Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Denny Lien's review of a British hardboiled novel

SF expert and librarian Denny Lien posted this review on the FictionMags e-mail list and I asked his permission to publish it for a wider audience.
Acting on a random whim, I recently read my copy of ASSIGNMENT: NEW YORK, a hardboiled detective novel written by E.C. Tubb as by "Mike Lantry" (which is also the name of the protagonist of the novel).
Philip Harbottle provides the introduction to the Gryphon reprint (the original edition was a 1956 UK Badger pb). As usual, he talks up the work as a wondrous lost classic, though he doesn't quite get to the level of fulsome praise typical ofhis commentaries on John Russell Fearn reprints.
Tubb apparently applied his usual method of the time of making it up as he went along without much clue of how anything would end, and found near the end that he'd written himself into a corner and lacked a solution to the murders, so he had to go back and heavily rewrite and reclue, an experience which soured him on doing more mystery novels (this apparently being his only one).
I had a bad moment when I found a typo in the second line on the first page, but really I should have begun worrying at the title itself. The private eye does in fact solve a case in New York city, but since he lives there and has his office there, that's not too surprising. Harbottle muses approvingly on how Tubb used all of the standard conventions of the genre to stunning effect -- the cynical, tough but fair, down-on-his-luck private eye in a crummy office with a bottle of Scotch in his desk, the stern patriach who hires him, the drunken son and sexy daughter and conservative lawyer and ex-showgirl wife and punch drunk pub and perky female newspaper reporter and the one honest cop the P.I. can trust to help him and so on. I'd say he uses all of the conventions to very conventional effect, to the point where I was mentally checking off each character and each bit of repartee as encountered -- "yup, he didn't miss that cliche either" sort of thing.
There was one brief scene that seemed to me to have a bit of life in it, though it had nothing to do with the mystery plot (which is probably why). After a narrow escape from thugs, Lantry has lost his wallet in the melee; when he gets word that someone has found it and wants to return it to his office, he assumes it's a trap and manages to insult the poor-but-honest citizen who really had no ulterior motive. A moment of almost-reality.
On the other side of reality, Lantry is attacked outside a NYC nightclub by a tommy-gunner in a speeding car. He fires back, kills the tommy-gunner and wounds the driver, who crashes into a lamp post, sending the car up in flames. Nobody else seems to be around, as Lantry saunters off to continue his investigations at his leisure.
I don't know if Tubb has visited the U.S. by the time he'd written this book, but he gets a number of things slightly wrong (and yes, I realize American authors setting books inthe UK or elsewhere are notorious for doing the same thing). He has his tough P.I. speaking of making "his morning toilet", which I can't imagine any 1950s Yank doing with a straight face (he'd more likely just say that "I washed up and shaved"or the like). Both Lantry and others buy their cigarettes in "packets" rather than in "packs." Etc. But my favorite was the jeer of the psychopathic tommy-gunner Lefty, who, when prodded by Lantry as to where he'd gotten his gun, replied that he found it in a Christmas cracker (the custom of pulling which is unknown in the US -- and most Americans seeing that line would probably have a puzzled mental image of a really big red and green Saltine).
I like a lot of Tubb's science fiction, but I don't think the mystery field lost anything when he decided to stop his career here at one book.

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