. Everyone has motive, and, as the book goes on, we pick up all the clues (and red herrings) we need for the solution. There's even a patented mid-century goofy mechanic at the end, a reveal that's akin to one of Nero Wolfe's dinner parties. Along works because of the sheer amiability of the characters. In fact, despite being beautiful patricians, the family come across quite well - and their stoic acceptance of their fate is balanced on the right side of martyrdom. They grouse, they suffer, they also attend dinner parties and help the old lady up and down the stairs. They're a family.
Similarly, the 'Spider' herself is more than a squat and loathsome Disney villianness - her grudge, if slightly overblown, is borne out of a long history of being overlooked and patronised by the family. And that, she notes (correctly, we suspect) is a result of her being working class. The too-perfect family has, in a way, brought its own fate upon it.
The Big Guy (1953) is by "Wade Miller" - the pseudonymous partnership of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. As a duo, they wrote some delightfully unflinching - and occasionally middling - noir novels. Previous reviews on this site include Deadly Weapon, Branded Woman and Mad Baxter - and The Big Guy is easily the best of the batch.
The Big Guy follows the rise and fall of Joe Drumm, a hard-nosed, hard-headed thug that's deeply embittered about his place in the great scheme of things. He's out in California on an ordinary job - doing a bit of leg-breaking on a mid-level player named Joe Fontaine. And, what should be a routine thumping, turns into the chance Drumm's been waiting for - after killing Fontaine, he finds a briefcase filled with case. Untraceable, unclaimed cash. Drumm uses it to buy into the local organisation, and, wham - he's suddenly climbing the ladder.
Bizarrely - for a book filled with unlikeable characters all scheming to kill one another - the central conflict is Drumm vs himself. He's hungry, vicious and mean: a man that doesn't care about women, luxury or joy, only about climbing towards some kind of vaguely-defined 'top'. The softness of the people around him feels alien and wrong to Drumm. He scorns the decadent existence of the high-ranking competition, mocks their attempts at culture, and openly laughs at their attempts to be part of 'society'. Drumm is what he is, to his own self true. But, in a strange reversal of most morality tales, Drumm softens - he learns about life, love, charity - and with them... weakness.
The Big Guy is a nasty little tale - and certainly a fun one - with absolutely no heroes whatsoever. It is a testament to Miller's talent that the reader does wind up, if not cheering for Drumm, at least flinching when he makes one of his rare mistakes. There's a strangely mystical tone to the conclusion, in which Drumm receives his karmic due from an unexpected, but very well-seeded, quarter.