New Releases: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Underground Reading: How to Solve a Mystery

Last week, I beat up a lot on Ledru Baker Jr.'s The Cheaters. I found this 1952 thriller to be noteworthy for having the worst climax I'd ever read in a Gold Medal paperback. And that's saying a lot. 

Normally, according to the rules of the genre, the detective/cop/wounded hero finds out whodunnit and then tricks them into capture. An alternate, less stylish option is to shoot them, and then hear their dying confession in front of a neutral witness. The protagonist of The Cheaters takes neither of these two paths. He merely spends the last few chapters of the books torturing the bad guys. Matches + fists + cutting implements = resolution. Charming.

Here are two other - more traditional - ways of going about it from the same time period. Spoilers, as you might expect, are inevitable.

"A Ride for Mr. Two-by-Four", by Bruno Fischer, was originally published in 10-Story Detective, September 1943. Fischer's hero is a put-upon Jersey patrolman. The weather is awful, so even his routine speed-trap is boring. Things get lively - too lively - when a man with New York plates goes speeding by an insane rate. The story is a cycle of the patrolman repeatedly catching the guy... and then losing him. The driver is a mousy little man with (eek!) a body in the backseat. Whilst captured, he tries to explain to the patrolman that his son has been set up, he's off to find the real killer, etc. And whilst being pursued, his claims are pondered by the patrolman.

The story concludes with the mousy little man hauling the dead body to the home of the real killer. The patrolman - unbeknownst to the reader - has made up his mind that the driver is innocent. He enters the home of the real killer, and, in order to extract a confession, pretends he doesn't see the body. The killer, confronted with a body that shouldn't be there and no one else can see, flips out. A gibbering confession follows. 

Fischer's short work combines both the conventional endings. The driver has set up the elaborate trap, the patrolman is actually the neutral witness. Fischer leaves the reader in the dark until the end. The patrolman is marching up to the killer's door to do something, but nobody knows whose side he's on. And, on top of it all? That's a delightfully sneaky way of tricking a confession out of the bad guy.

Killer Ace "Killer Ace", a war thriller from David Goodis, was published in The Lone Eagle, February 1941. Of course comparing Goodis to Baker is like setting this year's Baltimore Ravens against my hapless Kansas City Chiefs. Even in this (extremely) early work, Goodis' raw talent shows through. 

"Killer Ace" is a by-the-numbers war story about a heroic American ace attached to the RAF. Square-jawed Dane Kern was studying physics at Oxford when the war broke out, and his brains and his "guts" meant that the immediately joined the battle in the skies. Unfortunately, for his unit at least, it isn't going too well. A particularly sneaky German pilot, Von Krim, is tearing the RAF apart.

Well, Kern won't stand for it. After another disastrous raid, he yells at his commander that they should assassination Von Krim. The commander slaps him under arrest for such an ungentlemanly suggestion, but then, sneakly, retrieves him at night and lets him go. Kern is a little baffled by the turn of events, but heads into battle.

Dane is captured, but still gets his chance to confront Von Krim. A lightbulb goes off (Kern is an Oxford physicist, you know...), but the reader's not sure exactly what it is - only that Kern has sorted the "Von Krim always wins" problem. After handily escaping his Nazi captors, Kern returns to Britain - in Von Krim's plane. 

The excitement, of course, is in the climax. Kern is confident he won't get shot down, because his own commander protects him. But, as he yells upon getting out of the stolen German fighter, how did the commander know it was him? Much to everyone's shock and horror, Kern accuses the commander of being in league with the Nazis. This suspicion was seeded when the commander kept Kern's American manliness in check, but is now confirmed. The unfortunate RAF commander is tried and executed off-screen and Von Krim, now forced into a fair fight in the skies, is killed as well. AND THEY TURN OUT TO BE BROTHERS. Shock. Awe.

Regardless of how utterly cheesy the plot is of "Killer Ace", Goodis makes the twist ending as surprising and as tense as possible. Essentially, he brings his latent noir talent to an otherwise pedestrian war story. Kern only gets flashes of information, flashes that make no sense on their own. He figures it out (again, only telling the reader he's "solved it", but not what "it" is) and executes a fairly ballsy and ingenious plan for trapping the bad guy. The concluding air battle with Von Krim is an anti-climax, the story really wraps up when Kern has tricked his dodgy commander into letting his guard down in front of a squad of RAF pilots.

Both of these stories, although unexceptional, demonstrate the flexibility within the common structure of a thriller's ending. Tricky plans or gunpoint confessions - with a little imagination, these can go a long way. And, in the case of both Goodis' and Fischer's work, clever conclusions neatly package (and redeem) plodding stories.