Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fiction: Halo in Blood

(Howard Browne, No Exit Press, 1988 (originally 1946))
No Exit Press is a publishing house in Great Britain that specializes in crime and detection novels. Nowadays they publish new fiction as well as reprints of classics well remembered and forgotten, but when they first brought Halo In Blood out, they were still specializing in reprints of mostly forgotten authors and books — “those classic crime novels by the contemporaries of Chandler and Hammett that typified the ‘Hardboiled’ heyday of American Crime Fiction.” Cheaply printed and bound with cheap cover graphics but graced with Weegee-like photos on their covers, the books published by No Exit back in the 1980s might fall apart easily when read (much like the original printings, probably), but boy, do they make for good reading.
Halo in Blood originally appeared in 1946 under the pen name John Evans, one of many names Howard Browne used in his early days. Born in Omaha, Nebraska on 15 April 1908, Browne dropped out of high school in his senior year and hitched to Chicago, where he worked numerous and varied jobs and even got married in 1931 (to Esther Levy) before breaking into the pulp market with his short stories and, eventually, becoming the editor of such magazines (amongst others, Mammoth Detective and Amazing Stories). To both fill the magazine and his bankbook, Howard wrote under many pen names, selling his own stories to his magazine without letting the publisher know. In regards to his rather obvious influences in style, Browne has bluntly written “I imitated Chandler instead of Hammett because he was....a better writer.”
He went on to write four Pine novels, including Halo for Brass, which is considered an early entry in that contemporary culture studies sub-genre “modern lesbian literature” due to its (sexless) plot in which Paul Pine follows a trial of dead lesbians in his search for the vanished daughter of a Nebraska couple. Brown’s attitude towards his writing was often rather cavalier, as can be seen by the fact that once the book was set at the printer, he would throw away his first draft. Writing for money, once the product was out and the dough was there, it was time to move on. Product or not, he wrote well.
Browne eventually heard the call of Hollywood, where he earned his living doing scripts for such television programs as Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip, Playhouse 90, Mission: Impossible and Simon & Simon, as well as the occasional outing into films with Portrait of a Mobster (1961), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and Capone (1975). Around 1975 he retired from the industry for the sunny shores of San Diego, where he taught screenwriting at UCSD and died October 28th, 1999.
Halo in Blood begins more like a satire of Raymond Chandler than an imitation or homage. In the end it becomes a little bit of everything but actually holding together rather well. Pine, a cynical and hardened private dick with principals (know the type?) has to figure his way through a convoluted web of events almost too complicated to review in short. Accidentally witnessing a funeral of some John Doe at which only twelve clergyman show up, he is soon hired to dig the dirt on the thug boyfriend of a rich man’s daughter, has problems with the local gangster big-shot and unappreciative cops, and almost gets dusted while delivering a $25,000 ransom of fake bills. The body count rises with every turn he takes, and sometimes only luck alone seems to keep him from going six feet under himself, but at the end everything not only ties together but does so believably.
Using short sentences that clearly describe and project mood and personality, Browne not only can toss out hardboiled one-liners as good as anyone, but he can plot a lot better than most. Unlike Chandler, Browne was not one to leave any loose ends or maybes flying around at the end of the last paragraph, no matter how confusing the story might be. For all the separate directions Halo In Blood seemingly goes in, it ends neatly, first seemingly in the direction of (the dreadful) Poodle Springs* only to twist itself at the last second into a harder-hearted Maltese Falcon. Halo in Blood is one of those books that one has problems putting down after starting, and is definitely a worthwhile read for fans of detective fiction.

*It must be added that this book may not have been so dreadful had Chandler finished it before dying, instead of it being padded by some hack.

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