Mark Fletcher is a two-fisted construction engineer who’s been on a tough job for the past couple of years, so he figures he’s earned a vacation in Florida. But when he finds himself snagged in a speed trap run by a corrupt, small town cop, his hot temper gets him in trouble and a beautiful but morally questionable redhead gives him a hand getting out of it. Unfortunately for Fletcher, the redhead winds up dead almost right away, and he’s in line to take the fall for her murder. Then, before the night’s even over, there’s another killing.
But they can only send Fletcher to the gas chamber once, right? And that’s exactly what’s going to happen unless he can untangle all the strands of a very complex plot and find the real killer. Luckily, he has the help of two more beautiful women, a rich, lonely blonde and the lovely brunette who runs the seedy motor court where Fletcher takes refuge. With seemingly everybody else on both sides of the law wanting him dead, Fletcher has his work cut out for him just staying alive.
Although published by sister imprint Crest in 1957, MANTRAP is firmly in the classic Gold Medal mold. There’s really nothing in it that regular readers of mid-century hardboiled crime novels haven’t seen many times before. The key is what the author does with those familiar elements, and in his debut novel for adults, Duane Yarnell puts together a very entertaining yarn. The characters are good, the plot is complicated enough that it’s a challenge to figure out (although all the clues are there), and the action is suitably gritty and tough. The first third of the novel is great. The pace lags a little in the middle third, maybe because Yarnell, a veteran pulp author, wasn’t used to working at this length. The final third picks up steam, though, and roars home impressively.
Yarnell was a prolific contributor to the sports pulps in the Thirties, Forties, and early Fifties, along with a few stories in the Western and detective pulps. He also wrote a few sports and outdoors novels for the juvenile market before turning out MANTRAP and one other crime novel, MURDER BAIT, for Crest. After that he published only a handful of stories in mystery digests and men’s magazines before vanishing from the fiction business, even though he lived until 1994. I’d never heard of him or his pulp stories or his crime novels until recently, but based on MANTRAP, I’d say he’s worth reading, even though the comparisons to Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane in the back cover copy of this book are a stretch. I already have a copy of MURDER BAIT, though, and plan to get to it soon. In the meantime, if you run across a copy of MANTRAP, it’s well worth reading.