Friday, April 02, 2010

Forgotten Books: Mum's the Word for Murder - Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser)

Davis Dresser wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire as a writer when this book was published under the pseudonym Asa Baker in 1938. He was making a living writing romances and Westerns for lending library publishers, but it was a precarious one. Better things were on the horizon for him, though. The next year, 1939, Henry Holt would publish Dresser’s novel DIVIDEND ON DEATH under the pseudonym Brett Halliday, which introduced redheaded Miami private detective Michael Shayne, a character who would make Dresser a rich man (and put a few shekels in the pockets of numerous other authors, as well, present company included).

But what about MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER? It’s an important book because it’s a dry run for the introduction of Michael Shayne a year later. The detective, Jerry Burke, is a big, tough, smart Irishman like Shayne, and although he’s a cop in this book, he has a background as a private detective and shares the same sort of checkered history that Dresser was to give Shayne. The novel is narrated by Asa Baker (which was also the original byline), a struggling author of Western novels obviously patterned after Dresser himself. A number of years later, Dresser wrote himself (as Halliday) into one of the Shayne novels, SHE WOKE TO DARKNESS, in much the same way. The book is set in El Paso, Dresser’s hometown and the scene of one of the best Shayne novels, MURDER IS MY BUSINESS, which is scheduled to be reprinted by Hard Case Crime later this year. Burke even has a nemesis, the local chief of detectives Jelcoe, who serves the same function as Miami Beach Chief of Detective Peter Painter in the Shayne novels.

As MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER opens, Asa Baker is struggling to find inspiration for a new novel, and he finds it in the person of his old friend Jerry Burke, who has been hired by the city as a special detective to clean up crime and corruption in El Paso. Burke tells Baker about a strange advertisement that appeared in that afternoon’s paper, warning that a murder will take place at exactly 11:41 that night and challenging Burke to do something about it. The ad is signed “Mum”.

Sure enough, a wealthy businessman is murdered at exactly 11:41, and Burke invites Baker along to observe the investigation and gather material for a novel based on the case. This is just the beginning of a clever cat-and-mouse game between Burke and the mysterious serial killer who calls himself Mum. There are several more murders, and each time it appears that the case is just about solved, Dresser throws in yet another twist. Burke has the same talent that Shayne possesses: he’s always one step ahead of everybody else in the book – and two steps ahead of the reader, finally coming up with an ingenious solution that predates another author’s more famous usage of the same gimmick.

The early Shayne novels are entertaining blends of hardboiled action, screwball comedy, and fair-play detection, many of them with plots that rival Erle Stanley Gardner for complexity. Dresser doesn’t quite have the mix down yet in this book – there’s not much comedy, for instance, and Dresser doesn’t strictly play fair, withholding a fairly important clue from the reader until late in the book – but MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER is still one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a while. Dresser’s style is very smooth and keeps the pages turning easily. I had a hard time putting this one down.

By the Fifties, the Shayne novels were doing so well in paperback for Dell that Dresser pulled out this old novel, along with one he wrote under the pseudonym Hal Debrett, BEFORE I WAKE, and Dell reissued them under the Brett Halliday byline. MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER proved popular enough that it was reissued again in the Sixties, this time with a McGinnis cover that’s not a particularly good one, in my opinion. Unless that’s not actually McGinnis’s work. I don’t have that edition, so maybe somebody who does can check and correct me if I’m wrong.

There’s one more Jerry Burke novel under the Asa Baker name, THE KISSED CORPSE, which came out in 1939, the same year as DIVIDEND ON DEATH. After that, Dresser was either too busy to return to that Shayne-prototype (he was writing Westerns as Peter Field and Don Davis, in addition to carrying on the Shayne series), or maybe he just thought that Jerry Burke had served his purpose. Based on my reading of this book, I plan on trying to get hold of a copy of THE KISSED CORPSE. MUM’S THE WORD FOR MURDER is long out of print, of course, like most of Dresser’s work, but copies are fairly easy to come by on-line. I liked this one a lot and give it a high recommendation.


Frank Loose said...

I have one question, James --- Do you ever sleep??? How in blue blazes do you write thousands of words a day, read several books a week and watch a movie every other night? Not to mention posting reviews on your blog several times a week. I've only managed to find 24 hours in a day; you seem to have thirty!

James Reasoner said...

I got eight hours of sleep last night (no nightmares), but usually it's more like six-and-a-half or seven. I usually feel like I'm not getting enough accomplished and am always trying to figure out ways to get more done.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this slice of history of the great Mike Shayne and its author(s). Is the ingenious solution author who came later Mr. Prather, or am I off-base?

Ed Lynskey

Richard R. said...

... it was reissued again in the Sixties, this time with a McGinnis cover that’s not a particularly good one, in my opinion. Unless that’s not actually McGinnis’s work. I don’t have that edition, so maybe somebody who does can check and correct me if I’m wrong.

Scott & Maynard's THE PAPERBACK COVERS OF ROBERT MCGINNIS lists it as a McGinnis cover.

Richard R. said...

Great FFb and review, James. It makes me want to read the book right away. I agree with your assessment on the cover, not great McGinnis, but any McGinnis is nice to see.

James Reasoner said...

I thought that second cover looked like McGinnis but wasn't a hundred per cent sure.

Prather may have used the same solution, I don't recall, but he's not the author I was thinking of. I can't name the book in question without giving away the gimmick to well-read mystery fans, since it's pretty famous and a movie was made from it as well.

Of course, it's always possible that I'm remembering things wrong. That happens more and more often these days.