Friday, July 9, 2010

Fiction: Fatal Undertaking

Fatal Undertaking
(Frank Kane, Dell, 1964)

Dead at 56 on November 29th, 1968, Frank Kane is a mostly forgotten pulp detective writer of the two generations preceding his death. A onetime scriptwriter for radio and television, he wrote stories for both radioland’s The Shadow and such television series of yesterday as Mike Hammer and The Investigators. His best books are his straight crime novels, those not featuring his regular character, the New-York-based Private Dick named Johnny Liddell, such as Syndicate Girl, a hard-boiled story in which the hero actually commits murder and frames someone else so as to bring down the syndicate.
Not that his Liddell stories are that bad, however. Especially the early volumes of the series are an entertaining, quick and violent read, and considering that Kane eventually wrote 29 Liddell books in all, the quality is actually remarkably consistent. The biggest problem of the Liddell books are that they are simply too hard boiled, too jaded, with the characters spouting one hard-edged, sarcastic sentence after the other, forever without irony but to such an extreme that it seems as if it should be ironic. Fatal Undertaking is no exception. From “He took a dive out the window and there was no water in the pool” to “I don’t like strange guys making passes at you, especially with an ice-pick”, Liddell has a well-turned sarcastic phrase for every situation, as do most of his friends (rather unlike the bad guys, who seldom seem to have any humor). Can be fun for awhile, but after a few chapters, it can also get annoying. That said, it must also be told that Fatal Undertaking, as easy and painless to read as it is, is nonetheless not one of Kane’s best books. A true product of its time—it was published in 1964—the story involves everything from Cuban agents to Nazi war criminals, with Liddell hot to find out who sent the hit man that almost killed Mugs, his favorite female reporter. His search takes him from the East Side to Venice to Paris and back to the Big Apple before, like all Kane’s books, all loose ends tie themselves nicely together into a hangman’s knot, with all the (surviving) good guys happy and all the bad guys either dead or worse off than dead.
Competently written and tightly plotted, the last chapter of Fatal Undertaking, like all of Kane’s books, leaves no questions left unanswered. As a Thriftstore Find, the book is worth its price, especially since it features another excellent, long-legged cover by Ronnie Lesser, whose work is often mistaken for that of Robert McGinnis. But at e-Bay prices, a definite pass for anyone other than a true collector.

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