Underground Reading: Case of the Cold Coquette by Jonathan Craig
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Case of the Cold Coquette (1957) is one of the Pete Selby mysteries by Jonathan Craig. Detective Pete Selby and his partner Stan Rayder appear in a few different provocatively-titled books from Gold Medal, including Morgue for Venus and Case of the Village Tramp. Despite the goofily sexualized names of his books, Mr. Craig wrote strong, deductive mysteries with no-nonsense protagonists.
Readers of Case of the Cold Coquette could be forgiven for thinking the book is far more salacious than it actually is. The cover, the blurb and the back cover all prominently feature Marcia Kelbert - New York's most expensive call girl, with "blue-black hair and snow-white skin and an aura that would chill your blood". Alas, the vampire queen only features in a single short scene.
The book begins with Detective Selby admiring (professionally) the remains of Eddie Macklin. Macklin was pushed in front of a subway and was unneatly severed into multiple pieces by the incoming train. The driver, shocked into insensibility, can only confirm the vague impression that it was a man whodunnit - a man in a raincoat or long jacket.
This is particularly unhelpful on two fronts. First, the nine million people in New York all own raincoats or long jackets (as do most of the rats). Second, it happens to be a lovely summer day, and nobody should've been wearing either one.
Macklin's body is equally perplexing. He's cheaply dressed but the pockets of his suit (presumably scattered in three or four different places) contain a lot of folding money and receipts for theatre tickets and a posh nightclub. Eddie may look like a slob, but he's quite a high roller.
As Selby and Rayder investigate, Eddie's life becomes more and more paradoxical. He's a talented accountant, but can't keep a job. He lives in a horrific little rented room, but shacks up with New York's most expensive call girl (the Sketch of hookers). He wants to be a musician, but has vicious fights with his well-connected industry friends.
The two detectives chase down every lead and turn up more than a few possible killers. The pasty-skinned hooker has a jealous ex, there's a serial train-pusher just out of the loony bin and pretty Eddie Macklin apparently hopped into a few of the wrong beds. The hard part for the detectives comes when they have to figure out which of the many potential murderers actually did the killing.
The ultimate reveal is both clever and surprising - a testament to a well-constructed mystery. Despite the book's slim length, all the suspects get equal treatment and all the necessary clues are in place to find the right suspect. Mr. Craig even finds time to add a tiny bit of leering. Detective Selby indulges himself in a few glances at Marcia Kelbert's lovely legs and the entire police station is amused by a wily naked redhead and her escape attempts. The author's tone throughout is wary and dry, noting that most policemen would rather tangle with two burly men than the trouble of wrangling a single pint-sized naked woman.
After my recent bout of kvetching about detectives that don't actually detect and supposed "mystery" authors that don't play fair with the reader, Case of the Cold Coquette came as a pleasant surprise. Like the Simon Ark stories, this is an actual novel of detection dressed up as something else. Coquette wears the trappings of a sordid action novel, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I meandered through every chapter wondering where the sexin' was at, and that proved my downfall. Distracted by the pasty prozzie, I missed all the clues that Mr. Craig subtly littered throughout the book. Fortunately Detective Selby was able to keep his eye on the ball, else Macklin's murderer would've gotten away scot-free.
In fact, the only place that Case of the Cold Coquette really falters is with the development of Pete Selby as a character. His focus on the case is admirable, but the reader never even spends a moment of time with the detective when he's off the clock. Even his bombastic Lieutenant gets more personality - calling Selby to wax nostalgic about his own days in the field and then invariably ending the trip with the curt admonishment to "GET HOT!". Selby is boring in comparison - a superhuman cop with a dully impressive devotion to his duty. A few sidelong glances at a prostitute's legs doth not a character make.
Don't make the same mistake I made - Case of the Cold Coquette is a real mystery and a good one. The alluring cover art is wonderful, but belongs on a different work of fiction. Riding shotgun with Pete Selby is a businesslike experience, and if your mind wanders, he'll beat you to the solution.