Like last week’s THE FAST BUCK, James Atlee Phillips’s novel SUITABLE FOR FRAMING concerns treasures looted during World War II. That’s where the similarities end, though. In SUITABLE FOR FRAMING, the things everybody is after are fabulously valuable paintings, rather than jewels. And SUITABLE FOR FRAMING is much better written than THE FAST BUCK.
The narrator in this novel is Jesse Barker, a journalist who gets finagled into joining a scheme to smuggle some paintings out of France following World War II and sell them to a Mexican general Barker happens to know. Most of the book takes place in the Mexican mountain town of Hidalgo, and Phillips paints a very vivid picture of this setting. As anybody who has read very much in this field will expect, the plot falls apart and becomes a maze of double-crosses, and of course there’s a beautiful woman involved, and Barker gets hit on the head and knocked out several times. Plus you get a colorfully eccentric (and really evil) villain, Mexican wrestlers, spooky scenes set in graveyards, and a considerable amount of action.
I’ve always liked Phillips’ novels about espionage agent Joe Gall, which he wrote under the name Philip Atlee, although the plots in them sometimes get so complicated that I can’t keep up with them. I also really like his early novel PAGODA, which introduces Joe Gall when Gall was still a pilot, rather than a spy. SUITABLE FOR FRAMING is a little lighter weight than those books but shares many of their virtues: crisp prose, good descriptions, and hardboiled action. One thing that annoyed me was Phillips’ habit of paraphrasing what his characters are saying, rather than just quoting the dialogue, but I sort of got used to that technique after a while. As a rule, though, I don’t like that. I liked the book overall, though, and I think if you’ve read and enjoyed Phillips’ other novels, you’ll enjoy this one, too. It would be a natural for Hard Case Crime to reprint. It reminded me quite a bit of David Dodge’s PLUNDER OF THE SUN.