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Underground Reading: 32 Caliber by Donald McGibeny

32 Caliber 32 Caliber is a 1920 detective thriller that sits somewhere between a "cozy" and Gold Medal-style pulp action. 

Our hero, Warren, is a lawyer and man of means. He's a society-type with the sort of Big Name that the newspapers love to hate. He claims to have a busy practice, but seems to spend a lot of the book at the country club, playing golf and wooing a childhood friend. However, the license that comes with wealth and stature serves Warren well throughout 32 Caliber - as his sleuthing is predicated on his ability to stick his nose in where it doesn't belong.

Whereas Warren is essentially a good egg, his sister Helen is rotten. Easily the most beautiful woman in town, she's had her pick of admirers. With a friendly push from Warren, the one she wound up with is Jim - Warren's best friend, law partner and all-around Good Guy.

And that's Jim's problem: Helen needs to be "treated rough" - Warren even tells him so. But to the lovestruck Jim, the very idea of mistreating Helen was "like telling a Mohammedan to spit in the face of the prophet".

Without Jim doing his manly duty of bullying her, Helen goes wandering - and eventually falls for the local bad boy, Frank Woods. Frank's a dodgy agent of the French Government, although no one is really sure what he does - like everyone else in the book, he spends the majority of his time a-wooin' and a-golfin'. This is all background and comes out in the early pages of 32 Caliber. The story really picks up with the awkward three-sided confrontation between husband, wife and lover (with Warren there to chaperone). Jim's not letting Helen go, Helen doesn't like being yelled at, Frank's a poisonous little lump and wants his own way. Everyone threatens to kill one another and then goes sulking back to their respective bedrooms.

BUT (dun-dun-DUN!), someone does more than sulk. Jim snoops into Frank's past and finds that the "French agent" is up to his ears in dodgy dealing. He gathers up Helen and goes out to confront Monsieur Woods (he's not actually French - but, whatever). But the meeting is never to happen: there's a car accident, Jim dies and Helen is put into a coma!

Warren is distraught, but the crash is only the beginning of his troubles. First, dodgy Bolsheviks start popping up on the fringes of things and may have caused the wreck. Second, the coroner turns up that - wreck-or-no-wreck, Jim was shot in the back of the head. Third, and most damning of all, the comatose Helen seems to be the one with the gun and the motive!

Well, Helen's a pretty terrible person, but she is Warren's sister, and he'll be gee-darned to hey if he's going to let her go to prison for this (if she ever wakes up). Putting his society connections to the test, he sets forth to see if he can find the real killer. Unfortunately, even when Helen wakes up, she's of no use at all - she's caught a convenient case of amnesia.

The bulk of 32 Caliber involves Warren's amateurish pokings about town. He's not a particularly gifted investigator (something he freely admits after he botches multiple interviews), but he's spirited and genuinely quite appealing in his inappropriately gung-ho nature. As well as the upper class twittery, there's a gentle pace that's reminiscent of the cozies as well - Helen might have to deal with this... eventually... so there's no real need to rush the investigation, is there? Warren is often more upset about his on-again/off-again relationship than he is with the impending trial of his sister for the death of his best friend. 

The entertaining Bolsheviks are the reddest of red herrings. They pop in and out of things like the Communist Beagle Boys, yelling inanities about global revolution and then hurrying home for lunch. Warren's quite desperate to pin everything on them, but they're as innocent as they are harmless - the real baddie is clearly Frank Woods.

And here's where things pick up. After spending most of the book a-golfin' and a-wooin', all the evidence falls into place with an almighty ker-thunk. The murderer, the motive and the (extremely silly) modus operandi all reveal themselves within the space of a few pages. Foreshadowing the best Gold Medal tradition, Warren heads to confront the bad guy himself in a disproportionately explosive finale. If previously the most action game on that pesky 7th hole sand trap, the last half dozen pages are a holocaust of fiery death.

Despite the unexpected crescendo and the unhelpful romantic advice, 32 Caliber is a merry little read. Warren is charming in his ineptitude and he's surrounded by a cast of goofy little one-off characters, from the slimy Frank Woods to the ferret-like local inspector to the bombastic Bolsheviks. Neither women nor non-white characters fare too well, but the standard literary apology applies: I'm afraid this is par for the course for the era and genre. Evidencing traits of detection's past and future, 32 Caliber makes for an interesting click in the slideshow. 

[Editor's note: 32 Caliber is available as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg. Enjoy!]