Review of The Snarl of the Beast

Have you ever read any of the works by Frank L. Packard? He is best known for his detective stories such as The White Moll, or his series about the gentleman thief/detective, Jimmie Dale. They were written in the early 1900s and took place in New York City. Serious students of the detective genre see Packard’s works as an important stepping stone between the very proper Victorian era detective novels of the late 1800s and the tougher, grittier detectives of the hard-boiled school of the 1930s and 1940s. Packard painted a New York that was filthy, derelict and immoral. Dope addicts, thieves and killers populated it. Packard took his readers into broken-down tenements, back alleys and evil-smelling dens of New York as his detective tried to right society’s wrongs through a little larceny. The larcenous means gallantly justified the happy ending. What does all this have to do with a Race Williams story? Everything. The Snarl of the Beast was published in Black Mask in 1927 as a serialized novel. It features Daly’s inveterate tough guy detective, Race Williams, spitting death from his guns while trying to do the right thing for his client. His means to achieve his ends are messy and violent, but in Race William’s philosophy it will be justice that triumphs in the end.

However, the writing style of The Snarl of the Beast comes through as an older writing style. If you took out Frank L. Packard’s suave Jimmie Dale and replaced him with Race Williams you would have a New York setting and writing style very comparable to each other. It is akin to reading a novel of the late 1880s with a 1930s tough guy thrown in to the mix. The action sequences are fast-paced and explosive. The rest of the story, however, reads in a rather dated style. It is not one of Daly’s best works. Yet it does have elements of the coming hard-boiled tradition that would come full force into detective fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Be it Frank L. Packard’s gentleman detective or Carrol John Daly’s hard-boiled private eye, be assured that the good guy will win in the end.

Authored by Robert D. Wheadon.

Review of Phantom Lady By Cornell Woolrich

Imagine you have come home from an evening out on the town. It was a fairly typical evening. You had drinks, went to dinner and even took in a show. The only thing to spoil the evening was your dark mood. You went out after having a fight with your wife. She refused to give you the divorce you want. She laughed in your face when you begged her for the divorce. When you stormed out of your apartment you went to a bar and on the spur of the moment you picked up a woman to take to the show so as not to waste the ticket. The two of you made a deal to not divulge each other’s name, and at the end of the evening the two of you agreed to part company, never to meet again. It was purely a practical arrangement. When you arrive home you find you have company in the form of a squad of homicide detectives. They want to question you about why your wife happens to be dead, strangled with one of your own neckties. In questioning you, the detectives find out about your argument, and the reason for your argument. They perceive motive in this. They find the means for murder in the form of your necktie. Opportunity is present in that you cannot prove you were at a bar at the time your wife was murdered. The irony of it all is that the woman you met at the bar, the sole person who can provide you with an unbreakable alibi, is a total stranger, a non-person. She is a phantom in a city of millions who cannot be found and does not come forward. You were found guilty and sentenced to death and you now sit in the death house at the prison. Your only hope is a college friend who is turning the city upside down trying to find this “Phantom Lady.” Each chapter of the book details the search efforts made to free you. Each chapter details how each effort fails. Each chapter describes a day closer to your execution.

Cornell Woolrich was a master of suspense and a prolific contributor to pulp fiction publications. He lived the life of a recluse in hotels and wrote stories of beautiful terror. As the author of such suspense classics as “Rear Window,” and “I Married a Dead Man,” Cornell Woolrich delivers again with Phantom Lady. He does a more than admirable job in building a tale of terror that has both Fate and Justice toying with a man’s life. As the accused lays helpless behind bars of steel waiting for death, the author systematically crushes the protagonist’s hopes and dreams until finally, the reader finds him crouched in his cell listening to a priest giving him his last rites. The question of his survival is left dangling until the very end, and with an author such as Cornell Woolrich, the answer is not the expected one. This is not a book you read once. It is one to be read and then re-read. It is a story that mesmerizes the reader as each hope is dashed, each clue is run down, until all that is left is the approaching execution. Or is there more? You have to read the book to find out. And thus is the genius of Cornell Woolrich revealed in his masterful tale, Phantom Lady.

Authored by Robert D. Wheadon.

Review of Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammett

So you think you have read everything by the master of detective fiction, huh? You’ve read The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and the rest of Hammett’s detective novels and think you’ve read it all? Well, you haven’t.

Just when you thought the well was dry and there was no more from the pen of this quintessential wordsmith there comes a collection of some of the best short stories that Hammett penned in his short, bright writing career. Pick up Nightmare Town (1999, Knopf) and you will find 20 of some of Hammett’s best short detective fiction. In a 12-year writing career, Hammett wrote over 100 short stories for magazines such as Black Mask, Collier’s, and The American Magazine, as well as his well-known novels.

One of the interesting things about this collection is the broad display of characters. When one thinks of the literary writing of Dashiell Hammett, the Continental Op immediately comes to mind. Here in Nightmare Town, you will be introduced to a variegated display of fictional characters. In the title story, the protagonist is a rough, whiskey drinking adventurer who carries an ebony walking stick which he wields with great effectiveness.

“A Man Named Thin” highlights a detective with a poetical slant to his style. “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” and “Afraid of a Gun” are both written in western settings, instead of the expected San Francisco area. “His Brother’s Keeper” is a story narrated by a brutish boxer. You will find three Sam Spade stories here that hum with Hammett’s staccato pace of telling a tale. “The Assistant Murderer” is a tale chock-full of action right out of the pages of the pulps.

Those are just a few of the pearls in this compilation. Hammett’s style of prose is biting, harsh and most of all realistic. The most telling proof of Hammett’s contribution to the genre of detective fiction is that his characters come to you full-fleshed and telling you like it is in a realistic picture. Hammett was a literary genius. He brought crime out of polite society into the real world where it belonged. Pick up Nightmare Town. You won’t regret it.

Authored by Robert D. Wheadon.