Friday, May 16, 2014

Forgotten Books: The Brass Monkey - Harry Whittington

When I think of crime fiction in the Fifties, one of the first authors who comes to mind is Harry Whittington. His novel THE BRASS MONKEY was published originally by Handi-Books in 1951, and it's one I hadn't read until now.

THE BRASS MONKEY opens with a scene that's reminiscent of Mickey Spillane: the narrator, private detective Jim Patterson, is standing in a seedy Honolulu apartment while the police investigate the death of Patterson's best friend from back in the States. The cops think it's suicide, but Patterson knows it's murder and is determined that he's going to find his friend's killer.

But from this point on things take some intriguing twists away from the Spillane model. Patterson isn't nearly as gung-ho about solving the crime as Mike Hammer would be. In fact, he sort of resents being drawn into the case. He'd rather live off the money of his wealthy, high society wife than go around being a gumshoe. He's a former pulp writer made bitter by an earlier failed love affair and a half-hearted private eye at best.

Another difference is that Patterson doesn't have a good friend on the police force like Hammer's buddy Pat Chambers. In fact, the cop investigating his friend's death actually has a personal reason for hating Patterson, as Patterson soon discovers.

He's also reluctantly involved in another case, a classic wandering daughter job that blossoms into a tangled mess involving blackmail, a dope ring, a beautiful stripper, and another murder for which Patterson is framed. He gets hit on the head and knocked out, as well as being slipped a mickey later on. He has to go on the run from the cops while he struggles to find the real killer and clear his name.

In other words, almost every cliché of hardboiled private eye fiction is to be found in THE BRASS MONKEY, which diminished my utter enjoyment of it not one little bit. I grinned all the way through this one, it was so much fun. I've been blessed in that I can put myself into the time period in which a book was written without much trouble, so I read this with the mindset of a guy who picked it up at a bus station newsstand in 1951. Also, those plot elements which seem so overdone to us now were a lot fresher 63 years ago. Already commonplace, to be sure, but not such blatant clichés.

Not only that, but as a protagonist Jim Patterson is a far cry from Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, Mike Shayne, Johnny Liddell, or any of the other private eyes of that era. Despite his occupation, he's one of Whittington's brooding everyman characters, doggedly determined but not the brightest guy in the room most of the time, basically decent but more than capable of acting like a heel at times, sympathetic overall but deeply flawed. The Honolulu setting is a nice touch, too, and is portrayed vividly by Whittington.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE BRASS MONKEY. It's very much of its time, a nasty, fast-paced slice of crime fiction. And it's available from Prologue Books as an e-book, which I highly recommend if you're a fan of hardboiled private eye novels. 


Bill Crider said...

I too have the ability to put myself in the time when the book was written, but then I was alive then, so it's easier for me than for some of the whippersnappers. I second your recommendation of this one, which is one of my favorite Whittingtons.

George said...

I consider THE BRASS MONKEY on of Whittington's best novels, too. He produced an amazing number of books in the 1950s. I enjoyed Whittington's westerns from these years, too.

Keith West said...

Looks like I'm going to have to get this one, too. God only knows when I'll get to it.

I can also put myself in the mindset of other times, but I think it's because I've watched a lot of old movies and read a good bit of history.

Richard said...

Add me the growing list of those who can put myself in the time when the book was written, or more accurately I just accept the author's reality as written. Drives me nuts when some one says they can't read a book because a character uses language not PC in 2014 that was common usage, nice or not, at the time the book was written. Oh well.

I've been meaning to read this one for years. One of these days...