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Underground Reading: Deadly Weapon by Wade Miller

Miller-deadly-weapon-hb"Wade Miller" is the pen name of a writing partnership composed of Robert Wade and Bill Miller. The two combined to write more than thirty novels, including one that was adapted into the famed Orson Welles noir, Touch of Evil.

Deadly Weapon (1946) is their first collaboration and, as such, is a fairly promising debut. Anthony Boucher reviewed it warmly upon its release, praising the "machinegun tempo, tight writing and unexaggerated hardness". And certainly these are all true statements. However, the book also has a disappointingly random ending.

The book begins with (surprise!) a murder. A man is stabbed to death in the audience of a 'high-tone' strip show in San Diego. Also in the audience: Walter James, an Atlanta PI who was in town to find said man. When the lights come up, the action begins. Walter - ably assisted by Laura "Kevin" Lynn, a college student with the misfortunate of sitting next to the dead man - begins the case. The dead man is found with half a business card and a matchbox full of DOPE (marijuana, in 1946). Neither Walter nor the investigating police have a hard time drawing the conclusion that there's some sort of drug ring involved.

Walter forms a fairly easy alliance with the San Diego cops. He's in the city to find his partner's killer and his partner's wife's kidnapper, and the local PD are happy to give him a lot of leeway... which he takes. With "Kevin" as his Girl Friday, Walter pokes the local rich dude, prods Mexican gangsters, pries into the affairs (cough) of the club's entertainers and generally makes a pest of himself. His interactions with Kevin are, perhaps, the book's high point. Despite their frequently-noted age difference (38 to 19), they're a cute couple, and at ease with one another - happy to joke, quick to trust and very good at dodging bullets.

In fact, most of the relationships in Deadly Weapon are disarmingly easy-going - as noted, Walter connects with the local policemen rapidly and warmly. The introductory infodumping chapters (involving cans of beer) are surprisingly charming. Sadly, the relationships are too disarming. As Walter interviews one suspect after another, discovering a web of coincidences... and then dead ends... the rules of the detective novel kick in. The killer has to be someone we know, and as Walter eliminates the suspects one-by-one, we're left with only a few, bizarre options.

And yet, the resolution would be satisfactory if it weren't so rushed. Despite Boucher's comment about Deadly Weapon's "machinegun tempo", the book has a good pace, and a tight mix of tense action and entertaining chit-chat. All until the end - in which the killer flips out, vomits forth a silly motive and then goes crazy in public. There's no ticking clock, no slow build of tension - just a switch flipping. By the rules of detection, the killer isn't unfair - but by the pace and characterisation established by the book itself, it is a let-down.

For more Wade Miller: reviews of Branded Woman (pretty good) and Mad Baxter (eew), as well as a great list of references over at the Mystery FileDeadly Weapon has also been reprinted through the rather amazing Prologue Books.